Brotherly Love

He was standing toward the back of the crowd when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. Turning, his eyes met hers – the most beautiful eyes he'd even seen.

"Mr. Lancer?" she asked.

Tipping his hat he gave her his brightest smile. "Johnny, ma'am. You can call me Johnny."

"Alright, Johnny. And it's Miss not ma'am." She gave him her most beguiling smile. "My name is Jennie Whitfield."

"Pleasure to meet you ma. . . I mean Miss."

Jennie held out a snippet of purple ribbon with a number written on one side. "I was hoping to get to know you better, Johnny." She murmured. Johnny took the ribbon from her and held it up to better read the numerals written upon it. "It's number twelve," she clarified. "Box number twelve. It's the only one tied in purple ribbon." Casting her eyes downward shyly, she paused a moment before speaking again. "I know I'm not supposed to ask but I'd be delighted if you'd bid on it. I'd love to spend the afternoon with you."

"Number twelve in purple ribbon," he repeated. "I'll be sure to keep an eye out for it." A couple seconds of awkward silence hung between them.

"Well, I suppose I better go. I'm here with my uncle and he probably thinks I got lost or something." She backed away slowly. Johnny tipped his hat again and watched her disappear into the crowd of town folks who had turned out for the box lunch auction.

Johnny looked down at the little piece of satin in his hand. "Number twelve," he murmured before tucking it into the pocket of his vest with about a dozen other similar small pieces of various colors, each with a different number written on one side. He loved box lunches. The church held one every month during the summer and he relished the attention from all the ladies that hoped he would win their lunch. Johnny never bid on the same girl's box twice. He liked to play the field. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he scanned the gathering in hopes of spotting Jennie. She was new in town and the prettiest young lady Johnny had seen in quite some time.

As the auctioneer climbed up on the stage, he called the crowd to attention. The parents and older folks stepped back to the edges of the inner circle of young people. Johnny held his place. "Now ladies and gents, you all know how this works. Each young lady has prepared a picnic lunch and packed it into a box. Each box is tied with a different color ribbon and is numbered so that no young man will know whose is whose. The boxes will be brought up in random order one at a time. The highest bidder – who must pay in cash, no credit – wins the box, the lunch inside and the attentions of the owner for the afternoon. Any questions?"

Everybody glanced around but no one raised their hand. "All right then, let's get started. And gents, don't insult the lady by bidding low. Who knows? If the lunch isn't worth the price maybe the girl will be!" The crowd laughed politely. The table behind the auctioneer was loaded down with boxes. Two men, one on each end, brought up one at a time. The auctioneer would hold the box up high and shout out the number. The bidding began.

Johnny pulled all the snippets of ribbon out of his pocket and looked at the numbers. He made his decision and tucked the remaining pieces away. When the auctioneer held up a large white box tied in purple ribbon with the number "12" written plainly on the front, he stood up a little taller and paid closer attention. Several men, boys really, began bidding. Most of the other lunches had gone for anywhere from four bits to two dollars. Johnny waited. When the auctioneer was just about ready to slam down his gavel he called out loudly, "Ten dollars." A murmur circulated through the crowd and everyone turned toward the bidder's voice to see who would offer such an outlandish amount.

"Did you say ten dollars, sir?" Johnny nodded, making his way through the crowd to the edge of the stage. The auctioneer gazed into his eyes and saw he was sincere. It was no joke. Asking if there were any more bids, Johnny scanned those closest to him. Everyone knew they dared not outbid a Lancer. "Sold!" The auctioneer shouted, slamming his gavel. He bent down to hand the box to Johnny. As he did so, however, he whispered. "That'll be ten dollars – cash."

Johnny smiled and reached into his pants pocket pulling out a ten dollar gold coin which he handed to the man. The auctioneer actually put the coin between his back teeth and bit down on it to ensure it was real. Convinced, he dropped it in his jacket pocket and resumed his task.

Johnny carried the box over to the far edge of the crowd. Glancing around, he finally saw Jennie talking to a rather tall fellow with a mustache. Johnny made his way over to the couple. Holding out the box he said, "I won." Jennie turned and blushed slightly, coyly gazing up into his eyes from underneath long, thick lashes.

"I'm so glad," she murmured. "This is my uncle Claudius Constantine. Uncle Claudius, this is Mr. Lancer." Johnny extended his hand but when Jennie's uncle didn't reciprocate, quickly dropped it back down to his side. Johnny studied the man through narrowed eyes. He had an instant dislike for this Mr. Constantine. Jennie fidgeted with the wide-brimmed straw hat she held in her hands.

Johnny held out his crooked arm. "Shall we go?" He said, never taking his eyes off Jennie's uncle. Jennie looped her arm through his. As they walked away, Claudius pulled out his gold pocket watch and called after them.

"It's one o' clock. Have her back in front of the hotel by three . . sharp!"

Johnny never turned around to acknowledge he had even heard the man but when he glanced at the girl on his arm, he saw how embarrassed she was. "My uncle is very protective." She declared.

When they reached the Lancer buggy, Johnny took Jennie's elbow and helped her step up into the seat. He handed her the box, which she settled in her lap while reaching up with her free hand to put on her hat. Johnny jumped up next to her and laced the reins through his fingers. The seat was very narrow and their shoulders touched which didn't seem to particularly bother either of them.

"Where are we going?" Jennie asked, as she turned her head to look at him.

"You'll see." Johnny said, lightly slapping the horses into a gentle trot. He took the south road out of town. There was a clearing on the riverbank about two miles upstream. It was the ideal spot, one of his favorites, and the one to which he had taken more than one young lady. As he drew the horses to a halt, he turned to watch her expression.

"Oh, Johnny, it's so beautiful here! Help me down." He trotted around the buggy and stood with both arms extended. Jennie placed the box on the seat and braced her hands on Johnny's shoulders as his hands encircled her waist. When he sat her down on the grass, she found herself in very close proximity to him. They simply looked into each other's eyes for a moment.

"You can let me go now." She said.

"Do I have to?" Johnny murmured.

His hands still around her waist, Jennie smiled. "Why Mr. Lancer! We hardly know each other. It wouldn't be proper. What on earth would my uncle say?"

Johnny grinned. "I don't really care." He replied dropping his hands to his sides as Jennie stepped away. She ran over to the river's edge, looking both up and down stream. When she turned back to him, her dress swirled out in a small circle. Jennie clasped her hands.

"It's perfect! Just perfect!"

Johnny grabbed a blanket out of the back of the buggy and picked up the box. He carried them over to her, handed her the box and shook out the blanket. He brought it down on an area thick with grass and waited for Jennie to be seated. Once she was, he dropped down on the opposite corner. He grabbed one end of the ribbon and began to tug until Jennie slapped his fingers.

"Johnny Lancer. Now you just wait a minute. Where are your manners?" Although she sounded perturbed, he could tell by the shy smile on her full lips that she was just kidding. He stretched out both legs, tossed his hat aside, and rested back on one elbow. Jennie pulled the lid off the box and arranged it upright so that he couldn't see what was inside. "Let me see. What do we have? I hope it's something you like."

"I wouldn't care if I had to eat the carton as long as I could be with you."

"Why Mr. Lancer, what a charmer you are." Johnny smiled widely. He might have had a reputation as a fast gun and a hombre not to be messed with, but he also had a reputation as a ladies' man and it was the second that was most important to him.

"Time's a wastin' and I'm hungry," he said, trying to peek over the makeshift barrier.

Jennie pulled out a paper-wrapped bundle. "We have cold, thin sliced, rare roast beef, "she said, handing the package to him. Reaching back in the box she pulled out something wrapped in a clean linen cloth. "And fresh rye bread." Johnny could hardly believe his ears, his two favorites. "And, let's see. Oh, yes," she added, pulling out a small jar. "And spicy brown

mustard . . ."

"Homemade?" He asked while unwrapping the bread and meat.

"Of course! Not be me, mind you." Jennie studied the label. "Says here it was made by a Mrs. Marshall, a Mrs. Vera Marshall."

Johnny loved Mrs. Marshall's spicy mustard. He bought about a dozen jars every time he was close to her shop. But she lived miles from here. "Where on earth did you find it?" He asked, prying off the lid and taking a deep sniff.

"It wasn't easy," she muttered. Returning the smile to her lips, she continued unpacking the box. "Sweet pickles, a bottle of Sedona Valley burgundy wine, and . . ." she was pretending to have difficulty reaching the last item. Holding the pie triumphantly in both hands, she beamed. And fresh pie. Blueberry, I think." She said, tilting her head as if in thought.

"All my favorites, " he exclaimed. "How did you know?"

Jennie folded her hands in her lap. "I have my ways."

Johnny made himself a sandwich, took a huge bite, and then poured some wine into a cup. Taking a deep swallow, he shook his head slightly from side to side. "Good," he declared. "Real good." Seeing that she hadn't helped herself to any of the food, he drew his brows together. His Pa had taught him to never eat in front of others. "Aren't you having anything?" He asked.

Jennie shook her head. "No, not right now." She leaned forward and supported her chin on her hands, placing her elbows on her knees. "Besides, I like to watch a man eat. Go ahead." Johnny hesitated. He looked longingly at the sandwich in his hand not knowing if he should take another bite or not. "Eat!" She scolded. "Or I'll think you don't like what I fixed. And that would hurt my feelings."

Johnny grinned and took another hefty bite of meat and bread. He certainly didn't want to hurt her feelings! Swallowing part of the food and tucking the remainder into the pouch of one cheek he asked, "So what else were able to find out?" He finished the rest of his sandwich and took a sip of wine.

"Oh, just little things. Where you live; who your father is; that you have a brother named . . . Scott, is it?" Johnny nodded, crunching down on a pickle. "That you get into trouble more often than not. That you're an excellent poker player. That you like to drink a shot of whisky followed by a cold beer. Little things."

"But I don't know anything about you, except that you're the prettiest girl I've ever seen."

Jennie blushed slightly and busied herself cutting and serving the pie. "Well, you've met my uncle. My parents wanted me to see some of this big old world and they don't like to travel but Uncle Claudius does. We've been to Louisiana, and Kansas, and last fall we toured Texas, Nevada and Arizona. He even wanted to explore Mexico but I was too scared."

Johnny, already finished with his first slice of pie, extended his plate for another. "Too scared of what?"

Jennie shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Bandits I suppose. I heard that all the men in Mexico do is sit around napping, drinking, chasing women and robbing people."

Johnny burst out laughing. "Really? Didn't anyone tell you that I grew up there?" Jennie shook her head, her eyes widening. "They're good people, just live life a little differently than – say - you and I, that's all."

"Is that where you learned to be a gunfighter?"

Johnny's grin faded and he cast his eyes downward. "I had to learn how to use a gun in order to stay alive. I practiced. I got good. I don't enjoy using that particular skill, 'cept maybe for contests."

"How many men have you killed?"

Johnny looked up, a hard glint in his eyes. "Too many. One is too many." He snapped. Jennie recoiled a little and began picking up the leftovers and packing them in the box. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean . . . It's not a topic to discuss with a lady." When Jennie met his gaze, Johnny broke into a wide smile. Moving his arm aside, he rolled on his back. Rubbing his belly, he exclaimed. "That was sooooo good but I ate too much. I always eat too much." Grinning he turned his head to look at her. "Weren't we talking about you?"

Jennie brushed some crumbs off the blanket and put the lid back on the carton. The mood had suddenly changed. Standing, she crossed her arm behind her back and held its elbow with her free hand. Turning, she began slowly walking toward the water's edge. Johnny wondered if he had said something which offended her. He watched her as she bent down, picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them one-by-one into the river. Getting up, he tucked his fingers into the front pockets of his pants and sauntered over to stand beside her. Spying a small rock on the shore, he picked it up, crouched down, and flicked it with his wrist. It skipped four times across the water. Jennie dropped the rest of her pebbles, brushed her hands - one against the other - and kept her eyes focused on the water. Rising, Johnny took a few steps until he stood behind her. There was a large oak tree on his left and he extended his arm up to support it on a low limb.

"What's wrong?" He said, genuine concern touching his voice. He stood so close to Jennie that she could feel his warm breath on the back of her neck. She took a few small steps sideways before turning. When she did, she boldly met his gaze and smiled.

"Nothing, really. I'm spoiling our afternoon." She reached out and took his right hand in hers. "Let go for a walk."

They strolled slowly upstream, hand in hand. No words passed between them. Suddenly Johnny stopped and tugged her hand to halt her steps. Holding one finger to his lips, he used the same hand to point to a spot near a hickory tree just off to their left. Jennie turned to see a doe and her fawn. Pressing up against his arm, she leaned her head close to ear. "Oh, Johnny, aren't they beautiful?" Although she whispered, her voice apparently was loud enough for the animals to hear and they scampered away. Johnny turned his head toward Jennie. Her face was only inches away and he desperately wanted to kiss her. When he leaned toward her, however, she dropped his hand and backed away. "We better start heading back." Turing, she quickly made her way back to the clearing. Johnny had to quicken his pace in order to keep up with her. She had already picked up the box and was shaking out the blanket. Taking both from her hands, he followed her to the buggy and tossed them into the back while she climbed up into the seat. Sitting beside her, he put his hat back on his head and picked up the reins.

"I'm sorry." He muttered. "I shouldn't have . . ."

"Johnny I had a lovely time this afternoon. I'm so glad you enjoyed the food I chose. I wanted everything to be just right." She dropped her eyes and focused on her hands, which were folded properly in her lap. "It's just that . . . we might never see each other again. I mean, I want to but my uncle and I are staying in Avalon and that's quite a distance when it comes to courtship."

