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ZoeyT

 

 

The Stranger

Deathfic so don't start this series if you don't want to go there.
I don't, of course, own the characters or any rights beyond the pleasure of sharing this story with other Lancer fans .

Seventh in the Guardian Series

The dark, scudding clouds were still broken but the rain was coming – lots of it. The storm had been hanging over the mountains all day, obscuring the peaks, its leading edges creeping closer. 14-year-old Joshua Lancer moved easily with his mount's canter across the summer-seared grass of the south pasture intent on accomplishing his mission and getting home – hopefully before he and the palomino were drenched. Like everyone else at Lancer, he had been worked to a nub the past few months. Between the fall roundup and drive to the railhead and working just as hard to get everything secured before the winter rains set in, every able-bodied man, woman, and child on the estancia had labored from before dawn to full dark six days a week – and then some. Joshua's father and grandfather staunch believers in a day of rest for human and animal. While crews – mainly itinerant workers hired for the season – harvested the crops, men cleared summer growth from creek beds and made needed repairs to buildings, the women were drying, pickling, and preserving. Winters in the San Joaquin were generally mild but still  . . . winter and the estancia was largely a self-sufficient entity.

The pair topped a hill a few miles from their goal and the boy pulled his horse to a halt. Perhaps a hundred yards down the slope a cowboy was standing; fiddling a long blade of brown grass and looking around. While Josh studied the man, trying to decide whether to advance or follow the more cautious path of moving on, the stranger turned and noticed the rider above him. Moving at a leisurely pace, as though out for a Sunday stroll, he made his way up the hill stopping several yards from the horse. Tilting his head, he flashed a disarming grin. “Howdy.”

For a long moment, Josh gazed silently at the upturned face. Something about it was unsettling. The man's hair – what he could see below the hat - was dark, just a touch of silver showing in the sideburns. He was not as tall as the youth's father or towering grandfather but he wasn't what you'd call short either. His sun and wind sculpted features and the deep laugh lines around eyes and mouth – as well as that silver in his hair – established that the stranger wasn't young but he wasn't real old either; certainly not as old as Grandpa. So maybe Papa's age? Hard to tell. He was dressed in the style favored by the vaqueros – and to some extent by Josh himself; an embroidered white shirt, bolero jacket, and silver-studded calzoneras. A silver-conchoed belt circled his waist and below it a gunbelt hung low on his hips; lower than most men wore them. In all though, he looked pretty much like men Josh had seen every day of his life  . . . except for his eyes. They were the deep, dark blue of the stones in one of Mama's necklaces and lit by a hint of mischief. In the space between two breaths, that vague tendril of disquiet flared into a gasp of surprise as the young man realized where he had seen eyes like those before.

“Something wrong?”

The soft, drawling voice jolted the boy from his maze, work-callused young hands tightened reflexively on the reins, and the palomino threw up his head, snorting in annoyance. In the few seconds it took the horse to settle, Josh had shaken off the impact of the inevitable association between this stranger and . . . Uncle Johnny.  To his immense relief, Josh managed to get out “Howdy,” without stammering like a dumb kid. Emerald green eyes swept the surrounding landscape – as much to avoid those disturbing eyes as to satisfy curiosity and caution. “Where's your horse, Mister?”

The man jerked his head vaguely toward a clump of trees across the slope and further down. “Left him over there. Needed to stretch my legs a bit and this seemed like a nice spot. You live around here, I guess.”

Josh nodded. “I'm Josh Lancer. My family owns this land.”

Still smiling, the man nodded cordially but neither moved closer nor offered his hand. “Glad to meet you, Josh Lancer. What are you doin' out here when it's fixin' to come a gully washer?”

“Tendin' to my business. What are you doing out here?”

A shrug. “Passing through. Like I said, my backside was gettin' numb so I decided to stop for awhile.” The dark head dipped, then tipped upward again, humor glowing in the blue eyes. “You need any help gettin' that business tended to?” Another shrug. “Not like I'm in a hurry to get anywhere.”

Josh shook his head. “Nope. Thanks anyway. My papa told me to check this stretch of South Creek to see if we need to clear any brush before the winter rains start – which it looks like they're about to do – so I guess I'd better get to it.”

The man's gaze had wandered from the rider to the horse while he listened and now he planted his hands in his belt and said, “That's a fine animal.”

Unable to resist praise of his beloved horse, Josh patted the golden neck, beaming proudly. “He sure is. Got him for my birthday last May. His name's Regalo and he's a real special horse. His grandsire was my Uncle Johnny's horse, Barranca, and t hey helped Papa save Lancer from highriders way back before I was born. ”

The man's laughter was not overly loud but it was infectious, lighting his face and reflected in his sparkling eyes; he suddenly seemed younger and that tingle of . . . something . . . niggled through Josh again.

