Johnny’s Girl by Desert Sun

Word Count 79,891


(This story fills in a week-long gap in the Lancer episode titled “The Heart of Pony Alice” and adds to its ending.  It was originally posted to the Lancer_Writers group on Yahoo over a ten-year period that began in 2002 and ended on November 19, 2012.  A few minor characters are my own creation, but most of the characters are from the Lancer series.  Two characters you should recognize as being from another popular TV Western that took place in the later 1870’s.  For my story, I figure the Pony Alice episode took place in the spring of 1871, about a year after the opening episode to the series.)


Chapter 1

Trees cast long shadows as the late-afternoon sun spread a warm glow across the rolling landscape and the sweet melodious sound of birds singing here and there filled the air with music.  The lean, dark-haired rider was oblivious to it all.  His mind was too preoccupied with memories invoked by the arms that were loosely wrapped around his waist.

A soft tendril of long hair, the color of the pale mane of the rider’s horse, fluttered in the wind, caressed the young man’s face, and tickled his nose.  The feathery touch on his sore cheek reminded him of the fracas he had been in the day before.  He grimaced.  Wish I could’ve skinned my knuckles just once on that crook’s jawbone.  Should’ve known he’d weasel out of it somehow.  Sure didn’t expect him to pay some big brute to take his place, though.  S’pose I should be thankful he didn’t waste any time knocking me out.  Could’ve been busted up a whole lot worse.

The trail dipped gently into a shallow gully and rose sharply up the other side.  Small arms tightened their grip around the man’s waist as the form behind him slipped backward during the climb and then scooted forward against his back when the horse reached level ground again.

“How much further we gotta go, Johnny?”

Johnny Lancer was dragged from his thoughts by the girl’s plaintive voice. “Another couple hours or so.”

Pony Alice Guthrie rested her head against Johnny’s back and they continued on in silence.

About a mile farther on, they stopped beneath the spreading limbs of a large oak tree.  Johnny swung his right leg over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground.  Upon dropping the reins to dangle on the ground, he faced his passenger, reached up, and gently swung her down beside him.

Johnny retrieved the canteen that was hanging from the saddle horn.  He loosened the cap and held it out to the girl.  “Thirsty?”

Her answer was a slight nod and eager hands reaching for the canteen.

While Pony Alice took a few big swallows of the water that would have warmed during their time on the trail, Johnny moved closer to the trunk of the tree.  He leaned against its solid support, and folded his arms.  “Sit down and relax a while,” he said.

Pony brusquely replied, “I ain’t tired.  No need to rest on my ‘count.”  Her chin lifted a little higher as her green eyes proudly looked into his deep blue ones.  “I kin ride all day ‘thout stoppin’, if need be.”

Johnny grinned, a slight chuckle rumbling in his chest.  As he slid his body down into a sitting position, he softly drawled, “Well . . . maybe you’re not tired, but I am. I could use a drink too, so why don’t you bring the canteen over and sit here by me.”  He patted the patch of ground beside him.

Pony Alice flopped down next to Johnny.  Upon handing him the water, she leaned back and ran her small, tapered fingers across her forehead to brush a few stray strands of hair from her eyes.  “You think it’ll be all right?  You takin’ me with you, I mean.  Your pa ain’t gonna be mad, is he?”

He set the canteen aside and puckered his mouth into an “o”, while he took a moment to think.   “No.  Murdoch won’t mind . . . long as you behave yourself, that is.”  He reached out and playfully tweaked the end of her nose.

She scooted away from him and wrinkled her upper lip.  A frown quickly puckered her pale eyebrows.  “You don’t s’pose he’d beat me . . . do you?”

Johnny shrugged.  “He might.”

Instantly, the girl’s eyes appeared to grow larger. Johnny grasped her hands and pulled her closer.  “Don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to beat you.  Not while I’m around, anyway.”

She let out a soft sigh.  Her head pressed against his chest as she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a tight squeeze.

When Pony released her hold and drew away, Johnny slowly rose to his feet.  He linked his fingers, palms facing away from him, and stretched out his arms.  “Guess we’d better go.  Don’t wanna be late for supper.”

Johnny moved over to his horse.  He grasped the dangling reins with his left hand and motioned for the girl to come closer.  “Barranca likes his meals on time, too.  We best get mounted before he takes a notion to hightail it for home without us.”

A moment later, they were in the saddle and headed toward the flat-topped ridge less than a mile to the south of them.

When they reached the base of Black Mesa, Johnny kept the palomino to a fast walk on the trail that snaked upward for a thousand feet or more.  Having complete faith in his horse’s judgment, Johnny let his thoughts center upon the girl clinging to him.

She’s a pretty thing. Would be a knockout with her hair all fixed up in ribbons the way Teresa does hers.  Needs a dress, though.  Better take her to town first thing and buy her some clothes.  Needs shoes, too.  Better take Teresa along. She’ll know what to get her.

More thoughts crowded in.  She sure is something: smart as a whip, a hard worker, and full of spunk–my kind of girl.  I can’t believe the way she acted back there in town. Most girls would’ve cried, but not her.  She’s got too much courage and pride for that.

Barranca’s rhythm never faltered, and Johnny barely noticed Alice’s weight pulling at him from behind.  He was too deep in thought to notice much of anything.  Sure can’t understand why her uncle was so set on pawnin’ her off.  I’d like to pound some sense into that no-good, sidewinder’s head.  He’s nothing but a worthless drunk and a coward to boot.  Too bad the sheriff had to butt in.

Johnny tried to force his thoughts onto something more pleasant but only succeeded in shifting them in a new direction that was every bit as disturbing.  Wonder what my old man’ll have to say when he finds out I lost my gun and all my money.  Probably won’t be too thrilled about me bringin’ a girl home, either.

The ground leveled out.  For half a mile or better the land resembled a tabletop before breaking off into a much larger valley where the ranch headquarters lay.  Johnny, in need of a diversion from his present thoughts, urged Barranca into a gallop.  At the girl’s squeal of delight, he pushed the golden horse into an all-out run and let him race at full speed to the other side of the mesa.

When Johnny slowed the horse down again, he was in a much lighter mood, which was for the most part brought on by Pony Alice’s obvious pleasure in the race.  He purposely shoved all of the disturbing thoughts from his mind and concentrated on enjoying the girl’s company the rest of the way home.

Johnny’s mood changed as they drew closer to the headquarters of the Lancer Ranch and his former worries returned.  The girl clinging to him from behind was not going to be easy to explain, and he desperately hoped that no one would see him ride in.

When they reached the barn, no one was in sight. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. Luck, for once it seemed, was smiling on him.  He stripped the saddle from Barranca’s back and had Pony help him give the horse a quick rubdown.  Once the animal was turned out into the pasture beside the barn, Johnny led Alice toward the large, white-walled hacienda.

Johnny hesitated at the corner of the stone-walled courtyard to the left of the main entry door.  If they went in that way, his father might see them.  That would never do.  He needed to talk to Murdoch alone.

Entering by way of the kitchen seemed the best solution.  Johnny turned to his left, crossed in front of the courtyard and made his way around to the far side of the house.  When he reached to kitchen door, he took a deep breath and eased it open a crack so he could peek inside.

The room was quiet except for a soft humming that seemed to come from dark-haired girl who was putting the finishing touches on a cake. As far as Johnny could tell, she was alone.

“T’resa?” Johnny called out in little more than a whisper.

When his father’s sixteen-year-old ward looked in his direction, her face broke into a smile.  The icing-covered spatula dropped from her hand and clattered on the table as Teresa shouted, “Johnny!  You’re back!”

He quickly touched a finger to his lips.  “Shh.  Don’t want Murdoch to know I’m here, yet.  Could you come outside a minute?  I got a favor to ask.”

Teresa tipped her head a little to one side. “All right, but I’m making no promises.” She walked over to Johnny, scowled, and shook a finger at him.  “This had better not take very long.  Murdoch’s getting grumpy.  Supper’s already twenty minutes late.”

Johnny stepped back outside and moved to one side.  He took a deep breath and held it as he watched Teresa come through the open doorway.

Her jaw sagged as she halted.  One hand rose to point at the flaxen-haired girl in blue overalls and a blue plaid shirt, who was standing beside Johnny.  “Who?” Teresa silently mouthed the word as her questioning eyes sought his.

He ignored the unspoken question and grinned sheepishly.  “That’s the favor I wanted to ask.  She’ll need a room.  I thought you could take her on upstairs while I go talk to Murdoch . . . privately.  Oh, and could you see that she gets washed up for supper?  Or have Maria do it if she’s here.”  The pleading in his blue eyes intensified.  “You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”

Teresa gave Johnny that slow shake of her head that said, what have you gotten yourself into this time?   However, the only words that came out of her mouth were, “It’s going to cost you, and believe me, this favor is not going to come cheap.”

Johnny flashed her a dazzling smile and patted her on the shoulder.  “Thanks.  I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

As he started to make a move to enter the kitchen, Teresa stopped him with a sharply spoken, “Well . . . aren’t you going to introduce us?”

With a hasty “stay put” to his guest, Johnny motioned for Teresa to follow him back inside.  He closed the door and quickly whispered an explanation for the girl’s presence.

All the time he was talking, Teresa kept shaking her head and rolling her eyes.  When he finally finished his story, she chided, “Murdoch’s not going to like this.  I’m certainly glad I’m not going to be there when you tell him.”  With that, she started toward the door.

Back outside, Johnny made the necessary introductions, and Teresa led Pony Alice around the house toward the outside stairway that led to the bedrooms on the upper level.  Once they were out of sight, Johnny went back through the kitchen and headed for the large living room that also served as a dining room and office.  The easy part was over.  Now to figure out how to tell his father about the new addition to their family.    

Chapter 2

At the end of the short hallway that provided access to the kitchen as well as to entry door on the side of the house, Johnny Lancer stopped for a quick look around.  From where he stood, the fireplace alcove and seating area was immediately to his right.  A series of bookshelves lined the wall between there and the arched doorway that opened into the main entry hall, and in front them was the long dining table that would seat eight to ten people.  The wall straight across from Johnny had a series of French doors that opened out on the front porch.

The wall to the left had a tall, arched window that looked out toward the stone archway on the main road to the house.  In front of it was a large oak desk.  Murdoch Lancer was seated behind it, left elbow on the desktop, and his forehead resting on his hand.

Johnny drew in a deep breath, puffed out his cheeks, and slowly exhaled between his lips.  He raked the fingers of his left hand through his hair to push the dark strands to one side.  Why do I get myself into these messes? The Old Man’s gunna hit the roof when I tell him what I’ve done.  Hope he don’t yell too loud.  Sure would hate for Alice to hear him.  She’s had enough pain for one day.

Upon taking another deep breath, Johnny gathered his nerve and strode toward his father.  He passed the end of the sofa that was in front of the fireplace and stopped beside the table that held a large model of a sailing ship.

Murdoch Lancer looked up from the papers he was shuffling through.  “Johnny!  You’re back just in time.  The minister was by today.  He said there was a fire out at the Andrews place, yesterday.  Looks like they lost everything so the church is taking up donations to help them out.  I told him I’d deliver our donations while I’m in town in the morning for that meeting at the bank.  I’ve collected from most of the men and put in for the ranch.  Do you want to add anything to the pot?”

Absent-mindedly, Johnny drummed the tips of his fingers against the top of the table at his side. “Uh . . . I don’t have any money without going to the bank.”

“Scott said you won close to two hundred dollars in that poker game last week.  I know that horse cost you a hundred and twenty, but that still leaves close to eighty.  What did you bl . . . uh . . . do with the rest of it?”

Johnny shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  While trying to think of what to tell his father, he picked up a small, wooden carving of a seaman that was beside the model ship and bounced it in the palm of his hand.  “I didn’t blow it.  I spent it,” he said, unable to keep a slight edge from creeping into his voice in response to his father’s critical tone.

Murdoch leaned forward.  “All of it?  What about the money for the horse?  Or weren’t you able to catch up with that horse-trader?”

“Yeah, I caught him.” Johnny chewed at his lip while he continued to toy with the wooden object in his hand.  He was tired and hungry.  The last thing he wanted was a confrontation with Murdoch.  He’d had his share of them in the year since he had come to live at the Lancer ranch and they usually had a way of ending in angry words.  Maybe changing the subject would put off the inevitable. “Where’s Scott?” he asked.  “Did he get back?”

“Should be on his way home from Modesto.  I’m expecting him to get in sometime tonight–tomorrow at the latest.”  Murdoch studied Johnny for a moment.  “Didn’t you get your money back?  That is what you went after, wasn’t it?”

Johnny squirmed inside and let out a resigned sigh.  “Things didn’t work out like I planned.”

The older man took a couple of puffs on his pipe and relaxed against the back of the chair.  “Well, don’t let it worry you.  You tried.  Besides, like I told you before, it’s the thought that counts.  Tomorrow, you can turn that old horse out in that meadow east of here.  There’s plenty of tall grass and he might even put on a little weight.”

“I don’t have him,” Johnny softly drawled.

Murdoch shifted forward in his seat and his eyes searched his son’s face.  “You don’t have him.  What did you do with him?”

Johnny dropped his gaze to the wooden sailor he was turning over and over in his hand. “Uh . . . traded him.”

“Don’t tell me.  That horse trader fast talked you into a different horse and wanted more money to boot.”

Johnny flinched at the scorn he detected in Murdoch’s voice.  His temper flared but he managed to keep his voice calm.  Alice’s future was at stake.  He didn’t dare risk angering his old man.  “Not exactly,” he quietly said.

Murdoch scowled as he ran one thumb along the side of his jaw.  “Where’s your revolver?”

With a slow wag of his head and a disgusted sigh, Johnny wondered why he hadn’t thought to remove his gun-belt.  He let out a sigh and looked his father full in the face.  “I traded that, too.”

“For what?”

Johnny shrugged and his reply was barely audible.  “A girl.”

“A girl!” Murdoch’s voice thundered as his pipe slipped from his fingers and clattered on the desk.  He stood, and strode to the front corner of the desk, and stared at his son.  “You traded a horse, your pistol, and all your money for a girl?”

Swiping the side of his hand across his nose, the wooden knick-knack still grasped in his fist, Johnny nodded.

Murdoch shook his head and took another puff on his pipe. “And just how did that come about?”

“I’d like to hear about that little transaction, myself, Little Brother.”

Johnny nearly dropped the wood carving in his hand as he spun half way around to face his brother.  “Scott, don’t you know better than to sneak up on me like that from behind?  You almost made my heart stop.”

“Sorry, Brother. I didn’t think you were that easily frightened.”  Sarcasm dripped from the voice of the young man who was standing in the open end of the same hallway Johnny had come through earlier. He wiped a cookie crumb from the corner of his mouth and added, “Incidentally, I wasn’t sneaking.  You just weren’t listening.”

“I’m still waiting for an explanation.”

His father’s impatient, bass voice brought Johnny back around to face the older man.  “I’m gettin’ to it,” he said more sharply than intended.

“I’m anxious to hear this, too.  I can’t believe you were willing to part with Barranca,” Scott said as he stepped forward to join his brother.  He slung his right arm across Johnny’s shoulder and added, “She must be quite a girl.  I’d like to meet the lady.”

Johnny ducked away from his brother.  “Who said anything about Barranca?” he replied as his hopes died.  The teasing glint in Scott’s eyes was a sure sign that he would be of little help.

“So, what horse did you give away?” Scott asked.

“I didn’t give anything away. I traded.  And it’s none of your concern, anyway.  It was my horse.”

Getting nowhere with his brother, Scott cast a questioning look at their father.

“A slick horse trader tricked Johnny into thinking some old nag was a spirited buggy horse by feeding it arsenic,” Murdoch explained.  “Johnny took the horse and went after him to get his money back.  Only . . . it seems, he’s come home with neither.”

If looks could kill, Murdoch would have been dead from the glare Johnny gave him.  He would have to tell Scott about that.  Now he’ll think I’m stupid, too.

“So, Little Brother, just what did happen when you caught up with the man?  You did catch up with him . . . right?” Scott’s blue-gray eyes sparkled with amusement when Johnny looked over at him.

“I caught ‘im, all right,” Johnny said while glaring back at his sandy-haired brother who was a good two inches taller than him.

With a sly grin on his lips, Scott reached out a hand and brushed his fingers across Johnny’s discolored cheekbone.  “Looks like he put up a fight . . . or did the girl give you that?”

Johnny flinched and moved away from the touch.  “He tried . . . but he took a lot harder beatin’ than I did.”  This was stretching the truth a little.  In fact, it was stretching the truth a whole lot, but he wasn’t about to tell the other two men what had really happened.  He was sure he already looked like a fool to them, and he had no intention of making himself look worse.

Scott’s brows pinched together.  “But he still wouldn’t take back the horse and return your money?”

“He said he didn’t have the money and there wasn’t any reason not to believe him.  Besides, he promised me he’d have it this morning after he auctioned off his horses,” Johnny said with a shrug of his shoulders.  He hoped the excuse would put him in a more favorable light with his brother.

Murdoch gave his younger son a penetrating stare.  “What about the girl?  Where does she come into this?”

“That good-for-nothin’ crook’s her uncle.  After he finished selling his horses, he put her up for sale.  The owner of the saloon was the top bidder.  I couldn’t just stand there and let him have her, could I?”  Johnny tipped his head up look at his father with pleading eyes.  “What kind of life could she have workin’ in a place like that?” That wasn’t quite the truth, but Johnny told himself that a little white lie never hurt anyone.  His father and brother were going to give him a bad enough time over her, and he wasn’t about to let them think he might have been set up.

“You bought her?” Scott said in unison with their father’s, “Johnny, you didn’t.”  Scott’s eyes widened in unbelief as he fixed them on his brother.  “Johnny, what were you thinking?  Slavery is illegal.  You should know that.  Why didn’t the law try to stop you?”

Johnny stiffened.  “I didn’t exactly buy her.  Not outright.  What do you think I am, stupid?  She came with indenture papers.  The sheriff assured me it was legal.”

“And just where is this girl now?” Murdoch asked in a terse tone.

Anger surged through Johnny, but he forced himself to speak slowly and calmly.  “Upstairs . . . with Teresa.”   

“You brought her here?” Scott asked.  “What are you planning to do, keep her as your personal servant?”

Scott’s snide remark netted a withering glare from his younger brother.  “No.  I’m not going to make her my personal servant, but you didn’t expect me to leave her to fend for herself, did you?” Johnny turned and gazed with entreating eyes at his father.  “I had to bring her.  I couldn’t leave her to starve.  She won’t eat much and she can do a few chores for Teresa.  She won’t be any trouble, I promise.”

Johnny had barely finished speaking when a shrill scream, coming from the upper level of the hacienda.  Footsteps pattered down the front stairs and across the foyer.

All three men turned to watch as a small body appeared in the arched doorway at the far end of the bookcase that covered the wall opposite Murdoch’s desk.

Long tresses, the color of ripened wheat, flowed behind Alice Guthrie as she dashed past the end of the dining table and dodged the first of a pair of blue over-stuffed chairs.  “Johnny!  Johnny!” she shrieked in the high-pitched voice of a child.

Pony Alice cut in front of Scott and stumbled over the toe of his boot.  As she fell, he reached out, grabbed her by the arms, and hauled her back onto her feet.

“Let go o’ me, you dirty, rotten, low-down sidewinder!” she screamed.

“Pony!”  The word exploded from Johnny more from the tension of holding his emotions in check for so long than from exasperation at the shrill words that had just spewed from his small charge’s mouth.  Before he could voice the reprimand forming in his mind, the squirming child, still held by Scott’s firm grip, raised one foot and stomped her heel down on his foot.

Johnny heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a grunt.  An instant later, small arms wrapped tightly around his waist.  He looked down at the golden head leaning against his side.  From the girl’s ridged stance, he could picture the fiery glare she was fixing on his father and brother.

“This is what you traded a horse, your gun, and all of your money for?” Despite the touch of scorn in his voice, Scott’s eyes betrayed his amusement.

“I’m worth it,” Pony Alice retorted.  She raised her proud chin higher and her voice rang with contempt. “Which is more’n I can say for some ’round here.”

The corners of Scott’s mouth inched upward and he chuckled.  Johnny didn’t need to see the girl’s face to know why that chuckle turned into laughter that was joined by deeper-throated sounds of mirth coming from Murdoch.  He could feel the fierce glare she gave his brother in the tremor of anger that surged through her small body.

“Stop laughing!” Pony yelled as her head shifted from Scott’s direction to Murdoch.  Then turning her big round eyes upward to gaze at Johnny, she pleaded, “Johnny, make them stop.”

Johnny pulled the girl into a reassuring hug with his left arm.  “Just calm down.”

Again, footsteps sounded in the entry hall and Teresa strode into the room.  “I’m sorry, Johnny.  I couldn’t stop her,” she said, her face and voice filled with frustration.

“It’s all right.”  Johnny let out a soft sigh.  How had things gotten so out of hand?

Murdoch’s expression sobered a little as he stepped toward Johnny and Pony.  When he stopped a couple of steps away, her head slowly tipped backward.  “Are you Johnny’s old man?” she innocently asked.  Before he could answer, her tone became threatening.  “You’d better not try to whip me, ’cause if you do; Johnny says he’ll beat you up.”

A dark expression appeared on the “old man’s” face and choking sounds came from the direction of Scott and Teresa.  Johnny thought he heard a snicker or two, as well.

The scowl on Murdoch’s face deepened, and Johnny’s cheeks grew warm.  Gotta be more careful what I say around that kid, he thought. “I think Teresa about has supper ready.  Guess I’ll go get washed up,” he said and forced a grin that he feared looked more like a grimace.

Teresa spoke as Johnny was trying to extract himself from the child’s grip. “Better clean Alice up too while you’re at it.  She wouldn’t let me do it.”

Johnny managed to pull free of Pony Alice’s confining arms.  He took her by the hand and hurried toward the arched doorway she’d rushed through earlier.  A quick escape wouldn’t save him from having to face up to more questions from his father and brother, but it would give him a chance to calm his nerves and lay down a few laws to his girl. 

Chapter 3

Scott Lancer avoided his father’s eyes and edged toward the doorway his brother had just disappeared through.  “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, I think I’ll get cleaned up as well.”

As Scott turned to walk away, Teresa O’Brien made a move in the opposite direction. “I’d better go see to supper.”

A few moments later, the eldest member of the Lancer household found himself alone in the main living room.  “A bunch of cowards . . . every last one of them,” he muttered.

The scene that had just taken place replayed itself in Murdoch Lancer’s mind.  He let out a hearty laugh and made his way back to his desk.  Once settled into his chair, he picked up the pipe, which had been dropped onto the desktop earlier, tucked the tip between his lips, and took a few puffs while thinking that Johnny couldn’t be blamed for wanting to keep the child from working in a saloon.  She didn’t look to be more than ten or eleven years old.  Not only that, since she had been sold by her uncle, it was safe to assume that she was an orphan.

Murdoch recalled the circumstances of Jelly Hoskins’ arrival at the ranch the previous fall.  This wouldn’t be the first time Johnny had shown interest in a homeless child.  He had been quite protective of the orphans that Jelly had been caring for.  When it had come time to find homes for them, Johnny had insisted upon doing the honors, and each prospective family had, in all likelihood, been thoroughly questioned before being allowed to adopt one of those children.

With a soft sigh, Murdoch let his mind wander back to Johnny’s childhood and how he had had to fend for himself at an early age. This thought brought a sense of sadness even though it had been a year since Murdoch had been reunited with his sons.

As he smoked his pipe, Murdoch reflected on the latest addition to his family.  He wondered what his son intended to do with the child–and what a child she was.  She was definitely going to be a handful.  There was no question about Johnny having his work cut out for him, although Murdoch had to admit that the responsibility might be good for the young man.

Letting out a long breath, Murdoch laid the pipe aside and went back to thumbing through the papers he’d been going through earlier.  Alice was a problem that could be dealt with later.  At the moment, he needed to find the letter from Jake Enders, a rancher down near Modesto who was looking for some breeding stock.

When Johnny Lancer arrived at the dining table a half an hour later with his small charge in tow, the rest of the family was waiting for him.  Murdoch was in his usual place at the head of the table, Teresa sitting next to him on the side closest to the bookcases and Scott one seat down from her.  Averting his eyes, Johnny pulled out the chair opposite his brother.  When Pony had plopped into it, he scooted her up to the table and took the seat between her and Murdoch.

Once settled, Johnny glanced uneasily at the other members of his family.  When no one said a word, he placed his left hand on the girl’s shoulder and reluctantly took the opportunity to make introductions.  “This is Alice Guthrie, sometimes known as Pony Alice.”   He lifted his hand and, as he pointed them out one by one, said, “Alice, meet my brother, Scott.  You remember Teresa . . . and this is my father, Murdoch Lancer.”

Scott nodded and smiled at the child.  “I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Alice.”  He then cast his brother a look that was interpreted as saying, You do get yourself into some fixes, don’t you, Brother?

Alice looked over at Scott and frowned.  “Johnny says I’m s’posed to call you Mister Lancer, but if I call him Mister Lancer, too . . ..”  She pointed a finger in Murdoch’s direction.  “How’re yuh gunna know who I’m talkin’ to?”

Scott covered his mouth with a cupped hand and glanced down at the plate in front of him for a second or two before looking back at the girl.  “In that case, why don’t you just call me Uncle Scott.”

Johnny shot his brother a frosty glare that Scott quickly avoided.

“You can’t be my uncle.  I already got an Uncle Wilf,” Alice solemnly declared.

Scott quickly assured her that that wasn’t a problem because a person could have many uncles.”

Pony glanced at Johnny, her eyes seeking his approval.  At his reluctant nod, she grinned back at Scott. “Okay.”  Then, as if remembering something else she was to do, she sweetly added, “Uncle Scott, I’m . . . I’m sorry I . . ..”  She stopped to take a deep breath before continuing.  “I called you those names . . . and stomped on your toe.”

Seeing the twitch of Scott’s lips as he mumbled his acceptance of Alice’s apology, Johnny guessed that Scott was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

Next, Alice turned her pleading eyes on Teresa O’Brien.  “I’m sorry Ter . . . uh, Miss Teresa . . . for screamin’ an’ runnin’ away.  I promise I won’t do it no more.”

Teresa smiled warmly at the child.  “I’m sure you won’t.”

Pony glanced at Johnny.  Her shoulders lifted as she drew in a breath and dropped when she let the air whistle out through her nose while she looked beyond him to the man at the head of table.  Her voice trembled a little as she spoke.  “Mister Lancer, Johnny told me to tell you he never said he’d beat you up, and . . . I’m sorry I called you an old man.”  Her eyes grew larger as she searched his face.  “Are you gunna give me a whippin’?”

Murdoch visibly struggled to retain a stern expression as he answered, “Not this time, Alice.  But, if you misbehave again, you’ll have to pay the consequences.”

With a sigh of relief, Pony Alice cast her big eyes on Johnny again.  “Can we eat now?  I’m practically starvin’ to death.”

The child’s declaration left all of the others at the table struggling to control the laughter that threatened to erupt.  Scott, being the first to recover his composure, handed her the bowl of mashed potatoes.  “Here, Alice.  We certainly wouldn’t want you to starve.”

Later that evening, the Lancer household was relaxing in the living room.  Scott sat in a chair by the French doors and read while Murdoch sat at his desk and answered the letter from Jake Enders.  The other three sat on the sofa and took turns playing checkers.  When it was Johnny’s turn to play Teresa, Alice snuggled up to his side, and by the time the game was over, she was fast asleep.

Murdoch looked up from his task and smiled at the peaceful scene.  He decided that maybe Johnny’s girl wouldn’t be so much trouble after all.  He stretched a little and spoke quietly so as not to awaken the child.  “Johnny, don’t you think it’s time Alice went to bed?”

After turning his head to where he could see the little girl leaning against him, Johnny glanced at Teresa and then his father.

Teresa reached out and touched Johnny’s arm. “If you carry her up to her room, I’ll get her ready for bed.”

“Thanks.”  Johnny’s soft voice reflected his relief.  Being careful not to jostle her, he gently lifted Alice into his arms and quietly carried her out of the room as Teresa followed closely behind them.

Murdoch felt a burst of pride at the tenderness with which the young man handled the child.  At that moment, he realized he was getting a glimpse into the true heart of his younger son–a side of Johnny that was often hidden under a seemingly tough exterior.  Perhaps, having Alice here will be a good thing.  After all, how much trouble can one ten-year-old girl be, he told himself before dipping his pen in the ink well so he could sign the letter he’d just finished writing.

Alice stirred but didn’t open her eyes as Johnny carefully laid her on the bed in the room next to his.  He took one last look before closing the door and leaving Teresa to the task of undressing the child and tucking her in.  Out in the hallway, he rubbed the back of his neck.  Poor kid was worn out. She sure had spunk, though.  After six hours bouncin’ on Barranca’s rump, she still hadn’t been too tired to take on Scott and Murdoch.

Johnny headed for the stairway and let out a soft chuckle as his mind replayed how Pony’s behavior had made him feel like finding a hole to hide in.  Now that the ordeal was over, he could see the humor in it.  Thought I had it when she said that about Murdoch bein’ my old man and then tellin’ him I’d whip him.  Still can’t believe he didn’t lose his temper.

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Johnny had a more sobering thought. Wonder if he’s waitin’ to catch me alone.  Might be best if I headed to bed myself.  Let him have ’til morning before I face him.

This, however, seemed the cowardly thing to do. Johnny continued on across the entry hall and sauntered through the arched doorway leading into the main living room.  He figured that he might as well face the music and hear whatever tune Murdoch had in mind to call.  There was no sense in waiting.  It wasn’t going to get any easier.

Chapter 4

The next morning, true to habit, Murdoch Lancer walked over to his bedroom window and looked out at the ranch he had built.  Little had changed over the past few years.  The corrals and most of the outbuildings had been there when he bought the hacienda over twenty-five years ago. Repairs and restoration to them had been taken care of early on. The fertile fields were a more recent improvement, but even they had been producing good grass for more than four years.  It was the presence of the two young men who now resided in the rooms above him that had most drastically altered his life the previous spring.  After being separated from Scott for nearly twenty-four years and Johnny a little over nineteen, both sons had returned to him on the same day.

Something moving near the barn caught Murdoch’s attention.  As he watched more closely, a shadowy figure climbed the corral fence and made its way toward the house.  Most likely it was Johnny coming back from checking on Barranca.  He sure thought a lot of that horse.

Another horse came to mind.  Murdoch’s throat constricted.  Johnny had been so excited about presenting him with a match for his buggy horse, Zanzibar.  If the animal hadn’t seemingly turned into crow-bait overnight, the incident wouldn’t have resulted in the newest addition to the Lancer household

Murdoch let out a sigh.  Still . . . it was the thought that counted.  I would have cherished the horse regardless.

Figuring that he had done enough dawdling, Murdoch stepped away from the window and went to his closet.  He had a meeting at the bank in Green River.  If he was going to be on time, he needed to leave for town shortly after breakfast.

Once he finished getting dressed, Murdcoh shoved his wallet into his hip pocket and left his bedroom.  He strode toward the arched doorway into the living room, which was on the far side of the foyer.  As he approached the main entry door, it suddenly swung open and his younger son, backing through the doorway, collided with him.

“Sorry,” Johnny muttered upon recovering his balance.

A laugh came from behind Murdoch.  As he turned, he saw the elder of his sons arrive at the bottom of the stairs that went up to upper level of the house.

“Since when did you stop looking where you’re going?” Scott asked, looking at his brother while walking closer.

Murdoch shifted to where he could observe both sons.

Johnny shrugged his shoulders and softly drawled, “I was thinkin’.”

Scott stopped in front of the younger man.  “Didn’t hurt yourself, did you?  Taxing your mind that way, I mean.”

The mock seriousness of his elder son’s tone made Murdoch chuckle.  His heart never ceased to be warmed by the good-natured banter that often passed between his boys.

Johnny answered Scott with a glare and turned to their father.  “Murdoch . . . uh . . . think yuh could do me a favor?   Alice needs a few things and . . ..”  He glanced around before meeting the older man’s gaze.  “I, uh . . . thought you could take her to town with you.  Teresa said she’d go along to do the shopping.  I’d go, myself, but Scott and I gotta deliver that string of horses to Old Man Johnson.”

Murdoch noticed Johnny’s uncertainty and couldn’t resist the temptation to rib him a little.  “I thought you told me you didn’t have any money.  Just how do you intend to pay for these purchases?”

Johnny’s head tipped downward again.  After heaving a heavy sigh, he looked back up at his father.  “Thought, maybe . . . you’d loan me the money ’till payday.  Shouldn’t take much.  Ten or fifteen dollars is all.”

Murdoch couldn’t keep from smiling at his son’s discomfort.  However, before he could think of a witty remark, Scott had dug into his own wallet and was shoving several folded bills into Johnny’s hand.

“Here, take this,” Scott said.  “There’s no need to pay it back.  Just call it a gift to the little lady.”

Murdoch’s heart swelled with pride.

Johnny stared at the money and spoke in a concerned voice.  “You sure you can spare this?  There must be close to thirty dollars here?  What about that trip to ‘Frisco the first of the week?  Won’t you be needin’ this?”

“I’ll get by,” Scott replied.

Murdoch retrieved the money from Johnny’s open hand and gave it back to Scott.  “There’s no need to cut yourself short.  Any purchases for Alice can be put on the ranch tab.”  Noticing the emotions playing across the faces of his sons, he quickly added that he would be glad to take the girls to town, since he was going there anyway for a meeting with the banker.  Then he started toward the living room again as he announced that they had all best be getting into the kitchen for breakfast.

Less than three-quarters of an hour later, a buckboard halted in front of the main entry to the Lancer hacienda.  Jelly Hoskins, a short man with a gray beard, climbed down from the seat and turned to greet his boss as the man stopped beside him.  “Mornin’ Mr. Lancer.  I see Johnny’s back.  Noticed Barranca was in the barn when I went to the tack room.”  He tipped his head back and rubbed at his chin whiskers while looking inquiringly into the much taller man’s face.  “He get his money back on that horse or say what he did to that slick horse-trader?  As upset as he was when he left here, bet about now that crook’s wishing he’d never set eyes on our Johnny.”

Murdoch chuckled. “I’m afraid that’s not quite the way it went, Jelly.”

“Oh?”  Jelly let out a huff.  “Don’t tell me Johnny got stuck with another horse.”   Hearing light footsteps on the porch, he glanced around Murdoch.  His lips parted in appreciation at the sight of Teresa O’Brien, wearing a dress, her long, dark hair fetchingly tied up off her face with a yellow ribbon.  “My, aren’t we pretty this morning.  Going somewhere?” he said as she came to stand next to the wagon.

Teresa smiled and spoke in a cheerful tone.  “Into town with Murdoch.”

As Teresa took Murdoch’s hand and was helped up to the seat of the wagon, Jelly wrinkled his brow into a thoughtful frown.  “What’d yuh want the buckboard for?  We just picked up supplies two days ago.  Wouldn’t the buggy be more comfortable?”

A high-pitched squeal rent the air.  Jelly’s lower jaw sagged and his eyes opened wider as a young girl, clad in faded blue overalls and a blue plaid shirt, ran out of the front door of hacienda and raced toward him.  Johnny Lancer, following closely on her heels, reached out with one arm and nabbed her around the middle.  Amid the child’s peals of laughter, he swung her around him in a circle several times and then tickled her as he put her down.

The girl leaned into Murdoch’s younger son, her hands clutching his belt, and spoke with short gasps. “J-Johnny . . . st-stop! I . . . I can’t . . . breathe.”

Jelly gazed with an open mouth at the spectacle.  Once he was over his initial shock, he faced Murdoch and demanded, “Who is that?  Where’d she come from?”

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “That is Alice.  She’s Johnny’s.”

Jelly stared up at his boss.  “What?  Johnny’s?  He ain’t old enough to be her fa–.”

“No. Jelly.”  Murdoch broke in.  “I meant he brought her home with him.”

“Well, where’d he get her?” Jelly scowled.  His first thought was that she must be some orphan Johnny had picked up.

“You’ll have to ask Johnny about that,” Murdoch said.  “Right now I’ve got to get started for town.”  Quickly, he climbed up to the seat of the wagon and sat down at the end opposite Teresa.

Jelly grumbled under his breath as Johnny Lancer, holding the child’s hand, arrived at his side.

“You say somethin’?”  Johnny grinned and pushed the little girl slightly forward. “Jelly, this is Alice Guthrie . . . sometimes known as Pony.”  Looking at the child, he said, “Pony, this Jelly Hoskins.  He works for us.”

Alice stuck out her arm.  When Jelly grasped her small hand in his, she pumped her arm up and down along with him.  “How’d yuh ever get a silly name like Jelly?” she said with a snicker.   Immediately, she slapped her other hand over her mouth and gulped while fluttering her big eyes up at Johnny, whose chest was soundlessly vibrating as he bit his twitching lower lip.  Immediately returning her gaze to Jelly, she muttered between her fingers, “Sorry.”

While Jelly stood with his mouth open, Johnny lifted Alice and deposited her in the back of the buckboard.  Once she had climbed into the seat and settled herself between his father and Teresa, he gave her a stern look as she peeked around Murdoch’s large form.  “Remember what you promised, ‘kay, Pony?”

She took a deep breath, raised her chin, and spoke with a solemn tone.  “I won’t forget.  Promise.”

Murdoch, gathered up the long reins as he looked at Johnny.  “Give my regards to Mr. Johnson.  And don’t worry about Alice. She’ll be fine.”

As the buckboard drew away, Johnny waved and called, “Have fun.”

Jelly, finally getting over his shock, took a hold of Johnny’s sleeve.   “Johnny . . . just how did you end up with that there kid?  She don’t look more’n ten. I thought you went to get your money back.  Did you catch up with that crooked horse dealer?  What happened?”

Johnny ignored string of questions and glanced toward the house just as his brother came out the front door and strode toward them.  Whirling and heading for the corral he called, “Gotta go, Jelly.  Tell yuh later.”

Jelly quickly intercepted the older of Murdoch’s sons.  “Scott, you mind tellin’ me what’s goin’ on around here?”

“Well, Johnny and I are taking Mr. Johnson’s–.”

Jelly snorted in exasperation.  “I know that!  I’m talking about that little tyke of your brother’s.”

“You’ll have to ask him about her later.  At the moment, we have those horses to deliver.”  Scott hurried away as he finished speaking.

Jelly raised his shoulders as he filled his lungs with air and dropped them sharply while let the air out in a lound huff.  He muttered to the wind as he followed Murdoch’s sons toward the barnyard. “Nobody ever tells me anything around here.”

Chapter 5

Long, skinny shadows stretched out over the landscape as Chico and Barranca breasted the hill that overlooked the headquarters of the Lancer ranch.  The Lancer brothers halted the horses and gazed at the valley stretching out before them.

Scott removed his hat and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the back of his hand.  “It sure is hot.  The first thing I’m going to do when we get home is take a cool bath.”

Johnny shoved his hat off the back of head where it hung by the cord around his neck.  He swiped his faded-red shirtsleeve across his brow before running his fingers through his dark hair.  A mischievous glint lit up his blue eyes and a grin parted his lips.  “I swear, Scott, one day you’re gunna shrivel up from all those baths you take.”

“Well, Little Brother, I’d rather shrivel up, as you put it, than have everyone holding their nose.”  Scott settled his hat on his head and smiled.

“You sayin’ I smell bad?”

“No . . . not as long as I stay upwind of you, that is.” Scott noticed the wounded look on Johnny’s face and forced his own expression to remain serious.  It was at times like this that he enjoyed his brother the most and was reminded of how amazing it was that they got along so well together despite their many differences.

Johnny remained silent for a moment while appearing to be interested in something on the far side of the valley.  When he spoke, his tone was smug. “Well, Boston, at least there’s no question ’bout me doin’ my share o’ the work.”

Scott pretended to be insulted.  “Are you implying that I don’t carry my share of the load?”

“Nope.  Just sayin’ you don’t show it.” Johnny chuckled as his eyes sparkled with mischief.  He reached over and gave the brim of Scott’s hat a swat that sent it flying.

Chico snorted and shied sideways.  As Scott fought to stay seated, he heard Johnny laughing.

Once Scott managed to get his mount settled down, he rode over to where his hat was lying, leaned off to one side, and retrieved it with a sweep of his hand.  He straightened and glowered as this brother while dusting the dirt from the crown and brim of the hat before nestling it into place over the damp strands of his hair.  Still keeping up the facade of being perturbed, he said, “Don’t you think it’s about time you grow up?  Quit acting like a child?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Ain’t no fun in that . . . is there?”

“Maybe not,” Scott replied.  His expression turned more thoughtful as a vision of a ten-year girl flashed through his mind.  “But what kind of an example do you plan on setting for Alice?”

Johnny’s back stiffened and his tone became belligerent.  “All right, Brother.  You got something on your mind, say it.”

Scott lifted a hand with palm facing his brother and spoke in a calmer voice. “Now, don’t go getting your back up, Johnny.  I’m only trying to tell you that raising a child is a big responsibility.  She’ll be watching everything you do.  You know how children copy whatever they see.”

Johnny continued to glare at Scott.  “And you think I’ll be a bad influence on her, is that it?”

“That’s not what I said and you know it.”  Scott shook his head slowly. At times, it would be easier to reason with a porcupine than with that brother of his.  He decided to try a different tactic.  “Johnny, what are you going to do with her?  Don’t you think she would be better off in a proper home where there would be other children for her to play with?”

Johnny’s eyes turned cold and his voice took on a steely edge.  “Just give her away.  Is that it?  And what do you suggest I tell her?”

“Tell her . . . you’re doing what’s best for her.”  Scott lifted his lean shoulders into a slight shrug.  “That you’re thinking of her welfare.”

“Yeah.” Johnny let out a snort.  “Like Murdoch did when he left you in Boston?  Do you really think she’s going to believe that any more than you did?”

Scott looked down and toyed with his bridle reins.  After a moment of silence, he let out a soft sigh.  “No.  I see your point.  She’d feel you were abandoning her just like her uncle did.”

“Then you’ll back me up, if the old man doesn’t want me to keep her?”  Johnny looked hopefully at Scott.

Scott nodded.  “Of course, I will.”

Johnny’s voice took on a husky tone.  “Thanks, Scott.  I knew I could count on you.”

“That’s what a brother is for.” Scott patted his sorrel horse’s neck while avoiding looking into the other man’s eyes.   To save them each any further embarrassment, he gathered his reins and said, “Come on, Johnny.  Let’s go see how Murdoch fared on that trip to town with the girls.  I’ll race you to the bottom.”

Johnny grinned.  “You’re on.”  He hissed between his teeth, touched roweled-spurs to Barranca’s sides, and the big palomino leapt into the lead on the first stride.

Scott “whooped” to his own mount.  Digging spurred heels into tender flesh, he sent Chico racing headlong down the hill after the other horse. 

Murdoch Lancer leaned back in one of the blue armchairs in the living room of the hacienda and relaxed.  Alice was helping Teresa in the kitchen and the boys weren’t home from delivering the horses, yet.  Knowing that all of this would soon change, he took the opportunity to smoke his pipe and enjoy the quiet solitude while it lasted.

In the peaceful silence, he reflected on the trip to town.  It had gone much better than he had expected.  Alice had been no problem at all, except for a couple incidents that weren’t entirely her fault. Of course, some of her questions had been a little unsettling.  A frown puckered his brow as his mind replayed some of the conversation of earlier in the day.

“What’s a ward, Ter . . . I mean, Miss T’resa?  When I asked Johnny if you was his sister, he told me you was Mr. Lancer’s ward.”

Although he hadn’t been able to see the child’s face, Murdoch had been sure that Alice’s eyes had been intently fixed upon the older girl’s face.

“It means that Mr. Lancer takes care of me,” Teresa had explained.

“Why?  Don’t you got a mama and papa?”

Teresa’s voice had turned a little wistful then, and she had looked down at her hands, which were lying in her lap.  “My father died about a year ago.  I don’t remember my mother.”

“Oh.”  Alice had softly said, reaching over to lay her hand on Teresa’s.  “My mama and papa died last year, too.  Did you have to go to an orphanage?”

“No.  My dad worked for Mr. Lancer.  They were best friends.  I was already living in Murdoch’s house.”  Teresa had then placed her other hand over Alice’s.  “Did you have to live in an orphanage?”

There had been no mistaking the child’s sadness.  Her chin had dropped and her voice had grown quiet as she replied, “Yes.  It was just awful.”  After a moment, though, she had looked back up at the older girl and her tone had brightened.  “But, I wasn’t there very long.  Uncle Wilf came and got me . . . just before Christmas.  He’s . . . He’s my papa’s brother.  He has lots of horses.  I just love horses . . . don’t you?  He lets me brush ’em, an’ feed ’em, an’ even ride ’em sometimes.”

A brief smile played across Murdoch’s face as he remembered how the child had rattled on for a while about her uncle.  It had been quite plain that she adored the scoundrel.  He drew in a deep breath and shook his head disgustedly.  What kind of man would sell his own flesh and blood?

Murdoch shifted positions a little.  He rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand and took another puff on the pipe as his mind replayed another scene.

Alice’s big eyes had searched his face as she tugged on his shirtsleeve.  “Mr. Lancer, was Johnny an orphan?”

He had hesitated, feeling uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation.  “Not exactly . . . but . . . I suppose he thought he was, at one time.”

“But if he had you, how could he be an orphan?  You’re his papa, aren’t yuh?”

“He . . . didn’t always live with me,” he had replied, avoiding the child’s eyes and studying the road ahead.

“Why didn’t he?”

Teresa had wisely cut in before he had had a chance to answer.  “Pony, didn’t Johnny tell you that it’s not polite to pry?”

The corners of Murdoch’s mouth turned up slightly as he recalled how his ward had intervened and shifted Alice’s mind to something else.  It amazed him at times how well Teresa knew him.  She had immediately stepped in, saving him the pain and embarrassment of explaining the situation to the child.


“Hm?”  Murdoch turned his head to the left where a young lady with long, dark hair was standing nearby.  “I’m sorry, Teresa, I didn’t hear you come in.  Did you say something?”

She chuckled under her breath, smiled knowingly, and pointed at the small table next to him.  “I brought you a cup of coffee.  If you hadn’t been miles away, I wouldn’t have had to speak to you twice.”

“Thanks, Honey.  I guess I was a bit preoccupied.  Is supper about ready?  Alice isn’t giving you any trouble, is she?”  He picked up the cup and took a sip of the hot liquid.

A crash followed by the clatter and tinkling of breaking glass came from the direction of the kitchen.

“Oh, dear.  I’d better go see what happened.”  Teresa reached over and touched her guardian’s arm as he started to rise.  “Don’t worry, Murdoch.  I’m sure it’s nothing.  I can tend to it.  You just sit back and relax.  Drink your coffee.”

Murdoch stroked his chin as he watched Teresa walk away.  Relax, she says.  I’m beginning to wonder if that’s possible with Alice around.  Then more memories crept into his mind.

Glad that his meeting was over, he had stepped out into the bright sunlight, crossed the dusty street of Green River, and strolled toward the only hotel in town.  He had promised to meet the girls there at noon for lunch.  Although he was already fifteen minutes late, he had doubted they would be there waiting for him.  He had gone shopping with Teresa often enough to know that when clothes were involved, time was not of the essence.

Upon arriving at the hotel, he had been reaching for the door handle when he had heard a commotion coming from Carson’s Mercantile, which was just across the alley from where he stood.  He had glanced to his left just in time to see Jimmy Andrews back out of the store.