Johnny turned to look at her. "We'll see each other again. You can bet on that." He then slapped the horses gently with the reins and turned the buggy back toward town. The streets had emptied quickly, it being a Sunday, so it was easy to spot Jennie's uncle standing impatiently in front of the hotel, watch in hand. Johnny drew the horses to a halt directly in front of him. Mr. Constantine tucked his watch back into his vest pocket before stepping forward to help his niece down.

Glaring up at Johnny he said, "I told you three sharp. What part of sharp don't you understand?" He had his hand around Jennie's upper arm and began pulling her down the wooden sidewalk to their rig. Johnny tied up the reins and was just about to jump out of the buggy and confront the man when Jennie glanced back over her shoulder and shook her head. Taking a deep breath, he remained standing until they had both gotten into their wagon and drove away.

Murdoch was sitting in the parlor reading that week's newspaper when Johnny returned, slamming the front door with a loud bang behind himself. He threw his hat at the hook on the wall, missed, and kicked it under the nearby table. His boots echoed loudly on the wood floor as he stomped over to the staircase. He had marched up the first three steps and was about even with the parlor door when he heard his father call out. "Have a nice time son?"

Johnny could imagine the smirk on Murdoch's face. One thing about his father, he liked to tease. "Fine. Just fine." He growled, ascending the remaining stairs. He slammed shut his bedroom door then peeled off his vest, throwing it at the chair and jumped on the bed. Lying on his back, he stared at the ceiling. 'What went wrong?' he wondered. Had he been too "forward"? Had he misread her signals? Or was it just her uncle, that nasty Mr. Constantine, who had really come between them? He didn't know but he was going to find out. He wasn't about to let her go, at least not that easily.

Chapter 2

When Murdoch had first handed the tickets to Scott his son had been less than enthused. A cattleman's convention was not his idea of a good time but his father had decided to send him in his place this year. At least the convention had been in San Francisco. The last presentation had been given just that afternoon.

Scott was actually glad that Murdoch had insisted he attend. He found the presentations interesting and picked up a lot of good information on types of stock, new blends of feed, veterinary care, and market pricing. He made a mental note to thank Murdoch when he got home; perhaps even bring him an aged bottle of cognac. Leaving in the morning, Scott had decided to enjoy a really good meal in the hotel dining room. The food served at the convention was good but rather commonplace; steak, potatoes, pie. Remembering the wonderful restaurant meals he had enjoyed in Boston, and knowing this particular hotel was known for its culinary cuisine, he decided to splurge.

The dining room was exceptionally busy. He recognized a few men from the convention who were now dining with what he assumed to be their wives. The waiters and busboys were scurrying around in an attempt to give the best service possible and earn a nice tip. As he scanned the menu, the maître de, a worried look on his face and a sparkling white linen towel draped over his arm, approached the table.

"Excuse me, Mr. Lancer." Scott looked up but remained silent. "Beg pardon of my intrusion sir."

"Yes?" Scott asked, still holding the menu up in front of his eyes.

"I know you are dining alone this evening and I have a tremendous favor to ask of you." Scott lowered the menu just slightly and looked the man in the eyes. "The lady, there by the door," He continued, nodding his head slightly toward the draped entrance. "Well, she had been misinformed that this dining room is by reservation only and failed to make one." Scott looked toward the door. There stood a tall, statuesque woman dressed exquisitely looking toward his table. As he studied her, she smiled demurely.

"Go on," Scott muttered.

"This is most embarrassing but, as you have an extra setting at your table, the lady was wondering perhaps if you would be willing to . . ." The maître d' was hemming and hawing.

"Of course," Scott said. "She is most welcome to join me."

"Oh thank you sir. You are most gracious. Our finest bottle of wine will be delivered immediately, on the house." A dazzling smile replaced the man's previous expression of anxiety. He turned quickly and scurried back to the woman's side. As he gave her the news, the woman looked directly at Scott and smiled. The maître d' led her to the opposite side of the table and Scott stood as she arrived. "Mr. Lancer please allow me to present to you Miss Millicent Montgomery."

"Mr. Lancer," Millicent said, extending her gloved hand. "I don't know how I can ever thank you enough for letting me share your table. I'm afraid it is quite forward of me."

Scott gently grasped her fingers and placed a light kiss on the back of her hand. "Nonsense. I'm most happy to be of service. I'm sure we will make fine dining companions."

After they were seated, the maître d' snapped his fingers and a waiter carrying a silver ice bucket on a stand immediately advanced to his side. He pulled a bottle out of the bucket and held it up so that the maître d' could read the label. Upon his approval, the waiter uncorked the bottle and poured a small amount into Scott's glass. Scott picked up the glass, sniffed at its contents, swirled the wine around gently a few times and finally took a sip. Savoring its richest, he nodded to the waiter who turned to serve Millicent first and then to serve Scott. Placing the bottle back into the ice, he backed away. "I will give the two of you a few moments to decide on your choices." Turning, he waved to the group standing at the door.

Scott raised his glass of wine and extended it out slightly. "A toast," he said. "To dinner companions." Millicent looked into his eyes and smiled timidly before raising her own glass. When the glasses touched, they made a clear, sharp tone; the sign of fine crystal. Each took a sip then placed them back on the table. Scott had already chosen his entrée so he simply watched her as she scanned the menu.

"What would you suggest, Mr. Lancer?"

"Scott. Please call me Scott." Millicent nodded slightly.

"I am planning to order the Veal Cordon Bleu. I've been told it's their signature dish."

The waiter walked over and stood at Scott's side. He gave the young man his order then looked across at Millicent. "Order for me please Mr. . . I mean Scott." He told the waiter to bring the same for the lady.

"Very good sir. Excellent choice." He took the menus and walked toward the kitchen. Scott took another sip of wine then leaned slightly forward, resting his hands on his lap.

"Miss Montgomery is it?" Millicent nodded while removing her gloves. "Are you from San Francisco?"

"No. I'm only on a tour of this part of the country. I reside in Maryland."

Scott's interest peeked. "I was raised in Boston."

"Oh, we're practically neighbors."

"What city do you live in?"

"Baltimore. Born and bred. My father owns several coal and iron ore mines there." Scott raised his eyebrows just a bit. "Maybe you are familiar with the Jebidiah Montgomery family of Baltimore?"

Scott had never heard of them but, not wanting to appear ignorant, he replied. "I am not familiar with the family, per say, but I have heard the name. I'm sure everyone whose anyone on the East Coast has heard of the Baltimore Montgomerys."

"And you? Where do you reside now?"

"I live on a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley."

"How big is your ranch?

"One hundred thousand acres, give or take."

"You . . . own the ranch?

"No. My father. I recently relocated to California to form a partnership with my father and brother."

"Oh!" Millicent exclaimed. "It all sounds very exciting! What brings you to San Francisco?"

"The cattleman's convention. My father sent me as a representative for the Lancer ranch."

The waiter served their dinner and refilled their wine glasses. "Anything else sir?"

Scott glanced at Millicent who shook her head. "No. That will be all for now. We may order dessert or an after dinner cocktail though."

"Very good sir." The waiter turned and walked away.

Scott smiled at his dinner companion. "Looks excellent, wouldn't you agree?"

"Yes", Millicent murmured. Raising her wine glass she caught Scott's gaze over the rim. "Everything looks just perfect."

They ate in silence for a time until Scott said, "You said you were on a tour?"

Millicent nodded while dabbing at the corner of her mouth with her napkin. "Yes. I'm not familiar with this part of the country. After finishing school I lived in Europe . . . well, Paris, Rome and London for a time. I grew to know those countries very well and, returning home, I decided I should learn about my own country equally as well."

"And where has your tour taken you?"

"Mainly the southern states, Nevada and now California. Each state is so different from the next. When I read the newspapers about the western states, it seems all they talked about is the weather, the desert and Indians."

"And you are traveling alone?" Scott inquired.

"No, of course not!" Millicent answered, sounding surprised and placing one hand over her heart. "A woman . . . a single woman especially . . . well, it wouldn't be proper." Millicent took a sip of wine. "I am being chaperoned by my brother. It just so happens that he had a late business meeting. As we are guests in this hotel, he assured me it would be safe to come down to the dining room on my own. We have a suite upstairs where the meeting is being held. He gave me strict instructions that I return to the suite as soon as I've completed the meal."

Scott paused, holding his fork in one hand and his knife in the other. "I see." He said disappointedly. "How long will you be in San Francisco?"

"I'm not sure. If my brother's business interests become agreeable to him we might be staying for some time. Months perhaps. If his business venture fails then, I suppose, we would leave right away."

"Oh," Scott replied in a low tone. He found his appetite had vanished. Lying his utensils on the plate, he drained his glass of wine before wiping his mouth and dropping his napkin on the table.

"Aren't you going to finish your dinner?"

"No. I had a late lunch." He answered. Millicent lowered her fork and a look of disappointment showed on her face as she looked down at her food. She had barely touched it. "Please go right ahead." He added quickly. "I'll just help myself to a little more wine." He reached over, plucked the bottle from the bucket and filled his glass about half full. When he moved the bottle over her glass, she held her hand just above its rim.

"No more for me," she said. "It's magnificent but I've had quite enough."

Seeing Scott's napkin on the table, a signal to the waiter that he had finished eating, he hurried over to remove his plate. Handing it to the busboy that had followed him, he smiled. "May I get you some dessert or perhaps that after dinner cocktail?"

"The lady is still dining." Scott said. The waiter seemed flustered. He had forgotten his training of not closing the table until all the diners were through.

Millicent took one last bite, dabbed at her lips and smiled up into the waiter's face. "I've finished. You may take my plate." The waiter relaxed and returned her smile.

"Thank you, ma'am." He picked up the dish and snapped his fingers to bring the busboy back. He handed the young boy the plate and, as the busboy hurried toward the kitchen, the waiter returned his attention to the table.

"May I order you a brandy? Or perhaps some cherries Jubilee?"

"A brandy would do nicely. Thank you."

"Two of your best brandies." Scott said. As the waiter nodded and walked off toward the bar, an uncomfortable silence hung over the table. When the snifters had been placed before them, Scott was prepared to instruct his companion on the proper way to drink brandy when he found his directions weren't needed. Millicent picked up the glass under the bowl and above the stem. Holding it in her palm, she swirled the liquor gently around a few times and then took a small sip. Scott gave her a tight-lipped grin while picking up his own snifter and doing the same. When the glasses were empty, Millicent picked up her gloves. Scott rose quickly, hurried around the table, and held her chair.

"Thank you Mr. Lancer." Millicent cooed.

"Scott, remember?" Millicent smiled coyly. Scott picked up his hat then bent his arm and extended it to her. She slipped her hand underneath and brought it to rest on his forearm. He led her toward the door. Stopping just a moment in front of the maître d's podium he leaned close in to the man and murmured, "Put it on the Lancer account." The maître d' nodded.

"Oh, no. I can't let you do that!" Millicent exclaimed. "I practically forced myself on you. I never expected you to pay for my dinner!"

Scott placed his hand over hers. "My pleasure." He steered her through the patrons in the lobby and over to a quiet place near the stairs. "A walk perhaps?"

"I really shouldn't," Millicent said, dropping her gaze to the gloves she held in her other hand. "My brother is expecting me."

Scott looked up the staircase and then back at her. "Just a short walk. To the corner and back. We can leave your brother a note at the desk in case he comes looking for you."

"Well . . ." Millicent lightly chewed on her bottom lip.

"Come on, humor me. There are a lot of people in town tonight. We would never be alone together. It would all be proper. My promise as a gentleman."

Millicent nodded her approval. "But only if we leave a note. I've seen my brother's temper flare over things much less. He'd be furious to come looking and not have any idea of where to find me."

Scott crossed to the desk. Millicent removed her arm from his and began pulling on her gloves while he wrote a short message and asked the clerk to put it into the "Montgomery" box. He put his hat atop his head, extended his arm again and once she accepted it, he folded it closer to his side and put his hand back over hers.

It was a cool evening with the breeze coming in over the docks. He guided her to the right so that he would be toward the street side of the sidewalk. The avenue was busy and one could tell by their behavior and their garb that most of the patrons were visitors to the city. Almost all the shops remained open, their lights bright and spilling out to illuminate the walkway. They strolled slowly, looking in some of the windows and exchanging small talk. Once at the corner, Scott led her a few steps into the alleyway where the crowds would pass them by. Millicent shivered and Scott took his off his jacket, draping it around her shoulders.

"I accepted your promise as a gentleman, remember?" Millicent whispered.

"And I am upholding that promise. I just wanted a moment or two to talk to you away from everyone else. I'm very pleased that you asked to share my table. I might otherwise have never met you and that would have been a shame. A real shame." Millicent dropped her gaze then looked up into his eyes. "I would like to meet your brother."

"My brother? Why?" She asked with surprise in her tone.

"I would like to ask his permission to call on you again." Scott stated.

Millicent pulled Scott's suit coat more tightly around her. "I'm afraid that would be a waste of breath. How would it be possible? You live some distance from here and I don't even know how long . . ."

Scott put one of his hands around each of her upper arms. Grinning, he looked into her eyes. Those incredible eyes. "You let me worry about our proximity. I can make that work. Besides you said that if your brother's business propositions went well you might be here for months. Or am I being presumptuous? Perhaps you are not interested in seeing me again."