“Is that a fact?” the soft voice managed through subsiding chuckles. “I'd say that makes Regalo a special horse for sure – bein' the grandson of a hero and all.” The smile grew a bit wistful. “Well, I'll say this; your old man has a good eye for horseflesh. You take care of him and he'll take care of you.”

“That's what Papa says. The young mouth tightened as Josh realized that he was doing a lot of talking to a total stranger. Damn! Like a green kid. There was just something about the man that made him easy to talk to. Another silence ensued as the youth looked down, biting his lip in obvious indecision. That prickle was still wiggling up his spine. Finally raising his eyes, he said, “Do I know you, Mister?”

The easy smile might have faltered just a bit and the stranger's eyes dropped, hat once again hiding them. “I'm sure that, if we'd ever met, I'd remember a fine young man like you.”

Chewing on his lower lip, the boy slowly shook his head. “You sure do look familiar.”

Clearing his throat, the man looked off in the direction Josh had been headed. “Look, kid . . .”

“I'm not a kid.”

The stranger quickly stifled a grin. “No offense. But, look, it's been rainin' hard in those mountains most of the day. Likely to be flash floodin' everywhere. You need to be real careful how close to that creek you get.” He lifted a hand to stay the retort had could see about to erupt. “Just friendly advice from someone who's been in a fix or two.”

Taking a deep breath, the boy nodded a bit sheepishly. “Mama says I let my temper outrun my good sense sometimes. I'll be careful. But I really need to go. Thanks, for the advice, Mister”

The man stepped back. “Nice meetin' you, Josh.” He turned and started down across the slope toward the copse of trees.

A glance at the darkening sky as Regalo stepped out spurred the young man abruptly from reflection on the pleasant encounter to a less agreeable realization and he pulled the horse up, yelling at the retreating back, “Hey, Mister! You got a place to stay?”

The man turned back.

“I mean, like you said, the bottom's about to fall out and you'd be welcome at Lancer for a few days.”

The lazy smile blossomed once more. “That's real nice of you Josh. But yeah, I've got a place. Thanks, anyway.” He eyed the boy for another heartbeat. “You are a fine young man, Joshua Lancer. I know your folks are proud of you.” The dark head gestured sharply in the direction of the creek. “Now, go!” Once again, he turned and headed away.

“Mister!”

The cowboy stopped dead in his tracks, hands planted on his hips, head down as if coming to a decision. He didn't turn; just twisted, arms dropping to his sides. He cocked his head toward Josh, but the hat's shadow made his expression unreadable “What?” The brusque inquiry had an impatient edge.

Suddenly uncertain – and determined not to prove himself the kid he had just denied being by letting it show - the boy shouted more sharply than he'd intended, “You didn't tell me your name.”

For perhaps a count of five, the man neither moved nor spoke. At length, his lips quirked upward in a smile that struck Josh as sad. “No, I didn't.” Long, graceful strides carried him swiftly away.

Josh sat watching the retreating back until Regalo shifted under him, snorting with impatience. He stroked the silken neck. “Yeah, I hear you, boy. Let's get it done.” He touched spurs to the golden flanks and the horse moved off at a rolling canter.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

By the time Josh pulled Regalo down to a walk just short of the creek, the clouds overhead had become an opaque, threatening mass and the first cold raindrops pelted down. Sighing, the brunet Lancer reined in long enough to untie his slicker from behind the saddle and slip it over his head. Replacing his hat, he urged the horse forward down the last incline toward South Creek.

The palomino had taken no more than three or four steps when he jibbed sideways, snorting, tossing his head, and attempting to turn back. Josh pulled the animal's head around, once again kneeing him forward. The time Regalo lifted his forelegs, twisting away from the stream with a defiant neigh - and that's when Josh heard it.

Green eyes jerked up, staring intently upstream as a rolling thunder reminiscent of a building earthquake vibrated through the autumn afternoon. The rumbling tide of sound grew from heartbeat to heartbeat, hammering against the boy's eardrums and sending the horse into a jittery dance of primal fear.

Around a bend in the creek, where the gentle slope ended in a low bluff, a wall of dark, foaming, debris-choked water exploded along the creekbed. Probably ten feet high and twice as wide, the nightmare torrent overwhelmed everything in its path, ripping trees and bushes from the bank to grind them into splinters in its roiling fury.

Joshua Lancer sat paralyzed, staring at the tumultuous horror that would revisit him in dark dreams for months to come. His numb mind could seize on only one coherent thought; the same thought over and over. If I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger, we'd have been down there. If I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger, we'd have been down there. If I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger, we'd have been down there.

When Regalo once again turned away up the slope, his rider let him have his head. They did not pause until they reached the top of the low hill. Turning back, Josh sat for another ten minutes while his mind played out nightmare scenes of himself and his friend being overtaken by that thunderous wall of death. And through those terrifying scenarios ran the words that – in that moment – seemed to be the only thing holding the incipient panic at bay. If I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger, we'd have been down there.

