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ZoeyT

 

 

The Christmas Visitor

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 .

Eighth in the Guardian Series

“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house . . .”

Murdoch Lancer swirled the brandy in his glass, his time-graven face reflecting the contentment that comes only with age, accomplishment, and love – most of all love. Had anyone been looking, more than firelight flickered in the depths of his eyes; memories and emotions that coursed with heartache and rhapsody even as he basked in the presence of his family. Murdoch himself could not have put a name to some of them; they were too tangled, swirling together in a tumble of shadow and light. Some he reveled in; thankfulness, pride in his family and the heritage he had built for them. Others he locked out of his mind but still they haunted his heart despite a firm determination not to allow them to intrude on this night. Settled in a comfortable chair near the blazing hearth, the white-haired rancher watched his son reading to his children – something Murdoch himself had never been privileged to do with their father – as he had watched and listened every year for more than two decades. Tradition. Family. Warm against the old Scot's chest nestled the small body of Teresa's eldest grandchild, Genevieve .

Scott sat on the opposite side of the fire, his snifter of brandy on the table at his elbow. The blonde hair was silver now, the handsome, aristocratic face seamed by advancing age and decades of working outdoors. The hands that held the book in no way resembled those of the Boston dandy who had arrived at Lancer – and, like his father before him, found a new life in a new land – so many years before.

On the huge – much used and twice recovered - sofa sat Scott's wife, a serene smile gracing her lovely features. The years had left their mark on Margaret as well. Scott's bride was a bit plump now, her shining hair liberally threaded with gray, but the green eyes still shone with the good humor and abundant love that were such an integral part of her nature; especially tonight with her family gathered here at Lancer on Christmas Eve. In her arms, Beth's infant son slept soundly.

To one side of the Lancer chatelaine sat Teresa, her two-year-old grandson snuggled in her lap. Little Nathaniel was wide-eyed as he listened to Uncle Scott's dramatic reading. Like Margaret, Teresa's dark hair was graying and her figure not as slender as it once had been. Other things had not changed; the bright brown eyes that looked so optimistically on her small, safe world and the tart but kindly whimsy that enlivened her unfailing common sense.

Next to Teresa, her younger daughter, Ariana, held her sleeping toddler.

On Margaret's other side Beth leaned confidingly against her mother. Her husband, Owen, sat on a cushion leaning back against the sofa. The ambitious young man's small freight business was expanding rapidly. Younger son of a rancher, Owen had parlayed odd hauling jobs into his own business. The would-be entrepreneur had a firm grasp on the labor end of things but was far less certain about other aspects of management such as scheduling, contracts, and bookkeeping. Impressed with his future son-in-law's energy and hard-headed practicality, Scott had helped him get organized and tutored him on the ins-and-outs of running a commercial enterprise. He had also invested a substantial amount himself, explaining with a wry grin that – while he greatly admired Owen's earnestness in saving enough money to buy his first team and wagon - being properly capitalized would increase the odds of success. It would also, the Chairman of Garrett Enterprises added with a conspiratorial wink, allow the wedding to be moved up.

Jesse – who had succeeded Val Crawford when Green River's cantankerous sheriff finally retired – stood beside Daniela's chair, one hand resting on his wife's shoulder, a glass of Murdoch's excellent bourbon in the other.

Behind the sofa, Garth stood with Ariana's husband, Andrew, only son of a neighboring rancher. Both men shared Jesse's appreciation of the fine bourbon they were sipping.

Close beside Murdoch, Joshua also occupied a cushion, leaning back against the chair holding his wife of seven months. Her hand lay on her husband's shoulder, his resting atop it. Just before Scott began the traditional reading of the Christmas Eve tale, the young couple had announced that they were expecting.

Lounging across the thickly woven rug were Anson, eleven-year-old Kendric, Teresa's son, eighteen-year-old Reaghan, and Garrett. After the holidays, Garrett would return to San Francisco to become manager of Garrett Enterprises. The man Scott had brought out from Boston a quarter-century before was more than ready to retire. He had delayed these past few years only to allow the young Lancer to get his feet under him after graduating from Harvard.

Anson would be accompanying his brother. The sixteen-year-old would be shipping out with a trusted captain on a voyage to Asia in the next few months. Murdoch's tales of his crossing of the Atlantic and the ever-changing hodgepodge of humanity and goods that was Boston Harbor had sparked a love of the sea and ships in his grandson. Two smaller but intricate ship models now rode alongside the large one that had dominated the greatroom the first time Scott walked into it. With great reluctance, the boy's parents had finally agreed to allow him to try the life – but only after Scott had arranged his apprenticeship with an experienced captain who had done business with Garrett Enterprises for many years.

Kendric was young but, if the collection of convalescent critters in the old barn was any indication, he was destined to be a healer; whether of humans or animals was still to be determined. The boy had trailed after Walt almost since he learned to walk, watching and helping as the veteran cowboy's increasingly stiff and painful hands tended sick and injured animals. Although Kendric was too young to remember the prickly old man, many of the treatments and ‘coctions' Walt used had been passed on to him by none other than Jelly Hoskins himself.

Two dogs rounded out the gathering. Old black-and-white Lilly was sprawled on her side, sleeping as soundly as the babies. Beside Kendric lay a huge dog with predominantly black fur, shading into fawn on his belly and legs and brown markings on his face and ears. Where the big animal had come from or how he arrived at Lancer no one knew. He simply appeared in the kitchen yard one day, barking frantically and repeatedly chasing Kendric away from his attempt to climb the wood stacked neatly in its shelter, ready for the stove and fireplaces.

Attracted by the commotion of frenzied barking and shouting women, Murdoch had very nearly shot the dog before realizing the animal had stopped chasing Kendric when the child ran to his mother and was growling at the woodpile. Further investigation revealed a rattlesnake taking advantage of the shady locale.

And so, the dog was named Hero and moved into the hacienda. He seemed to feel that Kendric was his special responsibility, sleeping in the little boy's room at night and following him everywhere during the day. Now Hero lay next to the youngest Lancer son, head on his paws, gazing up at Scott as intently as though he, too, was listening to the story.

Murdoch leaned back and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply of the greenery that decorated the room and the smells of baking that had filled the house for days. Across the room, near the French doors, a pine tree brought from the mountains was decorated with bright bows, strings of gold and silver beads, fancifully shaped cookies, apples, candies, and blown glass ornaments Scott had ordered from Germany.  Its fragrance mingled with that of the crackling fire and the faint sweetness of the brandy to create a sense of peace . . . of comfort . . . of rightness in his world.

“But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Scott closed the book with a flourish and a patter of applause and ‘well dones' rippled around the room – quietly; quietly; conscious of sleeping babies.