"Oh no," Millicent exclaimed. Calming her voice she continued. "I would like very much to spend more time with you."

"When will your brother know about his business ventures?" Millicent shrugged.

"Depends on how his meeting concludes tonight. I should know tomorrow I suppose."

"I leave in the morning." Scott said, disappointment clouding his eyes. "Can you send a telegram to the ranch and advise me of the outcome?" Millicent nodded. "Come on," Scott said, taking her hand. "We better get you back to the hotel. I don't want to start off on the wrong foot with your brother." They strolled back toward the building and Scott held open the hotel door, touching the small of her back lightly to guide her through ahead of himself. A couple men stood off to one side of the lobby, one smoking a cigar. When they looked up and saw Millicent, the one with the cigar left the group and came walking toward her.

"Millicent? And where have you been?" He said, looking Scott up and down. "Give the gentleman back his coat." Scott stepped up behind her and took the suit coat from her shoulders, quickly sliding his arms through the sleeves and buttoning up the front.

"This is Mr. Lancer," Millicent said, looking between the two men. "Mr. Scott Lancer." She added, looking directly into her brother's face. "He was kind enough to share his table with me."

The man took a puff of his cigar then turned away while exhaling the smoke. He extended his hand to Scott. "Mr. Lancer," he said while shaking hands. "You appear to be a refined gentleman," he continued before turning his attention back to his sister. "I'm sure that nothing . . . inappropriate took place. Thank you for extending such a kindness to my sister."

Millicent squared her shoulders and a glint of anger flashed in her eyes. "Mr. Lancer is a refined gentleman and, no, nothing happened." She hissed quietly.

"I assure you that I had no such intentions with your sister." Scott explained. "She is an interesting conversationalist and we have many things in common. I am from Boston, sir."

The man's eyebrows shot up as he took another puff of his cigar. "Boston you say. Well now, Millicent, you two should have quite a number of things to talk about."

"May I be so forward as to inquire how your business meeting concluded?" Scott asked.

"Promising. Why do you ask?" The man narrowed his eyes and looked at Scott with suspicion.

"I understand that if your ventures turn in your favor that you may be staying in San Francisco for some time. With your permission, I would very much like to call upon your sister."

Millicent's brother looked back and forth between the two of them before turning to study Scott. "My partners have promised to advise me of their decisions no later than noon tomorrow. I will decide at that time just how long my sister and I will remain in this fair city."

"I promised to send Mr. Lancer a telegram tomorrow and let him know the outcome." Millicent piped in. "You see, Mr. Lancer doesn't live in this city but rather on a large ranch to the south."

Millicent's brother nodded his head. "That sounds acceptable." Turning to Scott, he extended his hand again and shook. "I get the impression that you're a man of breeding; one with knowledge of etiquette and the upper classes. I will allow you to call upon my sister if you so desire."

Scott smiled at both of them. "I would be most pleased. I will look forward to receiving your message. Just address it to the Lancer Ranch. As soon as I receive it I will reply posthaste."

"Come Millicent," her brother said, taking her elbow. "Say good night to Mr. Lancer. I think you've been entertained enough for one day."

Millicent extended her hand and Scott placed another kiss on the back of it. "I will count the moments until I receive your wire." He said softly.

"Safe trip, Scott. I will say a prayer tonight that my brother's business will be successful."

"As will I"

Millicent's brother tugged on her arm. Scott watched them ascend the stairs. Once at the top landing, Millicent turned and blew a kiss in Scott's direction. He smiled, put his hat back on his head, tapped it lightly and walked out the front door to return to his own hotel. He found a bounce in his step and a quiet whistle on his lips. He had looked for a woman such as Millicent for a long time. He was not about to lose her now.

Chapter 3

Johnny heard the parlor clock begin to strike six o'clock. He knew Murdoch would expect him to come to supper. Forcing himself up, he ran one hand through his hair, left his room, and descended the front stairs. When he entered the dining room, he found his father and Teresa already at the table. He quickly took his place, folded his hands, lowered his head and waited for grace. Teresa looked at Murdoch wondering what was going on. Johnny's hand usually had to be slapped to stop him from loading his plate and starting to eat before prayers were said. Murdoch shook his head slightly as if to indicate 'don't ask'. Teresa said grace and then began passing the serving bowls. When everyone had filled their plates with lamb stew and fresh bread, the diners began to eat in silence.

Johnny was sullen all through supper. He ate quickly just wanting to finish and go back upstairs. Finally Murdoch broke the ice. "A lot of folks in town today?" Johnny nodded and kept eating. Murdoch looked over at Teresa.

Teresa cleared her throat and began naming off her friends. "Did you see Marge, or Lillian or Sally or . . .anyone?" Her voice dropped off as Johnny turned his head to glare at her. Teresa dropped her gaze immediately and pushed back her chair. "I'll go get dessert," she mumbled.

"I will not have you share our meal with this kind of attitude, do you hear me?" Murdoch asked, lowering his voice. Johnny looked up but said nothing, swallowing the last of his stew. "I said, do you hear me?"

Johnny dropped his eyes to the table. "Yes, sir." He mumbled.

"I want you to put aside whatever has put you in this mood before your sister returns. Buck up and act like a civilized human being." Murdoch saw a muscle twitch in Johnny's jaw as he gritted his teeth. Teresa came back into the room holding a fresh baked chocolate cake in her hands.

"My, doesn't that look good?" Murdoch exclaimed. "I thought I smelled something baking this afternoon. I wish I would have known. I would have licked the spoon. Doesn't that cake look wonderful Johnny?"

Johnny swallowed then looked up at his father. He noted the warning in his father's eyes. "Yah, I love chocolate cake." He said flatly. Murdoch shot him a warning glance when Teresa wasn't looking. When his sister handed him a slice, he did say thank you.

"So, son, whose box did you buy?"

"Jennie Whitfield," he answered between forkfuls of cake.

"Whitfield." Murdoch answered. "I don't think I know that name. Teresa, have you heard of her?" Teresa shook her head.

"She's not from here." Johnny interjected, holding out his empty dessert plate to Teresa. "Please?" She cut another slice of cake and served it up to him. "Thanks."

"Where's she from Johnny?" Murdoch asked.

"She's here with her uncle . . . they're staying in Avalon." Johnny had almost finished his second piece of cake. He looked over at Teresa who simply shook her head. Two slices was enough.

"How much did it cost you?" Johnny hesitated. Murdoch, although not a stingy man, strongly believed in spending money wisely.

Clearing his throat, he looked up to see both of them waiting for an answer. "Ten dollars."

"The dollars?" Teresa exclaimed. She rested back in her chair, still holding her fork in her hand and looked over at Murdoch.

Murdoch's face had hardened somewhat as he took another swallow of cake before speaking. "I certainly hope she was worth it!" He mumbled half under his breath. Wiping his mouth with his napkin, he continued. "If everyone's finished why don't we go in the parlor, have a drink and you can tell us all about her." Murdoch stood, an indication that the meal had ended. Teresa began gathering the dirty dishes. "Teresa," Murdoch scolded. "Leave that until later. Don't you want to hear all about Johnny's ten dollar lady?"

Johnny knew that, one way or the other, his father wasn't going to let his expenditure drop without bringing it up to him at least a couple more times.

Teresa put the pile of dishes back on the table and followed the men down the hall. "Drink?" Murdoch asked, holding up the decanter of brandy. The other two shook their heads. Teresa crossed to the chair by the table and picked up her embroidery. Murdoch sat in his favorite chair before the fireplace and indicated that Johnny should sit in its twin just opposite. Murdoch took a deep swallow of the liquor and looked over at his son. Johnny squirmed, finally leaning forward to rest his forearms on his thighs and folding his hands between his knees.

"She's really pretty. I mean really pretty. Prettiest girl I've ever seen." Johnny said. No one responded. "She's a little shorter than me, long blonde hair, cute figure and the most incredible eyes you've ever seen." Johnny's voice became almost dreamy.

Murdoch took another swallow of brandy. "How old is she son?"

"I don't know. Maybe eighteen or nineteen. Her and her uncle have been touring the west. Her folks don't like to travel. Her uncle wanted to take her to Mexico and she wouldn't let him. Said she was scared."

Murdoch chuckled. "Did you tell her . . ."

"Ya," Johnny said, grinning.

"Are you going to see her again?"

Johnny shrugged. "I'd like to. She was real nice. Even had all my favorites for lunch. But her uncle, well, he and I don't get along."

Murdoch decided not to pursue the issue and get his son riled up again. "Avalon, you say. That's a little far for courting', isn't it?"

Johnny stood up and began to pace. Murdoch could see the wheels turning in his son's head. "Well, for work days sure. But the weekends I'm off . . . well, I could wire her and tell her when I was coming. If I leave real early in the morning, I could be there by early afternoon. We could spend part of the afternoon and have supper together. I could stay overnight and start back right away the next morning."

"Stay overnight where?" Murdoch asked arching his left eyebrow.

"I don't think they have a hotel or nothin'. I could stay in the livery or even camp out." He paused and shoved his hands in his pockets. "That's if her uncle will let her."

Murdoch had his doubts. Long distance relationships – although this one was not that long a distance – seldom worked, especially if the girl's uncle already didn't care for Johnny but he withheld his opinions. He could see how important it was to his son. "Sounds like a good plan Johnny. I hope it works out for you." Murdoch stood, crossed to his son's side and slapped him lightly on the back. "Well, I'll be in the den if anyone's looking for me. Got more paperwork than I know what to do with." He placed his glass on the table.

"When's Scott comin' back Pa?"

"Should be sometime tomorrow." Murdoch walked out the door but a second later he poked his head around the corner. "And Johnny, pick up your hat."

Johnny started toward the entry table. Getting down on hands and knees, he retrieved his hat. Standing he crossed to the wall and placed it on a hook. Johnny looked up the staircase and then to the parlor door. Finally he chose to walk back into the parlor. He stood next to his sister's chair and watched her sew for a moment. "Real pretty." He finally said.

"Thank you," Teresa said. "It's an altar cloth for the church." Johnny stood with his hands in his back pockets and began making small circles on the floor with the toe of his boot. Teresa finally looked up from her stitching. "Did you want something?"

Johnny glanced at the clock, then the hearth, then the window behind him. Finally his gaze returned to meet Teresa's eyes. "Sis . . . can we talk for a minute?"

Teresa fought to control her expression of surprise. It was very unlike Johnny to talk with anyone except his horse. She finished one last stitch, then laid her embroidery down on the table. Standing she said, "Let's go get a cup of coffee." Teresa gave her brother a warm smile. Johnny followed her to the kitchen and took a chair by the table while Teresa got down two cups and filled them with steaming liquid from the granite pot over the fire. She sat down opposite him and handed Johnny one of the cups. He held it in both hands and just stared at it for several minutes. Teresa sipped at her coffee and waited. Finally he spoke.

"You're a girl," he began.

"It's nice of you to notice!"

"Oh gosh, what I meant was that you probably think like a girl and I'm . . . confused about something. About women," he added. Teresa tried not to chuckle.

"Most men are, why should you be different?" She said.

"No, I mean . . . well," Johnny fumbled for words. He wished now that he wouldn't have asked to speak with her. He took a swallow of coffee, stood, ran one hand through his hair and began pacing. Teresa waited. "Jennie . . . I mean I really, really like her, you know?" Teresa knew it was an arbitrary question and so said nothing. "She asked me to buy her box. Said she wanted to get to know me better." Johnny paused to pick up his coffee cup then returned to pacing,. "She is so pretty and, well, you know me. A new girl in town and all." He paused to look at his sister. Teresa took a sip from her cup and looked up into her brother's eyes, waiting. Johnny sat back down in his chair and leaned forward. "I thought we were having a really nice time. Lunch was fine. Real fine. She wouldn't tell me how she found out all my favorites. I thought that was pretty special."

Teresa nodded. "Sounds like she went to a lot of effort. She must be very attracted to you."

Johnny blushed and looked down at his cup. Finishing his coffee, he continued. "We . . .well, I ate, you know. Talked a little. Then she just walked away. She got really quiet, you know? I went over to her and asked what was wrong but she wouldn't tell me. She took my hand and wanted to go for a walk. We went a little way and spied a deer and fawn in the woods. She was leaning really close to me and all and," Johnny looked at his hands. "I really, really wanted to . . . kiss her." He paused a minute before shyly looking up into his sister's face. Teresa held an understanding smile on her lips. "I know that's not proper and all, having just met, but I could swear she wanted me to. I mean she didn't move away or nothin' but when I leaned toward her . . ." Johnny had never talked about things this personal with his sister and suddenly felt embarrassed but he could hardly just walk away now. "She said it was time to go and practically ran back to the buggy. I was at a loss. I played the whole afternoon back through my head. Did I say something? Did I scare her? You're a woman. I can't figure it out. I just can't figure it out."

Teresa extended her hand and gave one of Johnny's a gentle squeeze. "Don't be so hard on yourself. It could have been any of a number of things. She could have been worried her uncle might find out, maybe she thought allowing you to kiss her might lead to . . .well, more, she could have been thinking she might never see you again . . . Avalon is some distance." Tears rimmed Teresa's eyes. He looked so hurt and she felt so helpless.

"I know," Johnny said in a defeated tone. "But I'd like to think I can make it work." Teresa squeezed his hand again.

"Maybe you can. I'll say a little prayer tonight. If it's God will . . ."

Johnny turned his hand over to hold hers. He grinned slightly. "Thanks Sis."