At long last, Regalo, weary of standing in the pouring rain, voiced his disapproval and the pair moved off toward home.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

When the very weary, very wet, and very cold young Lancer let his equally wet and weary mount into the warm haven of the barn, he was immediately seized by a pair of strong hands. “Josh! We've been worried about you, son!”

The boy removed his dripping hat and looked up through rain-blurred eyes into the anxious blue-gray eyes of his father. “Sorry, Papa. With the rain and all we couldn't move too fast.”

Scott nodded and helped the boy out of the slicker. “Son, you're chilled to the bone. Go on into the house and have a hot bath. I'll be in as soon as Cip and I unsaddle and take care of Regalo. Your mother is hovering in the kitchen so I'm sure she has something hot for you.”

Josh nodded, too weary to argue. Looking past his father, the youngster realized for the first time that Cipriano was standing behind Scott holding two saddled horses, one of whom was Sheridan, his father's favorite mount. Without a word, the tired young man headed into the house where he was, indeed, seized upon by his mother and chased upstairs for a hot bath with stern orders to go nowhere but the bathing room. Tamping down her maternal concern in consideration of young male pride, Margaret sent Garrett up with a mug of hot spiced cider and orders to take clean clothes to his brother.

After delivering the cider and placing the clothing on a small table, Garrett asked, “You want company, brother?”

“Sure,” came the unusually subdued reply. “Tell me what's been going on while Regalo and I were getting drenched.”

Garrett sat down on a stool near the tub, regarding his brother with a hint of concern. “Pretty much everybody got drenched but we finished most of what really needed to be done.” He grinned. “I'll be the first to admit, a few days of rain is a good thing as far as I'm concerned. First off, we need the rain. Secondly, we get a few days off – more or less – which we also need after the last few months.”

Josh nodded sleepily as he sipped his cider. “True enough.”

Still eyeing his sibling, Garrett ventured on. “Something you want to tell me, brother?”

Green eyes met blue. The green eyes dropped first. “You gotta promise not to tell Mama; she'd have a hissy fit.”

His older brother's conspiratory grin was all the confirmation needed. “Well, it was like this. You know Papa told me to check out South Creek to see if there was underbrush that needed clearing?”

Garrett shook his head. “I was helping drive those heifers up to higher ground out to the east.”

Josh went on. “So I was heading up there, hoping to get back before the rain set in and topped that last hill and there was this man just standing there looking around like he was on a Sunday picnic or something.”

“Not someone you know?”

It was Josh's turn to shake his head. “Nope; leastwise I don't think so. He sure did look familiar but I asked him if we'd met and he said ‘no'. Anyway, we talked for a few minutes. He said he was just passing through and wanted to stretch his legs so he'd left his horse in a copse down the hill. So, like I said, we talked and then I said I needed to get on my way and he walked away and I went on to South Creek.” The boy fell silent, his grip on the mug tightening until it threatened to shatter the sturdy ceramic piece.

Garrett waited patiently for the rest of the story. Several minutes passed while his brother stared down into the mug . . . and at something he was finding it hard to talk about . . . even to his brother and best friend.

The voice, when it came, was barely more than a hoarse whisper. “I pulled Regalo up on the last rise before the creek to put my slicker on because it had started to rain. Then he refused to go any further; jibbed and reared and fought the bit. And then I heard it. The most God-awful roar you ever heard in your life and this wall . . . this great big . . . really, really big . . . ugly, nightmare wall of water about as high as a house came tearing around the bend by the bluff.” The green eyes sought the blue ones again and the fear Garrett saw in his brother's eyes shook him. “Garrett, I swear, I never saw anything like that in my life. I've seen flash floods, but nothing like that. All I could do was sit there and think what if I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger?

Quick as a thought a hand flashed out, gripping the younger boy's wrist in firm reassurance. “You did meet him and it didn't happen, little brother. That's all that matters. Let it go.” His lips twitched. “Mama would say your guardian angel was looking out for you.” The twitch became a grin. “Grandpa might say it was a friendly sidhe or maybe a watchful ancestor.”

Garrett continued to hold his sibling's wrist and eyes until he felt the tension drain from the taught muscles and tendons. Josh's eyes dropped again and he nodded, weariness settling over him like a heavy wool blanket. He even managed to conjure up a tentative smile. “Yeah, you're right. Regalo and I are safe and I should just be grateful for whoever - or whatever,” the dark head canted and green eyes flashed with mischief – “sent that stranger wandering across our path.”

With a decisive nod, Garrett rose and began to gather the wet, muddy clothes from the floor. “You need anything else?”