Arching an eyebrow at Genny, Scott asked, “Have you hung up your stocking?”

Giggling, the little girl pointed at the fireplace where four brightly colored stockings, specially knitted by Margaret and Teresa as each child was born, hung from the mantle.

Turning to Nathaniel, he wiggled his eyebrows comically. “Is one of those yours?”

Laughing, the little boy jounced up and down in his grandmother's lap, pointing excitedly at the stockings. “Mine!” he shrilled, earning a quick chorus of ‘shushes' from the women around him.

Eyes wide, Nathan looked up at his grandmother, then over at his Auntie Ariana. Both women were smiling in reassurance, but Teresa's finger against her lips reinforced silence – or at least a lower volume.

Jesse set down his drink and Daniela rose, holding out her arms for her son. “Time for bed.”

Nathan shook his head vigorously, pressing himself further into Teresa's lap.

Hands on her hips, his mother heaved a sigh. “Well, you can stay up if you want to but St. Nicholas won't come until you're asleep.”

“That's right,” chimed in Scott with an artfully regretful expression. “If he arrives at Lancer and you're still awake, he'll just have to pass us by this year. He has too many deliveries to make to wait on children who don't want to go to bed.”

The big brown eyes turned once more to Teresa, this time in question. Lips twitching, his grandmother nodded solemnly. “Uncle Scott and you're mother are right, Nathan. Of course, you'll still have presents from all of us to open tomorrow, but St. Nicholas won't stop unless you're asleep.”

The little boy promptly wriggled down and allowed Daniela to pick him up. Behind her, Jesse had already plucked Genny – who had been following the conversation closely – from Murdoch's lap.

A chorus of ‘good nights' followed the family from the room. Exuberant voices and childish laughter faded as they climbed the stairs. Beth and Ariana trailed them with their sleeping bundles.

Scott drained his glass and started to rise, but Owen surged to his feet, hand extended. “What can I get for you, sir?”

Settling back, his father-in-law responded “Brandy, please.”

As Owen moved to the liquor cabinet, Scott addressed his father. “So, Murdoch, are you ready to do the honors?”

The Lancer patriarch nodded. “I am. Lifting his own glass, he called, “Owen, while you're there could I trouble you for some of The Macallan?”

“Of course, Mr. Lancer.” The young man set down the snifter he had just filled for Scott to retrieve Murdoch's glass, setting it aside for a fresh one. Adulterating The Macallan, even with the finest brandy, simply wasn't done. By the time all the men had refreshed their drinks and served their ladies with wine and liqueurs , the rest of the adults had returned from tucking in the little ones and the family settled down for another cherished Lancer Christmas tradition.

Josh assisted his grandfather to stand, glass in hand. Recovering his own whiskey from Eudora, he stood beside her anticipating the annual toast.

The son of old Alba allowed his fading eyes to rove over the assembled family, drinking in each face. Raising his glass, he proclaimed, “To our past triumphs and future endeavors. May we always remember the ties that bind us, the love that fills us, and the blessings that surround us. To Lancer!”

“Lancer!” came back the hearty affirmation.

Seating himself, again with assistance, the old man donned his spectacles and opened the book that had been waiting on the table beside his chair. “ I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that . . .”

  ~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Scott sat on the sofa, arm around his wife, her head on his shoulder, gazing at the fire in companionable silence. It was very late and everyone else was abed. It had been a wonderful evening, crowned by the beauty of Midnight Mass.

When Father Jacobo, the priest who had married Scott and Margaret, retired from his parish, he had accepted – with the blessings of his superiors – the position of resident priest at Lancer. He lived in a small house, kept scrupulously clean by the ladies of the estancia who also cooked for him, fussed over, and generally spoiled the old man. In return, he ministered to the small congregation and one of his greatest delights was celebrating Christmas Eve Mass in the old chapel.

Murdoch took great delight in his role as ‘patriarch' on such occasions and Scott quite enjoyed watching him. There were no words to describe his joy in his progeny; grandchildren and great-grandchildren he had longed for through all the lonely years without his sons; that he had doubted he would ever have. Scott could appreciate his father's emotions even more now. Full to overflowing his heart had been at the birth of each of his children; watching them grow, guiding them, seeing in them the future of Lancer and – conceited though it might be – a taste of immortality for himself. But somehow, that indescribable tumult of love and wonder had been multiplied many times over when he held Aaron for the first time. A grandson; Scott, old man, you have a grandson. Old man . . . Murdoch . . . Johnny . . .

His attention was recalled by Margaret moving to stand. “Are you ready, my love?”

Scott squeezed her hand and kissed it. “You go on. I'll be up in a bit.”

Margaret regarded her husband with eyes full of love and tinged with sadness. She knew what he was thinking about – who he was thinking about. Much as she loved her own brothers, Margaret had always been a bit in awe of the depth of the bond between the Lancer brothers. She had never known Johnny except through the stories told – and there were many – by Scott, Murdoch, and the residents of the estancia. The tale of Johnny's suicidal ride to bring Pardee's highriders under the Lancer guns and Scott's heroic rescue of his brother was repeated often. Some of the ‘Uncle Johnny' stories spawned minor catastrophes. Joshua shortened everyone's lifespan by a few years when he fell while walking the corral fence, cracking his head on the way down. Fortunately, the boy recovered from the concussion and the only lasting souvenir was a barely noticeable scar across his right temple right at the hair line. There had been other incidents over the years capped by Anson falling out of a tree while trying to pick acorns.

Distraught and exasperated in equal measures, Margaret had launched into a rare tirade at her husband, father-in-law, and Jelly about the dangers of ‘Uncle Johnny' stories. “For the love of Heaven, at least think before you tell them something that might hurt them because you know, as sure as the sun comes up in the morning, they're going to try it.”

The three men had stared unblinking for a moment, taken aback at the show of temper from the usually easy-going Margaret. Three voices leapt into speech at the same instant, promising to censor their ‘Johnny' stories.

She had been astounded when her fiancé explained that his brother and the famous – or infamous, depending on one's point of view – gunfighter Johnny Madrid were one and the same. Growing up with four older brothers, it would have been very nearly impossible for young Margaret not to have heard of Johnny Madrid. Margaret had found the notion disturbing at first – most of the stories she'd overheard centered on how deadly Madrid was; sold his soul to the devil to be the fastest man ever to draw a gun; blue eyes as cold as death itself.

Yet, in defiance of everything she knew about Scott – his high regard for honor and justice – her gallant cavalier loved and respected his brother. Scott's revelation of some of Johnny's history went a long way to explaining the contradictions and – once satisfied that she had not made a grave error in her judgment of Scott's character – his bride had put it aside as one more thing she would doubtless understand as the two of them learned more about each other.