“Give me back my ribbon, you dirty, rotten polecat.”  Pony Alice’s voice had shrilled above the other sounds of activity immediately before she had stormed out of the building.  She had rushed at the husky twelve-year old, grabbed his shirtsleeves, and kicked him in the shins.

“Let go o’ me . . . ‘fore I punch yuh one!” the heavy-set boy, hopping from one foot to the other, had yelled as he had struggled to release the little girl’s grip.  When he had finally slipped from her fingers, she had doubled her right hand, drawn back her arm, and snapped it forward to smash her fist into his left eye.  “Ouch!  You’ll pay for that,” the boy had cried, lunging for his attacker only to be stopped by a large hand clamped on his arm.

Murdoch let out a soft chuckle.  He could still see the fury in Alice’s green eyes as she had glowered at the boy.  He had to admit the girl was not lacking in spunk.  Jimmy Andrews was known to be a bully.  If he wasn’t pushing a smaller boy around, he was pestering some girl.  Well, he sure met his match with Alice.  It’ll serve him right if he ends up with a black eye.  I’d just bet, though, he doesn’t tell his father who punched him.  Big Dan’d have his hide for letting a ten-year old girl get the best of him.  I almost feel sorry for the boy.  With a father as mean as Dan, the poor kid just doesn’t have a chance to be any different.

There was a faint click in the foyer as the front door opened and then Murdoch heard boots tapping on the tile floor.  He looked over his shoulder to see his dust-covered sons enter the room.  “How’d it go, boys?  You get those horses to Mr. Johnson without any trouble?”

The shorter of the two young men tossed his hat on the end of the long, dining table.  “Everything went fine.  Old man Johnson was tickled to death to get those ponies in time for roundup.”  He rocked his head from side to side.  Then he linked the fingers of one hand with those of the other, stretched his arms out in front of him, and gave his father a sly grin.  “Well, I see you survived that trip to town.  Pony didn’t give you any trouble . . . did she?”

“No.  No trouble at all.  Alice was as good as she could be.” As he fibbed, Murdoch avoided looking directly at his younger son who had an uncanny way of reading his mind.  A vision of spilled milk dripping from a cream-colored, linen tablecloth onto his pants flashed through his mind, and he wished he hadn’t scolded the child so severely.  The accident hadn’t been entirely her fault.  The waitress should have set the glass farther away from the edge of the table so that Alice couldn’t have bumped it with her arm as she was eating. 

As Scott strode across the room to hand Murdoch the money they had collected for the horses, Johnny stood back and studied their father.  “Where’s Pony?” he asked a moment later.

“In the kitchen with Teresa.  Supper should be about ready.  By the time you two get washed up, it’ll be on the table,” Murdoch said in a dismissing tone.  As he watched his sons leave the room, he felt a twinge of guilt over having not been entirely truthful.

After he finished washing up, Johnny Lancer changed into clean clothes.  He slipped into his white shirt that was embroidered along each side of the front opening, tucked the tails into a clear pair of brown calzoneras, and fastened the concha buttons down the outer side of each leg.  Satisfied that he was presentable, he went to the room across the hallway from his.  Without bothering to knock, he pushed the door open and walked in.

“Are you ever going to learn to knock first?” Scott Lancer said with a frown.

Johnny answered his brother’s complaining tone with a mischievous grin.  “Nope.  If I did, you’d waste too much time gettin’ duded up.”  He picked up a bottle from the dresser, removed the lid, and took a whiff.  “Phew, what’s this stuff?  Better not wear any o’ this when we’re herdin’ cattle.  They’d high-tail into the hills and we’d never get ’em back.”

“I didn’t buy that to use when I’m working.” Scott glared at Johnny while reaching for the vial in his hand.  “Would you kindly give that to me before you spill it? I paid five dollars for that cologne in Modesto the day before yesterday.  It came all the way from England.  I haven’t even had a chance to use any of it, yet.”

“No need to be grumpy.” Johnny replaced the lid and tossed the bottle to his brother.

Scott grabbed the bottle and let out a huge sigh.

Johnny’s laughter filled the room.  “Come on, Boston, I’m starved.  Let’s go eat,” he finally managed to say a moment later as he turned and headed out the door.

The rest of the family was already seated when the brothers walked through the arched doorway near the end of the long dining table.  While Scott took a seat next to Teresa, Johnny moved to the chair beside Pony Alice and tugged a strand of her long hair that was neatly curled and fastened together at the back of her head.  He wrinkled his brow and chewed at his lip.  “Who are you?  Where’s Pony?”

The girl snickered as she leaned toward him and nudged him with her elbow. “I am Pony, you silly goose.”

Johnny let his mouth drop open as he stared at the child.  “No!  You can’t be.  Pony had on overalls and a shirt the last time I saw her.”

“We went to town.  Don’t you remember puttin’ me in the wagon?  Teresa picked me out the dress.  Do you like it?”  Pony Alice ran out of air and sucked in a big breath.

After another moment of scrutiny, Johnny flashed a smile at his small charge.  “Well, guess yuh are Pony.  Yuh sure had me fooled there for a minute.  I thought some fairy had turned yuh into a princess.”

Alice’s eyes widened.  “You did?  Do you really think I look like a princess?  Florida read me a story about one once.  She was beautiful.”

Johnny laughed along with the rest of the family at the child’s serious tone.  It was good to see her looking so happy, and he softly sighed as he relaxed.  The day had gone well and his girl seemed to be settling in as a member of the Lancer household.  He wondered why he had ever thought it would be otherwise.

Chapter 6

“I don’t wanna go.  You can’t make me!” Pony Alice’s shrill voice was accompanied by a stamp of her right foot to punctuate each sentence.  Her mouth puckered into a pout, and she wriggled to free herself from Teresa O’Brien’s firm grip.

“Hey, what’s goin’ on here?”  The quiet drawl of Johnny Lancer brought a pause in the child’s struggles.

“She doesn’t want to go with us,” Teresa replied while tying a bright blue ribbon around the hair that she had combed up from each side of the child’s face to form a ponytail.

Johnny hunkered down to the ten-year old’s level and looked her in the eye.  “Of course, you wanna go.”  He took a moment to search her face. “Teresa’s goin’.  It’ll be fun.  You’ll see.”

Pony lifted her chin. “Then how come you’re not goin’?” 

Teresa let loose of the child and cast the young man a sly, sideways glance while resting the back of her hands against the sides of her waist.  “Alice has a point, Johnny.  Why don’t you go?”

Changing the focus of his attention to the older girl, Johnny squirmed inwardly.  He had no intention of being trapped into going, but the look in Teresa’s eyes told him she would try her best to do just that.  “Because . . . well because . . . I’m not goin’ . . . that’s why,” he stammered.

“It’d do you good.  You’re just scared, that’s all.”

Johnny stood and scowled back at Teresa.  He didn’t like the way she tossed her head or the implication that he was a coward.  “Not either,” he said.  “It’s just that . . . well . . . church is for kids . . . and women . . . and old men like . . ..”

“Old men like who, Johnny?  Like me?”   When Johnny twisted and looked sheepishly over his left shoulder at his father, Murdoch Lancer added, “You want to know what I think?”

Johnny grimaced.  No, he didn’t want to know what his old man thought.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “It’s up to you to set an example.  You can’t expect Alice to do something you won’t do yourself.  Can you?”  His eyes held a hint of amusement and the corners of his mouth turned slightly upward.

With head dipped toward the floor, Johnny shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he toyed with one of the silver buttons that ran down the outside of each leg of his pants.  This was not going to his liking at all.  Why couldn’t his old man take his part, just this once.  Irritably, he muttered something under his breath.

“I think Murdoch’s right.  You should go.  After all, Alice is your responsibility.  If you want her to go to church, you should be the one to take her.”

Johnny swiveled his head upward and glared at the man who was now standing next to their father.  Thanks, brother.  You could have stayed out of it.  I don’t need my whole family ganging up on me.  Seems somebody could be on my side.

A new thought came to Johnny.  “Yeah?  Well, it wouldn’t hurt you, either . . . Uncle Scott.  If I gotta go, you can go, too.”  He spoke in a challenging tone and hesitated before going on.  “Not that I’m goin’, mind yuh.”

The corners of Scott Lancer’s mouth twitched upward as he raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “It won’t be the first time I’ve been inside of a church.  Besides, it just might be worth it, Little Brother, to see you there.”  He shifted his eyes to their father’s face.  “It looks like you better have Jelly hitch up the surrey.  We won’t all fit in the buggy.  I better go get changed.  I’m not exactly dressed for the occasion.”  As he took a step in the direction of the stairway, he grasped Johnny by the upper arm.  “Come on, Brother.  You can’t go looking like that.”

Johnny refused to budge.  “I never said I was going.”

Scott gave Johnny’s arm a sharper tug. “Oh, you’re going all right.  You can go willingly . . . or, I can hogtie you.”

“You and how many others?” Johnny retorted.  He stiffened and let the slick soles of his boots slide on the tile floor as he was pulled forward.  He was not about to give in, yet.

While replying, Scott continued to drag his brother toward the stairway that led to the upper level of the house.  “As many as it takes.  If need be, I’ll recruit every last one of the hands.  I don’t doubt in the least that they would be only too glad to help me.  The choice is yours, Brother . . . but rest assured that one way or the other, you are going.”

At the base of the staircase, Johnny tried to twist free of his brother’s grip.  Scott’s fingers merely dug deeper into the muscle of his upper arm.  Realizing that nothing short of knocking the other man out would free him, Johnny shifted his weight forward and mumbled as he allowed himself to be led upward. “You’ll pay for this.  Believe me, Boston, you’ll pay.”

Scott glanced over his shoulder.  “You say something?”


“Then come on.  We don’t want to keep the rest of the family waiting, now, do we?”   Scott punctuated his words with another tug.

Johnny let out a sigh and faked a cheerful smile.  “All right, all right.  I comin’.  Now will yuh let loose o’ me?  I can walk on my own, you know.  My legs ain’t broken.”

“Just see that you do.” Scott released his hold but stayed beside his brother until they arrived at the first pair of doors, which were on opposite sides of the hallway.

Johnny opened the door on the left.  Once inside, he turned and glared at his brother’s back until the other man had entered his own room and closed the door.  I’ll get even with you, Scott.  I don’t know how or when, but I’ll make you sorry you roped me into this.  With this comforting thought, he closed his door and set about changing his clothes.

Chapter 7

when the Lancer surrey pulled into the churchyard in Spanish Wells, the church bell chimed for the third time and there was a small gathering near the door of the whitewashed building.  Scott Lancer jumped down and held out his hand to aid Teresa O’Brian while Murdoch Lancer got out and lifted Alice Guthrie to the ground.

Johnny Lancer stared straight ahead and made no attempt to move.  His stomach churned and his hands felt clammy.  He couldn’t remember ever feeling this nervous.  Not even his first gunfight had had this effect on him.

Scott looked up at the younger man who was still sitting in the back seat. “Coming, Brother?”

Johnny looked sideways at his brother.  “I got a choice?”

“Of course, you have a choice.”  Scott flashed a smile.  “You can step down out of the surrey and walk into the church like a gentleman, or . . . I can carry you.”

“You think you’re big enough?”  Johnny gave his best Madrid stare.

Scott failed to look impressed.  “You wouldn’t want to make a big scene in front of Alice and all those people, would you?”  He motioned at the child by his side and then toward the gathering in front of the church.  “Besides, I am sure I wouldn’t have any trouble recruiting some help if need be.”

Johnny’s gaze followed his brother’s hand.  Scott was right.  There wasn’t a man there that wouldn’t jump at the chance to haul him inside.  His shoulders slumped. I’d just end up lookin’ like a fool in front of Alice, Teresa, and those other girls.  Better to have it said, Johnny Madrid was seen walkin’ into church willingly than havin’ it get around that he was drug there.

“Well, what is it going to be?”  Scott’s impatience was reflected in his tone.

“All right, don’t get in a toot.  I’m comin’.”  Johnny stood, faced the edge of the wagon, and jumped to the ground.  Before he had taken two steps, a hand on his arm jerked him to a stop.

“Surely, you don’t plan on taking that with you.”  Scott released his hold and pointed at the gun-belt that was strapped around Johnny’s hips.

“Why not?”

Teresa laid her soft hand on the younger brother’s arm.  “Johnny, you know you can’t take your gun into the church.  It . . . it just wouldn’t be proper.”  She turned her pleading eyes toward her guardian.

Murdoch looked sternly at his younger son.  “They’re right, Son.  You’d better leave it out here.”

With an exasperated snort, Johnny unbuckled his gun-belt and rolled it up.  “Go on.  I’ll be along,” he said, letting his frustration creep into his voice.  As his family moved away, he slipped the pistol into the waistband of his trousers, stuffed the empty holster under the wagon seat, and buttoned his jacket.  With the weapon safely hidden from view, he slowly headed toward the church.

A short while later, Johnny entered the sanctuary and looked around.

Scott was waiting just inside the door.  “This way, Brother.  I’ll follow you.”  He waved his hand toward where Murdoch, Teresa, and Alice were settling into the third pew from the front on the left side of the room.

Johnny mentally pleaded, Ah, come on.  Have a heart.  Can’t yuh just let me sit back here where nobody’ll notice me?

The thought was no sooner completed than Alice looked over her shoulder and waved.  “Here we are, Johnny.  Down here.”

As heads swiveled toward the rear of the church and eyes full of curiosity fixed on him, Johnny wished he could drop through the floor and disappear from sight.  Going unnoticed was no longer possible.  He took a deep breath, forced a smile, and made his way down the aisle.  As he sat down next to Alice, he put his finger to his lips in hopes of silencing her.  The last thing he wanted was to have more attention drawn his way.

When his brother was seated at the end of the pew, Johnny noticed a girl on the bench across from them smile in Scott’s direction.  She was about the same age as Teresa, rather plain featured with green eyes and carrot-colored hair.  Her forehead and cheeks were covered with freckles.  Scott gave her a brief nod and appeared to ignore her.

A plan began to formulate in Johnny’s mind.  He’d seen the girl before.  She had been at the last two dances.  Her name was Sally Brown, and she had shown a great deal of interest in his brother even though Scott had done his best to ignore her.

Wrapped up in his plans to snooker his brother into taking Sally to the next dance, Johnny wasn’t aware that the minister had stepped behind the pulpit or that the entire congregation was standing.  It wasn’t until he heard snickering behind him and turned his head that he realized he was the only one seated.  With cheeks burning, he started to rise while feeling the nudge of his brother’s hand at the same time.  He closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh.   This was not going well at all, and the service had just begun.

His mind on his own discomfort, Johnny barely listened to the minister’s brief prayer, after which the man lifted a book, opened it, and instructed the congregation to turn to page twenty-four and remain standing while they sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

Throughout the song, Johnny kept his eyes on the open songbook that he shared with his brother and silently moved his lips as he made a pretense of singing.  The tune seemed complicated, and he wasn’t about to voice the unfamiliar words.

Shortly, the first song ended and the minister named another.  This one was also foreign to Johnny and he began to get restless.   He shifted his weight, first to one foot and then the other.   Wonder how long this is gunna go on? he thought, not because he minded the sound.  For the most part, the blending of voices was pleasant to his ears.   Neither was it the standing that made him want to keep moving.  It was the words of worship for a God that he wasn’t convinced even existed that had him feeling like a wild animal cooped up in a small cage.

In need of a distraction but not wanting his uneasiness to be detected, Johnny kept his head slightly bowed while glancing around for something with which to occupy his mind.  He didn’t have to look far.  Inches from his left elbow was Alice, twisting her body, swinging her arms, and bobbing her head to the beat of the music as she tapped her foot.

The child’s antics became more pronounced and her hand bumped Johnny’s.  When she smiled up at him, he gave her a stern glance and shook his head.  The last thing he needed was to have more attention drawn his way.  As it was, he felt as though he was on display at an auction and being examined by every eye in the room.

Once Alice settled down, Johnny glanced toward his right.  Spotting a glint of amusement in his brother’s eyes, he reciprocated with a scowl that quickly changed to a smirk when he noticed that Sally Brown was dreamily watching Scott.

For the next few minutes, Johnny devoted his thoughts to working out a way to trap his brother into taking Sally to the dance that was coming up in a couple of weeks.  By the time the singing had ended and the minister had asked the congregation to be seated, the details were all worked out in Johnny’s mind, and he paid little mind as the preacher’s sermon began.  Instead, excited and anxious to put his plot into action, he concentrated on going over his plans and fine-tuning them.

The minister had read a portion of Scripture, given the introduction to his sermon, and was beginning on his first main point when Alice started swinging her legs.  “Ouch,” Johnny gasped in surprise when her heel rapped him smartly on the shin.

“Shh,” Scott whispered, nudging Johnny in the ribs with his elbow.

Johnny frowned menacingly at his brother and then scolded Pony with his eyes.   Before he could get back to what he had been thinking, the minister’s words caught his attention.  “We just read that we are nothing without love.   But . . . what kind of love is God talking about here?  Let us read on.”

Love? thought Johnny.  Where was the talk of fire and brimstone, a God of wrath waiting to punish the wrongdoer, or the evils of human desires that had always been a part of any preaching he’d ever heard?  The priests in the mission school he had attended when he was a child had constantly threatened him with the picture of God standing ready to beat him with a big stick if he broke the rules.  Penitence would appease God’s anger, he’d been told; but no one had ever mentioned love and God in the same breath.

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,” the minister read in a strong yet gentle sounding voice.

Charity?  Johnny scowled.  I thought he was talking about love.

The minister’s voice droned on.  “This verse tells us that true charity, or love, is longsuffering.”

Alice wiggled.  While Johnny shot her another glare of warning, he missed most of what the preacher said next.  Not that he cared, he tried telling himself. It was just that the sermon wasn’t what he had expected and he was a bit curious about what the man might have to say.  My luck, Scott or Teresa will be asking me about it anyway, he thought defensively.

Johnny pulled his mind back to the man at the pulpit just as the minister was explaining that longsuffering was the same as bearing up under any kind of hardship or mistreatment for long periods of time without complaining.  I’ve done my share of silent suffering, Johnny thought.  When he glanced sideways at Pony and caught a glimpse of the tall man sitting on the other side of her, he swallowed at the memory of the feelings that he had harbored toward that man during most of those hard times.  They certainly hadn’t been ones of love.

“…kind and won’t be jealous of what someone else has that you don’t.  Also, you won’t be boasting about your acts of kindness or bragging on your good deeds, because true charity doesn’t come out of a heart filled with pride.”

These words made Johnny wince as if he’d been struck.  He wondered how the preacher had known what he had been thinking.  Noticing the minister was looking right at him, Johnny ducked his head.  In hopes of putting the head of the lady in front of him between them, Johnny tried to slink a little lower in the pew.  Hiding behind the brim of her hat, however, did not shut out the preacher’s voice or the words he was reading.

“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth…”

Johnny didn’t need to listen to the minister’s explanation to understand what he had just heard.  He’d been reminded often enough of his iniquities and the only other word that might have been questionable at one time was ‘unseemly’.  Scott had filled him in on its meaning shortly after they had met.  Said he meant my behavior wasn’t fit or proper.  I don’t need no preacher to tell me that being selfish or getting mad too quick or thinking evil ain’t love, either.  Guess I can forget about ever having the kind of love he’s talking about.

That last thought left an ache in Johnny’s heart.  Only good people made it to heaven, or so he’d been told.  He didn’t even have a chance.  There were too many dark shadows in his past.

Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw Alice flipping the strings of the bow on the front of her dress.  He leaned over and whispered in her ear.  As he straightened up, his eyes met those of his father.  A quick swallow and a fleeting smile later, Johnny was looking back toward the front of the church, his mind filled with new thoughts.  Murdoch’s as honest as they come.  I’ve never known him to take pleasure in someone doing the wrong thing, and he certainly is a lot happier about hearing the truth than a lie.  Still, he’s done his share of losing his temper, and even Teresa will admit he’s got too much pride.

As much as he’d come to admire his father, Johnny was sure that Murdoch would also fall short of the preacher’s standards.  Scott’s not perfect either, and Teresa has let her temper fly a few times, too.   This added thought brought more sadness and bit of irritation as well.  It didn’t look like anyone in his family could claim the kind of love the minister was talking about, not even Alice.  At ten years of age, she had already failed most of the tests.

“…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  It never fails.”

Yeah, right.  Johnny clenched his teeth to keep his thoughts from coming out of his mouth.  There is no such love.  Nobody has it.  If they do, it never lasts.  Sooner or later, it fails.  If it didn’t, my mama would’ve never left my father.  Bet if I did something bad enough, Scott and Murdoch would turn their backs on me in a hurry.  Maybe, if they knew some of the things I’ve done, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me now.  Bet they’d claim they love me, though, if I was to ask’

To Johnny’s surprise, the minister went on to tell the congregation that it was not humanly impossible to have the kind of love found in the verses that he had been reading.  Only God could claim such pure, unselfish love.  Man could work at it all he wanted, but he would never succeed in achieving it.

So why tell us about it, Johnny grouched mentally.  To him the preacher was wasting time on worthless words.  He could see no benefit in knowing that it was useless to try for something that was beyond his reach or that of anyone else.

Even when the minister tried to explain that the Bible was giving man a picture of God’s perfect love and that man wasn’t expected to measure up to it, Johnny wondered what the point was.  He also doubted that the man knew what he was talking about when he said that God wanted to give His love to anyone who asked for it.  A wrathful God and reaping what a person sowed, he could understand.  Unconditional love and unearned mercy had never been a part of his life.  To him they simply couldn’t and didn’t exist.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity,” the minister read before beginning his closing remarks.

Johnny turned his head slightly to the right and glanced up at Scott, who seemed to be listening intently to the sermon.  He wondered what his brother actually thought of the man’s words.  Did he agree?  Was he paying attention out of politeness or was he really interested in the preacher’s ideas?

The child at Johnny’s side was getting restless again.  Her lower legs were swinging forward and back, her toes coming within inches of touching the back of the bench in front of them.  Johnny poked her with his elbow and hoped the preacher was about finished.  Alice had sat still for about as long as she was going to.  If the service didn’t end soon, she was bound to do something that would have everyone looking his way.  He had no desire to be an object of amusement for the so-called goodpeople of the congregation.

“…Our God is eternal and He is love; therefore, love will last forever.   Please rise for the closing hymn.” The minister closed one book and picked up another, opened it, and announced a page number.

Finally, Johnny thought. As the people stood to their feet, he followed their lead and took hold of the edge of the songbook that Scott was holding toward him.  He didn’t know the words or the tune to this one either, so once again he silently mouthed the words.

Near the end of the song, Johnny leaned back a little at the same time that his brother shifted forward.   This gave Johnny a clear view of the girl across the way, the corners of her mouth tipped upward as she stood with her eyes fastened dreamily on the side of Scott’s face.  Stifling a chuckle, Johnny smiled.  The church service would soon be over and he could put his plan to work.  Big brother, now it’s my turn to see you squirm.

Chapter 8

Hemmed in between his father and brother, and with Alice clutching his wrist, Johnny Lancer saw no way to make a quick exit.  Scott, true to his Boston upbringing, was playing the part of the perfect gentleman by waiting for the rest of the congregation to file down the aisle toward the doors at the back of the church.  With frustration mounting, Johnny saw the chance to put his plan to work slipping through his fingers.

At last, they were on the porch.  Johnny, seeing an opportunity to make his escape, started to step around his brother only to have his arm grabbed.

“You remember my brother, Johnny, don’t you?” Scott said, holding onto his brother while shaking hands with the minister.

“Yes, of course.  Nice to see you in church today.”  The preacher smiled.  When free of Scott’s grasp, he held out his hand toward the younger of the Lancer brothers.

“Thanks,” Johnny mumbled, taking the offered hand.  When the brief handshake was over, he stepped closer to his brother.  Come on, Scott.  Don’t stand here all day, he silently said while trying not to fidget.  He didn’t want to risk being questioned by the minister.  Besides that, he had spotted Sally standing next to a couple of other girls and wanted to talk to her before she had a chance to leave.

“And who do we have here?” asked the preacher, smiling at the child half-hidden behind Johnny.  “I don’t believe we’ve met before, have we?”

“Don’t reckon so,” Pony Alice Guthrie said.  “Johnny just bought me from my Uncle Wilf, day before yesterday.”

Johnny felt a flash of heat blaze a path from his cheeks to his ears.  With his eyes, he begged his brother for help.  The silent plea turned into a hostile glare when Scott refused to take pity on him and move on down the steps.

“Nice sermon, Reverend,” Murdoch Lancer said, his voice deep and strong.  He took hold of the minister’s outstretched hand and pumped it.  “I wish we had time to visit a while, but we need to be getting back to the ranch.  Scott has to make a trip to San Francisco the day after tomorrow, and we still have some preparations to make.”  He looked at his elder son.  “Scott, didn’t you say you had something you wanted to discuss with Mister Clark before we left?

“Yes . . . I did.”  Scott gave Murdoch a slight nod and turned toward the minister.  “If you’ll excuse me, Sir, I really do need to be going.”

Johnny sighed audibly, mumbled a farewell to preacher, and followed closely on his brother’s heels while leading Alice down the steps.  He didn’t even look back to see if Murdoch and Teresa had managed to escape further questioning from the preacher.

“Johnny.”  Alice’s pleading voice was accompanied by a tugging on his sleeve.

“Hmm?” he grunted, not really paying attention as he looked down at the girl.  His mind was on how he was going to talk to Sally without having Pony tagging after him.

“I need to . . ..”  Pony bit her lip, leaned closer, and whispered, “Where’s the outhouse?”


“The outhouse,” she replied in a louder voice.

“Oh.”  Johnny swallowed as he shifted his eyes to see if anyone had heard her.  Relieved that no one seemed to be paying attention, he said, “Uh, it’s behind the church.”

Alice looked toward the group of boys, ranging in age from about seven to thirteen, that were standing near one corner of the church and the men with Scott by the other corner. “Will you take me?”  Alice’s big green eyes pleaded.

Johnny licked his lips.  Sally was moving toward the buggies.  If she got away, his plan was hopeless.  He glanced around in desperation.  Surely there was someone he could get to take Alice for him.  Then he saw the solution to the problem.  Murdoch and Teresa were headed toward him.  “T’resa, could you take Pony around back of the church?  She needs to . . . uh . . . you know,” he finished lamely.

Teresa smiled sweetly up at him and the corners of her mouth twitched.  “Can’t you do it?  After all, she is your responsibility.”

While trying to think of a bribe that would be effective, Johnny begged for her mercy with his eyes.  He already owed her one favor that he was afraid was going to cost him dearly.  When she didn’t respond, he shot a pleading glance at his father.

“Oh, there’re the Browns,” Murdoch said as he stretched taller and looked across the churchyard.  “Excuse me, Johnny,” he added, patting his son on the arm.  “I need to see if Ike is still planning on coming over to look at that bull on Wednesday.”

As his father strode away, Johnny looked questioningly at the brown-haired girl who was like a sister to him.  “Please, would yuh. . ..”

Teresa laughed.  “Oh, all right.”  She slowly wagged her head.  “But that makes two you owe me.”  Smiling down at the child while reaching for her hand, she said, “Come on, Alice.  I’ll take you.”

Johnny flashed Teresa a grin of gratitude and waited until the girls were on their way before searching for Sally.  Spotting her next to the parked buggies, he ambled over that way.

As luck would have it, Sally and her friends were standing close to the Lancer surrey, so Johnny moved past them and pretended to check Zanzabar’s harness.  He would have preferred to talk to the girl alone, but it didn’t look like he was going to have the chance.  That meant he’d have to make a minor adjustment to his plans.

“Aren’t you just ecstatic?”  Johnny overheard a skinny blond girl gush.  “Just think.  Going all the way to Boston.”

“I’d just die if my parents would send me to one of those finishing schools.  All of the rich families back east send their daughters to one,” another girl put in.

“I know,” Sally said, “I can hardly believe it.  By this time tomorrow, I’ll be on the stage to Sacramento.”

Johnny’s heart plummeted.  All of his planning was for nothing.  Sally wouldn’t even be around to attend the next dance with Scott.

While the girls continued chatting about Sally’s trip, Johnny slipped the bit into the Zanzabar’s mouth and adjusted the headstall of the bridle.  Now that using Sally to get even with Scott was out of the question, he mulled over some other ideas in his mind.  Wonder if Hester Crane will be back from her grandmother’s by then?  She was a bit sweet on Scott last spring and her mother would just love to latch onto that big brother of mine.  Johnny smiled at the memory of overhearing Mrs. Crane tell the storekeeper’s wife that Scott Lancer was the best catch of any young man in the country and that she couldn’t think of any one she’d rather have for a son-in-law.

A new plan had just begun to formulate in Johnny’s mind when Murdoch and Sally’s parents joined the group of girls.  “Sally, dear,” he heard Mrs. Brown say.  “I’m afraid your trip will have to be postponed.  Clara isn’t feeling well, so she won’t be leaving for San Francisco tomorrow.”

“But Mother,” the Brown girl whined, “I have to go tomorrow.  If I don’t, Uncle Jack will leave without me.  Then how will I get to school?”

Johnny watched as Mrs. Brown put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry, Sally.  There’s nothing we can do about it.  We discussed this before.  You are too young to travel even as far as Sacramento without a chaperone.”

“Can’t you take me, Papa?” the girl grasped the hand of the man next to Murdoch.

“Sally, you know that’s not possible.  I’m going out to Murdoch’s place on Wednesday to get that bull,” Mr. Brown replied.

Johnny felt his hopes rise.  All right! Maybe, Sally’ll be around after all.

Tears began to trickle down the girl’s freckled cheeks and she sobbed, “But Papa, how am I going to get to Boston?”

Mr. Brown laid a weather-worn hand on his daughter’s shoulder and spoke in a soothing tone.  “I’m sorry, Sally.  I know how much you were looking forward to this, but it looks like you’ll just have to wait until next year.”

As the girl cried harder, a new idea flashed through Johnny’s mind.  Here was the perfect opportunity to get revenge on his brother and perform a good deed at the same time.   Best of all, Sally would jump at his proposal and Scott, being the gentleman that he was, would never think of refusing to go along with it.

Johnny gave Zanzabar a pat on the neck and sauntered over to Murdoch.  “Say, Murdoch,” he said with a lazy smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.  “I couldn’t help overhearin’ about Sally havin’ to give up goin’ to school.”  He paused, scratched his chin and continued in a thoughtful drawl.  “Yuh know . . . Scott’s planning to go to Frisco on Tuesday.  Since he’ll be making a stop in Sacramento anyway, why couldn’t he leave a day early and look out for Sally?”

Sally sniffed and wiped the moisture from her eyes as she looked up at Johnny.  “Oh!  That would solve everything.”  She turned her head to gaze pleadingly at her father.  “Wouldn’t it, Papa?”

“Well . . . Scott is a responsible young man, but . . ..”  Mr. Brown frowned thoughtfully.

“Oh, you can trust Scott.  He’s a perfect gentleman,” Johnny quickly said before shifting his entreating eyes to his own father.  “Scott can be trusted to behave himself, ain’t that right, Murdoch?”

“He most certainly can!”  Murdoch lowered his voice a notch.  “It does mean him leaving a day earlier than planned, but I can’t see any problem with that.”

“Do . . . do you think he’d mind?”  Sally’s eyes were now round with hope.

“Naw.   Scott won’t mind a bit,” Johnny said.

“I won’t mind what?” Scott’s voice came from somewhere close behind Johnny.

Johnny’s heart raced.  He drew in a deep breath, swallowed, and turned to flash a cheerful smile at Scott.  “You wouldn’t mind helping out a damsel in distress, would you, Brother?”

“No . . . I suppose not.”  Scott spoke hesitantly while eyeing Johnny suspiciously.

“There, see.  It’s all set.”  Johnny beamed at Sally.

“Oh, thank you, Scott!” Sally cried, throwing her arms around his neck.  “You have no idea what a lifesaver you are.”

Johnny found it hard to contain the laughter that was clamoring to burst forth from his throat.   Things had worked out better than he could have dreamed.

“And just how have I managed to do that?” Scott asked as he pried himself loose from the girl’s clasp.  Pinning a frosty glare on his brother, he demanded, “Johnny . . . would you mind telling me just what it is I’ve been volunteered to do?”

“Nothin’ much,” Johnny said with a false bravado.  “Sally needs a traveling companion for the stage ride between Morro Coyo and Sacramento.  The lady that was supposed to go with her got sick.  Since you was going that way on Tuesday, anyway . . . well . . . it just seemed to make sense for you to go a day early and take her place.”  Seeing the ice forming in his brother’s eyes, Johnny quickly added, “You wouldn’t want Sally havin’ to wait another whole year to go to one of them fancy schools in Boston and learn how to be a real lady, now would yuh?”

“Scott?  You’re not going to back out, are you?”  Sally grasped Scott’s arm.  “I’ve been planning this for months.  I’d just die if I had to wait another year.”

Johnny nearly choked to keep from chuckling when Scott cast a hopeful look at their father and asked, “Are you sure you won’t be needing me tomorrow?”

“I think we can get by without you, Son,” Murdoch replied, his eyes telling Johnny to expect a talk later.

“Scott, I’ll be glad to drive you to Morro Coyo,” Johnny said.  He then turned to address Sally Brown.  “What time shall I have him there?”

“The stage is scheduled to leave at ten in the morning, but you might want to be there a little early.”  The excitement of earlier was back in Sally’s voice.

“Don’t worry, Scott will be there in plenty of time,” Murdoch said.  He directed his next words to Johnny.  “I’ll see to it.  I have some business that I need to attend to in Morro Coyo, anyway.  I had planned to take care of it on Tuesday, but tomorrow will do just as well.”

Johnny shrugged his shoulders and smiled his acceptance of his father’s declaration.  Although he would have liked a trip to town, he doubted his brother would be much company, under the circumstances.  The main thing was that Scott would be stuck on the coach with Sally for a day and a half.  I bet I get an earful from him on the way home, he thought, but it sure will be worth it.

When the Browns drove away a few minutes later, Johnny began to doubt the wisdom of the stunt he’d pulled on his brother.  The fury he saw in Scott’s eyes told him that he had definitely gone too far.  He tried flashing one of his disarming grins but knew instantly that it was not going to save him.  This was one time he was for sure going to reap what he had sown.

The arrival of Teresa with Alice at her side gave Johnny a small measure of hope that he would be spared Scott’s wrath for the moment.  With the pretense that all was well, he lifted the child into the wagon while his father gave Teresa a hand up.  Johnny then turned to find his hopes dashed.  Scot was standing less than a foot away, arms folded across his chest, and glaring at him.

Johnny’s eyes settled on his brother’s hand, and he swallowed at the strange feeling of those long slender fingers squeezing his neck.  “Yuh gunna get in?” he nervously asked.

“After you, Brother,” Scott replied, dipping his head slightly while sweeping one hand out in front of him before taking a step backward to give Johnny room to get between him and the surrey.

“Thanks,” Johnny said.  As he started to make a move forward, a hand collided with his waist and doubled him over.  “Umph,” he grunted in unison with Scott’s “Ouch.”   After a gasp for air while straightening to an upright position once more, Johnny started to speak–his voice little more than a whisper.  “What’d yuh do–“

“What are you two doing back there?”  Murdoch’s deep voice drowned out the last of Johnny’s words.

“Nothing, Sir.”  Scott directed a triumphant smile at Johnny.

“Nothin’,” Johnny managed to say as he struggled to breath while holding his belly that smarted where the hammer of his pistol had dug in.

“Then maybe it wouldn’t be too much trouble for you two to get in so we can go home,” Murdoch grouched with the hint of a chuckle in his voice as he looked over his shoulder and appraised his sons.

After giving his father a weak smile, Johnny climbed up to the back seat of the surrey and sat down on the far side.   Something about Murdoch’s eyes gave him the feeling that the Old Man knew more than he was letting on.  Johnny just hoped he wasn’t going to be in for a scolding when they got home.

“Would you like your gun belt, now?” Scott asked, gently rocking the surrey as he sat down.

“Naw,” Johnny replied, his heart starting to race when his brother reached under the seat.  “I can get later.  No need for you to both–.”

“No trouble at all,” Scott said as he pulled the empty holster from its hiding place.

Johnny leaned toward his brother and snatched the convicting evidence from his hands before anyone in the front of the surrey had a chance to get a good look at it.  “Thanks, Brother,” he said, lifting the gun belt to the seat and tucking it tight against his outside hip so that it was somewhat concealed from view.  With an expression of pure innocence, he said, “Okay, Murdoch.  We’re all set.  Let’s go home.”

“Don’t you think it would be a good idea to put that on,” Scott asked.

“Nope.  It’s a lot handier right where it is,” Johnny replied, running his hand up under the lower edge of his jacket and smiling at his brother.

“Yes . . . I see what you mean,” Scott said with a slight nod.  “Just be careful how you sit, though.  I wouldn’t want that gun going off accidentally.  Someone could get hurt.”

“Don’t worry, Big Brother.  I’ll be careful,” Johnny replied with a hint of a smirk as the surrey moved forward with a slight jerk.  “No one’s going to get shot unless he has it coming to him.”

“Well, you just see that no one does.  Besides, Little Brother, don’t you think it might be a little embarrassing to explain how you ended up with a bullet in your leg from your own gun?”

Johnny scooted his hips forward so he could lean his neck against the back of the seat.  Figuring that ignore his brother’s latest words would be the best way to end the conversation, he tipped his hat forward to cover his eyes.  “Think I’ll take a little nap.  Wake me when we reach Lancer.”

Johnny had just closed his eyes when a high-pitched voice asked, “Johnny, why’d yuh have a gun under yer coat when we was in the church?”

“Johnny, you didn’t.” Murdoch’s deep voice was followed by Teresa’s softer, “How could you?”

Johnny pretended not to hear.  Kids.  They sure knew how to ruin a man’s day.

“You might as well put that gun where it belongs,” Scott said.  “There’s no reason to carry the act any farther.”

With a huff of resignation, Johnny pulled the pistol from his waistband, shoved it into the holster, and proceeded to strap on the gun-belt.  The trip home was not going to be pleasant, of that he was sure.  Clinching his jaw, he prepared himself for the lecture that he knew was on the way. 

Chapter 9

The palomino gelding swished the end of his nose in the creek.  After taking several swallows of the cool water, sucked in his cheeks to hold a mouthful.  Next, he raised his head and backed up a couple of steps to beg his master for an ear scratching.   Leaning his head against the dark-haired young man’s shoulder, the horse played with the remaining liquid, allowing a little to dribble out between slightly parted lips that were puckered against his teeth.

“Stop that, Barranca.” Johnny Lancer gave the palomino a playful slap on the neck.   Nodding several times, the horse snorted–his fluttering lips scattering more droplets of water down the front of Johnny’s faded red shirt.

A short distance away, Pony Alice sat perched on a patch of grass where the creek made a bend.  One hand was wrapped around a fishing pole.  Her bare feet dangled over the edge of the cut bank–her toes almost touching the shadowy pool of slow-moving water that was shielded from the bright afternoon sun by a nearby tree.  With eyes sparkling and oversized-front teeth peeking between parted lips, she swiped at a long strand of shimmering sunlit-hair that a gentle breeze was playing with on her forehead and giggled.

“And you stop laughin’ at him,” Johnny said in a stern voice while attempting to keep a straight face.  His effort failed when both he and the horse sneezed from the fine particles of nose-tickling dust that were rising from Barranca pawing at the ground.   This brought more giggles of delight from the child, and the grin that had been playing at the corners of Johnny’s mouth could no longer be contained.  It grew into a full-fledged smile.

A little down-stream from the girl, there was a splash in the deeper end of the pool of water.  The long stick in Alice Guthrie’s hand bobbled and she excitedly squealed, “I got one.”

“Easy, Pony.  Move with him a little or you’ll lose him.” Johnny motioned for her to walk along the edge of the creek.

The fishing light tightened and Pony’s voice shrilled.  “It’ll get away!”

Johnny kept pace with Pony Alice.  “Don’t jerk.  You have to play with it a little.  Just let him lead you.  He won’t go far,”

A moment later, the line went slack and drifted back toward Alice.

“See?  What’d I tell yuh?  Now follow him back upstream.  That a girl.  Take up a little of your line.  There . . . he’s coming at yuh again.  Shorten your line some more.  He’s startin’ to get tired.  Just a little more and you’ll have him.”   As Johnny continued to stay close to girl, he directed and encouraged her every move until the fish was finally flopping in a clump of grass on the stream bank.

Alice’s green eyes sparkled as she jumped up and down.  “I caught it, Johnny, and all by myself.”

Grinning broadly down into the child’s smiling upturned face, Johnny remembered catching his first fish.  At the age of seven, it hadn’t mattered that with his thumb on its nose, he could easily touch the end of its tail with his little finger.  It was his, and he couldn’t have been more excited even if it had been ten times that size.

“It’s a big one, isn’t it?”  Pony Alice brushed a wisp of wheat-colored hair from her eyes as she squatted next to Johnny and closely watched him run his hands down the length of string to the fish’s head.

“Sure is.  Bet it’s over a foot long.”  He grasped the slippery fish by the gills and held it up to remove the hook from its lower jaw.  The flopping tail of the trout almost touched his elbow.

When Johnny put his thumb in the fish’s mouth, Alice leaned closer. “Whatcha gunna do now?”

“Break its neck.  We can’t just let it lie there and suffer, can we?”

Pony let out a sigh.  “No . . . guess not.”

Johnny glanced over at Alice.  He didn’t enjoy this part of fishing either, even though it was necessary in order to eat what was caught.  “You don’t have to watch me, if you don’t wanna.  Tell yuh what.  You bait our hooks and I’ll tend to this.  I don’t like handling them squiggly worms anyway.  Okay?”

With a smirk and a derisive comment about his being a sissy, Alice went off to retrieve the bait-can that she had left where she had been sitting.  Upon returning to Johnny’s side, she dug out a fat worm and threaded it onto her hook.  Johnny had by this time attended to her fish, so he followed her back to the edge of the water where his own pole lay.  He pulled his empty hook from the water and handed it to Alice to bait for him.  The mock look of disgust on his face netted him another comment from the girl.

A short while later, Johnny and Alice were once again sitting beside the creek with their backs against the broad trunk of a widespread oak tree.  Its branches gradually cast a larger shadow out over the babbling stream.  A few feet out from the bank, a pair of fishing lines disappeared into the dark depths the slow-moving pool of water.

Johnny’s hat was tipped forward and partially covered his half-closed eyes.  The air was warm despite the breeze, and he could easily have gone to sleep if it hadn’t been for Pony’s constant string of questions.  How one ten-year old kid could think of so many complicated things to ask was beyond him.  One thing, however, was certain: Miss Florida had been right.  Pony Alice was bright.  With some proper schooling, she could fit in anywhere.

The one consolation of having his mind occupied with explaining everything from what worms ate to why fish could breath under water and people couldn’t was that it took his mind off his brother.  Scott had given him the cold shoulder treatment ever since they had left the church earlier that day, and Johnny was sure that his brother would make him pay dearly for setting him up to chaperone Sally Brown to Sacramento.

“Johnny, does God love people when they’re bad?”

Caught unprepared for this new line of questioning, Johnny tried to pretend that he hadn’t heard.  The ploy to get out of answering was useless, however.  She just became more insistent.

“Well, does he, Johnny?” Alice demanded while lifting the brim of his hat to study his face.

“Does he what?” he lazily asked, not meeting her piercing eyes.

“Does God love you even when you’re bad?”

“I don’t know.”  After glancing around at his horse grazing behind them, Johnny pulled in his line to see if he still had a worm on his hook.

“That preacher said he did,” Alice said in an indignant tone that caused Johnny to glance at her.   Her pale eyebrows puckered.  When she next spoke, her voice lacked the confidence of a moment ago. “You don’t s’pose he’d lie . . . would he?”

Shifting his attention back to the wiggling bait at the end of his fishing line, Johnny let out a resigned sigh.  “No . . . I don’t guess he would.  Maybe, you should talk to Teresa about this.  I’m sure she knows a lot more about it than I do.”

Alice wrinkled her nose and checked her own bait.  Following Johnny’s lead, she tossed her hook back into the water.  Once again, settled down with her back to the tree, she leaned against his arm and softly asked, “Do yuh think there really is a God?”

Before Johnny could think of an evasive answer that would save him having to voice his own doubts on that subject, she came up with more questions.  “Why does God let good people die?  Florida says it’s ’cause he wants to take them to live with him in heaven.  Do you think that’s why my mama and papa died?  Did he take your mama, too?  Is that how you got to be an orphan?”

Johnny laughed.  However, it was more to release the tension gnawing at his insides than because the non-stop string of inquiries amused him.  He certainly found nothing funny about them.   When Alice scowled at him, he sucked in a deep breath of air and, letting it out slowly, hid his inner turmoil behind a slightly scolding tone.  “Pony, don’t yuh know the fish won’t bite if you’re talking all the time.”

“But I wanna know why God took my mama and papa?  Do you think God was punishin’ me ’cause I was bad?”

Shifting his fishing pole to his other hand, Johnny raised his right arm and wrapped it around Alice’s shoulders.  He pulled her close and stroked the hair at her temple with the ends of his fingers.  “No. I don’t think it’s ’cause you were bad.  Maybe . . . maybe, he just wanted to give you a new family.”

Alice glanced up at Johnny, her face skewed as she pondered his words.  Slowly a touch of a smile softened the look of concentration while her eyes brightened with understanding.  “Maybe God didn’t want Uncle Wilf to be alone.”

Johnny fought to keep his voice from reflecting the anger that he felt toward that man for putting Alice up for sale.  “Could be . . . but it looks like your uncle has other ideas.”

Before the conversation had a chance to lead to further discussion of the merits, or lack thereof, of one Wilf Guthrie, a fish grabbed Johnny’s hook and headed upstream while another took Alice’s down the creek.  For the next several minutes, they were both too busy to talk, and by the time their fish had been landed, the topic was all but forgotten.

Once their catch had been attended to and Alice had strung worms on their hooks, the two fished in silence.  The girl seemed to be lost in private thoughts, and Johnny was happy for the reprieve from having to come up with answers to all of her unsettling questions.  For the most part, he was able to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet, which was disturbed only when another fish was snagged.

An hour later, Johnny announced that they had plenty of fish for supper and that it was time for them to be heading back to the ranch.  He whistled for Barranca and retrieved a small black horse that was tethered to a tree a couple hundred yards downstream from where he and Alice had been fishing.  After tightening the cinches, he looped the string of trout over the palomino’s saddle horn, cut the fishing lines from the poles, and stuffed the pieces of string with hooks still attached into his saddlebags.

Johnny grasped Pony Alice under her arms and hoisted her into the saddle on the smaller horse.  Then he swung aboard Barranca and they headed for home.  Along the way, Johnny thought of the girl’s questions about love.  Silently he vowed that no matter what happened, Pony would always know he loved her.

Scott Lancer took inventory of the articles of clothing that were sorted into neatly stacked piles at the end of his bed.  There were three pairs of pants for daytime wear and two for evening, four shirts of various colors plus two white ones, several pairs of socks, underwear, a black string tie, and the tan jacket that he wore to church and for special occasions.  As he began to pack the items into his valise, he couldn’t help thinking how different the items of clothing were from what he had brought with him from Boston.  Even attire for formal affairs in California would have been considered somewhat casual by the society in which he had been raised.  The suit he had on the day of his arrival at his father’s ranch was packed away in one of his trunks along with most of the other clothing he had been accustomed to wearing before coming west.  They had no practical use here.  Even his favorite hat with its stylish feather had drawn so much ridicule from his brother and the hired men that he hadn’t put it on in months for fear that it might tempt someone to use it for target practice.  He told himself that it wasn’t that he was afraid of being shot.  He just didn’t want the hat ruined. The household staff had given it to him the last Christmas he had spent in Boston.