His brother shook his head and this time his smile was more genuine. “Nope. What's for dinner?”

“Pot roast with vegetables and Consuela made chocolate cake for desert. She must have known you'd need comforting.”

Josh laughed and doused his brother with soapy water. “Get going. I'll be down in a few minutes.”

Garrett turned toward the door, then settled back on the stool, dropping the filthy clothes at his feet. “Listen, Josh, I think we need to talk about what you're going to say to Papa when he asks about South Creek. I mean, you know you need to tell him everything that happened, but he's just liable to ask at dinner right in front of Mama.”

Josh bit his lower lip in concentration. Finally he drawled, “Yeah, you're right.” The cheeky grin so like that of another Lancer challenged his older sibling. “So, my wise older brother, what do you suggest I say?”

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Supper was a festive occasion. It had been – for the most part – an excellent year for Lancer. The roundup and drive had been accomplished without major injury and the cattle brought a good price. The produce was safely harvested and had added a hefty amount to the ledger. The timber and sawmill operations would slow over the winter but that provided time for maintenance and repairs. Supplies of those things that could not be grown or made on the estancia were laid in and there was plenty of Lancer-grown food stored to see humans and animals over the winter. Everyone was ready for the slower pace of the chill, rainy winter months.

Somehow the cold rain and gusting wind outside added an extra glow to the soft lamplight, the blazing fire, and the lively conversation around the dinner table. The discussion ranged over the events of the past few hectic days and plans for the coming months and approaching holidays interspersed with a good deal of teasing and laughter. The only somber note in the evening was the absence of the irascible Jelly. Last year, he had been a verbose part of the festivities, yarning about previous drives, trading barbs with Scott and the older boys and more gently jesting with the little ones. The old jack-of-all-trades had finally succumbed to his long-standing heart condition the previous winter.

The one subject that did not come up was Joshua's afternoon experiences. That their father needed to know what had happened was a given – both because it concerned Josh and because of the damage inflicted on the area around South Creek – but they would find a time later when they could speak to him privately. The pair had agreed solemnly that the entire episode would upset Mama terribly which was altogether unnecessary on several counts. First, Mama would be anxious every time one of them was out of her sight for weeks on end. And, although she rarely allowed such feelings to show openly, when Mama was troubled – or angry – the entire household was unsettled. Secondly, if Grandpa realized Mama was fretting about something, he would take steps – large ones if necessary – to rectify the situation and instill in any culprits the fervent desire never to have been born, let alone been a source of distress to Margaret Lancer. Even Papa had been known to catch the rough side of Grandpa's tongue where Mama was concerned. Of course, Papa would probably tell Grandpa all about it anyway since it concerned ranch business as well as family business, but still . . . Last, but certainly not the least consideration, Garrett and Josh were young men now, even if Mama had trouble remembering that sometimes. Not only did they not need mothering – well, occasionally if they were sick or injured - but it was their duty as men to protect their women; and that most definitely included protecting them from distressing knowledge that really only concerned menfolk anyway.

That reasoning held marvelously well until Scott, between bites of herbed potatoes, asked Josh if he'd seen any flooding along South Creek and was a work crew needed to clear underbrush.

Despite the fact that they'd discussed that very eventuality, Josh shot a quick, slightly panicky look across the table but Garrett's eyes were firmly fixed on his dinner. The younger boy hastily lowered his own eyes, speared a chunk of pot roast from his plate, and chewed thoughtfully – he hoped that was what it appeared to be – for a few minutes while he mentally rehearsed his speech. When he looked up at his father, the green eyes were innocent as a day-old calf. “Well, sir, there was a lot of flooding along the creek so I couldn't get close or see enough to know what needs to be done. I can ride back out there in a few days.”

Scott nodded, pausing to sip some wine he'd purchased from a new vineyard up the valley. He knew there was something Josh was not saying – and that Garrett knew whatever it was – but decided that it, whatever it was, could wait. Garrett, if not Josh, would have come to him or Murdoch immediately if the matter had been urgent. “Well, I'm sorry to hear that it's flooding already; probably means there is some backup, but I can't say I'm surprised considering how much rain must have fallen in the mountains today. Sounds like you did all you could. Good job, son . . . and good judgment not trying to get close; that creek has seen some pretty dramatic flash floods.” The blue-gray eyes were mild but Josh knew his father was onto him – at least onto the fact that something was up. Scott went on in the same unexceptionable tone. “Let's let it go for now. It'll be several days before the rain clears and its dry enough to do anything anyway. Then Murdoch or I will go with you to look things over. Okay?”

