The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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RonD

 

 

Because Of A Galloping Horse

Scott Lancer reined his horse in a bit tighter as they headed down the hillside to the valley below. It was still hard to believe the lush scenery was part of his heritage, part of Lancer. It had been a long, boring trip to Bakersfield, and he looked forward to seeing the hacienda, his family, and, if truth be told, most of all, his bed.

He wondered, not for the first time on this journey home, whether Murdoch and Johnny would be there to greet him. They seemed to be able to squeeze in a fishing or hunting trip amid their work when he was away. He remembered the joy on this brother’s face when he had stormed into the kitchen the first time after such a trip with a string of fine looking trout in his hand. “We’re feastin’ on fish tonight, Teresa,” he had said proudly. Then he had seen Scott. “Me and the Ol’ Man’s been at that fishin’ hole you like so much, Boston. Woowhee, can he catch a mess of fish!” Murdoch had entered soon after looking as pleased as Johnny. They’d all eaten a wonderful trout dinner while being regaled by Johnny about all the fun he’d had the last two days.

Scott had glanced at Murdoch and smiled softly. It had been Scott’s idea for his father to have some time away from the ranching duties to spend with Johnny, just the two of them. God knew Johnny worked hard enough to deserve a break. Murdoch’s return smile seemed to offer thanks to Scott. Since then these little excursions seemed to have the intended effect of lessening, although not totally eliminating, the shouting matches the two had gotten into. Now their disagreements were quieter, less volatile, mere shadows of their former rows. Sometimes Scott thought they still argued simply to keep in practice, with no real sting behind the words.

Yes, Scott’s idea had worked remarkably well. Maybe just a little too well because it seemed to Scott that he had been sent on one of these extended, out of town trips a little too often. Four times in the last seven months. Every time Scott had suggested that Johnny go with him, Murdoch had refused to consider the idea. It rankled. When he and Johnny had first arrived at the ranch, it seemed Murdoch had pushed them together at every opportunity. It had been a good plan; he and Johnny had bonded well and fell into their brotherhood naturally. While it hadn’t always been easy, it had been well worth the effort on his part, Scott thought. He had come to know and admire his brother’s passion for life, his innate intelligence, and, surprisingly, his gentleness and caring toward those he considered his family. Traveling with Johnny was always an enjoyable time, even when they got into a spot of trouble now and then.

Now they were rarely paired. Nor did the three of them do anything together. Scott wanted to spend more time with Murdoch to get to know the man and not just El Patrn, as the vaqueros called him, but that didn’t seem to be in Murdoch’s plans. Once, when returning home from one of their father-son trips, Johnny had said, “Next time you’ll have to come with us, Scott!” His reply of “I’d like that” had been lost amid Teresa’s cry of dismay at the amount of game she and Maria would have to deal with. Johnny had tried to appease her with “We gutted ‘em for ya,” but the ensuing noise from the women drowned everything else out. At first he thought he would just wait for his turn, that Murdoch would invite him when Johnny was on a longer trip, but that hadn’t happened. When Johnny’s expertise with horses was needed at a ranch some distance away, Murdoch would ride with him, leaving Scott to run the ranch by himself. Scott appreciated the confidence his father had in his capabilities, but he would rather have been on the trail with them.

Scott tried to shake his petty musings off. Hadn’t he promised himself if he ever got out of that stinking prison camp that he would be a new man? That he wouldn’t dwell on the unimportant things in life? That he would treasure each day as a gift he was given from God? No more whining about not being Murdoch’s favorite son; it was probably all in his head anyway. Grandfather had always chastised him for being so sensitive. It had taken him years to perfect the bland, slightly bored visage of Boston society’s upper crust, and it did him no good in his life in California. He was here in a most beautiful part of his country for which he had fought and endured much. He had found his father and discovered that he had an amazing younger brother. He was alive. He had much to be thankful for.

A movement down below caught his eye. Scott realized it was Johnny streaking across the valley floor. He looked behind Barranca to see if Johnny was being chased by anyone, but there was no one else. Johnny was just riding like the wind on Barranca, joyfully, his free spirit on full display. Scott stopped his own descent to appreciate the melding of horse and rider. His own ramrod straight seat had been trained into him for many years when his grandfather had capriciously decided that Scott would become an expert in dressage. The army had appreciated that posture, and he had to admit that it had helped a very young lieutenant gain some respect from his unit; his stiff seat had the aura of a man in authority.

Suddenly, Barranca stumbled badly and Johnny was thrown over the horse’s head to land awkwardly on the ground. He lay there unmoving as Barranca feebly tried to gain his legs under him and stand up.

“Johnny!” Scott yelled, and pushed his mount as fast as he thought safe down the slope to his brother.

Dismounting, Scott ran to Johnny’s side, fearful the boy had broken his neck. He was relieved to find him still breathing but splayed in an ungainly and painful-looking way. From his army experience, he knew better than to move him. Johnny could have spinal injuries that could be exacerbated by moving him without many hands to keep his spine as straight as possible.

While Johnny was unconscious, Scott moved to Barranca’s side and his heart sank. There was no way to save his brother’s beloved horse. While the left foreleg had a clean break, the right one’s bone was shattered beyond repair. With his calvary training serving him, he shot one, humanely placed bullet into Barranca’s skull while he said a prayer for the horse’s, and his own, soul. Then he shot two more evenly spaced times into the air hoping that someone would hear his signal for help. There was no way he could get Johnny home with the least possible damage all by himself.

Scott was just about to send another three shots heavenward when he heard and saw three riders coming his way—Cipriano, Frank, and Enrique. He slumped with relief. Johnny had roused only to semi-consciousness while Scott was waiting, and Scott had almost shouted at him not to move a muscle. Luckily, Johnny had faded back to insensibility and Scott didn’t have to hold him down.

Lieutenant Lancer immediately emerged as the men rode up. Scott ordered Enrique to ride for the doctor, telling him Johnny wouldn’t get to the house until around three hours later, but Sam needed to be there when they arrived if at all possible. He sent Cipriano back to the house with instructions to get the longest wagon they had, additional hands, a flat board three by six feet, and lots more rope. Frank had also served in the War Between the States, and Scott knew he had some basic medical skills, which he could use. But before anyone left, he had gathered their ropes.

Cipriano had checked on Barranca before he left. Scott had caught his eye, and the Segundo had nodded his head: Scott had done the right thing by putting the horse out of its misery. At first Cipriano’s approval had irked Scott. He had been in the cavalry, for heaven’s sake; he had plenty of experience judging whether a horse was beyond saving. Then he quickly realized what a blessing it would be to have Cipriano’s assurance. Johnny might not believe Scott, but he’d believe his tio that the animal had to have been put down.

“What are you thinking, Scott?” Frank asked, hunkering down by Johnny and feeling for a pulse after Cipriano and Enrique rode away.

“Ever make a hammock out of ropes?”

Frank nodded. “Once during the war and a couple of times after. It’s a good skill to have after a long day of sitting in a saddle, if you can find enough rope.”

Scott smiled grimly, laying out the five ropes they had. “That it is, friend. Let’s figure out how we’re going to start this.”

*****

Doctor Sam Jenkins watched the solemn and tired group of men arriving home with the wagon carrying Johnny Lancer. Enrique had informed him that Johnny had been thrown from his horse. He had also told him that Johnny’s horse had been put down, and Sam knew that morsel of information was going to be more painful to the boy than any physical injuries would be. That’s all he knew at the moment and he was filled with dread at what he might find in the back of the wagon.

Sam walked up to the wagon as Murdoch began to rise from the back. Johnny was lashed tight to a board placed in the middle of a rope hammock stretched diagonally across the bed of the wagon. It was a clever setup, minimizing the jostling to Johnny’s body.

“This is ingenious,” he told his long-time friend.

Murdoch grunted. “Scott’s idea.”

Scott stood up from the other side of wagon ready to help pull Johnny out of the makeshift body sling. “I’m worried he may have a back injury,” he said.

Sam coordinated Johnny’s move out of the wagon and into his room, then shooed everyone out except the housekeeper and cook, Maria, Johnny’s adopted “mamacita,” who would not be removed from his side. A few hours later he found the other two Lancers in the great room, Murdoch behind his desk and Scott sitting in the wing chair facing the fireplace. Both appeared lost in their own thoughts.

Murdoch quickly got up and rounded the desk. “How is he, Sam?”

“Not too good, I’m afraid. He must have landed on his left side. You know his left arm is broken. It’s a clean break but up by his elbow, so I’ll want to be real careful about how it heals, so the boy doesn’t lose any movement. Besides that, he’s got a couple of broken ribs on the left side. The higher one felt pretty ragged, and I’m worried that it might have snagged the lung. Johnny’s breathing is a bit labored but not too bad. I didn’t detect fluid in his lungs right now, but that could change pretty quickly. His left hip is badly bruised and his ankle may be sprained as well.”

“How about his back?” Scott asked.

“I won’t know the extent of that until Johnny wakes up. I gave him a small dose of morphine before I started my examination, so it probably won’t be until tomorrow morning that he comes around.”

“I’m going to sit with him,” Scott announced and walked briskly out of the room and up the stairs.

Sam caught Murdoch’s glower at his elder son’s back. What was wrong with Scott going to sit with his brother? Their bond was tight. Whenever one of them was hurt, you could find the other sitting vigil by the bedside.

Sam moved to the bar. “Mind if I help myself to a drink?”

Murdoch gave him a dismissive, “help yourself” wave of his hand, his eyes still on the stairway Scott had taken. Maria emerged from it a few seconds later, nodded politely to the two of them, and exited through the doorway to the kitchen.

“Is there a problem with Scott sitting with Johnny?” The direct line was usually best with Murdoch, Sam had discovered over the years.

That roused the man out of whatever reverie he was in. “No, of course not. It’s just…”

“Just?” Sam prompted after several seconds had gone by and he was afraid Murdoch wouldn’t finish his sentence.

“It’s just the way he goes about it, like he’s issuing orders.”

Sam considered the words for a few moments until the realization hit him. “You think he should have asked your permission to sit with Johnny?”

“I am the boy’s father.”

“So you should have first choice?”

“Something like that. Although the way you say it, it makes it sound petty.”

Sam snorted. “It is petty. Look, I know you love that boy and the two of you have become real close lately, but Scott saw the accident. He needs to be there with his brother to reassure himself that Johnny’s still breathing. And putting Barranca down has to be nearly killing him with grief and guilt. He knows how Johnny adored that palomino. Let him be, Murdoch.”

Murdoch sighed and nodded. “You’re right. Stay for dinner?”

Sam emptied his glass and stood up. “I have to make a quick stop over at the Johnston place. Tommy has a bad cut on his hand, and I need to make sure it’s still not infected. But I’d like to come back and spend the night to make sure Johnny’s alright.”

“Of course. We’ll be sure to get your room ready, Sam.”

“You know I didn’t have my own room here until your boys came home,” Sam laughed.

*****

Scott sighed as he watched his brother sleep. It was getting harder and harder to fend off Johnny’s questions about Barranca. He and Murdoch had decided that they wouldn’t tell Johnny about the fate of his horse until he had healed sufficiently to understand the tragedy rather than drifting in and out of unconsciousness or sleep. Murdoch had made it clear that it was Scott’s responsibility to tell his brother. Now that Johnny was well on the mend, Scott’s stress was rising.

The only good thing was that the swelling around Johnny’s spine was shrinking, and Johnny found that he could feel his legs again after they were terrified he had been paralyzed. It had been five days before he had complained about pins and needles in his legs. Sam had been elated. That had been two days ago, and Johnny was getting restless. Scott knew that if Johnny asked him about Barranca, he had to tell him the awful news. Johnny’s eyelashes fluttered, his head rolled on the pillow, and then his eyes opened. Scott took a deep breath.

“Hey, brother. Need anything?” He was already reaching for the water.

After taking a drink, Johnny readjusted his arm on the bed. “Hey, Boston. I’m good.”

“Need any pain medicine? Sam left laudanum and there’s a little morphine left.” Scott shifted nervously.

Johnny narrowed his eyes. “What’s on your mind, brother? Just spit it out.”

“There’s nothing on my mind. We’re just worried about you. Still are.”

“I’m fine.”

Scott snorted. “Sure you are. Teresa should be bringing you some dinner soon.”

“What’s goin’ on? Why are you on edge? Anything happenin’ with the ranch? You get that creek cleared?”

“Yeah, days ago.” There was a long silence and Scott was trying to think of something to extricate himself from the room. “I should tell Teresa you’re awake.”

“Wait.” Johnny pinned him with a grim look. “You want to tell me what’s goin’ on with my horse? I’m tired of havin’ y’all pussyfoot around about ‘im. Tell me about Barranca. The truth.”

Scott sighed heavily, and in that moment he knew Johnny knew. “He didn’t make it.”

Johnny turned his face away, trying to compose himself. “Why? I coulda saved him.”

“No, Johnny, you couldn’t have.” Scott protested. “Both of his forelegs were broken, the left one splintered. No one could have fixed him.”

“Did you even try?”

Scott looked away. “No. It would have been pointless.”

Johnny swore softly but profusely. Then he turned his head back toward Scott. “You do it?”

Scott nodded; he couldn’t find enough spit in his mouth to speak.

“One shot?”

Scott nodded again. Did Johnny forget he was in the calvary during the war, that he had surely put down more horses than his brother?

Johnny tried to turn away from Scott as far as his injuries would allow.

At last, Scott found his voice. “You going to be alright, Johnny?”

“Just leave me be, Scott,” he said in that low, flat voice that Scott had learned to identify as his Madrid voice.

“Okay. We’ll talk again real soon.”

“No, Scott. I don’t want to talk to you or even see your face for a while, not for a good long while.”

Several long seconds ticked by. “Will we be alright, brother?”

Johnny struggled with an answer. Finally, he said, “I just need time. Just give me time, brother.”

“I can do that.” And with that tiny seed of hope, Scott quietly closed the door behind him.

*****

Murdoch Lancer turned away from the picture window behind his desk when he heard his elder son’s footsteps enter the room.

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

Murdoch frowned. It had been three years since his sons had arrived at Lancer to pick up their “listening money” and stop the land pirates from taking over his ranch, and Scott still called him “sir.” It irritated him no end, a constant reminder that Scott had been raised by Harlan Garrett. Even Johnny calling him “old man” in anger had more warmth than his first-born’s cold “sir.” It never failed to erect a wall between him and Scott.

Scott stood like an errant schoolboy, hat in hand, worrying the brim of his hat as he faced his father. Lately, Murdoch seemed to frown every time he saw him. Scott didn’t know what he had done wrong this time. He was simply responding to a summons from his father to see him in the great room. Was the man blaming him for Johnny’s ill temper these last few days? Did he believe as Johnny did that Barranca’s injuries could have been mended, that Scott had acted too quickly and rashly in putting Barranca down?  It felt like Murdoch frowned simply because Scott existed.

Murdoch motioned to one of the chairs that sat across from the desk. “Have a seat, Scott.”

Scott sat down resignedly.

“Johnny’s getting better,” Murdoch began.

“He still doesn’t want me around, does he?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m sorry. He still hasn’t changed his mind about seeing you. It was easy for you to avoid him when he was confined to his room, but Sam has given the okay for him to move—strictly within the house, of course—but it will make things more awkward.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too. Perhaps now would be a good time for me to go on a lengthy trip somewhere for the benefit of the ranch?”

Murdoch smiled to himself. There was no denying Scott was quite intelligent; the boy was going to make this easier than he thought. “Yes, I was thinking the same thing. There are some papers you could deliver to the land office in Sacramento. Then the Cattleman’s Association would like you to present our position on water rights to the governor himself. I’ve talked to the Board, they’re more than confident of your ability to state our side of matter.”

“Thank them for their trust in me, sir, but a trip to Sacramento won’t take very long.”

“I was thinking you could take your time, ride up instead of taking the stagecoach. I’d like you to stop by a friend of mine’s place, see how she runs her spread. Maybe you can get some ideas for improvements to the way Lancer is run.”

“She?”

“Yes, Victoria Barkley. You met her two years ago when the Cattleman’s Association held their annual meeting in Stockton. Her ranch is just outside of it. Do you remember her?”

Scott considered. “Yes, I remember. She struck me as a formidable woman.”

Murdoch smiled and nodded. “She is. But she owes me some for the help I gave her right after her husband died. I’m sure she’ll be pleased to have you as her guest for a week…or two. You leave first thing tomorrow.”

Scott nodded and rose from his chair. “Alright.” Then, not knowing quite what to say to end this conversation, he added, “Thank you, sir,” and wondered why the frown returned to Murdoch’s face.

*****

Johnny eased himself down on the sofa in the great room and looked around. No one was there. Murdoch had told him that Scott had left to go to Sacramento on a business trip and wasn’t expected back for some time, but Johnny was worried they’d still cross paths somehow. He knew that if he saw Scott, all he would see is his brother raising his rifle and killing his Barranca. He just couldn’t bear it right now.

His whole left side was a mass of hurt. He used to handle it by going out to the barn and taking care of his amigo, brushing his coat and telling him anything and everything that was in his heart. Now he could never do that again, thanks to his brother.

Teresa came in carrying a tray. She set it down beside him saying, “I thought I heard you come down here this morning.”

Teresa always seemed to be cheery in the morning. It confounded Johnny; she woke up earlier than any of them. He couldn’t remember the last time he was that cheery, certainly not after his accident. He looked at the plate of eggs, ham, and biscuits, and his stomach roiled.

“I’m not very hungry this morning, querida.”

“You have to eat to keep your strength up, so you’ll get better.” She gave him her best pout. When he didn’t respond, she picked up a forkful of eggs and started to move it to his mouth. “I can feed you if you’re too weak to do it yourself,” she teased.

“Hey, the splint’s on the left arm; I can feed m’self.” He turned his head away and playfully  swatted her hand back toward the plate.

“Okay,” she relented and left the fork on his plate, “but Maria will have your hide for not finishing everything that’s on that plate. She didn’t look in a good mood this morning.”

Johnny smiled. “You play dirty, girl!” He fed himself the forkful of eggs and she looked on as he had three more bites. Then, blessedly, she left him alone to finish his breakfast.

Later, when she came back to collect the tray, she saw him staring into space with a sad look in his eyes.

“Johnny?”

“Yes, Teresa?”

“When are you going to forgive Scott, so he can come back home and we can be a family again?”

“I don’t know, Teresa. I don’t know.”

*****

The formidable woman had a formidable house, Scott thought as he rode Remmie up to the hitching post outside the front door. It was surprising to see such architecture in California—neither Western nor Eastern but Southern, with two-story columns in the front. Scott had seen similar houses when he was in the war—large, white plantation houses, some of which he had been ordered to burn down to the ground. He shook off those morbid thoughts as he knocked on the solid front door.

It was opened by a tall, thin Negro, which surprised Scott, and he once again had to stomp down feelings of the war before they threatened to engulf him. “Is Mrs. Victoria Barkley at home?” he managed to stammer out.

The servant opened the doorway wider and swept his arm inward. “If you would wait in the foyer, sir. And your name?”

“Scott Lancer.”

He had barely time to step into the house and admire its fine decorations before the woman he remembered as Victoria Barkley strolled into sight. Despite her slender frame, she carried the air of indisputable authority. She was every bit mistress of this manor.

“Mr. Lancer!” she enthused. “How wonderful to see you again!” She held out her hand and he shook it, her grip firm and business-like.

“I’m grateful you have invited me into your home. It’s lovely, as is the woman who owns it,” he said sincerely.

She laughed a quick, airy laugh. “Murdoch warned me you had a smooth way of talking,” she said, completely dismissing his sincerity. Scott wondered what sorts of other things his father had told her about him.

Pulling out an envelope from his jacket’s inside pocket, he said, “My father wanted me to give you this.”

She accepted it and put it in a pocket of her skirt.

“Mother…”

Scott looked up to the top of the grand staircase and he could not breathe. If there were angels on earth, this vision of feminine beauty was certainly one of them. He stood transfixed. Their eyes locked, and he couldn’t have looked away if his life had depended upon it. She glided down the stairs and he watched her every step.

“Audra, you remember Scott Lancer is to stay with us for a short while? Mr. Lancer, this is my daughter, Audra.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lancer.” The vision extended her hand.

He took it and brought it to his lips. “Enchanted, Miss Barkley. And please, both of you, call me Scott.”

She smiled a heavenly smile. “Of course, but only if you call me Audra.”

Audra. Audra. Even her name sounded otherworldly. Ethereal. He didn’t want to let go of her hand, but as a gentleman, he had to; however, he lingered just a moment longer than was proper. He hoped she received the message.

“Come into the parlor and Silas will bring refreshments,” Victoria suggested.

Scott hesitated. “I need to see to my horse, ma’am.”

“Nonsense! One of the hands will see to that, and Silas will take your things up to your room.”

“It’s a rule at Lancer that we take care of our own horse…”

“Is this Lancer, Scott? Or do you make your honored guests take care of their own horses as well?”

Yes, Victoria Barkley was a formidable woman. Scott tried not to blush and failed. “Well, when you put it that way.”

Victoria waved him at a chair and he sat. All he wanted to do was to stare at Audra’s beautiful face, but that would have been impolite.