After they were married, her brothers' grim tales ran so counter to everything she was hearing about Johnny at Lancer, that Margaret eventually came to the conclusion that Scott understood his brother in ways far deeper and more complex than any recitation of cold facts or even hard logic could sort out. Lancer or Madrid? Both and neither. Could he be dangerous? Most certainly. But so was Scott under the right circumstances . . . and Murdoch . . . and her own father and brothers. Even more importantly, as far as Mrs. Lancer was concerned, he was Scott's brother and her husband loved him.

Now her smile was tender. “Go and talk to him, Scott. I'll have a warm place waiting when you get back.”

Her husband's blue-gray met her green ones. “You really don't mind?”

The graying head shook gently. “You know I don't. He's your brother and you love him and its Christmas. Go.” With one last squeeze, she released his hand and made for the stairs.

Scott banked the fire before heading for the entry hall to collect his hat, coat, and gun. In the barn, he hung his lantern on a peg outside Genghis's stall. The big, black horse nickered a greeting as the man stroked his sleek neck. “Sorry to roust you out so late on a winter night, friend, but we have someplace to be.”

Leading the horse out, he closed the barn door and swung into the saddle. Moments later, the pair passed through the arch and headed for the ridge.

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

The full moon provided enough light for Genghis to pick his way along the dark road at an easy pace. Scott huddled in his sheepskin coat, glad of its warmth against the frost-tinged wind sweeping down the valley from the north.

At the top of the ridge, he dismounted, leaving Genghis to stand tail-to-the-wind longing for his snug stall and wondering about the vagaries of human behavior.

When he reached the low, wrought-iron fence surrounding the grave, Scott's eyes were drawn to the stars, twinkling like diamonds on the black velvet of the night sky. The moon was as beautiful as it was glacial; surrounded by a hazy golden halo. He came here often; was drawn by the sense of companionship that his visits always renewed. Always, it was the same; painful . . . always painful . . . but also comforting, reassuring, strengthening. When at last he spoke, Scott's voice was low, as though in deference to the silence of the night.

“Merry Christmas, Johnny. I wish you could have seen everyone gathered tonight. The Lancers have become quite a clan.” He laughed. “Murdoch Lancer has his own clan! And don't you think he isn't proud of that.”

The older brother's next words reflected his smile. “I'm going to be a grandfather again! Josh and Dora told us tonight. You would probably have laughed yourself sick at Margaret's face; mine too, I'm sure. And don't' even get me started on our father, the great-grandfather! You know how he's always been about Margaret; well, let me tell you, brother, he's off to a blazing start with Dora too. She can do no wrong and woe unto anyone – including her husband – who so much as brings a frown to that pretty face.” Scott's amusement morphed into a sigh, producing a cloud of vapor in the cold night air.

“You were missed, Johnny. As always.” Gray-blue eyes, blinked back a sudden mistiness, and a gloved hand brushed the marker. There was not enough light to see the carving but the images were engraved on Scott's soul more surely that in the granite. Beneath the flowing image of a galloping horse, the words were deeply inscribed:

John Michael Lancer

December 23, 1848

September 4, 1872

Beloved son, brother, and friend

Too well – far too well – did the elder brother remember the agonizing discussion of what to put on that wholly inadequate monument to a remarkable man. In the end, the people who loved and knew him best decided on plain words. The vibrant soul that was Johnny simply could not be committed to inanimate stone; gunfighter and rancher; brash young man, wise old soul, and shy child; Madrid and Lancer. To those who cherished him the memories were as bright as his smile; the rest of the world didn't matter.

“You should have been there, Johnny.” A whuffle from Genghis broke the ensuing stillness and Scott glanced around to be sure the horse was alright and still where he was supposed be. When he turned back, the cultured voice was husky. “Sometimes, little brother, I would almost swear you are.”

Banked grief welled up to clog his throat. His voice dropped to a barely audible murmur. “Maybe I'm getting old – hell, I know I'm getting old after a day in the saddle - but lately I've started wondering if maybe you can see it all. I don't want to sound like I've fallen prey to Murdoch's ghosties and goblins but . . . God, Johnny! Sometimes I feel as though you're right beside me; that, if I just turn around, you'll be there.” The voice faltered and his eyes closed against unmanly tears.

“Even after all these years, I catch myself thinking that I want to tell you about something because it will make you laugh or . . . whatever . . . and for that one instant . . .” He faltered to a stop. “Okay, okay, maybe my mind is going even faster than the rest of me; I'm getting maudlin' in my old age.”

His eyes swept the dark horizon once again, then dropped, hand propped idly on his gun as though debating his next admission. His mouth quirked upward in his weathered face. “Or just maybe its Murdoch's Gaelic blood.”

“Do you remember our esteemed father ever talking about his grandmother having the ‘second sight'? I'm pretty sure I never heard about it until that night when Beth was so sick; actually the next day when I had the most . . . extraordinary . . . conversation with our father. But I've wondered, brother. Oh, I told Murdoch at the time that it was crazy. We're living in the modern world, not some remote corner of the Highlands; and all that Gaelic lore about ghosts and magic and sidhe . . . but that hasn't stopped his words from coming back.” The lips curved a bit more. “Would it be too apt to say they haunt me from time to time?”

Oh, he tells a darn good tale; you know that. He can hold his audience in the palm of his hand when he gets to going on about heroes and ancient battles and selchidh and wizards . . .” The voice faltered, “and spirits.”

Led by the words back to the path he somehow felt compelled to tread, the reluctant man plunged ahead. “Anyway, he told me Great-Grandmother just knew things . . . like her youngest son being badly injured at the moment it happened in a village miles away – long before they received word. He also claimed she could sense – sometimes even see or hear – ghosts; especially the spirit of her late husband whom she insisted was frequently about watching over the family.”

This time the small smile had a quixotic quality. “I've never believed in ghosts – not since I was a kid at any rate - but those stories started me wondering about your 'gunfighter senses'. So often you could just feel trouble; feel something wrong. I know you were good at reading people – had to be to stay alive – but maybe there was even more of Murdoch in you than we knew.” The chuckle was low and warm. “Not that we didn't know you two were cut from the same bolt of cloth; God help us, everyone in the valley must have known when you two butted heads!”

In another abrupt change of mood, he went on, “Maybe I have some of it too - ‘sixth sense', that is; not the extra helping of explosive temper, bull-headed stubbornness, and colossal pride you apparently inherited from the old man.”

He cleared his throat, striving to regain familiar ground. “Alright! Maybe I am in my dotage. Or maybe that Gaelic heritage is a just a vivid imagination, not Great-Grandmother's ‘second sight'.”