The boy paused with his milk glass just short of his mouth to nod. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

Margaret was also aware that something was afoot but she concealed it with practiced ease by concentrating on her own dinner and ensuring that 3-year-old Kendric didn't play with his mashed potatoes, surreptitiously deposit his green beans on the floor, or knock his milk over while engaged in experiments concerning the effect of gravity on gravy dripping from his spoon. She was as weary as anyone after the past frenetic weeks but, more to the point, she trusted her husband and father-in-law to deal with whatever it was. Not as oblivious as her sons believed, the Lancer chatelaine was fully cognizant of the fact that her eldest were fully-grown men in most of the ways that counted on the estancia. She also understood – however much it tugged at her heart – that the touchy pride of young men was sensitive to ‘mothering'. They were unlikely to fess up to whatever they were concealing in their mother's presence and would resent her interference if they were pressured into doing so. No, best to pretend nothing was going on and let Scott and Murdoch handle it.

Pushing back her chair, Margaret began to gather plates. “Anyone ready for chocolate cake?”

A chorus of affirmatives rose around the table. Josh and Garrett – bottomless pits that most teenage males are – hastily shoveled in the last few bites from their plates before handing them off to their mother or to Beth and Anson whose chores included helping to clear the table after dinner.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

The rest of the evening passed quietly. Scott and Murdoch engaged in a game of chess. At the dining room table, Josh and Garrett played a spirited game of checkers punctuated by heated accusations of cheating, yelps of glee, and groans of despair. Now and again their vocal antics rose to a level that distracted the chess players, eliciting an admonishing glare from father or grandfather. The three younger children were seated together on the hearth rug. Beth was reading a story to Anson and Kendric. Nearby, Lilly, the black-and-white family dog slept. Margaret was indulging herself with a perusal of the latest fashions in a ladies' magazine.

Eventually, with a yell that would have done a Reb cavalry charge proud, Josh won a hard-fought victory over his older brother. Kendric, who had fallen asleep while his sister was reading, awoke with a startled wail. Murdoch flinched at the exuberant shout, scattering several chess pieces. While his father was still staring at the board – and the probable ruin of what had been shaping up as a decisive victory - in dismayed shock, Scott shot his sons a quick, stern look. “Boys, I think it's time you were in bed. It was a long day. You can sleep in a bit tomorrow. I'll wake you.”

Josh was still fidgeting with glee but Garrett, who was facing their father – and their grandfather's stiff back – hissed at his brother while making urgent motions suggesting a hasty retreat. It took another moment or two for Garrett's message to penetrate the younger boy's fixation. When it did, the green eyes widened and Josh took a quick glance over his shoulder. One glimpse of his sire's face catapulted the brunet to his feet along with his brother. Checkers and board were quickly – and very, very quietly – put away. Goodnights were briefly exchanged.

Margaret had risen when Kendric began to cry, scooping the boy off the floor with practiced ease. “Garrett, please take your brother up to Esperanza.”

Carefully not looking toward where his father was meticulously replacing the tumbled game pieces, Garrett accepted his fussing brother while Josh hovered anxiously at the kitchen door. The young man jounced the baby and thumped his nose gently. “Hey, sprout. What's all this about? Josh was just being his usual obnoxious self. Nothing to get upset over.”

Kendric raised red-rimmed hazel eyes to his older brother's face and hiccupped. Garrett laughed and bounced him again. “Come on, let's get you upstairs and I'll tell you a story before you go to sleep. Would you like that?”

Kendric stuck two fingers in his mouth and nodded, sniffing.

“Alright! Here we go!” Bouncing the little boy with every step, the blonde followed Josh out of the room.

Moments later, the thump of boots and childish giggles faded.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

As Scott had promised, the next morning started significantly later than usual. The heavy overcast held back the dawn and the chill made the temptation to snuggle down under the covers for just a few more minutes too inviting to ignore. By the time their grandfather knocked on their doors, however, the boys had already been drawn from their beds the tantalizing smells coming from the kitchen and were all but dressed. Following more slowly in their boisterous wake, Murdoch smiled and shook his head. Just like their father and Johnny. Never underestimate the energy or appetite of young men.

Scott was already at the kitchen table, making good headway on a plate of ham, eggs, fried potatoes, and biscuits dripping with fresh butter and berry preserves. Before Margaret could set generous plates in front of Murdoch and the boys, Esperanza appeared with the three younger children and joined the family at the table. Conversion mostly centered on the chores that had to be done. As usual, Scott courteously asked his wife if she needed help with anything and assigned tasks to the children. Murdoch mentioned the need to go over the books and his son agreed that he could spare the time this morning.

When everyone rose from the table, Scott said casually, “Garrett, Josh, I'd like you to join us for a few minutes please.”