Thoughts of his clothing led to the reason that he was preparing a day early for his trip to San Francisco.  Johnny.  He’s going to pay . . . and pay dearly, Scott vowed.  He didn’t know what that payment might entail or when it would happen.  He just knew that there was no way that he was letting his brother get away with setting him up to spend nearly two days in the company of Sally Brown.  The girl was annoying to say the least.  If she were pretty, the ordeal might be tolerable, but she wasn’t.  He even had his doubts that a year or two at a Boston finishing school would bring about much in the way of improvements to either her looks or her manners.  In his mind, she was hopeless.

With his clothing tucked into the confines of his luggage in an orderly fashion, Scott went to his bedside table and removed his journal from the drawer.  He settled into the chair in the corner on the other side of the bed.  With his right ankle resting on the opposite knee, he opened the journal to the last entry, propped the book on his raised leg, and began to write.

A smile softened the lines of irritation that had furrowed his brow, and he chuckled at the memory of his brother’s discomfort when Alice had asked about his having taken his gun into the church.  Teresa had immediately scolded Johnny, but Murdoch had chosen to prolong the agony of the expected lecture until after they had returned to the ranch and had eaten lunch.  The only disappointing thing about that had been that their father had insisted on dealing with Johnny in private.  The consequences could not have been too serious, of that Scott was fairly certain, because there had been no sound of raised voices and Johnny had cheerfully set out to take Pony Alice fishing shortly thereafter.  

Scott completed his brief entry, placed his journal and a pencil in the valise, and set the luggage on the floor by the window.  In the morning, he would need to add a few more items such as his shaving mug, razor, and hairbrush.  For now, he was finished so he went back downstairs.

Upon entering the main living room, Scott noticed his father sitting on the sofa in front of the fireplace.  The man appeared to be lost in the book he was reading, but he laid it aside and looked up when his son took a seat in the brown, leather armchair at one side of the hearth.

“Get your packing done?” Murdoch asked as their eyes met.

“Yes, Sir,” Scott curtly replied.

Murdoch let out a long breath while running a thumb down one cheek.  “Scott, I know it wasn’t your idea to escort the Brown girl to Sacramento, and Johnny shouldn’t have volunteered your services without asking you.”

“Well, you didn’t exactly help me get out of it either, Sir.”

“No . . . I didn’t.”  Murdoch let out a light chuckle.  His expression then turned more serious.  “But you wouldn’t really have wanted me to dash her hopes, would you?  She’s been planning this trip for some time.  Besides, a couple of years back east could do wonders for that girl.”

“That may be . . . but I don’t intend to hold my breath on that score,” Scott replied sarcastically.

“Son, I’ve seen some pretty homely colts turn into fine looking horseflesh once they mature.  You just might be surprised at what you see when she returns.”

Scott laughed under his breath at the absurdity of his father’s claim and arched his eyebrows.  “That, Sir, I’ll believe when I see it.”

“Well . . . try to look at it this way.  You’ll be doing a good deed, and . . . you only have to tolerate her company for a couple of days.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad . . . if she didn’t keep looking at me like . . ..”  Scott folded his arms and lowered his eyes.

“Like she worships the ground you walk on?” Murdoch asked sympathetically when his son failed to continue.

Caught off guard by how transparent his thoughts were to his father, Scott mumbled, “Something like that.”

“And, I suppose you find that embarrassing.”

“Frankly, yes,” Scott stated sharply while looking up.

“Well,” Murdoch said in a consoling tone, “unfortunately there isn’t much you can do other than ignore it.”

Resting his head against the back of the chair, Scott tilted his face upward and stared at the ceiling for a moment before saying, “Sometimes, that’s just not all that easy to do.”

“But you will manage, won’t you?”

Letting out his breath in resignation, Scott slowly turned his eyes on his father once more.   “Yes, I’ll manage . . . but Johnny’s–“

Before Scott could voice his intentions concerning his brother, Pony Alice burst into the room from the hallway that led to kitchen.  Her eyes looked large and round.   “I caught the most fish . . . and the biggest.  T’resa’s gunna cook ’em for supper.”

The girl made it as far as the sofa when Johnny entered from the same direction she had.  “Well, guess yuh heard.  Pony’s the champion fisherman of the day.”

Alice turned up her nose and scowled at Johnny.  “I ain’t a fisher man.  I’m a girl.”

“Yeah?  Well . . . yuh could’ve fooled me.”

Murdoch smiled, and although Scott couldn’t hear the chuckle creeping into his father’s throat, he knew it was there from the tremor of the man’s shoulder.  As for his own face, he remained expressionless.  He was in no mood to encourage Johnny’s mischievous teasing.

“I am so a girl,” Alice retorted as she flopped down next to Murdoch–her head and shoulders bouncing against the cushioned back of the couch and her legs flying upward to be folded when she tucked her feet under her.  With a huff, she turned her imploring eyes on Scott.  “Aren’t I?”

“Yes,” Scott replied with a slight hesitation to his voice.  “But you might be more convincing if you sat like a lady.”

The deeply creased eyebrows and tightly drawn lips immediately told Scott that the unintentional harshness in his tone hadn’t gone unnoticed by the child.  Quickly he sought to make amends.  It wasn’t Alice’s fault that he was feeling grouchy.  “Only boys put their feet on the furniture.”  He gave his brother a slight smile accompanied by a tip of his head.  “Girls have much better manners.”

Alice scooted back to sit straighter as she slid her feet forward.  With them dangling over the edge of the sofa, her heels unable to touch the floor, she lifted her chin and glanced at each of the men.

“Much better,” Scott said, trying not to join in the chuckles coming from his father and brother.

“Ol’ Florie . . .”  Alice’s eyes opened wider as she looked at Johnny.  She swallowed and shifted her gaze back to Scott.  “Miss Florida . . . she’s a friend o’ my Uncle Wilf’s.  She says I could be a real lady if I had me some learnin’.  Maybe someday I’ll go to one o’ them fancy schools like Sally Brown’s gunna go to.  Bet I could even marry me a Senator.”  She turned her head back toward the younger of the Lancer brothers.  “Huh, Johnny?”

Johnny tweaked Pony’s cheeks and grinned.  “Yep.  A couple years in Boston and even Ol’ Scott here couldn’t find fault with your manners.  He probably couldn’t tell yuh from one o’ them high society ladies he’s told me about.”

“He could too!”  Alice’s eyes stormed as she glared up into Johnny’s perplexed face.

“Alice,” Murdoch hastily said–the corners of his mouth twitching.  Johnny meant a lady from a wealthy family back east.”

 “Oh, I thought. . .”  Pony Alice’s questioning eyes sought Scott’s once more.  “Why’re they called high s’iety ladies?”

This time Scott wasn’t able to keep from smiling.  He was finding that Alice had a way of driving all else from a person’s mind and engulfing him in her world.  Her naiveté and insatiable thirst for knowledge was refreshing, and his ill temper of earlier evaporated.  Soon he was telling her about tea parties, debutantes, and fancy balls.

The rest of the day and evening passed pleasantly, and it wasn’t until Scott entered his room later that night and saw his luggage that his anger of earlier resurfaced.  As he closed the door behind him, he vowed once again to find a way to get even with his brother.   


Chapter 10

Monday started out like any other first day of the workweek.  Breakfast was served in the kitchen at sunup.  This particular morning, however, Scott Lancer took little part in the conversation despite the attempts of his family to draw him into one discussion or another.  As soon as he had finished eating, he claimed that he still had a few things to pack.  He promptly excused himself and left to go to his room.

Murdoch Lancer looked across the table at his younger son.  “Better have Frank take a few of the boys down to the south pasture to look for those strays.  You need to check the fences around the sandpit east of here and make sure there aren’t any holes.”

“Sure, Murdoch,” Johnny mumbled while chewing the last bite of his eggs.  He gulped down the rest of his coffee, scooted his chair away from the table, and stood.  “I’ll get right at it as soon as I get Zanzabar hitched up,” he said before heading for the barn.

Once Johnny had the carriage ready, he drove up to the house and halted by the hitching rail in front of the main entry door.  He then went to tell Murdoch that his transportation was ready and waiting.

Spurs jingling and booted-heels lightly clipping on the tile floor, Johnny entered the foyer.  He started toward the arched doorway into the living room, but stopped when he saw Scott coming toward him from the stairway on the far side of the entry hall.  A moment later, Johnny reached out for the large valise in his brother’s left hand.  “Want me to put that in the buggy for yuh?”

“No thank you,” Scott stiffly replied without slowing his pace.

Johnny spun part way around on his heel, followed his brother out the door, and fell into step with him as they crossed the porch.  “Guess your feathers are still ruffled from yesterday, huh?” Johnny said, his voice vibrating with a hint of amusement.

Scott scowled at Johnny and lengthened his stride to step off the porch.  “I thought you had work to do?”

Johnny shrugged.  “Just thought I’d let Murdoch know his carriage awaits him.”

“I’ll be glad to relay the message,” Scott replied upon reaching the back of the buggy.

 As Scott hefted the luggage into the space behind the seat, Johnny leaned an elbow on the front wheel of the carriage and watched.  When his brother turned and headed back toward the house, he again matched strides with the other man.

“Don’t you have something you need to be doing?” Scott demanded.

Ignoring his brother’s irritable tone, Johnny softly drawled, “You’re still mad, ain’t yuh?”

Scott stopped at the front entry and turned to face his brother.  “Now whatever gave you that idea?”

“Look, uh . . ..”  Johnny, head down and hands clasped behind his back, scuffed the toe of one boot against the stone surface of the porch.

“Get it said, Brother.”

From the impatience in Scott’s voice, Johnny wondered if trying to make amends was worth the effort.   Yet he couldn’t let his brother leave with things the way they were between them, so he forced a huff of air from his lungs and shrugged.  “I’m sorry . . . about . . . well, about Sally.  I . . . I had no idea you’d take it so hard.”

“You were just helping a damsel in distress . . . right?”

If Johnny hadn’t known better, he would have sworn that a sneer accompanied his brother’s sarcastic tone.  Not one to be easily intimidated, he continued his effort to make amends.  “No, Scott . . . well . . . maybe that was part of it.”

“Go on.”

Slowly raising his head to meet his brother’s angry eyes, Johnny noted the rigid stance as well as the arms that now tensely crossed the other man’s chest.  He drew in a sharp breath and noisily let it part way out between slightly parted lips.  “The truth, huh?”

“The truth,” Scott stated, eyes unwavering.

Again, Johnny shrugged. The relaxed slump of his shoulders belied his tightly strung nerves.  “All right, but yuh ain’t gunna like it.”  Receiving little reassurance from the coolness in the other’s gaze, he took another deep breath before continuing.  “I was gettin’ back at yuh . . . you know . . . for bein’ forced into goin’ to church.  When she was so disappointed about not gettin’ to go back east to that fancy school for girls, I, uh . . . just couldn’t help volunteerin’ yuh.  It ain’t like you were havin’ to go out of your way or nothin’.”

“Not go out of my way!” Scott replied, his voice pitching upwards.  “Just what, might I ask, would you call my leaving one day early?”

“Getting an extra day off?” Johnny looked hopefully at Scott.  Seeing no change in his brother’s expression, he tried a new tactic.  He flashed a boyish grin and said, “Just think of all that work you’ll get out of.”

“If I was in need of another day off, I’m quite capable of asking for it.”

“I said I was sorry.  What more do yuh want?”

Before Scott could answer Johnny’s plea, the door swung open and their father’s tall frame appeared in the doorway.  “Ready to go?” Murdoch asked, glancing at Scott.

“Ready, Sir.  I was just coming to get you.”

“We’d best be on our way, then.  You know how the stage schedules are . . . on rare occasions, they do leave ahead of time.”

Scott agreed and followed Murdoch to the buggy.  Johnny, tagging along behind, was sure there was a hint of reluctance in his brother’s manner, and wondered if their father had noticed it too.  If that were true, it soon became apparent that the big man was keeping his observations to himself for he climbed into the driver’s side of the seat and took up the reins.  Once his elder son was seated beside him, he issued a farewell to Johnny, clucked to Zanzabar, and slapped the reins lightly against the horse’s rump.

“See yuh, Murdoch.  Bye, Scott . . . have fun,” Johnny called with a wave of his hand while hoping for some sign that his brother’s anger might have softened.  He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have detected a slight smile warring with the scowl on Scott’s face as their eyes met when Murdoch circled past in order to head away from the house.  Maybe Sally won’t make too much of a nuisance of herself, and he’ll have forgotten all about it by the time he gets back in a week, he hoped while watching the carriage disappear behind the row of trees that lined the road near the house.

Johnny slowly let his breath all the way out as he sauntered toward the corral.  There was no way that a week in San Francisco would dull his brother’s memory enough for the other man to forgive and forget.  Retribution was in order.  Sooner or later, Scott would get even.  Of that, there was no doubt.

Resigned to his fate, Johnny untied his horse’s reins from the fence rail by the corner of the barn and mounted.  He turned Barranca’s nose east toward the sandpit and urged the dancing palomino into an easy gallop.  The sun was shining–a promise of a beautiful day–and, in no time, other thoughts filling his mind pushed away all worries of what the future might hold.  For the moment, the here and now was all that counted.

Ruffled by the warm afternoon breeze, the newly hung, white sheets billowed and snapped on the clothesline like the sails on a ship as Teresa gathered up the empty laundry basket by her feet.  “Well that’s the last of it,” she said to the child at her side.

“Can I go play with the puppies now?” Alice asked, her large green eyes begging.

“If you like.  I’m sure they’d like the attention.  Just don’t let them out of the barn, okay?  They might get stepped on by one of the horses.”

“I’ll be careful.  I promise.”

Teresa smiled.  “Then run along,” she said with a wave of her hand.  “Oh, if you see Jelly, will you tell him I need to talk to him for a minute?” she added as the younger girl started for the barn.

“I’ll tell ‘im,” Alice called over her shoulder.  Facing forward again, she skipped toward the corrals–her arms swinging at her sides like pendulums.  Finally, she had some time to herself and she planned to take full advantage of her freedom.

Upon reaching the barn, Pony Alice slid the heavy door open, slipped inside, and closed it behind her.  After giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the dimly lit interior, she made her way to the corner where the puppies had a bed next to a hay manger.  She stepped over the board that kept the six-week old pups inside the confines of the horse stall and knelt down to sit on her heels on the straw covered floor.  “Hi, puppy puppies,” she said, reaching toward them with both hands open.

Whimpering puppies clamored into Pony Alice’s lap.  She giggled and reached for one whose short wobbly legs, struggling to support its chubby body, sprawled in all directions.  Sharp toenails dug into Pony’s overalls as padded feet clawed their way upward.  Lifting the furry puppy up close to her face, she inhaled its sweet breath before snuggling her cheek into the animal’s soft coat.  After hugging it close, she put it down and picked up another.  One by one, she did the same with the rest of the litter while the puppies warred with each other in their bids for her attention.

For nearly an hour, Pony Alice amused herself and the puppies.  She cuddled them, rolled with them in the straw, chased them, and let them scamper after her.  Never in her young life could she remember having had so much fun.  The only dogs that she’d been around were adults.  Although she had liked them, they hadn’t been nearly as lovable and entertaining as the tiny bodies that now surrounded her, their tongues tickling her face, and tiny teeth pricking her hands.  To them, she was the center of their world.

A much larger dog hopped over the barrier.  Instantly the puppies, all but one, scampered away to attack the soft underside of their mother as she lapped water from the pan near the doorway of the pen.  Holding the remaining pup in her arms, Alice kissed the top of its head.  She rose to her feet and placed it with the others while wishing she could claim that one as her very own.  As she left the nursing puppies, she decided to ask Johnny that night at supper if he’d give it to her.

Not wanting to return to the house after she came out of the barn, Pony Alice wandered out into the horse pasture.  She petted a small black mare–the only horse to tolerate her approach without running off.  Then catching sight of Jelly standing with his back toward her at the far corner of the barn, she remembered the message she’d been asked to give him.

Before she could get to him, the small man with whiskers moved on around the end of the building where Pony could no longer see him.  She hurried to catch up.

An unfamiliar male voice spoke as Pony Alice approached the corner of the barn.  “I heard tell about this slick horse-trader who’d snooker buyers into payin’ top dollar for this outlaw stallion then’d show up a couple days later an’ buy ‘im back for half.”

Pony stopped before the man finished speaking.  Fearing he would stop if he knew she was listening, she leaned against the side of the barn and waited.

The next voice was unmistakably Jelly’s, so Pony paid even closer attention to what was being said.

“I’ve heard tell of that bein’ done.  Take a horse that’s gentle as a kitten long’s you’re handlin’ ‘im from the ground, travel ’round from town to town, and sell ‘im for a big price.  Then when the horse tears up the new buyer’s barn and nigh kills the first man to try puttin’ a saddle on ‘im, the seller shows up innocent as yuh please and offers ta take the poor devil off the sucker’s hands.  Course, he don’t wanna pay anywhere near what he sold ‘im for.  By then, though, the horse has caused so much havoc the new owner’d pert near pay to get rid of ‘im.”

“Oldest trick in the world, my pappy always said,” the first man said.  “Yuh mark my words.  Sooner ‘r later, that kid’s gunna start makin’ trouble . . . and when she does, bet that uncle a hers won’t be more’n a couple days gettin’ here.”

“Maybe so, but Murdoch ain’t gunna sit back and let her get away with pullin’ no stunts around here.  He’d tan her britches.”

“If Johnny’d let him, yuh mean.  You should o’ heard what he told some o’ the boys that was teasin’ her yesterday.  I half ‘spected ‘im ta nail all their hides ta the wall.

Straining her ears to hear more, Alice was disappointed when the voices faded and stopped altogether.  Cautiously she peeked around the corner of the barn.  Her shoulders sagged at finding no one within sight.  Jelly and the other man apparently had moved on around to the front of the barn.

Alice’s brows puckered and creased the smooth skin above her wrinkled nose as she ambled along the end of the barn.  She wondered if the man with Jelly could have been right about her uncle coming after her.  What if Johnny won’t let him have me back? she thought, her frown deepening.  Uncle Wilf might not have enough money.

By the time Pony Alice reached the front corner of the barn, she could see that Jelly was half way to the house.  She crawled between the rails of the corral fence, angled across the pen, and climbed out on the side opposite the building.  Figuring that Teresa would see the whiskered man, Pony skirted around the backside of the bunkhouse.  Her tummy growled and she decided to head for the kitchen.  Maybe she could find something to eat.  Supper wouldn’t be until after Johnny got home around sundown.  That wouldn’t be for another couple of hours.

When Alice approached the kitchen door a short while later, she noticed the sheets waving in the wind and tugging at the clothesline that stretched between a pole and the edge of the house.  She remembered all of the work that had gone into scrubbing, rinsing, and wringing the excess water from the bedding she’d helped Teresa and Maria wash earlier that day.  Pony’s hunger was instantly forgotten as a plan began to take shape in her mind.  Here was the perfect chance for her to cause some havoc as Jelly had called it.  If bad things started happening, she was sure to be blamed for it, and everyone would be glad to let her uncle have her when he arrived.

A quick glance around assured Pony that no one was within sight.  She moved closer to one of the large white flags and took hold of a corner.  A tug accomplished nothing.  Folded in half over the thin rope, the sheet refused to come loose.

Alice scowled.  The line was too high for her to reach the clothespins that held the sheets in place.  She let out a huff of irritation, crossed her arms, and tapped one foot as she studied the situation.  There had to be a way to dump that whole load of wash in the dirt.  There just had to be.

Suddenly her eyes lit up and she smiled.   After taking another quick glance around to make sure no one would see her, she crept past the kitchen door and stopped where the clothesline was threaded through a metal loop on the wall and tied in place.  Seeing a small box lying nearby, she retrieved it and used it as a stool to reach the knot.

Untying the ends of the cord proved more difficult than Alice had expected.  The knot had drawn tight from the weight the line had borne over the years.  She wasn’t about to give up, though.  With her lip clamped between her teeth, she worked at loosening the taunt strands.  Her efforts proved fruitless.  The loops refused to budge.

The girl stepped down from her perch and let out a soft sigh.  She took a step and stopped when she saw the sun flashing off of something by her foot.  Butterflies fluttered in her stomach and the grin returned to her face as she stooped over and grasped a piece of clear glass between the thumb and forefinger of her right hand.  Just what she needed.  A knife.

With her heart beating a frantic staccato in her chest, Alice climbed back onto the box.  She wasn’t about to let fear of being caught deter her from her mission.  Clenching her jaw in determination, she dragged the sharp edge of the chunk of glass back and forth across one cord of the clothesline.

The tightly twisted strands of the clothesline had just begun to fray when the kitchen door squeaked.  Alice jumped, dropping her makeshift knife just as a gust of wind caught the sheets.  Hearing a voice, she hopped off her perch and dashed behind a thick shrub that was close by.  She hunkered down out of sight and watched in awe through the jungle of branches as the tug of white sheets billowing upward snapped the weakened cord.

“Oh, no!” a frantic voice yelled from the direction of the kitchen.  The sheets arced away from the house, paused, and fluttered to the ground as the racing form of a brown-haired girl in her mid-teens flashed past Alice’s hiding place.  “My laundry,” Teresa cried, looking down at the dust-covered bedding that hadn’t yet had a chance to get dry.

Jelly, who had followed Teresa out of the kitchen, came to stand at her side.  “What happened?”

Teresa lifted one of the sheets and shook her head at the streaks of brown.  “The clothesline broke.  Just look at them, Jelly, they’ll all have to be washed again.”

“Now how could it’ve broken?  You know Maria checks it ever’ Monday before yuh use it.  If there’d been so much as one little frayed spot, yuh know she’d a said somethin’.”

“I know, but how else could it have come loose?  My father put this up himself.  He said there was no way that that knot would come untied.  The line had to have broken.”

Alice cringed in fear of the punishment that was sure to come her way.  While Jelly and Teresa were facing away from her to inspect the ends of the clothesline, she took the opportunity to make her escape.  Keeping close to the stone wall of the house and squeezing behind the row of bushes, she crawled on hands and knees until she reached the corner where she rose to her feet and made a mad dash for the front door.  A moment later, she was slumped in the chair by her bedroom window, an open book in her lap.  There she stayed, a picture of innocence, until Teresa came looking for her nearly three-quarters of an hour later.

Chapter 11

Bright rose-colored clouds cast a slowly fading pink hue over the upper walls of the hacienda as Johnny Lancer stopped by the wash stand next to a tree in the yard to clean up.  He rubbed his hands together in the basin.  When they were clean, he used them to splash water onto his dust covered face and neck before drying with the towel that hung nearby.

Johnny slung the towel over its holder and headed for the main entry door to the house.  As he stepped up onto the porch, voices drifting from the courtyard caught his attention.  He stopped when he heard a gruff, “There ain’t no way that rope could o’ broke on its own accord.  It had to’ve had some help.”

“Jelly, I’m sure there was just a weak spot that nobody noticed.  Teresa said there was a pretty big gust of wind about the time it broke.  Besides . . . no one would have had any reason to cut it.”  There was no mistaking that the deep voice was that of Murdoch Lancer.

Johnny walked around the corner of the house just as Jelly uttered an indignant reply.  “And maybe yuh ain’t looked close enough for one.  If yuh ask me–.”   As his eyes briefly met Johnny’s, the bearded man stopped mid-sentence and clamped his lips together.

“Ask yuh what, Jelly?” Johnny asked, ambling up to the smaller man’s side.

“Nothin’.  ‘Sides, my opinions don’t amount to a hill o’ beans around here anyhow,” Jelly retorted with a huff accompanied by a pointed glance at Murdoch.  Then announcing he was going to his room to clean up for supper, he quickly left the other two men staring after him, their faces clouding with puzzled frowns.

“What was that all about?” Johnny asked as Jelly disappeared behind a door on the other side of the courtyard.

“The wind broke the clothesline this afternoon and some sheets had to be washed a second time.  Jelly has some fool notion that somebody cut it.”

Johnny scowled and absentmindedly flexed his fingers.  “Why would anybody wanna do that?”

“That’s just the point I was trying to make to Jelly, but . . ..”  Murdoch paused to stroke his chin with the forefinger of his right hand.   “You know how he is once he gets an idea in his head.”

Johnny’s lips parted into a lop-sided grin, and he couldn’t keep from chuckling.  “Yeah.  Yuh couldn’t convince him the sky was blue if he once said it was green.”

Murdoch laughed–a deep-throated rumble–and moved toward the side door into the entry hall.

“Well . . . I guess yuh got Scott to the stage on time,” Johnny said as he fell into step with his father.  “Yuh have long to wait?”

“Actually, it was a good thing we left here when we did,” Murdoch replied.  “The stage was a good twenty minutes early.”

“How’d that happen?”

“The regular driver broke his arm a few days ago so the line was trying out a new man.  He didn’t look to be any older than you.”  Murdoch grasped the doorknob and chuckled while giving it a twist.  As he opened the door and stepped through, he let out a sigh. “I just hope Scott was civil to him at the next stop.”

Johnny followed his father through the doorway and closed the door behind them.  “Why wouldn’t he be?” he asked as they started down the hallway that led past the wine cellar.

“Your brother wasn’t too impressed with the boy making eyes at Sally,” Murdoch replied with a hint of amusement in his voice.

This brought a grin to Johnny’s face.  “Why not?  Scott don’t even like the girl.  He made that clear enough.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that he’ll feel responsible for her until he turns her over to her uncle in Sacramento.”

“Yeah.” A bit of a smirk twitched at the corners of Johnny’s mouth.  “Scott does take his duties pretty serious, don’t he?”

“Yes, he does,” Murdoch said with a nod as they strolled by the back stairway that went to the upper level of the house.  He stopped and faced his son.  “Speaking of duties, how was the fence around that sand trap?  You find any holes that needed repairing?”

“A few.  I fixed most of ’em, but there are a couple of stretches where the cut bank along the gully gave way.  Those’ll need some new posts.  I figured to send Walt and Pedro out there first thing in the morning.  They should have the job done by noon.”

Drawing his upper lip between his teeth, Murdoch slowly nodded.  “Good thinking.”

Even though the words of praise brought him a warm sense of pleasure, Johnny couldn’t keep from ducking his head to look at the floor.  He had no idea why, after better than a year, he should still feel so self-conscious whenever his father voiced approval of his actions, but he did.  For some unknown reason, it made him feel like a kid.  Or maybe, I’m just savin’ us both the embarrassment of him seein’ how much his opinion means to me, he thought while picking at one of the concho buttons on the left leg of his pants.

“… ride up to Black Mesa and see if that buckskin’s back in the herd yet?”

When his father’s voice broke into his thoughts, Johnny realized that while his mind had been elsewhere, he had missed part of what the other man had been saying.  Raising his head, he arched his brows as he let out a soft, “Hm?”

Murdoch’s one-handed attempt to cover a smile didn’t go unnoticed.  However, the placing of his hand on his son’s shoulder and the light squeeze that followed went a long way toward dispelling Johnny’s uneasiness over having been caught daydreaming.  When he spoke, there wasn’t the slightest indication in his tone or expression that he was repeating himself.  “I was thinking that buckskin colt you and Scott were chasing last week might have joined up with the rest of the herd by now.  Maybe you should take a couple of the men up to Black Mesa tomorrow and have a look.  While you’re up that way, you can check the grass along Eagle Creek and see if we need to be moving those steers, yet.”

“Sure.  Want me do that first thing in the mornin’?  We can see how the feed’s holdin’ up first . . . then if we find that horse, we can spread out and try runnin’ him down.”  Excitement rose inside of Johnny and spilled into his voice as he continued.  “He sure is fast.  Can just about run the legs off any horse on the ranch.  Just wait’ll yuh see him, Murdoch.  Pretty?  Boy is he.  His body’s the color of sand, black stockings to his knees and hocks, and his mane is long and . . . shiny like them black boots of Scott’s.  He’s fat and sassy . . . and sleek, too.  I ain’t never seen a horse with a prettier neck and way of carryin’ his head in my all life.  He’d make a real fine herd-sire.”

The smile on his father’s face fueled Johnny’s enthusiasm even more, and he continued to extol the young stallion’s attributes as he followed Murdoch on into the living room a moment later.  No doubt they would have still been discussing the horse when supper was served twenty minutes later if it hadn’t been for Pony Alice’s sudden appearance about the time the men had reached the fireplace alcove.  Johnny hadn’t even had a chance to sit down in the leather chair opposite the sofa when she burst into the room, her high-pitched voice squealing out his name as she raced toward him–feet pattering across the hardwood floor before their sound was muffled by the rug he was standing on.

Reaching out an arm to catch the child as she stubbed a toe against the side of his foot and pitched forward, Johnny laughingly chided, “Slow down, girl, b’fore yuh take a header and knock yourself out.  No wonder people call yuh Pony.  You’re like a stampedin’ mustang tryin’ to outrun a whole herd o’ whoopin’ cowboys.  If yuh don’t take it easy, you’re gunna bust a leg.”  He twirled around with the girl held fast in the crook of his arm.  When he came to a stop, he set her down with her feet on the floor and looked quizzically at her.  “Yuh wouldn’t want me to have to shoot yuh to put yuh out o’ your misery, would yuh?”

Her chin lifted and her nose wrinkled.  “Yuh don’t shoot people with broken legs, silly.”

“Well, I know that . . . but the way yuh come racin’ in here, I could’ve sworn yuh was a real pony . . . wild as the wind and twice as fast.”

Alice grinned widely and giggled, and Johnny gave her a hug.  Seeing a smile on the girl’s face made his heart sing.  When he’d first left Witness Tree with her, he had been concerned that she would miss her uncle.  So far as he could see, that wasn’t the case.  She actually seemed happy and that took a big load off of his mind.

Johnny tweaked the child’s nose in the same manner he did Teresa’s at times.  “So . . . what’d yuh do today . . . besides run around here with your tail flyin’?”

“I don’t got a tail,” Alice replied with an indignant edge to her voice.

“Sure, yuh do . . . right there.”  Johnny tugged on the end of Alice’s long ponytail.

Pony Alice giggled again and Johnny noticed that his father, who had settled onto one end of the sofa, had one hand raised to hide a smile that couldn’t be kept from dancing in the man’s eyes.  Looks like my old man’s not nearly as stern and gruff as he likes to let on.  Wonder what it’d have been like–

Finding that the direction of his thoughts was heading into dangerous territory, Johnny slumped into the chair beside the fireplace and pulled Alice up onto his lap.  She clung to him for a moment and he tightened his hold, his chest constricting as he bit his lip.  He wished he could take one good crack at her uncle’s jawbone and knock out a few teeth while beating some feeling into the heartless crook.  She deserves better than that worthless cheat.  Well, she’ll have it here.  I’ll see to that, he vowed.

“Johnny . . . can I . . . can I have a puppy?”

“A puppy?”  He studied the girl’s face for some sign that she was fooling him, but all he got was a determined nod.  He decided to string her along a little just to see how serious she really was.  “Whatcha want with a puppy?”

“I . . . I just want one.”  She hesitated. “It likes me.”

Glancing at his father for some kind of suggestion of how to handle this unexpected request, Johnny received nothing more than a slight smile accompanied with a shrug of the big man’s shoulders.  Obviously, the decision was left up to him.  Alice was his girl.

Johnny gave Pony’s hair another tug.  “Got one all picked out, huh?”

She nodded again, her ponytail bobbing.

“What about its mama?  She might object to yuh takin’ one of her kids.  Besides what’re yuh gunna feed it?”

“I . . . I could give it some milk.  It’d only drink a little bit.  Please . . . I’d take real good care of it.  The mama’s got a whole bunch.  She won’t miss one.”

Another look at Murdoch still didn’t provide so much as a helpful nod or shake of the man’s head.  Johnny twisted Alice’s hair around a finger.  “Tell yuh what.  I’ll give yuh one–“

Alice grinned and started to voice her excitement, but Johnny stilled her with a finger on her lips.  “Let me finish.  Tell yuh what.  You can have your pick after the puppies are weaned.  That means when they don’t need their mother.  You understand?”

Alice nodded while her mouth puckered into the beginning of a pout.

“Hey . . ..”  Johnny bumped her under the chin with the side of a curled forefinger, his eyes looking over the top of her head and seeing his father’s approving nod.  Suddenly conscious of warmth radiating from within, Johnny shifted his gaze from Murdoch to the girl. “You want that puppy, I’d better see a smile . . . or I’ll think yuh don’t want him all that bad.”

“I want him.”  The corners of Pony Alice’s pinched lips stretched upward as she looked into Johnny’s smiling face and let out a resigned sigh.  “When’ll that be?”

Rolling his eyes toward the ceiling and shrugging, Johnny spoke in a soft, lazy manner.  “Oh . . . couple weeks at the most.”

“Can he sleep with me?”

Noticing the disapproval that instantly clouded Murdoch’s face, Johnny chuckled and gave the girl a squeeze.  “I think we’d better fix him a place in the barn.  Maria and Teresa are real fussy about dirty feet gettin’ on the sheets.  Why . . . can you believe they threatened to make me sleep in the barn once . . . just on account of me wearin’ my boots to bed?”  Giving his father a sly grin when the older man coughed, he added, “Just no accountin’ for women.  Just born fussy, I guess.”

“Who was born fussy?” Teresa said, the heels of her boots clicking a staccato rhythm across the floor as she approached from the arched doorway that opened into the seldom used parlor beyond the head of the long dining table.      


Quickly clasping a hand over Alice’s mouth, Johnny innocently smiled at the young woman that he had come to think of as a sister.  “I am,” he said while casting a conspiratorial glance at his father.  “I get cranky as an old she-bear with cubs if my dinner ain’t served on time . . . so . . . that better be a pile of plates you have in your hands.  My belly’s tellin’ me it’s suppertime.”

“It is, is it?”  The dishes rattled as Teresa set them on the end of the table.  “Well . . . in that case you can spread these around while I help Maria carry in the food.”  Part way through her turn to leave, she stopped and gave her guardian’s younger son a scathing look.  “I sure wouldn’t want your cub to see you acting like a cranky old bear.  She’s a little young to have her illusions go up in smoke.”

“Uh-lusions, huh?  That one a them fancy college words Scott taught yuh?”  Johnny spoke louder as Teresa disappeared from sight.  He then tickled Alice while commanding her to stop giggling.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Son, I’d suggest you get the table set before Teresa gets back with our supper.  When she’s crossed, she’s worse than two mama bears.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be able to enjoy my meal in peace.”

Knowing Murdoch was right, Johnny stood, hefted Pony Alice to her feet, and took her by the hand.  “Come on, Pony.  Papa bear has spoken . . . and his roar would bring the roof down on our heads if we cross him.”

The child’s laughter mingled with a grumble coming from the sofa as Johnny started toward the table. He wasted no time reaching his destination, picking up the silverware that was piled on top of the flowered china, and handing them to Alice to distribute while he picked up the plates one by one and slid them into place.  By the time the meat platter and steaming serving bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, and carrots were brought in, the table was ready and waiting.

A short while later Murdoch was seated in his usual place at the head of the table with Teresa around the corner on his left, Alice across from her, and Johnny next to the child.  Cheerful conversation was mixed with the tinkling of utensils against fine china, the occasional scraping of a spoon or fork, and the steady ticking of the clock.  Once in a while Johnny would sneak a glance at his girl and smile.  Any worries that had been plaguing him about her fitting in vanished.  She was going to do fine.  Just fine.  Now if he could just be as sure about Scott, everything would be perfect.

Johnny let out a long breath, took another swallow of his lemonade, and asked Teresa to pass the potatoes.  Helping himself to seconds, he pushed his concerns aside.  His brother wouldn’t be home for a week.  Scott had plenty of time to cool down.  After all, Sally Brown couldn’t possibly be any more trouble than Pony, and she was doing fine.

With this last thought, Johnny restricted his attention to those around him.  There was no need to ruin a good evening thinking about what tomorrow might bring.  He had learned long ago that it was best to live one day at a time.  It was much better on one’s peace of mind.

Chapter 12

The trip had barely begun, and Scott Lancer already knew why he hated traveling by stagecoach.  Only this stage ride was the worst he had ever been on.  Rumbling wheels clattered as they dropped into one chuckhole after another.  His teeth jarred together with each bump, and the fast pace that the young driver was setting had the vehicle swaying on the corners.  Scott half expected the coach to roll at any moment and tumble him and the other passengers like dice in the hands of a gambler.

Sally Brown, however, seemed oblivious to any discomfort as she was tossed against Scott at every turn in the road–her hat slipping to one side so that the tall feather tickled his nose.  As he swiped at the irritation, she just smiled up at him with adoring eyes and kept right on talking without so much as a split-second of hesitation while settling the hat back into place atop her red hair.

“Look . . . ain’t the view simply divine?  Sally dragged the words out while pointing out the window at the scenery that appeared to race by while they bounced along the road that snaked off a high ridge.  Down below, the San Joaquin Valley stretched out for miles to the west–a patchwork of various shades of green, brown, and tan that was dotted with trees and a few buildings, which marked the location of ranch headquarters here and there.

“Yes, it is,” Scott said with a slight tip of his head. While his traveling companion rattled on without the slightest show of any realization that he was thoroughly tired of listening to her, he continued to hide his less than pleasant thoughts behind a practiced intonation of politeness.  By the time the stage pulled into the first of several relay stations, Scott was seriously contemplating the murder of one dark-haired ex-gunfighter even if they were brothers.  Sally’s simpering voice had grated on his nerves for the entire two hours since they had left Morro Coyo.  He wasn’t sure he could take another ten minutes of it, let alone a whole day and a half.  She was bound to drive him insane long before then.

When Scott thought he could take no more of Sally, the coach rocked to a stop and the door was immediately flung open.  A tall, lanky young man poked his head in and grinned at Sally.  His unusual honey-colored eyes feasted on her as if she was the most beautiful girl on earth.  “Here . . . I’ll give yuh a hand.”  As he spoke, he reached out with long bony fingers that then appeared to treat her arm like it was fragile glass.

Scott bristled, the animosity clamoring in his breast taking him by surprise.  He should have been grateful that, from his position in the middle of the rear seat, there was nothing he could do to keep the skinny driver with rust-colored hair and freckled face from helping the girl to the ground.  Still he was rankled by the way the young man was so gallantly taking charge of Sally and ushering her toward the door of the stage stop as though she were a princess in a story book.

Once the remaining passengers had disembarked, Scott stretched his long legs, climbed out, and joined the procession to the small adobe building that served as a way station.  Sally and the driver were just disappearing inside, and he was tempted to hurry around the portly man in his way in order to catch up with them.  Having promised her parents that he would keep a close watch on her, he felt that escorting her was his duty.

A loud trilling laugh, which was unmistakably Sally’s, met Scott’s ears as he stepped up onto the porch of the stage depot.  Squaring his shoulders, he followed his fellow travelers through the door and glanced around the sparsely furnished room.

Along the wall to his right was a crude bench, the seat worn smooth from years of use.  Beyond it a haze of blue smoke surrounded the fireplace.   Scott assumed that the other smell assaulting his nose was coming from the large pot that dangled inches above the lapping tongues of the fire.  He cringed.  The taste of the greasy stew with vegetables cooked to mush that he had been served the last time he had taken this route was still fresh in his memory more than a year later.  His appetite left at the thought of subjecting his mouth or stomach to that torture again, so he quickly shifted his eyes to take in the rest of the room.

The kitchen area, which was straight ahead, consisted of no more than a few shelves hung on the wall and a plank supported by boxes to act as a countertop.  A blanketed doorway near the far-left corner marked the entry into what Scott assumed was the proprietor’s sleeping quarters.   Closer to his left was a crude table with benches along each side.  Here his eyes came to an abrupt stop and dwelt on a stylishly dressed young woman, who was seated next to a petite silver-haired woman at one end of the bench on the backside of the table.

Appraising eyes met Scott’s as the girl glanced his way.  He tipped his head and smiled.  When she responded in kind, the warmth radiating from her eyes took his breath away, as did her flawless complexion, slightly tanned from time spent in the sun, and hair that looked like silky threads of spun gold.

Quickly regaining his composure, Scott headed in the young woman’s direction.  The desire to learn more about her was overwhelming.  A girl of her beauty and obvious social status was a rarity in the areas of California that he had been in so far.  He couldn’t help wondering what she would be like to talk to.  After two hours of listening to Sally, he craved a more intellectually stimulating conversation.  The fact that this new girl was pleasing to the eye made that prospect even more appealing.

As he neared the table, Scott removed his hat.  With the crown grasped between thumb and fingers of his right hand, he stopped, tipped his head, and bowed slightly at the waist.  “Good afternoon, ladies.  May I join you?”

The younger woman nodded in return.  “Please do.”

Scott smiled, slid the end of the bench out enough to ease his lean frame between it and the table, and sat down opposite the young woman.  Her musical voice, as pleasing to the ear as Sally’s was grating, had set his heart to racing.  He couldn’t wait to learn more about her.  Was she from the area or merely visiting?  Where was she going?  Might they soon be riding in the same stage?

Reining in his thoughts, Scott glanced briefly at the older woman before dwelling on the younger.  “I’m Scott Lancer,” he said.

“Lancer?  Any relation to Murdoch Lancer?”  This came from the white-haired lady, whom Scott was guessing to be the girl’s grandmother.

“He’s my father,” Scott replied, not quite able to hide the tremor of surprised pleasure in his voice.  If she knew Murdoch, then she couldn’t live overly far away.

“Oh?  I didn’t realize he had any family.”

The questioning lift to the woman’s brow and the growing intensity of her gaze sent a shiver of uncertainty crawling up Scott’s spine.    “Then you know him,” he stated, hoping it was true, yet wondering why she hadn’t heard of him or Johnny if that were the case.

“I can’t really say that I know him.  We met in Sacramento a couple of years ago at a cattlemen’s convention . . . and I had heard of him before that through a mutual friend, the lieutenant governor.”

This information left Scott even less sure of what to say without sounding critical of his father.  He had no idea what the woman might have heard, and his family’s personal history was not something he wished to discuss with strangers.

Feeling the heat radiating under his collar, Scott was glad for the temporary distraction of a couple of the other passengers taking a seat at the table.  It gave him time to collect his thoughts.  Once they were settled, he softly cleared his throat.  Then, just as he started to speak, a cup of steaming dark-brown liquid was set before him–a little of its contents sloshing over the brim and forming a ring around the base of the cup.

“I thought yuh might like some coffee,” trilled the redheaded girl at his elbow.  She wrinkled her freckled nose and curled one side of her upper lip.  “It’s awf’ly strong, though.  I put in two heapin’ scoops o’ sugar.  I hope you can drink it without cream.  There wasn’t any.  Can you believe they don’t have a cow here?  You’ d think a stage stop’d be more consid’rate of its passengers.  Mama wouldn’t think o’ servin’ coffee without offerin’ cream.”

A silent groan crept painfully up Scott’s throat.  He forced a smile, thanked Sally for the coffee and assured her that it would be fine.  Her small hand touched his right shoulder and trailed across the nape of his neck to the other shoulder, making him cringe as she stepped behind him.   She leaned into him while sliding one leg over the bench, and her hand slipped to his wrist as she sat down and swung her other leg over.

Feeling the heat under his collar rising, Scott would have given anything at that moment to be able to scoot away from Sally once she was seated, his arm still captured in her possessive grasp.  There was no place to go, though.  He was already at the end of the bench.

Worry lines fanned out from Sally’s eyes as she glanced up at Scott and squeezed his arm.  “Are yuh sure yuh don’t mind that there’s no cream?  I thought everyone in Boston used cream in their coffee.”

Scott, again, insisted the drink was fine.   In an effort to convince her, he took a couple of sips and nearly gasped as the hot liquid scalded his tongue.  At least, I won’t be able to taste it, now, he thought ruefully.  The sugar hadn’t begun to tone down the bitter taste of the strong brew.  It was worse than anything Jelly had ever made when they were camped out on the trail together.

Sally lifted her chin and spoke with a note of pride in her voice.  “Scott grew up in Boston with his grandfather.  He’s been to the theatre and gone to all sorts o’ fancy balls an’ parties.  He even graduated from Harvard.  Didn’t you?”   On this last, she propped her left elbow on the table, rested her chin on the back of her hand, and gazed dreamily up at Scott.  Her lips parted into a smile that revealed an upper tooth, which had come in higher and a little in front of the rest.

Scott couldn’t help noticing how that one crooked tooth spoiled the girl’s otherwise pleasant smile.  Before he could continue this line of thought, he saw the puzzled amusement in the eyes of the ladies across.  Anger surge through him, and he wondered why the stage driver couldn’t have kept Sally entertained a while longer.

Sally didn’t wait for Scott to answer before turning her attention to the younger of the two women on the other side of the table.  “I just adore your outfit.  Where’d yuh get it?  Green River has a dress shop, but I never saw anything like that there.  I can’t wait to get to Boston, so I can get me a whole bunch o’ new clothes.  They have some o’ the best dressmakers in the country.”  Her eyes shifted back to the young man at her side.  “Ain’t that so, Scott?”

“Yes.”  Scott’s brief reply was barely more than a whisper over the rim of his coffee cup, from which he had been taking small sips while wondering what the other young woman must be thinking about his relationship to Sally.  He considered making it known that he was merely escorting the girl to Sacramento as a favor to her family, but the stagecoach driver chose that moment to announce that the coach was ready to roll.

Elbow still resting on the table, Sally leaned forward and addressed the other ladies.  “Are yuh goin’ on our stage?”

“No.  We’re visiting friends near here and apparently something prevented them from meeting us when our stage arrived,” the other young woman replied.

This bit of news gave Scott mixed feelings.  Although the coach would have been quite crowded with the addition of two new passengers, he had hoped the women would be traveling with them.  The fact that they were not meant that he had little or no time at all to learn more about them.

“Hadn’t we better be goin’?”

Sally’s voice prodded Scott reluctantly into action.  Hiding his irritation behind a nonchalant manner, he stood and started to scoot his end of the bench away from the table.  At that same moment, the heavy-set male passenger, who had taken a seat at the far end, chose to do the same.

Scott made a desperate grab for the edge of the table as the bench, shifting on its middle leg, caught him behind the knees and threw him off balance.  He missed and felt a rush of panic as he fell backwards.  Then, just when he was sure that he would soon be lying flat on his back on the floor with his legs draped over the bench, the small hand on his arm tightened.  He teetered for a second and sat down with a thump.

“Are yuh all right?”

A mumbled “uh, huh” and quick nod of his head was all Scott could manage in response to Sally’s question.  His eyes had settled on the beautiful girl across the table.  While the corners off her mouth twitched upward to chase the concern from her face, his cheeks flamed.

In a hurried attempt to conceal his embarrassment, Scott rose to his feet.   He rested his left hand flat on the table and guided his end of the bench away from him with the other hand.  Once he had adequate space, he sidestepped around the corner of the table, and waited for Sally to go past him.

Any hope Scott might have had that the stage driver, who had moved in behind him, would again take charge of Sally was immediately dashed when he found his own arm in her possessive grip.  His stomach churned as she tugged his arm, her adoring eyes briefly meeting his before she looked at the other two women and said, “Nice talkin’ to yuh.  Wish we had more time . . . but we have to be goin’.  Can’t be keepin’ the driver waitin’, yuh know.”