The stillness was profound. When he went on, Scott's soft tones were further muffled by his bent head. “I just miss you so much, Johnny. What I wouldn't give to see that smile – or even that infuriating smirk; to hear your voice . . .”

This time the sigh verged on a moan of visceral grief precipitately displaced by impotent rage. “Why?! Why did it have to happen? Why couldn't I save you?” Bottomless pits of torment and fury scanned the vastness of the night. “Why . . . I would have given anything . . . would give anything right now to have my brother back.”

“Anything, Scott Lancer? Would you give up your own life? The lives of your children?”

Startled, Scott stumbled backward, drawing his gun. What he saw was so remote from his turbulent emotions and so totally out of place on the windswept hillside that he couldn't bring his thoughts into focus. “Who? How?” Get a grip, old man; y ou're stuttering like a fool , he told himself fiercely. Swallowing his twanging nerves, he tried again. “Ma'am, who are you and what are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

The woman was illuminated by the moonlight as though standing in the glow of a lamp. She was young; stylishly dressed in dark blue velvet and the matching hat sported an arching fall of long, white feathers. Her dark hair was swept up onto the back of her head and earrings sparkled in the soft light. She was not smiling, but she didn't look hostile either. Her hands were tucked into a white fur muff but she probably couldn't be concealing anything bigger than a derringer. Which could kill you just as dead as a .45 Scott reminded himself grimly.

“You may call me Christal,” she said in a voice that was low and sweet and . . . compelling. “You did not answer my question, Scott. What would you do to change what happened; to have your brother live?”

Scott watched her alertly while his mind scrambled to sort things out.  I supposed she could be deranged but that doesn't explain where she came from or how she got here; or, for that matter, why she's here – which assumes there is a why and assumptions can get you killed too. Maybe best for now to play along and try to get her down to the house. Tomorrow, we can figure out who she is and where she belongs and . . . whatever else.

He glanced around, seeking assurance that the woman was indeed alone. He couldn't imagine why someone would set up so unlikely an ambush, but he hadn't survived a war and three decades in the West by being reckless. Finding no hint of another presence, he returned his attention to the matter at hand.

“Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but you're on Lancer land in the middle of the night and you know nothing about me or my brother except what you might have just overheard. And might I add that eavesdropping in not considered polite; especially not in a place like this . . . or at a time like this. Now, why don't you tell me who you are and why you're here?”

Annoyance flitted across the beautiful face and she sighed. “As I said, you may call me Christal. Your younger brother, Johnny, died in an accident when he was twenty-three. I'm here because I am charged with . . . several things; the first of which is putting to you the question you still have not answered.”

As she spoke, Scott felt his chest tighten and his thudding heart echoed in his disbelieving ears. Yep, crazy as a loon . . . or after something . . . or both. Just get her down to the house where you have some reinforcements before she convinces you that you're as crazy as she is.

He eyed his inquisitor with what he devoutly hoped was a poker face. “Okay, I'll bite. I would have done just about anything for the chance to save my brother – including die in his place.” Nice going, Scott. What if she pulls out a gun and says she's here to reunite you with Johnny?

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why would you be willing to give up so much for Johnny? You were a young man too. You had already sacrificed a great deal to fight for a cause you believed in and suffered unspeakably. Johnny Madrid was hardly an admirable man; a hired gun with a considerable reputation for ruthlessness. It would hardly have been an equitable exchange.”

Despite his resolve, anger crept in and his next words rapped out like hammer blows. “If you know so damned much, then you should know that Johnny's life was as hard as it was short. And his ‘reputation' was mostly just that; a legend; tales told in saloons and dime novels by men who never knew him. My brother was a good man; a brave and honorable man and I'm proud to share his blood.”

Scott paused, all but panting. “ Nothing about my brother's life – or death – was fair. And I miss him . . .”

Christal's expression didn't change but her eyes held challenge. “What if I told you that you could exchange your life for Johnny's? Right now; right here; tonight.”

Fury swiftly overtook reason and Scott's seldom-seen Lancer temper flared. “Look, lady, I don't know who the hell you are or what your game is, but I do know you have no right to do this!”

Still that maddeningly placid face betrayed neither fear nor malice. “Do what? Give you your wish?”

“Play with me. What kind of sick, twisted . . .”

“Neither of those, Scott Lancer,” she cut him off. You have prayed and wished for all these years to have your brother back. Do you not believe you were heard? Do you not believe in the power you were praying to?”

“Yes, I prayed,” Scott snapped. “And no, I wasn't heard; not that day in the corral when Johnny was taken away from me and not in all the years since.”

The woman's dark eyes flashed with . . . impatience? Anger? “What about the night you were searching for your father? You prayed to find him alive and you did. Was your prayer heard then?”

Scott remained stonily silent although his face reflected his inner turmoil and an icy tingle raced along his spine. How does she know these things?

Christal was going on. “What about the births of your children when you prayed for the safety of your wife and each child? Weren't those prayers heard? Or the night Beth was so sick? Or when Joshua lay unconscious after his fall from the fence? You prayed most fervently and they recovered. Why do you think all those pleas were heard and not the ones concerning your brother?”

Scott heaved a sigh of sheer exasperation and holstered his gun despite the frisson of uneasiness still prickling the back of his neck. The woman probably was crazy but he couldn't help remembering the soothsayer whose dark vision had sent Johnny out on a black night searching for Murdoch along a stream. That had not been part of the scheme. And this . . . how could she possibly know these things?! Still, he saw no hint of imminent danger and persuading her to accompany him to the hacienda was still the best option he could see.

“Maybe they were heard. But they weren't answered; or at least, the answer was ‘no'.”

The woman was nodding. “You were heard, Scott, but there are reasons for everything that happens. You just don't know what those reasons are; nor would they be likely to give you comfort if you were capable of comprehending them. And so we come back to the point. If I offered you the one-time opportunity to change what happened so Johnny lives, would you give up your life in the same moment and forgo all that has happened since?”

Too caught up in the bizarre situation to refute the insanity of the proposition, the blonde simply spelled out his understanding as prosaically as though discussing a cattle contract. “You're saying what if I could go back to that day and . . . I'd die instead of Johnny? I'd never get married and . . . my children would never be born and . . . everything else that has happened since then just . . . wouldn't happen?”

Christal nodded.

Fists clenched unconsciously as the silver head shook in angry frustration. “You can't offer that; no one can turn back time or change what's happened except the Almighty himself and I don't believe I've ever heard of Him doing it.”