"I don't know if I was much help." Teresa said as she stood. "More coffee?"

"Yah, just one more." Teresa retrieved the pot and filled Johnny's cup. Placing the pot back on the fire, she rolled her neck and sighed. "I'm exhausted. The dishes will have to wait until morning. I'm going to bed. Are you going to be okay?" She walked over to Johnny's side and placed one hand on his shoulder.

"I'll be okay. I just . . . sometimes it's just so frustrating." Teresa gave his shoulder a squeeze. Johnny stood and placed a quick kiss on Teresa's forehead. "Sleep good." He murmured. Teresa gave him that warm smile of hers.

"You too." She said, turning toward the back stairs as Johnny sat back down. A split-second later she poked her head around the corner of the kitchen door.

"And Johnny," she stated. Johnny turned to glance over his shoulder. "Leave that cake alone. I know exactly how much is left."

Johnny looked at the plate sitting on the far counter with a clean linen towel draped over the leftover dessert. He was so tempted but he knew Teresa meant business where food was concerned. If he wanted any more tomorrow, he had better leave it alone tonight. Taking a deep swallow of coffee, he rose, pushed in his chair, walked over to the dry sink and sat his cup down. As he sauntered over to the door, he took one last longing look at the cake, rubbed his stomach, smiled to himself and headed upstairs. He, too, said a little prayer that night that things would work out. She had the most exquisite green eyes he'd ever seen.

Chapter 4

Johnny was out supervising the hands who were building a temporary dam to divert the creek into what would soon become the new grazing pasture when Scott arrived. Murdoch had gone to town. When Scott walked into the entrance hall, he called out but the house was unusually quiet. A moment later Teresa came from the direction of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.

"Welcome home," she said cheerfully. Crossing to him, she stood on tiptoe to place a quick kiss on his cheek.

"Where is everybody? This late in the day I thought Johnny and Murdoch would both be home."

Teresa explained their absences, that both were expected for supper and that tonight supper wouldn't be served until six thirty. Scott rolled his neck to relax the muscles. Picking up his valise he started up the front staircase. "Good. That will give me time to clean up, change and maybe even take a ten minute nap." As he disappeared at the top of the stairs, Teresa returned to the kitchen to finish preparing the raisin bread pudding she was making for dessert. A short time later she heard the front door and poked her head around the corner to see that Murdoch had just gotten home.

"Scott's home," she called. "He's upstairs."

Murdoch had one hand on the railing and was looking up at the second floor. "I can't wait to see him," he said putting his foot on the first step. Teresa now stood next to him.

"He was going to try to get in a nap before supper. I think he might be sleeping. He looked pretty road worn."

Murdoch's disappointment was obvious on his face. "Well, I guess another hour or so won't matter. I'm going to get cleaned up. Johnny back yet?" Teresa shook her head. "He'll be here for supper. Johnny never misses a meal!" Teresa chuckled in agreement as Murdoch winked at her. Ascending the stairs, he paused before Scott's door and listened, hoping to hear some movement but nothing. Shrugging his shoulders, he advanced to his own room and disappeared inside.

Teresa set the table and carried in the bread, butter, and a relish tray of sweet pickles, olives and spiced beets. Johnny had seen her through the window. He removed his boots on the back porch, eased open the door and closed it just as quietly behind himself. He tossed his hat on a nearby chair and tiptoed up behind his sister who was preoccupied studying the table to see if there was anything missing. Suddenly he reached around her from behind, grabbed a sweet pickle and popped it in his mouth. She visibly jumped and gasped, placing one hand over her heart.

"John Lancer," she scolded. "You'll give me gray hair before my time." Spinning around to face him, she found him with a wide smile on his lips. He knew she couldn't resist his smile. As he tried to reach around her again and grab another pickle, she slapped the back of his hand.

"Hey," he teased, trying to sound angry. "That hurt!" He said rubbing at the knuckles of his left hand.

"Try it again and you'll know what hurt knuckles really feel like!" Teresa warned, one hand on her hip and the other wagging a finger in his face. Placing her free hand on her other hip, she stood with arms akimbo and drew her brows together. "Now, out of my way or you'll have burnt bread pudding for dessert." She raised her right hand and pushed Johnny to one side. When she had passed, Johnny helped himself to another pickle. "And put that pickle right back where you found it."

Johnny could never figure out how she always seemed to know what he was up to, especially where food was concerned. He looked at the pickle. He could just taste it. Sweet pickles were his favorite. Glancing over his shoulder, he quickly popped it into his mouth then reached down and spread the remaining ones around so it wouldn't be obvious that a couple were missing. He chuckled to himself as he entered the hallway. He had pulled one over on Teresa.

Johnny leapt up the steps two at a time in his stocking feet. Humming, he entered his room in order to change before supper. The work on the dam had gone well. Murdoch would be pleased. Teresa was baking bread pudding, another of his favorites. Tomorrow was his day off. Life just couldn't get any better. He was the first one in the parlor and had crossed to the sideboard to pour himself a little bourbon. Walking past the dining room, he noticed there were four plates on the table. Entering the kitchen, he found Teresa carving the roast. "Is Scott back?"

"Yes, late this afternoon. Should be down any minute." Teresa was arranging the succulent venison on a large platter. When Johnny advanced to her side and attempted to steal a bite, the large meat fork came down within inches of his fingers. He froze. "I have a knife in my other hand!" She hissed. "Consider yourself fortunate!" Johnny knew she was teasing but didn't want to push his luck. He slowly walked away, holding both hands high. When she turned her attention to the gravy cooking on the stove, however, he dashed over, took a small slice of meat, and hightailed it down the hall to the parlor. "John Lancer!" She called after him. Spotting Murdoch almost at the bottom of the stairs, she turned her attention to him. "If you don't do something about your son . . . ooh," she scolded, marching back into the kitchen.

Murdoch looked over at his youngest son, who was grinning as he chewed on a bite of the venison. "She called you John. This must be serious." His forehead furrowed, he tried to maintain a stern expression but as he got closer to Johnny, he glanced over his shoulder to the kitchen. "Give me a taste," he murmured. Johnny put the remainder of the meat in his father's mouth. "Boy, that is good!"

"She smacked my hand earlier for trying to steal a pickle." Johnny whispered, leaning close to his father's ear. They kept their chuckles as quiet as possible so their voices wouldn't carry to the back of the house. Murdoch crossed to the sideboard, picked up a glass in one hand and the bourbon decanter in the other. He raised the decanter toward Johnny who walked over and extended his glass. "Just a touch," he said. "Thanks."

Murdoch lifted his glass and looked toward the ceiling in thought. "To the cook," he said.

"To the cook," Johnny echoed, touching the rim of his glass to his father's. Each took a swallow and struggled to keep from laughing. Murdoch settled in one of the leather chairs before the hearth while Johnny settled in the other.

"Where are your boots?" Murdoch stated flatly.

Johnny looked down at his stocking-clad feet and wiggled his toes. "On the back porch. I took them off so I could sneak up on sis."

Murdoch raised one eyebrow and took a sip of the liquor. "And you think you can come to dinner that way? Are they at least clean socks?"

"Sure . . . I put them on clean this mornin'. It's not like I've been wearin' them for days or nothin'."

"Hmm," Murdock murmured, draining his glass. A few moments later, Scott came down the stairs and walked into the parlor. Murdoch immediately rose and crossed over to his son, putting one around Scott's shoulder. "How was the convention? Learn anything?"

Scott looked at Murdoch before nodding to his brother. "Father, Johnny."

Johnny raised his glass. "Scott."

Murdoch looked back and forth between his sons. "Well, now that we all know who we are . . ." Murdock placed one hand on Scott's shoulder. "Drink?" Scott nodded and Murdoch walked over to the sideboard, handed Scott a glass then picked up the decanter again. He poured Scott a good measure, poured himself another couple swallows and held the decanter up while looking in Johnny's direction but his youngest son shook his head. Murdoch sat back in the chair. "Johnny, get up and let your brother sit there." As Johnny began to stand, Scott pushed him back into the seat.

"Stay put," he said. "I'll stand. It would be my pleasure after the coach ride I endured." Scott took a swallow of his bourbon. Just as Murdoch was about to repeat his question about whether his eldest son had learned anything, Teresa called them to supper. The men finished their drinks, put the glasses down on the table and walked down to the dining room. Taking their usual places, Scott surveyed the heavily laden table before him. "Is that venison?"

Teresa smiled. "Cooked it just for you."

"Thanks sis," Scott replied, accepting the platter that she handed him. He speared a couple slices with his fork and dropped them onto his plate before handing the meat to his father who did the same. When Murdoch started to pass the plate to Johnny, however, Teresa spoke up.

"He's already had his share." She scolded, looking directly into Johnny's eyes.

Johnny dropped his head like a scolded child. After a second or two, he looked up at Murdoch with puppy dog eyes and a pout on his lower lip. "Pa, please don't send me to bed without my supper." He pleaded. Murdoch looked across the table to Teresa.

She looked between father and son. She didn't know which was worse. "Oh for heaven's sake, give him some and pass that platter to me. I'm starving."

Johnny smiled brightly at his sister and, when Murdoch wasn't looking, stuck his tongue out at her too. Teresa tried to remain stern but the corners of her mouth twitched just a little in withheld laughter. Once everyone's plate was full and grace was said, the diners ate quietly only making an occasional comment on how good everything was, especially Scott.

When they had all finished, Teresa rose and began collecting the plates. "I'll get dessert." As she walked toward the kitchen, Johnny stood and gathered the rest of the dirty dishes and carried them into his sister.

"Well, will wonders never cease!" Murdoch muttered, wiping his mouth with his napkin. Teresa was equally surprised to see Johnny helping out without being told to. She kept watch on him closely out of the corner of her eye while she spooned the bread pudding into dishes and topped each piece with a bit of rich cream. She picked up two dishes, gave Johnny "that look" as she passed him, and hurried to set the portions in front of Murdoch and Scott. Afraid she would return to the kitchen to find that Johnny had eaten both of the remaining servings, she was surprised again when Johnny carried the other two bowls into the table, setting one before his sister and the other before himself. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa all looked over at him as he picked up his spoon and loaded it with a large portion of pudding.

Johnny looked up and around to each of them. "What? Can't a brother help out his sister once and a while? Geez!" The other three merely shrugged their shoulders. They all were thinking the same thing, 'he must want something'!

When everyone had had their fill, they pushed back their chairs and dropped their napkins on the table. Teresa began to collect the remaining dishes but Johnny quickly stepped forward and took them out of her hands. "Go sit down, Sis. You did the cookin', I can do the clearin'." Teresa gave Murdoch a puzzle look but Murdoch just grinned and motioned for her to follow the men into the parlor.

"Brandy?" Murdoch asked. Teresa refused but Scott accepted. He and Murdoch settled into the chairs before the fire, each swirling their snifters before taking a sip. "So, son, tell me about the convention."

"Shouldn't we wait for Johnny?" Scott asked, taking another sip of his drink.

"He'll catch up. Tell us what you learned." Murdoch rested well back into the chair, raising his right foot and settling it on his left knee. Scott liked to talk, especially when he was the center of attention, so Murdoch knew to relax and get as comfortable as possible.

"Well, Sir, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for sending me in your place. At first, as you might have guessed, I was less than enthusiastic about going, but now I am so glad that I did." He waited for his father to comment but Murdoch simply nodded. Johnny joined them then, sitting cross-legged in front of the two chairs with his back to the fireplace. Scott swallowed the remainder of his brandy, placed the glass on the table, and turned his chair just slightly so it would be easier to address his father more directly. He began his dissertation about new types of cattle being bred specifically for the conditions in which they would be raised. He described the new veterinary techniques available and new vaccines they were testing, especially on calves. Scott then went into the new variety of feeds and how each could be tailored to specific purposes. He told of the displays of new inventions from farm equipment to fencing. He said that he had brought home quite a collection of brochures and flyers and that he would bring them down at breakfast.

"Did you see any of our friends there? The Cartwrights or the Barkleys?" Murdoch asked. Johnny sat up a little straighter and looked directly at his brother.

"Adam and Mr. Cartwright were there but I didn't get a chance to introduce myself. Adam was one of the presenters on the new cattle breeds. I did get to meet Nick and Heath Barkley. In fact, I had dinner with them one evening. Nice fellows."

"Was Audra there?" Piped in Johnny, causing Teresa to look up from her sewing. He knew that Scott had met Audra Barkley once and that he had developed quite a crush on her. Scott glared a warning at his brother with narrowed eyes.

"There were no women at the convention," he snapped.

"Didn't ask if'n she was at the convention. Thought maybe she had come with her brothers so as to go shoppin' or . . . somethin'" Johnny grinned around the toothpick he was chewing on.

Scott's eyes bore into Johnny's like darts. "I believe Nick and Heath were there alone." The tone of his voice expressed clearly that Johnny should drop the subject. Johnny was about to say something else when Murdoch spoke up.

"That's enough, son." He gave Johnny a warning look and a slight shake of his head. "Well, this is all very interesting. We'll have to discuss some of these new-fangled inventions and such. I'd surely like to look over those brochures. Bring them down before breakfast and lay them on my desk. I'll try to find some free time to read through them and we can talk more about what's in them at supper."

"Yes, Sir. First thing in the morning. I haven't even unpacked yet."

Murdoch caught his other son's eye. "How's that dam coming?"

"Got 'er pretty much done today. An hour or two tomorrow should finish 'er up. Hope we don't get no gulley washers though. Might send the whole thing downstream."