The brothers exchanged a glance, but nodded in unison and followed the older men into the greatroom. Murdoch seated himself behind the desk, Scott standing behind him. The younger men stood in front of the desk. Josh swallowed the lump in his throat, certain the moment had come. Why he was nervous, the boy couldn't have said. He hadn't done anything wrong; well, maybe talked a bit too freely to a total stranger, but nothing really serious. He and Garrett had certainly done a lot worse on more than one occasion. Maybe, he decided in the fleeting seconds before Scott spoke, it was because he was still on edge. Terrifying nightmares involving roaring walls of churning blackness, Regalo's terrified screams, and trying desperately to shout for help only to be driven deeper into the icy depths, strangled by inrushing water had disturbed his sleep several times during the night. And mingled with the horrors were a drawling voice, a pair of dark blue eyes, and a hand reaching out to him.

Both Scott and Murdoch were keenly aware of the young man's discomfiture, evidenced by downcast eyes and the soft shifting of boots on flagstones. The older men glanced discreetly at each other – the exchange totally missed by Josh but caught by Garrett. Before father or grandfather could speak, the young blonde spoke up.

“Josh, just tell them what you told me, brother.”

Josh heaved a sigh and nodded decisively before looking facing his waiting audience. As always, Garrett was a reassuring presence. “Alright. It was like this. I was heading to South Creek to check it out like you told me, Papa. When I topped the hill a mile or so from the creek, there was a cowboy just standing there looking around. He came over and we talked for a few minutes. He said he was just passing through and wanted to rest for a few minutes.” The green eyes cut down. “He admired Regalo and I . . . told him about Regalo being a birthday present and being Barranca's grandson and all.” The eyes caught Scott's with a sparkle of humor. “He said my ol . . . ah . . . father had a real good eye for horseflesh.”

Garrett was forced to look away and cough; even Josh caught the hastily tamped down chagrin of his elders. Uncle Johnny's penchant for needling his father with that particular moniker was part of the Lancer legend.

“Anyway,” the youngster went on, “I offered him a place for the night – seeing as how the bottom was just about to fall out and all – but he said he had a place and warned me about getting too close to the creek.” He shrugged. “He headed back to the copse where he said he left his horse and I headed on to the creek.”

The boy fell abruptly silent, looking down and around and everywhere but at his father and grandfather. Both men remained silent, knowing that – as had been the case with another Lancer – they were more likely to get answers by waiting than prodding. Patience was rewarded.

“I pulled up about halfway down the slope, just downstream from that low bluff, to put my slicker on ‘cause it had started to rain. When I was ready to move on, Regalo just wouldn't go. He jibbed and reared and fought the bit and then . . .”

Scott Lancer had never seen such cold terror in the green eyes that locked onto his own. The young voice was little more than a husky whisper and the boy refused to meet his father's eyes.

“Papa, it wasn't a flash flood . . . it was . . . I don't know how to describe it. There was this awful roar like nothing I ever heard in my life except maybe that earthquake and water . . . a bunch of water . . . a whole wall of it that topped the bluff . . . came around the bend and crashed against that bluff and . . .” He swallowed almost audibly and flashed a reluctant look at the men behind the desk. If I hadn't stopped to talk to that stranger . . .” The eyes dropped again; the voice quavered. “I had nightmares, Papa. I'm sorry.”

Faster than the engulfing wave pain and shame, Josh was swept into an enveloping embrace and – for the first time in years – wasn't uncomfortable with the gesture; indeed clung to his father as he had as a child when hurt or frightened. Long minutes passed, the only sound the measured tick of the grandfather clock. Murdoch sat watching them, hands gripping the arms of his chair, eyes dark with unfathomable pain; both at his grandson's misery and what might have been. Garrett fixed his attention on some fascinating sight beyond the big window.

When at last Scott found his voice, it was almost as husky as his son's. “Josh, you listen to me and listen good. You have nothing to be sorry for, son. We all have nightmares; me, your grandfather, your brother – all of us. We all have things in our pasts that haunt us. It's nothing to be ashamed of – ever. What matters is that you keep going; keep doing your duty in spite of them.” Long fingers under the quivering chin raised the tear-streaked face. “And when you need help to deal with them, you come to me . . . or your grandfather or your brother or mother. That's what families do. Do you hear me, son?”

Josh nodded, trying to disengage from his father's arms, but Scott tightened his grip, closing his own eyes against the visions he knew would give him nightmares in the future. “I know you heard the words, Josh, but I have to know you understand . . . that you believe what I'm saying.”

This time the boy did pull away, nodding more firmly. He straightened and met his father's eyes. “Yes, sir, I understand . . . and I believe you. I'm alright now.”

Scott's hands were gentle on the stiff shoulders; pride as well as love shone in the blue-gray eyes. “I also want you to know . . . know . . . how proud of you I am. Your grandfather is as well – and not just today. You carry your share of the work on this ranch like a man and you've done nothing – ever – to be ashamed of.”