A small smile lit the perfect features. “You are quite right; only God could do such a thing. As to the second part of that statement . . .” A minute frown flitted across her face, then it brightened again. “I believe your people might say use your head for something besides a place to hold your hat . Is that correct?” Before he could respond, she hurried on. “Of course you haven't heard of such a thing. If He did it, everything would change and no mortal would be aware.

Scott could all but feel his brain seizing up like rusty gears in a clock. It was just too much and all he could do was stare at the patently mad creature while said gears slipped and jerked. She's not the only one of questionable mental stability, Scotty. Talk about a journey down the rabbit hole; who's standing here, in the middle of the night, carrying on a perfectly sober conversation with a crazy woman about turning back time and bringing the dead back to life . . . or never having them die . . .

“You are not insane, Mr. Lancer. You are, however, annoyingly skeptical. Which brings us back yet again to the point of my being here. God can make it happen and He sent me to offer you a choice . . . well Gabriel sent me but we all know who calls the tune. On this last Christmas of the century, you can change everything that was and give Johnny back his life.”

“No!”

Scott whirled to his left, jaw dropping and heart arresting in mid-beat at the sight of his brother standing several yards up the slope, surrounded by a barely perceptible blue-white glow. “Johnny?” It was barely a whisper.

But Johnny – if it was him – was addressing the woman. “You can't do that. You can't take away my brother's life and everything that's happened in the last twenty-seven years.” He turned to his dumbstruck sibling.

“And you,” he pointed an emphatic finger, “have no right to even consider denying your children – and their children – their very existence; denying Murdoch his grandchildren. I won't let you.”

Christal drew herself up, outrage blazing. “You are not permitted to be here! The decision must be his alone!”
“No!” Johnny repeated, not breaking eye contact with his brother. “I am here and I'm not gonna let Scott throw away his life and the lives of everyone around him.”

Scott finally found his tongue. “Johnny, I don't . . . I didn't . . . is it really you?”

The shy smile, only ever seen by those closest to him, curved the young man's lips. “Yeah, Boston, it's really me.”

Scott swallowed but it didn't seem to do much to clear his throat. “Then . . . Murdoch was right? That night in Beth's room? All these years . . . the wolf?

Johnny nodded. "Lancer takes care of its own. And you all need a lot of lookin' after!”

Scott sank slowly to his knees as the impact of what he was witnessing hit him. His gaze never left his brother. Johnny stood before him unchanged – exactly as he looked in the portrait - except for that phosphorescent glow that reflected so unnervingly in his blue eyes.

“Why? How? I thought . . . all these years . . . you're . . . wasn't there someplace you were supposed to go . . . someplace . . . better?”

Johnny's laugh sent a surge of painful joy through the kneeling man. “According to most of those padres, a ‘better' place wasn't where ol' Johnny Madrid was headed.”

One small cubbyhole of Scott's mind informed him solemnly that he was dreaming, hallucinating, or just plain losing his mind. Another nook, caring only for the much-loved presence, sharply told the logical corner to just shut up and butt out. Still a third voice chimed in, taking control. “I don't believe that. You're a good man; Father Vicente knew that.” A short pause before Scott inquired gently. “Do you know he presided at your funeral and said masses for you?”

Johnny nodded, the gentle, bashful smile back at the memory of how kindly Morro Coyo's priest had dealt with Johnny Madrid. “Yeah he was a good man. But . . . a better place than Lancer? What place could possibly be better than the only home I've ever known and the only real family I ever had? The only place in my whole life I felt safe and . . . well, loved.”

His shrug was eloquent. There's another place but I wanted to stay here . . . with you and Murdoch and Teresa and Jelly. And then, there's Beth.” The smile sparked brighter across his face. “We're friends. She's a great kid; chip off the old Lancer block.”

Scott started to speak, choked on the words, cleared his throat, and tried again. “Beth . . . you . . . you were her imaginary friend?”

Johnny laughed again. “Still am – her friend, not imaginary.” The dark head shook slowly. “You know, Boston, sometimes I get so proud of you and then, other times, you're just about as dumb as a post.” The head tilted, and Scott felt the impact of the fiendish expression. “Or maybe, big brother, there's more of ol' Murdoch in you than we thought; like a wide streak of pure bull-headed stubbornness. Your daughter inherited Great-Grandma Lancer's gift; the one you were just tellin' me about? She's always been able to see and hear me.” A diffident toss of the head accompanied a scuffing boot. “Most kids can but their folks keep tellin' them it's not real and eventually they . . . shut it out. Beth's different but she learned to hide it once she figured out that most people don't understand.”

The young man shifted timorously and his hands played absently with the glowing conchos along his pant legs. “Josh knows too. That day at South Creek was the hardest thing I've ever done.”

Scott's mouth opened but no sound emerged; his son had never mentioned the ‘stranger' again after that day in the greatroom.

Johnny went on. “If he'd been a year older or a whit less Lancer, I couldn't have pulled it off; damn near me drained me right out of existence but I couldn't think of any other way to stop him.”

“It was reckless and inexcusably blatant,” Cristal clipped. “You revealed yourself openly and paid a high price for your defiance.”

Johnny shot his most vexatious smirk at her. “Got it done. Maybe if I'd looked as old as Murdoch, he wouldn't have caught on. Then again . . . he's a smart boy and a Lancer to boot!” The smirk edged into indignation. “Besides, you never told me that gettin' too close to someone with that magical Highland blood – especially a blood relation - could get me tangled up ‘em in their mind or whatever!” Johnny's volume rose with his rancor. “ And , if he hadn't had that damned dream, he probably would never have made the connection anyway and I didn't do that!”

He turned back to Scott, the anger draining out in a long sigh. “Look, Scott, I know all this is confusing, but, much as it gigs me to agree with Miss Know-It-All, there are just some things I can't explain. Hell, I don't understand some of them. I just know there are limits to what I can do . . . mostly to what I'm allowed to do,” he finished with a snarl at his feminine tormentor. A bumptious grim was directed at Scott but Christal couldn't possibly have missed it. “And you know how good I am at takin' orders.”

“That certainly hasn't changed,” Christal's acerbic barb snagged the gauntlet.

Scott had been observing the verbal duel with mounting confusion. “I take it you two know each other?”

Johnny's “Something like that,” was more flung at Christal than directed at Scott. Studiously not looking at his adversary, he continued addressing his brother. “If someone's special – like Beth – that's sort of different . . . “Doesn't matter anyhow. All that matters is that I did it and Josh is safe.” In the bat of an eye the brash smile was back. “And he's gonna make you a grandpa again, Boston!”

In one of those quicksilver shifts of mood that was so Johnny, the sass was gone and the young man's face fell, the aura dimming perceptibly. “You hear me and sense me sometimes too, brother. You've just never been willing to let yourself believe it.”

