Genre: family, het, adventure
Summary: Scott and Johnny are led on a merry chase by a beautiful woman and some dangerous Comancheros.
Notes: Written in December 2007, but there is no time limit on wanting feedback! I haven't looked this over for a very long time, but I'm posting as is.
CHAPTER 1 - THE AWAKENING
The only way to have a friend is to be one.
Go oft to the house of thy friend, for weeds choke the unused path.
Scott, lying on his stomach on a soft feather mattress, was slow to awaken. Even with his eyes still closed, he was aware that it was early; the sounds of the normal ranch routine had not yet begun. He rolled from his stomach onto his side and realized he was not in his own bed. A second later his foot encountered the soft calf of a woman's leg and his arm came in contact with soft female curves.
He shifted so he could view the woman with whom he was sharing the bed. Her long reddish hair was in disarray, obscuring her features, but he didn't need to see her eyes to know they were pale blue, that the eyelashes that fanned over her freckled cheek were dark and long, or that her pleasantly shaped lips were so very enticing.
As he smiled, she awoke and looked up at him with startled eyes. They were, indeed, pale blue. Her hands rose to cover her face as she moaned.
Breaking into a full grin, Scott pulled her hands away from her eyes. "What kind of greeting is that?"
She started to sit up, clutched at the coverlet in an attempt to hide herself from his inquisitive look, and cried, "Don't!"
"Don't what?" Scott tugged at the bedclothes and caught a glimpse of some lacy undergarments. "I saw a sight more than a bare shoulder last night, Melody."
"Don't be so darned chipper first thing in the morning." She sat upright in alarm, her unruly curls tumbling over her milk-white shoulders. "Oh my! The men will be up and about any time now!" She pushed at Scott's bare chest. "Get out of here, Scott! If even one of them sees you, it'll be all over the county before lunchtime."
He replied smoothly, "What difference does it make if we know it's not true? Remember how Goldsmith said, 'she never followed wicked ways, unless when she was sinning.'"
"Don't you throw that fancy poem at me again. You may very well find this amusing, but I'll never have a moment's peace if they think I'm a loose woman. Get out!"
Scott lay back and laced his fingers together under his head. "I'm not going anywhere, Mrs. Lancer. That has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Mrs. Scott Lancer." He smiled with satisfaction as she struggled to remove a ring from her left hand and failed.
"Oh, for Lord's sake, Scott, do you really think that us getting hitched by some drunkard calling himself a judge in that one-horse town is legally binding?"
"Yes, Melody, I do. I aim to hold you to those promises we made, too. To love and to cherish, to obey, to refrain from brow-beating each other, weren't those some of them?" he teased.
"Well I am not about to obey anyone, much less you, so get the dadgum out of my bed! Besides, I didn't know what I was doing, due to you plying me with rye."
"Hey, hold on there. You're the one that ordered that bottle, missy. Besides, you know I don't need to get a gal tipsy."
"Huh, typical man." She flipped her hair back and glared at him. "Makes no never mind to me. The end result's the same; we did something to regret."
"I don't regret anything, Melody." Dismayed, Scott reached out for her, but she slid out from under the covers and escaped into her dressing room next door.
She called over her shoulder, "Start the stove fire in the kitchen on your way out. Shooting stars, I need some coffee!"
Scott sighed and reluctantly got out of bed. He slowly picked up his clothing that was strewn around the room. Its trail went all the way out into the hallway, reminding him of the haste they had been in to consummate their marriage. He grinned at the memory - they'd both been in an all-fired hurry.
In the light of day he was starting to have doubts about the credentials of the man who'd called himself 'the Judge.' Scott called out, "Melody?" He could hear her sloshing some water around and then banging a drawer in her dressing room. Even though she didn't reply, he continued, raising his voice to compensate for the door that stood between them, "I'm going to ride into Green River and drum up the Justice of the Peace, so we can do this right. Or maybe you'd like a real wedding? How about having it at Lancer? We can invite everyone in the county and put on such a great party they'll forgive us." When there was still no comment, Scott picked up his shirt and started to button it up. "If this is about my father. . . he'll be fine with us getting married once I tell him how much you mean to me, Melody."
Finally she stuck her head around the door to peer at him, her expression serious and somewhat worried. "Scott, we're a little late to be getting married the right way, aren't we? Your family isn't going to be pleased, and everyone from here to all the way up the valley will say it was too quick, that we had to get-."
Scott pushed the door open wide, took hold of her bare shoulders and pulled her into his arms. Despite her becoming stiff at his touch, he wrapped his arms lovingly around her. "Melody," he said adamantly, "if I'd taken six month to woo you like some callow youth, taken you out on picnics, and escorted you to the barn dance . . . would that make my love any more true than it is?"
She went soft in his arms and presented her face to him, inviting a kiss. "I'd have died if I'd a-waited six days, much less six months, and you know it, Scott Lancer."