“I hope your trip here wasn’t too arduous,” Audra said, and her voice, her voice!, was like music dancing through the air. She had said ‘arduous,’ an uncommon and refined word to use. The word of an educated young woman. Of course, with a mother like Victoria Barkley, she would have had the best education and an excellent finishing school. He stared at her lips, rosy and shiny, those lips that had just uttered ‘arduous.’

Victoria looked at her beautiful daughter and the handsome man gawping at her. They made a very striking couple. Scott Lancer wasn’t the first young man to fall immediately under Audra’s   spell. Her impressionable daughter seemed just as smitten with Scott Lancer as he obviously was of her. But her daughter had a free spirit and unreasonably high standards. She usually tired of callow young men quickly. Others wilted under the intense scrutiny of her three brothers. It would be an interesting to see how Mr. Lancer fared over the course of his visit.

Scott was spared responding by the entrance of Silas and a large tea set.

“How do you take your tea, Scott?” Audra asked as she expertly handled the silver service. He was transported back to Boston, back to those innumerable and mind-numbing afternoon socials he’d been forced to attend there. Audra could rival the most accomplished of those society matrons. He wouldn’t have been so bored if Audra had been the one pouring tea.

He swallowed and tried to find his voice. “No milk or sugar, please.”

She passed him his saucer and teacup, and he smiled gratefully at her, wishing the china wasn’t  between her hand and his. Her skin looked so silky smooth. Victoria cleared her throat and Scott sat back in his chair. He had attended seemingly hundreds of these occasions in Boston, and he knew exactly what to do and say in these situations. He had seen no point in these affairs, especially right before Murdoch’s Pinkerton agent had found him, but now he said a silent thank you to his grandfather for those afternoons for training him for this moment.

They chatted about the usual mundane topics, Audra and Scott subtly flirting, until Scott had finished his tea. Then the women rose and declared the need to attend to some business. Scott rose, too, as he was taught when women entered or exited a room. Victoria said that Silas would show him his room, answer any questions, draw him a bath, and that dinner was at six-thirty, cocktails at six. Then both the lovely ladies swept regally out of the room.

Scott took his hostess up on her offer of a bath, impressed with the indoor plumbing. After asking Silas far too many questions, he laid on his soft bed resting from his “arduous journey” thinking he had just arrived in Eden.

*****

Making sure his string tie was tied to perfection for the twelfth time, Scott slowly made his way down the main staircase to join the Barkley cocktail half hour. He hoped his delayed appearance would give them the impression that he had understood the casual nature of this occasion and that he didn’t lust after alcohol.

“Here’s the man of the hour,” a dark-haired man said. He strode over to shake Scott’s hand. It was a good, firm handshake, and Scott returned it in kind. The man was older than Scott and had an air of confidence about him. They were dressed similarly, which eased Scott’s anxiety, and he gave a silent prayer of thanks to Silas for steering him correctly.

“Scott, this is my oldest son, Jarrod. Jarrod, this is Mr. Scott Lancer, but he prefers to be called Scott, isn’t that right?” Victoria looked at him, her eyes playful over the rim of her wine glass.

“Yes, it’s Scott. I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Barkley.”

Jarrod gave his mother a peculiar look, but he didn’t offer that Scott could call him by his first name, as Scott expected.

There were a few seconds of uneasy silence, then Victoria offered him a glass of wine, which he eagerly accepted. Scott swirled the liquid around the glass, held it up to the light, and took a sip. The red had a nice, robust taste with just a hint of fruit.

“This is excellent! It has a suggestion of fruit that I quite like.”

This statement caused another knowing glance between Jarrod and his mother, and Scott knew he was in for a long evening. It would be worth it just to see the lovely Audra again. He fervently hoped she would appear momentarily.

Scott didn’t get his wish. Audra did not appear until they sat down for dinner. By then he had met the other two Barkley sons, Nick and Heath. Dinner was more formal than Scott anticipated, with courses being served plated and in succession instead of family style, which was the custom at Lancer. Victoria sat at the head of the table, her sons sitting in descending birth order to her left. Audra sat on her right, and Scott had been seated next to her. While delighted to be seated so close to Audra, the arrangement had the effect, perhaps desired, that he was sitting across from a military tribunal. Let the interrogation begin!

The meal was excellent, and Scott used it to deflect conversation when questions became too personal for his taste. He had been subjected to this game before and having survived Mr. Dennison’s ruthless inquisition, he could survive the Barkley brothers. Nick, he found, led most of the inquiries. The man was blunt and straightforward, and Scott, having the benefit of dealing with Johnny’s forthrightness for three years, could usually handle the questions. Heath remained almost stubbornly silent, answering Scott’s light questions to draw the man into the conversation with only one or two words. Jarrod would jump in if Nick couldn’t think of the next question fast enough. Audra ate her dinner demurely but smiled if any quips were made among her brothers. Nick sniped about her quietude but that didn’t rouse her to join in.

And Victoria Barkley sat at the head of the table watching the entire exchange as if she were watching a Shakespearean drama. Or, more apt, like a general watching her junior officers ferret out the weaknesses of her enemy.

Was he the enemy? At times it felt like it. His attempts to ask about Barkley history and tradition were noticeably deflected. The answers were either quite vague or dismissed as “too long a story to tell.” Finally, after being asked why he grew up in Boston rather than California, he had answered back a mite snappishly that it was “too long a story to tell,” and Nick had erupted into laughter, while Victoria and Jarrod had exchanged their now tiresome knowing looks.

After the seemingly endless dinner was over, Scott was invited back into the parlor, where he was offered more wine and a cigar. He accepted the brandy but declined the cigar. He had lost any interest in cigars during the war. Audra sat down at the piano and played three pieces very well. Then she took her leave of the rest of them, and Scott thought all light and life was leaving the room with her.

“Audra!” Her mother’s voice stopped her at the door to the foyer. “I thought you might like to take Scott on a tour of the ranch tomorrow.”

She smiled. “I’d like that. Shall we make a picnic of it, Scott?”

“That would be delightful. I shall look forward to it.” Had he put the right amount of enthusiasm in his voice without seeming too eager? With all his experience with Boston debutants, none of them had affected him the way Audra did. He was out of his depth. It was exciting.

“I’ll see you at nine. Have a good evening.” He thought she gave him an extra warm smile then.

After she left, talk turned to ranch matters. This usually happened during dinner at Lancer, but Scott’s presence had probably disrupted their routine. He waited until there was a lull in the conversation, then, begging fatigue, excused himself for the night.

*****

The three brothers and their mother watched Scott leave and listened until they heard the door to the guest room close.

Nick helped himself to a shot of whiskey. “Well, he lasted longer than most of them,” he said with a hint of admiration in his voice. “Most of ‘em light out right after dinner is over.” He turned to his older brother. “Why the hell did he keep calling you Mr. Barkley all dinner long?”

Victoria stepped in. “Because he didn’t give Scott permission to call him Jarrod.”

“And he remembered all dinner long,” Jarrod said, seeming impressed.

“So? That only shows he has a good memory.”

“Don’t be so hard on him, Nick. Just because he handled you with such ease…”

“Don’t go there, Mother,” Nick groused.

“Alright,” she conceded. “He’s got more manners than all of her previous suitors combined.”

“That’s not saying much,” Nick muttered under his breath.

“Is that what you think he’s come here for? To court Audra?” Jarrod asked Victoria. “What did Murdoch’s letter say?”

“Only that Scott needed some time and distance away from Lancer and that he’d be grateful for any time we could give him. Oh, and that we could kick him out whenever we became too irritated with him.”

Jarrod’s lips quirked upwards. “That sounds like Murdoch. But how can anyone become irritated with Scott Lancer? He’s too damned polite.”

Nick clapped his brother hard on his back. “Maybe his being too polite is what irritated his old man!”

They all laughed, and Victoria turned to Heath. “What do think, Heath?”

As usual, Heath considered his words carefully. “A bit stiff, but I liked him.” He excused himself to retire for the night, and the discussion turned to another topic upon his departure.

*****

Scott Lancer had found his heaven on Earth. He was sitting under a massive oak tree that overlooked a placid lake with the delectable Audra Barkley putting away the remnants of their delicious lunch that Silas had prepared for them.

“How does our ranch compare to the likes of Lancer, Mister Scott?” She asked as they sat comfortably on the plaid blanket.

“We have more variety of terrain, but nowhere do we have a spot as charming as this, Miss Audra, especially with you adorning it.”

He got his expected reaction. Audra blushed furiously and she ducked her head modestly.

“You do have a way with words, Mister Scott,” she answered. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to embarrass me. But I know you are far too gentlemanly to do that.”

Oh, how he wished he were not that gentlemanly at this moment! If she only knew what he was thinking—to lower her onto the blanket and passionately kiss her until she was breathless and willing to do whatever more he wanted of her. And he wanted so much more of her!

“You know me too well, Miss Audra. I would never want to embarrass such a lovely girl as yourself.” He patted her hand gently.

She didn’t respond agreeably or disagreeably to his touch. She looked out over the lake and asked seriously, “Why are you here, Scott?”

Scott didn’t answer right away, disappointed that their little game of putting a “Miss” or a “Mister” before their first names had come to an end. “I’m taking some documents up to Sacramento for my father. He suggested I stop by to visit your family before I did so. If my visit is inconveniencing your family in any way, I’ll leave immediately.”

The speed with which she answered “no!” was encouraging. “You’re not any inconvenience to us at all. It’s nice to have a change. On a ranch one day is the same as any other, it feels like.”

“I know what you mean. This is a pleasant diversion for me as well, a very pleasant diversion,” he said, watching her face.

She blushed again and suggested a walk by the lakeside. Conversing with her was easy and engaging. Afterwards, they collected the picnic paraphernalia and returned to their carriage tour of the Barkley estate. Although not as large as Lancer, it still took them most of the afternoon to finish. Scott hated to see their time end. He vowed to himself to not be an inconvenience to the Barkleys anytime soon.

Dinner conversation was more relaxed that evening, devoid of the probing personal questions. Jarrod had asked after their tour, and Audra was much more talkative than the previous evening, when she had hardly uttered a word. Scott said he very much wanted to be a working guest, and Nick had enthusiastically taken him up on his offer. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastically. Nevertheless, if he was going to discover how the Barkley ranch was run, Nick was his man, even though Scott anticipated being pelted with more questions. Jarrod was a lawyer in Stockton, and Heath appeared to be more of a hired hand who was lucky enough to dine with the owners. He could relate. He and Johnny felt that way at Lancer most days.

Early the next morning found him sitting in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee and managing to keep out of Silas’ way as he prepared breakfast. The man had tried to shoo Scott into the dining room, but Scott felt more at home in the kitchen. In Boston, the kitchen had been his favorite refuge from the formalities of the rest of his grandfather’s house, and he had learned very early on to stay out of the way of the cook.

“Where did you learn to cook, Silas? All the meals here have been excellent!”

“Oh, here and there. I’ve been to a lot of places in my life, Mr. Lancer.”

“I’d like it if you’d call me Scott.”

The older man just clucked and shook his head, and Scott knew Silas would never use his given name. He tried another tactic. “Where were you raised?”

Silas just shook his head again. “No need for you to be asking about the likes of me, Mr. Lancer. I’m just happy to be making meals for Missus Barkley and her children. I’m mighty grateful to them, and I’m glad you appreciate my cooking.”

Scott knew there was a story there and that he wasn’t going to pry it out of Silas anytime soon.

Nick came in through the back door and swatted Scott on the shoulder with his hat. “Hey, what are you doing in the kitchen? Breakfast is served in the dining room.” He poured his own large cup of coffee.

Scott held up his mug. “I needed some coffee to be able to find the dining room.”

Nick gave an appreciative snort, and Scott followed him through the swinging door into the dining room. “What are your plans for the day?”

Nick took a long draught of the brew before answering. “We’re going to check the water situation in the south pasture. I want to move the bulk of the herd there, but sometimes there’s not enough water.”

“That happens at Lancer, too,” Scott replied. “We’ve tried several solutions, some more successful than others. I’d be glad to offer you my opinion, if you wouldn’t think it too presumptuous of me.”

“I’d be happy to have your expertise, Scott”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘expertise’…”

Hours later they were examining the stream that fed the lower lake in the south pasture. At this time of the year, the stream looked like a small creek that fed a pond.

“I get any sizable herd to this part of the ranch and they’ll drink the lake dry in a week,” Nick complained.

“And then they’ll get stuck in the mud. You need this stream to deliver more water to the lake. What’s its source?” Scott asked.

“Well, ultimately, it’s the Sacramento River, but it’s a ways away and the tributaries just get smaller and smaller until you get this sorry looking excuse for a stream.”

“We had a similar problem on a section of Lancer. We built a windmill to help pump more water into it. It works pretty well.”

“Do you think one would work here?” Nick asked.

“It would depend on the elevations of the tributary feeding this stream and the lake. You wouldn’t happen to have a topographical map of your ranch, would you?”

“Back at the house we do,” Nick replied. “Let’s saddle up!”

*****

Victoria Barkley was passing through the front rooms of the house when she noticed the tops of two heads, one blond, the other brunet, bending over a map laid out on the dining room table. Nick and Scott were deep in conversation. She hated to interrupt their engrossed discussion, but curiosity got the better of her.

“What are you two doing?”

Nick tore his eyes from the map and said, “Building windmills!” His words and eyes revealed an excitement she hadn’t seen nor heard from this son in a while.

“Tilting at them is more likely,” Victoria responded, pleased when Scott looked up at her and grinned. He had understood her Cervantes reference; she knew Nick hadn’t. Yes, this Lancer boy was proving to be rather special. It had taken him only one day to win over her suspicious and over-protective middle son. It was quite the accomplishment.

The following days had Scott doing a variety of mundane ranching jobs, one of which was helping Heath check the fence line on the western side of the ranch. Heath was not a talkative man, but truth be told, he was a welcome relief from Nick, who jabbered away like he was being paid a dollar for every word he uttered. Scott had agreed to tell Nick about the windmill if Nick agreed to end his probes into Scott’s personal life. It was a well struck deal.

As he and Heath made their inspection, their conversation hadn’t strayed to any areas not directly applicable to the job at hand. They had found several sections of fence that needed repair or reinforcement, and they had more than enough equipment in the wagon to get all the jobs done. Scott admired the efficiency of Heath’s work. It reminded him of Johnny.

Johnny. Every time he thought of his younger brother, his heart lurched. Would Johnny be able to find it in his heart to forgive him for killing Barranca? He had thought Johnny had loved that horse more than any other living thing on Earth. He was finding out the hard way that it was true. It certainly felt like Johnny loved that palomino more than his own brother. Their close, brotherly bond was probably forever severed, how severely he would know when he returned home.

Lancer. Was it going to feel like home again? His relationships with both his brother and father seemed strained to the breaking point. He knew the origin of Johnny’s disaffection, but Murdoch’s left him nonplussed. His father seemed to be constantly frowning at him, always listening to what he had to say with a sour look on his face, and Scott didn’t know why. Maybe he should think about moving on but not back to Boston, surely. The California landscape and climate had gotten under his skin and into his heart. He didn’t think he could bear to leave the state. But maybe he could go somewhere else in it; it was a big state. He could do something other than ranching. His Harvard education should open a lot of opportunities. On second thought, if he played his cards right, maybe the Barkleys would hire him on.

On the way back to the house, Scott mentioned to Heath that he reminded him of his brother. When it slipped out that Johnny was his half-brother, he learned that Heath, too, was only a half-brother to Nick and Jarrod. That resulted in a very interesting and highly philosophical discussion about the nature of brotherhood, which had delighted Scott no end. His philosophy classes at Harvard had been some of his favorites. Heath’s thoughts were insightful. That brooding façade concealed a sharp mind. Scott wondered if the rest of the family knew.

After five days of grueling manual labor, Victoria suggested that Scott be given a day off in the form of another picnic with Audra. He relished the idea of more time with her without her family hovering nearby watching his every word and move. Audra took him to another beautiful and tranquil spot, and Silas had provided another excellent lunch. When they had sufficiently stuffed themselves, Scott lay down on the blanket hands behind his head and looked at the wispy clouds moving across the bright blue sky. This was heaven.

“Oh!” Audra exclaimed, and Scott was immediately on the alert.

“What?”

“Look at the ants!” She was bent over, peering at them. “See? They’re moving in a straight line, one after the other. What makes them do that? They don’t always do that. Most of the time they just run around in all directions, but sometimes, like now, they follow one another. They’re headed right to what’s left of your pie. Do you know why they do that? There must be a reason.”

And in that moment, Scott knew he was totally and irrevocably in love with Audra Barkley. In Boston, the well-heeled girls would have shrieked and pretended they were terrified of the insects. Here was Audra Barkley inspecting them. Clearly, she had watched them at other times in her life to make the present comparison. She was fascinated by their behavior rather than frightened or repulsed by it. She stuck her finger in the middle of the ant line and watched what the ants would do. They merely went around her finger and back to the straight line toward the pie crumbs. She was conducting an experiment, even if she was unaware of it. She had a curious mind, and he was done for.

“Well?”

He tore his eyes away from her luminous face. He couldn’t think straight when he looked at her. “No, I don’t know why they do that, but you’re right, sometimes they move in a line like they’re doing now. I never really thought about it before.”

Audra moved the pie plate to the other side of the blanket. “All those years at Harvard and you never found out?” she teased.

“Nope. I wasted my time there, clearly. And, as I recall, there wasn’t a class on the biology and habits of ants.”

“Hmmm. You should ask for a refund of your tuition.”

Her looked up at her as she sat primly beside him. All his strict and regimented childhood, his wartime hell, and his present problems with his family faded against this one perfect moment. And he would do it all again if it were the only way to be here in this moment with this beautiful woman. A woman beautiful in mind, soul, and body.

She looked down at him with a half-smile on her face and playfully asked, “What are you thinking of, Scott Lancer?”

He realized then that he must have the most moon-eyed expression on his face. “’Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,’” he quoted.

“Poetry! I love poetry! Is there more? Tell me the rest of the poem!”

Instead, he took his arm and gently bent her head to meet him halfway as he brushed her lips with his own very lightly. She didn’t pull away, so he kissed a bit more firmly and eagerly. She responded in kind, and after several more increasingly passionate kisses, they broke apart, each flushed and slightly panting.

“Recite the rest of the poem, Scott,” she ordered breathlessly.

He laughed. “It’s a sonnet by Shakespeare and those are the only two lines of it I remember.”

She slapped at his arm. “I want to hear the rest of it. Those lines were so wonderful. The rest of it should be exquisite.”

“Does your library have a collection of Shakespeare’s works?”

“I don’t know,” she said quickly putting their lunch away and pulling at the blanket underneath him. “Let’s go find out!”  

They spent the rest of the afternoon in the Barkley library, which rivaled Murdoch’s. It hadn’t taken them too long to find the slender book of sonnets, but they both agreed the rest of the poem did not live up to its opening couplet, except maybe its ending couplet. They had then read through and appraised every single sonnet in the volume, giggling uproariously at their clever interpretations and assessments. Every so often, Victoria would poke her head in to check on them, but she would just shake her head at their silliness and walk away, secretly relieved that the proper and reserved Scott Lancer knew how to laugh.

Later that night up in the guest room, Scott relived every moment of the day, grinning madly. He had wondered many times during his incarceration at Libby why he struggled on, why he fought so hard to continue to live with only death and disease as his constant companions. He now thanked whatever God there was that he had survived because this day, this perfect day, had brought meaning and purpose to his suffering.

*****

Downstairs the Barkley men and Victoria were reassessing their guest.

“Audra seems quite serious about Scott,” Victoria related. “I talked to her before dinner tonight, and there is no question she is utterly besotted with him. She’s ready to order the wedding veil tomorrow.”

“Do you want me to initiate the usual investigation?” Jarrod asked.

Victoria nodded. “There’s something about him, some secret he’s trying to hide from us. I can feel it. Otherwise, he seems the perfect complement to Audra.”

“Yeah, he’s too perfect. Nobody’s that perfect. There’s got to be some bodies buried in his backyard.”

“I thought you rather liked him, Nick,” Jarrod accused his brother.

“I do! But Audra’s had too many disappointments in her love life for us not to do our “due diligence” about this guy. Isn’t that the right legal term, big brother?”
 
Jarrod acknowledged Nick’s words with a tip of his snifter. They had barely averted near disaster several times with suitors who had proved unworthy or even downright lethal to their beloved sister. Scott Lancer, even with his too impeccable manners, would not be spared from the Barkleys doing their due diligence.

“What do you think, Heath?” Victoria asked.

Heath paused and then said, “I don’t get the feeling he’s hiding anything. I still like him but investigating him isn’t going to hurt.”

They let him have the last word.

*****

Several days later Scott found himself leaning on the fence and watching two mares as they huddled across the corral from him in the fading light. The Barkley brothers had taken up cigar smoking again, and Scott needed the fresh air. He couldn’t stomp down the awful memories that smell evoked—the hardest part of his military duty. He had carried out his duty, as he had been sworn to do, but burning the plantations to the ground had been the most difficult orders he had ever given. And his soldiers had started any lighting of torches or buildings with lit cigars. The screams of the terrified women, children, and old men running for their lives or burning to death in their beds haunted Scott’s nightmares to this day.