Then the moment was past. When dark blue eyes lifted to gray-blue, they held nothing but determination and the voice was filled with brisk sureness. “What matters is that I'm here; always have been. I'm here ,” he repeated more forcefully, “and you're not gonna do something stupid, Scott.”

“Enough!” Christal cut in. “You must leave. You must allow your brother to make his own free choice.” She flipped her hands outward and the light around Johnny flared. He staggered back a step, then braced himself. White light sparked around Johnny's blue-white nimbus but he stood firm, hands palm-out in front of him, eyes closed in concentration. The blue light pulsed like a heartbeat, growing stronger with each surge until Christal broke off the assault with a gasp – whether of surprise or indignation was impossible to tell.

Johnny opened his eyes, glaring at his nemesis. “Look, I know I can't win this in the long run but you know I'm not gonna quit. You can push me all the way to Hell and I'll come back. I can't let my brother do this. It's not fair to Scott or Margaret or his kids or Murdoch or Lancer and all the people who depend on it.”

While Johnny was talking, Scott had swung back toward the mysterious woman. “Are you an angel of some kind?”

The incongruous question took her completely by surprise. In the moment required to reorder her attention, Johnny chuffed caustically. “Only if there's such a thing as a heavenly gunhawk. Miss Christal there is tough as boot leather, has a tongue like a knife, and she's about as bad-tempered as a cougar with a toothache.” The gunfighter's unrepentant grin was razor sharp. “Probably how come she got stuck mindin' me.”

“Another thing that never changes; your brother's mouth,” she snipped with a telling look at Johnny.

“What I am – or am not – is irrelevant. Time is short, Scott. Regardless of anyting your miscreant brother says, the decision is yours. Do you want to change events so Johnny lives even if it means the end of your life and . . . an altered reality for everyone and everything since that day?”

Johnny opened his mouth and she clenched a raised hand; murmured a word. Again the blue-white aura flared and – to the young man's bitter frustration – he was unable to speak.

Hands braced against his legs, Scott was looking down at the winter-cold ground beneath his knees, his mind in a ferment. His sanity or lack thereof was no longer even an issue. Somehow, this was happening and he had an impossible decision to make. How could he turn his back on the brother who had already given so many years to guarding his family – sometimes at risk of his own . . . existence had he said? Christal had implied that it had been potentially more. What more could there be? You probably don't want to know . . .

On the other hand, how could he, as Johnny had said, deny his children and grandchildren their very existence? Anguish so deep, so profound that it threatened to physically tear him apart blossomed in a dark wave and Scott Lancer did what he had not done since the day his beloved brother died in his arms; he sobbed inconsolably.

For an infinite - and infinitesimal - span the broken sobs were the only sound on the ridge. Christal waited and Johnny fumed and struggled against her proscription.

At long last, Scott raised streaming eyes to his brother. “Johnny, forgive me, I can't . . .” His voice trailed off and he turned his attention back to the strange woman who watched him with such dispassionate eyes. “Why?” he choked out. “Why isn't my life enough? That you can have – willingly! Please, take my life and give Johnny back his. Just please promise me that my wife and children will still exist and be happy in this . . . altered reality. Can't you do that much?”

Something shifted in the dark eyes. The voice was again low and soft. “That is not how it works, Scott. There are only two choices before you. And I believe you have made yours.”

“No!” The voice was so choked, so broken, the words that followed were almost indecipherable. “I can't. What are you? Is this God's idea of a grotesque joke? What kind of God could demand such a ‘choice'?!” Cheeks wet, hands fisted as though clinging desperately to the last shred of his soul, the riven man whispered, “How can you force me to choose between my brother and my children?”

Our children, Scott.” Johnny's voice was emphatically quiet but Christal's head snapped around at the sound of it as though he had slapped her. “They're not just your children. We all share the old man's blood; Lancer blood. They're the future we talked about and dreamed about; that we worked for and fought for. There is no choice, brother.”

Scott managed to lift his head, meeting his brother's eyes and found them full of . . . sadness – yes; anger, oh yes . . . but also satisfaction; contentment; and love.

“How can you be so . . . so . . . God, Johnny! It was the only good thing that ever happened to you and it was all snatched away that day . . . that instant . . . and . . . I didn't save you. And now, when - assuming any part of this is real - there's a chance to give you back your life, you're telling me not to?”

Johnny's eyes – and whatever they might have revealed - were veiled by his dark lashes. His voice, however, remained firm. “I won't say I don't have regrets, Scott; about a lot of things. But everything I said is true and you know it. And sure as hell ,” deep-seated anger sharpened the voice, “none of what happened was your fault. You been carryin' that load of guilt for nearly thirty years; don't you think it's about time to let it go? There was nothing you could have done that day. Do you hear me?” The blue eyes glowed with a disconcerting light as they fixed on Scott's bleary ones. “Do. You. Hear. Me?”

“I hear you, brother, but that doesn't mean . . .”

Christal had been shifting impatiently. Her arms were now crossed as her head swiveled back and forth following the argument. “Johnny!” The glare she sent Johnny's way could have melted iron. “You have said quite enough about matters that you are enjoined not to interfere with. You know what the consequences will be if you persist in challenging the canons.”

Many men had quailed before the cold, blue fire now turned on Christal; those who had not paid dearly for their disregard. On that moon-bright ridge in the dark hours of the last Christmas morning of the 19th century, two unbending wills battled for an immeasurable instant. Then the valiant spirit that was both Madrid and Lancer turned resolutely from the weight of that implacable countenance to the one thing that held meaning right there; right then; for all eternity as far as Johnny was concerned.

Ignoring Christal completely, he planted his hands on his hips. “Dammmit, Scott! Listen to me! I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's all there was to it. What could you possibly have done in that split second? Even if you'd had time to get a shot off, the result would have been pretty much the same. There. Was. Nothing. You. Could. Have. Done.”

Silence ensued. Christal opened her mouth, but – with an odd look missed by both brothers - refrained at Johnny's imperious gesture of denial. Scott had not raised his head. Johnny plowed ahead.

“Think, Boston! Where's all that Harvard education and calm reason? Where the hell is that Emerson fella when we need him? Just say you made this deal with the De . . .” He shot a quick glance at Christal. “No offense.” The glowing apparition advanced on the kneeling man until only a few feet separated them. “What if you did give up everything – your life, your kids, the future of Lancer . . . to change what happened that day . . . that moment?

“Johnny . . .” Christal's tone carried a warning more icy than the grave.

The nimbus of light shimmered around the spirit of the iron-willed gunfighter as he spared her one single furious glance. “Shut the hell up!”