Scott needed no further encouragement and swept her into a passionate kiss. When she eventually pulled back, with eyelids half-closed with lingering ardor, he asked breathlessly, "How did this all start, anyway?"
"As I recall," she said with a smile, "you brought some cattle over to my ranch."
Earlier . . .
"Archibald Stewart has been a friend to this family ever since the Lancers came to California back in '45," Murdoch said. "He and his wife took refuge here many a time back when Haney's raids were going on. For all of us, there was safety in numbers. Archibald's wife, God bless her, was best friend to your mother, Scott. When Catherine was close to having you, it was Mrs. Stewart who was the rock she clung to.
"Archie and I were out riding down the outlaws and only had a couple of old men to stay behind to care for the women. But Allison, she taught Catherine how to load the rifle and even taught her to shoot straight." Murdoch ran a hand over his mouth as he recalled his first wife and the troubled, dangerous times they had lived in. "This was a wild country back then."
Murdoch was lost in thought for a few minutes, then looked up at his two sons patiently waiting to hear the rest of his story. He continued, "Anyway, we owe that family a great deal, and even if there's only one of them left standing, we will pay our debt to that person. If Melody's her father's daughter, she'll do all right. So go and deliver the cattle to Stewart's daughter, as agreed."
"Well, it ain't like she's married, Scott." Johnny let out a piercing whistle and spurred after a straying calf before Scott could reply.
Pulling his bandana over his nose to keep the dust and the stench of the cattle out of his nostrils, Scott rode his cow pony alongside the small herd and wondered how he'd been talked into the task. He hated dealing with cattle in any form, and had generally stuck to the financial side of running the Lancer ranch for the past couple of years.
Johnny, on the other hand, had grown skilled with handling the cloven-hoofed beasts, and seemed to be genuinely interested in all aspects of the animals, from breeding to their health issues. He made a good trail boss and had been the man to drive the Lancer herd to the railhead for the past several seasons.
Johnny galloped back to Scott's side. He pulled his red kerchief down off his nose and revealed a grin. "You sure it's not the lady that's makin' you drag your heels, brother?"
"What is that supposed to mean?" asked Scott testily.
"I'm talking about Señora Melody Mendoza. You used to have your eye on her, didn't you? Back when you'd just got here and were still wet behind the ears. Back when she was plain Melody Stewart, just a nice Scottish girl."
Even though Scott knew that his brother was poking at him in the hope of eliciting some strong reaction, he replied calmly, "Fernando Mendoza was my friend, Johnny. I was happy that she agreed to be his bride. Happy for both of them."
"Yeah, but that was a few years ago and now she's back and wearing widow's weeds."
"We're just doing a neighbor a good turn. Besides, Murdoch and Archibald Stewart went way back, so this is the least we can do for his daughter."
"His widowed daughter," Johnny pointed out.
Murdoch had agreed that two hundred head of stock would be sold to the S-Bar-M, to replenish the neighboring ranch's depleted herd. Scott had been reluctant to allow them to carry a loan, especially now that a woman was running the ranch alone. "It remains to be seen if she can bring them to market on her own," he said to Johnny.
"All she has to do is keep them safe, fed and watered, then once roundup comes around, we'll bring her herd in with ours and get them all to market." Johnny added, "Murdoch lost a good friend in Mr. Stewart. When his sons died of the fever, he went downhill as fast as bullet on a dry day."
"The whole family's had one tragedy after another," Scott agreed. The S-Bar-M had been a substantial spread at one time, but with the sons pre-deceasing their father, there had been no family to help Stewart out. The man had aged quickly and in no time at all he'd let the place get run down. With no one responsible around to keep an eye on things, much of the Stewart herd had wandered off, or been taken by natural predators and rustlers. Just before Archie Stewart slipped off to meet his Maker, the daughter had returned to lay claim to a ranch that had once been a rival of Lancer, but was now in sad disarray.
"Where's Melody been the past few years?" Scott asked, despite himself. He'd avoided talking about her or even listening to any conversation where her name cropped up, mostly because of his feelings of remorse. He'd been sweet on her back when he had been relatively new to California. The day after he had escorted the redhead to a dance he'd heard that she had become engaged to a local man, Fernando Mendoza. Scott had been disappointed beyond measure at the time. Now it all seemed a long time ago and his feelings for her had dulled.
"Where's she been? I'm not sure, but from what I heard," Johnny said, "Fernando got fed up with taking orders from her old man and she went with him to Texas. I been told they hit hard times."
Johnny gave some instructions to the Lancer vaqueros as they neared the S-Bar-M then returned to ride alongside Scott. "You knew her husband."
"Melody's husband? Of course I knew Fernando," he said with a hint of bitterness in his voice. "What about him?"
"I don't know. Just . . .how he was one of my first friends when I first came here. We used to go to the cockfights at the Helldorado until the mayor closed it down. Then he took the new missus to Texas soon after they got hitched." He paused then said, "Heard a rumor at the time he had a big fight with Mr. Stewart over a horse, that's why he left." He pulled a sour face. "Old Archie and Murdoch were cut from the same cloth."