He shook off the bad memories. It had been another pleasant day. He had driven Audra into Stockton for some shopping she wanted to do. After several hours, she had dragged him to Jarrod’s law office, and they had persuaded him to have lunch with them. It had been an informal and agreeable lunch—he and Jarrod lightly bantering about whether the law should set precedence for society or merely reflect it. In the end, Jarrod had allowed Scott to call him by his first name, which he and Audra considered a major victory. He sighed. His time with the Barkleys would have to end. He needed to move on to his tasks in Sacramento and to his ultimate fate with his brother and father.

The sound of a skirt gently swishing his way brought him out of his reverie. He wished it were Audra coming up behind him, but she had already excused herself for the night, so it must be Victoria Barkley approaching.

“You don’t care much for cigars.”

He smiled at her and shook his head. One of the mares nickered and crossed the corral to stick her nose between them.

“Just thinking that it’s time I should be on my way. I’ve imposed on your family too long already, I fear.”

Victoria stroked between the mare’s eyes, her touch light and caring. “We’ve loved having you here, Scott. You can stay as long as you like.”

He looked askance at her. “Just what did Murdoch say in that letter I gave you?” he asked with mock suspicion.
 
“Only that you needed some time away from Lancer.”

Scott snorted derisively. “I needed time away? More like they needed time away from me.”

“I can’t believe that. Why? What happened?”

“He didn’t say in the letter? Didn’t lay it all out there?”

“No, he didn’t.”

The silence stretched out between them. Scott admired her patience to wait him out. He had been raised not to talk about these kinds of things, to keep family matters private. But he desperately wanted a third party’s opinion of his situation. Victoria Barkley’s question of what happened didn’t sound like it came from eager curiosity or a need for gossip but from a genuine concern for him. He debated within himself for a while longer, and then said, “I put down Johnny’s horse.” After that first statement, the rest of the tragic story poured out of him like the surge of water flowing down a newly cleared stream. He ended saying, “I was supposed to visit with you to make the trip last longer, so Johnny could be able to look at me again me. It’s too much to hope that he’s forgiven me.”

His eyes widened upon hearing his last statements. “I beg your pardon. I realize now how inappropriate we have been, using your family’s kindness for our own ends. Please accept my most abject apologies!”

She laid her hand on his forearm to settle him and felt him stiffen at the touch. “Nonsense! You don’t need to apologize, Scott. I told you we love having you here.”

“And I’ve loved being here with you all and Audra, but I think it’s time for me to go to Sacramento.” He sighed sadly. “I’d like to stay longer,” he said wistfully and let the statement trail off into the night’s breeze.

There was silence again, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or laced with tension as the previous quiet had been.  Finally, Victoria spoke. “Scott, what happened was a terrible accident, but you have nothing to feel guilty about. It sounds like you did everything you could for Johnny. If you feel the need to go to Sacramento in the morning, of course, we wouldn’t stop you. However, we, and especially Audra, would love to have you visit us again. May I make a suggestion?”

He nodded hopefully.

“Let Jarrod drive you into Stockton tomorrow morning with him and take the train to Sacramento. We’ll take care of Remmie while you’re gone, and you have a perfect excuse to come back to see us and spend a few more days with us when you pick up your horse.”

A smile lit up his face. “An excellent suggestion, Mrs. Barkley! May I take you up on your offer?”

“I was hoping you would, Mr. Lancer.”

He looked down and shuffled his feet. It was the first sign of nerves she had seen from the boy in the week and a half he had been under their intense scrutiny.

“Is there something else you would like to say, Scott?” she prompted him.

“Um…yes. It’s about Audra,” he stammered.

Good Lord! What was this boy going to spring on her next?

“I’d like to ask your permission to correspond with her.”

Victoria laughed lightly in relief. “You don’t have to ask my permission to write to Audra. She’s old enough to decide that for herself.”

“Yes. We did discuss it and she gave her consent, but I’d like to have your blessing as well.” He looked at her earnestly, trying to determine if she knew what he was really asking—formal permission to court her daughter. He wasn’t sure if the etiquette of Boston’s higher society was practiced in the West.

She took his arm, then, and led him back toward the house. “If I know my daughter, she could care less whether you had my blessing. But you have it, Scott.” She squeezed his arm gently and he didn’t tense this time. “You have it with all my glad heart.”

It was difficult for Scott to get to sleep that night. He was excited about his trip to Sacramento, nervous about his presentation to the governor, giddy about being given permission to court Audra, and pleased with his conversation with Victoria. She had listened attentively to his tale of woe, asked a few questions about his feelings, offered wise counsel, and had even touched him affectionately. Was that what it felt like to have a mother?

*****

Governor Newton Booth was not an imposing man, and Scott felt at ease with him. The Governor’s background in law served him well in his elected position, and Scott believed his own well-constructed and succinct arguments on behalf of the Cattleman’s Association were appreciated and listened to seriously. After exchanging a few more socially appropriate comments, Booth led him to the door of his office and ushered Scott through. He turned to his assistant in the outer waiting room.

“Adams, I’d like to see Mr. Lancer again tomorrow.”

The assistant looked at what Scott supposed was a calendar. “There was a cancellation. You have an opening at ten o’clock.”

Booth looked at Scott. “Is that convenient for you, Mr. Lancer?”

“Yes, Governor, that is quite convenient.”

“Good. I’ll look over the documents you gave me this evening and be ready with my thoughts then.“ He shook Scott’s hand as Scott thanked him.

Booth looked over at the bedraggled man sitting across the room from Adams’ desk. “And Adams, that will be all this afternoon. I won’t be seeing anyone else today.” He stepped back in his office and closed the door.

Scott looked at the man who had been sitting there before Scott had entered the Governor’s office. He had felt guilty going in before him since it was obvious the man had been waiting for a while. Scott put on his jacket hurriedly. There was something desperate about the man’s demeanor and he was clearly angered at the Governor’s refusal to see him. Scott didn’t envy Adams’ job of dismissing him and was glad to see the deputy stationed by the hall door.

Scott was right on time the next morning. Adams ushered him into Booth’s inner office. The Governor had just come around his large desk to shake hands with him when there was a commotion outside the room. The door burst open behind Scott to reveal the bedraggled man he had seen yesterday, Adams and the deputy two steps behind him. When Scott saw the gun being raised in the man’s hand, he turned and tackled the Governor.

Not quick enough. Scott felt the first bullet enter his right side a bit above and to the right of his kidney. The second shot tore into his left shoulder. He didn’t even feel the third bullet slam into his right leg and settle around his knee; he was already unconscious from the pain.

*****

Wendell Adams waited patiently outside the operating room at the county hospital. The Governor had never lost consciousness and had protested his need for a stretcher, but Adams had demanded it. The doctors had rushed the Governor into surgery as soon as they had arrived. Now he was waiting for their report.

What a nightmare this morning had been! Mr. Lancer had arrived at his appointed hour and then all chaos had broken loose. The scary looking man from the previous day had run past the deputy and him and had rushed into the Governor’s chamber with a gun. It was inconceivable! He and the deputy had managed to jump the shooter and force the gun down but not before three shots had been fired into Mr. Lancer’s body as the brave man had thrown his body in front of the Governor and pushed him to the floor. The deputy had dealt with the criminal while Adams had been forced to pull Lancer’s bleeding body off the Governor in order to ascertain his employer’s condition.

The first bullet had apparently passed through Lancer’s body and hit the Governor in his left side, the blood stain there growing alarmingly. The Governor, however, was conscious and more concerned about Mr. Lancer than himself. Nevertheless, Adams made sure the Governor had been transported first to the hospital. The State of California needed its Governor. He had no idea who this Scott Lancer fellow was.

*****

Newton Booth shooed his doctors away from his bed. The bullet had lost so much velocity going through Lancer’s body that it hadn’t become imbedded too deeply in his left side. Hell, he thought he could have reached in and pulled it out himself.

“Go help that young man in the next room!” he had ordered the doctors after they had removed the bullet, put a couple of stitches in him, and bandaged the wound. “You better not let him die!” They quickly scurried away. “Adams, get in here!” He knew his secretary would be close by; he always was.

Adams came into the room, concern written all over his face. Booth couldn’t be sure it was genuine.

“What’s happening with Lancer?”

“I don’t know, sir, but it looks very serious.”

“We need to get a telegram to his family as quickly as possible.”

“I don’t know his address…” the assistant stammered.

“Well, the Cattleman’s Association should know it. Start there. Anything Lancer needs, you make sure he gets. Don’t worry about the costs; I’ll pay for it…or the State will. And, Adams, get me my pants!”

*****

Murdoch Lancer crumpled the telegram in his fist. He didn’t need this extra complication in his life right now! He reluctantly tore himself away from Johnny’s bedside and walked down to the front room. Tommy Hines, the telegraph office’s delivery boy, waited nervously in the foyer.

“Will there be a reply, Mr. Lancer?” the boy asked.

Murdoch scrubbed his face with his hand. “Yes, Tommy. Give me a minute. Go have Maria give you a lemonade and some cookies.”

“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”

All those ‘sirs’ only reminded him of Scott more profoundly. What had happened to his first born? He sat down heavily at his desk and thought how to word his reply and to whom. He smoothed out the telegram on the blotter and read it again: SCOTT CRITICALLY WOUNDED <STOP>COME AT ONCE TO SACRAMENTO COUNTY HOSPITAL<STOP>EXPENSES PAID BY STATE<STOP>NEWTON BOOTH

A telegram from the Governor. That summons couldn’t be ignored, but there was no way he could leave Johnny at this time. After weighing a myriad of possibilities, he came to a decision and wrote out his response.

*****

Victoria read the telegram for a second time and couldn’t believe what it said. Nevertheless, after meeting Scott and knowing what he meant to Audra, she could hardly refuse Murdoch Lancer’s entreaty that she tend to his son.

She turned to the boy waiting to receive her reply. “Simply say ‘on our way.’” She gave him a silver dollar.

As he turned to leave, she called out to the kitchen, “Silas? Pack our bags. We’re leaving for Sacramento!”

Jarrod came in a bit late for dinner that night and informed them that there had been an assassination attempt on the Governor. He was surprised that the rest of his family was not alarmed at the news.

“Apparently, he was saved by a good Samaritan who stepped in front of the Governor and took the bullets himself.”

“Did you find out who this Samaritan was?” Victoria asked calmly.

“No, there wasn’t a name.”

At that moment, Audra couldn’t contain her tears any longer and fled, sobbing, to her bedroom.

“I didn’t know she was that fond of Booth,” Jarrod said drolly as he watched his sister rush out of the room.

“That’s because we believe the good Samaritan was Scott,” Victoria explained.

“What?” Jarrod asked incredulously. “Why would you believe that?”

Victoria pulled out the telegram from her pocket and gave it to her oldest son. “I received this a little over an hour ago.”

Jarrod read it, anger gathering in his features. “This is preposterous! How can Murdoch even think of sending this to you!”

“He must have his reasons. In any event, I’m going and taking Silas with me. You’ll have to make do with Millie and Annabelle feeding you. Audra wants to come, but I don’t think it’s appropriate at this time and at this stage in their relationship. I don’t think Scott would want her to see him in pain, assuming he’s still alive. And if he’s not, it’s even more reason that Audra should stay here. We’ll take the morning train to Sacramento, so be prepared to leave quite early for Stockton tomorrow.”

Jarrod nodded. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Mother.”

Victoria smiled indulgently at him. “Shall we continue with dinner?” 

*****

Murdoch sighed in relief as he clutched the telegram. Thank God for Victoria Barkley. His request, plea really, had been answered in the affirmative. He sat in the kitchen nursing a cup of coffee and trying to force some of the ever-present warm soup down his throat. He knew he should be sleeping. The schedule he had set up was a good one and necessary if they were to get through the present crisis with Johnny. Damn the boy!

His mind wandered back three days ago when he’d found his younger son in the barn. It had rained that day and the barn was dank, yet here was his injured son clutching a near empty bottle of tequila sitting on the damp floor of Barranca’s vacant stall. No one had any idea how long he’d been out there; they all thought he had been napping in his room. The next day, he started to cough. Now he was well on his way to pneumonia if he wasn’t there already. His fever was climbing ever higher, and Sam predicted they were nowhere near the worst of it. The doctor didn’t know if the boy’s broken ribs had damaged his lungs making him more susceptible to the disease, but Murdoch was damned sure that sitting in a wet horse stall hadn’t helped the situation. Now all they could do was try to keep the fever down and help Johnny get the infected sputum out of his lungs. It was disgusting, putrid stuff that had Johnny in pain from the coughing and the pressure it put on his healing ribs. His breathing was becoming more and more labored. Murdoch had seen a good many people die from pneumonia in his time, and he was scared beyond reason that Johnny would die from it, too.

Then to get the Governor’s telegram about Scott. Was it any wonder he couldn’t get any sleep? But Sacramento was so far away; it would have taken him days to get there, and he was needed here. He couldn’t spare any one of them right now. They were all dog tired already from tending to Johnny from his fall and it would only get worse. He had decided not to tell anyone about the telegram. They were so upset about Johnny, so desperate to ease his pain and nurse him through this setback that Murdoch didn’t want to cause them any more worry. What good would it do? He prayed that his elder son would pull through, and when Johnny got stronger—and by God, he would survive and get stronger—he would tell everyone then. Murdoch got up, put another couple of ladles of water into the soup pot, rinsed out his coffee cup, and stumbled upstairs. If sleep wouldn’t come, the least he could do was rest enough to spell Teresa and Jelly in a few hours.

*****

Victoria Barkley directed Silas to secure rooms for them at the closest hotel he could find and set out for the hospital. The lobby was crowded and noisy, and it took a while to get the nurse’s station.

“I’m here to see Scott Lancer,” she said somewhat breathlessly after pushing herself through the mob of people.

“You and everyone else here, lady,” the nurse replied. She looked tired and put upon.

“You don’t understand. I’ve been asked by his father to help you care for him.” She pulled out Murdoch’s telegram to show the woman.

“I’m sorry. The doctor said to let no one in, and until he says otherwise, I can’t let you back there.”

“Can you at least tell me how Mr. Lancer is?”

“He’s alive. That’s all I can tell you.”

Victoria almost sagged in relief. “May I speak with the doctor?”

“Ma’am, everyone here wants to speak with the doctor. I’m sorry, you’ll just have to wait like everybody else.”

Victoria wasn’t used to waiting like everybody else in situations like this one. She thought she was going to explode with impatience until Silas finally walked in and found her sitting on a crowded bench. Victoria thrust the telegram into his hand and told him to show it to the doctor if he ever decided to come out of the back rooms. She was headed to the state capitol building.

The Governor’s offices were just as crowded as the hospital lobby. A deputy stood beside the hallway door denying access to anyone not already in the inner rooms. She finally wrote a note and charmed the deputy into giving it to the Governor’s assistant.

Wendell Adams came into the corridor with due haste. “Mrs. Barkley!” he shouted. “So good of you to come! I’m sure the Governor will be delighted to see you! But he’s not here at the moment. I’m afraid he is still at home recovering from his ordeal. I’ll make sure he knows you were here.”

“Don’t bother,” Victoria sighed, “I’ll tell him myself.”

Adams paled slightly. “I don’t think I’ll be able to escort you to his house, Mrs. Barkley. There’s so much that needs to be done here.”

“Yes, I can see you have your hands full. Who are all these people?”

“Newspapermen are the most annoying, but most of these people are just curious. They want to see where it happened, whether the Governor is alright. I was the one who suggested he stay away for a few days, until this whole mess dies down. I could get another deputy to escort you,” he offered lamely.

“No need,” Victoria assured him. “I know where Newton lives and it’s only a couple of blocks from here. The walk will do me good.”

Ten minutes later she had managed to push her way through another crowd outside the Governor’s house and get another note through the front door. The butler opened the door for her, closed it quickly behind her, and ushered her into the parlor. There was the Governor in a smoking jacket rising to greet her.

“Victoria! To what do I owe this pleasure?”

Victoria allowed him to kiss her on the cheek. “Newt, it’s so good to see that you weren’t more seriously injured.”

“No, thanks to a brave young man named Scott Lancer.”

“It’s on his behalf that I came to see you. His father has asked me to help nurse him back to health, but the hospital won’t let me in. I’ve come to you for help.”

The Governor sat in thought for a minute and then said, “It’s about time I see how young Lancer is doing. I was afraid at first. They weren’t sure he’d make it. I didn’t want to go back there if he’d died. They’re probably still not sure, but I suppose it’s time for me to see the lad for myself and give these vultures from the newspapers something to write about. Never seen such a ballyhoo before. They’d want to see my stitches if I let them.  Let me get a proper jacket on and we’ll go together.” He left the room calling for his carriage to be readied at once.

They arrived at the hospital fifteen minutes later, with the mob from the Governor’s house trailing after them. Victoria was amazed and somewhat alarmed at the tenacity of these people. The atmosphere resembled a circus more than a hospital. She collected Silas, showed the telegram to the Governor, and was soon standing before Scott’s doctor, Abraham Bergman. Dr. Bergman let the Governor into Scott’s room but delayed Victoria.

“Ma’am,” he said nervously. “I don’t know how to put this…”

“Just say it!” Victoria demanded. She was losing her patience with this day quickly.

“Ma’am. It regards Mr. Lancer’s condition…”

“Is he dying?” She almost wished she hadn’t asked the question, now not wanting to hear an affirmative answer.

“No, he’s holding his own. Of course, the longer he stays with us, the more hope we have of his recovery. It’s not that. It’s just that a woman of your refinement…”

“I’ll worry about my own refinement, Dr. Bergman. Just say it to me plain. I can take it.”

Dr. Berman swallowed hard. “Mr. Lancer’s back…there’s extensive disfigurement not caused by his present infirmity. It may be difficult to look upon.”

“I think we’ll be able to handle it, doctor.” She looked over at Silas, who nodded in agreement.

The Governor came out then muttering “Poor boy.” He patted Victoria on the shoulder. “Glad you’re here, Victoria. That boy needs all the help he can get.” He turned to the doctor. “Remember, he’s to have the best of care.” Then squaring his shoulders, he walked toward the lobby and the crowd and cameras awaiting him.

“Yes, sir,” Bergman replied. “We’re all doing our best for him, brave fellow.” He brought Victoria and Silas into Scott’s room and waited for them to control their emotions.

Victoria couldn’t stop the anguished gasp escaping her as she saw Scott’s body for the first time. Silas let out an “Oh, my Lord, poor boy.”

Scott was laying on his stomach, his head turned away from them. His left shoulder was swathed in bandages and his left arm had been tied to his body. Slightly below his waist, his torso was wound with another thick bandage. A blanket hid any more damage.

Dr. Bergman began telling them the extent of Scott’s injuries. He tried to sound as professional and clinical as he could. “None of the wounds are life-threatening on their own, but taken together, they resulted in a significant loss of blood.” He pointed to the shoulder wound. “This bullet hit his scapula and veered off to lodge near the acromioclavicular joint. It was embedded in the bone quite firmly. We thought we would do more harm to the joint if we removed it, so we disinfected it thoroughly with carbolic acid and stitched the entry wound.

This bullet passed right through Mr. Lancer and lodged in the Governor, as I’m sure you’ve read. It went through muscle—the man is solid muscle—and no internal organs were damaged. All we needed to do was disinfect it with carbolic acid and stitch up both the entrance and exit wounds.”

Bergman then revealed Scott’s right leg that had been covered by the blanket. “Actually, the most worrisome wound is this one. The bullet is located perilously close to the femoral artery. We dare not go in with a knife for fear of nicking it and have the boy bleed out. At the moment, we have the knee splinted. He must not move it in case the bullet moves and rubs against the arterial wall. We’re hoping that over time scar tissue will build up between the artery and the bullet and at some later date we will be able to remove the bullet without injury to the artery. Of course, we disinfected with carbolic acid. Right now he’s getting injections of morphine for the pain, so he shouldn’t awaken soon. We’ll be decreasing the dosages of that as he continues to improve. I tell you this, Mrs. Barkley, so you know what you’re dealing with. It’s imperative that his knee not be jostled.”

Victoria tried to keep the polite look on her face. She had let most of his medical terminology wash over her like water over the falls. She knew why he was being so precise. He knew she had the Governor’s ear and wanted her to report a favorable impression. She decided to take advantage of his obsequious disposition.

“I’ll want a cot and an extra chair in this room, Dr. Bergman,” she ordered. “I’d also like a washbasin and pitcher brought in for our use.”

The doctor nodded at all her requests. “Yes, at once, Mrs. Barkley.”

“Besides not jostling his leg, is there anything else you need us to do at this time?”

“I’ve been trying to have his head turned every two to three hours, so it doesn’t get stiff. Patients on their stomachs often complain of cricks in their necks if they’re left on one side too long. Other than that, please watch for fever and contact a nurse or me immediately if you think he’s too warm.”

“Thank you, Dr. Bergman.” The doctor knew he’d been dismissed and left.

Victoria and Silas made their way to Scott’s bed.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked looking over the man’s ravaged back.

“Yessum, I have. My Pappy’s back looked like this. This here,” he pointed to the large ugly raised scars, “they’re from a bull whip. These others,” he said as he pointed to the thin white stripes, “they’re most likely from a buggy whip or something similar.”

“Your father was a slave?”

“Yessum. On a plantation in Mississip.”

“I’m so sorry, Silas,” she said sadly. “I’m so glad you got away.”

“Missus, this poor boy weren’t never anyone’s slave. How did he ever get a whupping like this?”