Murdoch nodded and stood. "Well, for some reason, I'm especially tired tonight. I think I'll go to bed, maybe read a little." He looked over at Teresa and she immediately understood his expression. Laying her needlework aside, she rose and crossed over to Murdoch. She touched his arm and gave him a warm smile.

"Sleep well. Any special requests for breakfast?" Murdoch shook his head. "Well I better get those dishes washed." She circled around behind Murdoch and walked down the hall toward the kitchen.

"Good night sons. Don't stay up too late. Lots of work tomorrow." Turning, he climbed the stairs.

Johnny hopped up and took his father's vacant chair, still gnawing on that toothpick. Both boys were content to watch the fire for a few minutes until Scott finally glanced sideways at his brother. Clearing his throat, he wished he still had a swallow of brandy in his glass. "Ah, Johnny?" He began hesitantly. Johnny threw the toothpick into the fire before giving his brother a sideways glance.

"Yah" he said, suspecting what he was about to hear would not please him in the least.

Scott swallowed nervously. "I know tomorrow's your day off."

Johnny pushed himself more upright in the chair and narrowed his eyes. "Yah, it is and I got me some plans."

Scott wet his lips with his tongue. "Would you be willing to trade me your day off for mine?"

Johnny exhaled loudly. "Why?"

"Could we just exchange without a lot of questions. Please."

Johnny rose and began pacing, running a hand through his hair. Scott had learned that this was not a good sign. "Oh man!" Exclaimed his younger brother. "Your day off is Tuesday. Who wants to be off on a Tuesday? With tomorrow off I get a three-day weekend. Three days! In a row!"

Scott stood and dropped his gaze to the floor. Finally he looked pleadingly into his brother's eyes. "Please." He repeated. "It's really . . . it's really important to me. I'd do it for you."

Johnny stopped pacing and placed both hands on his hips. He shook his head, sighing. "A Tuesday." He muttered. He finally cocked his head to one side and looked into his brother's face. Scott looked like he was going to cry. Johnny's heart softened. It must be important he thought. "Okay," he resigned. "Just this once." He added, shaking his finger in Scott's direction.

Scott immediately smiled and walked over to stand in front of Johnny. Extending his hand, Johnny met it and they shook. Still holding hands, they each reached out their free arm and put it around the other man's shoulder in a sort of hug. "Thank you, Johnny. You don't know what this means to me."

Johnny grinned. "You owe me big time, brother dear. And I mean BIG time." Suddenly there was an angry shout from the back of the house.

"John Lancer," Teresa yelled.

Johnny looked at Scott. "I'm out of here!" He ran up the steps and into his room. He knew that Teresa would never invade his private space. It was a house rule. No one entered another's bedroom without expressed permission.

Scott walked back toward the kitchen chuckling under his breath. When he entered, Teresa stood by the sink with a pan in her hand. "I knew he was up to something, helping me out like that." She shook the pan toward Scott. "He ate it! All of it! All the bread pudding. I was going to serve the rest with breakfast tomorrow morning." She tossed the pan on the counter, untied her apron, flung it on a chair along with her dish towel, and pushed past Scott toward the back stairs. She grumbled all the way to the top. Scott just shook his head.

"Oh Johnny. You do get into an awful lot of trouble, but I'm beginning to love you for it." Scott used the back stairs as well and was soon in his room. It would feel so good to sleep in his own bed.

Chapter 5

Murdoch was surprised to see Johnny at the breakfast table. It was his usual habit to sleep in until about noon on his day off, yet there he sat, fully dressed and eating heartily. "Good morning," he boomed. Teresa returned his greeting but Johnny simply waved his fork as his mouth was full – as usual. Murdoch poured himself a cup of coffee and took his place at the table. "Isn't it your day off?"

Johnny nodded and took another bite of bacon. "Traded," he replied while chewing.

"Traded?" Murdoch's eyebrows shot up. This wasn't like his son who took his days off very seriously, especially those on a Friday giving him a long weekend.

"Scott." Johnny answered before finishing his coffee. He got up and grabbed another muffin. Putting his hat firmly on his head, he passed Scott, who was just coming to breakfast.

"Thanks again, brother." Scott said softly.

Johnny, mouth full of muffin, simply nodded and slapped Scott on the back. Swallowing he croaked, "Any time. Any time." Murdoch looked at Teresa who just shrugged her shoulders.

"Morning," Scott said, nodding first at Teresa and then at Murdoch. Taking his place, he continued. "I put that information on your desk, Sir. I hope you get a chance to look it over soon. I think there are some really good ideas for the ranch." Murdoch nodded while he chewed his bacon.

"I promised you I'd find time today and I will, God willin'. Now how on earth did you get your brother to trade his day off . . . his Friday off . . . for you?"

Scott shrugged holding a forkful of eggs. "I just asked him."

Teresa, quiet until now, sat holding her coffee cup in both hands, elbows resting on the table. "Yah, right!" Murdoch and Scott both snickered.

Murdoch secluded himself in the den for most of the day. It was month end and payroll checks needed to be written, the ledger balanced, and purchase orders paid. Taking a short break, he picked up the brochures Scott had left him and thumbed through them until he found one which peaked his interest. Leaning back in the chair, he crossed his feet up on the corner of his desk and read.

Scott had chosen a book from the shelf in the parlor and, moving a chair over to the window, pushed the curtain back so that he could easily see anyone approaching the front door. Settling down, he propped his feet up on the footstool and opened the book. He found he couldn't pay attention to the story and watch for any deliveries both at the same time. He thought the clock in the corner was broken it hands were moving so slowly. Checking his pocket watch, however, he found the time was correct. Would the morning never end? Finally Teresa called him to lunch. Murdoch had taken his noon meal at his desk and so it was just Scott and his sister at the table. Scott wolfed down the soup Teresa had prepared, stuffed nearly a whole slice of bread with butter into his mouth and washed it all down with a large glass of milk, gone in three swallows. After begging pardon from Teresa, he hurried back to his chair, picked up his book and resumed his vigil.

It was almost four o'clock that afternoon before he heard a rider. Not waiting for Joe to knock, Scott jumped up, his book crashing to the floor. He ran out into the entry hall, opened the door and ran out to the side of Joe's horse. With an anxious expression on his face, he looked up at the middle-aged man in the saddle. "Got something for me?" He asked. Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellow envelope. Scott literally tore it out of the man's hand. "Thanks Joe." Scott pulled a silver coin out of his vest and handed it to the man before turning and running back into the house, closing the door with his foot. Scott ran up the stairs to his room, sat on the edge of the mattress and, after catching his breath, slid his finger under the sealed flap of the envelope. He pulled the message out, closed his eyes, lifted his head and uttered "Please God. Just this once." His heart was racing and his mouth dry. He felt like a schoolboy who was awaiting the answer of the girl he had finally gotten up the guts to ask to his first dance. Finally he unfolded the note.

Mr. Scott Lancer, Lancer Ranch from Millicent Montgomery, San Francisco

Dear Mr. Lancer, As promised this wire is to advise that my brother's business

ventures have been accepted by his partners. We will be in this city at least three months. As the dinner we shared was most pleasant and enjoyable, I do so

hope you will call on me again. A reply by return wire would be most welcome, whatever your decision.

Scott reread the message to ensure that he had understood it correctly. He felt like throwing his arms up into the air and letting out a whoop in celebration but settled for clenching his free hand into a fist and pulling it in sharply "Yes!" He muttered. He read the message again before folding it into a small square and tucking it far beneath the shirts in his dresser drawer. The last thing he needed was for Johnny to find it, not that Johnny had any business in his room in the first place. Scott began to pace. He would have to figure out a way of getting some three-day weekends himself. It would take almost a full day to get there, another to get back, and one to spend entertaining Millicent. He dared not ask Johnny who seldom had the luck of getting an extended weekend for himself. He would have to talk to Murdoch. Scott stopped in front of the mirror, tugged down his vest, straightened his hair and practiced a most serious expression. He rehearsed several speeches until he finally felt comfortable with one that he thought Murdoch might accept. He fought the urge to jump on his horse that very minute and ride into town to send a reply. After all, Murdoch might say no and then he would look foolish. Better to wait until tomorrow.

As it was two hours yet until supper, and he needed to expend some of this newly acquired exuberance, he decided to take a ride out into the country. He quickly changed clothes, grabbed his hat and headed down the back stairs. He told Teresa where he was going and that he'd be back in plenty of time for the meal. Saddling up his favorite mount, he turned the horse toward the north pasture land. The terrain here was flat, the grass short and mossy. He could give the animal free rein and, kneeing the horse's side, he did just that.

Scott was the last to arrive at the supper table that evening, the others having already laden their plates. He mumbled a quick apology and bowed his head for grace. Murdoch and Johnny talked about the dam that had been finished that morning and what they would do if a heavy rain came. Teresa tried to strike up a conversation with Scott but he only offered one or two word answers to her questions and so she quickly gave up. Retiring to the parlor, and with the brandy poured, Murdock relaxed back in his chair. He had brought some of the flyers from the convention in from the den and read through them while Scott and Johnny sat at the table near the window and played chess. Johnny won both games and was not shy about gloating about it. In fact, he even did a little dance around the room which caused Teresa and Murdoch to laugh and clap along with his steps. Scott, however, did not find Johnny's exuberance amusing. Finally his brother stopped, plopped down on the sofa and fought to catch his breath. He was beaming ear to ear.

"Some of these brochures look very promising. Very promising indeed. I especially like the information given in these three." Murdoch pulled a trio of flyers out of the collection and tossed the remainder on the table. "Johnny, if you're through entertaining us for this evening, would you look these over please and let me know what you think?"

Johnny, still panting, walked over and took the papers from his father's hand. Returning to the sofa, he plopped down in its center, put his head on the armrest and stretched out his legs to lay down, being careful to let his feet dangled off the bottom edge. Pa would tan his hide if he put his dusty boots on the tufted leather divan. He began studying the first of the flyers. Meanwhile, Scott walked over to stand next to his father's chair.

"Sir, may I have a word with you?" Scott's heart was pounding and his palms sweaty.

"Why sure, my boy, have a seat!" Murdoch replied, waving his arm toward the opposite chair.

Scott glanced over at Johnny who was fighting to stay awake. "No, sir, thank you, but . . . but I would prefer to speak with you privately."

Murdoch stood and put a hand on Scott's shoulder. "Fine, fine. My office door is always open." The two walked down the hall to the den where Scott waited for his father to enter before following him inside and sliding the pocket doors quietly closed. Murdoch sat in the big chair behind the desk, moved some paperwork off to the side and folded his hands, leaning slightly forward. Scott, usually so stoic, fidgeted nervously. Finally he took the chair opposite the desk, sat up as straight as possible and placed his hands on his thighs – mostly to steady the trembling of his fingers. Murdoch waited, his gaze never leaving Scott's face.

"Sir," he began before gently clearing his throat. "I am asking you to please reconsider the scheduling of our days off . . . Johnny's and mine, that is." Murdoch remained quiet. "I find it necessary to arrange a number of three-day weekends, having off Friday through Sunday."

"Why?" Murdoch asked flatly.

"I . . . I have a business interest I need to attend to in San Francisco." Scott said, trying to sound as professional as possible. Murdoch studied him for several minutes.

"What's her name, son?" His father's question took him by surprise. Fighting to control his expression, Scott drew his brows together.

"Whose name sir?" He asked.

"The woman in San Francisco." Murdoch replied, sitting back in his chair and placing a hand on each armrest.

"I don't believe you heard me clearly, sir. I have a business interest . . ."

Murdoch grinned. "Is that what they call it these days?"

Scott finally sighed. His father was reading him like a book. Staring down at the carpeting, he replied, "Millicent. Millicent Montgomery." When he looked up, his father's lips still held a grin. The grin grew into a smile.

"She's that special, is she? To travel all the way to San Francisco just to spend, what, one day with her?"

Scott nodded. "I know it must sound foolish to you, sir, but I've never met a woman quite like her. We have so much in common. She's from Baltimore."

Murdoch leaned forward and rested his arms on his desk. "Scott, I was young once and I admit I did more foolish things than this to gain a lady's attentions. How do you think I won your mother?" Scott smiled.

"So you think we can work it out? The days off, I mean."

"If your brother agrees I think we can get a schedule together." Scott's shoulders slumped.

"Do we have to involve Johnny?" Scott held a pleading look in his eyes which his voice echoed.

"He is a partner, you know. Besides, who do you think will have to pick up some of the slack?" Scott nodded. "Tell you what, why don't the two of you come up with a calendar of some sort. Show me that a new schedule will work. But Scott, I mean together. I don't want either one of you to make something up on your own without the other's total agreement. Understand?" Scott nodded, "I'll give you the weekend to work it out. Have it on my desk Monday morning. If it looks good, I'll sign off on it and you can post it in the bunkhouse." Murdoch stood indicating the conversation was over.

Scott stood then too and extended his hand to his father, who shook it heartily. Scott knew this wasn't going to be easy. Things involving Johnny never were; he always seemed to somehow complicate everything. "I'll bring down some graph paper in the morning and Johnny and I will get an early start on it. I promise you I will have it on your desk by Monday. Thank you, sir." Murdoch nodded and stuffed the fingers of both hands into his front pockets.

As Scott reached the door, he said "Good luck, son. I think . . . I know you're going to need it."