Tentative smiles crept around the room along with sighs of relief. Scott stepped back, putting his hands casually in his pockets and resuming the conversation on a mundane level; allowing his son to reassert his youthful dignity. “

“So, there's no point in going back out there for at least a week. We'll deal with it then and, like I said, Murdoch or I will go with you to assess the damage. Is there anything else? Either of you?”

Two heads shook in tandem. Scott nodded. “Alright. Why don't you get to your chores and your grandfather and I will get to the books . . . oh joy.”

The smiles were more genuine this time. Both young men had been introduced to the ‘the books' and Josh had promptly discovered that he hated them. Garrett took it more in stride, but then Garrett was two years older and much more like their father than his younger sibling. Josh, it was already plain, was going to be the ‘cowhand' in the family.

The boys headed to the entry hall for coats, hats, and gloves leaving the men to their figures and contracts.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Days passed and the estancia settled into the rhythms of winter. Like the earth that was it physical essence, the ranch was a living entity; changing with the seasons in a predictable – mostly – pattern of shifting scenes and activities that wove themselves into the vibrant fabric of life.

On All Hallows Eve, Murdoch explained to the children that their Gaelic ancestors had called it Samhain and recounted some of the traditions he had known as a boy in Scotland. He entertained them with carefully chosen – no nightmares please - stories of ghosts and The Wild Hunt and helped them leave a saucer of milk on the portico for the Cat Sidhe so it would bless the house rather than drying up the milk cows. Once that task had been performed to everyone's satisfaction, Esperanza took the little ones up to bed. Margaret excused herself shortly thereafter, saying it had been a long day, leaving the men and older boys playing cards.

When Scott called an end to the evening, Murdoch expressed a desire to linger in the greatroom for a short while. Bidding his father a courteous ‘good night', the younger man followed his sons from the room.

The Lancer patriarch poured just a bit more Macallan into his glass and settled before the fire. Memories stirred by the stories related to his grandchildren flipped through his mind like the wind-ruffled pages of a book. The snug, thatched farmhouse in Scotland always filled with the savory smells of cooking and the voices of his family. The misery of the voyage to America in the cramped, stinking hold of a small, wooden-hulled ship. Catherine – the grueling trip west – establishing the ranch, their joy at her pregnancy, the mind-numbing grief of losing her and the baby. Harlan's spiteful intransigence. The memories came faster. Maria, Johnny, Paul, Teresa – the tiny little girl with her huge brown eyes and ready laughter who, more than anyone else, had kept heart and hope alive for all those dark years. Then Scott and Johnny had come home. And now . . . Scott and Margaret and five growing grandchildren. And the legacy he had established by his own tenacious determination and hard work, now being built upon by Scott, someday to be handed on to them; as close to immortality as man could come.

The aging rancher lifted his glass in silent salute to the past and all those who had filled it. Tossing back the last of the scotch, he set the glass on the table, banked the fire, and headed toward the kitchen where a lamp left burning all night made it safer to climb the stairs. As he turned the corner behind the dining room table, a flicker of light from the entry hall caught his attention. Stepping forward, he squinted into the shadows.

“Josh?”

The boy started, his head whipping around to stare at his grandfather. His eyes appeared huge and haunted in the dim light of the single, low-burning lamp in his hand. He sighed . . . in relief? The smile he summoned was tentative at best. “Hi, Grandpa.”

Murdoch moved forward another step. “It's late, boy. What are you doing here?”

With another sigh, the youngster turned back to the painting at which he had obviously been staring when Murdoch interrupted. For a timeless moment, measured only by the soft chime of the clock and Murdoch's suspended breath, there was no response. Even when the boy did speak in a soft, husky voice, there was no movement.

“Grandpa, do you really believe in ghosts?”

The stunned Scot reminded himself to breath as he considered his answer. Something in the youthful voice told him this was neither prank nor idle curiosity jogged the evening's stories. He spoke slowly. “Yes, Josh, I do.”

Still the boy did not move. He might have been a statue, staring raptly at the picture. “Tell me about him.”

“About your uncle?”

A silent nod.

The grandfather scanned the dark hallway as though for clues as to how or where to begin. Finally, “I'm sorry, Josh. I don't know what you mean. You've heard stories about Johnny all your life. What do you want to know about him?”

“Does this really look like him?”

Four portraits hung in the hall. Johnny's portrait was actually the last one the artist, Aaron Caffee, had done working from a few photographs and input from family and people who had known him during his time at Lancer.

Murdoch recalled Scott's chagrin when he had all but ordered the young man to sit for his portrait. The two paintings hung side-by-side. Scott had returned the favor, insisting it was only fitting that future generations of Lancers have a portrait of the founder and patriarch of the ranch and family. Murdoch's stern visage dominated the wall opposite those of his sons. Across a narrow table, Teresa's youthful smile and impish brown eyes looked out on passersby.