“I don’t know, but I hope one day he’ll feel safe enough to tell us.” Victoria sighed. Now she had proof Scott Lancer was hiding something. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was.

The door opened and the things Victoria requested were being brought into the room, and she and Silas readied themselves for the vigil ahead.

*****

Johnny’s fever raged on and Murdoch believed nothing was going to bring it down. Teresa, Jelly, Maria, and he did everything they could, but nothing seemed to work. At this point, they were heartened if the fever didn’t rise. It was a small victory.

Murdoch maneuvered around the tub they had set up in Johnny’s room to sit in the chair by his bed. They had already used the tub several times to immerse Johnny in when his temperature couldn’t be lowered by draping cold towels on his body. Now he lay propped up on pillows with a cold, wet towel around his neck. Murdoch wiped a cloth across Johnny’s forehead seeing the movement beneath the eyelids.

“Scott…” Johnny sighed, and Murdoch waited for the inevitable question.

“Where’s Scott?...”

Murdoch leaned in close to Johnny’s ear. “He’s not here, son.”

Johnny’s eyes fluttered open. Once again, Murdoch was struck by the intensity of the blue irises.

“Where’s Scott?” Johnny asked with more awareness this time.

“Sacramento.”

“He’s been gone a long time.”

“Not so long. It just seems that way because you’re sick.”

“Gotta tell him that I’m sorry,” Johnny sighed again.

“You have to be well in order to do that,” Murdoch chided. “You just concentrate on getting well.”

Johnny nodded, but that movement seemed to spur another coughing fit. He leaned far over the side of his bed, hoping that gravity would help move the congestion out of his lungs. Murdoch held a cloth under Johnny’s mouth. When it seemed no more mucus was going to be expelled, Murdoch helped him to settle back on the mound of pillows. He gave Johnny as much water as he could manage.

“Wanna see Scott…” Johnny wheezed.

“I know you do, son. He’ll be here soon enough. You need to be well when he gets here.”

Johnny nodded weakly. “So tired…”

“Go back to sleep, Johnny. It’s the best thing for you.”

Murdoch rose to take the soiled cloth down to the boiling pot. He’d had the same conversation with his younger son a handful of times before. He wondered how many more times Johnny would ask about his brother before he broke down and told Johnny the truth. No, it wouldn’t be before Johnny was well on his way to health. That didn’t look like anytime soon. He was still very scared for his younger son’s life.

*****

Victoria heard the quiet knock on the door and was surprised when her eldest son entered Scott’s room.

“What are you doing here, Jarrod?”

“I could ask the same question of you,” he retorted.

She raised a “watch what you say” eyebrow at him.

Jarrod sighed. “The trial starts tomorrow. I thought I’d sit in. Newton said he’d make sure I got a seat. It seems like half the state of California is in town for the trial.”

Victoria turned back to Scott, making sure his back was fully covered by the blanket.

“How’s he doing? And where’s Silas?” Jarrod asked.

“Silas should be at the hotel sleeping. Scott’s recovering from an infectious fever. They operated on him two days ago. An abscess had formed by the bullet in his shoulder.”

“They didn’t take the bullet out?”

Victoria shook her head. “They thought it would be better to leave it. There seems to be something called ‘carbolic acid’ that the doctor thinks cures all ills. He was surprised that it didn’t stop the abscess. Anyway, they think they’ve gotten all the infection this time. Scott seems to be resting much easier and his temperature is close to normal.”

“Good!” Jarrod clapped his hands. “Then you and Silas can leave him in the hospital’s care and go back home where you belong. It’s been over a week now, Mother. Hire a private nurse to take over for you. Newton will pay for it.”

“He’s in so much pain. It’s hard to leave him in the care of strangers.”

“That’s what they get paid for. Scott’s not a member of the family…not yet anyway.”

Victoria gazed at Scott’s sleeping form for some minutes while she thought about Jarrod’s words. “I suppose you’re right. I will hire a private nurse, but I won’t be going back to Stockton. I want to see this trial, too. Tell Newt to hold two seats for us in that courtroom.”

Jarrod knew from the tone of her voice that there was no arguing with his mother about this. Her mind was made up. He gave her a slight bow and left.

Victoria put a damp cloth on Scott’s forehead and told him, “I’m going to get you through this, Scott. I swear I am.” She took his lax hand in hers. “Mother” she heard him murmur softly and tears sprang to her eyes, her heart breaking for this motherless boy. How could she tell Jarrod that she had taken to Scott Lancer as if he were her own blood? She didn’t want to leave him in the care of impersonal nurses, even though she admired the profession greatly. In just a few weeks, Scott had touched her soul. She would see this through with him.

*****

“Tell me what happened in court today,” Scott said as he was finishing his dinner.

“Not much,” answered Victoria. “The real excitement was yesterday when the prosecution made its case. Deputy Wilkes’ testimony was quite short and to the point, but that Wendell Adams…he was quite a talker and, I expect, an embellisher. He had everyone on the edge of their seats. Apparently, he was quite the hero in this saga. You were more of a bystander, Scott.” Victoria laughed. “Anyway, I told you most of that last night. Today was the defense, such as it was.”

“What’s the name of the man again?”

“Trenton. Adam Trenton.”

“And why did they say he wanted to kill Booth?”

“Something about the railroad buying out his land. He thought he wasn’t being paid fairly.”

“That’s between him and the railroad people. What’s the Governor got to do with it?” Scott was starting to get angry. He was laid up because of some petty squabble that didn’t have anything to do with Newton Booth? Incredible.

“He’d talked to the railroad but didn’t get any satisfaction. He was hoping the Governor might intervene on his behalf. When the Governor refused to see him, he lost his senses.”

“I remember him being in the office the day before the shooting. Booth closed his door on him. I wondered then whether that was a smart decision. Trenton looked rather desperate.”

Victoria removed Scott’s dinner dishes. “Apparently, your last words in Newt’s office are what let Trenton know Newt was definitely going to be in his office at ten o’clock the next morning. He followed you into the state house and waited until you went inside the inner office.”

Scott shook his head, marveling at his bad luck. “Did it go to the jury?”

“Yes, and in under an hour they came back with their verdict: guilty. He’s been sentenced to hang three days from now.”

“No use for him trying to appeal to the Governor’s office for a stay of execution,” Scott said, his voice laden with irony. He was glad that Victoria gave an appreciative chuckle. His mood sobered, and he asked, “Does he have any family?”

“I don’t know. Do you want me to find out?”

“Yes, please. They shouldn’t have to suffer for his stupidity.” Scott smiled to himself, remembering one of Johnny’s favorite sayings: there’s no cure for stupid. Then he scolded himself. “I shouldn’t even ask this of you. You’ve done so much for me already.”

“Nonsense! It will be fun to do a little investigating. Jarrod can help.”

Scott gave her a grateful half smile. He still wasn’t quite sure what she and Silas were doing here, although he appreciated them mightily. Victoria hadn’t given much of an answer when he’d asked her directly, when the doctor had decreased his morphine dosage and he could think somewhat clearly. She had told him they were there at Murdoch’s request but that was all. Him getting three bullets in him hadn’t torn Murdoch away from his precious ranch? Murdoch had been right when he’d told him and Johnny that first day that he loved nothing more than his ranch. Scott was beginning to understand just how far down on Murdoch’s priority list he was. It was depressing and embarrassing to have a friend look after him rather than family. He wondered what it would take to get Murdoch to take notice of him if three bullets were not enough. Was he not even worthy of Jelly being sent up to bluster about and tend him? It cut him far deeper than he wanted to admit.

“Scott, I’m sorry to tell you this, but the newspapers have revealed that your brother is Johnny Madrid.”

Scott closed his eyes. This was terrible news. They all had worked so hard so that Johnny could put Madrid behind him. Now the whole state knew of his alternate identity and, worse, his location. “That must have been a shock for you. I should have told you, I guess…”

“It’s alright. I already knew. Murdoch told me about five years ago. The papers are having a field day with it, I’m afraid.”

Scott shifted uneasily on the bed. It made the pain in his shoulder flare, but he was so happy he wasn’t lying on his stomach anymore, he endured the pain stoically.

“I’m telling you this, so you can ready yourself when you finally leave this room. That bit of information has made you even more intriguing to the public. People are lying in wait out there in the lobby, hoping to get even the barest shred of information from you, about you, that they can sell to the newspapers. You’re quite the mystery man. They’ll dig up your war service soon.” She didn’t tell him that she and Silas were accosted every time they entered or left the hospital and hotel. He would feel even more guilty, and he had quite a lot of guilt over them tending him already.

Scott nodded. “They’ve been trying to bribe the nurses, I know. So far, they’ve said they haven’t told them anything, but everyone has their price, I fear.”

“Well, everyone wants to know about the Hero of Sacramento.”

“What?”

“That’s what the newspapers are calling you and it’s stuck.”

“I’m no hero.”

Victoria patted him on the cheek. “Of course, you are, my dear boy. Now get some rest. I’ll let you know what I find out about Adam Trenton tomorrow.”

*****

It was two days later when Victoria had information for Scott about Trenton’s family. She entered his room and stopped short.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” she screamed at the strange man who was hovering over Scott’s sleeping body.

The man pushed Victoria out of the doorway and rushed out.

Victoria’s cries had awakened Scott and he was trying to rise, no doubt to help her. She ran to his side and made him lie back down. The private nurse hurried into the room.

“Where were you?” Victoria demanded.

“I just stepped out for a moment,” the nurse stammered.

“You’re fired,” Victoria told her. The woman dashed out.

Dr. Bergman entered. “What’s this all about?”

“I caught a strange man in this room bending over Scott. I had no idea what his intentions were. He could have had a gun or some other weapon. Please, look him over.”

“I’m alright, just shaken up a bit. I was in a sound sleep,” Scott complained.

Dr. Bergman still examined Scott. “Everything seems to be fine, Scott.”

“I told you,” Scott glared at him. All the poking and prodding made the pain worse.

“I don’t understand,” Bergman said. “I thought there was someone with Scott at all times. How did that man get in here?”

“And I thought you had better security protocol. How did someone get through the lobby and back here?”

Bergman thought about the question. “They could have come through the back way. Maybe I can get a deputy to guard the back entrance.”

Victoria still looked troubled. “I don’t think we can guarantee his safety, not to mention his peace and quiet, anymore, doctor. I think he needs to recover somewhere else.”

Bergman considered. “I suppose a hotel room…but you’d have even less privacy there.”

“I was thinking more of a ranch near Stockton.”

The doctor gave her a startled look and Scott said vehemently, “No! I can’t impose upon you any further!”

She turned to the doctor. “Is he capable of making the trip?”

“A carriage ride in the city and a train trip should be alright. I’m not certain how you expect to get him to a ranch.”

“No,” Scott insisted.

Victoria ignored him. “I’ll be making arrangements as soon as possible.” At least Jarrod will be happy I’m going home, she thought.

The doctor left, and she sat down in the chair by Scott’s bed. He still wanted to protest, but she cut him off with, “It’s already been decided, dear. Now, do you want to hear about Adam Trenton’s family or not?”

That settled him down nicely. She told him all she knew. Trenton lived on a small, fairly shabby farm with his wife, Clara, and two young daughters. The railroad had offered a meager sum to buy the land for the new rail. Of course, Trenton should have refused the initial offer to drive up the price, but he had agreed to the first sum. Later realizing he had gotten less than he could have, he tried to increase his money by gambling it. That, predictably, had also gone poorly. With little left in his pocket and no farm, he had taken to drink when his appeal to the railroad had failed. He then got it in his head to get the Governor to intervene and force the railroad to reconsider.

“Where is his family now?” Scott asked.

“His wife only recently was told of her husband’s whereabouts and actions. She just arrived for the trial but is sadly too late.”

Scott shook his head. Everything about this situation was about bad timing.

“Do you think I could talk to her?” Scott asked.

“Why would you want to do that, Scott? It can’t do any good.”

“Can it be done?”

“Of course. I’ll just ask Newt to arrange it. He can deny you nothing right now, you know. And after you talk to her, we’ll be leaving for Stockton, so get used to the idea.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Yes, sir, Victoria Barkley was a formidable woman.

*****

Clara Trenton stood before Scott Lancer’s bed with much trepidation. What could the Hero of Sacramento want with her? Perhaps, since he couldn’t get to Adam, he was going to give her the what for.

“I’m sorry for what he did, what my Adam did ta ya,” she managed to squeak out.

“You don’t need to apologize for his actions. You didn’t know what he was going to do, what he was capable of.”

The man was so handsome. He had such a kind and sorrowful look on his face. Clara was glad he hadn’t died from her husband’s stupid, stupid act.

“I wanted to know what your plans are after…” He looked away. “You have no farm. How will you take care of yourself and your daughters?”

How did this man know about her family? And yet, he was so handsome and kind looking, and he had suffered so terribly from Adam’s actions. She thought he might have a right to know, given all that suffering. “I have a sister in Ohio. I thought we’d go back there. She said we was always welcome. She never did like Adam. Never thought we’d last.” She shook her head.

“Can you get back there? I’m sorry, I know this really isn’t any of my business, but I’d like to know if some good can be gotten out of all of this, that I might be able to help in some small way. You shouldn’t have to suffer for his poor choices.”

“What way can you help? You almost died from what he did. You don’t need to help us.”

“Do you have enough money to get to Ohio?”

Clara flushed. Was this man talking about what she thought he was talking about? “I’ll find a way to get some money. You don’t have to worry on it. We don’t need no charity.”

“Don’t you agree you and your girls should leave California as quickly and as quietly as possible, given the nature and notoriety of your husband’s crime?” the man said gently.

Scott Lancer talked real pretty, even if she didn’t understand all the words he used. She got most of it. “Yes, that would be for the best,” she agreed.

“Let me at least arrange for your train trip back to Ohio.”

Clara’s heart fluttered. A train trip! How she would dearly love to travel by train! And the girls would be so delighted. “I couldn’t ask ya ta do that…”

“You’re not asking; I’m offering,” he persisted.

Clara couldn’t speak. Did Scott Lancer know the magnitude of his gift to her and her girls? How it would solve almost all of her current worries? Could she swallow her pride and accept his extremely generous offer? Was her pride worth more than her girls’ well-being? How could she say no to this extraordinary man? It was Adam who was always ranting about his pride and about how he wasn’t gonna take nothing from nobody. Clara was a practical woman. She and the girls were in terrible straits right now all because of his pride and foolishness. She looked at Scott Lancer’s earnest face and nodded.

*****

Dr. Bergman was rewrapping Scott’s right knee into a tighter splint when Silas entered the room and nodded. Scott had sent him on the mission to get Mrs. Trenton on the eastbound train to Ohio with a little something extra for any exigencies that might arise on the trip. Now they were readying him for the journey back to the Barkley ranch. The doctor was reiterating that Scott must keep his leg “absolutely straight with no jostling.”

They were going to try to escape anyone’s notice by going out the back way. The deputy assigned to the back door was going to make sure there were no loiterers there. The Governor had arranged for a private car at the end of the train for his and the Barkleys’ use. Once in Stockton, they had to figure out how to get him to the Barkley ranch. Scott told them of the sling he had devised for Johnny’s transport to Lancer after his fall off Barranca. Victoria told him they had a Mexican hammock that would do the trick nicely, and the doctor had agreed to the solution. Now Scott’s leg was being strapped down firmly to a board almost the length of his leg. He would have to be carried by several men to get in and out of the carriages and train. It was going to be a humbling experience.

All he wanted was to be out of Sacramento and back to Audra. He hated having her see him this way, but she was the only one who could bring him back from the brink of his utter despair. Dr. Bergman had told him he would probably never ride again. The damage to his knee wouldn’t allow it even if they could remove the bullet safely someday. As he handed Scott a crutch, Bergman told him that he would need a crutch or, if he were lucky, a cane for the rest of his life; his damaged knee would not be able to support Scott’s weight. He gave Scott only one crutch because his left shoulder could not be used. It, too, had been irreparably impaired; Scott would have limited movement in his left shoulder joint. Being the Hero of Sacramento, Scott thought ruefully, definitely had its drawbacks. He was crippled for life.

*****

Murdoch saw Tommy ride up and stepped outside to receive the telegram.

“Here you are, Mr. Lancer. Hope Johnny’s doing better. We heard he was real sick.”

Murdoch glanced up from his reading. “Huh? Oh, yes. Johnny’s feeling better now, thank God.” He read the short message from Victoria Barkley again. SCOTT RECOVERING AT RANCH<STOP> COME SOON<STOP> Murdoch was torn. He still didn’t think he could leave Lancer at the moment.

“Will there be a reply, Mr. Lancer?” Tommy asked.

“No, not right now, Tommy.” He flipped the boy a dime for his trouble and went back inside.

Johnny sat wrapped up tight in a quilt propped up on the sofa. He had finally been allowed to get out of bed and he had been eager to get out of his room. “That a wire from Scott saying when he’s gonna come home?”

“It’s a telegram saying that he’s at a friend of mine’s—Victoria Barkley—for a while. It doesn’t say how long he’ll be there.” All technically true, Murdoch congratulated himself.

Jelly entered the great room. “Boss, I seen Tommy come by…”

“Yes. I’ll be right there, Jelly.” Murdoch left quickly out the side door with the handyman. “Victoria Barkley has taken Scott back to her ranch to recuperate,” he told him. Murdoch had reluctantly told Jelly of Scott’s situation days ago when some of the hands had returned from Green River with the rumor that Scott had been shot in Sacramento. Jelly had been instrumental in conveying Murdoch’s wishes that no one else living inside the hacienda should find out that news. Just the day before yesterday they had run off someone who they thought was a newspaperman from the property. Murdoch had been heartened by everyone’s protectiveness of Johnny, Theresa, and Maria by agreeing not to say a thing.

“Boss, I kin go up there and tend to the boy, if you’re a mind to,” Jelly offered.

“No, I don’t think so, Jelly. We’re all spent from Johnny’s bout with pneumonia, you most of all, and Sam said it might come back. No, I want to wait a few days before I decide when I can go. You need to rest up, Jelly. Actually, we all do.”

Murdoch walked back into the great room. It did his heart good to see his younger son out of his sick room and cocooned on the sofa.

“You keepin’ secrets from me? Why’d ya have to leave to talk to Jelly?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch coughed slightly, which he tried to disguise as simply trying to clear his voice. “No secrets. Just ranch business that didn’t need to disturb you.”

Johnny gave a harrumph. “No secrets, huh? You’ve been coughin’ all morning, Murdoch. You better not be comin’ down with pneumonia yourself.”

*****

It hadn’t turned into pneumonia, but whatever it was it was bad enough to send Murdoch to his own sickbed. Johnny had been banned by Dr. Jenkins from getting anywhere near his ill father, and Johnny had cursed his uselessness. However, truth be told, he felt as weak as a newborn pup and he was short of breath if he exerted himself in the slightest. The only good news was that his arm had healed well enough that the splints were off and he needed the sling for only a few more days. The pain from his ribs was also gone. Poor Theresa, Jelly, and Maria, however, were just plum tuckered out from all their ministrations to the Lancers.

Johnny was sitting at the big desk in the great room when Tommy Hines rode in again.

“What’s Scott got to say for himself this time, Tommy?” Johnny asked as he went outside to meet him.

“Oh, now, you know I ain’t allowed to know what’s inside of these things, Johnny,” the boy replied. “This is for your pa, but it sure is good to see you up and about again.”

“Yeah, I’m kinda glad of that m’self, kid.” He gave the delivery boy two bits and walked back into the house.

He tore the telegram open, too curious to read what Scott had to say. He was pretty sure Murdoch was napping upstairs at the moment and shouldn’t be disturbed anyway.

It was only five words long: REPLY WITH DATE OF ARRIVAL and signed by Victoria Barkley. The name sounded familiar the first time Murdoch had mentioned the name. Hadn’t he gotten drunk with a man whose last name was Barkley a few years ago at the Cattleman’s Association in Stockton? Why was this Victoria Barkley demanding that his father go to Stockton? Why didn’t his brother just come home? Johnny had a very bad feeling deep in his gut, and he had learned to trust his gut.

He opened the door to his father’s bedroom. In the far corner Maria sat sewing. He motioned for her to leave. When she closed the door behind her, he shook the sleeping man’s shoulder. “Wake up, Ol’ Man, he said gruffly.

Murdoch woke up slowly. “What?” He saw Johnny looming over him. “What’s wrong, son?”

“You tell me.” Johnny thrust the telegram in his father’s face.

Murdoch struggled to sit up. The change of position always caused a coughing fit, but Johnny didn’t feel like helping him through it. Recovering, Murdoch found the right distance from his eyes in order to read the wire and scowled.

“What’s goin’ on, Murdoch? Why does this Barkley woman want you to go up to Stockton? Why doesn’t Scott just ride home?”

Murdoch sighed as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. “Scott was hurt in Sacramento. Victoria Barkley has been caring for him, first in Sacramento and now at her ranch near Stockton.”

Johnny’s gut twisted. “What happened to Scott? How bad?”

Murdoch tried to answer but was stopped by another round of coughing. Lying back on his pillow, he looked exhausted. Finally, he rasped out, “Underneath the blotter of my desk…everything I know.” He rolled away from Johnny and closed his eyes. His worst nightmare was coming true and he couldn’t face it right now.