Sally flashed the driver a grin and linked her arm in his while retaining her hold on Scott’s.  Scott had no choice but to grab his hat from the end of the table.   With an apologetic glance backward, he voiced a hasty goodbye to the two ladies before following the driver’s lead.

Just before stepping through the open doorway of the relay station, Scott looked back at the table for one last glimpse of the young lady he would very much liked to have had a chance to spend more time with.  I didn’t even get her name, he thought with rising irritation.

The rest of the day went pretty much as Scott expected.  Sally kept up her chatter.  When she wasn’t excitedly pointing out to him something interesting or beautiful about the scenery, she was questioning him about Boston, and she hardly let him out of her sight at each relay station.   By the time the stage reached its final stop of the day, his fingers were itching to wrap themselves tightly around her neck and squeeze.

Despite his agitation, Scott retained his polite demeanor through the meager supper that was set before him.   He had learned at an early age, while growing up in his grandfather’s home, that bad manners were not to be tolerated.  Those habits were deep rooted and a year of living in the wilds of California had not changed them.  Having been raised a gentleman, he could not behave otherwise.

Scott was glad when Sally finally retired for the night.  Free for a few hours of his obligation to watch over her, he made his way around to the room at the back of the relay station.  It wasn’t much, just a small room that had been added on to the small adobe house to provide a sleeping area for male travelers so that they didn’t have to spend the night in the barn when the extra bedroom inside was being used by women.

A series of loud drawn-out snorts greeted Scott’s ears as he pushed the door open and stepped inside the room that was dimly lit by the rays of the moon shining through the open window.  He glanced around and grimaced.  The only empty bed was the upper bunk just inside the door.  That would put him directly above the source of the erratic snoring.

Quietly Scott backed up and closed the door.  After a day in Sally’s company, he needed peace and quiet.  There was only one place he could think of that would provide that.  Without a moment’s hesitation, he headed to the barn.

A short while later, Scott closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh.  The mound of hay beneath him was softer than most beds, and there was something soothing about the muffled sound of the horses moving about in the corral outside.   He could have used a blanket.  Still, he figured that the solitude was well worth the discomfort he would endure from the slight chill in the night air.

Sleep, however, eluded the weary young man as visions of a flaxen-haired young woman paraded through his mind.  He wondered who she was and whether he would ever see her again.  A small voice suggested that looks could be deceiving and that, even though she had appeared to be in her early twenties, she might not be as old as his father’s ward, Teresa.  Still, he couldn’t forget her, and his irritation grew when the grinning face of his brother intruded on his thoughts.

The vow Scott had made earlier came to mind.  You’ll pay, Little Brother.  I don’t know how or when . . . but I’ll get even, somehow.

As he lay there fuming, Scott failed to even take into consideration that if Johnny hadn’t set him up to chaperone Sally to Sacramento, he would not have been traveling by stage that day.  The beautiful young woman would have been long gone from that first stage stop by the time he would have arrived the following day.  He would never have seen her, never even known that she existed.

Scott’s thoughts kept him awake for some time.  He dreaded another day in Sally’s company and fervently wished he had not been raised under his grandfather’s strict sense of propriety and honor.  If his conscience would have let him, he would have found a way to have left her behind.  That was not possible, and he knew it.  There was no other option open to him.  In the morning, he would board the stage once more and tolerate her as best he could until he turned her over to her uncle in Sacramento.  He would then put her from his mind for good and proceed on to San Francisco.  Once his business was finished at the end of the week, he would return home and make Johnny regret having arranged this torturous trip.

As he contemplated an appropriate punishment for his brother, Scott’s breathing slowed and deepened.  The cool temperature in the barn became less noticeable, his body relaxed, and he finally drifted off to sleep.  Before he again opened his eyes, the light of early dawn would be crowding out the dark shadows that now enveloped him.  In the meantime, he would be lost in the land of dreams where Sally repeatedly interfered with his attempts to meet a beautiful woman with golden hair and his brother laughed at his plight.

Chapter 13

Pony Alice Guthrie paid no mind to the steady thumping of the heel of her boot against the bottom rung that joined the front legs of the ladder-back chair she was sitting in at one end of the kitchen table.  She swirled her fork first one way and then another–the mound of scrambled eggs on the plate in front of her scattering to the brink of tipping over the edge.  Her eyes squinted and her upper lip puckered.  Today was Tuesday.  It had been four days since she’d arrived at the Lancer ranch.  Where was her uncle Wilf?  Why hadn’t he come for her?  Did he have any food?  What if he was sick and no one would give him any medicine?

“Hadn’t you better eat that before it gets any colder?” a deep voice asked from directly behind the girl.

Pony gasped.  Her fork slipped from her fingers and hit the floor with a loud metallic twang.   After staring at the yellow glob beside her plate, she twisted around and slowly let her gaze follow the row of buttons on the front of a brown-plaid shirt upward to Murdoch Lancer’s stern face.  Her jaw sagged and her eyes opened wider.  “Sorry,” she squeaked, feeling a wild thumping against her ribs as she looked up at the giant of a man.

Murdoch’s hand stretched down and out as his upper body leaned toward Pony Alice.  She shuddered.  Was he going to jerk her to her feet and march her to the woodshed like the headmaster at the orphanage in Sacramento had done that day he had caught her playing in her food?   Her backside had ached for days from the harsh rap of a stick of kindling and her knees had burned from crawling across the kitchen floor as she scrubbed every inch of the rough wooden surface.  She could still hear the pinch-faced man’s sharp rebuke.  “Food is precious here, young lady.  I will not tolerate waste.   Perhaps, a few missed meals will teach you to be thankful for what is set before you.”

Another tremor ran through Pony’s small frame, and her eyes strayed from the tall rancher to his hand as he reached under her chair.  She watched his every move, her breath trapped.  Something scraped the floor beneath her before he rose to full height, holding her fallen utensil.  “I’ll get you a clean one,” he brusquely said.

Pony couldn’t stop the soft whoosh of released air or the sag of her shoulders when Murdoch moved away from the table.  Even her voice betrayed the nervousness she felt in his presence when she thanked him as he handed her the clean fork he had retrieved from the drawer by the sink.  To cover her nervousness, she quickly took a small bite of her eggs.  They stuck in her throat, and she would have liked to spit them out.  She couldn’t with him watching her that closely, so she took a sip of milk from the glass by her plate and pretended to swallow.

Alice gave Murdoch what her Uncle Wilf called her chipmunk smile that showed her upper front teeth.  She wished he’d leave her alone to finish her breakfast.  Any hope of that quickly died.  After giving her a smile in return, he walked over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee.  She rolled the eggs around in her mouth, let the milk slide down her throat, and resigned herself to having to clean up every last bite of her breakfast.  By the time she was through, she was sure she’d look like a squirrel hoarding nuts for the winter.

Steam rose from the cup in big man’s hand, and the pungent odor of the strong brew tickled Alice’s nose.  Murdoch took a sip and said, “If you want to ride out with Teresa and Jelly to look at the new foals, you’d better hurry up and finish eating.”  Then to Pony’s surprise, he left the room.

Alice slumped against the back of the chair and let out a long breath.  Alone, at last.  Now, she could get rid of the food in her mouth and on her plate without anyone knowing how little she had eaten.

Disposing of her breakfast proved easy, enough.  Food scraps were saved in a bucket on the counter, and the contents were given to the dogs each morning.  Since the dogs hadn’t been fed yet, Alice doubted anyone would notice what she had added as long as she mixed it in with her fork.   

Not wanting to chance running into Murdoch and being questioned, Alice left the kitchen by way of the door that opened directly to the outside.  She hurried along the back of the house and stopped near a small brick building when she saw Jelly backing out the door.  “What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the fat burlap sack he was shifting from his hands to the crook of one arm.

“It’s a ham.  Cookie needs it to make sandwiches for the men.”  The whiskered man tipped his head and rolled his eyes at the open door.  “You could latch the door for me.  See that lever?  Make sure it’s all the way down.  It fits tight so the dogs can’t get into the smoke house.”

“What’s a smoke house?”  Alice squinted and wrinkled her nose as she struggled with the latch.

When she was finished, Jelly jiggled the lever and explained how the building was used to cure meat.  Alice, understanding enough to satisfy her curiosity, changed the subject.  She was more interested in knowing when they were going to see the baby horses. 

“We’ll go saddle up the horses soon’s I deliver this to the cook’s shack.  Teresa oughta be ready to go by then,” Jelly told her.

“Can I go see the puppies?”  Alice hop-skipped to keep up as Jelly strode toward another brick building that was behind the bunkhouse.

“Guess yuh can.  Just don’t let ’em out.  Them critters ain’t got a lick of sense.  First thing they’d do is run under one of the horses and get kicked.”

“I’ll be careful,” Alice promised and headed for the barn.

The puppies were too busy nursing to pay any attention to Alice, so she checked out the horses that were tied in the open-faced stalls near the big, sliding doors at the far end of the building.  A small, black horse nickered a greeting.  Seeing that it was the same pony she had ridden on Sunday when Johnny had taken her fishing, she talked to it while running her hand over its hip and along its side as she walked toward its shoulder.

Blackie lowered his head.  His upper lip pinched together and wiggled as Alice’s small hands scratched his chest and neck.   She laughed.  During the past few months of living with her uncle, she’d come to love horses.  Someday, she’d have one all her own.

Thoughts of her uncle brought more thoughts.  She confided some aloud to the pony as his velvety nose rubbed against her shirt sleeve.  “Uncle Wilf won’t leave me here.  I know he won’t.  He’ll come . . . just like Jelly said.”

Doubts quickly crowded out Pony Alice’s confidence in her uncle.   What if he did come?   He might not have enough money to buy her back.  Or what if he came and Johnny wouldn’t give her up.

Jelly arrived with Teresa before Alice could puzzle out an answer to her dilemma, and the prospect of seeing the foals pushed out all other thoughts.  She watched as a child-size saddle was slung onto the divider wall of Blackie’s stall.   “I can put the saddle on,” Alice said, stretching her arms to reach the saddle horn that was several inches higher than her head.

“Ain’t no need you tryin’ to heft that heavy thing when it ain’t no chore at all for me.”  Jelly’s tone gave no room for argument as he stood beside Alice and put his hand on the cantle of the saddle.

Pony Alice drew her eyebrows together, moved to the horse’s head, and stood chewing at her upper lip.   Why did grownups always have to treat her like she was a baby?  That is except for her Uncle.  Wilf had always let her do things for herself.

Cinches were tightened and fastened off, and the horses led from the barn.  Alice clung to the skirt of the stirrup and pulled herself up to grab the saddle horn with one hand.  She found the stirrup loop with her left toe, swung her other leg over the cantle, and plopped into the seat before Jelly could get his horse out the door.

When Jelly groused that he’d have helped her, Alice just flashed him a toothy grin as he climbed into his own saddle.  “Are we ready to go now?” she asked, gathering up the reins in her left hand and adjusting the slack to keep the braided horse-hair from drooping.

Teresa started for the gate, and Alice gave Blackie a kick in the ribs.  The pony balked, receiving another dig of child’s boot heels for refusing to move.  Jelly’s horse crowded from the rear and the smaller horse stepped forward.  More drumming of Alice’s legs kept the animal going.

Out the corral gate and into a large pasture, the three riders went at a fast walk.  Alice pecked away at the pony’s sides and urged the small horse to keep up with the longer strides of the other two horses.  “Get up, you lop-eared piece of crow bait,” she scolded.

“Is that any way for a lady to talk?” Jelly asked.

“She’s bein’ poky slow.” Alice glanced sideways and lifted her chin.  “If I had me a switch, I’d teach her.  She’s just bein’ lazy.  Uncle Wilf says yuh gotta show horses you’re the boss.”

After filling Jelly in on her uncle’s vast knowledge of horses, Alice fell silent.  Her stomach suddenly felt like it was tied in knots.  She tried to swallow, but couldn’t.   Something seemed to be stuck in her throat.

Teresa pointed toward a grove of trees near the stream that ran along one side of the pasture.  “Look, Alice . . . there they are.”

One of the foals squealed and raced toward them, another close on its heels.  With a prick of its ears, Alice’s pony nickered and broke into a trot.  The quick change into the rougher gait boosted the girl upwards, and she grabbed the saddle horn to keep from falling.

With a firm tug on the reins, Alice slowed her horse down to a walk.  She forgot all about her uncle as she rode closer to the band of brood mares.  The prospect of seeing the babies up close filled her with excitement and consumed her every thought.

Teresa reined her horse to a halt next to Jelly’s.  “Aren’t they pretty?”

Alice halted beside them and pointed at a miniature copy of Johnny’s palomino.  “Oh . . . I like that one.”

“That’s a nice filly, all right,” Jelly said.  He motioned toward a dark red foal with black mane and tail.  “So’s that bay colt.”

The colt was flashy, white stockings reaching halfway up each leg and a blaze running squarely down the middle of its long face.  Still, Alice liked the palomino best.  Its pale golden hair glistened in the sunlight just like Barranca’s.    

Much too soon, it was time to head back to the hacienda.  Even though the movement of the sun showed that more than an hour had passed, Alice felt it had only been minutes.  She puckered her lower lip.  She’d rather spend the rest of the day watching the baby horses.

If either Jelly or Teresa noticed the pout on the young girl’s face, neither let on during the ride back to the corral.  They chatted about the foals.  Each one’s virtues and faults were compared with those of the others, and speculations were made as to which of the young animals would have temperaments like their dams.  Alice, wanting to prolong the ride, was content to let her mount lag behind.

Back at the barn, Alice slid out of the saddle and led Blackie inside where Jelly was already in the midst of stripping saddles from his and Teresa’s mounts.  The sweet smell of hay and grain mixed with the stronger odors of sweaty horse blankets and dust reminded the young girl of the stable in Witness Tree.  She had often helped care for her uncle’s string of horses.  However, that was in the past now.  He had sold them all . . . and her.

Alice’s steps dragged as she followed Teresa into the kitchen for lunch a short time later.   She washed her hands and helped put dishes and food on the table, but her heart wasn’t in anything she did.  When lunch was finally ready, she sank into the same chair she had sat in at breakfast.  Her shoulders drooped and her appetite fled.  Nothing looked good to her.

Nothing sounded worse than a grandfather clock when its big hand reached the six or twelve, or so thought Pony Alice.  She scowled upward at the timepiece that even dwarfed Murdoch Lancer’s mountainous height.   Five more ear-throbbing gongs to go.  Johnny would be home soon, and it would be time for supper.

Alice turned away from the clock, which was between the pair of French doors, and walked over to the dining table.  Her tummy growled, making her wish she’d eaten more of her sandwich at lunch.  She would have, had Murdoch not hurried through his meal in order to ride out to look over the heifers Johnny was gathering together and had Teresa not left the table early to consult with Maria about the menu for the evening meal.  Being alone, there’d been no incentive to eat.

As she passed by the table, Alice traced the fingertips of her left hand along the curved tops of the chair backs, her eyes barely able to see over them.  She reached the last one on the side away from the bookcases and lingered, running her hand down the uneven satiny fabric.  The sculptured pattern reminded her of her first view of the Lancer valley with its rolling hills, rich pasture land, and winding stream.  Never in her life had she seen any place so beautiful.

“It’s not fair,” she muttered, thinking of her uncle.  Often, using their laps as tables to hold a battered tin plate, they had sat on a rock at the edge of a campfire to partake of an evening meal of scorched beans and a stale slice of bread.  She couldn’t understand why God gave some people so much more than others.

A few more leisurely strides brought Alice to the oak desk that Murdoch had been sitting behind the first time she had seen him.  She ran a hand over the glossy finish that was dust free and smooth as glass.  At one corner of the polished desktop, a cigar box blocked the path of her hand.  Absent-mindedly, she followed its contours with her fingertips and lifted the lid to stare at the chubby wands.  Her nose wrinkled.  That anyone would want to smoke the nasty-smelling things was beyond her.

How the box got into her hands, Alice wasn’t sure.  One second it was on the desk, and the next it was wrapped up in the clutches of her fingers.  Before she could put it back, she heard voices in the entry hall.

One of the speakers sounded like Murdoch Lancer, and Alice took several quick steps away from the desk.  Suddenly, realizing the box of cigars was still in her hand and that there wasn’t time to return them, she looked for a place to stash them.  The table with the ship looked handy.  It was along the path of her retreat.  However, that thought was quickly rejected.  Murdoch would see the box right off and holler about them having been moved.  The best thing was to hide them, if she could find the right spot.

In her haste to escape, Alice cut too close to the end of the sofa.  Her toe slammed against one leg of the couch, and she gasped as her body pitched forward.  One flailing hand grabbed onto the furniture’s upholstered arm while the cigar box slipped from Alice’s grasp and landed soundlessly on the carpeted floor—cigars rolling in all directions.

With a swift sideways swipe of her foot, once she had righted herself, Alice swept the evidence of her misdeed under the flowery couch and fled the room.  Down the hallway toward the rear stairs and out the side door, she raced.  Then, upon closing the door, she leaned against the heavy wood and sucked in big gulps of air while willing her body to quit trembling.  Murdoch would have beaten her for sure had he caught her with his prized cigars.  Hadn’t he grumbled the evening before about someone having been into them, for he knew he hadn’t smoked more than a couple since their arrival from the East a week ago?      

Murdoch’s deep voice bellowed from somewhere inside the house.  Alice shoved away from the door and ran to a nearby tree.  She ducked behind the broad trunk and searched for a better hiding place, her eyes shifting back and forth until she spotted a block-like structure, not far off.  The smoke house.  He’d never think of looking for me there,’ she thought.

After one quick peek to make sure the coast was clear, Alice dashed across the open stretch of grass to the smoke house.  She reached through the oblong hole in the door and pulled upward on the wooden latch.  It refused to give.

Johnny would have given her a good scolding had he heard the choice words she muttered as she worked at loosening the stubborn fastener from its holder on the inside of the door jamb.  Alice didn’t care if she was turning the air blue.  She needed into the smoke house, and she needed in there immediately.  The latch had closed easy enough earlier that day.  There was no reason for it to be so contrary now.

Alice’s arms, hands, and fingers ached, but she put all her might into tugging the latch one last time before giving up.  The wood groaned and creaked.  Slowly, the door swung inward, and she slipped through the opening.  Leaning against the thick adobe wall, she wondered if anyone passing by could hear the beating of her heart.  She was sure that the thundering hooves of a wild mustang galloping at break-neck speed to outrun a horde of whooping cowboys couldn’t have been any louder than the wild pounding against her ribs.

How long she waited in the darkness, Alice had no way of knowing.  She held her breath when she heard Murdoch call her name.  However, the door to her hideout remained closed until she decided to peak outside.

No one was in sight, and a long breath whistled through Alice’s nose.  Cautiously, she eased the door open a little farther and waited.  When nothing in her vicinity moved, she darted to the closest tree.  Still, all was clear so she stealthily continued on toward the barn.

Jelly was talking to a couple of ranch hands by the forge, which was beneath one end of the overhanging roof on the front of the stable.  Alice skirted behind that building and entered the barn through a small side-door.  Once inside, she went directly to the stall that housed the puppies and sat on the straw.

Pudgy bundles of energy wrapped in silky, black and white fur clamored over Alice’s legs and crawled into her arms as moist, pink tongues kissed her hands and face.  She giggled, her arms embracing the puppies as they snuggled closer and showered her with more kisses.  In no time, she forgot all about her reason for hiding.

Alice lost all track of time while playing with the puppies.  Their antics were far too entertaining.  With legs barely able to support a chubby body, one would clumsily struggle to the top of the heap in her lap.  Then an equally awkward sibling would send it tumbling to the ground.  The ousted member of the litter would yap, and once again charge into the pack as growls and snarls erupted from the rest of the litter.   

Footsteps and the nickering of a horse barely registered in Alice’s mind.  Then she heard grain pattering into a nearby manger, and someone cough just before Murdoch Lancer’s booming voice filled the barn with a resounding, “Jelly!”

“Ain’t no need to holler.  I ain’t deaf,” came a gruff retort from beyond the wall closest to Alice.  She was sure that speaker was Jelly.

“I thought you fixed the latch on the smoke house?” Murdoch barked, sending icy fingers crawling up Alice’s spine.

“I did fix it!”  Jelly’s reply was equally loud and filled with indignation.

Seeking refuge in the dim lighting of the far corner of the stall, Alice shuddered when a monstrous shadow appeared and hovered in the open upper half of the door to the puppies’ pen as Murdoch demanded an answer to why he had just now found the dogs helping themselves to a slab of bacon.

Farther away, feet scuffled on the dirt floor of the barn and a stall door slammed.  Then Pony heard Jelly retort, “That door was latched tight this morning.  I checked it myself right after Alice closed it for me.”

The two men continued talking, their voices growing fainter as they moved toward the far end of the barn.  Alice strained her ears, but the clamoring of the puppies drowned out most of what was being said.  All she could tell for certain from the bits and pieces of conversation was that Murdoch was angry.  If he ever suspected she had been hiding in the smoke house, she would be in big trouble.

He wouldn’t dare beat me.  Not if Johnny was here, thought Alice, upon hearing Murdoch say something about using a switch.  One of the puppies snuggled up against her chin, and she hugged it tight.

“Do something . . . Alice . . . orphan.”

Alice cringed at the visions resurrected by that last word, spoken in Murdoch’s deep voice.  She couldn’t let him send her back to the orphanage.  The people there were mean, and they hated her.

A shrill yelp erupted from the bundle of fur in Alice’s arms as the puppy squirmed to free itself from her tight grip.  She released her hold and gasped when someone softly drawled, “You pickin’ on that poor little critter?”

Johnny!  Alice lunged to her feet and put on her best smile as she dashed toward the grinning young man, who was standing in the doorway.  All she had to do, until her uncle came for her, was keep Johnny on her side.  He would never hear of his father sending her away to that dreadful orphanage, and no one would dare hurt her, either.   He would protect her.  He’d promised.

Johnny’s large hands encircled Alice’s waist, and he twirled her around.  When he finally put her down, she was so dizzy that she clung to his arm to keep from falling.

“So . . . how did your day go?” Johnny asked.

Alice glanced around the barn.  “Fine,” she said, seeing that Jelly and Murdoch were now nowhere in sight.  She linked her arm with Johnny’s and proceeded to tell him all about the foals while he escorted her out of the barn and to the house.

Excitement filled Alice’s voice, and she smiled and giggled often.  The young man at her side laughed and smiled in return.  By the time they entered the house, she was confident that she had Johnny convinced that all was well.  He’d never believe I’ve done anything bad, no matter what anyone says, she reasoned.

When neither the incident of the dogs getting into the smoke house nor the cigars were brought up during supper, Alice’s fears faded.  She relaxed, chattered about the foals, and cleaned up every morsel on her plate.  Tomorrow her uncle would come for her.  Murdoch Lancer would be glad to be rid of her, and Johnny would let her go because . . . well, because he was a soft-hearted cowboy.  He’d already proven that often enough.  All she needed to do to get her way with him was beg a little and shed a few tears, if need be.  If that failed, she could always make him feel guilty.  That had worked before, too.  It was bound to work again.

Later that evening, Alice looked out the window of her room.  The moon lit up the road that wound toward the far end of the valley, and she felt a lump grow in her throat.  A tear slipped out the corner of one eye.  She brushed it away with the sleeve of her dress.  I’m not a baby.  I won’t cry.  I won’t.  But she did, later, when she was in bed with the blankets snuggled up to her chin.  The tears refused to be held back any longer, and they trickled down her cheeks until she finally cried herself to sleep in the solitude of her room where no one could see her pain or know the depth of her despair. 

Chapter 14

The following day at noon, Johnny Lancer whistled a merry tune while walking toward the house.  His girl, which was how he thought of Alice, seemed to be settling in nicely.  In no time at all, she would be part of the family.  He couldn’t be happier.  She deserved more out of life than her sorry excuse for an uncle, who had ice instead of blood in his veins.

His girl was standing on one of the stone benches that were attached to the courtyard’s scalloped wall when Johnny saw her a moment later.  Wearing the plaid dress Teresa had picked out for her in town the previous Saturday and with her hair pulled back at the sides and fastened behind with a wide green bow, Pony looked very much like a proper young lady. She appeared to be watching something down the road.

Johnny let the whistle die and sneaked up behind Alice.  “You lookin’ for me?” he asked, sweeping her up with strong hands.  He whirled around and around until her shrill squeals were reduced to giggles.

When Johnny at last set Alice on her feet, he placed a thumb under her chin and tipped her flushed face up so he could look her in the eye.  “You been behavin’ yourself?”

She met his gaze, her eyes wide open and voice sounding as innocent as an angel’s.  “I couldn’t do anything really bad . . . you know that, don’t you, Johnny?”

Some lucky boy’s gunna drown in those eyes, Johnny thought while answering her by pulling her close and hugging her tight.  He quickly shifted his mind elsewhere.  It was far too soon to be thinking of losing her.  She’d just begun to be a part of his life.

Johnny shifted his thoughts to something less disturbing.  “You hungry?” he asked, holding Alice out from him once again.  Her nod was a little slow in coming, but he assumed the hesitation could have something to do with her snacking on one too many of Teresa’s cookies.

With the grandeur of a prince offering to escort a princess, Johnny bowed and offered his arm to Alice.  “Shall we go see what Teresa’s cooked up?”

Alice giggled and linked her arm in Johnny’s.  She seemed so small, and Johnny suddenly felt very protective.  In his heart, he vowed that as long as he had anything to say about it her eyes would never know tears and she would always be as safe and happy as she was at that moment.

Lunch that day was a cheerful affair filled with laughter, Johnny teasing Alice and her responding with light-hearted banter in return.  She’s doing fine.  Just fine, Johnny told himself for the second time that day.

After the noon meal, Johnny rode back out to the south mesa to check on the work crew that was building a new stretch of fence where he had lain out a string line that morning.  To allow extra time on the job, the men had packed along a lunch and should have been back to work an hour or more before he got there.  He figured that if all went well, by nightfall a quarter mile of posts would be in the ground and most of the wire strung and stretched tight.

The job was coming along as expected.  Johnny stayed a while and helped before mounting up and heading north to Calf Gulch to see how the crew there was coming with their project.  During the last storm, high winds had blown oak trees over in several places along the narrow streambed.  Brush and other debris, washed down the gully by heavy rains, had gotten tangled in the fallen trees and formed several dams.  If left unattended, they would eventually silt in and block off the small creek’s entire flow.

An exceptionally large tree, with brush snarled in every branch, was blocking progress when Johnny located the work crew.  The men looked like they could use some help so he stayed for an hour or so.

Hope Scott’s having fun, Johnny thought, his face stinging from the slap of a branch.  Normally he would have been working with the fence builders and his brother would have been assigned to the men who were clearing the gully.  Picturing Scott with Sally Brown, however, made doing the other man’s job worthwhile.  Bet he didn’t get a bit of peace all the way to Sacramento.  Johnny chuckled at the thought and grinned.

Another branch drove the smile from Johnny’s face and sent his hat flying.  If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn his brother was getting even.

Johnny didn’t have a shred of doubt that Scott would eventually make him pay.  From prior experience, he knew that his brother would bide his time, looking for the perfect opportunity while appearing to have forgotten the matter.  When revenge was taken, it would be at the most inconvenient time.  Still, Johnny figured that making Scott pay for trapping him into going to church would be well worth the price, whatever it turned out to be. 

Hat back on his head, Johnny tied off his rope to another massive branch.  He looped the other end of the rope around his saddle horn and urged Barranca up the steep side of the gully.  After a few more such trips, both he and the horse were dripping with sweat and thoughts of Scott had vanished.

Johnny swiped the back of his hand across his moist brow.  Hhaving had enough fun for one day, he turned to one of the hired men.  “You can get the rest, can’t yuh?”

José, a stocky Mexican, nodded and spoke with a heavy accent.  “Sί, Señor Johnny.  We has it done by the time the sun, she falls behinds the hill.”

“Good,” Johnny said, more than glad his help was no longer needed.  He mounted, called “adios” to the workers, and waved.  Then he turned Barranca toward home and legged the palomino into a fast walk.

Johnny whistled a lively tune or sang as he rode.  It had been a good day.  The fence was going well and the worst blockage had been cleared from the gully.  For once, he would get home in time to relax a little before supper.  Maybe, he could even play a couple games of checkers with Alice.

Upon arriving at the ranch headquarters, Johnny’s hopes of relaxing crashed and splintered, scattering to the four winds like the heifers that were supposed to be in the corral by the barn.  “Jelly!  Jelly!” he yelled, seeing the wide-open corral gate as he rode around the corner of the guardhouse at a full gallop.

Jelly didn’t answer and waiting was out of the question.  Johnny whirled Barranca around and spurred the palomino into a hard run toward the heifers that were the farthest away.  His hat went flying on the first stride, but he ignored it, letting it battle the confining cord that tugged at his throat as he pushed his horse to greater speed.  There wasn’t time to waste if he were to get the heifers corralled before dark.

Cattle have a distinct advantage over a lone rider as Johnny had already learned on more than one occasion.  They know it, too, he silently grumbled, noting the critters wandering off in the opposite direction from the group he was gathering up.

The heifers were worse than school children, who were avoiding going back into the classroom after lunch.  Even once the cattle were together, they wanted to split up again.  Each bunch had its own leader and each leader had a different destination in mind.  By the time, the task of herding them into the corral was accomplished, Johnny was frustrated and mad, and Barranca’s sides were heaving–dirty froth covering his neck.

Jelly reached the gate just as the last heifer passed through the opening.  “How’d they get out?”

“If you’d do your job and fix that latch when it needed it, they wouldn’t have gotten out,” Johnny snapped.

“I do my job . . . and then some,” Jelly retorted.  “Besides, I checked that latch this mornin’ and there wasn’t a thing wrong with it.”

“Then how’d the gate get open?  They sure didn’t grow hands to lift the latch.”  Johnny jabbed a thumb toward the heifers while ignoring the smaller man’s red face.

“I don’t know how.  I told yuh the latch was hooked the—”

Johnny was in no mood for excuses and cut in.  “Then you’d better check it again.  I broke my back gettin’ those heifers in, and I don’t plan on havin’ to do it again.”

“Yes, Sir!  Mister Lancer, Sir!  I’ll get right on it.  That make yuh happy?”  Jelly whirled and slammed the gate.

Sticking around while Jelly fussed with the latch would do nothing to soothe the other man’s frazzled nerves or his own, so Johnny led Barranca into the barn.  He spent the next half hour giving the horse a thorough going over with a curry comb and brush to remove all traces of caked on sweat and grime.  When he was finished and walked out of the barn, Jelly was gone.

Johnny climbed the fence rather than taking a chance on being accused of messing up the gate latch.  He was feeling a little guilty about losing his temper with Jelly, and he didn’t want there to be any reason for more contention between the two of them.  The gruff old man was too good of a friend to lose.

When Johnny reached the courtyard, he found Pony Alice gazing down the road like she had earlier in the day.  He figured she must be daydreaming.  If she had been looking for him, she should have seen him.  All kids daydream.  I sure did enough of it when I was her age, he reasoned, remembering the trouble he’d gotten into for letting his mind wander from his assigned chores in his stepfather’s store.   More than once, a swift swat had warmed his backside and returned his thoughts where they belonged.

Johnny stopped beside Alice and leaned down to where his mouth was close to her ear.  “Penny for your thoughts.” She sucked in her breath and he laughed.  “Well?” he prodded.

Quickly recovering, she lifted her chin and shrugged.  “Oh . . . nothin’.”

He didn’t push for a better answer.  Some things were too private to share.  Instead he asked if she had seen Jelly.

Alice pointed at the hired man’s closed door.  “He went in there an’ banged the door shut.  Somethin’ must’ve made him real mad.  I could hear him sputterin’ clear over here.”

Johnny tweaked her nose between his thumb and first finger, and grinned.  “Mad, huh?”  He rested his chin on the edge of his hand and heisted his brows.  “Then I suppose now wouldn’t be a good time to talk to him, would it?”

She shook her head.  “Nope.  He was madder’n a jacka . . . uh, rabbit caught in a trap.”

“That’s pretty mad all right.  Bet he could’ve chewed his way through iron and spit nails, too,” Johnny said with a wink.  His girl was learning.

Alice giggled and Johnny laughed with her.

Conversation around the dining table that night was pleasant, just like the evening before.  Alice filled Johnny in on her activities of that afternoon: baking cookies with Teresa and taking the black pony for a ride.  He then reported on the progress the work crews were making, and Murdoch laid out plans for the next day.

Jelly failed to show up for supper, which was no surprise to Johnny.  Probably ate at the bunk house.  I’ll go talk to him in a while.  He’ll pretend he’s still mad for another day or two . . . just to make me feel bad about jumping him the way I did, he thought.  When asked if he had any idea of why Jelly was late, he nudged Alice with his elbow and made up some excuse for the hired man’s absence.  He didn’t see any need to get anyone else involved.

After supper, Johnny played checkers with Alice.  He even subtly arranged for her to win.  Her excitement and wide smile was ample reward.  Seeing her happy filled his heart with a warm glow.

When the third game had ended, Teresa brought in a plate of cookies and set them down on the small table by the sofa.  “Isn’t it your bedtime?” Johnny asked Alice as the clock chimed for the eighth time.

“Can’t I have a cookie first?” she replied, her eyes pleading.

Johnny hid his smile as best he could.  “Well . . . I suppose you could take time for one.”  In mock severity, he shook a finger at her.  “As long as you go right to sleep.  No sneakin’ a book to bed with you . . . and no traipsing down here sayin’ you’re thirsty or need to use the outhouse just for an excuse to get up.”

“I’ll go right to bed.  Honest, I will.”

Alice spoke in such a solemn manner that Johnny had difficulty keeping a straight face.  “Okay.  You can have two cookies . . . but I want your promise.  No arguments or stallin’,” he managed to say without even the corners of his mouth twitching.

“I promise.”  Alice’s face was equally serious.

Murdoch’s lips were tightly pressed together, and he was stroking the side of his nose with his thumb.  When his eyes met his son’s, he quickly looked away and appeared to be focusing on the flames in the fireplace.  Johnny figured his old man was having a hard time keeping from laughing, too. 

Alice nibbled at her cookies.  After twenty minutes, Johnny thought of prodding her along but decided against it.  He hated to spoil the picture of her being a member of the family.  She looked so content sitting beside Teresa on the sofa. 

When the clock chimed the half hour, Alice licked the crumbs from her lips and yawned.  Teresa stood and offered to take her to her room and tuck her in.  For a moment, Johnny thought his girl was going to object.  He drew his eyebrows together and shook his head, hoping his ‘the matter is closed to further discussion’ look was enough like Murdoch’s to ward off an argument.

Alice hesitated, her lips compressing.  Then her mouth relaxed.  “Good night, Johnny.  Good night, Mr. Lancer,” she said in a sugary tone that didn’t quite sound natural.

“Good night, Alice,” the two men replied in unison.  Johnny leaned down for a hug and kissed the girl on the cheek.  “See yuh at supper tomorrow,” he said as she turned away to go with Teresa.

After watching Alice until she was out of sight, Johnny glanced up at his father.  “She’s a good kid,” he and wondered why he felt something was lacking in Murdoch’s nod of agreement.  Before he could ask if anything was wrong, his father hastily retreated to the chair behind the desk, where he opened the ranch ledger book.  

Johnny headed for the French doors on the far side of the room.  He stopped at the corner of his father’s desk and drummed his fingertips on the desktop.  Murdoch didn’t even look up.

“Think I’ll go see Jelly,” Johnny finally said to break the silence.  When all he heard was a muffled “um, hum,” he left the room and went out into the courtyard.

A light was shining through the curtains of Jelly’s room, but it quickly disappeared when Johnny knocked.  “Jelly . . . can we talk?” he called through the heavy door.

There was no answer, so Johnny rapped on the door again.  He was met with more silence.

“Jelly, I know yuh ain’t asleep, yet.  Now, will yuh open the door?” Johnny pleaded, knowing it would probably do no good.

“I just got in bed and I ain’t about to get up.  You got somethin’ to say, say it.  I ain’t deaf like some folks around here.”

Jelly’s grumpy reply was pretty much what Johnny had expected.  Still he had to try to square things with the old man.  “Look . . . I’m sorry I jumped yuh about the gate.  I was tired and mad.”

An owl hooted in the top of one of the Oak trees, but not even a grunt came from beyond Jelly’s door.  Johnny tried again.  “I said I was sorry.  What more can I say?”

“You can say good night and let me get some sleep.  In case yuh hadn’t noticed, morning comes early ’round here.  Some of us need our rest.”

Johnny leaned his head against the door and let out a long breath.  There was no mistaking that wounded tone.  His only choice was to do as Jelly had asked and hope the man was more forgiving come morning.

“Okay . . . have it your way,” Johnny muttered.  Then while pushing away from the door and taking a step backward, he said a little louder, “Good night, Jelly.  I’ll see yuh in the morning.”  He didn’t wait for an answer.  It wouldn’t reach his ears, anyway.

Not quite ready to go to bed, Johnny sauntered over to the wall of the courtyard and stepped up onto the stone bench, where Alice had stood that day.  Looking down the road, which was barely visible in the darkness, he again wondered what she had been looking for.  An image came to mind, but he immediately rejected it.  She was too happy to be missing her uncle.

Besides, he sold her out.  Why would she care if she ever saw him again? Johnny reasoned, resting his left elbow on top of the wall while letting his other hand dangle at his side, thumb tracing a path up and down his fingers.

Wilf Guthrie was as crooked as a pig’s tail and colder than a winter night in the Dakotas.  That he had won the loyalty of several people in the town of Witness Tree made no sense to Johnny at all.  Miss Florida, the owner of the café, was a nice lady and too smart to be taken in by fast talk, but she had admitted to being Guthrie’s friend.  The sheriff was no dummy either.  

Johnny hopped down and started for the house.  He still burned inside with anger whenever he remembered the way Alice’s uncle had tricked him into buying the broken-down, old buggy horse.  Guthrie, however, was the last person he wanted to think about so he reined his mind back on Alice.  She’ll do just fine without him.  She’s got us now, he told himself.

Thoughts of Pony Alice were still running through Johnny’s head when he crawled into bed a short while later.  Just before he slipped off to sleep he wondered what Murdoch would say to the girl becoming a Lancer someday.   Alice Lancer had a nice sound to it.  A real nice sound.    

Chapter 15

A stoutly built man with hair graying at the temples lifted his glass by its long, spindly stem.  “To peace and prosperity,” he said.  Glass tinkled against glass as four hands converged with his over the center of the table and an equal number of voices repeated the toast, their various tones harmonizing like singers in a choir.

Sitting opposite his host, Scott Lancer smiled at the fashionably dressed woman between them on his right and then turned and tipped his head toward each of the two young ladies on his left.  Now this is living.  Even grandfather would approve of my dinner companions tonight, he thought. 

When all had taken a sip of wine, the older man set his glass on the table.  “I have to hand it to you, Scott.  You certainly drive a hard bargain.  I doubt even Murdoch could have gotten a better price out of Hardcastle.”

“Papa, you promised.  No talking about business during dinner,” the young woman sitting closest to Scott gently scolded.

The sister leaned toward their father and placed a hand on his arm. “Yes, Papa, you did promise,” she said in a disapproving tone.

“All right, dear.”  The father patted his younger daughter’s hand.  He then winked at Scott.  “Never have daughters.  They think the world should revolve around them.”

“And so it should . . . when they’re as charming and elegant as yours.”  Scott favored the two young women with another courteous nod and a warm smile, his flattery earning him smiles in return.

For more than an hour, Scott basked in the atmosphere of the formal dining room of the San Francisco Grand Hotel where he was staying while conducting ranch business for his father.  The food was excellent and the conversation stimulating.  Carl Wright was witty and his wife was charming beyond measure.  The daughters, who were well versed in proper etiquette and proficient in the use of both the English and French languages, pleasantly surprised Scott with their vast knowledge of a wide variety of subjects.  Obviously, they were well educated.  There was no comparing this night with the previous one in Sacramento, which had been spent with Sally Brown and her pompous uncle.

While a neatly-dressed young man in a dark-brown suit cleared the dinner dishes from the table in preparation for dessert to be served, twenty-two-year-old Christina Wright’s eyes turned dreamy as she gazed at Scott and said, “I adore the opera.”

Scott told his heart to slow down.  The spark wasn’t there on his account.

This fact was evidenced by the song in Miss Wright’s voice when she continued.  “William promised to take me to New York after we’re married.  He says The Academy of Music always has the best operas, and Niblos Garden is supposed to have a spectacular show running all this summer.  Of course, we wouldn’t miss going to Booths Theatre just for a chance to see Edwin Booth.  William’s second cousin works backstage.  He’s sure he can arrange a meeting for us.”

Scott agreed that the operas at The Academy were superb and that Niblos had a reputation for putting on a very fine show, even though the one time he had been there the performance had been nothing extraordinary.  “Edwin Booth is certainly worth meeting; however, he is a very busy man.  Arranging a meeting may not be possible.”   He hoped his warning would prevent the young woman from setting her expectations too high.

Desert was served and the conversation shifted to the Booth brothers and the fateful performance when President Lincoln had been shot.  Scott mentioned having met Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1862, and Emily, a year younger than her sister, insisted on hearing all about the experience.  What had Scott thought of the man?  What was the nation’s capital like?  Was Lincoln really as tall and thin as he looked in pictures?  Questions from the rest of the Wright family were added to hers.  By the time Scott finished answering them all, the dessert dishes were empty and the waiter had taken them away.

“As much as we’ve enjoyed the evening, Scott, I’m afraid we’re going to have to call it a night.”  Carl Wright rose to stand behind his wife.  He ignored the “ahs” of his daughters.  “I need to look over those contracts one more time and make sure they’re all in order for our meeting with Hardcastle in the morning,” he said while sliding Mrs. Wright’s chair away from the table and helping her up.

Scott also was reluctant to have the evening end, but he kept his thoughts to himself and politely stood and helped the youngest two members of the Wright family get up from the table.  “Thank you for dinner, Sir.  I’ll see you at your office at nine o’clock sharp,” he said, gripping Carl’s hand in a firm shake before turning to the man’s wife.  “Mrs. Wright, it was a pleasure meeting you . . . and your lovely daughters.”  He ended with a bow to each of the ladies.

Mrs. Wright smiled at Scott while her daughters blushed.  All three women then expressed their delight in having met him and their hopes of seeing him again before he left San Francisco.

Walking between Emily and Christina, Scott accompanied the Wrights to the door of the hotel where final farewells were said.  He waited until Carl and his family were in their carriage and headed down the street before turning around and crossing the lobby.  At the bottom of the stairway, he paused.  By Boston standards, the night was still young.  A year ago, I would have had to be ill to go to bed this early, he thought, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

For a moment, Scott considered asking the desk clerk about sources of nearby entertainment.  There had to be plenty.  After all, he had been warned of San Francisco’s reputation for having a rowdy night life.

A yawn threatened to part his lips.  Scott clamped his teeth together and started up the stairs.  It had been a long day.  His train had left Sacramento early that morning.  Upon arriving at the depot in San Francisco, he had been met by Carl Wright, who had taken him directly to see Andrew Hardcastle.  There had been no time for rest after that either.  By then, it was approaching six o’clock in the evening.  He had barely had time enough to check into the hotel and prepare for dinner.

Once in his room, Scott removed his jacket and hung it in the oak cabinet that was next to the dresser along the wall opposite the bed.  He loosened his tie, crossed in front of the window to get to the bed, and fluffed the pillow.  As he settled comfortably on his back on top of the quilt, he was overtaken by another yawn–this one succeeding in prying his jaws apart.

Scott reached for the book he had placed on the bedside table before having dinner with the Wrights.  According to the clock in the lobby, it was only a little past nine.  Unless he wanted to wake up at daylight and have several hours to kill before his meeting with Carl and Hardcastle, he needed to stay awake for a while longer.

The book failed to hold Scott’s attention for more than a few pages.  He had read it before.  Worse, yet, it had been a gift from Sally’s uncle.  “In appreciation for services rendered,” the man had said.

Words blurred on the page as memories of the previous day and evening crowded into Scott’s mind.  He blinked and tried again to focus on his reading.  It was hopeless.  His mind refused to let go Sally Brown or bits and pieces of their trip to Sacramento.

Scott closed his eyes and let his thoughts wander back to Monday night.  Accommodations at the stage stop had been limited, so he had bedded down in the hayloft of the barn.  More than once, he had awakened to the restless stamping of the draft horses below and memories of the day’s travel with Sally.  His only consolation had been that eventually he would extract vengeance on his brother.  Finally, dawn had arrived, along with stiff and sore muscles that complained throughout the day with every jostle of the stagecoach.  

Sally Brown’s voice crowded into Scott’s memories just as they had on Wednesday morning.  “Isn’t the sky just marvelous?  Don’t you just love watchin’ the sun come up over the mountains?  Have yuh ever seen anythin’ so glorious?”

Nodding to each of her questions, Scott had caught himself just in time to shake his head at the last one.  The sunrise was spectacular.  However, he would have received considerably more enjoyment from viewing the brilliant streaks of red and orange spread across the sky over the Sierra Nevada Mountains if his traveling companion hadn’t been clinging to his arm from the moment they had boarded the coach.

Sally had seemed to grow more possessive as the morning wore on.  Each relay station became an ordeal that required more and more effort on Scott’s part to be civil to the girl.  Undoubtedly, she had delighted in giving everyone the impression that her future was tightly bound to his, which he deemed impossible even should the school in Boston work wonders on the girl.

After the second stop, the trip had become even more miserable.  The driver, having given up his quest to attract Sally’s attention, had treated Scott with disdain and pushed the horses to harrowing speeds that had the coach swaying dangerously on every corner.  Finally, the coach had jerked to a stop in front of the Wells Fargo station in Sacramento.

Another scowl creased Scott’s brow as he remembered climbing out of the coach.  He had given the driver that same look and had been all set to utter a harsh reprimand to the man when he remembered his obligation and turned to help Sally.  At that same instant, he had been elbowed out of the way by a man, whose hair matched the girl’s red tresses.

“Sally darling, aren’t you a picture for sore eyes?” the man had said.  His brown suit coat stretched so tightly across his pot belly that Scott would not have been surprised to see one or more of the buttons pop off.

“Uncle Jack!” Sally’s shriek as she grasped the man’s outstretched hands was a sound not easily forgotten.

Scott shuddered as he pictured himself stepping back and starting to retreat to the far side of the coach.  Upon hearing his name called, he had frowned and blown out his breath in a very unbecoming manner before turning to smile weakly at Sally.  As much as he would have liked to ignore her, the manners instilled in him by his grandfather had prevented his giving in to his less than gentlemanly desires.

Never in his life could Scott remember having come closer to cursing the man who had raised him than in those next few minutes.  All he had wanted to do was check into a nice hotel and enjoy some peace and quiet while taking a leisurely soak in a tub of hot water before having dinner.  That had been a futile desire.  Jack O’Malley, the brother to Sally’s mother, was a stubborn and overbearing man, who could not be budged once his mind was set.  He absolutely would not hear of Sally’s escort spending the rest of the day and evening alone.

The short ride to the Regency Hotel had been every bit as trying as Scott expected.  This memory brought him cringe again.  With constant encouragement from her uncle, Sally had talked incessantly of the trip from Morro Coyo.  Her eyes had shined, and she had continually caste adoring glances at Scott while interjecting words of praise for actions he considered to be nothing more than his duty.