Aaron Caffee was no itinerant portraitist. Murdoch had made extensive inquiries before bringing the young man from San Francisco for an interview. Convinced of Caffee's talent, the rancher gave him free rein to speak to anyone, see anything that would help him with his task of ‘capturing' Murdoch's beloved children.

During his weeks at Lancer, the artist spent hours talking to the family, the vaqueros, and others – including Green River's testy sheriff - making copious notes about their recollections of the younger Lancer son. He studied the few available photographs from various angles and in different lights. The portrait he eventually produced was a remarkable physical likeness. Johnny's blue eyes looked out, echoing the slightly crooked smile that was both confident and charming. Faithfully depicted were Johnny's favorite shirt, braided jacket, calzaneros, conchoed belt, and spurs. The beaded bracelets on his wrist were rendered in exquisite detail. His hat hung from the stampede string. The gunbelt was low on his hips exactly as the young gunfighter had always worn it, right hand resting on the butt of the Colt.

What was truly remarkable, though (and the reason Caffee was so much in demand), was the vitality of the figure; an observer would find himself listening for the young man to speak, could all but see his graceful movements, hear the spurs jingle; could feel the unquenchable spirit, the humor, the gentleness, and somehow also, the tightly leashed aura of danger that was Johnny Lancer.

Although Murdoch passed the pictures every day, he rarely paid much mind to them anymore. In the early days of Johnny's absence, he had actively avoided the front hall, unable to bear the grief that welled up every time he looked into the blue eyes so full of life.

“Yes, it looks remarkably like him.”

“Were his eyes really that color?”

“Yes.”

When the dark head turned toward him, Murdoch was struck again by the dark pools the lamplight made of what he knew to be bright green eyes. Those eyes were now fixed on the older man and a frisson of premonition shot through the son of Alba.

“And what if I told you the stranger I talked to that day out at South Creek was Uncle Johnny?”

There it was. Unbidden, another memory came crashing back of a day nearly a decade past when the boy's father had asked a similar question and fiercely rejected the answer offered by Murdoch. Careful, Murdoch, careful. He's not Scott; nor Garrett for that matter. For all his youth and the easy-going disposition so like his mother's, Josh's grandfather sensed depths to the boy that had not yet surfaced. He was Scott's son and Margaret's son but the Lancer blood was running strong in other ways; of that, Murdoch was as certain as he was of his own name. Then, too, there were times when a certain shift of his stance, a lopsided grin, a turn of the head, any one of a hundred quirks and for one interminable instant, a pulse of joy-laden pain pulsed through Murdoch before reality caught up. Careful.

The question was breathed more than spoken. “What makes you think so, Josh?”

A single emphatic nod shifted midstream to a doubtful shake of the head. “I don't . . . I can't be sure . . .  I kept thinking he looked familiar; I even asked him. He said . . . he said he'd remember if he'd ever met me. But . . .” Josh turned back to the portrait. “He looked at lot older and sort of . . . different somehow . . . but his eyes and . . . then later, in my dreams; nightmares . . .” The voice faded off on the last word.

“What about your dreams? You do remember what your father told you about that?”

Another nod; this one more certain. “Yes, sir, I remember . . . and it's not that. It's just . . . I can't remember all of it, but I do remember the stranger being there. It was mostly about the flood and I could hear Regalo screaming . . .” There was a breathless quality to the young voice and Murdoch could almost hear the young man's pounding heart. “And I couldn't see him and I couldn't breathe and then he was there somehow – the stranger. I couldn't hear what he was saying but he reached out his hand . . .”

The voice trailed off again but this time the boy moved closer to the picture, raising the lamp to examine some detail. The eyes he turned on his grandfather now were filled with too many powerful emotions to sort out. A finger pointed. “The ring. I didn't remember until I saw it just now but the hand he held out to me in the dream . . . It was him and he saved my life.”

Movement dragged the boy's attention from the picture back to his grandfather who was nodding slowly, an odd gleam in his eyes. “What?”

Murdoch's heart faltered at the clipped tone so like his . In the boy's face warred defiance at the expected denial and bone-deep fear of an acknowledgement and all the implications that would carry. The old man swallowed. His smile was slow but as confident and reassuring as his voice. “Josh, I'm going to tell you the same thing I told your father a long time ago. I have lived long enough to know – to know - beyond any question or doubt – that there are things in this world that can only be explained by faith; things we have to accept as gifts from God or stop believing in anything at all. You are a son of the Highlands as surely as the Celtic warriors who held back the Roman legions. Our people are steeped in tradition . . . and in your blood runs something your father tells himself he can't accept – magic .”

Holding his grandson's eyes, the old rancher moved to stand beside him, looking up into the face of his long-lost son. “I can't explain how but I do know why and I don't question. A long arm fell across the young shoulders, pulling the boy close. “I believe you.”

 

 

~ end ~

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