*****

Johnny didn’t know how long he’d been staring out of the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk in the great room. The newspaper clippings lay scattered upon the blotter. He felt somehow betrayed by Murdoch but mostly he was scared. Dios! Three bullets! There was only anguish and despair for his brother, who needed to be safely home at Lancer where they could tend him, but there was such anger toward his father. How could he have kept this from him? Why?

He heard Maria step into the room. “I will have dinner ready for you, Juanito, after I take this tray up to your papa.”

Johnny walked over to her, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and said, “I’ll take this up to him. I’ll be back down in a half an hour.”

She nodded and let him take the tray. This next conversation with his father might be the hardest one yet since his return to Lancer. He found Murdoch sitting up in bed anticipating his dinner.

“I thought Maria was going to bring me my dinner,” he huffed.

“I took the tray from her,” Johnny said. “We need to talk, Ol’ Man.”

Murdoch bristled at the tone and the nickname. “As long as it stays civil…” he warned.

Johnny nodded. “When did you find out about what happened to Scott?”

“The day after the shooting.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t tell anyone…you, Theresa, Jelly, Maria, or Cipriano. Nobody knew. Nobody needed to know. You were well on your way to full-blown pneumonia. What good would it have done to tell you? You weren’t fit to be out of bed, much less travel to Sacramento. We were afraid you were going to die. Everyone here was needed to get you through the pneumonia, and we were already almost done in from taking care of your injuries from Barranca. I’m not telling you this for you to feel guilty, son; it’s just the way it was. I wasn’t sure we’d get you through this if anyone left for Sacramento, and that’s a fact. As it was, we barely pulled you through. You know how sick you were, how close we were to losing you.”

“But three bullets, Murdoch! Damn! And not one of us went to help ‘im. I don’t know what he must be thinkin’.”

“Scott’s tough. He survived a year in Libby. He’ll survive this. He’ll understand. And Victoria Barkley is a good friend. I know she’s taking good care of him.”

“That ain’t the point!” How could he make his father understand? “Did you at least tell ‘im why we couldn’t come?”

“There was no time to explain. We’ll explain soon enough when we see him.”

Johnny shook his head. “Too cheap to add an extra sentence to the telegram?”

“I told you to keep it civil, boy,” Murdoch growled at him.

“So Scott’s up in Stockton not knowin’ why his own family ain’t there. He must think we’ve abandoned ‘im. And he still thinks that I hate ‘im. Dios!

“Stop being so melodramatic. We didn’t abandon him. He’ll understand as soon as we get up there.”

Johnny was taken aback at Murdoch’s apparent callousness toward Scott. Come to think on it, the old man never did feel too concerned about Scott’s feelings. Maybe that was because Scott never bucked him the way Johnny did. Scott would just say, “yes, sir, and go about his work. Johnny had admired his brother for that. He always gave an appearance of calm and cool. It wasn’t until they were out on the range that Scott would make any irritation known and never to anyone but Johnny. “And when will that be? It sounded like this Barkley woman was pretty eager to get rid of him.”

“The wire did sound rather demanding about a reply. We’d have to take the stage into Stockton and carriages into Morro Coyo and to the ranch; neither one of us is fit to ride a horse for any length of time,” Murdoch mused.

“I’ll ride as long as I need to.”

Murdoch looked at him sharply. “No, you won’t. If you’re coming with me, you’ll do it my way, you hear me? The last thing we need is you getting sick again.”

Johnny nodded. He definitely was going. “We’re supposed to tell her when we’ll be comin’.”

Murdoch sighed. “I’d say I’m over the hump with this thing, whatever it is. We both need to gain our strength back some before we make the trip. I think I’ll be able to manage to catch the stagecoach Wednesday. What about you?” Johnny nodded. “Tell Jelly to wire Victoria that we’ll be at her ranch either next Friday or Saturday.” That gave them five days to rest up. “And no need to add an extra sentence about why we couldn’t get up to Sacramento. No need to worry your brother about us now just to make you feel better about things.”

“Alright,” Johnny conceded, “but you better be able to go on Wednesday or I’m goin’ without ya, Ol’ Man.”

*****

Audra finished her dinner and excused herself. She walked into the library to keep Scott company while he ate. It had become routine now. They had set up a bed in the library for Scott because the grand staircase was unmanageable for him. The library was also close to the downstairs bathroom. After feeding the Barkleys breakfast, Silas would see to Scott’s needs and bring Scott his breakfast. Then he would dress Scott and help him with his exercises to strengthen his shoulder. Sometimes Scott’s leg would need to be re-splinted. That would leave Scott exhausted, and he would sleep until Audra brought him lunch. Then she would read to him or him to her or merely talk until Scott tired and took another nap. In the evenings, Audra would entertain Scott while he ate supper and afterwards there would be more reading or talking or games until Audra excused herself for the night. Then Silas would get Scott ready for bed and the next day it would start all over again.

Jarrod waited a minute or two to make sure Audra was settled in the library and then said, “I have the findings on our inquiry about Scott Lancer.”

“And?” Nick seemed extremely interested in the results.

“Do we really need that information now? After all, he is the Hero of Sacramento,” Victoria said.

Nick wasn’t going to let it go. “We need to learn all we can about him, Mother. We need to know whether we should protect Audra from him.”

Jarrod waited until he got his mother’s approving nod and began to relay what he had learned. “His mother died in childbirth and his grandfather, who was present at the time, took him back to Boston. He was raised there…”

Victoria let Jarrod’s words wash over her. Many of the facts he was providing she knew already from her friendship with Murdoch. It didn’t matter what Jarrod’s agency had uncovered. She knew from caring for the boy and talking with him that he was more than a suitable match for Audra. She knew Silas was very fond of Scott, devoted to him actually, and that would have been all the recommendation she needed. He had told her of their conversations and of Scott’s generosity to Mrs. Trenton. Scott had confided in him about his year as a prisoner of war, giving him permission to tell her. She knew Scott wouldn’t have felt comfortable telling her of that hellish year, but he understood she deserved to know about the awful scarring as she wiped the cool cloths across his destroyed back in an effort to get his fever down. Even now, she didn’t know whether she could have listened to Scott’s experience in Libby without breaking down weeping. Hearing Silas recount the story had made her shed some tears. Silas had told her of Scott’s early morning coffees in the kitchen with him and that he had told Scott about some of his early life. She didn’t know a lot of Silas’ life before he met up with Tom Barkley before she’d married him. That Scott was able to get Silas talking about himself at all had made her respect the boy even more.

Jarrod was finishing up. “As to his financial status, we needn’t worry that he’s marrying Audra for her money.”

“Not when he has one third of Lancer,” Nick jumped in again.

“That’s the least of it, brother,” Jarrod said a bit irritated at Nick’s near constant interruptions. “On his twenty-fifth birthday he came into possession of a trust fund set up by his maternal grandmother. Her maiden name was Lowell. The Lowells are one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Boston. I’m sure it was a coup for Harlan Garrett to have married into it. In addition, Scott’s the sole heir to his grandfather’s business, Garrett Enterprises, an extremely successful accounting and investing firm.”

“And one third of Lancer,” Nick repeated. “I guess he could buy us out.”

“I don’t have any exact figures, of course, but from what estimates I can gather, he could buy us out three or four times over and Lancer more than twice over. After the railroad magnates, he’s probably one of the richest men in the state of California.”

They all sat in silence pondering what Jarrod had told them. Finally, Nick broke the silence. “So you’re telling us the man lying in our library is a decorated war hero, a graduate of Harvard with honors, and a richer man than we are.”

“And we also know he’s courageous, compassionate, and self-sacrificing.” Victoria could have gone on adding adjectives—well-mannered, kind, generous, handsome—but she decided those three would suffice.

There was another long silence, then Heath said, “Maybe we should think about protecting Scott from Audra.”

*****

Scott leaned his crutch up against the corral post and balanced himself by draping his right arm over the fence. He didn’t know why he was torturing himself this way, gazing at the horses he would never be able to ride. He loved horses. He didn’t have the magic touch that Johnny had with them, but he loved them just as much as his younger brother. He thought of Barranca and his heart broke again. Such a magnificent palomino.

Victoria joined him. “Penny for your thoughts,” she said.

He snorted. “They’re not worth that much, I’m afraid. Just looking at what I can’t have.”

“Maybe you’ll be able to ride again, once the bullet is out and your knee has healed.”

He shook his head. “Dr. Bergman said it’s not very likely.”

“But maybe not forever.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not very good company right now.”

They stood there in silence for a while, and Victoria just let it continue, which Scott was grateful for. He had to gather all the thoughts and emotions that had been swirling around in his head while he lay helpless in his bed. At times he’d felt the same sense of despair that had kept him company for the last months at Libby. He had fallen into self-pity here at the ranch more times than he liked to admit. Then he’d had Audra read some Emerson to him and he would rouse himself out of the pit and try to face up to his limitations. But a few days later he would be back in the pity pit and the cycle would begin again. He had to break the cycle before it spun him out of control.

“I want to tell you how grateful I am for all you and your family and Silas have done for me,” he said. “I shan’t impose on you much longer.”

“We’re so pleased with your recovery. You’ve mastered that crutch quickly. And you haven’t been an imposition, Scott. We’ve been so happy you felt well enough to join us for dinner these past few nights.”

He gave a rueful laugh. “You shouldn’t have had to take care of me at all. I don’t know what’s happened to my family. I wonder if I have one anymore.”

“I’m sure they had their reasons, Scott. Trust them. They’ll be here in a few days and you can ask them then.”

He nodded and then gazed at the horses again. “I’m useless to them now. I don’t know what I can do with myself.”

“You’re not totally helpless, Scott.” She sounded a bit upset with him. “You’ll adapt. Isn’t that what your Harvard education was all about? Teaching you to adapt to whatever situation comes along?”

“How did you know I went to Harvard?”

She hesitated a moment and then said, “Your father told me.” He frowned slightly before his mask of reserve settled into place, and Victoria knew she had somehow lost the amiability of the conversation. He had closed a door on her. She tried to pry it back open. “I know Audra has enjoyed having you back with us for this time.”

This only seemed to deflate him more. “I can’t…I don’t…I wanted to offer her so much. Now I don’t know what to do. She deserves a whole man, not a cripple.”

“Scott Lancer! I hope you aren’t implying I have raised my daughter incorrectly.” The panicked look on his face told her she’d hit the appropriate nerve. “I haven’t raised my daughter to be that shallow, Scott, and if she is, you’d be well rid of her.”

“Victoria, I didn’t mean to imply that. Audra is the most wonderful woman I’ve ever met. I just want to be as wonderful for her.”

Yes, he was smitten all right. “Scott, I think you are an amazing man and that you’ll do great things with your life, and any woman would be a fool not to want you as a husband.”

He turned his face away from her, so she wouldn’t see him blush or tear up. When he’d composed himself again, he said, “Thank you for your support, Victoria. I hope you know it means everything to me. Meeting you and your family has been one of the true blessings of my life. I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me.” His voice faltered on the last few words, and Victoria felt the sincerity of them.

“I’m glad we could help you, Scott. Are you ready to go back in for the night? I could help you,” she offered, nodding at his crutch.

“I think I’ll stay out here a little longer, thank you.”

She patted him on his back and he tried not to flinch. He’d had almost a decade’s worth of training himself to not allow a hand near his back. But she and Silas had touched his gnarly back plenty of times now. They had seen it, knew how he got it, and weren’t repulsed by it...or him. She gave him a light kiss on his cheek and walked away.

Victoria always seemed to know what to say to him. That she thought he could still do great things with his life was what he needed to hear right now. That was the overwhelming desire he had—to do something important with his life, make a difference, even though he didn’t know how to make it happen with this maimed body. He just couldn’t think straight about anything for very long here. As much as he enjoyed Audra’s company, he needed to get away. He needed time away from everything and everyone to concentrate on where he wanted his life to go. He needed to be the kind of man Audra deserved. Taking one last, longing look at the horses, he grabbed his crutch and hobbled back to the house.

*****

It was after mid-afternoon when the stagecoach from Morro Coyo stopped in Stockton. It had been a bone jarring trip and Johnny was thinking it might have been easier to ride there. Murdoch lowered himself heavily from the coach. His back had to be killing him and he still looked a mite peaked from his illness. Johnny had regained some of his stamina, at least, and his left arm was growing stronger by the day.

“Shall we get a room for the night?” Johnny suggested. He didn’t miss the look of relief and gratitude on his father’s face.

“That sounds like a good idea, son. I think I need to eat a decent meal and rest before we head out to the Barkley ranch. I wouldn’t want to pass out while I’m talking to Victoria.”

Johnny thought, what about talking to Scott? He got their bags and they found a suitable hotel. While Murdoch took his boots off and laid down on the bed, Johnny paced nervously around the room, fiddling with every doodad he found.

“Stop that and go have a beer,” Murdoch grumbled at him.

“Now, see, that’s one order I don’t mind obeyin’,” Johnny grinned back at him.

The hotel bar was clean and tasteful, just like their room. The beer was pretty good and colder than the ones down in Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells or Green River. It went down real smooth. But it would have been better if he’d been sharing it with his brother, making snarky comments to each other and giving as good as he got. It was tough being this close and not going all the way out to the ranch, but the old man was spent. There was some good daylight left, though, being it was the latter part of May. He made a decision to see Scott, and the old man could just wait a day. He couldn’t.

Getting directions to the Barkley Ranch was easy. Johnny’s rented horse was a bit pokey, and that was really sad because she was the best of the lot. His mind strayed immediately to Barranca. How he missed riding that stallion! Why did he have to be put down? Why couldn’t they have saved him? How could he have blamed Scott? Cipriano had assured him that Barranca couldn’t have healed from his injuries, that Scott had done the only humane thing he could do, and still Johnny had blamed him. It didn’t make sense, but Johnny couldn’t fight the way he had felt. He wanted to wallow in self-pity and blame anyone but himself.

The large white house came into view and Johnny’s stomach lurched. He hadn’t seen Scott in over a month. He was most parts feeling anxious and a few parts feeling guilty. He hoped Scott had forgiven him for him saying he didn’t want to see him or talk to him. It felt almost like a lifetime ago that he’d said those hurtful words to Scott. Scott, his kind and supportive brother, who didn’t deserve all the abuse Johnny and others had heaped on him for being a Boston dandy greenhorn until they discovered he had an inner core of steel. But Scott had a forgiving soul. He’d forgive him again, just like he’d done countless other times when Johnny had let his mouth fly before his brain caught up to it. Johnny would apologize, Scott would accept it, and they’d go on as brothers as close as they were before Barranca’s death.

Johnny knocked on the massive front door, and it was opened by a thin, distinguished-looking Negro. “May I help you?” he asked.

Johnny removed his hat and stammered out, “I’d like to see my brother, Scott Lancer. I was told he was stayin’ here. I’m Johnny Lancer.”

“Please come in and wait here,” the butler instructed, ushering Johnny into the foyer.

He could hear voices from within the dining room, but he didn’t peek too closely into the room, thinking that wouldn’t be mannerly. He just wanted to be shown where Scott was and hurry up! A slew of people came out of the room and stood in front of him, staring at him. Two women and three men. The women were right pleasing looking, but the men seemed almost hostile.

“Welcome to our home, Johnny,” the older woman said, offering her hand to him. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’m Victoria Barkley.”

Johnny shook her hand. He knew Scott would have found something real charming to say back to her, but Johnny could only stutter out, “Ma’am.” The fellas were staring at him trying to figure out how much of a threat he was, so he looked them over real well, too.

Victoria Barkley introduced them all, but he wasn’t paying too much attention. He just wanted to see Scott, and these people were in the way of that.

“We were just about to have dinner, Mr. Lancer. Would you like to join us?”

“It’s Johnny, ma’am, and that’s real kind of you, but I’d like to see Scott, if you don’t mind.”

“He’s not here,” the guy in black said. Johnny figured if there was any trouble to be had, this guy would likely start it. Then it finally dawned on him that this guy was the one he’d gotten drunk with during the Cattleman’s Association meetings a ways back, and he relaxed somewhat.

Victoria Barkley kinda glared at the guy and said, “I’m afraid Nick is right. Scott left a few days ago.”

“Did he say where he was goin’?”

“No, I’m afraid he didn’t say.”

Finally, the younger gal, who looked like she was just about to bust a seam, said, “What took you so long? Why didn’t you care enough about him to come earlier? Then maybe he wouldn’t have left so soon!”

“Audra!” Victoria Barkley rebuked her.

“Well, miss, I’m sorry it did take so long, but we’re here now, and we’ll find him soon enough.” All Johnny wanted to do now was get out of this house and away from these unfriendly faces.

“Won’t you stay for dinner and we can talk?” Victoria asked again.

That was the last thing Johnny wanted. “No, thank you, ma’am. I’ll just be goin’ back to Stockton. I’ll pick up Scott’s trail from there. Sorry to disturb you folks’ dinner.” He turned and walked out the door.

Nick Barkley followed him out. “I’m sorry about my sister’s outburst. Scott and she…well, let’s just say he made an impression on her.”

“Scott’s an impressive man,” Johnny said, tightening the cinch on his saddle.

“Yes, well, we all get a little overprotective when it comes to Audra’s suitors…”

Johnny swung up onto the saddle. “Nick, if you’re waitin’ for a better man than my brother to come along for your sister, she’s gonna die an old maid.” He turned his plug around and trotted back the way he’d come.

*****

Scott slouched down on the train seat and let the tension slide from his body. Newton Booth had indulged him one last time and arranged a private car for him to San Francisco. Sitting in the station waiting for the train, he had been deluged by people coming up to him and wanting to shake his hand, slap him on his bad arm, or God forbid, even kiss their babies. When would this Hero of Sacramento thing be over? It was embarrassing. Of course, Scott wasn’t ashamed at what he’d done, but he wasn’t particularly proud of it, either. He’d just tried to push the Governor to the floor and was too damned slow about it. He didn’t deserve acclaim for that.

Nevertheless, it had been a productive day in Sacramento. He had visited Dr. Bergman and the man had thrown away the splints. He’d rewrapped the knee in a tight bandage, but at least it didn’t have to be totally straight anymore. Scott thought he could feel the bullet sitting just above the crease in the back of his knee. In any case, losing the splints made sitting a whole lot easier. The doctor had been impressed with the progress he had made with the exercises. He encouraged Scott to continue with those.

After getting some referrals for doctors in San Francisco, it was on to the Governor’s office, where Wendell Adams fussed over him needlessly. The Governor himself was a bit too demonstrative for Scott’s liking, but he endured the extra handshaking and photograph-taking. In his inside pocket was his real treasure—a letter of introduction from Governor Newton Booth to whom it might concern. Scott was hoping that it would open many sought-after doors for him, although the Governor assured him that just being the Hero of Sacramento would be enough to open any door he wanted in the entire state of California. Scott was dubious of that claim. He had wanted to enter and leave Sacramento discreetly, but that seemed impossible these days. Even the hansom driver at the train station had recognized him and drove him around Sacramento for no charge. Scott had left him a sizable tip. After the clamor and hullabaloo at the state house, Scott was glad to be on his way to San Francisco. Perhaps he would be anonymous there.

He’d felt bad about slinking off without a formal good-bye to Victoria or Audra. Grandfather would have been furious with his lack of manners. He’d left letters for them both—one full of thanks and gratitude for Victoria and one full of dreams and a poem for Audra, with a promise to write again when he was settled and had an address. Now he could only hope Langston had received his telegram and would be waiting for him when the train pulled into the San Francisco station.

*****

Murdoch was still in the hotel room but at least he was awake when Johnny got back to Stockton.

“Where’ve you been?” he groused at Johnny.

“You wanna talk before or during supper?”

“During. I’m starved.”

Johnny was, too. They made their way down to the hotel restaurant.

“I paid the Barkleys a visit,” Johnny said after they’d ordered.

“Damn it, Johnny, I thought we were agreed to see them together tomorrow,” Murdoch growled at him.

“Yeah? Well, it’s a good thing for you that I did. Saves ya a trip. Scott’s not there anymore.”

“What?” Murdoch said more loudly than he should have, given their location.

“Calm down, Old Man!” Johnny chastised him, smiling at the irony of flinging those words back at Murdoch after all the times his father had said them to him.

Murdoch acknowledged his breach of etiquette. “Where’s he gone to now?”

“They don’t know, but I think we can find out.”

Murdoch gave a neutral grunt. “I don’t know whether I want to go traipsing all over California for that boy…”

Johnny looked at him incredulously. His father was giving up on Scott this soon and easily? “I don’t know about you, Ol’ Man, but I came here to find Scott, and I’m gonna see my brother eye to eye if I have to go back to Boston to do it!”

Murdoch looked genuinely shocked at that statement. “Do you think that’s where he went? All the way back to Boston? Damn, that Harlan Garrett!”

“No, I don’t think that’s where he went…yet. Let me do a little investigatin’ tomorrow morning, and we’ll decide from there. If you’re too tired to track him down, go back to Lancer. But I’m tellin’ ya, I’ll be goin’ on without ya.”

Murdoch nodded. Their meals arrived and they ate in silence.

The next morning, Johnny spotted Murdoch in the restaurant having breakfast. He grabbed a cup off the buffet and poured himself some coffee.
 
“Scott took the train to Sacramento Wednesday afternoon. We’ve missed the morning train, so I got tickets for the afternoon one. I assume you’re coming with me?”