Scott could still picture Melody on her wedding day, an affair he'd been reluctant to attend, yet had anyway. That must have been four, no five years ago. She'd been as radiant as any bride in her homemade dress of white fabric, trimmed with the Stewart tartan ribbons. Her veil of old lace, handed down through the generations, covered her red-gold hair. The next time he'd laid eyes on her was a week ago at the funeral of her father. This time she'd been veiled in black, mourning the passing of the remains of her family.
Scott broke away from his thoughts of her and focused on the husband. "Fernando. . . we played poker a few times." The man had been handsome in a wild way, his over-long black hair and blue eyes eerily similar to those of Johnny. He'd thought at the time that Fernando Mendoza was the epitome of everything Johnny used to be: unruly, impetuous, reckless. But Johnny had settled into the life at Lancer.
Fernando had wanted to raise horses, only it had been rumored he had taken the low road and had stolen a stallion to use as breeding stock. Nothing had ever been proven, but it had been enough to turn Archibald Stewart against his son-in-law. "I really liked Fernando," Scott said. It was true; he'd found the volatile man charismatic, as had many other folks in the area. That was why his sudden departure with Melody, with no explanation, had been so disconcerting.
"Yeah, I liked him, too. I heard he died in Texas in bad company. You think that's true?"
Suddenly irritated for no good reason at his brother's questions, Scott retorted, "I wouldn't know. Let's get this herd delivered before the sun sets." He dug his heels into the side of his horse and veered behind the cattle, pushing them along at a faster pace.
The Stewart-Mendoza hacienda at the S-Bar-M was similar to the adobe building the Lancers called home, though not so grand. With arched windows, a lookout turret, balconies, and roof tiles the color of red clay, it had an elegant appearance. But any resemblance to Lancer stopped there. The shutters were hanging at angles and adobe bricks exposed and crumbling. The shrubs along the drive were overgrown, fences were broken, a couple of cows meandered the yard and the small barn had a large hole in the roof. Allover it had a dilapidated appearance.
While the Lancer vaqueros moved the small herd to a pasture with access to a pond that was overgrown with brush, Johnny and Scott rode up to the house. There was nobody in sight, but a scruffy herding dog came around the corner barking. Scott was kept busy keeping his horse under control and missed seeing the woman walk up behind them. Once the dog had stopped barking and his horse had settled down, Scott noticed that Johnny was sitting on Barranca with his hands in the air.
Scott's hand slipped across the butt of his gun, but Johnny warned, "Wait!" Scott was unsure if the direction was to stop him from pulling out his revolver, or if it was to prevent the person behind them from shooting. In a split second, Scott made the decision to do as his brother suggested, and he, too, held his hands in the air. He turned slowly and faced Mrs. Melody Stewart-Mendoza.
She stood with the growling dog at her side and aimed the business end of a shotgun at the two mounted men. Even though she was wielding the weapon with serious intent, Scott looked right past the weapon. All he could see was that the pretty girl he'd briefly known had become a striking-looking woman. Gone were the black mourning clothes that had covered her from head to toe just a few days earlier.
Scott looked her over, noting the freckles and sunburn across her nose and forehead. She was wearing a shabby bolero jacket over a white blouse and a riding skirt. Her down-at-the-heel boots had a set of Mexican spurs strapped on with what looked like baling wire. A flat-brimmed black hat sat firmly on her head and although her hair was pulled back tight, several long curls had escaped and caressed her cheeks.
The first words out of her mouth were harsh. "If you boys don't raise those hands a sight higher, you're gonna get your fingers shot clean off!"
Johnny suddenly laughed. He stuck his hands up even higher and said, "I aim to stay in one piece, ma'am."
"You have a strange notion of hospitality," Scott remarked grimly. "We're the Lancers."
She lowered the barrel of the gun then grudgingly motioned they could put their hands down. "Didn't recognize you at first," she said, looking hard at Scott's face. "My dad always told me to be ready for trouble. No offense meant."
Scott remembered quite a different young woman who he'd escorted to a dance a few years back. He replied sourly, "I suppose I'm expected to say 'no offense taken' about this point."
"I'll just go and get the vaqueros to settle the herd down over in that pasture." Johnny wheeled Barranca around and rode off without waiting for an okay.
"Well, cowboy, I guess that leaves us to talk business." Melody peered up at him with one hand shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun. "You got the bill of sale in a pocket of that fancy jacket you're wearing?"
It was all Scott could to do concentrate on the job at hand once he looked into Melody's eyes. She looked desperately out of place on the ranch with her red hair and pale skin, even if he knew she had inherited her father's strong character. When he looked at her he could visualize the country her family, as well as his, had emigrated from - Scotland.
She said mockingly, "You should shut your mouth lest a bumblebee flies in." She turned on her heel and walked past Scott to the front door. She called over her shoulder, "Best you come in out of the sun, Mr. Lancer. Don't mind the dog. He's been fed today."