When Murdoch came downstairs the next morning, he found Teresa sitting at the dining room table holding her coffee cup in one hand and rubbing her forehead with the other. She was just taking a sip as Murdoch walked past and simply raised her eyes over the rim and gave him a look of despair.

As Murdoch entered the kitchen, he helped himself to coffee then took his place at the table. Scott was sitting about centered on the right hand side with large sheets of paper, a ruler and several pencils in front of him. Johnny was pacing.

"I'm not going to give up all my weekends. I have a life too, you know!" He shouted at Scott, waving one arm in the air for emphasis. Scott glanced sideways at his father then looked up at his brother.

"I'm not asking you to. I am, however, asking you to be flexible."

"Flexible? And what about you? I ain't heard no compromises coming from your side of the table. You just told me . . . not asked me, mind you, that you want off three days in a row every weekend. How's that fair?" Johnny stopped and rested his hands on the chair opposite Scott. The glare in his eyes almost dared Scott to answer.

Scott exhaled, looking down at the calendar he was trying to make into some kind of schedule. Murdoch noticed there were a lot of days crossed off and many telltale signs of eraser marks. Scott suddenly wadded up the page and tossed it on the floor next to about four or five other crumpled sheets.

"Okay," Scott sighed. "Let's try this one more time."

Johnny's chair let out a loud screech as he pulled it roughly away from the table. He swung it around, straddled the seat and rested his forearms on the arched back. "And what makes you think this time will be any different?" He scowled.

Scott turned to look at his father who, while sipping his coffee, seemed to be enjoying himself. "Sir," he began.

Murdoch drained his cup, stood and shook his head. "No, I'm not going to get in the middle of this. It's up to you boys to come up with a solution, and by Monday, remember?" Scott, looking quite defeated, nodded and dropped his gaze. "If you two can't figure this out by then no one is going to get a three-day sabbatical, weekend or not." With that he pushed in his chair and left. As he passed the dining room, Teresa called his name.

Walking out into the hallway, she stood in front of him with arms crossed to block his way. "If you don't get them out of my kitchen, and soon, I'm not promising lunch much less supper!"

He put a hand on her shoulder. "Give them half an hour. If they haven't come up with something, I'll personally chase them out of there. They can use one of the tables in the bunk house to finish their schedule."

Teresa huffed, dropped her arms, turned and began climbing the stairs. "I'll be in my room, not that it will do any good. I can hear them all the way upstairs!"

The debate in the kitchen went on and on. As promised, Murdoch returned in roughly thirty minutes, picked up the sheets of graph paper and handed them to Scott. He gathered together the pencils, the straight rule and the eraser and handed them to Johnny. "Out!" He barked.

"But Pa . . ." Johnny started

"Out!" Murdoch repeated. "The two of you are adult men. There is no need to be bickering with each other over such a trivial matter. You should both be ashamed." Simultaneously, both boys hung their heads. "Go out to the bunkhouse and use their table if you must. I've had enough disturbance in this house for one day." Murdoch raised one arm and pointed toward the back door. "And when you come in for lunch, I expect both of you to apologize – not only to me but to your sister." Turned, Murdoch stomped down the hallway to the den and brought the pocket doors together with a bang.

Scott and Johnny continued arguing in hushed voices all the way to the bunkhouse. It was beginning to look like they were both involved in a Mexican standoff. Neither was going to bend.

When lunchtime arrived, they returned to the house to find Murdoch and Teresa already seated at the kitchen table. Neither man said anything upon entering, simply advancing to their respective chairs and sat down. They glared at one another across the table tight-lipped. Johnny and Scott reached for the same serving bowl and began a tug-of-war over who would get his portion first. Murdoch reached out both arms and wrapped one hand around each of his son's wrists. Scott and Johnny both let go of the bowl. "Don't you two have something to say before we eat?" They both glanced sideways at their father and found his brow furrowed and a scowl on his lips.

"I, for one," Scott began.

"Why do you get to go first?" Johnny hissed.

"John Lancer . . ." Murdoch barked.

"I beg your pardon, brother dear. Please go right ahead." Sarcasm tinged his voice as Johnny bent his elbows, folded his hands, and held them in front of his mouth glaring at Scott over his knuckles.

"As I was saying," Scott stated, returning his brother's glare before turning to his father. "I, for one, would like to most sincerely apologize . . ." He turned his head to look at his sister "for my behavior this morning. It was most unbecoming and I beg your forgiveness." Teresa nodded and smiled, Murdoch simply turned his head to look at his younger son.

"Well?" He said to Johnny.

Johnny dropped his hands into his lap and hung his head. "I'm sorry too, I guess." He muttered. He glanced at Teresa who gave a slight nod and then toward his father who gave him a look which conveyed that he wasn't exactly pleased by his son's apology but that it was accepted.

Murdoch reached out and picked up the bowl, handing it to Scott. When Johnny opened his mouth to protest, Murdoch simply glared at him and raised one eyebrow. Johnny closed his mouth immediately. The remainder of the meal was eaten in silence. The boys finished first, asked to be excused, pushed in their chairs and began walking side by side to the rear door. They began arguing with each other in hushed tones, jabbing each other in the arm, before they even stepped foot outside.

Everyone could feel the tension in the house over the next couple days. Neither Scott nor Johnny spoke unless spoken to first by either Murdoch or Teresa. Scott was, as always, respectful to his father when Murdoch tried to strike up a conversation in the parlor after supper but Johnny, although he tried, preferred to lay silently on the sofa, one arm bent up to rest over his eyes.

Murdoch expected to find the new schedule on his desk the following Monday. After all, Scott had promised and Scott was a man of his word . . . usually. When it hadn't been delivered by either of his sons by suppertime, Murdoch knew what he had to do. Walking into the kitchen, he explained the situation to Teresa and that there would be no family gathering in the parlor after the meal.

The meal was completed in silence as was becoming the norm. When everyone had finished, Murdoch stood, tossed his napkin on the table and said, "You two, in my office, now."

Scott and Johnny looked at one another. This had never happened before. They must really be in hot water with their old man. Both boys stood, pushed in their chairs and hesitantly followed Murdoch down the hall to his den. "Close the door." He barked at Johnny. Murdoch had cleared off his desk – another rarity – and, when he sat down, he rested his forearms on its shiny surface and folded his hands out in front of him. Maybe it was their imagination but the two chairs opposite the desk seemed to be closer together. "Sit." He barked. Both boys swallowed hard. Scott took the right hand chair and Johnny the one on the left. After they had been seated, Murdoch glared at both of them. That's why the chairs had been pushed nearer each other so that he could look at his sons both at the same time. Scott and Johnny waited.

Murdoch let his sons sweat a little. After a few minutes, he turned his head just slightly and looked at Scott. "Why do you want three days off in a row?" He asked with a stern tone in his voice.

Scott glanced over at Johnny, wishing his father had chosen to ask him first. "Well," he stammered, meeting his father's eyes. "I have some business in San Francisco and, as you know, it takes almost a whole day to get there and one to get back which would only leave me one day in the city."

"Uh-ha," Murdoch mumbled. Turning his attention to his younger son, he asked the same question.

Johnny glanced over at Scott before returning his attention to his father. "I have some business in Avalon and, as you know, it takes half a day to get there and half a day to get back which only leaves me one day in town." Scott glared at his brother. How dare he mimic him!

"Uh-ha," Murdoch mumbled. Keeping his focus on Johnny, he asked, "And just what kind of business do you have in Avalon?"

The color rose slightly in Johnny' cheeks. "Pa, you know . . ."

"I know. Now it's time to inform your brother." Murdoch never flinched. Scott turned his full attention to Johnny.

The color deepened as the younger man cleared his throat. In a loud, clear voice he answered, "Jennie Whitfield." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Scott raise his hand to his lips to keep from snickering.

Murdoch cast his oldest son a scolding frown. "And Scott, what is the nature of your business in San Francisco?"

Scott knew better than to feign ignorance. "Millicent Montgomery, sir."

Johnny burst out laughing, "Millicent? What kind of a name . . ." The look his father gave him brought immediate silence.

The room became quiet again. Murdoch finally sat back in his chair and moved his folded hands to rest on his belt buckle. "Hard to imagine, I know, but I was young once. I courted. I understand you both wanting to spend time with your ladies but we have a ranch to run, we have to work out a schedule."

Johnny jumped up and began to pace, his hands shoved in his back pockets. "Sit down." Murdoch commanded.

"No." Johnny retorted. "I tried my level best to work things out with . . .him." He whined, pointing a finger at Scott. "He's like an old dried up willow tree. He just won't bend." Scott pushed himself up a little straighter in the chair. "Millicent," Johnny repeated, "Hmp".

Murdoch curled one hand into a fist and pounded the desk. "I said sit down." The two men glared at each other as if in a staring contest. Neither wanted to be the first to give in. Johnny rooted in place, folding his arms across his chest. After what seemed like an hour instead of a minute, Murdoch relaxed. "Very well." He said quietly. Actually twisting his chair sideways, he turned his attention to Scott. "It appears the problem has been resolved. Apparently your brother isn't interested enough in this Jennie to cooperate. I will be happy to authorize your days off. Just give me the dates."

"Now wait one minute!" Johnny shouted, hands on hips, stomping his foot. Murdoch glanced over his shoulder. Scott just looked at his brother and grinned. "Dadburnit," Johnny mumbled, dropping his arms and sulking over to reclaim his seat.

"John, are you going to act like an adult or do I have to get a switch and teach you a lesson?" Murdoch waited, not expecting a reply. "And don't think that just because you're twenty-two years old that I won't do it!" Now it was Scott's turn to chuckle. Murdoch turned his chair back to face his sons. He opened the top center drawer of the desk and pulled out some large sheets of paper. "We are not leaving this room until we've completed a schedule, do you understand?" Simultaneously both boys answered, "Yes sir."

Murdoch began to draw out the days of the coming month. Pulling out the payroll ledger, he entered all the other hands' days off. When he had completed this task, he looked over the sheet. He would definitely have to do some shuffling to make this work. He asked Scott if he had any definite dates in mind. When Scott began to list them, Johnny made a move to jump out of his chair but immediately relaxed back down into the soft leather with one look from his father over the rim of his half-glasses. Murdoch very lightly wrote in the dates Scott had requested. He then asked Johnny the same question.

"I want every weekend! I don't know how long she's going to stay . . ."

Murdoch glanced at his youngest. "Well, you can't have every weekend. Why does it have to be a weekend?"

Johnny leaned forward and pointed a finger at his brother. "Why does he want the weekends?" He spat.

Murdoch looked at Scott. "I wish to escort Miss Montgomery to events which only take place on Saturday nights. The opera, plays, dances, dinner."

"Makes sense," said Murdoch. "Johnny why do you have to have the weekends?"

Looking smug, he sat back in the chair, folded his arms and rested them on his belly. With his nose held high in the air, he answered, "Same thing."

Scott snorted. "In Avalon?" He quipped. "They only have a handful of businesses and they are all on the same street. What entertainment is there on the weekends that isn't there during the week?"

Johnny pouted, looking quite defeated. "Well," he mumbled. "I have to have the third weekend in September. They are having a barn dance that night and I want to take Jennie."

"Fine," Scott sighed. "Give Johnny that weekend." Murdoch erased his entry for that Saturday and wrote in his youngest son's name.

"Now, that's more like it. Compromise. We all have to do it at one time or another. Johnny, any other special requests?"

Johnny hung his head. "No, I guess not." He mumbled.

"Then if I give you three days in a row during the week you can make it work?"

"I guess I'll have to. It's better than nothin'."

Murdoch tossed his glasses on the desk and laid the pencil down. "Good. I think I can finish this up by myself. It pleases me greatly to have the two of you trying to see the other one's point of view. I think this whole thing will work out well for both of you." Murdoch grinned.

"Thanks Pa," Johnny mumbled as Scott offered a "thanks, sir." The brothers rose, looked at each other and, when Johnny extended his hand, Scott shook it. Murdoch's heart swelled with pride. As they turned to walk to the door, each lifted one arm to put around the other's shoulder. It was only when Scott dropped his arm to push open the pocket doors with both hands that Johnny hurried past him. He was smiling widely and there was that twinkle of mischief Scott had learned to recognize in his brother's eyes. Johnny took a few steps backward before taunting Scott.

"Millicent . . . Millicent . . .Oh, Millicent" he cooed. As Scott took a step forward, curling his fingers into fists, Johnny swung around and ran up the steps as fast as he could repeating the name over and over with varying inflections until he got to his room, where he quickly ducked inside and slammed the door. Murdoch chuckled to himself. Boys will be boys, he thought. Scott climbed the stairs and turned down the corridor to retire to his own room. Just after he passed Johnny's bedroom, however, Johnny silently opened the door just enough to croon the name Millicent once more. Slamming the door quickly shut and leaning up against it, he laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. What kind of a name was Millicent anyhow? He thought. He mumbled the name in as many different pronunciations as he could think of while getting undressed for bed. He was still grinning as he fell asleep.

Scott and Johnny were informed at the breakfast table the next morning that the schedule had been completed for the coming month and that it had been posted in the bunkhouse. After they finished eating, Johnny raced Scott to be the first to study it. He had brought a small tablet and pencil out with him and, licking the end of the lead, wrote down all the days with his name on them. Ripping out the page, he folded it, kissed it and then tucked it in his shirt pocket. He tossed the paper and pencil to Scott who copied down his schedule, ripping out his page and tucking it in his vest. He would study it after lunch, making plans for at least the first few weekends, and then ride into town to send Millicent a wire. Johnny planned to do the same.