Murdoch nodded, his mouth too full of sausage to speak.

“And get this! He’s travelin’ under the name of Garrett Lowell.”

Murdoch almost spit out the sausage.

“God damn it! I swear, if he goes back to Boston, I’ll follow him there just to put my hands around that old goat’s neck and wring the life out of him!”

“The name mean something to you?”

 “Well, Garrett, you know where that comes from. Lowell was Catherine’s mother’s maiden name. It’s like the boy has renounced my existence!”

Johnny plucked a strip of bacon off his father’s plate. “I’m not thinkin’ that’s it, Murdoch. The stationmaster said he knew Scott was Scott Lancer, the Hero of Sacramento, even before he wrote down the fake name. Said a bunch of people waitin’ for the train recognized him, too, and pestered him ‘til the train arrived. I think it was just Boston’s way of tryin’ to go inco…incog…”

“Icognito.”

“Yeah, that. It must be tough havin’ everybody know your name, what you look like.”

Murdoch snorted. “You lived it most of your life.”

“But I wanted the reputation, and I’m not modest like my big brother,” Johnny grinned. “Besides, I’m doin’ the world a favor, lettin’ them know what a handsome devil I am.”

Murdoch rolled his eyes.

Johnny snagged another spear of bacon. “Train leaves at three thirty, and just so ya know, I’m havin’ lunch at the cantina.” He gave Murdoch another wide smile and walked out of the hotel.

*****

Even without the splints and with help from a porter, Scott was having a devil of a time disembarking from the train. He landed on his right leg too heavily and the pain shot up to his hip, leaving him breathless. The porter handed him his valise, which his left arm could barely manage. He looked desperately around for a familiar face, trying to get his bearings. Had Langston gotten his telegram? If not, he’d have to find a cab to take him to Langston’s house and hope someone was home who would let him in. He should have wired his friend earlier than he did.

“Scott!”

Thank God. There was Langston Winterford pushing his way through the throng.

“Scott, old boy!” Langston made his way to him and enveloped him in a bear hug that Scott was unprepared for. “So good to see you!”

Scott winced from the pain in his left shoulder. “I didn’t know…I thought my wire hadn’t reached you.”

“Well, it did, and Mary and I couldn’t be more pleased, man.”

Scott’s valise started to fall from his grasp. Damn his weak arm!

Langston picked up on it immediately. “Here, let me take that for you. We were all desperately worried about you, old boy. Mary wouldn’t believe you were the Hero of Sacramento, but I told her it had to be you. You were always the valiant type, saving damsels from distress and such. After all, how many Scott Lancers are there in the world? Of course, when there finally was a picture of you, we knew for sure. But your wounds sounded so distressing. We’ve been praying for you every day.”

“Mary doesn’t mind me staying with you?”

“She wouldn’t have it any other way. She loves you, too, you know. We’re thrilled you’re here with us, absolutely thrilled!”

That was all the conversation allowed, as people started noticing who was standing on the platform and began to surge toward them. “Say, aren’t you…” “Isn’t that…” “I swear I see…”

Langston guided Scott through the crowd, wielding Scott’s valise like it was a saber, although he was mindful of Scott’s limited mobility. Eventually, he pushed Scott into a finely appointed carriage.

“Is that the way it is these days?” Langston asked huffing and puffing from his battle with Scott’s adoring public.

Scott nodded. He felt close to tears. He didn’t know why. Tucked in the carriage and on the way to his friend’s house, he felt he was being whisked away to a safe haven, where he could just be himself. He’d known Langston since they’d been classmates at Phillip’s Academy. Langston had been a year ahead of Scott, but they were boarded in the same dormitory. Scott’s grasp of Latin had been better than Langston’s, and his tutoring of it had made them fast friends when Langston passed the final exam with ease. Langston was outgoing and popular, while Scott had been reticent and shy…at first. Through watching and being with Langston, Scott had gained the poise and self-confidence that had served him so well at school, in the army, and at Lancer. Not surprisingly with his oratory skills, Langston had gone on after Harvard to its law school. Scott had always thought that Langston Winterford sounded like an entire law firm in itself. He wasn’t surprised that his friend was extremely successful in the field. He had trotted after his friend to Harvard, then the army, and back to Harvard after the war, trying his best to live up to his friend’s expectations. All of the Garrett/Lowell family believed Scott had been motivated by pleasing Grandfather. He hadn’t corrected their misconception, but it was Langston’s approval he had sought, knowing all along that Langston’s affection for him was unconditional.

Scott had followed Langston’s enlistment in the Union Army, sharing his hatred of slavery and his ideals of equality. Langston had been wounded in the very first battle he was in. His right arm had been shattered from cannonball debris, and he had lost the last two fingers of his right hand. That hadn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream of law school and practice. Scott needed his wisdom, experience, guidance, and optimism now. Langston Winterford was a lifeline and Scott was a drowning man.

The carriage stopped in front of an impressive looking Victorian mansion near the center of the city. Again, Scott had difficulty alighting. Going up stairs with his crutch was definitely easier than going down them, he was discovering. Scott hobbled up the front stairs, and the front door was opened by a butler. Langston hustled him into the beautifully decorated foyer, where he was met with a squeal of delight and another bear hug from Mary. The Winterford’s were clearly huggers, and the Garrett/Lowell’s were definitely not. But he had always adored Mary, the female equivalent in talent and popularity to Langston. They were destined to marry, and Scott had felt privileged to be included in the wedding party when both bride and groom had many relatives to consider.

“Scott, darling, it’s so wonderful to see you!” she exclaimed. “Please say you’ll be staying with us for a long time.”

“For a while at least, if you’ll have me.”

“Oh, pfft! You’re like a member of our family and loved better than most of them. You’ll stay as long as you like. I’m so happy you contacted Langs.”

And then it was a whirlwind of an evening. He had been seated in the parlor and given food and drink and alcohol and he was telling them everything and they were telling him everything and he felt like they were back in Harvard huddled in one of the dorm rooms after sneaking Mary in and conspiring to change the world. Heaven. Afterwards, Scott paradoxically felt energized and exhausted. He followed the butler, Phillips, up the stairs to the guest room, his crutch clattering noisily on each step.

Mary looked at her husband as Scott struggled up the steps. “I’ll make up a room on the first floor for him tomorrow,” she told him. He looked at her gratefully.

*****

Johnny stared glumly out of the window as the train pulled into San Francisco. At least they were training westward and not toward Boston. That had given Murdoch some satisfaction. They had visited the Governor and learned of Scott’s intentions to go to San Francisco. However, Murdoch had grown more morose and uncommunicative the closer they got to the city, and Johnny had been left to his own thoughts for the last two hours. He knew his father was still suffering from the last remnants of his illness, but that didn’t explain everything, Johnny thought. He was trying to enlist his father’s help in devising a plan to find Scott, but Murdoch wasn’t listening or contributing to the discussion, so Johnny had just let it go. He didn’t know what had the man in such a sour mood. The thought of tracking his brother down in the big city and seeing him again had Johnny strangely invigorated. It was a mystery and a challenge and he wanted to see if he could meet it. Scott had a three day lead on them, but Johnny had come up with several avenues he could pursue tomorrow. He elbowed his father awake. “Let’s go, Old Man.”

*****

After breakfast the next morning, Johnny went to the front desk and asked whether they had the newspapers for the last three days. They did, and Johnny took them up to the room.

Murdoch was just getting dressed. “What’ve you got there, son?”

“The last three days of the Examiner.” He tossed today’s paper at his father. “Here. See if you can find anything about Scott.”

“About Scott?”

“Yeah. Your son. The Hero of Sacramento.”

Murdoch glared at him but started reading nonetheless.

Johnny scanned the oldest of the papers. His eye didn’t catch any mention of his brother. He looked over at his father. Murdoch was leisurely reading the second page.

“Murdoch!” His father glanced up at him. “You’re not supposed to be reading the paper. You’re supposed to be looking through it for mention of Scott.”

“How am I supposed to do that without reading it?” He went back to the article he found interesting.

Sighing, Johnny picked up yesterday’s paper. He skimmed through the civic, financial, and business sections. He almost missed it. It was tucked away in a corner of the society page.

 
Hero in our midst?
Rumor has it that the Hero of Sacramento, Mr. Scott Lancer, has been seen here in our fair city. He was first spotted at the  train station and then getting into the carriage of one Mr. Langston Winterford. This paper will pay for any information regarding our reclusive and handsome young hero
.

“I found our lead, Murdoch.”

His father grunted at him, still engrossed in whatever he was reading.

Johnny walked over to him. “Tell you what, Old Man, I’m gonna follow up on this lead. How ‘bout you read that paper and have some breakfast. I’ll let you know later what I find if you’re still here.”

“I’ll be here, son. My back isn’t up to traipsing up and down these hills yet.”

Johnny nodded, grabbed his hat, and walked out the door. He stopped at the front desk. Had anyone heard of Langston Winterford? They had. He worked at big law firm four blocks over and one block up.

Johnny walked in the cool, foggy morning air and wondered how he was going to charm someone working in a law firm to cough up Winterford’s home address.

In the end, he couldn’t charm anyone. All the people working there were male, and his sexiest smile would have been wasted on all the dour faces he’d seen there. Stymied, he got the directions to The Daily Examiner. He had better luck there. There were a few females in the building. Asking for the society page editor, he’d gotten a male, but a perky female was right on his shoulder.

“Can you give me the address of Mr. Langston Winterford?” he asked straight out. The man told him no and to leave the premises. He gave the gal a little wink and his mischievous grin and sauntered away, throwing her a last look as he walked out the door. He waited by the side of the building and sure ‘nough, she came looking for him a few minutes later.

“You got the address?”

She nodded. He held out his hand for it. “Hey, not so fast. A little tit for tat here.”

Johnny chuckled. He would certainly give her some tat for a little tit. “I might have some tidbits on your hero of Sacramento,” he teased.

“I’ll hail us a cab, and you can tell me a tidbit or two on the way to the Winterford’s,” she bargained.

Johnny nodded. A free cab ride with a pretty lady. That was a right fine bargain.

One they were in the cab and she had given the address to the driver, she sat back and appraised Johnny rather brazenly. “You’re his brother, aren’t you? You’re Johnny Madrid!”

Johnny just tipped his hat. The woman got all flustered and looked toward fainting, but she held on. “You just don’t know how exciting it is to meet you, Mr. Madrid! I’m Mildred Pointer.”

“Pleased to meet you, ma’am, but it’s Johnny Lancer these days.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry!” she stammered. “What can you tell me about your brother…or you? I’ll take any information about either of you.”

Johnny chuckled again and fell silent, hoping against hope that the Winterford place wasn’t too far away. When the carriage began to slow down, he looked out the window and saw a small group of young women standing outside a big house. He prepared to make a quick getaway.

“Oh, no, Mr. Lancer,” Mildred protested, grabbing his arm. “You’re not getting out of here without a tidbit.”

He looked down at where she held his arm and then back up at her with his best Madrid stare. She let go immediately and flung herself away from him.

He leaned toward her and said in his best Madrid voice, low and with a soft drawl, “Here’s your tidbit: Scott Lancer is the finest man I have ever known in all my life. Thanks for the ride.” With that, he got out of the cab and approached the group of girls. “Ladies,” he said, tipping his hat. Then with more confidence than he felt, he swaggered up the stairs and knocked on the front door. He could hear the girls giggling and whispering behind him.

The door was opened by an elderly, elegantly dressed man.

“May I help you?”

“Yeah…I mean, yes. I’m here to see the Winterford’s?”

The man looked at him dubiously. “And who shall I say is calling?”

“Lancer. John Lancer.”

Johnny saw the spark of recognition in the man’s face, then the hesitation, and then the decision. “Perhaps you should wait inside, sir.”

The inside of the house was just as fancy as the outside. Johnny was ushered into the parlor and told to wait. He didn’t know whether that meant he was allowed to sit on the ornate, uncomfortable looking furniture, so he meandered around the room real slow and took in all the pictures and doodads. On the bar was a picture that he assumed were the Winterfords’ wedding day. There, off to the side of the groom, was Scott. Yeah, he was in the right place.

It took a bit of time, but finally, a real fine-looking woman stepped into the room and greeted him. “Hello, I’m Mary Winterford and you must be dear Scott’s brother, Johnny.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he shook her outstretched hand. “You know of me?”

“Oh, yes. Every letter Scott has written to us mentions his delightful brother. He was so excited to find out he had one, you know.”

“Well, I’m looking for him, and the newspaper said he might be here.”

She pouted. “Yes, that newspaper! Now we have people in front of our house all day.” She seemed to collect herself and smiled at him. “I guessed that’s why you’re here. I’ve sent for my husband. I think he might be able to help you more than I. Oh, where are my manners? Would you care for any refreshment?”

“Water would be real nice, ma’am.”

“I’ll have Phillips bring you some. In the meantime, would you mind if I left you alone for a few minutes? I have some important matters to attend to.”

“No, that’s fine, ma’am. I’m sorry to intrude.”

“No, no. Think nothing of it. Excuse me.”

Mary told Phillips to take Johnny his water and then rushed down to the last door on the right. Scott sat on the side of the bed, head in his hands.

“I’m afraid they’ve found you already, darling.” Mary pulled his hands away from his face and held them in her own. “You can blame those nosy newspapermen for it, I’m afraid.”

“How does he look? Does he look alright? He doesn’t look sick or maimed?”

“Well, I don’t know how he usually looks, but I’d say he looks like a prime specimen of maleness. Your letters never said how handsome he is,” she joked. “Are you sure you don’t want to see for yourself? It’s just him, no one else. He looks a little lost and very eager to see you.”

Scott shook his head. “I can’t. It’s too soon. I want to reveal this,” he swept his hand toward his right knee, “in my own time, my own way.”

“Alright, darling.” She gave his hands a squeeze and stood up. “I’ve sent for Langs. Among the three of us, we’ll figure something out. Until then, I have a guest to entertain.” She wanted to give him a reassuring hug, but she knew about his left shoulder now. She kissed the top of his head instead. “It’ll all work out, Scott. I know it will.” His head was back in his hands again.
 
The law firm was not far from the Winterford home. In less than twenty minutes, Langston Winterford was walking in the back entrance to his home, again cursing the notoriety the newspapers had caused, which forced them all through the back way. He stopped by Scott’s hastily arranged bedroom.

“What are your wishes, old boy?” he asked Scott.

“Can you find some way to delay me meeting him? I just don’t think I can see him right now. It’s too sudden, too soon. I can’t find my wits about me.”

“Of course, I can. Leave it to me. I’ll think of something.”
 
Scott grasped his hand desperately. “Thank you, old boy. Thank you.”

Langston headed for the parlor grim-faced. The proud, confident friend he once knew had been reduced to this fearful, broken man in three seconds in Sacramento. He walked into the parlor and saw his wife’s relieved face. The two occupants of the room rose as one.

“Darling!” she said breathlessly. “I’m so glad you could get away. This is our dear Scott’s brother, John.”

Langston held out his left hand to shake and took in John Lancer’s Mexican wear. But then, John Lancer was also the infamous Johnny Madrid. Maybe Scott wasn’t overreacting when he wanted to postpone meeting his brother.
 
“Mr. Lancer, how good it is to meet you! Scott has told us some about you. I must say, his letters are quite colorful.”

Johnny also took inventory. Mr. Winterford looked very much like Scott had that first day in Morro Coyo three years ago except Langston had brown hair and eyes, and he wasn’t as tall as Scott. Very Bostonian. But Scott had taught him that Boston people might be tricky, that there may be more to them than meets the eye, so he wasn’t going to judge as quickly as he did with Scott. The man here might have some mettle to him, too. He was missing fingers of his right hand; maybe he’d been in that Eastern war with Scott.

“I’ll leave you two men to talk,” Mary said. “It was very nice to meet you, Mr. Lancer.”

“Johnny,” he corrected her with a grin.

“Yes, of course, Johnny.” She smiled back at him and then turned to give her husband a worried look. Langston knew she was headed back to Scott.

Langston headed for the bar. “Can I get you something with a little more punch than water, Mr. Lancer?”

“If you’re a friend of Scott’s, you can call me Johnny. And I don’t think I’ll be stayin’ long enough for a drink. I’m just here to find out if you know where Scott is…or if he’s here.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, Johnny,” Langston said, even though Johnny thought that’s exactly what he was doing. He was a pretty good liar, though, way better than his wife. “Scott was here, but he’s not now. He said he had to keep moving to avoid the press. It seems like he’s been dogged by them since the shooting, but I assume you know all that.” Langston was satisfied to see the flinch his last, unkind statement caused. He knew Scott’s family had all but abandoned him, which was why his friend was so afflicted in the back room.

“Do you know where he is now?” Johnny pressed. He was eager to leave these people and be back on Scott’s trail.

Langston considered. “Tell you what. Let me put some inquiries out, see what I can find. If I can track him down, I’ll have Scott contact you at your hotel. Where are you staying?”

“We’re at The Russ House.”

“Very well. You must be prepared for no answer. I may not be able to find him, or he might not want to see you. I’m making no promises here, but I’ll do my best for you.”

Johnny reached his left hand out to shake. “I’m real grateful to you, Mr. Winterford. If you happen to talk to ‘im, tell ‘im his father and me are real anxious to see ‘im. We’ve been real worried about ‘im, and he needs to come home.” He put his hat back on and headed out the grand front door. If Scott were in the house, Langston Winterford could deliver the message: we want you back home with us at Lancer.

Miss Mildred Pointer was still sitting in the cab outside the house. That newspaper must have money to burn, Johnny thought. He walked through a different, slightly smaller group of people at the foot of the stairs and got into the open door of the cab. Might as well ride until he located something familiar and then get out.

“Miss Pointer.”

“Now you know you owe me a better tidbit than that, Mr. Johnny Lancer,” she scolded him with just a touch of wariness.

“Just what is it you want to know?”

“Oh, how about, are you and your brother very close?”

“I’d say we’re real close.”

“Then where were you when Scott was recuperating in Sacramento? The papers said he was being cared for by Victoria Barkley.”

Johnny didn’t care how far he’d have to walk in these hills. He was getting out of this cab. He rapped on the ceiling to get the driver’s attention. “Next block,” he shouted at him. Then he looked at the pushy lady’s face. “Ya see, Millie, I don’t have ta answer those kinds of questions about my family’s life. And if you really wanted to help my brother, you’d leave ‘im alone. He’s a very private person.” The cab stopped and he hopped out, giving her the barest of taps on the brim of his hat.

*****

At the Winterford house, Scott, Langston, and Mary spent a few minutes devising a strategy.

“Do you want to see them?” Mary asked.

Scott nodded. “Yes, but somewhere public would be best, I think.”

“We have an appointment with the haberdasher in a couple of hours,” Mary said. “That’s going to take all afternoon. Tomorrow you have the doctor’s appointment in the morning and the meeting with the mayor in the afternoon. Will that tire you out too much?”

“I hope not. I shouldn’t keep them waiting in San Francisco for too long,” Scott sighed. “Murdoch will want to get back to the ranch that never sleeps, according to him.”

“The ass. He should wait for long as you need him too, old boy. You’re the injured party here,” Langston said, affronted.

Scott shrugged, at a loss for words about whether his father was an ass.

“Dinner tomorrow night, then?” Langston suggested. “They’re staying at the Russ House.”

That got a wry look from Scott. His father was always the frugal one. “Well, I’m not eating there!”

“I’ll book you a table at the Occidental Hotel. It’s just down the street; they can walk from the Russ House. What time?”

Scott smiled mischievously. “Six o’clock sharp! Book it under the name Garrett Lowell.”

“I’m sure the Lowell side of your family would be delighted!” Langston laughed.

“But I think Scott suits you so much better,” Mary said.

“I wonder whether I’ll ever be able to use my real name again in this state.”

“You will, old boy. Write the message and I’ll have one of the errand boys drop it off at the Russ House.”

Mary got the writing supplies and Scott finally decided what he wanted to say.

*****

Johnny tipped the bell boy and opened the envelope. The front of it had Lancer written on it in Scott’s distinctive copperplate. Inside the note read:

Dear Murdoch and Johnny,
Delighted you are here. Please have dinner with me tomorrow night, Occidental Hotel, 6 p.m. Reservation under Lowell.
Warmest regards, Scott

That sounds hopeful, Johnny thought. He handed the note to Murdoch.

“Occidental Hotel! Does he think we’re made of money?” the old man groused.

“Maybe he thought it would be convenient; it’s just down the block,” Johnny countered. “I’m sure Scott’s paying.”

Murdoch grunted. “His money is Lancer money.”

Johnny shook his head. Surely, he knew Scott was independently wealthy. Were those Pinkerton’s worth anything? Johnny was happy he was going to see his brother but bothered that he had to wait a whole day to see him. He’d have to find something to do tomorrow during the day because he wasn’t spending it with the grumpy Old Man.

*****

Scott arrived at the Occidental Hotel a half an hour early. He secured a table in the back corner for Johnny’s comfort. The Madrid in Johnny still liked to have two right angled walls at his back. Johnny would be on his left and Murdoch would sit across from him. Perfect. Scott tucked his crutch behind the edge of a gold damask curtain where it wouldn’t be noticed. He ordered drinks to be delivered at 5:55. Then he pulled out his newspaper so he could hide behind it. His stomach was churning. No matter how many times he rehearsed the evening in his head, he had to admit he had no idea how it would turn out. But he had to tell them the truth: he wasn’t going back to Lancer any time soon.