As they had walked into the hotel, O’Malley had been quick to deter Scott from stepping up to the desk.  “When I checked in, I took the liberty of getting the room next to mine for you.  It’s paid for.  All you need to do is sign the register and pick up your key,” he had said.

Scott let out a groan to match the one he’d given at the time.  He wished he could have thought of something more to say that a simple, “That wasn’t necessary, Sir.”

Jack O’Mally had hugged his niece while keeping his eyes on Scott.  “Sally’s happiness means a lot to me.  She’s been looking forward to this trip for months.  I’m beholden to you for seeing that she wasn’t disappointed . . . and from the sound of things, you were a perfect escort.”

Scott remembered how he had squirmed at the high praise.  To hide his discomfort, he had suggested O’Malley take Sally on up to her room.  Although his excuse was that it was senseless for the girl to be kept waiting while he signed in at the registrar’s desk, he had also hoped to gain some time to himself.  Sally’s uncle had a driver waiting take them on a tour of Sacramento and had already made dinner reservations for six-thirty at the hotel’s dining room, which meant there would be little chance to be alone until much later in the evening.  At the time, Scott had been certain that he needed a short reprieve if he was going to survive the rest of the day in the girl’s presence without strangling her.

His predictions had come to pass.  Sally had been insufferable.  However, her uncle had proved to be even more trying.  The man was a perpetual braggart.  No one knew the wine business better than he.  He had his own private railroad car, and he and his niece would be traveling to Boston in style.  Nothing was too good for his Sally.  She was the prettiest and smartest girl to walk the face of the earth and deserved the best education money could buy.

A twinge of pain gripped Scott at the corner of each.  Only a claim of having a fierce headache from the rough trip by stagecoach had allowed him to excuse himself and retire to his room.  At least, he had been spared any further time spent with Sally and her uncle.  His train had left a couple hours before theirs.  That had given him a good reason to have breakfast alone, leave a polite note, and be gone by the time they were out of bed the next morning.                    

The book slipping from his fingers and hitting his leg brought Scott back to the present.  He slammed it down on the bedside table as he got up from the bed.  When I’m through with Johnny, he’ll wish I had strangled him.

Scott continued to fume the whole time he undressed and turned out the light.  As though making the trip from Morro Coyo to Sacramento miserable for him wasn’t bad enough, Sally now seemed bent on occupying his mind and ruining his stay in San Francisco.  He wondered if he would ever be free of her.

As he crawled into bed, Scott didn’t even notice the scent of freshly washed sheets.  He rolled to his side and pulled the blankets over his shoulder.  Little Brother, you are going to pay and pay dearly for this.  I don’t know how; but believe me, you will regret setting me up.  That’s a promise.

Chapter 16

Shadows, stretching westward, marked the decline of the sun.  Pony Alice puckered her mouth and drew her brows together as she gazed down the road.  Another day was more than half gone, and still her uncle had failed to come for her.  She was sure something had to have happened to him.  Unless he was sick, he would never have waited so long to claim her.

Anger surged through Alice.  She hopped down from the bench along the courtyard wall and strolled toward the barn.  Her arms swung stiffly like opposing pendulums, and the heels of her shoes scuffed the dirt with each step.  She had to find a way to get someone to go look for her uncle.

Dust swirled in the corral, and one of the heifers bawled as Alice lifted the gate latch.  Struck with an idea, she glanced each way to see if anyone was around.  No one was, so she swung the gate open and dashed to the barn.

Once inside, Pony Alice didn’t stop until she came to the puppy pen.  They were too busy nursing to show any interest in playing.  With a frown, Alice wandered down to the tack room.  The door was part way open, and she couldn’t resist the urge to go inside.

Two of the walls of the room were lined with thick poles that reached from the floor to the ceiling.  Each pole resembled a tree with several stubby limbs sticking out on three sides. A few held saddles but most were empty.

Alice gave the saddles no more than a passing glance before turning to survey the cabinet of open shelves to the left of the door.  Then she walked toward the far end of the room where old horseshoes nailed to the wall.  They held a few bridles with reins looped in a circle, several halters with lead ropes looped in a similar fashion, and a couple of neatly coiled lariats.

Alice chewed at the inside of her upper lip as she ran one hand over the freshly oiled leather of one of the bridles.  A plan took shape in her mind, and she grinned while unbuckling the bridle’s cheek piece.  With heart racing, she re-buckled the strap in a hole that would make the headstall far too short for whatever horse it had been sized for.

Once started, Alice methodically altered the rest of the bridles.  She made the head pieces too big on some, lengthened or shortened the chin straps on others, and moved brow bands up or down on those that had them.  If the headstall was of the variety that had a slit for one ear of the horse, Pony unfastened the cheek piece on one side and twisted it before refastening the buckle.

All was quiet when Alice stepped back from the bridles.  She let out a deep breath and went to work on the saddles.  By the time she finished with them, they all needed latigos untwisted, their stirrups raised or lowered, and their cinch straps lengthened or shortened.

Still not satisfied with her mischief making, Alice looked around for something else to do.  Seeing that the shelves held a variety of containers, she stood on her toes and stretched an arm upward.  Her fingers fell short.

Eyebrows pinched together, Alice glanced around the tack room for a stool or box to stand on.  Her frown deepened.  There wasn’t anything.

Alice wasn’t about to give up so she searched the area outside of the tack room.  She almost giggled when she saw a three-legged stool hanging on the wall in a far corner of the barn.  Now nothing would be above her reach.

With the stool in position, Alice easily removed a square tin from the lower shelf.  She lifted the lid and then pinched her nostrils together with her fingers as an unpleasant odor assaulted her nose.  “Yuk,” she said, replacing the lid.

The first item was returned to its place, and a small round can was chosen.  This container refused to relinquish its lid so Alice found a hoof knife and pried it open.

Although the odor was strong, it wasn’t nearly as offensive as the salve in the square container.  Alice decided to have a closer look and held the can up to catch the light coming through the open doorway of the tack room so she could read the label.

One fingertip slid over the edge of the container just as Alice made out the words ‘Boot Black’.  The can then twisted out of her grip, spun through the air, and dropped into an open topped barrel behind the door.

A smudge of black clung to the end of Alice’s finger.  She wrinkled her upper lip and tried rubbing the slick film off with her thumb.  “Drat!” she muttered when she merely succeeded in spreading the polish.

The shelves held a variety of bottles and cans.  Alice hunted through them in hopes of finding something that would remove the tattle-tale color.

On the top shelf, Alice found a bottle of alcohol.  The clear liquid looked like something she had seen her uncle use one time to clean the blood from a cut on her thumb.  She decided it couldn’t hurt to try it on the boot polish.

The alcohol cleaned the black right off but left behind a noticeable smell.  Alice had just started to search for something to get rid of the odor when she heard loud voices in the corral area outside the barn.

Alice jumped down and hid behind a grain barrel that was in the corner on the far side of the shelves and waited.  Her heart thumped so loudly in her ears that she feared someone would hear it.

Two men rushed into the tack room.  Alice clasped a small hand over her mouth to keep from gasping as she hunkered lower.  She was sure they would see her.

The men, however, never once glanced in Alice’s direction as they grabbed saddles and bridles from the racks and hurried out the door again.  Alice waited several more minutes.  She could hear more yelling and feared being caught if she moved.

When no one else came into the tack room, Pony Alice fished the tin of boot polish out of the barrel of coarse salt, put the lid on, and slid the can back behind the bottle of alcohol.  She then peeked around each corner she came to as she slipped through the barn, out the side door, and worked her way along the back side.

Once Alice had slunk past the corrals and the bunk house, she entered the main house through the kitchen door and crept down the hall to the living room.  Murdoch was no longer sitting behind his desk so she selected a book from the tall shelves behind the table and curled up on the sofa.  She kept up the pretense of reading until Teresa came in and asked if she would like to help make a pie for supper.

Teresa greeted Murdoch with a smile as he sat down in his customary chair at the head of the dining table in the living room.  Alice, however, feigned interest in something on the floor beside her chair.  She was glad when Jelly chose that moment to tromp into the room and settle into the chair across from Teresa.

Jelly speared a juicy steak from the platter Teresa held out to him.  “Boss, I don’t care what you say.  Somebody’s been messin’ around in the tack room.”

Alice gulped.  Her hand shook, and she dropped a spoonful of mashed potatoes on her plate while avoiding looking directly at either of the men.  She was sure they would see guilt written on her face.

Murdoch took a biscuit and passed the bowl on to Jelly.  “You’re imaging things.  There’s no reason for anyone to bother anything in there.”

The whiskered man hacked his chunk of bread in two and waved the knife at Murdoch. “There ain’t a thing wrong with my eyes.  I checked those saddles and bridles over real close after we got back.  I’m tellin’ yuh, ever’ one of ’em’s been tampered with.  We’d have had them heifers back in long before this if Walt and Hank could’ve just saddled up and got after ’em when we first noticed the gate open.”    

There was no missing the indignation in Jelly’s tone, and Alice quickly faked being absorbed in filling her plate while she intently listened for Murdoch’s response.  It wasn’t long in coming, and she had no trouble hearing, for his booming voice filled the room.  “I thought you fixed that gate yesterday.”

“There ain’t never been anything wrong with that gate,” Jelly retorted.

“Then how did it get open?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I got my suspicions.”

Even though her eyes were on her food, Alice could feel Jelly looking at her as he spoke.  She cringed and wished Johnny was there to protect her.  But he wasn’t.  He had taken a crew of men out to make sure the line shacks were ready for spring roundup.  He wouldn’t be back until sometime the next day.

The silence in the room magnified the ticking of the grandfather clock by the French doors.  Alice ventured a glance at Murdoch.  He was looking right at her and rubbing the side of his nose with his thumb.  “I didn’t do anything,” she said, lifting her chin.

“Where were you this afternoon?” Murdoch asked.

Not about to answer that question, Alice glared at the big man.  “You think I’m lying, don’t you?”

“Nobody said you were lying.  I just asked you where you were.”

Alice nearly tipped her chair over getting to her feet.  “You hate me.  Everybody does,” she said, her voice shrilling out of control.

Murdoch also started to rise.  “Calm down, Alice.  Nobody hates you.”

“Yes, you do.”  Alice pointed a finger at the big man.  “You wanna send me back to that orphanage.”

Not waiting for an answer, Alice fled through the arched doorway and into the entry hall.  “What’s got into her?” she heard Murdoch say as she ran toward the stairway to the upper level of the house.

Moving as fast as her legs would carry her, Alice dashed up the stairs and down the hallway to her room where she slammed the door shut and slumped to the floor.  There she sat, with her back against the door.  Her heart throbbed and each breath came in gasps as she awaited her coming doom.

Teresa O’Brien started to push her chair back from the table.  “I’ll go see what’s wrong.”

“No,” Murdoch said, laying a large palm over his ward’s much smaller hand.  “Give her a chance to calm down.  After we finish eating, I’ll have a talk with her.”

Jelly laid down his fork and shook his head.  “Poor little tike.  Anyone not wearin’ blinders ought tuh see she just ain’t happy here.”

Teresa scooted her chair up to the table. “Maybe she’s missing Johnny.  She seems happy enough when he’s here.  That might be why she spends so much time watching the road.”

Murdoch stroked his chin.  Teresa had a point.  “It could be,” he said.  “She does seem to spend a lot of time looking down the road.”

Jelly nodded in agreement.  “I’ve noticed that, too.”

“Then you agree.  She’s watching for Johnny to come home.”

“Not necessarily,” Murdoch said with a shake of his head.  Although Teresa’s observation was certainly possible, he had a feeling Alice’s actions had little to do with his younger son.

Stirring her mashed potatoes, Teresa slowly looked up to meet her guardian’s eyes–a frown puckering her brow.  “Why else would she do it?”

Jelly shook his fork at no one in particular.  “Be my guess she thinks her uncle’s coming after her.”

“But he didn’t want her.  Johnny said so.”  Teresa’s voice rose in volume as well as pitch.

“He’s a horse trader, ain’t he?” Jelly replied, as if that was all the explanation needed.

Teresa frowned.  “What’s that got to do with it?”

Leaning back in his chair, Murdoch slid the end of one thumb across his chin.  “Maybe nothing, but I have heard of horse traders who palm off a maverick on some unsuspecting buyer and then return in a few days to buy it back for half price.  She could think her uncle will come after her.”

Teresa didn’t look persuaded at all.  “If that was true, wouldn’t he have been here by now?”

Jelly let out a snort.  “Could be he figures Johnny needs a little more convincing than most.”

Murdoch could certainly see Jelly’s logic.  If the girl’s uncle did show up, it was doubtful that Johnny would readily give her over to the man.

The conversation about Alice’s behavior continued a while longer before Murdoch steered it to something else.  He needed a chance to relax before talking to the girl.  Losing his temper would not solve anything with her any more than it had with Johnny in the past.  She would only become more hysterical. 

After supper, Murdoch went upstairs.  He paused at Alice’s door.  When he knocked, she didn’t answer so he quietly opened the door and entered.

Alice appeared to be sleeping.  She lay on her side crossways in the bed with one arm tucked under her head and the other crooked so that her hand was pressed against her cheek.  The anger that had filled her face less than an hour ago no longer existed.  Her expression now was that of an angel.

Murdoch stood absent mindedly rubbing his chin.  Although he felt the need to talk to the girl, he hated to wake her.  She looked so peaceful.

Waiting did seem a bit cowardly, but Murdoch had no trouble finding justification for holding off until the next day.  He simply told himself that a few more hours couldn’t hurt.  There was no sense in upsetting Alice further when she was apt to be in a much better mood by morning.

Being careful not to disturb the sleeping child, Murdoch removed her shoes.  He then picked up the extra blanket that was draped over the foot of the bed, quietly shook out the folds, and spread it over Alice.  What are we going to do with you? he thought with a shake of his head.

Alice’s accusing words of earlier rang in Murdoch’s ears, and he quickly denied them.  No matter how difficult the child became, sending her to an orphanage was out of the question.  What she needed was a mother.  A family like the Carsons would give her a good home, and they even had a girl about her age.

With the tips of his fingers, Murdoch brushed a wisp of Alice’s hair out of her eyes.  He thought he detected a slight tremor.  However, the child continued to breathe deeply so he attributed the movement to her dreaming.

Murdoch glanced back at Alice one last time before leaving the room.  He then eased the door closed and went back downstairs where he slumped into his comfortable, brown leather chair beside the fireplace.  Need to have a talk with Johnny when he gets home, he thought, feeling no enthusiasm at that prospect.  Getting his son to agree to anything other than Alice staying at Lancer was bound to be a major undertaking.

With a sigh, Murdoch closed his eyes.  Alice was there to stay, that was a certainty.  He would just have to figure out how to deal with her.  For now, though, he was going to enjoy a little peace and quiet.  Tomorrow would be soon enough to face the problem of what to do about Johnny’s girl.

Chapter 17

Resolving to do something is easy.  Following through on those intensions can be like digging a well where there is no water.  Murdoch Lancer soon learned that this applied to the situation with Pony Alice.  Every time he thought he would have a chance to speak to her about her behavior, something came along to sidetrack him.

First, he purposely put off having breakfast on Friday morning in hopes of talking to the girl.  She slept later than normal.  He would have waited longer, but Jelly came in to inform him that the crew working on the irrigation ditch had run into a problem.   By the time Murdoch returned to the hacienda from looking into the matter and prescribing a solution, Pony had eaten and was helping Teresa in the garden.

All morning, one thing after another required Murdoch’s attention.  Men ran out of supplies to finish their assigned tasks.  One of the saddle horses needed a special shoe.  A neighbor stopped by to ask about borrowing a wagon.  The list went on and on.

Noon came and went.  Having had to solve yet another problem for the ditch crew, Murdoch was late coming in for lunch.  Consequently, he had to eat alone.

The stew that Teresa had left simmering on the stove smelled delicious.  Murdoch ladled a generous portion into a bowl, poured a cup of steaming coffee, and then cut a thick slice of bread from the loaf in the center of the kitchen table before sitting down to enjoy his meal.

Murdoch scooped up a spoonful of stew and shoveled it into his mouth.  He gasped and drew in several short breaths, blowing them out in loud puffs between his burning lips.  This did nothing to cool the raging fire.

Water.  I need water, Murdoch thought, holding the base of one thumb against his mouth while skidding back his chair–wooden legs scraping against the tile floor.  Once on his feet, he hurried to the sink.

Murdoch gulped down nearly a quart of water before realizing that milk was the only thing that might quench the fire in his mouth.  Even then, he had to drink two full glasses before the blaze simmered to a stinging bed of coals.

With the food having lost its appeal, Murdoch took a sip of coffee.  His eyes clinched shut and his head shook as a shudder sent shivers racing down his back.  Never could he remember having tasted anything so bitter.  Even Jelly’s coffee would have been mild in comparison.

Diluting the coffee was out of the question.  In the past, adding more water had never achieved results that were to Murdoch’s liking.  That left him with two options.  He could go without, or he could empty the pot and start from scratch.  The latter choice won.

While the new pot of coffee was brewing, Murdoch decided to try the bread.  He couldn’t see how there could be anything wrong with it.  Still, he cautiously took a nibble just in case someone had sabotaged it, too.

The bread seemed fine, so Murdoch settled back in his chair and took a bigger bite.  He would have preferred to soak it up in gravy from the stew.  However, since that wasn’t possible, he tried to be satisfied eating it dry with a smear of butter.

As Murdoch sat there eating, his thoughts revolved around the ruined stew and coffee.  He couldn’t believe that Teresa could have been at fault.  She knew his stomach wouldn’t tolerate that much spice, and she had never made coffee that strong before.  Maria, also, was an unlikely suspect.  The Mexican woman might sneak a bit of red pepper into his food, but she had never added enough that he couldn’t eat it.


Murdoch scowled at the thought of the girl his son had brought home a week ago.  Considering all the things that had happened since her arrival, she was turning into quite a problem.  Something had to be done, and done soon.  If not, one of her stunts might get someone hurt.

Once his meager meal was finished, Murdoch decided to hunt up Alice and have their long overdue talk.  He wasn’t looking forward to it at all.  She had already proven to be a highly emotional child with a temper that would have rivaled that of Johnny’s mother.

The kitchen door swung inward with a bang just as Murdoch rose from his seat at the table.

“Boss?”  Jelly Hoskins slid to a stop and hauled in a deep breath.  “Oh, there yuh are.”

“Something wrong?”  Murdoch prepared himself for the worst.

“No.  Not a thing.  Except those heifers are scattered from here to China.”

Murdoch let out a heavy sigh.  “So why aren’t you out rounding them up?” he asked a bit sharply in response to the other man’s sarcasm.

Jelly turned blustery.  “‘Cause it don’t take an army, that’s why.  Besides, Walt, Frank, and Johnny were already after ’em when I noticed the gate was open.”

“Then why come busting in here to tell me?”

“Ain’t no need to get uppity.  That ain’t what I come in here for.”

“Then what do you want?” Murdoch demanded.  After his trying morning, he was feeling more and more irritable as the conversation progressed.

“I need some boot polish.  Seems someone borrowed mine and used it all.”

Although the reason for the other man’s rush seemed inconsequential, Murdoch let it go along with the implication that Pony Alice might be the someone Jelly had mentioned.  Sometimes it was better to keep the spoon out of the pot and let the soup simmer undisturbed.  From the indignant tone of the smaller man, Murdoch figured this was one of those times.  “I just bought a new can.  I think it’s in my room,” he replied and then led the way to his bedroom.

The polish was not in the drawer where Murdoch expected it to be.  When a search of his room didn’t produce the elusive container, Jelly muttered some comment from the doorway and then said he’d be out working on the wagon.

Murdoch stood with his back to the window and scowled while running the edge of one thumb down the side of his nose.  He didn’t want to think that Alice had been in his or Jelly’s room.  However, in light of everything else she had done, there seemed no other explanation for how the cans of polish had been tampered with.

Dropping his hand to his side, Murdoch drew in a long breath before going to look for the child.  Her pranks had to be stopped.

Alice’s room was the first place Murdoch looked.  She wasn’t there or in any of the other rooms in the house, so he proceeded to look in the courtyard and the surrounding area of the hacienda.

As Murdoch neared the corrals, Jelly looked up from greasing a rear axle on the wagon.  “You find the boot polish?” he asked.

Murdoch was in no mood to answer that question.  Instead, he inquired if Jelly had seen Teresa.  Since she had not been in the house either, the reasonable assumption was that she and Alice were together.

“Last I saw her, she was headed to the barn.”  Jelly indicated the direction with a nod of his head.

With a quick word of thanks, Murdoch started to leave.  He didn’t even stop when Jelly called after him to again ask about the boot polish.

“I’ll get it for you later,” Murdoch replied without looking back.  A disgruntled mutter reached his ears, and he could have sworn he heard Jelly complaining about always being made to wait.

The brightness of the sun outside made the interior of the barn seem dark at first.  Once inside, Murdoch paused to allow his eyes time to adjust.  He knew he would have no trouble finding Alice and Teresa.  Their voices told him where they were.

Murdoch hesitated again when he came to the stall that housed the puppies.  Alice sounded happy for a change, and he hated to disrupt her mood.  Still, her behavior couldn’t be ignored, or it would get worse.

Stepping forward to where he could see into the stall, Murdoch opened his mouth to speak.  The words, however, died on his lips when he suddenly remembered that Johnny had borrowed the boot polish and left it in the tack room.

Without a word, Murdoch continued on his way to look for the polish.  He supposed he was taking the cowardly way out but argued that another few minutes wouldn’t make that much difference.  After all, the child wasn’t going anywhere.

Again, the can of polish was not where Murdoch expected it to be, and his temper flared.  He was sure Johnny had said he’d leave it on the bottom shelf in plain sight.  Why wasn’t it there?

Starting at one side of the bottom shelf, Murdoch proceeded to methodically move each container so he could check behind it.  His scowl deepened as he reached the other end and was forced to continue his search on the one above.  He even began to wonder if someone had taken the polish, and if so, who.

Finally, there was only one item left to look behind.  Murdoch picked up the bottle of alcohol, stretched his arm to the limit, and slid his hand into the empty space.  His hopes rose as his fingers touched something short and round.

Murdoch pulled the container out where he could see it.  He let out a heavy sigh, but the frown pinching his brows remained.  Why would anyone have put the boot polish in such a hard to reach place?  It was as if the can had been purposely hidden.

With the canister in hand, Murdoch started out the door at the same instant that he heard Johnny holler, “Pony!  I wanna talk to you.”

More trouble?  Deciding to give his son time to speak his mind, Murdcoh rolled the can of polish around in his hand while waiting outside the tack room door.

Feeling something gritty along the edge of the container, Murdoch gave in to his sense of curiosity and tipped his hand to where the flat, round can was in a shaft of light.  He tried twisting the lid.  It resisted, so he took a tighter grip and gave it a firmer twist.

The lid finally came off and a grainy substance spilled out.  Murdoch’s temper spiked higher.  “Who put the salt in my boot polish?” he bellowed as his long strides took him to the opening of the stall where Alice now sat on the divider wall between the stall where the puppies were and the one next to it.

“You hate me!” Alice yelled.

“Nonsense,” Murdoch said, “but I’m not going to take anymore—”

“You do so.  Everybody hates me,” the girl interrupted in a shrill voice.  Then giving Johnny a shove, she jumped down from her perch and ran from the barn.

Standing next to his son, Murdoch stared after the fleeing child until she was out of sight.  “Gotta have a talk,” he said in a gruff tone as he looked over at Johnny.

Johnny leaned forward and propped his elbows against the top board of the stall divider. “Look Murdoch, I’ll tell you the same thing I told you a week ago.  Guthrie boxed me in.  He put that poor unwanted kid up for sale.”

Seeing the droop of his son’s shoulders, Murdoch spoke in a much gentler tone.  “Do you really think he intended to sell her?”

Utter defeat filled Johnny’s face, and he said in little more than a whisper, “I don’t know anything anymore.”  Then he took a deep breath, slowly lifted his eyes to meet his father’s, and added, “Maybe the whole thing was rigged . . . but, Murdoch, I couldn’t take the chance.

Murdoch glanced down.  “Oh, I understand.  The question is . . . what now?”  He slowly lifted his head to look at his son.

Johnny straightened and took a single step backward.  “She is wanted.  She’s got a home here with us.”

Again, Murdoch’s head tilted down as he took a moment to gather his thoughts.  “Johnny, you say Guthrie has you boxed in,” he said before meeting his son’s eyes once more.  “You know . . . I have heard of horse traders who palm off a maverick and then come back a few days later and buy it back for half of the original price.  That could square away with the child’s attitude–with her making a pain in the neck out of herself.  He either claims her or asks for money.”

Johnny again turned to lean against the stall divider, and Murdoch wished there was something he could do to relieve his son’s turmoil.

Teresa, who had been kneeling on the floor, rose with a puppy in her arms.  “Well, I just can’t believe it,” she said.  “If it was a scheme, he would have showed up by now.”

“I’m gunna ask Alice.”  Johnny turned and walked away in the same direction Alice had gone.

“I’ve never seen Johnny quite so wrapped up before,” Teresa said, hugging the puppy.

A heavy burden settled on Murdoch’s shoulders as he watched his son leave. “Yeah,” he replied with a sigh.

Unaware of what he was doing, Murdoch toyed with the can of boot polish.  Something had to be done about Alice.  But what?  Maybe Johnny can get the truth out of her, he thought while also moving toward the door of the barn.

Once outside, Murdoch walked across the corral.  When he noticed that the heifers were back in, he wondered if that had anything to do with Johnny coming into the barn to confront Alice.  It stood to reason that if Johnny had fussed at Jelly about the gate, again, he would have gotten an earful from the hired man.

Jelly was wiping his grease-blackened hands on a rag by the time Murdoch approached the wagon on his way to find Johnny and Alice.  “I see yuh found the boot polish,” the whiskered man said.

“What?” Murdoch asked, only half hearing the other man’s words.

“The polish.  I see yuh found it.”

“Oh.  Yeah.”  Murdoch handed the can to Jelly and told him that, before using it, he’d have to clean out the salt.

“Salt?  Who’d put salt in it?” Jelly demanded.  Then before Murdoch could say anything, the smaller man smirked, “Alice, huh?  So that’s why she lit out of the barn like a dog chasing a cat.  What yuh gunna do about it?”

With his upper lip drawn between his teeth, Murdoch shook his head.  “I don’t know, yet,” he said as much to himself as to the other man.

“Well, just you remember that poor little tyke’s carryin’ a world of hurt on her shoulders,” Jelly replied.  “If anyone needs a thrashin’, it’s her uncle.”

Murdoch felt heat rush to his cheeks.  “Did I say—?” he began.  Then seeing his son sauntering toward them with Alice tagging behind, he abruptly left the rest of his defense unsaid and waited for Johnny to arrive.

“You find out anything?” Murdoch asked when Johnny stopped in front of him.

Alice, peering out from behind Johnny, challenged Murdoch with her eyes.  “Johnny’s gunna go find Uncle Wilf.”

“What you wanna do that for?” Jelly said in a belligerent tone.

Even though he was answering Jelly’s question, Johnny searched Murdoch’s face for understanding. “I promised Alice I’d bring her uncle back here.”

“Bring him here?  Why?”  Jelly’s tone was even more indignant than before.

“It’s the only way to settle things.  You can see that, can’t you?” Johnny replied, his imploring eyes still on his father.

Murdoch nodded.  His son was right.  The sooner they knew Guthrie’s intentions, the better for all them, including Alice.

After admonishing Alice to behave herself, Johnny went to saddle Barranca.  The palomino had been ridden hard on Wednesday and had, therefore, been turned out in the pasture south of the house.

Alice watched Murdoch with wary eyes.  She reminded him of a flighty colt just waiting for an excuse to bolt, so he decided against taking her to task over the mischief she had caused.  Instead he let her off with a mild warning and sent her to help with supper when Teresa came out of the barn.

“How long you figure Johnny to be gone?” Jelly asked, once he and Murdoch were alone.

“Guess that depends on whether Alice’s uncle was telling the truth about going to San Francisco.”

“In that case Scott could be home before Johnny.”

Murdoch supposed that Jelly was right and said so.  Then with a heavy heart and mixed feelings over whether he wanted Johnny’s hunt to be successful, he headed for the house.  Alice needed the stability of a real home where she could go to school, even though it was doubtful she would appreciate it as long as she believed her uncle still wanted her.

A few minutes later, Murdoch settled into the chair behind his desk.  He thumbed through the ranch ledger, found the last entry, and sat staring at the page.  His mind refused to be drawn away from the troubles brought on by one small girl.  Would Johnny find her uncle?  Would the man return to claim her?  Could Alice ever accept being part of the Lancer family if her uncle really didn’t want her?  There were so many questions needing answers, and too many possibilities.

Murdoch propped his elbows on the ledger and clasped one hand over the other.  Resting his head against his thumbs, he closed his eyes.  A week ago, all had been going so well.  Life had settled down to a predictable routine that finally included his sons after many years of separation.  Johnny and Scott both seemed to have put the past behind them and had accepted him as their father.

A sense of gloom enveloped Murdoch.  Why this?  Why now?  No matter how the situation was resolved, someone was bound to be hurt.  If Johnny failed in his mission, then Alice would continue to feel the pain of rejection.  On the other hand, should the girl’s uncle come to claim her, Johnny would be the one to suffer loss.  No solution resolve everything.  Either way, there was no getting around the heart ache that was inevitable.

Chapter 18

Darkness had already given way to the grey light of dawn when Pony Alice led Blackie out of the corral and closed the gate.  She glanced around to make sure no one had seen her.

The main house remained a shadow amongst the tall oak trees, but a light in the bunkhouse flickered and caste a soft glow through the window.  Alice felt her heart beat faster.  She had to hurry.

Still holding the reins in her left hand, Alice grasped the wide leather fender with both hands.  She lifted her left foot high while teetering on the other as she strove to reach the stirrup.

The toe of her boot finally caught, and she strained to pull herself upward.  Even though her arms began to ache, she refused to give up the struggle until she was standing.  Then, with her belly against the horse, she worked her foot home in the stirrup, let loose with her right hand, and reached for the saddle horn.

Blackie snorted and stepped sideways.  Alice sucked in a noisy breath–her body twisting as her right arm waved and her fingers searched for something to grab.

Alice felt her left elbow bump into the pony’s neck.  Her left hand slipped, nearly losing its grip on the edge of stirrup leather.  For a moment, she was sure she would fall.  Then her free hand found the horn of the saddle.  She caught her balance and again leaned against the saddle while taking a deep breath.

Somewhere a door slammed.  Spurred into action, Alice swung her right leg over the cantle.  She captured the off stirrup with her foot and dug her heels into Blackie’s sides while hauling on the reins to turn the pony’s nose toward the open area beyond the stone guardhouse.

Blackie broke into a trot and circled wide before straightening out to follow the road.  Alice glanced back at the hacienda that towered above the trees much like the house’s owner, Murdoch Lancer, did the people who lived there.  No one was in sight, but she urged the pony into a lope.  She had to get away and find her uncle and Johnny.  They would never let anyone send her back to the orphanage.  Even though Jelly had tried to assure her that Johnny’s father would not resort to such a drastic measure, she couldn’t take the chance that he might.

A pale fringe marked the outline of the mountains to the east.  Gradually the band of light broadened, chasing away the night sky and all but a few persistent stars that refused to be ousted by the coming of day.  Finally, forced to admit defeat, they too relinquished their hold to the more powerful rays of the sun.

Other than to note the passing of time, Alice paid little mind to the struggle in the heavens overhead.  Full daylight was fast approaching, and with it came the danger of her escape being discovered.  She pressed onward, hurrying Blackie along the road that passed through the fields that cluttered the valley.

Streaks of light burst across the hills and brightened the path ahead.  The road rounded a corner, and Alice was met by blazing rays of sunlight.  She squinted, her eyes watering at the sudden glare.

Blackie slowed to a trot, head canted to one side as though he was also seeking relief from the blinding sun.  Despite Alice’s thumping heels, the pony refused to go faster until the road again swept back toward the south.

Up ahead, the road divided–one fork much wider than the other.  Alice halted and looked around while trying to remember which one would take her back the way Johnny had come that day he had brought her home with him.

Nothing seemed familiar at first.  To Alice’s young eyes, all of the surrounding hills were the same except for the taller one off to her left with a flat top peeking above the rest.  Maybe, that’s where Johnny ran Barranca, she thought.  Then kicking Blackie into a walk, she guided the pony down the trail in the direction of the black-rimmed mesa.

Slowly the sun rose higher.  Alice’s stomach grumbled and her throat felt dry.  She wished that she had thought to borrow a canteen from Jelly when she’d asked him about sleeping in the barn.  Also, she regretted not having taken time to sneak some food from the kitchen on her way out of the house with her overalls and shirt wrapped up in a blanket.

No use to cry over spilt milk.  I’ll just have to make do, she silently chided herself as another rumble came from her tummy.

Gently rolling hills gave way to a high ridge that broke off sharply into the mouth of a canyon, the other side of which rose straight up to the top of the mesa.  Alice guided Blackie along the base of the flat iron, as her uncle would have called it, to where the rim of rock parted and the sheer wall gave way to a grassy slope.

Again, the trail forked with the wider path remaining on the valley floor while the narrower of the two turned upward.  Alice chose the latter, which would take her to the top of the mesa.

Blackie balked at the steep incline.  Alice kicked the pony’s ribs as hard as she could.  “Get up, you lazy, lunk-headed mule, or I’ll get me a switch,” she shouted.

The horse shook its black mane, let out a snort, and side stepped.

Alice jerked on the reins and thumped her legs harder against Blackie’s sides.  When the pony still refused to move forward, she gave in to her rising temper and flung the end of the reins around to connect with a loud slap on his rump.

With a lunge, Blackie headed up the trail.  Alice, losing her balance, grabbed the saddle horn to keep from toppling backward over the pony’s rump.  With the pounding of her heart blending with the soft thud of shod hooves against a carpet of bunch grass, she held on with all her might. Several times she was sure she would never make it all the way to the top.

By the time Blackie reached level ground, Alice’s mouth was dry and her arms ached.  She was more than glad to let the horse rest for a couple of minutes before heading for the other side of the mesa.

Blackie’s sides were still heaving from the hard climb, and Alice could hear his breath whistling through his nose so she started out at a walk even though her insides were churning.  She had the dreads again as she had called them the night before when talking to Jelly.  By now, someone was bound to have noticed she was gone.  Even if the bag of grain under her blanket had fooled everyone into thinking she was asleep, the truth would have been found out when she didn’t get up.  If he catches me, he’ll send me back to that orphanage.  I just know he will, she thought as a vision of a tall man with grey hair invaded her mind.

On the far side of the mesa, the trail dropped down into a stream bed.  Blackie balked at the crossing and slung his head up and down until Alice leaned forward and let the reins slide through her fingers enough that his nose could reach the water.

Alice swallowed as the horse took several gulps.  She wished she could get off to get a drink, too.  However, she didn’t dare take a chance on Blackie getting away from her.  Whoever was coming after her was sure to catch her then.

Knowing that too much water wouldn’t be good for her pony, Alice tugged on the reins.  Blackie protested with a stiff neck and an unyielding mouth.

“Get your head up!” Alice yelled, giving one rein a sharp yank while thumping her heels against Blackie’s ribs.

Blackie leapt into the middle of the stream and charged for the far bank, water splashing onto the legs of Alice’s blue coveralls.

Alice grabbed the saddle horn to keep from being left behind and called Blackie a few derogatory names while getting him under control.  As soon as he had settled into a steady walk, she continued following the trail up a side draw to the top of the next ridge.   She then pushed him into a trot down the long, gentle slope on the other side.

The trail leveled off in the bottom of a valley and merged with a road.  Again, Alice stopped to look both ways in hopes of seeing something she recognized.

At first nothing was familiar.  Then farther ahead to her left, Alice saw an oak tree that was split down the middle as though it had been struck by a giant ax.  She was sure she had been by it with Johnny, so she turned Blackie in that direction and hoped she wasn’t wrong.

Murdoch Lancer didn’t waste time looking for tracks.  Pony Alice had last seen her uncle in the town of Witness Tree.  He assumed she would go there first and that she would try to stick to the same route she had traveled with Johnny.  That meant going by way of Black Mesa.

At the top of the mesa, Murdoch gave his mount a breather.  He had been pushing the horse hard ever since they had left Jelly muttering by the barn.  Despite his words to the hired man, Murdoch had some qualms about dealing with Alice Guthrie once he caught up to her.  There was no way of knowing how she would react.  When her temper took over, she might do anything.

Anything but think, that is, Murdoch thought with a shake of his head.  Alice had already proven her unpredictable nature and propensity to simply react instead of considering the consequences of her actions.  She had done that her first night at Lancer when she had run screaming into the living room, tripped, and then kicked Scott in the ankle for grabbing her to keep her from falling.

Murdoch let out a heavy sigh.  With her emerald eyes, Alice could charm her way into most anyone’s heart.  However, she could just as easily cut a person to shreds with those same eyes.  She could look so innocent, too.  Yet, there had been one kind of trouble after another in the past week.

If she comes back with us, she’s going to have to learn some self-control, thought Murdoch, urging his horse into a walk.  If.  He supposed Alice’s whole future and that of the Lancer family, too, hinged on that one little word, which revolved around the girl’s worthless uncle.  If Johnny found him.  If the man wanted her back.  If he was the scoundrel Johnny claimed.

Murdoch legged his horse on into an easy trot.  The what then questions that were sure to come with the answers to the ifs were far more troubling.  Not only did he need to catch up with Alice, he needed to go on and find Johnny.  Better to go ahead and get things settled once and for all, he thought.  Taking Alice back to the ranch would do no good.  No doubt, she would try to leave again at the first opportunity.  She needed to know her uncle’s intentions first hand, from the horse’s mouth as Jelly would say.  Then she could deal with the outcome.  They all could.

The long strides of the tall gelding ate up the distance to the far side of the mesa.  In a matter of minutes, Murdoch was pulling the horse back to a walk for the descent to the creek below where the trail crossed a road that ran eastward toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Halfway to the bottom, Murdoch saw fresh signs of shod hooves–hind hooves skidding in the strip of dirt to slow the forward motion just like those of his own mount at the moment.  At least one horse had gone ahead of him.

After crossing the creek, Murdoch dismounted and let his horse take a few swallows of water before leading it to where the trail met the road.  He stooped to look for tracks.  There appeared to be two sets of overlapping horseshoe shaped imprints, one set smaller than the other, crossing the road and continuing on the trail going north.

Murdoch mounted and rode on.  At the top of the next ridge, he stopped to take a drink from the canteen dangling from his saddle horn.  He wondered if Alice had taken any water with her.  It hadn’t looked like she had gotten off at the creek.

Time was passing.  In another hour, the sun would be straight overhead.  Murdoch corked the canteen and urged his horse down the long slope that headed to the northwest where it merged with a road that ran along the edge of the San Joaquin Valley.  There was no use sitting and worrying about what provisions Alice had thought to take with her.  Having both food and water with him, he was amply prepared to cross that bridge when he caught up to her.

Witness Tree, a small town on the eastern edge of the valley, was fifteen miles or more away from the Lancer Ranch headquarters.  When Murdoch figured he had gone halfway, he began to wonder if Alice had taken the wrong way at the last junction.  There were more tracks on the road he was now on, which made it harder to spot the hoofprints made by the pony.  Having doubted she had left before dawn, he had fully expected to have caught up to her already.  The nineteen-year-old pony she was riding was considerably smaller that his gelding and was lazy besides.

As Murdoch continued on, he wondered what he should do if he didn’t catch up with Alice by the time he reached the next fork in the road.  Did he go back to see if she had gone the wrong way at the last junction, or did he ride on to Witness Tree and then backtrack if she wasn’t there?

Another mile went by.  After winding around an outcropping of rock, the road straightened, a spattering of trees on either side.  Murdoch had barely broken into the open when he spotted a rider on a black horse by a tree where the road forked.

Murdoch quickly urged his horse into a gallop toward the tree that held the sign that pointed to Witness Tree.  He hadn’t gone far, when Alice glanced back at him.  She jerked the pony’s head to the left and kicked his sides.

Blackie broke into a trot, but his head was high and his strides short and choppy.  Murdoch’s big gelding needed little urging to overtake the pony.

Upon coming alongside the black pony, Murdoch reached out, wrapped his right arm around Alice’s waist, and dragged her from the saddle.  “Let me go!  Let me go!” she screamed, pounding on his arm as he swung her astride in front of him.

“Settle down, Alice,” Murdoch said.  “We have to find Johnny and your uncle.  Alright?”

Immediately the fight went out of the girl, and she relaxed.  With her legs dangling against Murdoch’s, she twisted at the waist and smiled up into his face.

Letting the pony follow along at its own speed, Murdoch kept to an easy gallop for another mile before slowing to a walk and halting under the spreading limbs of an old oak tree.  He reached back and unfastened one of the flaps on his saddle bags.  “I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry,” he said.

Murdoch pulled out a couple of sandwiches, which were wrapped in white napkins, and held one out to Alice.  When they had eaten the sandwiches, he uncorked his canteen.  He let Alice have a long drink and took one himself.

Once the canteen was again hanging from his saddle horn, Murdoch continued on toward Witness Tree, which was still another five miles away.  Although the road stayed to the valley floor and was easy traveling, he alternated between galloping and walking his horse.  He had no way of knowing how much farther he would have to go before catching up with Johnny and, therefore, didn’t want to wear the animal out.

The valley broadened, and the road passed by a few farm houses.  Up ahead, a cluster of buildings took shape.  Alice swung one arm forward and pointed.  “There it is!”

Somewhere there was a pop, like that of a pistol being fired.  Murdoch couldn’t be sure because of Alice’s excited voice ringing in his ears.  Still he tensed with a sense of foreboding.

Witness Tree wasn’t much of a town.  At the end Murdoch rode in from, there was a boarding house with a café.  A few houses lined the left side of the road, and across from them was a building that served as a general store, post office, saloon, and jail.  Beyond that was the livery stable.

Sheets hung from the clothes lines beside the boarding house and momentarily hid the rest of the town from view.  Murdoch reined his mount around the end posts.  His shoulders relaxed and he smiled at the sight of his son in the middle of the street.

At that moment, a man stepped out onto the porch of the store.  Sunlight reflected off metal as he lifted his hand.  A sharp report broke the stillness, and a puff of dust rose at Johnny’s feet.

Murdoch sucked in his breath and urged his horse forward as his son turned and yelled something about being tired of being shot at.

When the man on the porch shook his head and cocked the gun, Johnny moved closer and held out a hand.  Murdoch halted.  His and his son’s eyes briefly met before Johnny focused on the man on the porch and said, “Come on, Wilf . . . give me the gun.”

The name didn’t register in Murdoch’s mind until later when he had time to think.  At that moment, he merely reacted by grabbing for his own pistol and lifting it to aim at his son’s assailant.

Small hands grasped Murdoch’s arm and spoiled his aim as he pulled the trigger.

“Uncle Wilf!” Alice cried, her voice mingling with the sharp report of the pistol.

“No, Murdoch!” Johnny yelled at the same time while lunging forward to grab the man on the porch and tumble him into the street.

Murdoch launched himself backward over his horse’s rump and stood with his gun poised to take another shot.  He didn’t let the muzzle drop until he saw his son slowly rise from shielding the other man and take a step backward.  Even then Murdoch watched with a wary eye as Johnny stooped to retrieve the revolver before extending a hand toward the man on the ground who waved off the offer to help.

Out of the corner of his eye, Murdoch saw Alice being helped down from his horse.  Once her feet were on the ground, she started toward the man who was still half-lying in the dirt.  “Uncle Wilf,” she said, her voice trembling.

As Wilf rose to his knees and motioned for Alice to come closer, Johnny moved to one side.  Suddenly, realization hit Murdoch with full force.  He shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut to dispel the tragic vision of what could have been.  When he opened them again, his son was walking toward him.

“Well, it looks like I got here just in time to almost make a big mistake,” Murdoch said, his throat tight.

Johnny stopped, looked down at the gun he was holding, and then glanced over at Wilf and Alice.  “It all worked out,” he replied.

A woman moved to Murdoch’s side, momentarily disrupting his thoughts about Alice and her uncle.  “Johnny . . . thanks,” she said with a wave of her hand.  “However long he’s got, it’s going to be a precious time . . . for both of them.”

“What about afterward?” Johnny asked.

“Alice?  I only hope she wants me half as much as I need her,” she replied with a sigh that revealed the depths of her feelings.

Momentarily, the woman’s eyes met Murdoch’s.  Then she walked away with Johnny’s quiet, “Don’t be strangers,” tagging after her.

As the woman drew close to where Alice and her uncle now stood with arms wrapped around each other, she held out a hand to the smiling girl.  Murdoch glanced at Johnny and then back to the scene in the street.  “That looks like happy ever after,” he said, still trying to comprehend the bit of conversation between his son and the woman.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Johnny replied with a shrug.  “Happiness is cheap.  It’s here and gone.  They got something more.”

Murdoch could do nothing more than nod in agreement.  This was one of those times when he was utterly amazed by his younger son’s insights.  He supposed he shouldn’t be all that surprised, though.  Johnny had led a hard life and had no doubt learned at an early age that there really was no “happy ever after”, not in this life anyway.

Alice and her uncle stepped apart.  Then with the smiling girl in the middle, one hand clasped in Wilf’s and the other in the woman’s, the three of them strolled past Murdoch and Johnny.

As Murdoch watched them, he couldn’t help thinking that they were a strange trio–Alice in her overalls and flannel shirt appearing to be the bridge between two worlds.   Wilf looked like he needed a good dunking in the horse trough.  His once white shirt, open to the middle of his chest, drooped where the tails were carelessly stuffed into his pants, and his hair was as disheveled as a wheat field after a storm.  In comparison, the woman, who appeared to be several years older and in her early forties, was a breath of fresh air.  Her white blouse with flecks of black and a ruffled collar was tucked smoothly into a dark green skirt, and her hair, similar in color to Alice’s, was piled neatly on top of her head.

Johnny’s voice interrupted Murdoch’s thoughts.  “Hey Pony.  I’ll see yuh around. Huh?” he called out.  Alice responded with a backward glance and a broad smile lighting her face.

Murdoch wondered exactly what had transpired between his son and Wilf Guthrie.  Johnny seemed to have changed his perspective and had no problem with leaving Alice with her uncle.  However, now didn’t seem the time to ask, so the tall rancher gave his son a light slap on the shoulder and said, “You ready to go home?”

Johnny drew in a long breath and slowly let it out again.  “Yeah, I’m ready,” he replied, his voice almost inaudible.  Then with one last fleeting look toward Alice’s retreating back, he turned and walked toward his horse. 

While waiting for his son to untie Barranca and get mounted, Murdoch climbed into his own saddle.  A sense of peace settled over him.  Once again all had turned out fine.  Johnny would miss Alice, of course.  They all would, if they were honest with themselves.  Still, her happiness was what counted.  She needed to be with her family.  Having experienced the turmoil of years of separation, he and his sons, of all people, should understand that.

Chapter 19

Murdoch Lancer, stature approaching six and a half feet in his stocking feet, was an imposing figure and doubly so sitting astride his sixteen-hand bay gelding.  From where Johnny Lancer stood, a good portion of the street beyond his father was hidden from view.  Catching only a glimpse of Alice Guthrie as she was led up the single step to the covered porch of Florida’s café and boarding house, he still noticed the girl’s light stride and the swing of her arms as she held the hands on either side of her.