The obdurate face shifted back, Johnny's voice rough with desperation. “There's nothing to say I wouldn't break my neck a week later on another bangtail. Or that some yahoo wouldn't show up to gun down Johnny Madrid and I'd wind up in the ground right next to you. What would happen to Lancer then?”

Scott's attention flicked from his brother to the woman, instantly realizing the truth in what Johnny had said and his anger soared anew – more at himself for letting his emotions run away with his brain than at her for not pointing out that particular aspect of an . . . altered reality.

The irate ghost looming over him drew the silver-haired rancher back. That same tiny nook in his overburdened mind chittered that he should be terrified but Scott was way past listening with anything except his heart. Where's Emerson when we need him – Give all to love; obey thy heart.

As he looked up into the face of his brother . . . his best friend . . . that part of himself that Scott had never known was missing until he came to Lancer, the blue-white aura flickered out, and Johnny knelt beside his brother, drawing the older man into a fierce hug. “There is no choice, Scott. Now, you tell her what you need to tell her and go home to our family.”

They knelt there, heads together, reveling in each other's presence for moments both timeless and fleeting.

Eventually, both turned toward the waiting woman. Tightening his grip on Johnny still more, Scott reluctantly nodded.

Christal was smiling . . . and the smile somehow kindled an iridescent corona that blossomed into a growing globe of golden light around her.

“Love has power, Scott.” The voice that had been so sharp – so menacing – so inexorable – now resonated as gently as wind chimes in a summer breeze. “Souls are tethered to this mortal plane in two ways. Some are bound to a place by anger, grief, or pain. Others are anchored by love. Johnny wanted to remain here . . . fiercely, as is your brother's nature . . . with his family in the place he loves above all others. He made that choice. Making it so required a formidable force of will on his part, but even a soul as passionate and determined as Johnny cannot do it alone. The love of his family and his constant presence in your hearts fed his spirit and created the power he used to linger in this world and help those he loves.”

The outline of dress and hat were gradually softening, merging with the golden mantle.

“The Power That Is, mortal Lancer, is neither male nor female; cruelty, injustice – darkness of any kind - are no part of it. But it is infinitely beyond your comprehension. All you need to know is that you were indeed offered an impossible choice – there was a reason, just as there is a reason for everything. You faced that choice courageously and would have willingly broken your own heart – given up your life and your very existence – for that which you hold dear.”

The glow surrounding the being who named herself Christal flared, seeming to draw her now-nebulous form into itself.

“Johnny, for all these years you have bided on the edge of the mortal world, faithfully guarding your family; often at great cost. Tonight, you proved yourself willing to defy the very power that set creation in motion to protect them once again – knowing full well the futility of that battle; knowing the price of that temerity could well be your immortal soul. Love has power . . .” A sweep of opalescent rainbow that might have been outflung arms rippled through the shimmering light. “Sometimes . . . the power to remake the world.”

As the last echoing words were spoken, a shower of diamond-bright sparks exploded, slowly dissipating into the still-growing circumference of coruscating incandescence. White-hot flashes of star-fire flared and danced  and streaming ribbons of colors too impossibly intense for mortal eyes to endure spiraled through the pulsing aurora as it expanded . . . expanded . . . snowballing outward to encompass the entire top of the ridge.

Still clinging together, the brothers instinctively turned away, shielding their eyes from the unbearable brilliance. The shattering peals of a thousand crystal bells crashed across the night . . .

~ L ~ L ~ L ~ L ~

Scott Lancer leaned on the top rail of the corral, a booted foot on the lowest rung while he watched his brother breaking a horse – or being broken by a horse; the question appeared to be up in the air at the moment. Even as the thought crossed the blonde rancher's mind, Johnny arched through the air, tucking gracefully, and rolling to a stop flat of his back on the hard-packed earth. Lancer hands, who had been sitting on the fence observing the show, leaped down to haze the still-bucking horse away from his fallen rider.

Scott nimbly hopped the fence, trotting across to crouch beside Johnny. “Are you alright, brother?”

Eyes still closed, Johnny's mouth quirked into a sarcastic smirk. “Dandy, Boston. Fine as frog hair. I just need a minute to catch my breath.”

Scott waited patiently until the blue eyes opened and his brother began to move. The younger man's first effort at mobility ended abruptly with a moan as what would probably be several spectacular new bruises announced themselves.

“Maybe one more minute.”

“Come on, little brother. Time to call it a day and have a nice hot bath and a drink . . . or two.”

Johnny's eyes opened once again to see Scott's hand held out. Ignoring the proffered assistance, the ex-gunfighter began to struggle to his feet. “I can make it,” he huffed.

“Famous last words.” Scott quipped, withdrawing the offending hand.

Dogged determination got Johnny as far as his knees. After a moment's consideration, he bestowed a crooked, sideways grin on his sibling. “Okay, Boston, I guess a little help would be good.”

Grinning from ear-to-ear, Scott heaved his groaning brother to his feet but backed off quickly when Johnny began to whack the clinging dust from his clothes, raising a choking cloud in the process. Finally giving it up as a hopeless task, the young man waved an arm at the hands holding the horse. “Bring him on!”

Without conscious thought, Scott grabbed his brother's arm. “No!”

Johnny pulled away, turning to look at his ‘big brother'. “What?”

Scott struggled desperately to collect what could not be remotely described as coherent thoughts. They . . . whatever they were . . . were too visceral to be termed ‘thought', let alone pinned down or analyzed. He only knew . . . knew . . . as sure as life and love that he could not allow Johnny to mount that horse again today. When at last he found his voice, it sounded stilted even to his own ears. “Don't you think you've done enough for today? I mean, you worked two horses this morning and this one's thrown you twice. Give over, brother; he'll still be here tomorrow.”

Johnny's slightly affronted looked morphed into a smile. “Third time's the charm, big brother!”

Scott's hand snaked out once more. “Johnny, please. Humor me.” Assuming a tone of neutral reason – by dent of great concentration – the elder Lancer continued. “Look, you're not going to be able to get out of bed tomorrow as it is. A hot soak, a couple of drinks, a good dinner, and a full night's sleep will do wonders for you. I'll even get some of Jelly's liniment for you.”

 Johnny jerked his arm forcefully away, turning a puzzled frown on his sibling. “Scott, what's gotten into you? You think I can't get the best of that beast?” Heavy silence reigned for two heartbeats as the brothers glared at each other.

“And there is no way in hell you're getting' near me with Jelly's liniment. That stuff would make a skunk sit down and cry. The one time I let him talk me into usin' it, I had to take two baths before Barranca would let me near him!”

Driven by an icy foreboding he did not understand, Scott gripped his temper firmly in both hands and tried one last time. “Johnny, please. I don't doubt your ability or tenacity in the least. But I'm begging you. Indulge me just this once. Quit for the day. Please.”