He had had a good appointment with the doctor Dr. Bergman recommended. Although the doctor thought he could improve Scott’s current condition, he was just as pessimistic as the Sacramento doctor was about Scott making a complete recovery of either his shoulder or knee movement. That prognosis hadn’t been a surprise, but it was still disappointing to hear. It made his new-found resolve to stay in San Francisco easier, though. That resolve was also helped by his meeting with the mayor, William Alvord. After badgering Scott into telling him his experience of the events in Sacramento, they had engaged in a lively conversation about politics and civic duty. After the discussion, Alvord had asked for Scott’s vision for San Francisco. Scott had cautiously described his ideal and Alvord hadn’t laughed. Instead, he told Scott to come back next week and that he might have several positions Scott might want to consider then. Scott had left the mayor’s office with new hope for himself.

Now Scott sat in his new suit made specially for his interview with the mayor and hoped his meeting with his father and brother would go as well as the mayor’s. He had sat with his back to the restaurant to further hide his face, but when the drinks arrived, he transferred over to his chair by the window. He had sat there only a few minutes before he saw Johnny and Murdoch arrive.

Etiquette required that he stand as they approached the table, but he kept his seat because of his knee. He hoped they wouldn’t notice his breech. He held out his hand. “Johnny. Murdoch.” He shook hands with both men.

Johnny took his favorite seat, and Scott winked at him. “Woowhee, brother, you sure did pick a fancy spot!” Johnny acknowledged appreciatively.

“It was close to where you’re staying,” Scott said and saw Johnny shoot his father a look.

“How are you?” he and Johnny both said in unison.

“Fine.” They both answered back. Johnny laughed and Scott grinned. Oh, how Scott had missed his brother! They sat there just grinning at each other for several long seconds until Murdoch cleared his throat.

“I’ve already ordered drinks for you. I hope you don’t mind,” Scott said. “Your scotch is single malt, sir. And I think you’ll enjoy your tequila, Johnny. I don’t think you’ve tasted this brand before.” He raised his glass of Kentucky Bourbon and Johnny and Murdoch followed his lead. “To Lancer.” They all took a sip. Murdoch nodded his approval of Scott’s choice.

Johnny let out a small whoop. “This is mighty fine! Goes down smooth as a baby’s…bottom.”

Scott chuckled. “I’m glad you like it.”

They were given menus and talk quickly turned to the missing members of the Lancer household: Teresa, Jelly, Maria, and Cipriano. After they ordered, a more somber mood took over. Scott knew this was the time to tell his father and brother his plans. He needed to start slowly and not simply present his infirmities to them.

“I need to tell you that I won’t be returning to Lancer in the near future.” He held up his hand to forestall their cries of protest, well, at least Johnny’s. “This isn’t a recent decision; I’ve been considering it for some time, since before the holidays last year, in fact.”

“You can’t be serious, Scott,” Johnny objected, but Murdoch laid a quieting hand on him, and that told Scott all he needed to know. He’d made the right decision. Murdoch would let him go without a fight, as if he were one of the ranch hands.

Scott didn’t know where he got the nerve to face his father squarely, but he did. “I’m sure you know, sir, our relationship has not grown in the past two years.”

“What are you saying, Scott? That I’m responsible for your decision?” Murdoch said defensively.

“I’ve watched how you are with Johnny. I’m glad you’re both enjoying a better and true father/son relationship, but that’s not happening with me. Lately, you use any excuse to get me out of the house.”

“That’s a damn lie.”

“Is it? You seem eager to be rid of me so you and Johnny can go hunting or fishing or whatever other jaunts you have planned.”

“You’re jealous of your brother.” Murdoch accused.

“Perhaps I am a little, a little jealous of the affection you give him. I don’t receive any.”

“Maybe you should give some, then maybe you’d get some.” Murdoch grumbled.

Scott pressed on. “I know you’ve given him family heirlooms, the watch, the knife, the cuff links. I’ve not seen one. And you’ve stopped calling me ‘son.’ I became aware of it during Christmas, and since then I’ve been paying attention.”

“This is absurd!” Murdoch almost bellowed.

“And I haven’t even mentioned that you left me in the care of others when I was in Sacramento with three bullets in me,” Scott said as dispassionately as he could despite the rising anger in his gut. He had promised himself he wouldn’t lose his temper.

“You’re bringing that up here? In public?” Murdoch bristled.

“If you have an explanation for your behavior, I’d like to hear it, sir.”

Johnny sat quietly amid Scott’s accusations. Truth be told, he was rather dumbfounded by them. Murdoch was about to explode, and Johnny had no desire to be caught in the middle of it.

“’Sir’! Do you know how I detest that word? It makes me feel like your commanding officer, not your father. You look so much like your mother. Every day you make me see her face, remind me of her death, and then when you open your mouth, all I hear is Harlan Garrett and his pretentiousness! You whine that I never take you hunting like Johnny. Why would I want to spend three or four days alone in cabin with Harlan Garrett and his distant, aristocratic ways? I’d rather be alone; at least I’d be better company with myself than my aloof, sarcastic, and cynical cold fish of a son! You know what you can do with your ‘sir’!”

Murdoch had started off with a low voice but by the time he came to the end of his diatribe, it had noticeably raised. He looked at his sons’ faces, both agape in shock at his outburst. He had to leave before he’d say anything more he’d regret. He got up and rushed out of the room.

Johnny watched his father leave in disbelief. He looked at Scott and couldn’t bear to see his brother’s stricken face. He grabbed Scott’s arm. “Wait for me here,” he whispered urgently. He ran out of the hotel and easily caught up with his father turning right to head up the street to the Russ House. Murdoch’s back was clearly hampering him.

He tried to grab Murdoch’s arm to stop his progress. “What were you thinking in there, Ol’ Man? I thought we agreed we were going to apologize to Scott. Instead, you cut into ‘im like a knife into a piece of old leather.”

Murdoch’s bulk and momentum were too great for Johnny to stop him. “Be glad I stopped when I did, boy. I could have gone on for quite a while longer.”

Johnny followed along in stunned silence until they were almost to the entrance to the Russ House. Then he grabbed Murdoch’s arm again. “You need to go back and apologize to Scott. Beg his forgiveness.”

“Hrmph! Like he’s ever going to forgive me for leaving him in Boston with the old coot? Every day I see him watching, watching me, waiting to ask the question. ‘Why did you leave me there?’ And I can’t tell him.” Murdoch wrenched his arm out of Johnny’s grasp. “It’s no use,” he said tiredly. “Sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to.”  

“He’s your son,” Johnny hissed at him, but his father just turned and walked away.

Johnny practically ran back to the Occidental. He burst into the lobby in time to see Scott hobbling out of the restaurant with a crutch. For a moment each of them stopped, Scott’s sad and pain-filled eyes locking with Johnny’s surprised ones. Then Scott started hobbling again and Johnny rushed to help him.

“I don’t need your pity, brother,” Scott said through clenched teeth.

“Scott!” Johnny whispered fiercely, feeling hopeless and helpless at Scott’s obviously less-than-fine state.

A bellboy scurried up to Scott. “Can I help you, Mr. Lancer?”

“I need a cab.”

“Yessir! Anything for the Hero of Sacramento!” The boy scampered outside.

Scott sighed. Even teenage boys recognized him. He made it to the front door before he turned around. “You coming, little brother?”

Johnny grinned.

*****

They rode in silence, each one trying to figure out the fiasco at the restaurant alone, until the cab stopped in front of the Winterford house.

“Were you here when I came by yesterday?” Johnny asked with no hint of accusation in his voice, just curiosity.

“Yes,” Scott answered softly and looked away. “I couldn’t face you then.”

“And you can now?”

Scott nodded and tried to climb down from the cab. Again, he put too much weight on his right knee and almost fell. Johnny didn’t rush to his aid. No pity, Scott had said. Scott flipped the driver a Liberty Cap, and he drove the horses away a very happy man.

“Am I welcome here tonight?” Johnny asked.

“Yes. Believe it or not, Lang and Mary were very taken with you. You’ve still got the charm, brother.”

“Ain’t never gonna lose it, brother.” He went to sling his arm around Scott, but Scott stopped him with a raised hand, saying only “shoulder.”

Scott crutched up the stairs and opened the front door without waiting for Phillips. Johnny registered the depth of friendship Scott must have with the Winterford’s to brazenly walk into their house as if it were his own. Mary descended upon them both immediately.

“That was a short dinner,” she observed.

“Yes. It didn’t go as planned,” Scott said sourly.

Mary looked at Johnny and said drolly, “I’m happy to see you survived it.”

Johnny grinned. He was starting to like Mary Winterford even though she hadn’t told him Scott was staying with them. “Barely. I didn’t even get to finish my fine tequila.”

“Does this mean you haven’t eaten?” she asked Scott.

“Yes, unfortunately. I was looking forward to my trout almondine. May we commandeer your parlor for the rest of the evening, old girl?”

“Of course, darling.” She stood on tiptoes and kissed Scott on his temple. “I’ll find some food for you both and then leave you alone for the rest of the evening. Langs and I will find something to do with ourselves.”

“Like get started on that family,” Scott whispered in her ear.

She slapped his arm playfully. “The parlor is yours, gentlemen!” She theatrically waved them into the front room, closing the pocket doors behind them.

For a moment, each man simply stared at the other, drinking in the sight of his brother. Then Scott limped over and grabbed Johnny by the arms.

“I am so happy to see, you brother! I’ve missed you so much!” He pulled Johnny into a tight hug, ignoring the pain that went shooting into his shoulder.

“I’ve missed you, too, brother,” Johnny said, totally surprised at Scott’s uncharacteristic show of affection.

Scott pulled back and held him at arm’s length. “You look good, Johnny, a little tired, perhaps, but good. No aftereffects of the fall?”

“Nothing now. You know, that bruise on my hip turned out to hurt more and longer than my broken arm or ribs.”

Scott, too long standing on his jolted knee, took a seat on the couch. “Johnny, again, I am so sorry about Barranca. You know I would have done anything to save him if I could have.”

Johnny sat opposite of him. “I know. I know. It wasn’t your fault. Everyone told me that, but I just wasn’t ready to hear it, I guess.”

“You asked me to give you time. Has it been long enough? Maybe I shouldn’t ask; everyone grieves at their own pace.”

“Scott, it’s been more than enough. I started missing you the day after you left for Sacramento, seems like. But what about you? Seems like you’re still in pain. Tell me about Sacramento.”

Scott told him what he could about his two days in Sacramento before he became the victim of Adam Trenton and what Trenton’s grievances had been.

There was a knock on the parlor door. Phillips and Mary breezed in with food and coffee.

“We’ll leave you alone from here on out, gentleman,” Mary promised. “Oh, and Scott, darling, Langs has stocked the bar this afternoon, so no need to be stingy there.” She winked at him and pulled the doors shut behind her again.

There were heaps of meats and vegetables and breads, and they dug in heartily. Once their appetites had been sated, Johnny sat back and appraised Scott overtly.

“What’s the doctors got to say about how you’re doing?”

Scott sighed. “It’s not good, Johnny. I can’t ride. The bullet in my leg busted up the inside of my knee and is sitting next to an artery. I’m not supposed to rattle it, so getting down from the cab tonight probably didn’t help it any. They’ll wait until enough scar tissue is formed around the bullet to attempt to remove it, and even if they’re successful removing it, they think I’ll still not be able to ride.”

“Does it pain ya?”

“Every minute of the day.”

“Even just sittin’ there?”

Scott nodded. “You know, I’ve lost Remmie. I’ll never be able to ride him again.”

Johnny saw the tears spring to his brother’s eyes. “Where is Remmie, Scott?” he asked gently.

“With the Barkleys. Could you…would you stop by their ranch and ride him home to Lancer? I can give you directions.”

“I know where they live. I’ll take Remmie home for ya. I promise ya that.”

“You know your way to the Barkleys’?”

“Yeah, rode in lookin’ for ya, but you’d already left for here.”

“They’re good people, Johnny. They took me in, took care of me after…”

“I know,” Johnny said softly. Then he visibly brightened. “Boy, that Audra, she’s sure a looker! A little spitfire, too.”

“Careful, brother. She spoken for. Audra and I are officially courting.”

Johnny heard the pride in Scott’s voice, then saw his face fall. “What’s wrong?”

Scott swallowed hard. “I don’t know if I can be the man she deserves now.” He turned his head, trying to avoid Johnny seeing the anguish in his face. “How can I ask her to marry me, being crippled like this?”

“Ain’t no better man in this world for her, if you want her, Scott,” Johnny said vehemently. “Right now, right this minute how ya are is good enough for any woman.”

“It’s not just the leg. My left shoulder’s damaged, too. The doctors say I’ll never be able to raise my arm above my head. I’m at waist level right now. With exercises, it may go higher, but I’ll never have full range of motion with it.” He looked straight at Johnny. “That’s why I can’t go back to Lancer. What good is a rancher who can’t ride and has a bum left arm? I simply can’t do ranch work anymore. I physically can’t.”

Johnny’s heart broke at the sound of Scott’s agonized voice. “You don’t have to leave Lancer. You can do other things than what needs ridin’ and stuff.” Scott shook his head. “You could do the books. The Old Man don’t like doin’ ‘em anyways,” Johnny suggested. “And there’s stuff in the tack room and around the house that always needs doin’.”

Scott snorted. “You mean Jelly’s jobs? Hell, I can’t even do Jelly’s chores. I can’t drive a wagon. You know how much leg strength handling a team demands. And I can’t reach higher than my shoulder if I’m lucky. I can’t even do the things Jelly does. Is that what you want for me? Second fiddle to Jellifer Hoskins?”

“Well, no…”

“And let me tell you another thing,” Scott went on, hardly taking a breath. “Those books? I have no idea why Murdoch has so much trouble with them. They’re not hard at all. In fact, if I did them every day, it would take me ten or fifteen minutes to keep them current and accurate. He pours over them for damn near hours. Why?”

“There’s usually a mistake somewhere.”

“Well, when I do them, there are no mistakes.”

“No, siree,“ Johnny agreed. “You’re real good with them books, and your numbers always look real pretty. See, we need you to do the books, brother.”

“And what do I do the other nine hours and forty-five minutes of the day?”

“We could think of something.”

“Johnny, I had hours upon hours lying in bed to think about what I could do at a ranch with this body. It’s not much, and what there is, I don’t want to do with my life.”

“Scott, you’re my brother. I was gettin’ used to you havin’ my back. I just want ya home with family, with me, where you belong. At Lancer.”

Scott grabbed his crutch and limped over to the bar. “Drink?” The word almost caught in his throat. It was what Murdoch had said to them that first day, when he wanted to avoid unpleasant conversation.

Johnny nodded with a slight smile, and Scott knew he was remembering that moment, too. “Don’t s’pose they got any tequila, huh?”

Scott looked over the bottles. “Doesn’t look like it.” He snatched up a brown bottle and peered at its label. “Oh, but this is a very fine brandy. That’s what I’m going to have.”

“I’ll join ya, then.”

Scott poured two glasses for them, and Johnny got up to manage both glasses. Scott settled back down on the sofa and tucked his crutch out of the way. Johnny handed him his snifter.

Scott took a good-sized sip of brandy and let the smooth warmth flow into his battered body and give him the strength for continuing. “I guess we ought to discuss the issue of whether my family is at Lancer, Johnny.”

Johnny hung his head. What could he say to Scott about Murdoch’s outburst? He could barely think on it himself. What must be doing to his brother? It tore his heart out. “I can’t begin to tell you what Murdoch was thinkin’, sayin’ those awful things to ya.”

“I’m not asking you to defend him, Johnny.”

Several long seconds elapsed before Johnny said, “You really noticed all them things, Boston?”

“It took me a while, but yes.” Scott studied the brown liquid in the exquisitely cut crystal. “Johnny,” he said very quietly, “Why didn’t anyone come up from Lancer to care for me after I was shot?”

Johnny blew out a long breath. “Y’see, that’s the whole reason we were followin’ ya, Scott, to apologize for leavin’ ya there, for havin’ the Barkleys look after ya. Seems after you took off to Sacramento, I did something foolish. Not quite sure what it was, but it got me real sick. When you were shot, Murdoch said I was gettin’ bad with pneumonia.”

“My God, Johnny!” Scott said in alarm. “Are you completely recovered? I thought you looked tired. Should you even be here?”

“Calm down, Scott. I’m alright. Well enough,” Johnny soothed. “But then the Old Man got sick—not pneumonia—but pretty bad. We came when we were able, but you’d left the Barkleys by then.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny,” Scott said sincerely. “Victoria told me about your telegram. I knew you were coming at the end of the week. I felt panicked about seeing you. I didn’t know if you’d forgiven me yet. I was angry at Murdoch for not sending anyone from Lancer and embarrassed that the Barkleys had to take care of me and Audra having to see me as an invalid. I felt lost and just had the overwhelming urge to get away. Have you ever had the feeling you just had to leave and put some distance between you and the rest of the world?” Johnny chuckled softly and Scott smiled. “Of course, you have.”

“Yeah, I’ve done that a time or two, brother, as you know. I guess you got the right to do it once.”

“I’m tired of always being the responsible one, the sensible one.”
 
“Well, if you ain’t gonna be that, Boston, which one of us will?” They smiled at each other. “Come back to Lancer with me, Scott,” Johnny prodded one more time.

Scott sobered and looked at Johnny, noticed that his brother’s eyes were so much bluer than his own. He wondered if he was Murdoch’s son at all, his own eyes were so pale blue and had a grayish cast to them. “Tell me how I can have a meaningful life at Lancer, Johnny. Not one spent in the tack room, or feeding chickens, or oiling squeaky door hinges. I’m not going to waste my life, brother. I want to leave a ripple in this world when I pass.”

Johnny gave Scott a rueful smile, remembering his brother’s words to him when he had left Lancer with Wes. “Will you let me ponder on that, Scott?”

Scott drained his glass and nodded. “When are you leaving San Francisco?”

“I don’t rightly know, but not before tomorrow’s afternoon train back to Sacramento. Can I come back here to visit you?”

“Yes. I’ll be here all day. No appointments or plans. Come whenever you want.”

“And if the Old Man wants to see ya?”

“I don’t think I’ll be ready for that anytime soon.”

“Even if he wants to apologize to ya?”

Scott let out a disbelieving laugh. “Murdoch Lancer doesn’t apologize, remember? The past is the past.” He sighed. “Even if he did, I’m not ready to hear it right now. I’ve got some pondering of my own to do.”

Johnny stood up and put his hat on. He gave his older brother, the brother who meant everything to him, a meaningful look. “I don’t want to lose you, Scott.”

“You will never lose me, John. Never.”

*****

Johnny stormed into his hotel room to find Murdoch in a chair staring out the window with a drink in his hand.

“You better have somethin’ real good to say for yourself, Ol’ Man.”

Murdoch turned to face his younger son. “You’ve been talking to Scott?”

“Yeah. You hurt ‘im real good, Murdoch. Right to the core, I’d say. If that was your intention, you did a right fine job of it.”

Murdoch scrubbed his hand over his face like he was trying to wipe cobwebs off it. “I never meant to say those things to him.”

“Huh. But once ya said them, ya meant them, right?”

Murdoch hung his head.

“Do ya hate ‘im, Murdoch? Do ya hate Scott?” Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch’s response was immediate. “No! No, I don’t hate him. It’s just…when he calls me ‘sir,’ it’s started to irritate me so much lately. For God’s sake, it’s been three years!”

“Murdoch, Scott always says ‘sir’ to men older than ‘im. It’s like breathing air to ‘im, natural. He just does it without thinkin’ about it. Prob’ly something old man Garrett beat into ‘im when he was first learning to talk.”

“Harlan! Another thing to hate him for, as if there weren’t enough already.” He downed the rest of the liquor in his glass and got up and poured another three fingers of scotch.

Johnny sat down on his bed and threw his hat aside. “Y’know, Harlan ain’t one of my favorite people after all he did when he visited Lancer, but with you, it goes deep. What’s he done to ya, Murdoch? Why do ya hate ‘im so much?”

Murdoch laughed as he took another large sip. “The list is too long, Johnny, and would take all night.”

“Well, we got all night, Ol’ Man.” Johnny waited until the silence was unbearable and it was clear that Murdoch wasn’t going to answer his question. “Then just tell me one thing—the one thing I asked you when Garrett was at Lancer. Why did ya leave Scott in Boston, particularly when ya hated Garrett so? It makes no damned sense, Murdoch!”

Murdoch shook his head and examined his scotch intently. “No, Johnny. I’m not going to tell you that, especially when I haven’t told Scott.”

“But ya ain’t never gonna tell Scott, are ya?”

“Not if I can help it, no.”

Johnny jumped up and paced around the room. “But that’s what he wants to know, needs to know! That’s what’s keepin’ ya apart. Have ya told ‘im anything? Anything about his ma?”

Murdoch shook his head.

“Why not?”

“He never asked.”

“Don’t give me that shit, Ol’ Man!” Murdoch growled a warning at the use of profanity, but it didn’t deter Johnny. “Why’re ya layin’ this all on Scott? You’re the parent. Scott shouldn’t have to beg ya to hear a good word about his mama. You ‘n me, we’re always jawin’ about Maria.” Johnny stopped cold, the reality of Scott’s perceived exclusion hitting him full force. He almost physically ached for his brother. “What did ya call ‘im, anyway? I know sarcastic, but aloo and sin…sinful?”