Johnny leaned forward, his weight pressing against his palomino’s side, and paused before mounting.  Letting out a long breath, he clinched his eyes shut.  Sometimes life wasn’t fair.  He had been prepared to give Alice the world on a silver platter, as his brother Scott would call it, but her heart had never been his.  Her scoundrel of an uncle, Wilf Guthrie, had beaten him to it.

A small voice in the back of Johnny’s head quickly reminded him of the indenture papers that were tucked away inside the safe in the Lancer living room.  By law, Pony Alice was his, and it was his call what happened to her.

Pacified by the thought that he did have a measure of control over the destiny of his girl, Johnny swung aboard his horse and urged him toward where Murdoch sat waiting.  Wilf would be gone in a couple of months.  Maybe then Alice would want to be a part of the Lancer family.

As Barranca’s long strides closed the distance between Johnny and his father, a man stepped off the porch and walked up to Murdoch.  He wiped his hands on the white apron tied around his waist and then extended a hand upward.  “Murdoch Lancer, are you?” he asked.  “I met you at a Fourth of July picnic a few years ago.”

Johnny halted.  The corners of his mouth quirked into a grin as Ollie, the storekeeper who also tended bar and served as postmaster, continued pumping Murdoch’s hand while relating the story of the sack race that the tall rancher had won and had afterward taken time to shake hands with all the losers.

So, he was telling the truth and not just distracting me so the Sheriff could get my gun, thought Johnny, remembering his visit to Witness Tree the previous week when the sheriff had made it quite clear that there would be no gun fights in his town.   

The relaxed set of Murdoch’s shoulders gave way to tension as Ollie went on talking with barely a pause to take an occasional breath.  Johnny’s smile broadened at his father’s obvious discomfort.  Murdoch had the look of a nervous colt ready to bolt.

“That’s a fine boy you got there,” Ollie said, his hand finally slipping free of Murdoch’s before sweeping toward Johnny.  “It sure was something what he did for Wilf.  Anyone else with his reputation wouldn’t have given a thought to shooting him dead.”

It was Johnny’s turn to squirm when the middle-aged shopkeeper launched into a long-winded accounting of Guthrie’s attempts to force a gunfight.  Ollie spared none of the details, beginning with Johnny leaning over the balcony railing and then walking down the stairs to stand at the end of the bar when Wilf had claimed to have no bad blood between them on his part.

Murdoch glanced at Johnny when Ollie said, “You’d have been right proud, Mr. Lancer.  Your boy tossed his gun down and refused to pick it up even when Wilf kept shooting at him.”

Johnny met his father’s eyes and shrugged.  He supposed Murdoch would expect an explanation later.

When he was finally able to put in a few words, Murdoch expressed the need to be going.  “We’ve a long ride ahead.  I’d like to get as far as we can before dark,” he explained.

“Murdoch’s right,” Johnny said.  They did have a long ride.  Also, the trail off of Black Mesa was steep, and there would only be a sliver of the moon to light their path.

Relief was apparent in Murdoch’s eyes so Johnny waved to Ollie and moved Barranca forward.  The sound of hoof beats behind him told him that his father had turned his big, bald-faced bay and was trotting to catch up.

Upon reaching the open space beyond Ollie’s place, Johnny had a niggling thought that something wasn’t settled.  He told himself there was nothing to be concerned about.  Wilf was no longer a threat, and Alice had what she wanted.

A door squeaked somewhere.  Johnny couldn’t be sure where without looking.  He ignored the sound as well as that of the hollow clomp of boot heels on a porch.  Most likely, someone had come out of the saloon.

Again, Johnny felt a sense of unease.  Had he forgotten something about the saloon?  If so, what?

Dust scattered a few feet in front of Barranca’s hooves, the crack of a single shot ending the Lancer’s peaceful exit from town.  Johnny hauled on the reins and leaned back while settling his weight in the saddle as his mount skidded to a stop–Murdoch’s bay doing the same.

Another bullet whizzed past and dug into the road while a deadly voice barked, “Hold it!”   Johnny glanced back and groaned.   Jasper!

The sheriff obviously was not pleased.  He walked in long choppy strides, his eyes seeming to blaze through narrow slits in the man’s pinched face.  Johnny slumped forward, resting his right hand on the saddle horn, and waited for the lawman to have his say.  It wasn’t long in coming.  “Thinking of going somewhere?  Don’t.  I warned you not to act up in my town,” Jasper said in a voice that matched his expression.

“Guthrie pushed the gunfight, not me.  The whole town knows I wouldn’t oblige,” Johnny drawled softly, holding a tight rein on his temper.  He had had his fill of being a target.

There wasn’t any sign of understanding in Jasper’s eyes.  “This isn’t about Wilf.  It’s about you breaking out of my jail.  Now drop that gun and climb down,” he said with a threatening wave of the revolver in his hand.

Johnny started to comply, but hesitated when he felt the press of his father’s horse against his leg.  “Is there a problem, Sheriff?” Murdoch asked.

Jasper, keeping his gun pointed at Johnny, tipped his chin upward and shifted his eyes to give Murdoch a calculating look.  “What business is that of yours?” he asked, sounding sharp despite his quiet tone.

“I’m Johnny’s father, Murdoch Lancer,” Murdoch said as though no other explanation was needed.

Ollie arrived at Jasper’s side.  “He brought Alice back to her uncle and got here just in time to distract Wilf so Johnny could get the gun away from him,” he said, sounding out of breath.

“I don’t care what happened. No one breaks out of my jail.”  Jasper turned his attention back to Johnny.  “Now I’ll have that gun.”

The next move was his, and Johnny figured the wisest thing to do was humor the sheriff.  “Sure,” he said, easing the gun out of the waist band of his pants and dropping the weapon into the dirt.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “I’m sure we can sort this out,” he said, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow.

Another drop of moisture formed and slide down the big man’s cheek.  Johnny wondered which Murdoch was sweating from most, the heat or the tension of the situation.  Any further contemplation, however, was ended when the sheriff announced that any sorting out would be done when the judge came through town in a month.

Townspeople, who had started to disperse once the threat of a gunfight had ended, again began to gather in the street.   Drawn by curiosity, Johnny supposed.  Wilf Guthrie was there, too, strands of black hair still hanging in his eyes and wrinkled white shirt blotched with dirt–front drooping open and tails barely tucked beneath the band of dust-covered brown pants.

The horse trader didn’t stop crowding in until he was standing elbow to elbow with the sheriff.  “Now, Jasper, there’s no need to hold Lancer,” Guthrie said.  “I told you I was dropping the charges.”

Jasper’s lips curved upward at the corners, but there was no sign of humor in the man’s eyes or voice as he spoke.  “Tell that to the judge when you explain why you attacked an officer of the law.  Meanwhile, you and Lancer can keep each other company.”

Guthrie reached out with one hand and laid it on the lawman’s arm.  “Come on.  All I done was save you from drawing on Johnny Madrid.” 

Johnny felt the tensing of his father’s muscles where their legs touched below the knee.  He glanced sideways and shrugged.  “Can’t keep a thing like that a secret,” he muttered.  Actually, he wished there was a way to get away from Madrid.  Life would be simpler.

The words apparently failed to pacify Murdoch–proven by the lack of even a hint of a smile on his lips.  Nothing could be done about that now, so Johnny let out a long breath and focused his attention on the discussion going on between Wilf and the sheriff.

Several other members of Witness Tree’s meager population chose to contribute their opinions on the matter.  Ollie couldn’t have frightened a cockroach off the porch of his store, but that didn’t keep the shopkeeper from speaking his mind.  He adamantly stood up for Johnny and Wilf even to the point of insisting that all charges be dropped.  Florida, who ran the local boarding house and cafe, was just as outspoken in defending the two men.    

When Jasper refused to be swayed, Murdoch dismounted and stepped up to the lawman.  His tall frame dwarfed that of the wiry sheriff, and his manner radiated confidence.  Johnny, however, had little faith in a pleasant outcome to the impending talk.  He was sure that if his father had any ideas that the Lancer name or his standing as a wealthy rancher would have any pull, the man was going to be disappointed.  Witness Tree’s sheriff was a lot tougher than he looked.

“I’m sure we can come to an equitable settlement that will satisfy all concerned, but first . . . what’s this about Johnny breaking out of jail?  Just exactly what was he arrested for?” Murdoch said, not waiting for an answer between the questions.

Jasper’s beady eyes fixed on Johnny.  “You want to tell him, or shall I?”

With a hunch of his shoulders, Johnny chewed at his lip and glanced from the sheriff into Murdoch’s expectant face.  “It was nothing.  Besides, Guthrie dropped the charges,” he hedged, his voice fading out as his head tipping forward and his eyes sought the ground.

“Charges for what?”

The thunder in Murdoch’s voice said the man’s patience was wearing thin.  Johnny looked up and then over at Jasper.  Witness Tree’s sheriff, too, was waiting, but the man wouldn’t wait long.

From her hiding place behind Florida’s skirt, Pony Alice peeked out, her eyes seeking Johnny’s.  He let out a huff of air through puffed cheeks.  “I, uh . . .” he started and then stopped to take in a breath while collecting his thoughts before muttering that Guthrie had refused to come back with him.

As expected, the lame excuse did not appease Murdoch, evidenced by the clearing of his throat and his abrupt, “And?”

“He tried to leave,” Johnny replied, meeting his father’s eyes once more.  Seeing that the explanation still wasn’t enough, he looked up at the wide expanse of blue sky overhead and softly added, “I hit him.”

A snort came from Jasper.  “You tried to kill him,” the lawman said.

The bonds holding Johnny’s temper slipped.  “Come on, Sheriff,” he retorted.  “If I wanted Guthrie dead, why didn’t I gun him down when he was shooting at me?”

Ollie again spoke in Johnny’s defense.  “That’s right.  He tried to talk Wilf out of it.  He even threw down his gun, but Wilf was set on making him fight or die.”

“Like I said before, this isn’t about Wilf or a gunfight.  It’s about him breaking out of my jail.”  Jasper jabbed a boney finger in Johnny’s direction and then rubbed the dark spot on his own jaw.  “Besides, Wilf has his own charges to answer for.”

Murdoch reached inside of his shirt pocket.  “What are the damages?” he asked as he removed several green bills from his wallet.

Johnny arched his brows while resisting the urge to grin.  He doubted bribery would get his father anywhere, but he enjoyed seeing the man try.

As expected, Jasper waved away the money.  “You might as well put that back in your pocket.  I can’t be bought off.  Jail breaking is a serious offense.  I’ll have to hold your son over ’til the circuit judge gets here.”

A deep furrow etched the space between Murdoch’s brows as one thumb traced the edge of his jaw.  “You’re sure something can’t–“

“Forget it, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted.  He wasn’t about to have his father resort to begging.

Murdoch, however, wasn’t content to let things lie.  “What if I put up bail and promised Johnny would be here to face the judge?” he persisted, leaning forward with head tipped to one side as though he were attempting to look directly into the shorter man’s face.

Jasper hedged, and Murdoch took the opportunity to ask if a hundred dollars would do.  The offer, bringing a slight hesitation followed by a shake of the lawman’s head, was then promptly doubled.

Someone said, “Take it Jasper.”  Others called out in agreement.  One person even reminded the sheriff that the judge most likely would sentence Johnny to thirty days, say it had been served, and turn him loose.

Again Jasper paused, his mouth puckering.  “Tell you what,” he finally said as another smile played at the corners of his mouth.  “Make it five hundred and we have a deal.”

Johnny dropped out of the saddle.  “Five hundred!  That’s robbery,” he shouted when his feet hit the ground and he stood glaring at the sheriff–faces inches apart.

“Take it or leave it.  It doesn’t matter one way or the other to me what you do,” Jasper said.  He pointed at a husky-built man, who could be seen barging through the crowd, and smugly grinned.  “Of course, your meals might be a bit cold.  Looks to me like Jake has reason not to be too accommodating.”

There was no denying that the deputy was angry.  His husky arms, hands balled into pudgy fists, alternately swung in front of his round body like those of a boxer.  Still, Johnny wasn’t about to agree to the sheriff’s demand.

“We’ll take it,” Murdoch said, his voice booming in Johnny’s ear.

With a soft snort, Johnny turned to his father.  “Five hundred dollars is robbery.  Besides, how’re yuh gunna come up with that kind of money?” he demanded.  He couldn’t believe Murdoch would agree to such ridiculous demands.

Murdoch, seeming to ignore his son’s question, addressed the sheriff.  “I have two hundred in cash.  You will take a bank draft for the rest, won’t you?”

“I suppose I could do that,” Jasper thoughtfully replied before wagging a finger at Murdoch.  “It had better be good, though . . . or you’ll be standing in front of the judge right along with that boy of yours.”

Jake’s mouth dropped open.  “You ain’t turning him loose?  Look what he did to my face.”

The bulging cheek below Jake’s right eye was already turning purple from the knockout blow Johnny had given the man not thirty minutes earlier.  Jasper nodded that he had taken notice, and then calmly assured the deputy that Johnny would be back to stand trial.

For a moment, Johnny thought the deputy was going to protest, but he didn’t.  He simply shook his head and muttered under his breath as he stalked off toward one of the houses on the far side of the street.

Johnny watched the deputy’s retreating back and then, turning to the sheriff, asked, “What about Guthrie?  You still plan on locking him up?”

“Don’t see that’s any concern of yours,” Jasper replied.

“It ain’t.  I just thought with Alice.  Well, you know . . . maybe you could go easy on him.  They don’t have a lot of time,” Johnny said.   Wilf’s affairs hadn’t mattered an hour ago, but that was before Florida had revealed that the man was dying.  Two months wasn’t a lot of time, and Alice needed as much of her uncle’s remaining days as she could get.

Ollie also was quick to speak up for Guthrie by pointing out that Wilf had said his reason for hitting the sheriff was to stop him from drawing on Johnny Madrid.

Murdoch probably wouldn’t be happy, but Johnny had to do something.  If Lancer could afford five hundred dollars to keep him out of jail, a bit more wasn’t going to break the ranch.  “Would another two hundred pay his bail?  I’m paying,” he said, not missing the frown on his father’s face.

“Well,” Jasper replied, thoughtfully stroking his chin.  “I suppose I could do that . . . as long as Wilf agrees not to leave town before the judge gets here.”

“He’ll agree,” Johnny replied with more confidence than he felt.  He knew he was putting himself out on a limb, but he couldn’t help it.  Alice had looked so happy.  Her time with her uncle was short enough, and he planned to do everything within his power to make sure none was taken from her.

“There’s no need for you puttin’ yourself out for me,” Guthrie said.  “I’m no chari–“

“Wilf, for once in your life can’t you just be thankful,” cut in Florida before turning to Johnny.  “Thanks . . . and don’t worry.  Wilf won’t be going anywhere.  I’ll see to that if I have to hog tie him.”

From the determined look on her face, Johnny was sure Florida meant every word.  Guthrie would be in town when the judge arrived.  There was no need to worry about that.

An hour later, the Lancers rode out of town.  They would have left sooner, except Florida had insisted on fixing them something to eat.  Johnny was silently grateful for the chance to be with Alice a little longer.  Although he understood her need to be with her uncle, he knew he was going to miss her terribly.

“I’m proud of you.  I don’t know too many men who’d have paid to keep Guthrie out of jail given what he tried to do.”

The words broke through Johnny’s thoughts, and he looked over at his father.  “I couldn’t let him go to jail.  Alice won’t have much time with him as it is.  He’s dying.  The doctors only give him a couple of months.”

Murdoch nodded and then rode in silence.

Johnny welcomed the lack of conversation.  His feelings concerning Wilf Guthrie were too raw–a strange mix of anger and compassion.  He didn’t want to discuss the man’s past . . . or Alice’s future, for that matter.  The time for that would come soon enough.  At the present, he just wanted to concentrate on the trail ahead in hopes of driving all else from his mind.  Tomorrow would be soon enough to think about where and how his girl might one day fit into his life.

Chapter 20

Ever-changing scenes scrolled past the open window: barren land sprinkled by patches of vineyards, orchards, and green pastures; stray homesteads and ranch headquarters appearing and disappearing; farmers plowing their fields in preparation for planting wheat, corn, or other crops; and women hanging flapping sheets or clothing on a line pulled snug between two trees or whatever else proved handy.  Towns and relay stations came and went, too, as did herds of grazing cattle of every size, shape, and color.  Only the smell of dust, the rattling of four iron-rimmed wheels, the plodding of sixteen shod hooves, and the faint jingling of harness remained constant throughout the seemingly endless miles.

Even the passengers of the Central California Stage Company’s southbound coach changed from time to time.  Some arrived at their destinations and others got off to travel in a new direction.  Scott Lancer was the only one to have boarded in Sacramento the previous day, and even he would not ride all the way to the end of the line at Green River.

The stage labored up a steep grade and left the San Joaquin valley behind.  Now trees paraded along both sides of the road that rambled over hills and through streams — sunlight peeking between webs of branches, mostly scrub oak.  Unable to fully straighten his legs inside the cramped quarters of the coach, Scott stretched as best he could.  A sign came into view, the rough-hewn board pointing the way to Morro Coyo.  He silently groaned.  Ten more miles of torture and then he could leave this dust infested, bone-jarring conveyance and embark on the final leg of his journey home.

Thoughts of home brought other thoughts.    Had he been missed?  Would Murdoch be pleased with the contract?   Was Alice Guthrie fitting in?  What plans did his brother have for the girl’s future?

Oak leaves blurred into a vision of Johnny’s face.  “You still owe me, Brother,” Scott muttered, vaguely aware of the pinching of his brows.

“Is something wrong, Mr. Lancer?”

Johnny faded into the trees, and Scott turned away from the window to address the white-haired woman across from him.  “No.  Nothing,” he said.

Mabel Walch’s narrowed eyes clearly indicated she was not convinced.  Even when Scott produced what he hoped was his most engaging smile, he could see the question rolling around on the tip of the woman’s tongue.  Temptation urged him to shift his attention back to the world beyond the window, but years of training denied him the pleasure.  Instead, he waited for the inevitable as the elderly mother of a farmer who lived on the outskirts of Green River held his gaze a moment longer.

A wheel grumbled in and out of a hole in the road.  The stage lurched to one side — passengers grabbing for purchase on the bouncing seats.  Mrs. Walch’s calico bonnet, tied loosely beneath her chin, slipped forward onto her nose.  She tugged the hat into place and smiled, her hazel eyes warming.  “You’d think Sandy could miss some of those holes.  He drives this road nigh onto every day.”

Scott responded with a chuckle and a remark that was clipped short by another jostle of the coach.  When the ride smoothed, the passenger on his right voiced his complaint, which led to a discussion of the driver’s abilities and the sad condition of the road.  The conversation then turned to politics and what could be done to force county officials to remedy the situation as well as other issues of concern.

In what seemed no time at all, the coach pulled into Morro Coyo. Scott didn’t even have to look up to know when he passed Rosa’s cantina with its flat, terra cotta roof or approached Baldomero’s store or came into view of the mission once the coach made a sweeping turn and headed for the stage depot next to the livery stable.  The dark shapes stretching into the road formed a silhouette of each building.

The stage jolted to a stop, dust clouding the passenger compartment.  Scott grabbed the window frame to keep from catapulting into Mrs. Walch’s lap and then coughed when he drew in a deep breath.

Other passengers coughed, too.  One snatched up a book that had fallen from his lap to the floor, and another pushed his hat back into place on the top of his head.  Everyone had barely recovered when the door was flung open.  “All out for Morro Coyo!” the driver hollered as though they had lost their hearing.

Being on the far side of the coach, Scott waited for his fellow passengers to leave first.  He then tipped his hat to Mrs. Walch, who was going on to Green River, and wished her well before climbing out.

None of the people who had met the stage paid any attention to Scott, and soon he stood alone — luggage at his feet.  It appeared no one was there to meet him, which seemed strange.  His expected arrival time had been stated in the wire he had sent from Sacramento.  The stage was on time so whoever Murdoch had sent to get him should have been there waiting.

Sandy paused on his way around the back of the stage.  “Looks like your ride stood yuh up?” he said.

“I’m sure someone will be along shortly,” Scott replied as he glanced down the street in hopes of seeing the buckboard come into sight.  It didn’t and he let out a long breath.

Resigned to having to wait, Scott happened to look down the alley directly across from him.  He let out another breath, this time in relief.  There stood Zanzabar with his head down.  The horse looked to be asleep and totally incognizant of the harness that bound him to the wagon beyond him.  Nor did he seem to care that his driver had left him.  A tall building shielded his body from the afternoon sun. 

Scott waved a hand toward the Lancer buckboard.  “It appears my ride arrived early and got tired of waiting,” he told the tow-headed stage driver.  He then hoisted his bag to his shoulder and wished Sandy a good trip.  “Oh . . . do you think you could watch those holes in the road a little closer,” he added.  “You don’t want Mrs. Walch falling off the seat and getting bruised up.  Her son might not take kindly to that and accuse you of being careless.”

Sandy nodded.  Only time would tell if the warning had been heeded.  In any case, Scott would never know, nor did he care.  Having had enough jostling for one day, he was too glad to be off the coach.

The stage drive turned away, and Scott headed toward the alley.  As he approached, Zanzabar looked up and nickered.

After setting his bags in the back of the wagon, Scott walked to the horse’s side and patted his neck.  “Hello boy.  Where’s your driver?  He wouldn’t be in the saloon nursing a beer, would he?”

Zanzabar answered with a shake of his head that flipped his mane from side to side as a snort whirred between his fluttering lips.

“Keep an eye on things while I collect your driver,” Scott said with a final pat on the sleek neck.  He didn’t know about the horse, but he was more than ready to get home and rid himself of the dust collected since leaving Sacramento a day and a half ago.

Morro Coyo was a small town.  Still, Scott paused to look up and down the street before beginning his search.  He wondered where to go first?  Despite being the most obvious place to start, the saloon could be a waste of time.  He could be at the mercantile picking up something for Murdoch or Teresa.

Maybe I should see if he’s been to the stage depot.  He might have stopped in to find out whether the stage would be on time.

This last thought made the most sense, so Scott headed for the stage office.  The clerk might know something and therefore save him some unnecessary steps.

A fresh team stomped their impatience as the stage driver supervised the man hitching them to the coach.  Scott pitied Mrs. Walch and anyone else who might be boarding the coach for Green River.  The trip was bound to start out at a fast clip.

Scott, however, refused to dwell on the unfortunate passengers.  Home was too close for that.  Instead he continued on his course behind the stage.

The door to the depot swung inward.  Scott halted, his left hand reaching out to the back of the coach for support.  It couldn’t be!  He couldn’t possibly be so lucky.  Yet, there they were, the same two ladies he had seen a week ago.

As his heart bolted into full speed, Scott found that his feet refused to move.  Now that the opportunity to learn the younger woman’s identity had presented itself, he felt like a schoolboy — lungs constricted and tongue tied in knots.  He could only stare as mother and daughter toted their luggage toward the steps at the edge of the porch.

Something moved in the street, and Scott saw the blur out the corner of his right eye at the same instant that the jingle of spurs penetrated his mind.  “I’ll get those for you,” a voice drawled.

Oh no you don’t, Scott thought, seeing his brother approach in long strides.

Johnny never saw the foot sliding into his path or the shallow furrow the heel of the boot left in the dust.  If he had, he would never have stumbled and pitched headfirst into the horse trough in front of the stage depot.  Scott was certain of that.

With a loud kuhsploosh, Johnny disappeared from sight.  Water swooshed outward, and the younger woman gasped — the front of her mint green dress suddenly blotched with darker shades of color.

Now that the path was cleared, Scott moved into action.  “Clumsy drunks ought not to be allowed on the street,” he said as he strode forward.

“Do you think you should help him before he drowns?” the elder woman asked.

Following the woman’s gaze to where Johnny was floundering to stand up, Scott shook his head.  “No.  He’ll be fine.  Here let me carry those for you.  Are you taking the stage to Green River?  I had no idea you were from around here.  You do remember meeting me a week ago, don’t you?” he breathlessly asked, unable to stop from babbling like an idiot once his tongue was loosened.

“Thank you.  And yes, I do remember you,” said the elderly lady, whom Scott assumed was the grandmother.  “You were with–“

Scott never heard the rest of words.  The stage drive chose that moment to call out, “All aboard for Green River!”            

Picking up one of the bulky valises, Scott offered his arm to the ‘grandmother’.  He helped her down the steps and then turned to do the same for the younger woman.  “I’m sorry about your dress,” he said.

“It’s just a little water.  It’ll dry.”  The corners of her mouth daintily tugged upward until her eyes sparkled.  “Besides, I’ve had worse.  My brother–“

The driver again interrupted.  “If them bags be goin’, you best be gettin’ ’em up here or I’m goin’ without ’em.”

“Hadn’t yuh oughta do what the man says,” said someone else in a soft drawl just inches from Scott’s ear.

Johnny!  Scott quickly masked his surprise as he flinched away from his brother.  “Here, make yourself useful and carry the lady’s bag.”  He nodded toward the remaining piece of luggage on the porch and then promptly escorted the young lady to the stage.

“I didn’t get your name,” Scott said.

“You didn’t?”

“No, I didn’t,” he replied, again oblivious to all but the vision of beauty at his side.

“The driver ain’t gunna wait all day.”  Johnny sounded far away.

“Audra.  Audra Barkley,” she said, the words a whisper in the wind.  Her fingers then slipped from Scott’s arm as she climbed into the coach.

Johnny closed the door, took the valise his brother was still holding, and tossed it up to the driver, who promptly settled it into place with the other luggage.  Then she was gone in a swirl of dust, and Scott stood gazing after her.  Her name was Audra.

“Hey.  Yuh just gunna stand there dreamin’ about that gal?” Johnny asked, his voice an intrusion.

Scott swallowed.  Even though he was tired, he considered renting a horse and riding to Green River.  That idea, however, was quickly rejected.  Johnny would never let him hear the end of it, and there was the added fact that his father would be expecting him home.  Murdoch wouldn’t be happy about waiting several more hours to receive a full report of the business conducted in San Francisco.

The stage rumbled down the street and passed from sight behind a building.  Scott reluctantly turned away.  Surely someone knew this Audra Barkley.  If he asked around, he might even learn where she lived.

Once again Johnny’s voice intruded.  “…a beer before you go?”

Momentarily pulled away from thoughts of Audra, Scott actually saw the sodden young man at his side.  Johnny’s hair clung together in swirls on his forehead; water dribbled into his eyes; and his dripping clothes had already formed a puddle in the dirt.  “Looks like you’ve had enough,” Scott said, hoping to hide his sudden feeling of guilt.

“I tripped,” Johnny retorted.  When Scott responded with arched brow, the younger man became even more defensive.  “I only had one drink.  If you don’t trust Mendoza’s word, ask Pete Rae.  He bought it for me.”

“I believe you,” Scott hurriedly replied.  He didn’t want to rile his brother too much.  They had better than a two-hour ride home.  Spending the time in silence would only make the trip seem that much longer.

“So . . . do you want a drink before we go, or not?” Johnny asked.

Scott smiled and then thoughtfully rubbed his chin.  “Are you buying?”

“Nope,” Johnny fairly snorted.  “I’m gunna sit in the sun and dry off.”

Scott glanced down as guilt again pricked his conscience.  “I could loan you a dry shirt,” he quietly said, raising his eyes to meet his brother’s gaze.

“Yeah?  What yuh got?”  Johnny spoke with a measure of scorn, but his eyes were filled with hope.

“Oh.”  Scott looked up at the sky while pausing to think.  A picture formed in his mind, and he smugly smiled.  “A white one with ruffles.”

Johnny grimaced.  “Don’t yuh have anything else?”

“Not that’s clean,” Scott replied and held his laughter to a soft huff of breath.

“I don’t mind a little dirt.”

The rush of words hinted of desperation, and Scott gave in to the temptation to have a little more fun at his brother’s expense.   “What about odor?” he asked, keeping his tone serious.  “If you don’t mind smelling like you’ve been digging post holes all day, you could wear my other tan shirt.

“That bad, huh?”

“Yes.  That bad.”

Johnny raked his fingers through his wet hair.  Then, mischief danced in his eyes.  “I think I’ll settle for wet.  Wouldn’t want to offend anyone’s delicate sense of smell . . . especially yours.”

“That’s considerate of you,” Scott dryly replied.

“Can’t have yuh holdin’ your nose while yuh drink, can we?  It wouldn’t look too dignified,” Johnny said with a laugh.

In mock grandeur, Scott bowed at the waist and swept a hand out to the side.  “Shall we go then?  I haven’t had a decent meal since yesterday morning, and I don’t intend to be late for supper tonight.”

A short while later Scott sat across from his brother.  The saloon was quiet.  Pete Rae apparently had left soon after Johnny had headed for the stage depot, and no other customers had arrived in the meantime.  This, however, was nothing unusual on a weekday in the middle of the afternoon.  Most men were working.

Once the bartender brought their beers, an awkward silence passed between the brothers.  Scott made the first effort to get a conversation going by asking how everything was at the ranch.

“Fine,” Johnny replied, not sounding all that convincing.

Scott pictured all sorts of problems that could have arisen in his absence.  Most he rejected.  Spring roundup wasn’t scheduled to begin for another week so none of the cattle would have been moved out of the valley pastures.  The weather had been dry for more than two weeks.  Without rain, there was no danger of bridges washing out, streams plugging up, or wagons becoming mired in mud.

Visions of Alice appeared next.  Scott was about to ask how she was getting along when Johnny spoke.  “So . . . how’d it go in Frisco?” he asked, tapping the fingers of his left hand on the table.

“Fine,” Scott replied.

Johnny took a sip of beer.  “Just fine, huh?   No problems makin’ a deal with Hardcastle?”

After taking another drink, Scott shook his head.  “No.  No problems.  I think Murdoch will be pleased with the contract.”

Another moment of silence passed before Johnny looked up from his drink.  “Uh . . .”

“Yes?” urged Scott.  He could see that something was bothering his brother.

“Look . . . about Sally.”

The mention of Sally’s name brought unpleasant memories to mind along with a surge of anger.  “Spit it out, Brother,” Scott said, his voice harsh.

Johnny sucked in his breath and looked at his beer.  “I shouldn’t have set yuh up like that.  I mean I knew she’d make a nuisance of herself all the way to Sacramento,” he softly said before looking up.  “Are you still mad at me?”

Along with a drop of water, Scott’s anger disappeared into Johnny’s beer.  “I have no reason to be angry . . . anymore,” he replied.

“You don’t?  Yuh mean . . .?”  Johnny paused, confusion written on his face.  Then he chuckled.  “You tripped me, didn’t you?”

Scott took a sip of beer.  “You did have it coming.”

“Yeah.  Guess that makes us even, huh?”

Scott nodded and shook a finger at his brother.  “Only if you swear to never, ever set me up with another girl.”

“Not even that girl that got on the stage?” Johnny asked, mischief returning to his eyes.  “What’d she say her name was . . . Bartley or somethin’ like that?  She sure was pretty.”

“Barkley.”  Scott knew he sounded testy and waited for his brother to comment on that fact.  Johnny failed to respond as expected.

“Yeah.  Barkley.”  Johnny’s thoughtful expression became more intense.  “Hey, I wonder if she’s any relation to the ones I heard have a big spread up near Stockton.”

“Where’d you hear that?” Scott asked much too quickly for his own peace of mind.

Again, Johnny seemed to either ignore or not notice his brother’s reactions.  He took another drink of his beer and lazily replied, “From Murdoch.  He had supper with Aggie Conway like he always does on Thursday.  She told him the mother and daughter were gunna to be at some ranch north of Morro Coyo so she invited them to stay with her a few days.  That stage was going to Green River.  Want me to fix it with the old man to send you over to Aggie’s place for somethin’?”

The corners of Johnny’s lips twitched.

“No thank you,” Scott stiffly replied.  “If I want any fixing done, I’ll do it myself.”   He swallowed the last of his beer and stood.  Audra couldn’t be any older than Teresa.  In that case she would be seventeen and much too young for him to be courting.  The best thing to do was to put the girl out of his mind.

A flicker of interest still persisted as Scott walked back to the wagon with his brother.  He tried to ignore all thoughts of Audra Barkley, but couldn’t.  Golden hair and a sweet smile beckoned him. 

Chapter 21

At the first flick of the reins against his rump, Zanzabar obediently broke into a trot.  His first couple of jerky strides smoothed into a steady, ground covering pace.

Scott Lancer folded his arms and watched the road ahead as his brother Johnny drove the surrey out of Morro Coyo.  Once out of town, his thoughts shifted to Zanabar.  The gelding was the finest buggy horse in the county, perhaps the entire state. He was spirited, yet tractable.  His body was sleek with long, lean muscles flowing from strong hips downward into well-formed legs, and his chestnut coat glistened in the sun.

“Beautiful, ain’t he?” Johnny said.

Scott focused his gaze on his brother and nodded.  “Yes, he is.  I can see why you wanted to buy another like him.”

“Yeah.  Well . . . yuh know . . . Murdoch’s always sayin’ he wished ol’ Zanzabar here had a twin.”  Johnny spoke in an off-handed manner, his shoulders rising and falling during the brief pauses.

“I can’t blame him.  A matched team of the right caliber is something to behold,” Scott hastily replied.  He suspected his brother still felt embarrassed about having been tricked by Alice’s uncle.

For nearly three miles the brothers discussed horses of one kind or another.  Scott deviated once to ask if Johnny wouldn’t like a dry shirt.  The offer was declined.  By then the younger man’s red shirt was beginning to dry in the warm, April sun.  A year ago, when Day Pardee and his band of land pirates had been terrorizing the area, the weather had been much cooler and a jacket was needed to keep out the chill.  Not so today.  If a thermometer was available, Scott was sure the mercury would be above the seventy-degree mark.

The conversation shifted when Johnny mentioned the stage line had a new team of horses.  This led to talk about Scott’s trip, which in turn wormed around to Sally.  Scott was surprised that he could now laugh at her clinging ways and obvious devotion, which he had found most annoying at the time.  She was just a silly schoolgirl, whose memory would quickly fade from his thoughts, or so he told himself.  Undoubtedly her infatuation with him would be replaced within a week by some new object of worship.  Boston had more boys her age to choose from than she would have seen in her entire life.  One was bound to catch her eye.

“So, you aren’t still mad at me?”

Scott chuckled at the hint of concern in his brother’s voice.  “No . . . and I’m sorry about . . ..”  He paused to draw in a long breath while looking away from his brother.

“Sorry about what?” Johnny asked.  Then he laughed.  “Yuh mean dunkin’ me in that water trough?”

“It wasn’t a very brotherly thing to do.”  Scott slowly shifted his gaze back toward his brother.

Johnny cocked his head and looked over at Scott.  “Tell, yuh what.  If it’ll make yuh feel better, I’ll toss you in the horse trough when we get home.  Save yuh havin’ to take a bath.”

“I’ll settle for apologizing . . . if that is all right with you,” Scott said.  He had been looking forward to a nice, warm bath since an hour after leaving Sacramento.

Johnny laughed again, and the brothers spent a few minutes in lighthearted banter before settling into a conversation that began with Scott’s procurement of the contract with Hardcastle and ended with talk of happenings at the ranch.

One thing was conspicuously absent in all that Johnny related.  Not once did he mention Alice.  Scott began to wonder why.  Had the girl been such a model child that there was nothing to tell, or had she been so bad that a reprieve was needed from the very thought of her?  Several times he had the question on the tip of his tongue, but Johnny always managed to sidetrack him.

By the time they started down the grade overlooking the Lancer valley and Johnny halted the wagon on the same corner where Teresa had stopped a year ago, Scott forgot all about Alice.  “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said, his voice filled with the awe he felt welling up from within.  Johnny’s soft, “yeah”, hinted of similar feelings.

A moment of silence passed between the brothers.  The valley below and surrounding hills looked to be carpeted with rich green velvet, and the river resembled a winding ribbon of silver.   On the right-hand side, the glistening hacienda, turning pink from the setting of the sun, peeked through the grove of towering oak trees, which now appeared more like giant men cloaked in black.

Johnny broke the spell by flipping the reins and setting Zanzabar in motion.  Scott sighed.  He never ceased to be amazed at the effect that particular view had on his emotions.  It was easy to understand his father’s love of the land.  No place could be more beautiful or enchanting.

In what seemed no time at all, the wagon halted beside the main entry to the house.  Jelly Hoskins stepped off the porch and took hold of the horse’s bridle.  “I’ll take care of him, Johnny.  Have a good trip, Scott?  Weather sure has been nice.  Was it foggy in Frisco?  Always was when I was there,” he said with hardly a breath to keep his voice from fading out before he was finished speaking.

“Hello, to you too, Jelly,” Scott said, struggling to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching.  “I did have a good trip.  No fog, except in the early mornings, and then only down by the wharf.”

“Scott!  Good to see you back,” called another voice, this one deep-throated and louder.

Scott smiled as he turned to watch his father’s approach.  A vision of their first meeting flashed through his mind.  On that day, the tall man had stood with back rigid, eyes cold, and mouth set in a grim line that matched the abrupt offer of a drink.  Today, everything about Murdoch’s countenance radiated warmth.  Even his stride, although purposeful, was hurried and hinted of anticipated pleasure in this greeting.

“How was your trip?  I got your wire that you made a deal with Hardcastle.  Were you able to get the price we talked about?  He didn’t give you any trouble, did he?  I know he can be a hard man to bargain with,” Murdoch said with hardly a noticeable pause between each question.

Scott let his lips stretch into a broader smile, but he resisted laughing at the similarity between his father’s and Jelly’s greetings.  Both were dying to hear all about his trip.  Curiosity was written on their faces.

“Good to see you, too, Sir,” Scott replied as he climbed down from the wagon seat.  He shook his father’s offered hand and then retrieved the contract from inside his shirt pocket and handed it to Murdoch.  “Mr. Hardcastle wasn’t any trouble at all.  I think you’ll be quite pleased with the price.”

Another form rushed out of the house and across the porch.  “Scott, I’m glad you’re home.  Did you have a good trip?  Your bath will be ready as soon as the kettle boils.  I’ve been keeping the water in the tub hot so you wouldn’t have to wait.  I knew you’d want to clean up before supper.”

“Thank you, Teresa.  A hot bath will be most appreciated,” Scott said when he could speak without interrupting her.

.  “I offered to dunk him in the horse trough, but he didn’t seem to like that idea much.  Figured if it was good enough for me, it was good enough for him.”  Johnny gave his brother a wicked grin

Scott shot his brother a warning glare.

Jelly “harrumphed” and retorted, “Johnny, just ’cause you don’t care how you take a bath don’t mean Scott don’t.”

Johnny hopped off the seat of the wagon, laid a hand on Zanzabar’s rump, and smirked, “It is beneath his dignity, at that.  Him bein’ a Boston gentleman and all.”

“Keep it up, Brother . . . and I just might forget that I’m a gentleman,” Scott said, putting on a fierce scowl while inwardly chuckling.  In actuality, he enjoyed the teasing.  It meant he was home and all was well.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Jelly would probably like to get Zanzabar put away and get cleaned up before supper.”

“I’ll go see if the water’s boiling while you get your things upstairs,” Teresa said over her shoulder before hurrying back inside the house.   Scott watched her and smiled again.  Even if they had shared the same blood, she couldn’t have been a better sister.  She always seemed to be thinking of his welfare or that of his father and brother.

When Murdoch made a move toward the wagon, Scott halted him with a soft, “I’ll get it, Sir.”  Then he hefted his baggage out of the back of the wagon and followed his father into the foyer.

Stopping inside the doorway for a second, Scott breathed in the familiar scents.  Faint odors of Murdoch’s cigars and pipe tobacco mingled with those of cinnamon and vanilla candles, and the lemon oil used to clean and polish the furniture and other wood surfaces.  Again, he was glad to be home.

Teresa brought the kettle of boiling water shortly after Scott was in his room.  He thanked her and then locked the door once she was gone.  This was one bath that no one, not even his brother, was going to disturb.

Quickly Scott undressed and climbed into the tub that looked like half of a giant whisky barrel.  He gasped when his feet and legs stung, but he wasn’t about to be deterred.  Slowly he lowered himself until he was sitting on the bottom of the tub, feet braced against the side and steaming water lapping at his chin.

“Aaah,” he sighed and closed his eyes as he tipped his head back against the rim of the tub.  This was life.  True, not like he had known in Boston.  There bathing was done in a room designed for that purpose.  The elongated oval, claw-foot tub was made of iron, which had been heated and molded into shape, instead of being made from slats of wood bound together with iron bands.  A man could stretch his legs straight out, if he so desired.

Time slipped silently by except for the sound of his rhythmic breathing and an occasional ripple or slight splashing of the water when he moved.  Scott enjoyed the quiet; although, the absence of noise coming from outside his bedroom seemed strange considering a ten-year child had joined his family.  Alice certainly had made herself heard during those few days between her arrival and his departure to San Francisco.

Scott hoped Alice wasn’t sick.  Yet, this didn’t seem likely.  If she was, surely, Johnny would have said something.   A more reasonable explanation would be that Murdoch had had a talk with the girl, and she had settled down in the past week.  She was probably in the kitchen helping Teresa.  In that case, he wouldn’t be able to hear her.

Scott pushed Alice from his mind only to have his thoughts invaded by the owner of another face framed by long tresses of pale gold.  For a while he indulged himself with visions of meeting Audra Barkley again, taking her riding, talking to her about books he had read and places he had been, showing her the Lancer ranch, escorting her to the dining table, and sitting beside her.  His daydreaming could easily have gone on for hours had his internal clock not reminded him that his family would be waiting dinner on him.

“Supper,” he corrected himself.  Here in California, one had supper not dinner.  Still, old habits were hard to break.  The evening meal had been dinner for nearly twenty-four years of his life.  In his mind, it would always be so even though he forced himself to speak another name.

Somewhere a door closed–the first sound to penetrate the thick adobe walls.  Scott let out a long breath.  He supposed he should be getting dressed before someone banged on his door and inquired as to whether or not he had drowned.  It wouldn’t be the first time, and probably not the last, either.

After enjoying the relaxing warmth of the water for another minute or so, Scott scrubbed himself clean using the bar of soap and wash cloth that lay within easy reach on the corner of his nightstand.  He then dried, put on his underclothing, and shaved before donning a pair of brown trousers, plain white shirt, and a black string tie.  The attire was a little on the formal side, and Johnny was sure to ask about the tie, but Scott didn’t care.  Dressing up for dinner was normal and expected in Boston.  It wouldn’t hurt his family to indulge his whims once in a while.  Besides that, tonight seemed special.

Scott crossed the foyer and stopped beneath the arch of the doorway into the main living room.  Flames flickered atop the tall, tapered candles of the silver candelabras at each end of the long dining table to his left–the light casting a warm glow on the row of bookcases that lined the wall behind the table.  A bouquet of yellow daffodils served as a centerpiece to hand-painted china.  Something, however, didn’t seem right about the number of plates.  There was one for Murdoch at the far end, Teresa’s would be first and then Johnny’s.  That left two.

One for me and one for–.  Scott’s thought was abruptly interrupted by a low whistle and the grip of a hand on his shoulder.

Whatcha all gussied up for, Boston?” said a soft, drawling voice from behind him.

Scott looked over his shoulder.  Johnny had changed into a white shirt with embroidery lining the front of the neck opening, and the shirttails were neatly tucked into the waist band of a pair of black pants with concha buttons down the outside of each leg.  “You’re a little overdressed yourself, aren’t you, Brother?” Scott swept a hand upward in front of Johnny.

“What?  This?” Johnny tugged at the front of his shirt.  “It’s nothin’ special.”  Any argument Scott might have voiced never had an opportunity to be formed let alone spoken, for their father called to them from across the room.


“Please,” Scott said, one brow lifting.  His father also wore dress pants, a white shirt, and black string tie.

Murdoch Lancer filled three glasses and handed the drinks to his sons.  Scott felt a surge of pleasure.  Even though his family would deny that they were doing anything special because of his having been gone, he was sure he was the reason for their more formal attire.  Normally Murdoch and Johnny only dressed up when entertaining company.

By the time the Lancer men had emptied their glasses, supper was ready to be served.  Scott took his usual seat to the left of the head of the table and across from Teresa.  On his right Jelly Hoskins sat facing Johnny.

The chair to Johnny’s right was conspicuously vacant.  Again, Scott wondered where Alice might be and why his family had not offered any explanation concerning her absence.  She certainly was not expected to be eating with them, since no dishes had been set for her.

Scott considered asking about the child but hesitated.  Surely if something had happened to her, he would have been told.  Most likely she was visiting one of the Mexican families, who lived on the ranch.  Cipriano’s nephew, Jose, had a daughter her age.  With five brothers and no sisters, Lucia would be glad to have the company of another girl.

Conversation bustled as plates were filled with food and scraped clean again, and Scott forgot about Alice for the time being.  His father wanted to know all about how he had managed to procure such a favorable contract from Hardcastle.  This in turn brought on a lengthy discussion of plans for the selecting and delivery of two hundred head of prime steers to San Francisco in three weeks.

“Generally, I don’t start spring roundup this early, but I don’t see how we can wait,” Murdoch said.

“Want me to take some men and head out tomorrow?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch shook his head.  “No.  We need to stock up on some supplies first.  Besides we have a dinner engagement tomorrow night.”

Scott perked up.  “Dinner engagement?  Where?”

“At Aggie’s,” Murdoch replied.  “If we leave here after lunch, we’ll have time to go into Green River first.”

“All of us are going?”  The words tumbled out of Scott’s mouth before he could stop them.  He couldn’t believe his luck.  Hadn’t Johnny said that the Barkley women were visiting Aggie?  Was that the reason for the invitation to dinner?

Murdoch affirmed that, yes, they all were going.  Aggie wanted the whole family to meet her friend, Victoria Barkley, from Stockton.

Johnny grinned over at Scott before addressing their father.  “This . . . Victoria Barkley.  She Aggie’s age?” he asked.

“I suppose,” Murdoch replied.

Mischief filled Johnny’s eyes.  Scott gave him a scowl that said retribution would be high if he dared say one word about the younger Barkley woman.

The warning apparently went unheeded. “Didn’t you say she had a daughter?” Johnny asked.

Murdoch smiled.  “As a matter of fact, she does.  Why?”

Scott’s scowl turned into a glare.

This time Johnny seemed to take the hint that if he wanted to live he had better let the matter drop.  “Oh.  No reason,” he said.  “Just thinkin’ it might be nice for Teresa, is all.”

“How old is she?” Teresa asked.

“I haven’t any idea,” Murdoch answered.  “I didn’t even think to ask.”

Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, Scott looked over at Teresa and promptly changed the subject.  “Is that a pie I see for dessert?”

“Yes,” she said.  “If you’re ready, I’ll cut it.”

Scott, thankful for any diversion away from talk of the Barkley women, turned to ask Jelly to pass the pie.

Jelly took a sniff of the pie before handing it on to Teresa.  “Hmm.  Rhubarb?” he asked.

“It’s Scott’s favorite,” she replied.  “I promised I’d make him one as soon as the rhubarb was big enough to cut.”

Scott pressed his lips together in anticipation.  There was nothing like a rhubarb pie if it was made right.  He hoped Teresa used eggs.  The tart fruit and custard texture made for a pleasing combination.  

Teresa cut the pie into large pieces, which she placed on dessert plates.  “Thank you,” Scott said when she handed him the first dish.

“I hope you like it,” she said.  “I tried a new recipe that calls for eggs.  Mrs. Jenkins in Green River said it makes a smoother, moister pie.”

The first bite was not a disappointment, and Scott was quick with his praise.  “Absolutely delicious.”