The younger man gazed into his brother's gray-blue eyes, searching for what Scott was not saying. All he saw was uncertainty and . . . fear? For whatever reason, Scott was afraid for him. The realization hit Johnny like a sledgehammer between the eyes, instantaneously smoothing the raised hackles. He cares about me; he's worried about me. Things that Johnny Madrid would have bet his life he would never know from another human being . . . until Scott.

The dark blue eyes dropped, reluctant to reveal too much of himself even after more than two years; even to Scott. Capitulation came with a shy smile. “Okay, brother. You win. And you're probably right. I'll be moanin' and groanin' in the morning with a whole new set of bruises.”

Relief such as he had never experienced in his entire life – not even on his release from Libby – flooded through Scott, washing away the dark waves that had threatened to overwhelm him. He threw his arm across his brother's shoulders and turned him toward the house.

Johnny turned back, waving at the hands holding the horse. “I've had enough for today, boys. Thanks but let him go.”

Scott was just swinging a leg over the fence, Johnny right behind, when a spitting, snarling cacophony shattered the afternoon and two balls of flying fur burst from the barn trailing a small whirlwind of dust. The cat squirted under the corral fence; the hotly pursuing dog slithered between the bottom two rails and the multi-legged tornado tore across the corral right under the belly of the just-released mustang.

With a bone-chilling scream of terror, half-a-ton of panicked horse rose straight up into the air, staggered a step, and crashed into the fence. Scrambling up, the maddened horse lashed out, murderous hind legs splitting a rail. Men scurried out of the way, lunging over the fence as the animal bucked his way around the enclosure.

By the time anyone actually realized what had happened, it was all over. The cat executed a mid-air pivot and headed back for the safety of the barn. The dog slewed sideways in an effort to follow suit, skidding a few feet on his hindquarters before regaining his legs and resuming the chase.

As the speeding catastrophe retreated, fight gave way to determined flight and the horse circled the corral, stride lengthening until, with a final powerful bound, he levitated neatly over the fence, running full-out across the meadows toward the mountains.

Two vaqueros dashed toward the barn to collect their gear only to slide to a stop at Johnny's shrill whistle. The Lancer brothers were still sitting atop the fence watching the slowly settling cloud of dust. The younger man waved the hands off. “Let him go. We'll worry about it tomorrow.”

The dark-haired man jumped lightly to the ground. “Come on, Boston. Let's get that hot bath and stiff drink you were talking about. I could eat too.”

Scott was still sitting on the fence, gaze fixed on the empty pasture across which the horse had fled.

“Scott? What'sa matter?”

Slowly, the older brother turned to look down. “Johnny, if you had tried again . . .”

“Huh?”

“If you had gotten back on that horse and . . .” his arm waved in a vague gesture of inclusion.

Finally understanding what was bothering Scott, Johnny looked up, biting his lip and hands planted on hips. “Didn't happen, brother.”

“But it could have . . . it would have if . . .”

“Scott, you tellin' me you had a premonition or something?”

The blonde found he couldn't meet his brother's eyes. “Or something.”

The engaging smile flashed in the dirty face. “Well, whatever it was, I'm grateful. My backside's been busted enough for one day. Now let's get cleaned up and I'll see if I can wheedle something from Maria or Teresa to tide us over ‘til supper.”

A firm hand gripped Scott's wrist and pulled him off the fence. Deciding in the infinity between two heartbeats that he didn't want to think about what had almost happened or why it hadn't, the former Boston gentlemen draped his arm once more across the shoulders of the ex-gunfighter.

They had taken no more than half a dozen steps when Johnny asked, “Do you think Garth Whittaker is gonna ask Teresa to marry him?”

“What brought that on?”

“You mean you haven't noticed her mooning around the house, humming, and acting strange?

“Strange how?”

“Well, yesterday, I walked into the greatroom and she was dancin' with a dustrag.”

“What?”

“Yep, had it out in front of her, waltzing away. When I asked her what she was doin', she damn near took my head off.”

Choking a bit at the picture presented – the infamous Johnny Madrid having his ears pinned back by a tiny, infuriated young woman with blood in her eye - Scott managed to merely nodded sagely. “I predict a Christmas engagement and a wedding not later than next summer.”

Johnny stopped. “You think so?”

An emphatic nod. “Oh, yes. They have it bad. And if you want a word of advice from your older, vastly more experienced brother, you'll keep your mouth shut around Teresa and Garth. First of all, you wouldn't want to hurt Teresa's feelings. I mean, seriously, do you want to make her cry?”

“She wasn't cryin', Scott. That girl was just plain pissed off.”

“All the more reason for restraint. She does know how to use a gun. Also, you might consider that we will more than likely be in the same situation one day . . .”

“In love with each other? Sorry, Boston, you just ain't my type. Ouch!”

Scott continued walking, trailed by Johnny ruefully massaging the back of his head.

“And I, for one, do not appreciate being the butt of unseemly jests – especially where matters of the heart are concerned.”

“You mean like when you came after me for joshing you about that Irish girl?”

“Just like that – only worse. Conceivably much, much worse. Therefore, we will take the high road and be nothing but happy and supportive of our little sister . . . and her fiancé.”

A surreptitious glance at his brother reinforced Scott's suspicion that Johnny'd had some deviltry in mind. The boy's eyes were cloaked by his long, dark lashes – which admittedly didn't mean much – but something in his face suggested he was thinking hard about his brother's words

“Guess you have a point. Wouldn't want to hurt her feelings. Women sure are funny that way; start cryin' at the drop of a hat.”

Sending up a prayer of thanksgiving, Scott added for good measure, “And if that's not enough incentive, brother mine, you might consider some other potential repercussions of your wayward humor.”

Johnny pulled Scott to a halt. “Sermon's over, brother. And you're right. I wouldn't purposely do anything to hurt Teresa . . . what other repercussions?”

“Well, for instance, enraging pretty much every living soul at Lancer, including Jelly, Maria – who might never cook for you again – and me. Then, there's the distinct possibility of Murdoch's wrath . . .”

“Okay, okay, I get the picture. No kidding about bein' in love or getting' married or dancin' or anything. I'll be good; promise.”

“Very astute decision.”

They started walking again.

“You know what's really scary, Boston?”

“Do tell.”

“Its gettin' so I understand those big words you throw around.”

“That's a good thing, little brother. Improving your vocabulary broadens your mind; gives you new perspective on the world . . .

“Scott?”

“What?”

“Well, Garth's a good man and I like him and all, but he'd better be good to her or . . .”

Together, the brothers walked into the house.




 

~ end ~

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