Scott and Johnny both finished their work in record time that morning. Johnny often found himself whistling while Scott exchanged one-liners with the hands. Wolfing down their lunch, they grabbed their hats and ran out to the corral. Johnny had already saddled Barranca. Leaping on the horse's back, he held his hat with one hand and spurred the palomino into a gallop. "See you in town, brother!" He called.

By the time Scott got to town, Johnny had already sent his telegram and had his horse tied up to the hitching post in front of the saloon. Scott entered the telegraph office. "Hello Joe," he said, nodding his head slightly.

"Well, two Lancers on the same afternoon. Must be right important business." Scott knew very well that Joe would have to read the messages in order to key them and so just offered the man a tight-lipped grin. When he finished writing out the information, Scott handed it to Joe. The telegrapher read through it, moving his lips with each word. "On the Lancer account?" He asked. Scott nodded, one hand on the door knob. "Expecting an answer?"

"I hope so!" Scott declared.

"Yah, Johnny too. I'll bring 'em out when they come." Joe sat down and began tapping out the wire.

Scott trotted across the street and into the saloon to find Johnny leaning on the far end of the bar, beer mug in hand, talking to a couple men Scott didn't recognize. When Johnny spotted him, he called out his brother's name and waved his arm indicating Scott should join them. When Scott stood next to Johnny's side, Johnny dropped one arm around his shoulder then introduced his brother to the other men. Scott ordered a whisky. When his drink arrived, Johnny pulled him closer and lifted his mug.

"To us," he said, touching the rim of his glass to Scott's. "And to our ladies – Jennie and Millicent". He could help but use a silly pronunciation of the name, pulling the corners of his mouth into a broad grin. Scott let it go, for now, and each man took a swallow. When they had finished their drinks, they walked back out to their respective horses, mounted, and started toward the ranch. Each man knew there was still enough daylight left to tend to more chores before supper.

Chapter 6

Scott arrived in San Francisco Friday evening. His wire to Millicent requested that she meet him in the hotel lobby at two o'clock the following afternoon, at which time he would escort her to the matinee at the Crown Theatre and then back to the hotel's restaurant for dinner and, perhaps if she was not too tired, a short evening walk. She had sent a one-word reply, but that was enough. She had said "yes".

Scott checked in, climbed the stairs to his room, immediately unpacked and hung up his clothes to avoid any unnecessary wrinkles, then shrugged out of his traveling coat and vest. He had been given a room at the very end of the hall and toward the back of the building which made it especially quiet. He rang the front desk and ordered a bath. Before long he was soaking in a deep cooper tub set in front of a low fire in his room's hearth. Picking up the thin cigar he had laid on the bedside table earlier, he struck a match and sucked the flame into the tobacco. Tossing the spent match into the fire, he took a deep draw before relaxing back to rest his head against the curved rim of the tub. Ah yes, he thought, life was indeed good.

Dressed in clean clothing, Scott made his way to the lobby later that evening. Approaching the maître d', he inquired as to how to go about placing a special order for the following evening's dinner. The man said he would be most happy to help so Scott told him exactly what he expected as the maître d' took notes. "Very good, sir. Excellent taste. I personally guarantee that everything will be to your liking." Snapping his fingers as he turned to leave, Scott turned back to the man. Pointing across the room, he told him he wanted that particular table and that a crystal vase with a dozen yellow roses should be waiting. The maître d' nodded, making more notes. Scott then ordered a lite meal to be brought to his room. Later wiping his mouth on the white linen napkin, Scott leaned back in the chair. As expected the food was exquisite. Wheeling the small cart into the hallway, he placed it tight against the wall just clear of his door. He hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the knob, entered, and prepared for bed. Sitting up against the pillows, he found he wasn't ready for sleep. He was too excited. After all, Millicent was somewhere in this very hotel and he couldn't wait to see her. Opening a book he had brought with him, he began to read but he found his attention too often wondering so finally snapped it shut, tossed it on the table, turned out the lamp and slid down beneath the covers. He told himself the sooner he got to sleep, the quicker tomorrow would come and the more time he would have to dream. It seemed to work well.

Scott lingered in bed until almost eight the next morning. Rising, he rang the bell at the front desk and, while he waited for them to send someone, he took out his evening suit. The page arrived quickly and, after the boy had entered, Scott gave him his breakfast order and handed over the suit along with his dress boots. He instructed that the suit be pressed and the boots shined and returned to his room before five o'clock that afternoon. Unpacking some of his other items, he placed his razor, soap, brush and shaving mug in a neat row next to the wash bowl so they would be ready for use after breakfast. Scott began to pace. What was he going to do with himself until it was time to meet Millicent for the matinee? Maybe he should have gone to the dining room for his morning meal. Maybe she would have been there. No, he told himself. His wire had said two o'clock. A knock on the door and delivery of his breakfast interrupted his thoughts. He ate as slowly as possible but still the hands on the clock had barely moved. Wheeling the cart into the hallway, he returned to the washstand and, being especially careful not to nick himself, commenced to shave. That task completed, he rang the front desk again. A different boy answered his call. When he did, Scott asked that the maître d' come to his room.

Scott sat in the chair and watched the clock. Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. He began to panic. Everything had to be perfect for that evening's dinner. Finally there was a knock on the door. It took Scott so by surprise he nearly jumped out of his boots. Opening it, he quickly ushered the man inside. As the maître d' stood note pad and pencil in hand, Scott paced. Had the roses been ordered? Had he specified yellow roses and were yellow roses available? Had the delivery been confirmed? Had the chef been given a copy of the menu Scott had earlier dictated? Were there any problems in getting the foods he had requested? Was the chef sure they were fresh? How about the bottle of wine he had ordered? Was is it being chilled properly? Had the dining room reserved the correct table? Could the maître d' think of anything else that he might have forgotten? The man had answered all Scott's questions with the appropriate reply of "Yes sir", or "No sir". Scott dismissed the man, promising to add a handsome gratuity after the meal and only if everything met his expectations.

After the maître d' left, Scott crossed to the wardrobe and took out the suit, shirt, boots and hat he planned to wear that afternoon. He had planned to skip lunch but, on second thought, what if his stomach growled in the middle of the performance? He would perish from embarrassment. He ordered a simple ham sandwich, a piece of fresh fruit and a glass of milk. It was twelve-thirty. He would begin dressing at one o'clock.

Checking himself in the mirror at least a dozen times, it was finally time to go downstairs. His watch said one-fifty. He picked up his hat and tucked into the crook of his arm. With one last look in the mirror, he left the room, locked the door and descended the stairs to the main floor. Scanning the lobby he found she had not yet arrived. There was a small divan on the wall opposite the staircase. It was currently empty. As it provided an excellent view of the staircase, he sat down. Scott focused his eyes on the top stair and waited. At exactly two o'clock, Millicent began her descent into the lobby. Scott leapt up and stepped forward. Waiting at the bottom stair, he extended his hand to her when she came into reach.

Millicent was wearing a beautifully tailored two piece walking suit of auburn silk. It was trimmed in black velvet and she wore black dress boots, black wrist-length gloves, and a black ribbon choker around her slender neck. The chocker held an exquisite Cameo. Her hat matched her dress in color and brought out the reddish highlights in her hair. A fine mesh half-veil extended from the brim. She carried a small beaded black purse. When she saw Scott, she smiled brightly. Scott took her hand, kissed the back of it, offered his arm to her and donned his hat with his free hand. He had ordered a carriage to take them to the theatre and was pleased to see it waiting as they exited the hotel. It was a short ride, only a few blocks actually, they could have walked but he wanted to impress his lady with the very best. The play, a light-hearted comedy, was excellent and Millicent seemed to enjoy it very much. Choosing to walk back to the hotel, Millicent often tugged on Scott's arm pulling him over to look at something she was pointing to in a shop window.

Arriving back at the hotel, Scott escorted her to her room where he took the key she handed to him and unlocked her door. Lifting her fingers to his lips he kissed them gently. He told her he would meet her at the dining room door exactly at seven o'clock. He waited for her to enter the room and close the door before walking down to the far end of the corridor to his own room.

His evening suit was laid out on the bed and had been pressed perfectly. His boots were standing in front of the dresser. He picked one up to inspect it closely. He could see his face in the shiny black leather. Excellent. He pulled a crisp white pleated shirt out of the wardrobe and hung it on the knob. Reaching into the recesses of his valise, he found his black ribbon tie and laid it on the bed alongside his suit. He shrugged out of his suit coat and tossed it on the chair. Hopping first on one foot and then the other, he pulled off his boots and tossed them on the floor. He shucked off his trousers and peeled off his socks, tossing them on top of his suit coat. He walked over to the washstand and looked in the mirror. Feeling his jaw line with one hand, he decided that, yes, he would need to shave again. He did so quickly, wiping his face with a damp towel. He picked up the small bottle of cologne and patted a small amount on his neck then rubbed his hand across his chest. It was time to dress.

Scott pulled on clean black socks then donned his shirt. His hands were shaking a little and it took more time than usual to fasten the tiny pearl buttons that ran up the center. He stepped into his trousers and, drawing them up to his waist, adjusted the suspenders into place. Folding back his French cuffs, he inserted the silver initial cufflinks that his grandfather had given him as a graduation gift. He pulled on his boots then picked up his tie. He tied and retied it and it still didn't look quite right. Why tonight of all nights? He thought. Trying one more time he finally perfected the tricky bow. Sliding his arms into the sleeves of his jacket, he tugged gently on the lapels before buttoning it. The suit, also a gift from his grandfather, had been custom made by the best tailor in Boston and fit him perfectly, accentuating his narrow waist and hips. The cut of the jacket and design of the lapels made his shoulders look much broader than they actually were. Slipping his watch into his pocket he found it was almost seven.

Descending the staircase, he found the lobby quite crowded. He excused himself through the crowd to peek in the dining room door. He spotted their table and the crystal vase of yellow roses. So far, so good. Finding the small divan occupied, he stood just off to the side of the bottom stair. Right on cue, Millicent appeared. Lifting her skirts in one hand, she slowly descended the stairs, keeping her eyes and her smile on Scott. She was dressed in a flowing gown of ivory chiffon. The exceptionally low neckline, the short puffy sleeves and the short train where dripping with embroidered lace. She wore elbow length matching gloves and a three-strand pearl chocker. Millicent had fashioned her hair in loose curls atop her head and adorned it with a small ivory plume. Her pearl earrings dangled nearly to her shoulders.

Taking her fingers in his, he placed a kiss on the back of them. Holding her gloved hand in his, he extended his arm and walked her into the dining room. As the maître d' led them to their table several of the other diners, men and women alike, watched them until they had been seated.

"Oh Scott, how beautiful!" Millicent exclaimed, cupping a rose and holding it beneath her nose to inhale its fragrance. "You thought of everything." Scott simply smiled that tight-lipped smile of his and gazed into her eyes. Within moments, the waiter delivered the wine he had ordered in a silver ice bucket. Serving a sip to Scott, the waiter waited to serve until Scott nodded his head in approval.

Once the glasses were filled, Scott lifted his in a toast. "To the most beautiful woman in San Francisco." Millicent blushed while raising her glass to touch his. They both took a swallow.

"Excellent." Millicent complimented. Scott explained that he had special ordered it from a small winery not too far from San Francisco. They grew a special type of grapes suited to the sandy soil on their land. It was known as some of the finest California wine ever produced.

Scott had to do no more than glance in the maître d's direction. Immediately two waiters carrying silver trays exited the kitchen and walked toward their table. Scott watched them carefully as they served his lady. Surveying the plate, he found everything as to his order. After they served him, he nodded his approval. Millicent pulled off her gloves and laid them in her lap. "Looks simply marvelous!" She commented before taking a bite. "How did you know that I just adore Veal Cordon Bleu?"

"You seemed to enjoy it at our last dinner together," Scott replied, taking his own bite of food. It, indeed, was excellent. As they dined, they discussed the matinee and some of the trinkets Millicent had pointed out in the shop windows. "How is your brother's business venture coming along?"

Millicent took a sip of wine before answering. "He doesn't talk about it much. At least not to me. He is of the opinion that women know nothing about business."

"He should be ashamed!" Scott retorted. "Some of the finest ranches in California are owned and run by women."

"Really?" Millicent, sounding quite surprise, arched her eyebrows.

Scott nodded and swallowed before speaking. "Yes. My father met some of them at the Cattlemen's Convention some years ago when he was first getting started."

Millicent dabbed at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. "I can't eat another bite!" She exclaimed, sitting back in the chair and swallowing a sip of wine.

Scott furrowed his brow. "But you've hardly touched your meal."

"Perhaps they can save the remainder and I can enjoy it again at lunch tomorrow." She offered. Knowing it was not polite to keep eating in front of her, Scott laid his utensils down upon his plate and dabbed the corners of his own mouth with his napkin.

"I've ordered dessert. Cherries Jubilee."

Millicent leaned forward and laid her hand over Scott's. "You really did think of everything but I couldn't possibly . . ." Noting the instant disappointment in Scott's eyes, she gently squeezed his fingers. "Didn't you say something about a walk? Perhaps we can have dessert when we return?" Scott's eyes brightened. Snapping his fingers, the waiter hurried over to the table. He asked that the lady's meal be held until luncheon the following day and that they were going out for a short time and would enjoy dessert when they returned.