Johnny looked skeptical and took a small bite.  His expression quickly changed.  “Hey, this is good,” he said, cutting off a bigger chunk.

Murdoch and Jelly added their praise.  Teresa beamed with pleasure and offered to bring in another pie if anyone wanted seconds.

Scott patted his stomach and drew in a long breath.  “That’s very tempting . . . but I don’t think I could eat another bite.”

“Me either,” Johnny said as he scraped together the crumbs on his plate.

Teresa turned to the other two men.  “Murdoch?  Jelly?”

“I’m fine,” Murdoch replied.

“I’m with Scott,” chimed in Jelly.  “I’m plumb stuffed.”

A small face again popped into Scott’s thoughts.  “Perhaps Alice would like a piece,” he said before anyone had a chance to deter him.

Johnny’s fork landed with a clatter on the table.  Then all was silent except for the ticking of the grandfather clock.

Scott looked from one person to the other.  When no one would meet his eyes, he cringed.  “Is Alice all right?” he asked, at the same time dreading the answer.

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “Alice is fine,” he said.

“Then where is she?” Scott asked.  His father hadn’t sounded too convincing.

“With her uncle,” Murdoch replied.

“Her uncle!  Why?”

“It’s better that way.”

“Better!  How can it possibly be better?  The crook doesn’t even want her.”  Scott was shouting, but he didn’t care.  He was furious that Alice had been returned to the man who had put her up for sale.

“Calm down, Son.  It’s not what you think,” Murdoch said, placing a hand on Scott’s arm.

“Then explain it to me,” Scott tersely replied.  He wasn’t about to be soothed by his father’s words or touch.

Johnny sighed heavily.  “He’s dying.”

Scott turned toward his brother.  “Who’s dying?” he asked in bewilderment.

“Wilf.  He’s got two months at the most.”  Johnny paused to take a breath.  “That’s why he had to find a good home for Alice.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want her . . . he–“

“Just needed some rich family to palm her off on, is that it?” Scott scoffed.

“What should I have done, Scott?” Johnny retorted.  “Dragged Pony back here . . . robbed her of the little time they had left?  Is that what you’d have wanted?  Wilf is all the family she has left.”

Scott shook his head, his anger slowly subsiding.  He knew full well what it was like to be deprived of one’s family.  Besides, reason told him that Johnny wouldn’t have left Alice if there was any danger of her being hurt physically or emotionally.

“What happens afterwards?” Scott asked.

“She’ll have a home with us, or . . .”

“Or what?”

“Wilf has a friend in Witness Tree,” Murdoch replied.  “She owns the boarding house and cafe.  She told Johnny she would love to have Alice if Alice would agree to it.”

“You’d agree to that?” Scott asked, looking at Johnny.  “You know you do have those indenture papers.”

“If that’s what Pony wants . . . yeah, I’d consider it.  She’d have a good home.  Florida’s a nice lady.”

Scott studied his brother a moment.  Johnny was putting on a good front, but his eyes held the truth.  Alice had stolen his heart.  Losing her would leave an empty space that would be hard to fill.

“I’m sure you’ll do the right thing . . . when the time comes.  You always do,” Scott said.

Johnny let out a long breath.  “Thanks.  I hope I don’t make you out a liar.”

“You won’t,” Scott assured him.

Scott’s declaration was followed by a moment of awkward silence that was finally broken when Jelly reminded Johnny of a promised duel over the checker board.  Murdoch then claimed to have some papers to go over, and Teresa began gathering up the dishes.

Not wanting to be left sitting alone at the table, Scott moved to the sofa in front of the fireplace to watch the checker game for a while.  Soon his eyelids drooped and his head nodded.

“Hey, Scott.  You keep that up an’ you’re gonna end up on the floor.”

At the sound of his brother’s voice, Scott jerked and opened his eyes.  He stretched and yawned.  “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll turn in.  It’s been a long day.”

“Sweet dreams,” Johnny said as Scott rose to leave.

Scott ignored the obvious meaning behind his brother’s words and simply smiled and said, “I always have sweet dreams.”

Johnny let out a soft snort.  “I’ll bet you do.  They about anyone in particular?”

“That, Little Brother . . . is none of your business,” Scott replied.  Then he stood, wished everyone a good night, and went to his room.  He had no doubts about having pleasant dreams.  They were sure to be filled with a certain young lady from Stockton.

Chapter 22

The Lancer surrey came to a halt.  Johnny, sitting in the back seat, glanced at his brother whose face was etched with anticipation.  There was no need to guess where Scott’s thoughts were.  Visions of a certain honey-haired beauty had to be floating through his mind.

Johnny jumped to the ground and helped Teresa down from the front seat of the wagon.  While his father, Murdoch, climbed out, Aggie Conway came down the walk.  “Murdoch,” she said, her hands reaching forward. 

Murdoch covered the distance to Aggie in two long strides and clasped the woman’s hands in his.  Their affection for each other was obvious.  Why Murdoch hadn’t married her long ago was a mystery to Johnny.  With her experience as a rancher, she seemed a perfect match, and she was pretty, too.  Apparently, the people of Green River had the same thoughts, for Johnny had overheard more than one person voice their speculations as to what was keeping the couple apart.

“I can’t wait for you to meet the Barkleys.  Victoria’s inside.  Her daughter went riding and should be back any minute,” Aggie said, pulling away and linking her arm with Murdoch’s.  Once he had offered his other arm to Teresa, Aggie led him toward the house.

Johnny started to follow, but halted after one step to look back at his brother who was poised half in and half out of the wagon.  “You coming?” he asked.

Scott didn’t reply.  Something moving down the hillside behind them seemed to have captured his attention.

The form rapidly took shape, changing from a blur to a girl on a bay horse.   Johnny forgot his brother and looked on in awe.  Even the rail fence at the bottom of the slope failed to slow her pace.        

As the girl drew nearer, there was no mistaking the slender shape and silken hair of Audra Barkley.  “She sure can ride,” Johnny said.

“Yes.  She can,” Scott replied, admiration evident in his voice.

Audra’s horse skidded to a stop beside the wagon–dust swirling as shod hooves slid through loose dirt.

Johnny reached for the bridle.  “Nice horse.”

She leaned forward and patted the animal’s sweating neck.  “He is that.  Did you see him take that fence?  Not a hint of hesitation.  Took it like he’d been doing it all his life.”  She paused to take a deeper breath.  “I can’t wait to tell Mother.  Maybe she’ll buy him for me.”

Scott crowded up next to Johnny and held out a hand to the girl.  “He certainly is a fine animal.  If you weren’t set on owning him, I’d be tempted to purchase him for myself,” he said while helping her dismount.

“Then you’ll help me convince Mother,” she said, her eyes still wide with excitement.

“Anything for a lady,” Scott replied with a slight bow.

Johnny covered his mouth to hide the smile he felt tugging at his lips.  Still, a light chuckle escaped.  Scott had it bad for this girl.  Dinner at Aggie’s might prove to be a very interesting affair.

Audra and Scott, apparently forgetting about Johnny’s presence, started toward the house.  Her arm was hooked over Scott’s and her hand rested on his wrist.

A Mexican boy, who looked to be in his late teens, hurried to Johnny’s side.  “I’ll take him,” he said.

“Thanks, Amigo,” Johnny said.  He handed over the reins, dug a coin out of his boot, and handed it to the boy.  “He’s pretty hot.  Cool him out and give him a good rub down.  Okay?”

“Sί, Señor.”  The Mexican nodded and grinned broadly before hurrying away with the horse in tow.

Johnny took a moment to admire the horse.  He shook his head and chuckled.  The Barkley girl sure could handle a horse.

By the time Johnny reached the house and caught up to Scott and Audra, they were inside the entry hall.  Murdoch and Teresa were across the room beside an open doorway where Aggie stood making introductions to the white-haired Barkley woman.

Scott’s arm had remained linked with Audra’s even when he bowed to her mother.  Johnny stifled a laugh and made a show of bowing deeper with a grand sweep of one hand.  Victoria was a big name for such a small package.  However, he suspected looks were deceiving.  The upward tilt of her chin revealed a strong jaw and a steady eye.  She was probably used to people jumping when she barked.

Another chuckle threatened to escape his throat, and Johnny quickly muffled it with the back of his hand against his mouth.  Aggie chose that moment, fortunately for him, to lead the way into the dining room.  Otherwise, he might have received a stern glance from his father.   

Super proved to be both a delicious meal and a pleasant affair, at least in Johnny’s opinion.  The pot roast was cooked to perfection with potatoes, onions, and carrots.  Conversation was lively, and the company couldn’t have been more enjoyable.  He did, however, wonder if his brother noticed anything other than Audra.  Scott seemed never to take his eyes off the young woman.

About halfway through the meal, Murdoch and Aggie got into a lively discussion about a horse sale scheduled to take place the middle of May in Stockton.  “Nick’s taking some horses.  He’s betting they’ll bring the top prices,” Audra said, her eyes filled with pride.

“Nick?” Johnny replied.

“My brother.”

“Oh.  He do the trainin’?

“Of course.”

Scott looked across the table at Johnny for the first time since they had been seated.  “If he rides anything like his sister, they should be top mounts,” he said, sounding defensive.

Johnny agreed and turned to their father.  “Maybe you oughta check ’em out,” he said.  “We can always use a few more good horses.  Of course, you’ll probably have to pay twice what they’re worth.”  He grinned knowingly at Aggie.

Murdoch ran a thumb down one side of his nose.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I might let Aggie have the Barkley horses.  I heard the Hash Eight spread from up by Sacramento was taking a string of horses sired by a Texas bred stallion that is supposed to be one of the finest cow horses in the state.”

Audra jumped to the defense of her brother’s horses and adamantly claimed they were the best.  Johnny couldn’t help thinking she sounded like Pony Alice.

Victoria Barkley deftly changed the subject to other things and soon the conversation turned to another of her sons.  “Aggie tells me you attended Harvard,” she said to Scott.

“Yes, I did,” he replied.

“Jared, my oldest son, studied law school there.  Perhaps you met him.”

“When was he there?”

“He graduated in sixty-eight.”

Scott slowly shook his head.  “I can’t recall ever meeting a Jared Barkley . . . however . . . there was a young man from California at a Christmas party given by the Dewberrys.  We were never formally introduced so I never learned his name; but, I did hear him referred to as Jerry a couple of times.”

“Jared gets letters once in a while from Andrew Dewberry.  They always come addressed to Jerry Barkley,” Audra said.

For a while, talk centered around Scott’s life in Boston.  Johnny put in a teasing remark now and then, but otherwise concentrated on eating his supper.  A discussion on horses or guns would have been much more to his liking.

The meal ended, and Aggie suggested they all join her in the parlor.  Once everyone was comfortably settled, she turned to Audra and asked how her ride had gone.

“Marvelous!” Audra replied.  “He’s a wonderful horse.”

“Yes, he is.  A handful, but a good mount never-the-less.”

Audra glanced at her mother and back at Aggie.  “You . . . wouldn’t consider selling him, would you?”

“Audra!”  Victoria’s voice cracked like a whip.  “My daughter seems to have lost her manners,” she said, frowning at Audra.

“It’s all right.  I’m not offended,” Aggie quickly replied.  “Actually, I have considered putting Brandy up for sale.  He’s too good of a horse to put in the work string, and he’s more energetic than I need for myself.”

Victoria shook her head.  “Audra has a perfectly good horse at home.”

“Roanie’s getting old, and you know it, Mother.  Just before we left home, you and Nick both told me I ride him too hard,” said Audra, her pretty pout reminding Johnny again of Alice.

“He’ll do fine for another year.  Besides, it wouldn’t hurt you to slow down a little.”

“Awe, Mother.”

Victoria looked over at Murdoch and leaned closer.  “I should never have had a daughter last.”

Murdoch nodded, his eyes shifting briefly to Teresa.  “Yes, I know what you mean.”

Teresa’s chin lifted and her eyes narrowed.  “I can ride as well as any man on the ranch,” she said.

Johnny laughed under his breath and then spoke in unison with his brother.  “That you can.”

Audra pointed out that she too could ride as well as anyone on the Barkley spread, but Victoria refused to be swayed.  This led to a heated exchange between mother and daughter.

Johnny, Teresa, and Scott each attempted to side with Audra.  Murdoch didn’t need words to convince them to stay out it.  A stern scowl and decisive shake of his head was enough to convey the message.

Aggie’s expression was unreadable.  She started to speak a couple of times, but her words were lost in the fray between her guests.

“I’m not a child,” Audra sharply said in answer to her mother’s latest argument.

“That is debatable,” Victoria replied.

“I’m nearly thirteen!”

“Yes, and you might not live to your birthday if you don’t drop this subject right now, apologize for your behavior, and retire to your room.”

Scott’s gasp was barely audible over Victoria’s threat.  In fact, Johnny wasn’t sure anyone else heard it or noticed the look of dismay that flitted across his face.  Twelve.  Audra was only twelve–a couple of years older than Alice.  That made her less than half Scott’s age.  The news had to be devastating.

Audra muttered an apology of sorts, which Aggie accepted on the behalf of all present before turning to Murdoch and asking if he had ever thought about raising grapes.

As Audra left the room, Murdoch responded to Aggie’s question with the eagerness of a horse being offered a pan of grain.  Johnny couldn’t blame him.  Talking about anything was better than listening in on what should have been a private argument between Victoria and her daughter.

Victoria proved quite knowledgeable about the various varieties of grapes available and the benefits as well as draw backs of each.  She clearly had Aggie convinced to start a small vineyard.  Murdoch, on the other hand, was not about to be easily swayed in his thinking.  More than once, he declared that Lancer was a cattle ranch.

“What do you think?” Johnny asked, elbowing his much too quiet brother in the ribs.

Scott startled as though being prodded in the middle of nodding off to sleep.  “About what?” 

“About plantin’ grapes?”


“Anywhere.  Maybe in that field across from the house.”

Murdoch half rose from his seat.  “We’re not ripping up a perfectly good stand of grass to plant grapes!”

Aggie reached out and patted Murdoch’s arm.  “There’s no need to make a hasty decision,” she said.  “Why don’t you and your sons take some time and talk it over.  I won’t be ordering my rootstock before the end of next week.  That gives you plenty of time to come to an agreement.” 

“I’m sure we can come to some sort of compromise.”  Johnny grinned more to goad his father than to make a show of confidence.  He knew there was no way in hell Murdoch would give up good pasture land to grow grapes.  Still it was fun to get his old man’s goat once in a while.  The trick was to quit before going too far.

Murdoch refused to be baited.  Instead he assured Aggie that his answer would be the same whether a week or a year from now.  This said, he gave Johnny a “this is not up for further discussion” look and started talking about the price of cattle.

An hour later the Lancer family was on their way home.  Teresa soon leaned against Murdoch’s shoulder and appeared to be lost in sleep.  Scott sat slumped with his head down.  He too seemed to be sleeping.

Johnny suspected his brother was playing possum.  Scott should be more relaxed, his head rocking gently to one side or the other as the surrey rounded a corner.  No, more than likely he was thinking of Audra and the fact that she was not the young woman he had supposed her to be.

Two years older than Pony Alice.  Johnny shook his head at the thought.  Audra certainly didn’t look that young.  He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t witnessed the confrontation between her and her mother.  Then she had acted like a child, a very determined child who could have rivaled Alice when it came to showing a fit of temper.

With a sigh, Johnny slid forward and leaned his head against the back of the seat.  He covered his face with his hat.  Scott had the right idea.  Sleep.  Forget about an angelic face with its golden halo.  Some things just weren’t meant to be.  Better to let it go.  Better they both let it go.

“Looks like we’ve both lost our girls, Brother,” Johnny whispered into the darkness.

Chapter 23

Roundup, as Johnny had learned the previous fall, meant long hours in the saddle, short nights rolled up in a blanket on the ground, cold meals, and hot tempers.  The cooler weather of April made little difference in any of these conditions.  In fact, it added more drawbacks.  The cattle were wilder and the horses spookier.  Even his favorite horse Barranca bucked when first mounted and, for the first hour or so, bolted at the least little noise and danced sideways at every rock and bush.

Johnny tugged at the reins.  “Easy,” he said to the skittish, flea-bitten gray he’d chosen to ride that morning.

“Why don’t you check out the bottom of that draw?” his brother asked in an irritable tone.

“Cause I’m going up there to have a look in that saddle.”  Johnny raised his free hand and motioned toward a dip in the ridgeline.

“And you don’t think I’m capable of doing that.”

“Scott, I’m not gunna sit here arguin’ with yuh.  Now will yuh just do as I asked?”

“Asked?  Is that what you call asking?”

“Do what yuh want.  I’m goin’ up there.”  Johnny lightened his grip on the reins and nudged his heels into his mount’s sides.  “Just remember, Murdoch’s gunna have our hides if we aren’t at the rendezvous by noon,” he called with a quick backward glance.  If Scott replied, it went unheard–covered by the sound of the gray’s shod hooves clattering against the rocks on the steep incline.

At the crown of the hillside, the ground dipped to form a shallow, brush-dotted bowl.  Johnny guided his horse toward the far side, where several cows could easily be hidden. 

Nothing moved and Johnny was sure he had wasted his time riding up to check out the saddle.  He continued on anyway, just in case.

Peaceful.  That was Johnny’s thought as he neared the far side of the swale.  He was tempted to dismount and give his heavily-breathing horse a rest.

A loud bawl, accompanied by the sudden appearance of a long-horned cow and calf, shattered the peace. Johnny’s horse spun to the right, bobbed its head, and bucked.

Nearly unseated on the first jump, Johnny grabbed for leather in a desperate attempt to stay aboard.  He almost made it–would have if another cow hadn’t charged out of the brush and slammed into the pitching horse.

The gray lurched sideways and went down.  Johnny jumped clear, rolling as he landed, and came up cursing dumb cattle and stupid horses.

He shook his fist at his horse and groaned.  His shoulder felt like it was on fire.  “You knot-head!” he yelled.  This too proved to be a mistake.  The gray, having clambered to his feet, snorted and ran.  Soon he disappeared from sight over the edge of the ridge.

Johnny kicked a clump of grass and swore again.  A mile-long canyon lay between him and the rendezvous.  That meant at least a three-mile hike.  Even if he managed to get there by noon, his feet would be covered with blisters.  His boots were great for riding, but they were a torture to walk in for any distance and especially over rough ground.

Crying over spilt milk, as Jelly would say, would get him nowhere.  Johnny blew out his breath and resigned himself to following the course of his horse and the cattle.  Maybe, if he was lucky, both would be waiting for him at the bottom of the slope.

He wasn’t so lucky.  Neither horse nor cattle were in sight when he reached the creek bed.  Scott wasn’t back either.

Another curse erupted through Johnny’s clenched teeth.  More walking.

The shortest route to his destination was to follow Dry Creek to the mouth of Wild Horse Canyon.  From there he could climb to the top of Oak Ridge, cross a couple of shallow draws, and come out at one end of Clear Creek Meadow.  Scott might even catch up to him somewhere along the way.

Johnny’s hopes of hitching a ride with his brother faded when he rounded a bend and saw the sheer walls marking the mouth of the canyon.  “What’s takin’ yuh so long?  I could’ve ridin’ that draw two or three times by now,” he muttered.

A cow bawled.

Johnny turned to look back the way he had come and saw Scott riding behind a small bunch of cattle.  “About time,” he said with a sigh of relief.

As the cattle ambled by him, Johnny noticed the wild cows that had spooked his horse.  Could Scott have found the horse, too?  Could the Saints be smiling on him?

A gray form took shape behind Scott’s horse.  Yes!  Now to come up with a good excuse as to why they had parted company.

Scott stopped beside Johnny.  “Lose something,” he asked.

“Nope.  He lost me,” Johnny replied.

“Oh.  And just how did that come about?”

“I got off to . . . you know . . .”

“And he just wondered off.”

Johnny ducked his head.  “No.  A cow spooked him.”  Even though it wasn’t exactly a lie, it still felt like one.

“Sure it wasn’t an angry cowboy yelling curses at him?” Scott smugly replied, holding out the reins.

“You heard?”

Scott nodded.

Johnny swung into the saddle.  “Well, like I said, a cow spooked him.  What’d yuh expect me to do?  Praise him for high-tailin’ it out of the country?”

“No . . . but–.”

“We gunna jaw all day or get these critters to the herd?”

“Go ahead.  I got them this far.”  Scott motioned with his left hand as he spoke.

“What are you gunna do?”

“Relax and follow along behind.”

“What if they make a break for it?”

Scott laughed and pointed up ahead.  “Where to?  A goat couldn’t scale those walls.”

His brother was right, but Johnny wasn’t about to say so.  He was tired.  His feet hurt, and he was still mad at his horse.

Johnny slapped the ends of the reins against his horse’s rump.  The gray surged ahead and had to be slowed to keep him from running into a small calf that was lagging behind the rest of the cattle.

Once Johnny had his horse settled into a steady pace, all went well for a while.  Scott had been right.  The cattle were content to follow the narrow valley into the canyon.  Once between the high rock walls, they had no choice but to go up stream.

Half a mile or so into the canyon, Johnny called back to his brother.  “You wanna ride on ahead and make sure they don’t cut up that draw on us?”

“Why should I?”

Irritation crept into Johnny’s voice.  “Don’t start that again.”

“I don’t recall Murdoch putting you in charge.”

“I never said he did.”

“Then stop telling me what to do!”

“Okay!”  Johnny booted his horse into a trot and yelled.  “You tail ’em and I’ll do it.”

Scott hollered something, but Johnny couldn’t make out what, nor did he care.  He was tired of arguing over every little thing.

As he rode, Johnny muttered to himself.  “He’s crankier than a bear with cubs.  It ain’t my fault Audra’s just a kid.  Ain’t no reason for him to take it out on me.”

The draw that needed to be blocked rose out of the bottom on the outside of a sharp bend in the canyon.  Johnny wouldn’t have been concerned about the cattle trying to go up it if the cut had been narrow.   There was no way for them to escape out the upper end, which was too steep to climb.  He just didn’t want to have to try to get around them should they decide the wide opening looked inviting.

Getting ahead of the cattle proved harder than expected.  One of the calves bolted.  Before Johnny could urge his horse into a lope to get around it, the whole herd was on a dead run.

“Get up, you lop-eared mule,” Johnny yelled with a dig of his spurs into his mount’s ribs.

In one swift spin to the right, followed by an equally sudden shift to the left, the horse parted company with its rider.

Johnny landed hard on his back and gasped for air.  The canyon walls on either side seemed to turn slowly one way and then the other.

“You plan on lying there the rest of the day?”  Scott’s voice broke through the haze of Johnny’s mind.

“You gunna get those critters stopped before they reach Mexico?” Johnny replied, still feeling breathless.

Scott shrugged.  “I wasn’t the one who spooked them.”

“Then would you mind gettin’ my horse?”

“You asking or ordering?”

Johnny rose stiffly to his feet and glared at his brother.  “Scott, we ain’t got time for this.  Now would you get my horse before he high-tails it back to the ranch?”

“And what do you plan to do while I’m chasing after your horse?”

“If you weren’t so all fired grumpy, I’d suggest we both go after my horse . . . but–“

“Grumpy.  Me grumpy?  For the last two days, you’ve treated me like I haven’t a clue how to round up cattle.”  Scott glared down at Johnny.  “In case you’ve forgotten, this is my third roundup.  Just because you’re upset that Alice went back to her uncle, there’s no reason to take it out on me.”

“Me upset about Alice!  What about you and Audra?  You’ve been moonin’ around like the world had come to an end.”

“One more remark like that and you will be walking.”

“Boys!”  Murdoch’s booming voice echoed off the canyon walls.

Johnny spun around to face his father.

“This your horse?” Murdoch asked.

For the second time that day, Johnny had to admit that the horse in tow was his.  He did his best to put the blame on the animal while, with his eyes, daring his brother to contradict his story.

Scott said nothing.  He didn’t have to.  The roll of his eyes and set of his mouth said it for him.  Fortunately, Murdoch wasn’t looking in his direction and seemingly accepted Johnny’s explanation.

“I don’t know what your disagreement is about, but I assume those cattle I met were in your charge.”  Murdoch looked from one son to the other as he spoke.  He then focused on Scott.  “You better get after them.  Frank may need some help.”

Johnny started to mount his horse in order to follow his brother.  His father’s curt, “Wait.  I want to talk to you,” put an end to that idea.

“What?” Johnny dropped his foot back to the ground and leaned against his horse’s shoulder.

“I want to talk to you.”

“About what?” Johnny asked, feeling his stomach knot in anticipation.

“I think you need to take a couple days off.”

“Why?  Scott started all that.  He’s crankier ‘n a sow with new babies.”

“That may be so, but your mood hasn’t been the best either the last few days.  Maybe if you put some time and . . . miles between you and your brother, you’ll both survive.”

“What do you mean . . . miles?”  Johnny studied his father’s stern face.  Feeling like a wayward child, he found it impossible to meet the man’s gaze and looked at the ground instead.

“I thought a visit with Alice might do you good.  I know how it is.”  Murdoch drew in a breath.  “You worry about what you don’t know.  It affects your whole outlook.  You react to every little thing.”

“What about Scott?”

“I don’t know what’s bothering Scott . . . but I do know what’s bothering you.  Go see Alice.  Set your mind at ease.  It’ll be a couple days before we start branding and sorting.  We can get by without you until then.”

The sincerity in his father’s voice made Johnny look up.  A tall man when standing on the ground, sitting astride the big bay, Murdoch appeared to be a giant.  Somehow the thought brought comfort rather than fear.  In the past year, Johnny had learned that, despite his father’s gruffness, the man cared for and even loved him.

Johnny was tempted to accept the offer of a visit to Alice.  He supposed her uncle could die at any time.  There was no telegraph line into the town of Witness Tree.  That meant Miss Florida would have to get the news to him some other way, which could take time.  Wilf could be gone several days before anyone at Lancer knew about it.


Along with Murdoch’s question came the voice of reason.  It wouldn’t be fair to Scott.  Rounding up the cattle was no easy chore.  As an equal partner, Johnny felt equally responsible for doing the work.  A visit to Alice would have to wait.

“Look, Murdoch.”  Johnny drew in a deep breath to bolster his courage.  “I appreciate what you’re tryin’ to do, but I can’t.  You understand, don’t you?  Besides, I have to be there next Friday to see the judge.  It’s not right I be gone twice in such a short time.”

Murdoch sighed, his shoulders visibly slumping.  “I understand.  I just thought . . ..”  His voice faded to a whisper.

“I know . . . and I’m grateful.”  Johnny vaulted into the saddle.  “Come on old man.  We better catch up to Scott.  We don’t need him any grumpier than he already is.”

With a nod, Murdoch turned his horse around and headed up the canyon at a trot.

Johnny gave his own horse a prod of the spurs and urged him to keep pace with Murdoch’s bay.  One more week.  Somehow, he would get by, bite his tongue around Scott, and keep peace in the family.  Seven more days.  Then he could see Alice and put his mind to rest.   A week.  That was all.  Hopefully by then his brother would have come to terms with the news about Audra, and life could return to normal.

Chapter 24

With the fall roundup having come to an end, Johnny left for Witness Tree mid-day on Thursday.  He wanted some time with Alice before the judge arrived on Friday morning.  Anything could happen in a court of law. 

Johnny glanced back at the hacienda as he rode past the block house by the corral.  His father, Teresa, and Jelly still stood on the porch of the house.  Scott apparently had gone back inside.  At least, they had all been there to see him off and wish him well.  A few more days and all would be back to normal, if the judge was reasonable.

Barranca quickly settled into an easy trot.  The warmer weather of the last couple of days had gone a long way toward calming his high spirits.  Johnny was thankful.  Alice’s puppy would have been in for a tummy-jiggling ride otherwise, and that would not have set well with its breakfast.

After a few whimpers, the puppy went to sleep.  How was a mystery to Johnny.  He had expected to spend most of the ride trying to keep it in the canvas bag Jelly had made.  Alice had chosen the most rambunctious pup in the litter.

All went well and, by the time the sun was sinking behind the western horizon, Johnny could see the buildings of Witness Tree growing in the distance.  He smiled in anticipation.  Alice would be glad to see him, if for no other reason than that he had brought her puppy.

Witness Tree was a sleepy-looking town, sort of sprawled out on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley.  As Johnny approached, all that greeted him was silence and the lone bark of a dog.

At the edge of town, Johnny took a deep breath and savored the various odors.  Suppertime.  Somewhere there was fresh-baked bread.  He hoped that smell was coming from Florida’s.  That with steak and potatoes would fill the emptiness gnawing at his gut, and the puppy would probably appreciate the leftovers.

Johnny dismounted in front of Florida’s cafe and boarding house.  After loosening Barranca’s cinch and wrapping the bridle reins around the hitching rail, he pulled the now squirming puppy from the pouch that was hung over the saddle horn and stepped up on the porch.

“You behave yourself,” he admonished the puppy while opening the door.

No one looked up or even seemed to notice as Johnny entered, hung his hat on a peg by the door, and took a seat at the closest empty table.  The sheriff–wasn’t his name Jasper–sat across the room.  His left side was toward Johnny.  A thin-faced lady, probably his wife, was opposite him.  Seated around the table in the corner were three men dressed in bibbed overalls.  They would be farmers; and the only other customer, a man wearing an ill-fitting, checkered suit with sleeves that were several inches too short, was most likely a drummer or salesman of some sort.    

Florida, carrying a coffee pot, came through the door of the kitchen.  She stopped at each table and offered a refill before she spotted Johnny.  “Well, look what the cat drug in, or should I say judge?” she said, a teasing glint in her eyes.

“Yeah . . . well, gotta keep the law happy,” Johnny replied.

The puppy in Johnny’s lap whimpered.

“And what do we have here?”

Johnny grinned and cocked his head to one side.  “It’s for Alice.  She around?”

“In the kitchen . . . helping out with the dishes.  Want me to get her?”

“It can wait.  Got a steak, baked potato . . . maybe, some fresh bread?  I sure am hungry.”

“Oh.”  Florida rolled her eyes upward.  “I suppose I could scrape up something . . . if you’re not too particular, that is.”

“I learned a long time ago, a starving man shouldn’t be too choosy.  Whatever yuh come up with is fine with me,” Johnny replied and flashed Florida a smile.  Even though she hadn’t been the friendliest of people on his last visit to Witness Tree, he had still taken a liking to her.  She was a nice lady.

Florida smiled before hurrying away to get his meal.  She liked him too.  Johnny could see it in her eyes.

Soon she returned with a plate filled with a fat steak, steaming mashed potatoes smothered in brown gravy, a pile of cooked carrots, and two slices of bread, each generously topped with butter and honey.  “Hmm.  Looks good,” Johnny said as she set the plate in front of him.

“Better eat up.  Alice has about reached the end of her patience with scrubbing dirty dishes.  She’ll be in here anytime now, and you won’t get a moment’s peace once she sees what you brought her.”

Florida was right, and Johnny quickly dove into his meal.  Although he was hungry, he didn’t neglect to give an occasional bite to the puppy.  Once Alice saw it, the poor thing wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until the girl was tucked in bed.  Even then, she probably wouldn’t allow it to be far from her.

“Got a box?” Johnny asked when Florida came by a few minutes later to refill his milk glass.

“What for?” she replied.  The set of her mouth, however, said she had a sneaking suspicion of the intended use.

Johnny hefted the puppy up so its head was above the table and started to speak when a shrill squeal cut off his answer to Florida’s question.  “My puppy.  You brought my puppy!”

Alice raced across the room to Johnny’s table and stood gasping for breath, her hands reaching for the bundle of fur Johnny held.  Fortunately, for the sake of their ears, the other customers had finished eating and had left.

“Hi Pony,” Johnny said as he shifted the puppy away from the girl’s hands.  “Aren’t you going to say hello?”

“Hi Johnny.  Now can I have my puppy?  Please!”  Alice jigged up and down, her arms outstretched.

“You been a good girl?”  Johnny couldn’t resist teasing her a little before giving in.

“Yes.  Haven’t I?” Alice replied, turning her head and fixing entreating eyes on Florida.

“Well . . ..”  Florida made a show of thinking on her answer.

“I washed all the dishes.”

“All of them?” Johnny asked.

“All but that big ol’ pot.  Florida said I didn’t have to do it.  Didn’t you?”  Again, Alice looked to the owner of the boarding house to agree.

Johnny hid a smile and also looked at Florida.  “She been mindin’ her manners?  Calling you Miss Florida.  Eatin’ all her supper?  Makin’ her bed?  Takin’ a bath when she’s told?”


“I have . . . most the time.”  Alice’s quick reply cut off whatever Florida had intended to say.

Johnny laughed.  “I guess you can have him . . . on one condition.”

“What?” Alice asked, her lips puckering into a pout.

“Miss Florida, here, says it’s okay, and you promise to take good care of him.  I don’t wanna hear you were shirkin’ your duty and lettin’ someone else tend to him.”

“I’ll take care of him.  I promise.”  Alice’s eyes seemed to grow larger as she spoke.

“Well?”  Johnny looked at Florida.

“I suppose it’ll be all right,” Florida slowly replied.  “Of course, he’ll need a place fixed to sleep in the woodshed . . . or out on the back porch.”

“If you got an old blanket, I could put it on the floor by my bed,” Alice said, her eyes begging Florida to agree.

“We’ll see,” Florida replied.  “You might have to get up to put him out in the night.  It’ll be dark.  The woodshed might be best for a few nights anyway.”

Johnny agreed and said so.  Alice wouldn’t like having to scrub the floor if the puppy messed during the night, and he wasn’t about to see Florida have to do it.  “Why don’t you take Fido here outside for a walk while I finish my supper,” he said to Alice.  “Then we’ll see if we can’t make him a comfortable place to sleep.  Okay?”

“All right, Johnny . . . but his name ain’t Fido.  It’s Bandit.”

“Bandit?  How’d yuh come up with that?” Johnny replied, continuing to tease the girl.  With a patch of black hair around each eye, the puppy did look like it had a mask on its face.   

“‘Cause he looks like a bandit.  Don’t he?”  Alice turned to Alice for support.

“Yes, he does at that.  I think that’s a perfect name,” said Florida.

Johnny handed the puppy over to Alice and admonished the girl to keep a close watch on him.

Alice promised she would and gathered the puppy into her arms.  He was a load, but she assured Johnny she could manage if someone would open the door for her.

Florida helped Alice get the puppy outside and then returned to where Johnny sat finishing up his meal.  “Thanks Johnny.  It’ll be a lot of comfort to her when . . ..”  She closed her eyes, her words ending in a whisper.

“How is Wilf?” Johnny asked when Florida opened her eyes again.

“Not good.  He’s in a lot of pain.”

“He in bed . . . or over–?”  Johnny cocked his head toward the door.

“He’s upstairs.  He had a bad day.  That’s why I had Alice helping with the dishes tonight.  Wilf doesn’t want her worrying about him.”

“Then he hasn’t told her?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“He plan to?”

“Yeah . . . when the time comes.”

Johnny let out a long breath.  Part of him thought Alice should know her uncle didn’t have long to live, but another part agreed with Wilf’s reasoning.  There was no need to upset her any sooner than necessary.  They had so little time.  Maybe it was better to let her be happy as long as possible.    

Florida went to the kitchen to clean up the last of the dishes and make another pot of coffee while Johnny finished his supper.  Afterward they went outside to check on Alice and the puppy.

“He’s the smartest puppy in the bunch, ain’t he, Johnny?” Alice said with pride filled eyes.  She had just shown him and Florida that Bandit could shake hands.

“Yep.  He sure is,” Johnny replied.

Alice grinned, her eyes seeming to glow brighter as she knelt and hugged the puppy.    

Johnny spotted a stick by his foot, leaned down, and picked it up.  “Think he’ll play fetch with this?” he asked with a wave of the small branch that apparently had fallen out of a nearby oak tree.

When Bandit ignored the first toss of the stick, Alice insisted they keep trying.

“Guess he’s just not into fetchin’ an’ carryin’,” Johnny said after several attempts to interest the puppy in the game.

Florida hugged Alice’s drooping shoulders.  “Well, you know . . . he is a cow dog.”

“Yeah, Johnny.  He’s supposed to chase cows not pick up ol’ sticks,” Alice said, her head tipped back, chin high, and an accusing look in her eyes.

Johnny nodded and shrugged.  “You got a point.”

After they played with the puppy a few more minutes, Johnny said he needed to take Barranca to the stable.  Alice and the puppy tagged along, but Florida went back to her boarding house.  Her excuse for not joining them didn’t quite ring true.  Johnny supposed she wanted to let him have some time alone with Alice.

The evening passed quickly.  Soon it was time for Alice to go to bed.  As expected, she refused to part with her puppy.  Florida finally agreed to let it stay in Alice’s room on the condition that newspaper was spread out on the floor and that Alice promised to go right to sleep and get up when called in the morning.

Alice was quick to make the necessary promises.  In no time, a place in her room had been prepared for the puppy, and she had changed into a nightgown.  “Will you tuck me in?” she asked Johnny once she had crawled into bed.

He pulled the covers up to her chin and kissed her on the cheek.  “Remember your promise, you’re to go right to sleep,” he said, pointing his finger at her before flicking the tip of her nose with it.

She giggled and looked over at the puppy that was confined to one corner of the room by a board Johnny had found out by the woodshed.   “I’ll remember,” she replied, her voice as angelic as her eyes.

Once their “Good nights,” were said, Johnny turned down the light and left, gently closing the door behind him.  He waited a minute and listened to the puppy’s whimpers.  When they stopped, he walked away.  Either the puppy had decided to be content to sleep on the blanket on the floor, or Alice had tip-toed over to it and had taken it back to bed with her.

Johnny smiled at this last thought.  It was not what Florida had agreed to, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.  He’d just have to make sure the puppy was where it belonged come morning.

Wilf’s room was next to Alice’s and on the way to the stairs.  Johnny paused, debating whether to knock or not.  He decided not, took a step, and halted.  Maybe he should check on Alice’s uncle.  Wilf hadn’t been out of the room all evening.

His light knock went unanswered.  Johnny rapped a bit louder.  When he still didn’t hear anything, he eased the door open and looked in.

The lamp on the bedside table was turned down low.  In the dim halo of light Johnny could barely make out Wilf’s snoring form lying on the bed.

“Wilf,” he softly called.

Wilf stirred but continued to snore.

Johnny moved closer.  He thought of waking Wilf but decided against it.  Nothing would be gained from it.

Two months to live.  Such a short time.  Johnny closed his eyes and his shoulders sagged.  Alice had been away from Lancer three weeks.  How long did Wilf have?  A month?  A couple of weeks . . . or less?

It wasn’t fair.  Hell, life wasn’t fair!  Alice had already gone through more pain than she should have had to–losing both of her parents at the same time.  When had that been?  Less than a year ago?  Last summer.  Early on.  Wasn’t that what Alice had said.  She shouldn’t have to go through all that pain again so soon.  God, why?  Why now?  Why at her age?  She’s just a kid.  Couldn’t you cut her some slack . . . let her uncle live a few more years?

Johnny let out a huff of breath and turned away from the bed.  He didn’t want to think about death and the way it tore at your insides, or about the unfairness, or the hardship it put on the shoulders of others.  He couldn’t get away from his thoughts, though.  Wilf’s face appeared in his mind.

The man’s a scoundrel and a liar to boot.  Why should I care what happens to him?

Only Johnny did care, and not just because of Alice.  Her uncle’s desperation and misguided desire to spare her the heartache of losing him had made the difference.  Wilf did love her.  That had been all too clear three weeks ago.

Silently Johnny left the room and walked down the hall to the stairs.  Florida had invited him to join her in the parlor off the dining room, and he decided that would be better than tossing and turning in bed.  He wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet.

Florida looked up as Johnny entered.  “You think she’ll go right to sleep?”

“No . . . but she’ll make sure we think she has,” Johnny replied, relaxing into the chair next to hers.  It was old but comfortable, the back high enough to support his head when he slouched a little.

“She’s a good kid.”


“Thanks Johnny.”

“For what?”

“Bringing the puppy.”  Florida drew in a sharp breath.  “She’s going to need it.”

Johnny let his breath out slowly.  “Yeah.”

An awkward silence fell over them.  Johnny finally broke it by asking how much time Wilf had.

“A month . . . at the very most,” Alice replied, her voice catching.

“He, uh . . . get up much?”

“Some.  He’s usually down for breakfast around nine.  He tries to spend a couple hours with Alice.  Then he makes some excuse to go see Ollie.  He doesn’t want her to get suspicious so he doesn’t take his medicine where she’ll see him.  Jasper lets him sleep in the storeroom if it’s not needed for a jail cell.  Then Wilf shows up here a little before dark.  He and Alice have supper together; and, shortly after that, he goes to bed.”

“Won’t be long before she figures out something’s wrong.”

“I know.”

“He hasn’t tried to . . .?”  Johnny looked away.  The memory of Wilf’s attempt to force a gunfight was still fresh enough to bring a shudder.

“Commit suicide again?”  Florida, apparently reading his mind, finished his question for him.  She drew in a long breath before shaking her head and saying in a much softer tone, “Not that I know of.”

The clock on the mantle of the fireplace ticked away the silence that followed.  “You think he’ll tough it out?” Johnny finally asked once he was confident that his struggle to keep his emotions in check would not be heard in his voice.

“I think so.”  Florida tugged at a stray wisp of hair that lay against her cheek.  “He told me he’d made his peace with God.  This preacher, who rides through every few weeks, was here last Sunday.  He spent some time with him before he left.  Alice had been asking questions.  I think he didn’t want her worrying about him after he was gone.”

This news relieved Johnny’s mind some.  Remembering the questions Alice had asked him after attending church when she was at Lancer, he could see her being concerned about her uncle making it to heaven.  She had to have seen enough of his dealings to know he wasn’t exactly honest.

Johnny talked to Florida a while longer.  When he noticed her eyelids begin to droop, he stretched and yawned.  “Think I’ll turn in.  It’s been a long day.”

“Take the room next to Alice.  The door’s unlocked.  If you need the key, it’s on the night table.”

“Thanks.  What do I own you?” Johnny asked, reaching down to retrieve his money bag from his boot.

Florida waved away his offer to pay.  “Don’t worry about it.  You can settle up when you get ready to leave town.  I can trust you for it, can’t I?”

There was a teasing glint in Florida’s eyes that told Johnny that her last remark wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.  He answered her anyway.  “Yeah.  You can trust me.”

Her laugh had a pleasant sound, sort of musical.  Johnny smiled.  He was still smiling a few minutes later as he went up upstairs.  The more he was around Florida, the more he liked her.  She was a nice lady, even though he suspected she hadn’t always been respectable in the past.  It wasn’t anything he could lay his finger on that had left him with that impression.  It was just a feeling he had.

Johnny stopped at the door to Alice’s room and listened.  Not a sound.  Unable to resist the urge to look in on her, he slipped off his boots and silently opened the door.

A shaft of light from the hallway lamps lit a path from the door to the bed.  Johnny, moving like a cat stalking its prey, walked closer and gazed down at Alice’s angelic face.  Her cheek was cradled by one small hand, and the nose of the puppy rested against her chin.  The rest of Bandit’s body was hidden beneath the blankets and was more than likely clutched by a protective arm.

A lump crept into Johnny’s throat.  He swallowed, momentarily squeezing his eyes shut before leaving the room as quietly as he had entered.  Hopefully the judge would be reasonable in the morning, and the rest of the day could be spent making Alice laugh.

Chapter 25

Friday morning was cool and cloudy.  Off to the west, a hint of mist hung in the air.  Jelly would have called the change in the weather a bad omen, but Johnny quickly shoved that thought aside as he followed Wilf Guthrie down the main street of Witness Tree.  He had learned that superstitions generally brought useless worry about something you could do nothing about anyway.

Jasper, the town’s sheriff, met them at the door to Ollie’s place which served as general store, saloon, post office, jail, and now temporary courthouse.  He collected Johnny’s gun and told him and Wilf to go inside and take a seat on the left up front.

Johnny entered and hesitated for a quick look around at the transformation from his last visit.  Small tables crowded the store area and chairs formed a block of seating at the base of the stairs.   Rows of benches, made of planks supported by barrels or boxes, took up the space in front of the bar.

Upon catching up to Wilf, Johnny noticed the front row was already taken.  “Looks like we’re not the only ones here to see the judge,” he said.

“Well, I hope we’re first.”

“Yeah,” Johnny replied, noticing the sag to Wilf’s shoulders.  If they were going to jail, the sooner the better.  The cot in the storeroom that served as a jail cell might not be as comfortable as a bed, but it would be better for Alice’s uncle than sitting on a backless bench for who-knew-how-many hours.

With Johnny closely behind, Wilf moved to the far end of the second bench.  There they sat to await their fate.

More people arrived, their voices becoming a clamor of indistinguishable words.  Above this noise, someone hollered for all to rise for His Honor, Judge J. P. Meeker.

A white-haired man in a black robe passed behind the bar and sat in a big chair that had been brought in from someplace.  He picked up the gavel and rapped it loudly on the bar.  “This court is now in session,” he said, voice matching the harsh expression on his face.

Johnny felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.  Any hope of leniency was squashed.

Judge Meeker wasted no time asking for the first case.  Jasper, however, seemed to move in slow-motion as he stood and waved for the man in front of Johnny to rise.  “Sam Wilkes.   Drunk and disorderly, harassing women and children, and assaulting an officer of the law,” he said, each word drawn out in the same lazy manner in which he had spoken to Johnny a month earlier.

“How do you plead?” the judge asked once the accused was standing.

Wilkes turned to look at those behind him, his eyes searching as though he were seeking someone to vouch for him.

Judge Meeker cleared his throat.  “Guilty or not?”

“N-not guilty,” Wilkes replied, his voice quivering.

Johnny slumped, chin nearly touching his chest.  He supposed a jury would be chosen and then witnesses would be called to testify.  All that took time, and for what?  One look at the man proved he was lying.

As expected, volunteers were asked to sit on the jury.  This took nearly every available man in the room.

Jeffrey Adams, a young law student who happened to be visiting his aunt in town, offered to be the defendant’s counselor.  He was given ten minutes to talk to Wilkes in private before Jasper called Ollie to the witness stand.

Ollie swore to tell the truth and sat in the chair at the end of the bar.  His initial testimony was short and to the point.  On the previous Friday sometime around one o’clock, Sam Wilkes had arrived in a foul mood.  After downing nearly two bottles of whisky, knocking glasses off the bar, tipping over chairs and tables, and hurling insults at two other customers, he had staggered outside where he had made crude comments to the school teacher and several children.  When Jasper had tried to arrest him, Wilkes had attacked the sheriff.

Adams, sitting on the far side of Jasper, jumped to his feet.  “Objection!  The witness couldn’t possibly know what was going on outside that door.”  His hand swept from Ollie to the main entry door.

“Ollie has good ears,” Jasper said in a hushed tone.  “Besides . . . the door was open.  If you let me finish examining my witness, you would know that.”

Judge Meeker banged his gavel.  “Objection overruled.”

Adams interrupted Ollie several more times.  Most of his objections were denied.  This seemed to make him even more determined.  When his turn came to cross-exam, he badgered Ollie and twisted his words.  This went on with each witness whether man, woman, or child.

Johnny was tempted more than once to get up and walk out, taking Wilf with him.  At the rate this case was going, they could come back after lunch and have missed nothing.

Finally, the jury headed to the storage room to vote.  They were back in less than five minutes with a verdict of guilty.