“Aloof. It means distant, keeping people at arm’s length. And it wasn’t sinful, it was cynical. It means distrustful of others, always thinking other people’s motives are shady.”

“Scott?” Johnny said incredulously. He blew out a calming breath and said evenly, “Murdoch, those words, well, they don’t describe the brother I know. Just the opposite I would say. He’s kind and too trustin’ of others.”

“He’s different around you.”

“Maybe because I took the time to get to know ‘im. You should try that sometime, father.”

Murdoch finished off his alcohol and reached to refill his glass. Johnny grabbed the bottle away from him. He wanted to smash it against the wall, but he put it on the table by his bed instead. He had no idea how much Murdoch had to drink before he came in, but his father was clearly quite drunk. Murdoch looked at him, his face a mask of despair. Johnny didn’t know if it was because of the loss of his first-born son or the scotch.

Murdoch sat back down heavily. Neither one spoke for quite a while. “I’ve lost him, haven’t I?” Murdoch said at last. “I lost that little five year-old boy. Did I ever tell you that? That I went to see him in Boston? It was Scott’s fifth birthday. Harlan refused to let me see him, although he finally relented, and I got to see Scott and shake his hand as Harlan introduced me as a friend. Friend! Harlan said it was his one moment of weakness.”

“Why didn’t ya just grab ‘im and run?”

“Don’t you understand? I couldn’t wind up in jail. I wouldn’t be able to get back to the ranch, get back to looking for you and Maria. Harlan would have seen to it that I was locked away for a long time. I couldn’t afford the price of a good attorney in Boston, not against the Garrett name and fortune.”

“Scott needs to hear this. Why won’t you tell ‘im?”

Murdoch sighed. “At first, I did it for his sake. I knew Scott loved his grandfather. The man raised him. I didn’t want to destroy that love or have Scott resent me for destroying it.”

“But now Scott knows what a low-down weasel his grandfather is. He’s…cynical…about ‘im. It wouldn’t surprise ‘im no more. Why doncha tell ‘im now?”

“Truth?” Murdoch stumbled over and pulled out a bottle of something from his valise. “Truth is now I’m ashamed of myself, that I didn’t try harder to bring him home.”

“Ya spent all your money tryin’ to find me ‘n mama.”

Murdoch nodded. “At least I knew Harlan was giving Scott every material thing he needed.”

“Murdoch, you gotta get over your shame or your pride and just tell ‘im.”

“He’ll hate me. Think I’m weak.”

Johnny burst out laughing. “I don’t think ya gotta worry about that now, Ol’ Man. He’s got about as low of an opinion of ya right now as he’s ever gonna get.”

“What can I do? How do I fix this?” Murdoch’s voice sounded lost, broken. “You’re seeing him tomorrow, right?” Johnny nodded. “I could come with you…”

“No!” Johnny interrupted that train of thought immediately. “He made it quite clear I was to come alone.” But he wanted to do something to help his father. He had never seen him so full of remorse. “I could take somethin’ for ya, if ya wanted to write somethin’ down,” he offered.

“Yes. That’s a good idea, son. I’ll write an apology.”

Johnny nervously fidgeted with the beads around his wrist. “There’s somethin’ else ya need to know about, Murdoch. Scott’s all busted up from them bullets.”

“What? He looked perfectly fine to me at dinner.”

“That’s what he wanted us to think. Truth is, he can’t ride no more or do any kind of work that needs doin’ on a ranch. That’s why he’s stayin’ here.”

Murdoch sat deflated for several minutes. “Tell me about his injuries,” he finally said quietly.

“Well, the first bullet went in and out his side. That’s all healed up proper. The second bullet went into his shoulder. It’s still in there, lodged in his joint. He can’t raise his left arm hardly at all. The last bullet, the one that went into his leg, busted up his knee real good. It’s still in ‘im, too. That’s why he can’t ride no more. Even if they take it out, the doctors don’t think he’ll be able to ride. Murdoch, he can’t even walk without a crutch. Doctors say he’ll need one the rest of his life.”

Murdoch buried his head in his hands, more ashamed of himself than ever. His son was permanently injured, and he had said all those hurtful things…

“Scott said he’d think about comin’ back if we could come up with somethin’ he could do at Lancer—somethin’ meaningful to help us and not just odd jobs and such. I’ve been workin’ on it, but nothin’s come to mind. Maybe you could think on it, too.”

“I will, Johnny.”

“Good, cuz I want ‘im home with us. Maybe I should say ‘home with me’ cuz I don’t know when he’s ever gonna talk to you again.” Johnny took off his boots and laid down on his bed. He thought he was too worried to sleep, but apparently the two intense conversations took more out of him than he thought. He soon drifted off.

*****

There was a bigger crowd of people outside the Winterford house when Johnny’s cab pulled up in front of it mid-morning. He stepped out and everyone seemed to gasp as one. Several people pulled back in fear as he moved toward the front steps. A couple of girls squealed in fright. He tipped his hat politely to both sides as they parted in front of him. He climbed the stairs and the front door was magically opened by an agitated Phillips as he crossed the porch.

He entered the foyer, grateful to be inside, away from the idiotic throng. Mary practically ran down the hall and pounced on him.

“Johnny, can I talk to you alone for a few minutes before you see Scott?”

Johnny nodded, and she led him into the parlor.

“Did you talk to Scott last night?” he asked.

“Yes. He told us about dinner, not about what you and he said here. He was devastated. Johnny, do you have any idea why your father said those awful things?”

“No. ma’am, I don’t.”

“Well, Scott was devastated, devastated, I tell you!”

Yeah, Johnny got the picture. Scott was devastated…whatever that meant. He figured Scott was real torn up about it all.

“Langston and I tried to console him, but I’m afraid he had quite a bit of brandy last night and he’s looking the worse for it this morning. I just wanted to prepare you for it when you see him. Poor dear!” She wrung her hands.

Johnny didn’t know quite what to say to Mary. She was one dramatic woman. But he found out he didn’t have to say a thing. She just went gallivanting on.

“Aloof! Cynical! Oh, Johnny, if you had known Scott before the war. If you could see him the way Langs and I do as that carefree, witty, and gay boy before the war. He was always laughing with us, the golden boy who excelled at everything he did.”

Johnny, indeed, would have loved to have seen Scott then, known Scott then. Carefree was definitely not a word he’d stick on his brother since he’d known him.

“But then that damned war came along. Oh, I know I shouldn’t swear in front of you, Johnny, but it was a damned war. Maybe I can pretend I’m just describing it. Scott changed then. The war changed them all. Well, you’ve probably have seen what it did to Langs, his arm and all. I’d like to think that I helped my husband regain some of his joie de vivre. But he got injured in his first battle. Not like Scott. Scott endured so much more, all those battles and then prison, and when he came back…

“When he came back, he had no one to rely on. Oh, his grandfather made sure he had all the finest doctors, but that isn’t enough, is it? You need more than that when you’ve lived through hell. When Langs and I first saw him when he’d come home, why, we could barely recognize him, he’d changed so. He looked like a corpse, a skeleton. And he was so lifeless, so listless. You have to realize, Johnny, this was Scott, our light-hearted boy reduced to a shell of a man.

“He’s never been light-hearted since. So serious, so reserved. He threw himself into his studies like he never did before, like his life depended upon it. Maybe in a way it did. Getting his degree gave him a purpose for a while. Then came the self-destructive behavior, the womanizing. Yes, we could not recognize him. And to become engaged to Julie Dennison? That ice maiden? It made me sick at heart, I tell you. I was never so happy as when I learned they’d broken it off.  When we got his first letter from Lancer, we felt our first rays of hope. It sounded so much like the old Scott, the ante belllum Scott, the Scott we’d prayed for. I think finding he had a brother and that it was you, Johnny, well, that’s made all the difference for him. He’s finding his way back to himself. Please help him now, I beg of you.”

Johnny just stared at her. He didn’t understand some of her fancy words, but he got it: Scott was hurting and she hoped he’d fix it. He would try.

“Oh, mercy me, I’ve just been going on and on. Forgive me, Johnny, for keeping you from your brother. I just wanted you to know. Langs and I love Scott like family, and we only want the best for him.”

Johnny believed her. He was glad his brother had friends like these, especially when ‘loved like family’ didn’t seem to mean as much at Lancer anymore.

“Ma’am…Mary, thank you for tellin’ me all that you have. I’d like to see Scott now.”

“Yes, of course.” She got up and led him across the foyer to the other side of the house. Opening the pocket doors, she revealed a very formal dining room in rich blues and Scott sitting at the head of the large, beautifully polished wooden table nursing some coffee. A plate piled high with breakfast foods lay virtually untouched at his elbow.

“See if you can get him to eat something, Johnny,” Mary whispered to him as he entered the room, and she pulled the doors shut again.

Scott looked up at him and smiled. Scott smiled most every time he saw him. Johnny would miss that sorely if Scott didn’t come home with him. It did a body good to start the day with someone smiling at you. “Johnny! Sit down! Can I get some breakfast for you?”

Again, Johnny was surprised at how comfortable Scott felt in this house. He’d be ordering the Winterford’s around in a day or two. He peered at his brother and couldn’t miss the clear signs that Scott was suffering from a mighty hangover. He was drawn and pale, and Johnny guessed he had a whopper of a headache.

“I ate hours ago, brother. You returnin’ to your Boston ways already?” Johnny teased.

Scott ignored the jibe. “I’ve just been reading the paper, brother. Seems there’s this fascinating story about a harrowing cab ride with Johnny Madrid.” He pushed the newspaper toward his brother. “It’s written by a Mildred Pointer?”

Johnny groaned and sat down while Scott got up to pour him some coffee.

“You know this woman?”

“She was the price I had to pay to get me to this house,” Johnny explained. “What’s ‘harrowing’ mean, anyway?”

“Scary.” Scott placed the cup beside Johnny’s left hand. “I’m assuming that story is the reason for the larger than usual crowd outside today.”

Johnny snorted. “Ol’ Millie was the scary one. She grabbed my arm.”

“So she says. She does give an accurate description of your Madrid stare.”

Johnny read further. “She does at that, does it justice, but she doesn’t say how mighty handsome I am,” he mock complained.

“Keep reading.”

He did. “Here it is at the end. Why’d she wait that long?”

“Saving the best for last?”

Johnny laughed. “I reckon so.” He pulled an envelope from his jacket. “This is for your reading pleasure.”

Scott took the envelope and opened it. He scanned the note inside and threw it down. “You read it?”

Johnny shook his head. “Murdoch gave it to me at breakfast already sealed.”

Scott pushed it over to his brother.

Scott,
I deeply regret my words to you last night. Please accept my profound apology. I beg your forgiveness.
Murdoch

Johnny didn’t know what to say. “For a man who don’t apologize, it’s somethin’ at least.”

“It’s something alright.” Scott didn’t seem impressed. “The salutation and valediction are pretty much in absentia, and I think that says all that needs saying.”

“Scott, speak English. I didn’t understand a word ya said.”

“The salutation is the beginning of the letter, usually begun with a ‘dear.’ You’ll find that glaringly missing. Why would he want to call his aloof son ‘dear’ when clearly said aloof son is not dear to the man? Even though in a letter, one puts ‘dear’ in front of the names of people one doesn’t even know as a courtesy. The valediction is the closing words of a letter, such as ‘sincerely’ or ‘yours truly.’ I selected ‘warmest regards,’ trying to indicate my warm feelings toward you both in my invitation to dinner. Sadly missing again from our father. Obviously, he couldn’t muster up a warm regard for me, either. All in all, a quite impersonal apology.”

Johnny thought he was starting to understand the “sarcastic” and “cynical” words applying to his brother. Nevertheless, he agreed with him. “Yeah, maybe the Old Man shoulda put a little more effort into it. That mean you’re not gonna forgive him?”

Scott snorted indignantly. “Not for the time being.” He started to dig into his breakfast like a starving man: attacking eggs, bacon, and muffins.

Johnny just watched him eat for a while. He didn’t want to distract Scott from his battle. Mary would be pleased he was eating at any rate.

Finally, Scott began to slow down. “You figure out something for me to do at Lancer besides shit work?” He didn’t look up at Johnny.

“Nothin’ you would find ripplin’.” Johnny admitted.

Scott nodded, still focused on his plate. He focused on it for a while. Finally, he said resignedly, “Don’t forget Remmie.”

“I won’t.”

Scott grabbed his crutch and lumbered to his feet. Johnny stood, too. They looked at each other somberly for long seconds.

“I don’t wanna say good-bye, Scott. I feel like if I say it, it’ll be the last time I’ll see ya.”

Scott limped over to his brother. “No, it won’t, Johnny. I’ll visit Lancer and you’ll come to San Francisco. We’ll see each other, and between times I’ll write you long letters, and maybe you’ll write me back.”

Johnny gave him a half-smile. “Maybe. But it won’t be the same as seein’ ya everyday, drinkin’ beer with ya, playin’ poker with ya, and flirtin’ with the pretty girls.”

“I know, but maybe you’ll have a chance with some of those girls, now that you won’t have me as competition,” Scott teased, and Johnny knew this, this easy bantering between them, would be what he would miss the most. “Good-bye, brother,” Scott said meaningfully.

Johnny just turned and walked out of the door.

 

 

Epilogue

Johnny leaned up against a post of the Barkley corral and watched Scott talk with Jarrod and Heath across the way. Scott looked so loose, so relaxed at this moment, it was hard to recognize him as the same man who stepped off the stagecoach with him thirteen years ago in Morro Coyo in his absurd plaid pants and bowler hat. Someone must have said something funny because Scott laughed. Openly and unreservedly. Johnny was reminded of what Mary Winterford had said ten years ago about the Scott who hadn’t gone to war yet. Light-hearted, she had said. That’s how Scott seemed at this moment—light-hearted. Maybe this was a glimpse of the pre-war Scott.

Nick came up beside him. “Another four years of Senator Lancer.”

Johnny nodded. This was why he had come. It was a celebratory party of Scott’s re-election to the California legislature. Murdoch elected to stay at the ranch. The party was winding down now, almost all the guests had left or were leaving.

“I’m sorry the rest of your family couldn’t make it. I know Scott was disappointed.”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, about the only thing my kids will share is being sick, and then they’re real generous.” They both laughed.

“He’s a good man,” Nick said seriously.

“Don’t have to tell me. I know it. Longer than you.” Maybe that was what irritated Johnny—how easily Scott had been absorbed into the Barkley family. He was more at ease here than at Lancer, where he and the Old Man were still pussy-footing around each other. It had gotten better once Scott and Audra had started providing Murdoch with grandchildren, but it seemed that Scott was still wary that at any moment more meanness would pass his father’s lips. Johnny couldn’t blame him.

Johnny had stopped asking Scott whether Murdoch had ever told him he loved him. It only made Scott sad. Johnny had heard Murdoch say he was proud of Scott on more than one occasion. Grateful as he had been to hear that, Scott admitted those weren’t the words he wanted to hear. Harlan had told him he was proud of him, but he never said he loved him. Scott said his grandfather thought anything like love, affection, or physical contact was forbidden between males, so his grandfather had never told him he loved him. That made Johnny sad. Strangely, Scott’s departure had benefitted Johnny. Murdoch, probably scared his only remaining son might leave, had eased up on Johnny considerably. The Old Man was always throwing one of his arms around him or giving his shoulder an affectionate squeeze. Johnny didn’t doubt that his father loved him. They had grown into a real partnership with the ranch, which had diversified under Scott’s prudent suggestions into a bigger, financially more stable empire than any of them could ever have dreamed of thirteen years ago. But Murdoch still hadn’t taken Scott on a father/son outing.

Scott had no such hurtful history with the Barkleys. They accepted him as he was, Boston manners and all. His history with them had been one of caring and understanding. No wonder he’d rather spend his time at this ranch rather than at Lancer. Scott would spend two or so months at Lancer in the summer before his family would head back to San Francisco. Early on, Scott had tried to give Johnny his share of the ranch, but Johnny wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t want Scott to give up his heritage. It would have felt like Scott was renouncing his brotherhood.

Ten years ago, Scott accepted a job as “special advisor” to the mayor, and he was so good at solving problems that the subsequent mayor had kept him on. Eventually, though, Scott convinced his grandfather to invest heavily in the West. Now he headed Garrett Enterprises in San Francisco and a trusted cousin handled the Boston side of the company. It was enough for ol’ Harlan to keep Scott on as his heir with a few modifications to the will—the cousin got Harlan’s house and a few other Boston niceties; Scott inherited the company. Scott went back to Boston every other year just to make sure things were going right.

In a stroke of genius, Scott also persuaded Harlan to start up and fund a charitable organization, the Garrett Foundation, which Audra directed with the occasional help of her husband. They were making lots of ripples with their charity. Although Harlan had no inkling of it, the Foundation was dedicated to helping minorities in San Francisco. Murdoch had called it “ironic” and was pleased as punch that Scott had hornswoggled the old goat to putting up principal money for all those people who would have appalled Garrett’s racist heart. Johnny knew Scott felt quite proud of himself for pulling that off. Scott and Audra weren’t just making ripples into the future, they were making waves, first in San Francisco and now in the entire state.

Scott’s big concern was sanitation. Johnny didn’t even know what that was until Val told him it was about human waste. So Scott was doing shit work, quite literally. Johnny’d had a good laugh about that and was always making fun of Scott about it, until Doc Jenkins had told him what a serious problem poor sanitation was and that Scott was saving thousands of lives with his work. Johnny had saved some lives here and there over the years but not thousands.

“Uncle Johnny! Uncle Nick!” Eight-year-old Ian Thomas came careening around the corral and almost ran into them. And where Ian Thomas was, not far behind would be Jordan Garrett, the six-year-old spitting image of Scott. Where Ian Thomas was big for his age and all rangy with lanky arms and legs—Murdoch’s stock finally coming to the fore, Jordan was slight and slender. They both were blond and blue-eyed like their father. “Tommy found a snake! It’s a big’un! Come see!”

Johnny looked over at Nick. “Tommy’s your nephew, not mine.”

Nick stood up reluctantly. “Okay, boys, let’s see whatcha got.”

Left alone again, Johnny continued his brother-watching. Victoria came up quietly behind Scott and laid her hand gently, casually on his back. Johnny had been astounded the first time he had seen that happen. Scott wouldn’t let any man’s hand touch his back even now, but he let Victoria and Audra do it. Must be because they were women and that Scott loved them. Victoria took Scott’s glass out of his hand and gave it to Heath. The she gently pulled him away from his conversation with his brothers-in-law and led him toward the house. Scott’s limp was greatly improved, and the cane seemed like a natural part of him now. It had come in handy a few times in Morro Coyo’s saloon, Johnny fondly remembered.

The doctors had been able to successfully remove the bullet, and the pain in Scott’s knee diminished considerably. It still afflicted him if he stood too long on it, but he could stand on it much longer now than ten years ago. The first time Scott was at Lancer after the operation, he had asked Johnny to saddle Remmie. Johnny had helped Scott get his right leg situated in the stirrup, and Scott had ridden the horse around the corral with near tears of happiness. Scott soon found out that he could ride only for a short time and only at a walk. It still was an accomplishment for someone who was told he would never ride again. Johnny found a beautiful spot about an hour’s ride from the hacienda. He built a little line shack there, and every time Scott would visit, they would ride to it and spend a few days alone just being brothers. Their bond was still strong, although Johnny knew their relationship wasn’t the same as it would have been had Scott stayed at Lancer. He still felt a pang of guilt for having been the cause of Scott’s departure, for forcing him to leave for Sacramento, for getting him shot, even though Scott had absolved him by saying that he could have stayed at the Barkleys’ longer or left sooner. The shooting had been an accident of time and place—nobody’s fault except Adam Trenton’s and he’d hanged for it.

Audra was coming out of the house, swollen with their fourth, and she vowed their last, child, little Katie Vee clinging to her skirts. The three-year-old ran to her father when she saw him. Scott scooped her up with his left arm, laughing. He wouldn’t be able to hold her for terribly long with that arm, but Johnny knew he would hold her, cherishing her, for as long as he could.  His father may have never told him he loved him, but by God, Scott let his children know he loved them every day. Victoria laughed, too, and Audra reached up to give Scott a kiss. Johnny knew she loved his brother as a husband, a father, and as a mentor. He had given her the challenge of running the Foundation, a great gift for a woman, and she had risen to the challenge and blossomed under it almost overnight. Johnny was proud to have her as a sister-in-law. Together she and Scott made a striking and formidable couple. No wonder his brother had won the re-election handily.

Formidable. Scott had described Victoria Barkley as formidable the first time he and Johnny had talked about her. She was. Strong, resilient, decisive, and unrelenting when it came to doing what she believed was right. But here in the twilight, with her arm wrapped around Scott’s waist, she was all warmth, tenderness, and love. Scott bent his head toward her to hear her better. He had a look of sheer contentment on his face. Suddenly it struck Johnny that Scott finally knew what it was like to have a mother. A real fine one at that. Some good had come to the Hero of Sacramento. He found a mother.

The last vestiges of Johnny’s guilt melted away.

 

 

 

~end ~

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