The judge fined Wilkes one hundred and fifty dollars, sentenced him to an equal number of days in jail, and called for the next case.  Johnny hoped this one would go faster than the last.  Wilf was looking pale, and any laudanum he had taken that morning would have lost its effect.

Johnny’s hopes were soon dashed.  Apparently, Tobias Clark, owner of the biggest spread in the area, hadn’t taken kindly to some kids borrowing his hay rake without permission, and he had hired a lawyer out of Green River, who persisted in proving his case even though the three teenage boys insisted they hadn’t been anywhere near the Clark ranch. With Jeffery Adams offering his services to defend them, the trial looked to drag on the rest of day.

When Judge Meeker adjourned for lunch at noon, Johnny grabbed the chance to have a talk with Jasper and caught him at the door.  “You gunna make Wilf sit through all that?” he asked.

“He’ll be fine,” Jasper replied.

Anger surged through Johnny.  “Look at him!” he said, pointing at Wilf.  “He’ll be lucky to make it to Florida’s without collapsing.”

Jasper watched Wilf walk toward the boarding house.  “He does look a bit tired, doesn’t he?”

“This ain’t a game, Sheriff!” Johnny said.  “He’s sick.  I thought you knew that.”

“Nothing happens in my town I don’t know about,” Jasper replied.

The man’s uncaring attitude brought on a new wave of anger, and Johnny grabbed him by the arm.  “He’s dying.  Don’t that mean anything to you?  What are you trying to do, rob him of what little time he has left with Alice?”

“I suggest you let go of me . . . if you don’t want another charge added to the one you already have.”  A slight smile lay on the sheriff’s lips, but his eyes glinted like steel.

Johnny released his grip.  Jasper might not look like much of a lawman, but there was no mistaking the menace behind those soft-spoken words.  This was one sheriff it wouldn’t pay to cross, especially when Judge Meeker would have the final say in the outcome.

“Have it your way . . . but if anything happens to him today, you’ll answer to me,” Johnny said, giving the sheriff a cold stare before heading to the Florida’s to check on Wilf.

All sign of rain was gone and the sun was shining brightly when Johnny headed back to Ollie’s after having lunch.  Wilf, having declined an offer to join him for the noon meal in favor of a nap, walked beside him with a much stronger stride than he had displayed when leaving the courtroom nearly an hour earlier.

Judge Meeker called the court to order at precisely one o’clock.  More than two and a half hours passed before the jury left the room.  By the time they returned, the big hand of the clock behind the bar was on twelve and the little hand was on four.

Johnny boiled inside.  He saw no reason Wilf couldn’t have spent the last three hours lying on the cot in the storage room even if Wilkes was already confined there.  He could sit on one the barrels, or on the floor. Jasper was just being pig-headed.

Judge Meeker asked for the juries’ decision.

“Guilty as charged,” the foreman replied.

Three drooping-shouldered boys rose and stepped forward to hear their fate.  All were sentenced to ninety days in jail.

An explosion of cursing came from somewhere behind Johnny.  He turned to see a man shaking a cane.

“Ninety days!” the man said as he hobbled toward the front of the room.  “Clark wasn’t even usin’ that rake and won’t for another month or two.  I got a crop to get in the ground.  How’m I gunna do that without my boy?”

“You’ll hold your tongue in my court, or I’ll fine you for contempt!” The voice of the judge blended with the banging of his gavel.

Jasper lunged into the path of the angry father.  “Now Ben,” he said, grabbing the man by both arms.  “I’m sure something can be worked out so you don’t lose your crop, but this isn’t the first time your boy’s been in trouble.  He has to learn he can’t get away with taking another man’s property without asking, or he’ll end up swinging from a rope.  You don’t want that, do you?”

That the sheriff was actually showing concern came as a surprise to Johnny.  He’d made up his mind the man didn’t have a heart.  Jasper hadn’t shown any sign of it so far.

Ben argued, but eventually returned to his seat, as did the three boys.  The judge called for the next case.

Johnny tipped his head back and looked over at Jasper.  Who would be next?  He hoped the sheriff had enough pity to call Wilf.

Rising, the sheriff gave Johnny a sly grin.

If you were closer, you’d be eating my fist, Johnny thought.  He had about reached the limit of his tolerance.  One more taunt and the judge would be fining him for contempt of court, or worse.

“Do you have another case?” Judge Meeker asked, louder than before.

“Not today, Your Honor,” Jasper replied.

Not today.  The words resounded in Johnny’s mind as the judge’s gavel struck wood and court was officially dismissed.

Johnny was on his feet and headed toward the sheriff when a restraining hand wrapped around his wrist.

“Let it go, Johnny.”

“Maybe you can, but I can’t,” Johnny replied, twisting in an attempt to pull free of Wilf’s grip.

Wilf held on.  “It’s not worth going to jail for.”

“I just wanna know why . . . that’s all.  Now will you let go of me.  He owes us that much.”

“All right.”  Wilf lightened his hold but didn’t let go.  “But first promise me talk is all you’ll do.”

Although he didn’t want to make any such promise, Johnny nodded his agreement.  The last thing he wanted was a fight with Alice’s uncle.

Wilf’s hand slid away and Johnny went after Jasper.  He caught up to him outside the storage room just as he was removing the key from the lock.

Jasper turned to face Johnny.  “Wanting to join them?” he asked, tipping his head toward the door.

Johnny stood with hands at his sides, fingers moving restlessly.  “No, Sheriff,” he replied, barely able to resist the temptation to slug the man.  “What I want . . .  is to know why you put Wilf through all that.”

Jasper shrugged.  “I had my reasons.”

“What reasons?”

“I don’t have to answer to you.”

Johnny clinched his fists and started to raise one arm.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Jasper said.  “The judge hasn’t left town yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?  You plan on puttin’ us through this again tomorrow?”

“That’s up to you.”

“You know something . . . your heart’s colder than an ice house in the dead of winter.  Wilf could’ve collapsed in there today, and you wouldn’t have batted an eye.”

“I made a promise.”

Johnny shook his head and blew his breath out through slightly parted lips.  “To what?  Put Wilf in his grave?”

“No.  To keep him sober for his party tonight,” Jasper replied.

“What party?” Johnny asked.  This was news to him.  Florida had said nothing about a party.

Jasper cocked one brow.  “Didn’t Florida tell you?”

“Tell me what?” Johnny replied, crossing his arms.

“The whole town’s celebrating his birthday.”

Johnny stared at Jasper in disbelief.  “You lyin’ to me, Sheriff?” he asked.

“You don’t have to take my word for it.  Go talk to Florida.”

“All right.  I will.”

“Good.  Now would you mind stepping aside?  I need to get meals ordered for my prisoners.”

Johnny moved out of the way.  Florida was the one to talk to now.  If her story didn’t match, he could deal with Jasper later.

Alice met Johnny on the porch of the diner.  Her blue, gingham dress looked newly pressed, and her hair was pulled back at the sides and tied with a white ribbon–a few strands having escaped to flutter in the late afternoon breeze.  “Hi, Johnny,” she said.

“My, aren’t you a pretty sight.  What’s the occasion?” he replied, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

“We’re having a party,” she whispered.

Johnny crouched close to her and whispered back.  “A party?”

Alice nodded.  “For Uncle Wilf . . . but he doesn’t know.  It’s a surprise.”

“Oh.  What’s the occasion?” Johnny asked.

“A birthday party,” she replied with raised chin.

Even though the sheriff had told the truth, Johnny still felt irritated at the man.  If the idea had been to keep Wilf sober, surely Jasper could have found a better way.  Now, however, wasn’t the time to make a fuss over that.  There were more important things to do, one being to make sure Wilf was up to attending the party.

Johnny straightened and rested a hand on Alice’s shoulder.  “Where’s your uncle, now?”

“He’s in his room, cleanin’ up for supper.  Florida told him I needed to eat early tonight so I could take my puppy for a walk before it gets dark.”

“Miss Florida’s a smart woman,” Johnny said.  “You think Wilf bought it?  I mean sundown’s a couple hours away.”

“Oh, he won’t notice.  We eat early lots o’ times.”

A wagon rolled into view with another one not far behind.

Johnny tweaked Alice’s nose.  “Looks like you better get ready to greet your guests.  I’ll go check on your uncle.  Make sure he doesn’t catch wind of this fandango you got planned and skip out the back door.”

Horror filled Alice’s face.  “He can’t do that.  He just can’t!”

“Don’t get in a pucker.”  Johnny draped an arm around her shoulder and drew her to him.  “He’ll be there if I have to lasso and drag him.”

Alice’s eyes and voice filled with desperation. “Promise?”

“Promise,” Johnny replied.

The first two wagons were a stone’s throw away, and another wagon and several horsemen appeared from around the corner of the livery stable.  Johnny gave Alice another reassuring hug.  Feeling her relax, he hurried inside.  This was one promise he meant to keep.

 Chapter 26

“Mr. Lancer!  Mr. Lancer!”

Scott halted his horse and looked back up the main street of Green River.

Tim Jeffers, from the telegraph office, ran toward him.  “Got a telegram for Johnny,” the man said with a wheeze in his squeaky voice.

As far as Scott knew, there was only one reason for anyone to wire his brother.  Alice’s uncle had to have died.

Jeffers held up a small envelope.  “Could you deliver it for me?” he asked.

Even though he didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news, Scott nodded and accepted the envelope.  He could already see his brother’s stricken face.  Johnny would immediately think of Alice and her pain would become his.

Scott went home by way of the shortcut.  He was glad he hadn’t had to take the wagon to Green River.  This route, although half the distance of the road, was only passable on horseback.

How best to present the telegram to his brother was foremost in Scott’s thoughts.  If Alice’s uncle had died, Johnny would want to leave immediately.  Witness Tree was a long ride to make on an empty stomach.  Perhaps the news, whatever it was, could wait until after dinner.

The ranch headquarters came into view and drew nearer.  Scott still wasn’t sure what he should do, nor had he decided by the time he rode into the corral.

Johnny strode through the half-open doorway of the barn.  “About time you got back,” he said with a hint of sarcasm.

Scott dismounted with the controlled grace he had learned during his years in the cavalry.  He loosened the cinch of his saddle before turning to face his brother.  “I had a lot to do . . . not like some people I know,” he said, his tone equally sarcastic.  He couldn’t bring himself to spoil Johnny’s mood, which was lighter than it had been for several weeks.  The telegram could wait a little while.

“Was visiting Clara Sue one of them things?” Johnny moved closer, his grin belying the innocence of the question.

With a resounding slap to Johnny’s arm, Scott replied, “That . . . is none of your business, Little Brother.”  He wasn’t about let it be known that Clara Sue had been a fancy that had passed after one dance.

The banter continued while Johnny followed Scott into the barn and watched him tend to his horse. 

After his mount was taken care of, Scott carried his saddle and bridle into the tack room.  He gave them a quick oiling–the telegram in his pocket slipping from his mind–and hung them on their racks.

Teresa met the brothers as they entered through the side door of the house.  “Did you get my buttons?” she asked.

Scott reached into his pocket and pulled out the small packet.  Along with it came the telegram, fluttering to the floor at his feet.

Johnny leaned over and picked it up.  “What’s this?”

“Uh . . .” Scott hesitated, panic racing through him as his brother turned the envelope over.

“Mind if I open it?”  Johnny tapped the envelope against his other hand.  “Got my name on it, right?”

There was nothing Scott could do but nod and watch the devastating news take its toll.

“What is it?” Teresa’s voice rang through the silence.

“Look.” Johnny bit his lip.  “Tell Murdoch I’m takin’ a few days off.”

A shadow loomed on the hallway wall.  “I’d rather hear it from you,” Murdoch said from behind Scott.

Down went Johnny’s chin, his head tipping forward.

“Johnny received a telegram,” Scott said in hopes their father would take the hint and not jump to a wrong conclusion.

“About Alice’s uncle.”  Murdoch spoke matter-of-factly.  Not waiting for a confirming nod, he laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “Take all the time you need, Son.”

“Thanks,” Johnny huskily replied without looking up.

“When did he . . . will he . . . ?” Teresa faltered, her cheeks flushing.

“Buryin’s at one tomorrow,” Johnny said, moving away from Murdoch.

“Then you don’t have to leave tonight,” Teresa said.  “We could all get up early in the morning and go with you.”

Johnny shook his head.  “I’m heading out soon as I collect my gear.”

“I think Teresa has an excellent idea.  Alice was like one of the family.  We’ll all go together.”

An argument followed.  Before tempers had a chance to flair, Scott sided with Johnny on leaving that night and announced he would ride with him.  Murdoch and Teresa could wait until morning.

Murdoch let out a heavy sigh and nodded.

“You at least need to have supper,” Teresa said.

“No time,” Johnny replied.

Murdoch patted Teresa on the arm. “Honey, the boys will want to get over Black Mesa before dark.  Why don’t you go pack them something to eat while they get ready to leave?”

Her lips puckered, but she did as she was told.  By the time Scott and Johnny, each with saddlebags slung over one shoulder and bedroll tucked under the other arm, came down the back stairs, Teresa had their food packed in bulging knapsacks.

A short while later, Scott and Johnny rode away from the hacienda.  They would have gotten away sooner, but Jelly wanted to argue about going with them.  Finally, they had mounted and ridden away, Jelly’s grumbles fading with each stride.

Johnny stayed on the road that cut through the center of the valley.  Although not the shortest route to the Mesa, Scott knew his brother had chosen well.  This way would be quicker and easier on their horses than crossing over the fingerlike ridges running through the more direct path.

With less than an hour of daylight, the brothers traveled in silence.  Talking was out of the question anyway, except when Johnny slowed Barranca from a steady jog to a walk for short stretches.

Scott stayed a horse-length or two behind his brother.  He didn’t mind the semblance of solitude.  What was there to say?  A man was dead.  Alice was an orphan again, her future needing to be decided.  All of these things had to weigh heavily on Johnny’s mind.  Talking about matters of a more trivial nature would not lessen the burden, so it was best to concentrate on reaching Black Mesa before night set in and avoid being faced with a trail that could be treacherous in the dark.

They made good time but still dusk caught them at the base of the mesa.  Johnny slowed his horse to a walk and started up the narrow trail that would take them through a break near the top of the steep, rock-rimmed side of the flat-topped butte. Scott waited for him to be several strides up the hill before following.

Shod hooves clattered against rocks, some of which dislodged and rattled down the trail.  Scott’s horse fought the restraining bit, stumbled, recovered, and stumbled again.

“Easy fellow.”  Scott spoke in a soft-cooing tone.  He liked this horse for its spirit and stamina, but the feisty sorrel had a tendency to panic in unstable footing.  

As his horse scrambled upward, Scott strained to see through the dense shadows.  He hoped they reached the top before all light fled.  He wasn’t sure he wanted to have to rely on his mount to find the way.

The trail narrowed and grew darker–a sign they had reached the rim rocks.  Scott’s horse grunted with each stride.  He slipped, his neck arched, and he scrambled for footing.    

Scott held to the saddle horn for balance while steadying his horse with the reins.  Johnny, apparently having arrived at the top, had gone out of sight.  A few more strides and they would join him.

One final lunge carried them onto level ground.  Darkness was settling in fast.  Scott could barely see Johnny and Barranca a few yards ahead.

Johnny kept to a walk.  This gave the horses a chance to cool off from the hard climb without wasting what little light remained.  If they were lucky, the moon would be up by the time they reached the other side of the mesa.

They continued to ride in silence.  Scott let his brother set the pace and lead the way.  When Johnny was ready, they would stop.

A nearly full moon peaked over a far ridge as the brothers reached the far side of the mesa.  They made good time on the downward trail.  It was winding but not nearly as steep as the one they had gone up earlier.

Once off the mesa, the going was fairly easy, and Johnny held Barranca to a fast walk.  Scott followed along behind until the trail widened.  Then he moved up beside his brother.  “Nice night for a ride,” he said, hoping to break the silence.

Johnny’s answer sounded like a grunt.

Feeling the bulge at his knee, Scott tried another tactic.  “Teresa sure didn’t want us to go hungry,” he said.

Again, Johnny made a grunting noise.

Scott rode along in silence.  He missed his brother’s normal teasing and wished there was a way to change Johnny’s mood, but he couldn’t think of one.

The moon had been up a couple of hours by the time the brothers came to a fork in the road where a tree with a sign pointed the way to Witness Tree.  Beyond there, a stream crossed the road.

Johnny turned to the right and stopped.  “We’ll camp here,” he bluntly said.

After the horses had been watered and picketed in a patch of tall grass, the brothers laid out their bedrolls and sat down.  It wasn’t cold enough for a fire and nothing needed to be cooked so they ate by the light of the moon.

Words were few and far between.  Scott had hoped his brother would be more talkative, but that wasn’t to be.  Johnny turned in before Scott had finished eating.

Scott set his half-full knapsack beside his saddle and went to check on the horses.  They were content.  Scott wished he could say the same for himself and his brother.  He had a feeling it would be a long night for at least one of them.

Shortly after daylight the next morning, Scott watched his brother swing into the saddle.  Johnny looked haggard.  Had he slept at all?  He must have tossed and turned most of the night.

Johnny set an easy pace.  Conversation was sparse, not that Scott had expected the new day to be any different than the one before.  Death took time to deal with, especially when it affected someone you loved.

Witness Tree showed little sign of activity when the brothers arrived two hours after sunrise.  Scott wasn’t surprised.  Johnny and their father had both described the town as a blink in the road.  It was more than that, but not by much–a few houses, Florida’s boarding house with cafe, a stable, and a general store that also served as saloon, jail, and post office.   

Once their horses were stabled, Johnny led the way to the boarding house.  Scott followed along a pace behind.

Johnny pushed the door open and entered the dining area.

A woman wearing a checkered apron and holding a stack of precariously stacked dishes turned and smiled.  “Johnny.  You got my message,” she said walking toward him.  “I was worried it might not reach you in time.”

“Yeah, I got it.”  Johnny looked around.  “Where’s Alice?”

“Upstairs.  I let her sleep in.”  The woman drew in a deep breath and sighed.  “It’s going to be a rough day for her.”

Johnny rubbed his chin with one hand.  “Yeah.”

“Hungry?  Of course, you are,” she said without giving him time to answer.  “Take your pick of the tables.  I’ll get rid of these and be right back.”

She started to leave and stopped.  “He with you?” she asked, nodding in Scott’s direction.

“My brother,” Johnny replied.

Seeing Johnny wasn’t going to make a proper introduction, Scott did it for him.  “Scott Lancer,” he said with a slight bow and tipping his hat.

“Glad to meet you, Scott.  Everyone just calls me Florida . . . or Miss Florida,” she replied.

She had that look that said she was comparing him to his brother.  Scott just smiled at her and let it slide.  He saw no need to explain the family history unless she asked.

Miss Florida left for the kitchen, or so Scott assumed, and Johnny chose a table near the door she had gone through.

“She seems like a nice lady,” Scott said as he took the chair opposite his brother.

Johnny laid his hat to one side on the table.  “Yeah . . . she’s all right.”

Scott removed his hat, too, and glanced around.  The room wasn’t anything fancy, but it looked clean and the furniture did match.

Miss Florida returned almost immediately with two steaming cups of coffee, strong brewed from the smell of it.  These she set one in front of each of the brothers.  Stepping back, she wrapped her hands in her apron.  “I just pulled a pan of cinnamon rolls out of the oven a few minutes ago.  There’s bacon, eggs, and sausage patties to go with them.”

Johnny reached for his cup of coffee.  “This’ll do.  I’m not hungry.”

“Well I am,” Scott said.  “I love cinnamon rolls, and I’ll have a sausage patty, eggs, and a couple of pieces of bacon to go with it.”  He smiled.  “And Johnny’ll have the same.”

“I said I wasn’t hungry.”

“I heard you, but you’ll eat anyway.”

“I’m not a kid.”

Scott merely smiled at his brother’s protest.  Johnny would thank him later.

“I’ll have that right out for you,” Miss Florida said.

She turned away and Johnny glared at Scott.  When she had gone back to the kitchen, he said, “I told you I wasn’t hungry.”

“You will be.  Besides you wouldn’t want to be a bad example for Alice, would you,” Scott replied.

“She’s not even–“

“She isn’t?”  Scott tipped his head toward an open doorway at the far end of the room.

Alice stood looking at them.  She rubbed her nose with her fist, squared her shoulders, and walked toward their table.  About the time Johnny twisted to look in her direction, she broke into a run.

Johnny held out his arms and Alice ran into them.  He pulled her up onto his lap and held her against his chest, his head tipping forward so that his face was buried in her hair and her head pressed against his shoulder.

Scott looked down at the table.  He didn’t need to see more to know the extent of Alice’s sorrow.  A glimpse of her shaking shoulders and her sobs were enough.

Gradually Alice’s weeping quieted to sniffles that came farther and farther apart.

Johnny picked up the cloth napkin beside his plate and stuffed it into Alice’s hand. “Here, blow your nose.”

She did, loud and long.

“Better?” he asked.

Scott glanced up as Alice nodded.  She was now sitting sideways on Johnny’s lap.

Alice’s tightly pressed lips twitched at the corners.  If Scott didn’t miss his guess, that slight upward curl would soon grow into a full-fledged smile.  Johnny had a way with kids.  She might even be provoked into laughing.

Johnny released his hold on Alice and reached for the back of the chair on his left.  He dragged it out away from the table and said, “How about joining us for breakfast?”

“I’m not hungry,” she replied and slid from his lap.  “I’ll just go see to Bandit.  Flor . . . I mean Miss Florida puts him out in his pen when she gets up.”

“Bandit can wait.”  Johnny caught her arm.  “You need to eat something, keep your strength up so you can take proper care of him.”  She protested a little, but he was persistent and finally succeeded in guiding her to the chair he’d pulled out for her.

Scott went to see about getting a plate of food for Alice.  Miss Florida, carrying a coffee pot, met him at the door to the kitchen.  After exchanging a few words, he took the coffee pot and she went to fix another plate of food.

Back at the table, Scott refilled his brother’s cup first.

“You taking up waitressing?” Johnny asked.  He leaned closer to Alice.  “Think Miss Florida has an extra apron he could wear?”

A hint of mischief came into Alice’s watery eyes, and she giggled.

“Any more smart remarks, Brother, and you’ll be wearing this coffee.”   Scott lifted the pot and moved it toward Johnny’s chest.

Johnny slid his right hand under the table and brought it back out holding his revolver.  “Go right ahead, Brother . . . if you don’t mind eating lead for breakfast.”

Alice giggled a little louder.  The brothers continued making mock threats, and she was laughing by the time Miss Florida arrived with her plate of food.

The pleasant mood that lasted through breakfast was more than Scott could have hoped for.  Alice smiled and giggled often at Johnny’s teasing.  She even ate most of her food, as did he.

Finally, they rose from the table.  Johnny suggested Alice get her puppy and show them what he’d learned.

Scott watched a few tricks.  He applauded loudly after each one whether it was accomplished correctly or not, and then he excused himself to give Alice and Johnny some time alone.

Having seen what there was of the town on the way to the livery barn, Scott went back inside the diner.  He chose a table in a corner opposite the door and sat down.  Thus, he began what he assumed would be a boring wait for Murdoch and Teresa to arrive.

Miss Florida came in wiping her hands on her apron.  “A little early for lunch, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes, it is, but I could use another cup of coffee,” he replied.

“Coming right up,” she said.

In a few minutes, she returned with two cups and the coffee pot.  She set one cup in front of Scott and the other across the table from him where she pulled the chair out.  “Mind some company?”  she asked as she sat down.

“Be my guest,” Scott relied.

Scott waited for her to speak first.  From the way she was scrutinizing him, he was sure she wanted to know why he didn’t look more like his brother.

“Is Alice with Johnny?”

Scott gulped, almost choking on his coffee, and nodded.  This was not the question he had been expecting.

“And you thought they needed some time alone.”

Again, Scott nodded.  He would have to be careful.  She seemed to be a very discerning woman.

Miss Florida glanced toward the door to the porch and let out a soft sigh.  “Your brother has quite a way with kids.”

“Yes, he does.”  Scott paused to see what she would say next.  When she remained silent, he asked, “How has Alice been taking . . .?”  He left the last word hanging.

“Hard.  She hasn’t smiled since . . . well, since Wilf’s birthday party.”

“I heard there was quite a turnout.  I didn’t know he had that many friends.”

“Alice can be very persuasive when she sets her mind to something.”

Scott smiled as a memory of Alice’s time at Lancer flashed through his mind.  “Yes, she can.”

They talked a little about the party.  Scott knew most of the details.  Johnny had told him, rather bluntly, about the sheriff’s part in keeping the affair a secret while preventing Wilf from loading up on laudanum.  At least the effort had been worth it.  Wilf had not only attended the party, but he had laughed and even danced with Alice and Miss Florida.

After a while the conversation shifted to Wilf’s last days.  Alice had figured out a few days after the party that something wasn’t right with her uncle.  Finally, he had told her the truth.

Scott took a walk at about eleven.  He didn’t see Johnny or Alice and wondered where they had gone.

Witness Tree showed little sign of life.  The only people Scott saw were the sheriff and a man wearing a white apron, or perhaps a towel tied around his waist.  The two men were sitting on the porch of a building with numerous signs attached here and there.

The sheriff looked up from their game of checkers and nodded at Scott as he passed by.

Scott nodded in return and went to sit on the porch of the diner so he could watch the road.  Occasionally he looked at his watch.

Noon came and there was still no sign of Murdoch and Teresa.  Scott hoped nothing was detaining them.

Johnny and Alice showed up a short while later.  Scott suggested they have lunch.

Alice picked at her food.  Johnny wasn’t much better.  Neither responded to Scott attempts to get them to talk.  He finally gave up and finished his meal in silence.

At twelve-thirty, Miss Florida took Alice upstairs to change clothes.  Still Murdoch and Teresa hadn’t arrived.  Johnny went out on the porch to watch for them, and Scott joined him.

“They’ll be here,” Scott said, laying a hand on his brother’s arm.

Johnny’s “yeah” was barely audible.

Scott slid his hand away and leaned against the porch railing.  “Alice will be fine,” he said.  The words sounded flat and he doubted they would be of much comfort to Johnny.

“I know,” Johnny replied, but he didn’t sound convinced.

A wagon appeared at the far end of town.  It wasn’t the Lancer wagon.  It was coming from the wrong direction.  Not only that, when it was closer a child could be seen sitting between the man driving and the woman on the other side of the seat.

People seemed to come from everywhere then.  Several riders rode up to the diner and tethered their horses to the rail out front.  Several more wagons rolled up, their drivers parking them in a row along one side of Florida’s place.

Scott looked at his watch.  Almost one o’clock.  It wouldn’t be long.  The mourners had gathered.  All that was needed now was the hearse and Alice.

He glanced over at his brother.

Johnny had turned to face the door of the diner.  His lips were pursed, his thoughts undoubtedly on Alice.  Soon she would walk through that door and the procession to the cemetery would begin.

Chapter 27

“There.”  Florida, who to Alice was only Miss Florida when spoken to, stepped back and nodded.

Alice let out a long breath, her shoulders sagging.  What difference did it make how she looked?  Uncle Wilf couldn’t see her anyway.

“We’d better go.  It’s almost . . ..”  Florida’s voice faded.  After a moment of silence, she held one hand out toward Alice.

Words weren’t necessary.  Alice knew what had been left unsaid.  She let out another deep sigh, accepted the warmth of the woman’s hand around her own, and followed her out of the room.

The short hallway had stretched since breakfast and so had the stairway.  Even the dining hall seemed to have grown–Alice’s and Florida’s footsteps echoing in the empty room.

When they reached the front door, faceless voices buzzed a greeting.  Florida opened the door, stepped out onto the porch, stopped and drew Alice closer to her side.

A hush fell over the crowd and people moved back on both sides to form a pathway.

Alice tucked her upper lip between her teeth.  She willed her trembling jaw to stop and held out her free hand to the only person, other than Florida, who mattered to her.

Johnny didn’t hesitate.  In an instant, he was at Alice’s side, reaching out and engulfing her hand in his.

Strength surged through her at his touch.  She lifted her chin higher and let Johnny and Florida lead her into the street.

They moved in behind a black wagon with a long, narrow box hanging over the back end.  Alice’s vision blurred and the corner of her eyes stung.

She sniffed, tightening her grip on Johnny’s hand.  Uncle Wilf was in that box.     

The wagon lurched forward and settled into a slow, steady pace.  Johnny and Florida, with Alice between them, followed a few steps behind.

Alice couldn’t see beyond the wagon, but she knew where it was heading.  She had seen the knoll that overlooked the town.  She had even peeked over the white-washed, picket fence and seen the wooden crosses and stone pillars that marked the graves.

A tear slid out of the corner of one eye and spilled down her cheek.  Alice sniffed again to keep more from following.  She wouldn’t cry.  She wouldn’t.

Keeping her head high and eyes focused downward, Alice watched the ground between her and the wagon.  She didn’t want to look at that box in the back.  It made her throat ache.  Why did people have to die?

Anger welled up in Alice’s throat.  It wasn’t fair.  Everyone she loved died.  First her mamma and papa, and now Uncle Wilf.  Who would take care of her?  Johnny had said she could be a part of his family, but it wasn’t the same.  They might get tired of her and send her back to that orphanage.  They said they wouldn’t, but they might be lying . . . or something could happen.  Hadn’t Uncle Wilf promised to always take care of her?

More tears slipped down her cheeks.  She blinked and wished she could wipe them away, but she couldn’t.  She’d have to let go of one hand, and let it be known she was crying. No.  She’d have to settle for blinking.

Alice trudged on.  Each step took her closer to that moment she had been dreading since her uncle’s death.  Soon that box in the wagon would be put in a hole in the ground and covered with dirt.

A breeze ruffled her hair.  Alice shivered even though the black, woolen dress and jacket Florida had given her were warm enough.

Johnny’s grip tightened and then loosened.

Did he suspect anything?  Alice hoped not.  She didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her.

The wagon rumbled along like far-away thunder.  Dust puffed outward from beneath its wheels and at the fall of each step that Alice and her guardians took.  Behind them plodded other footsteps.

Level ground gave way to an upward slant.  Alice cringed.  It wouldn’t be long now.

A pebble rolled beneath her shoe.  She wobbled, leaning into Johnny.

He steadied her.

Alice counted the steps as she trudged onward.  One, two . . . twelve, thirteen . . . twenty-one.  The number didn’t matter.  It would be forgotten soon enough.  She just had to have something to keep her from thinking of what was at the top of the hill.

Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two.

A narrow shadow rolled out from under the wagon and into Alice’s path.  She stepped over it.  They had reached the cemetery.  Only the crosspiece over a gate would make such a shadow this time of day.

The wagon turned right.

Alice followed.

It halted.

Johnny and Florida kept going, leading Alice along the right-hand side of the wagon.

They reached the rumps of the horses, turned left, took a few more steps, and stopped.  The smell of freshly-turned earth assaulted Alice’s nose, and her eyes caught sight of the gaping hole in front of her.

Another shiver ran up Alice’s spine.  She bit her lip harder and swallowed, her throat aching and feeling swollen.  Her legs trembled.  The time had come.  She glanced up at Johnny and held her gaze long enough to see that Scott had joined them.  Then she tipped her head and fixed her eyes on her feet.

Wood scraped against wood.  Someone let out a soft grunt.  Footsteps scuffled against the ground.  Something thumped.  More scuffling followed.

Alice lifted her eyes for a quick peek.

Eight men moved away from the wooden box that now lay beside the open hole in the ground.  They walked toward the people gathering at the far end and opposite side of the grave.  Alice knew two of them without seeing their faces.  She had seen them often.  Jasper was the sheriff and Ollie ran the store that had a saloon in one side of it.

The men mingled with the other people.  One by one, Alice caught a glimpse of their faces.  Still she couldn’t be sure who the other six were.  Had they come to Uncle Wilf’s party?  They looked a little familiar, but she couldn’t put a name on any of them.  That went for most of the people she saw.

Another face appeared at the back of the crowd.  The man stood head and shoulders above those around him.  Even before he removed his hat, Alice knew him.  Murdoch Lancer was the tallest man she’d ever seen.  A giant in her mind.  Had he just now arrived?  She hadn’t noticed him when she came out of Florida’s place.

A man, wearing a dark suit and holding an open Bible in his hands, stepped in front of Alice and stopped between Florida and the casket.  Alice figured he was the preacher but wasn’t sure if he was the same one that had come to town a month ago.  His face was hidden by the brim of Florida’s hat.

Alice resisted the urge to lean forward and get a better look at the man.  He might see she’d been crying.  Or worse yet, Florida might notice.  Made no never mind who the preacher was anyway.  One Bible thumper was as good as the next.

With a loud “Eh-hem,” the preacher cleared his throat.  “We are gathered here on this the twelfth day of June in the eighteen hundred and seventy-first year of our Lord to lay to rest our dearly departed brother, Wilf Guthrie.”  His speech sounded like rain dripping on the bottom of an empty dishpan left lying up-side-down on Florida’s back porch.

Alice closed her eyes and pretended the preacher’s words were all a dream.  Uncle Wilf wasn’t really gone. He was on a trip to buy more horses.  Come Monday, he’d be back.  She’d run out to meet him.  He’d swing down off his horse and swoop her up in his arms like he always did.  When she was dizzy from being twirled around, he’d set her on her feet again.  They’d laugh, get the new horses settled in at the livery stable, and then she’d show him Bandit’s latest tricks.

In her make-believe world, Alice heard little of what the minister said.  She didn’t even notice he had quit talking until she felt Florida tug on her hand.

Alice opened her eyes.  The preacher was gone.  Uncle Wilf’s box was gone.

She tried to grip Johnny’s hand.  It wasn’t there.  When had Johnny let go of her?  Where had he gone?

Glancing to her right, she saw him stooped over by the mound of dirt that was beside her uncle’s grave.

Johnny picked up a fistful of dirt and held it in his hand a moment.  Then he slowly rose, stretching his hand over the grave.  The dirt sifted between his fingers and beat a soft tune on something below.

Tears stung Alice’s eyes.  Uncle Wilf was down there.

Stop it.   Don’t cover him up, she wanted to scream.  He’s not dead.  It’s all a game.  Uncle Wilf’s always fooling me.  He wouldn’t leave me.  He’s just pretending.

Scott stepped forward as Johnny stepped back.  He, too, reached down for a handful of dirt and dribbled it over the open hole.  When he was finished, he rejoined Johnny at Alice’s side.

Again, Florida tugged on Alice’s hand.

Alice resisted the pull.   Surely Florida didn’t expect her to put dirt on her uncle, too?  Wasn’t it enough she was here?  Wasn’t it enough she knew they had hidden Uncle Wilf away in that hole in the ground?

Florida persisted, half dragging Alice closer to the pile of dirt.

Alice bit her upper lip harder.  She swallowed and watched Florida do as Johnny and Scott had done.

Tears spilled from Alice’s eyes.  She blinked to hold them back, but they slid down her cheek anyway.  Uncle Wilf wasn’t dead.  He couldn’t be.  Who would take care of her?

Florida stood up.

Alice gulped.  “I won’t.  You can’t make me.”

Whether the words were spoken aloud or not, Florida seemed to hear them.  She guided Alice back to Johnny.

A sob caught in Alice’s throat.

Johnny reached for her and pulled her close–Florida letting go of her hand.

Tears streamed down Alice’s face.  She wrapped her arms around Johnny’s waist and cried.  She had to or her heart would burst.

Chapter 28

Stars sparkled overhead.  Other than the croaking of a frog now and then, all was quiet.

Johnny leaned his head back against the wall and gazed out over the porch rail.  He drew in a long breath.  At last, all of the sympathizers were gone and Pony was asleep.  He hoped she was asleep.  She needed rest after all she had been through.

The front door of the diner squeaked.  The latch clicked shut, followed by muted steps on the plank floor.

“Mind some company,” Scott asked, his voice softer than usual.

Johnny shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”

“If you’d rather be alone…”

“No.”  Johnny let his breath out slowly, dragging the single word with it.  He glanced up at his brother.

Scott looked around.  “Quiet out here.”


“Did Alice finally go to sleep?”

“Looked like it.”

Scott clasped his hands behind his back and looked down.

Johnny propped his left elbow on the arm of the chair, leaned forward, and rested his chin against the back of his fingers.  His knuckles pushed against his nose.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do about Alice?” Scott asked.

That was a question Johnny had been wrestling with ever since he had found out about her uncle’s death.  Her future seemed to be on the minds of a lot of people.  Some hadn’t been too particular who heard their thoughts on the matter, either.  He could have throttled a couple of old biddies for the things they had said within earshot of Alice.

Scott cleared his throat.  “I said, have you decided-“

“I heard you,” Johnny mumbled against his hand.

“You do realize you’re her legal guardian, don’t you,” Scott said.  “I talked to the sheriff.  He says that the document her uncle signed would stand up in any court . . . don’t go letting anyone push you into giving up your rights.”

“I know it’s my say,” Johnny replied.  He slid his hand from under his chin and rubbed the back of his neck.  If he did what he wanted, he’d pack Pony up first thing in the morning and head back to Lancer with her.  But what did she want?  Miss Florida had made it clear she wanted the girl.  Had she said anything to Pony?  A girl ought to have a mother.  Could he leave her here without giving up his claims to her?  What would be best for her in the long run?

Scott took a step closer and laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder.  “You know she’s welcome at Lancer.  She would be treated like any other member of the family.”

“I know.  It’s just . . . I don’t know what would be best for her.”

“What could be better than being part of our family?” Scott squeezed Johnny’s shoulder and then moved to the porch rail where he appeared to look the town over before turning to face his brother.

While Scott leaned against the railing, Johnny told him about Miss Florida having said she would like to give Pony a home.  That she needed Pony and hoped Pony would need her as much.

“Have you asked Alice what she wants?” Scott asked.

Johnny shook his head.  “She’s had enough to worry about.”

“Murdoch plans on leaving in the morning.”  Scott cocked his head to one side and scratched the opposite side of his neck.  “I suppose you could get him to agree to let you stay on for a day or so to get everything sorted out.”

“Can’t . . . that horse buyer’ll be there in a week.  I have to make sure those horses are ready.”

“We can handle it.”

“No.  It’s my responsibility.”  Johnny sat up straighter and arched his back. He relaxed into a slump again before continuing.  “I’ll just have to talk to Pony in the morning.”

Scott started toward the door.  He paused beside his brother.  “Get some sleep.”

“I will,” Johnny replied, glancing up at Scott.

Johnny sat alone a while longer.  He thought once that he heard the rattle of the door latch and expected Murdoch to join him.  The old man didn’t appear.  No one did.  If someone had started to open the door, that someone had decided against it.

With a yawn, Johnny stood and stretched.  It had been a long day.  Nothing could be settled tonight.  There was no need to borrow tomorrow’s troubles.  He’d cross those bridges when he came to them.  Tonight, he would sleep and dream of a good future for Pony Alice. Hopefully she was doing the same.

Sleep hadn’t come as easily as Johnny had hoped.  Daylight hadn’t arrived as quickly as he had hoped, either, and the question of what to do about Pony Alice still nagged his mind.  Talks with his family and Miss Florida hadn’t helped him.  Their advice and wishes only pulled him in opposite directions.

Johnny leaned over the porch rail of the boarding house and watched Pony Alice playing fetch with her puppy.  Miss Florida loved the girl. That was one thing he could be certain of.  It had shown in her eyes when she had presented her views to him about the girl’s future after catching him as soon as he had come downstairs.

His father’s arguments for taking Pony back to Lancer had been equally convincing during breakfast.  She would be treated like any other member of the family.  Jelly and Teresa had added their support to Murdoch’s case.

But what about Pony?  That was the question that wouldn’t leave Johnny alone.  And there was only one way to find that answer.  He pushed away from the railing and walked down the steps into the street.  “He’s fetching pretty good,” he said halting a stride away from Pony Alice.

Pony’s lips and brow puckered.  “You . . . reckon I’ll be able to keep him?” she asked.

“Why shouldn’t you?” Johnny answered, brow and mouth puckering.

She kicked at the dirt.  “Maybe they don’t allow no dogs.”

Johnny half squatted to look Pony in the eye.  “Who?”

“Those people at the . . ..”  Pony’s voice faded as her gaze dropped downward.

“What people?”  Realization struck Johnny like the slamming of a fist to his gut.  He reached out and took hold of Pony by both shoulders.  “You don’t think I’d send you back to that orphanage, do you?”

“Maybe, you wouldn’t have a choice.  Maybe the law-“

“The law’s got nothing to say about it.”

Pony Alice flinched at Johnny’s outburst.

Johnny pulled Pony against his chest and wrapped his arms around her.  “No one’s sending you to an orphanage.  Remember, I have that indenture paper your Uncle Wilf signed.  Anyone gets a crazy notion like that’ll have to go through me . . . and that won’t be no piece of cake.”

Pony relaxed against Johnny.  “Promise?”

“Promise.”  Johnny held Pony close a moment longer and then gently pushed her out from him.  “I’m not letting anyone send you any place you don’t want to go.  You understand that?”

“I think so . . . but where will I go?”  Pony’s eyes searched Johnny’s.

“You could go back to Lancer with me or you could . . ..”

“Could what?”

“You could stay here . . . with Miss Florida.”

Pony’s mouth sagged open.  “I could?”


Pony Alice bit her lip.  Her chin lifted and her mouth hardened.  “Oh . . . she probably wouldn’t want me.”

“What makes you say that?  Hasn’t she treated you well?”

Pony shrugged.  “Still don’t mean she wants me.  She just feels sorry for me like all them oth-“

“Oh, she wants you, all right,” Johnny said, cutting off words he knew would condemn several of the good people who had attended Wilf’s service the day before.  He couldn’t blame Pony for thinking most of them felt sorry for her.  Some hadn’t been too careful whose ears their words had fallen on, Pony’s included.

“How do you know?” Pony demanded.

Johnny brushed stray strands of Pony’s bangs from her eyes.  “She said so this morning.”  He softened his voice.  “She loves you, you know.”

Pony Alice pulled back out of Johnny’s grasp.  “You want me to stay.  You just wanna be rid of me.”

“That ain’t true and you know it.”  Johnny drew a deep breath and slowly let it out.  “I only want what’s best for you: what will make you happy.  Can’t you see that?  And the only way to do that is to let you decide where you want to be.”

“I ain’t nobody’s charity case.”

“Now did I say you were, Pony?”  Johnny took hold of Alice’s shoulders again and gave her a gentle shake.  “Did I?  If you stay with Miss Florida, I’m sure she’ll have plenty of chores for you to do . . . when you aren’t in school.  You won’t get a free ride goin’ with me, either.  You’ll have to pull your own weight just like everyone else in the family.”

Bandit whimpered at Pony Alice’s feet.  The girl reached down and scratched the pup behind the ears.  “What if I don’t like it?”  Alice’s words faded into silence.

“Whatever you decide, all I ask is that you give it a fair try.  If it doesn’t work out, we’ll do something else.  All right?”

Pony Alice nodded.

Johnny’s hands fell to his sides and he rose to his feet.  What would Pony decide?  “You want some time alone, give some thought to what you want?” he asked, fixing his eyes on the distant skyline.

Pony’s “okay” was little more than a whisper.

A lump in his throat made it hard to swallow.  Johnny patted Alice’s arm, turned, and walked toward the livery stable to check on Barranca.  He didn’t feel like facing anyone.  Later would be soon enough.  Later when Alice had made her choice.

At the door to the livery, Johnny glanced back.  Alice was still crouched beside her puppy.  “She’ll always be my girl,” he muttered.  “No matter where she is.”

The sun gleamed an hour higher in the sky.  Barranca stood saddled at the hitch rail in front of Florida’s diner.  He pawed the dirt and let out a long, loud whinny as the Lancer wagon rattled away on the road out of town.

Johnny stood on the porch, Alice at his side and Miss Florida a step behind the girl.  He watched his family grow smaller.  The time had come to leave and he turned to face Pony Alice.

Miss Florida tucked a stray hair behind Alice’s ear.  “Thank you, Johnny,” she said.  “I’ll take good care of her.”

“I know.”  Johnny reached out and tweaked Alice on the tip of her nose.  “Be a good girl.  Hear?  You’ll have me to answer to if you aren’t.”

“I’ll be good.”  Alice smiled a toothy grin, a gleam of mischief in her eyes.

Johnny squatted to look her in the eye.  “Promise?”


“Oh, she’ll be good all right,” Miss Florida said, wrapping a hand over each of Alice’s shoulders and giving them a gentle shake.  “I’ll see to that.”

Johnny chuckled as he stood.  “I bet you will.  Still, you know how to reach me if you need me.”  He looked down at Alice.  “I’ll be back in a few weeks.  I expect Bandit to have learned at least two new tricks.  And don’t let him get any bad habits, like chasin’ horses or draggin’ laundry off the line. My ol’, uh, Murdoch’ll have your hide if that pup causes any trouble at Lancer when you’re there.”

“I won’t.”

Horse hooves plodded by somewhere behind Johnny.  Barranca stomped–metal shoe thumping wood.

It was time to go, yet Johnny lingered.  Why?  He didn’t know.  His staying was only making it harder to leave.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Miss Florida said, one hand rising and beginning to reach out before falling back to her side.

“Thanks.”  Johnny glanced down at the tip of his boots and shuffled backward a step.

Barranca stomped again, striking the hitching-rail post a little louder than before.

Johnny half turned toward where his horse was tied.  “Guess I’d better go before he tears that down,” he said.

“Good-bye, Johnny,” Miss Florida said.

“Good-bye,” Johnny replied, taking another step closer to the edge of the porch.  He paused and looked at Alice.  “Bye, Pony.  See you next month.”

Alice’s head tipped forward.  “Bye.”

One stride took Johnny to the steps.  Two more and he was on the ground.

“Johnny!”  Alice’s cry barely came before her arms wrapped around his leg.

Johnny stooped to enfold her in his own arms.  How had she gotten such a grip on his heart?  Would it always tear him apart to leave her behind?

Alice let loose first.  Johnny let her pull away.  She swiped a fist across her eyes.  He felt moisture pool in his own.

Neither spoke as their gazes held for a brief moment.  Then Alice returned to Miss Florida’s protective arm on the porch and Johnny mounted his fidgeting horse.

Barranca tossed his head and tugged at the reins that held him to a walk.  Johnny glanced back as he turned his mount into the broad roadway that the Lancer wagon had taken.

Pony Alice and Miss Florida waved with hands high above their heads.  Johnny let the reins slip through one fist as he returned the wave with his other hand.

Barranca broke into a rough jog.  He begged for more rein, got it, and stretched into a gallop.

After letting the horse run hard for ways, Johnny eased him back into a jog.  They had a long way to go and he was in no hurry to catch up with his family, who were less than a quarter of a mile ahead.

Johnny looked over his shoulder one last time.  Trees now hid most of the tiny buildings of the town.  “I did what I had to do,” he said, barely aware that he spoke out loud.

He fixed his eyes once again on the road ahead.  He had a family.  Miss Florida had no one.  She would give Alice the one thing that he couldn’t–a mother.  A ten-year-old girl needed that.  His girl needed that.  Besides, he wasn’t losing Pony Alice.  He could see her anytime he wanted, and he could bring her to Lancer for visits. What better life could she have than that?  What better life could he give his girl?

The end


Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Desert Sun directly.

3 thoughts on “Johnny’s Girl by Desert Sun

  1. oh this was wonderful. It made me cry but that’s a good thing. This was just a perfect addition to one of my favorite episodes. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story, I loved the further development of the relationship between Johnny and Pony Alice as well as the rest of the Lancer “family”.


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