Scott rose and came around behind Millicent's chair. He helped her up then offered his arm to her. Although the dining room had cleared out a bit, those diners who remained studied the couple closely, leaning to speak in whispers to their dinner companions. Once outside, Millicent stepped to the side of the walkway and pulled on her gloves. She then looped one arm through Scott's.

Scott turned her toward the east so that he would be walking closest to the street. The streetlamps had been lit and cast golden shadows on the many couples occupying this section of the city; one of the most popular. Millicent scanned the shop windows. They had strolled about two blocks when Millicent drew herself closer into Scott's side, lying her head on his shoulder.

"Tired?" He asked.

"Not especially." She murmured. "You?"

"I can't afford to be, we have a lot of evening left to enjoy. I'm leaving first thing in the morning, remember?"

He felt Millicent nod against his shoulder. "I wish you didn't have to go. That you didn't live so far away."

"It's only through the generosity of my father and my brother that I can be here at all. They have made great sacrifices so that we could share some time together." Millicent remained quiet. Stepping off the curb at the end of the block, Scott led Millicent into the shadow of the alleyway. "May . . . may I kiss you?" He stammered. Millicent feigned shyness, a blush rising in her cheeks, but nodded her consent. Scott leaned forward and put his hands around her waist. Millicent raised her hands and placed them on Scott shoulders. They exchanged a tender – though all too brief – kiss. Millicent's hands slid from Scott's shoulders around the back of his neck.

"You can do better than that, can't you?" She whispered. Scott took a step closer to her. His hands moved from her waist around her back as he pulled her toward him. They kissed several times, the last being the longest and most passionate. Parting, Millicent looked deeply into Scott's eyes and smiled coyly. "Still want dessert?" she asked seductively.

"I just had mine," Scott murmured. Keeping one hand in the small of her back, he walked her back to the hotel, through the lobby and to the bottom of the staircase. He didn't want this night to end so soon and attempted to entice Millicent into either sharing the Cherries Jubilee or at least having a nightcap, but she declined. Scott took her elbow as she ascended the stairs. He dared to put his arm around the back of her waist as he walked her to her door. Rather than protest such a public display of affection she moved closer to him. Handing Scott her key, he unlocked the door, stepped inside, lit the lamp and turned the wick down low. He was pleased to see that the busboy had brought the roses up to her room and placed them on the bedside table as instructed. Returning to the hallway, he glanced around to find it empty. Millicent was gazing deeply into his eyes so he took her into his arms and tenderly kissed her good night. "Sleep well my lady and most pleasant dreams." Millicent gave him a quick peck on the cheek before disappearing into her room and quietly shutting the door. Scott took a few steps toward his own room before stopping to glance at her door over his shoulder. He touched a couple fingers to his lips then grinned.

Checking out early the next morning, he settled up his bill which was substantial, taking him slightly by surprise although he remained stoic as he handed the clerk the cash. He made reservations for the following Friday and Saturday nights, put his hat on his head and walked down to the livery. It would be a long lonely ride home but that was okay. It gave him more time to reminisce about the previous evening.

On the weekends that followed, Scott and Millicent enjoyed the opera, the orchestra, carriage ride tours of the city, picnics, dinner cruises and exquisite meals at the hotel. A bouquet of flowers arrived at her room every Saturday morning along with a brief note of when Scott expected to arrive and that he would count the minutes until they could be together again. Scott was able to dismiss all the traveling, which – he had to admit was taxing – by focusing on the ultimate reward of spending as much time as possible with his lady.

Chapter 7

Some wild daisies were growing along the trail so Johnny reined up Barranca, hopped down and picked the prettiest one. He studied it closely before tucking it carefully in his breast pocket, he mounted up and road into town. Light spilled from the livery and a number of townsfolk were already walking toward the open door. Reining up his horse in front of the tiny white clapboard house, he tethered the animal loosely to the hitching post, tugged down his jacket, cleared his throat and advanced to the door. He did so hope that Jennie would answer it and not her uncle. He knocked and waited. Lady luck was smiling on him tonight. When the door slowly opened, it was Jennie standing there in a beautiful emerald green dress. It had a rather low-cut neckline and a wide black velvet sash encircling her waist. She had pulled her hair to one side in loose curls and wore small filigree gold earrings that swayed gently when she moved.

"Johnny," she murmured. "You look so . . . so exceptionally handsome tonight.

Johnny felt his face grow hot and was glad the lighting was poor. Maybe she wouldn't notice the blush spreading across his cheeks under his dark tan. "You look mighty fine yourself. Mighty fine." He extended his hand to her and when she placed her fingers in his, he gripped it lightly and pulled her out on the porch. Retrieving the blossom from his breast pocket he carefully tucked it in her hair. He gave her his brightest smile and bent his elbow to offer his arm. As she looped her arm through his, he put his free hand over hers. "Do you have a curfew tonight?" She shook her head. "Good. Then we'll have a fine time." Together they walked the short distance to the livery where the band was just beginning to play. Although Johnny loved the spirited dances – probably due to his Mexican heritage and his mother's teachings – tonight he was hoping for more slow dances so that he would have an excuse to hold Jennie tight. They danced until the band took a break, at which time Johnny found her a place to sit while he went to the refreshment table and got them each a cup of punch.

As luck would have it, a couple members of the band were also helping themselves to a drink. Holding a cup of punch in each hand, he sauntered over to them. "Hey fellows?" he asked quietly. "Could you do me a favor and play more slow dances? I'm here with a very special lady and . . ." He was hushed by the upraised hand of the fiddle player.

"Say no more son. I was young once too!" He elbowed the man standing next to him who nodded his head. Johnny gave them a wink and a smile before turning to find Jennie. The players were true to their word and almost all the remaining dances required the couples to hold each other. No one seemed to mind. When the band took their second break, Johnny suggested they step out for a breath of fresh air to which Jennie agreed. Taking her hand in his, they walked down the wooden sidewalk toward the church. The moon was just full enough to cast subtle silvered shadows onto the street.

"You're an excellent dancer Johnny." Jennie cooed, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "I could hardly keep up with you there a couple times."

Johnny didn't want to talk about dancing. Pulling her into the shadows on the far side of the church, he looked deeply into her eyes. Leaning toward her he bent his head a little and prepared to give his lady a kiss when she twisted away from him.

Jennie walked back toward the edge of the street where there was a sliver of moonlight, pretending to fuss with her dress. Johnny exhaled. His approach had never failed before and he couldn't figure out why it wasn't working on this particular girl. He took a few steps toward her, stopping just inside the shadows.

"Why won't you kiss me?" He asked. Jennie crossed her arms about her waist and shrugged her shoulders. "Don't you want to?" Jennie dropped her head. Johnny walked up to stand closely behind her. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her back against him. He put his cheek against hers. She found it soft and warm, his breath falling on her neck. "Will you do what the flower tells you to?" Johnny's voice was barely a whisper.

"The flower?" Jennie asked, not sure of what he meant.

Johnny reached up with one hand and pulled the daisy from her hair. He held it out in front of her. "Don't you know that Mother Nature is much smarter than either of us? You're supposed to pluck out the petals saying 'he loves me' or 'he loves me not' with each one. If the last petal says 'he loves me' than you have to give your fellow a kiss." Jennie turned her head just slightly, lifting her chin to look into Johnny's eyes. He was being serious; he wasn't making fun of her. Turning her attention back to the bloom in her hand, she began pulling out the petals one by one murmuring the appropriate phrase as she dropped each one at her feet. Johnny rested his chin on her shoulder, watching. When she got to the final petal, and the phrase happened to be 'he loves me', Johnny murmured in her ear. "You must obey Mother Nature you know, or somthin' awful might happen." He reached out, took the stem from her fingers and tossed it in the street.

Jennie turned in his arms to face him. Johnny took her hand in his and pulled her back into the shadows. He guided her slightly ahead of him until her back was against the building . Dropping her hand, he supported himself with one arm, his fingers pressed against the clapboard siding just inches from her left ear. He lifted his other hand and gently cupped her cheek, running his thumb lightly across her lips. Slowly he leaned closer and placed his lips gently on hers for just an instant, then lifted his head to look into her eyes. When she didn't make any attempt to turn away, he kissed her again, this time lingering just a little longer. When his lips left hers, he gave her a grin. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" He murmured huskily. Jennie shook her head, lifting one hand and placing it behind his head. She pulled him closer and gifted him with a long, and somewhat passionate, kiss. When they finally parted, Johnny encircled her waist with both hands then nuzzled into her neck, placing small quick kisses along its length to her shoulder. Jennie's breath quickened. Moving his head to the other side, he repeated the small, fleeting kisses until he reached her other shoulder. Lifting one hand, he slowly pushed aside the neckline of her dress until its short sleeve slipped off her shoulder and a short way down her arm. Looking deeply into her eyes, and seeing no fear or resistance there, he dropped his gaze to the top of her breasts. His hand slid upward from its position on her waist until it cupped her right breast. He could feel her response through the thin fabric and was just about to lower his head to kiss the fullness where is swelled above her neckline when he felt her hands pushing against his shoulders.

"I think we better be getting back." She said, pulling her sleeve back up on her shoulder and straightening her neckline. She slid sideways until she was clear of him, then turned quickly and began walking back to the livery. Johnny raised both hands, arms extended, to brace himself against the building. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes for several seconds then he hurried after he, taking her elbow from behind.

When they returned to the dance, they found that most of the couples had already left and only a handful remained. The man Johnny had spoken to at the refreshment table caught his eye and winked, announcing that this was to be the last dance. As the music started, Johnny swept Jennie into his arms. She kept her eyes on his as they gently waltzed around the floor, clapping politely as the music ended. Johnny placed his hand lightly in the small of her back and led her out the door. The wind had come up slightly from the north and Jennie shivered. Johnny slid out of his bolero style jacket and draped it around her shoulders before putting one arm around her to hold it in place. They strolled the short distance to the house and climbed up on the porch steps. The glow of low lamp light filled the front window.

"My uncle must be home," Jennie said quietly. Johnny clenched his teeth and glanced at the front door. "I better go in before he comes looking for me . . . and you." She added. Jennie shrugged the jacket off her shoulders and handed it back to Johnny. "Thank you for . . . well, everything." She murmured. Rising on tiptoe she placed a quick kiss on Johnny's cheek then quietly slipped into the house.

Johnny stood on the porch for a moment. He had never quite felt this way before. Lifting his jacket to his nose, he inhaled and found that just a whisper of her perfume lingered on the silk lining. Sliding his arms into the sleeves, he tugged on the front to straighten it over his shirt. He bent his head. Yes, he could still smell a trace of her and that – for now – was enough. He smiled at the closed front door, turned on his heel, untied Barranca, mounted and road off in the direction of the livery. Earlier in the day he had arranged to stay there overnight. He had slept in worse places. At least this night he could dream of his Jennie and take pleasure in knowing that she would never find out that he, Johnny Lancer, had counted the petals of that very daisy right after he picked it and pulled out just one.

Although he hated to admit it, Scott had been right. Weekdays in Avalon didn't differ much from weekends. Johnny arranged for picnics, buggy rides, dinners at the small café in town, and long walks taken hand-in-hand with his sweet Jennie. Every once in a while her uncle answered the door, usually saying nothing other than to call to his niece. Johnny reasoned it was the man's attempt at intimidation. He still glared at Johnny, who remained equally silent, but had evidently resigned himself to the fact that Jennie enjoyed this Lancer fellow's company. And Jennie herself seemed more relaxed with Johnny's attentions. In fact, more often than not, it was now Jennie who initiated the kissing, the embraces in each other's arms, the holding of Johnny's head in her lap to stroke his forehead while he napped in the warm autumn sun.

Barranca learned the route between the ranch and Avalon quickly which gave Johnny the opportunity to daydream, and daydream he did – all the way there and all the way back.

Scott and Johnny's attitudes toward ranch work and to each other had changed considerably these past weeks and did not go unnoticed by Murdoch. They became more cheerful, more willing to volunteer for the not-so-pleasant tasks that they would have tried to shirk in the past. While Johnny still teased, Scott took it more gracefully and was learning how to tease back. Meal times were relaxed and filled with laughter, jokes and good stories. Even Teresa commented on their behaviors. After supper talks in the parlor often lasted into the late hours of the evening when Teresa and Murdoch would finally excuse themselves and go to bed, leaving the brothers playing chess, cards, or just sharing a drink and conversation in front of the fire.

Johnny had taken a dozen hands and two wagon loads of materials into the far northern quarter to mend fences and prepare the pasture for grazing. It would take two or three days and was too far out to return to the ranch each day and Teresa had taken the buggy to visit a friend in Larchmont for a couple days. It gave Murdoch a good opportunity to have a father/son discussion with Scott. As they retired to the parlor after the evening meal, Scott poured two brandies, handed one to Murdoch, and then settled in the chair opposite his father. The evenings had become chilly and a hearty fire burned in the hearth. Taking a swallow of brandy, Murdoch broke the silence.

"So son, how is the new schedule between you and Johnny working out?"

"Fine, sir. In fact, much better than expected."

"I'm glad to hear it. For a while there, I thought the two of you were going to come to blows." Watching his son's face carefully for a reaction, Scott merely offered a tight-lipped grin before taking a sip from his drink.

"Tell me about . . . Millicent, isn't it?" Still closely studying his eldest son's face, he noted an immediate change. The only way he could describe it was a kind of glow, a twinkle in Scott's eyes and widening of that tight-lipped grin into a full blown smile.

Scott stared into the fire for a moment, took another swallow of brandy, and lifted his right leg to rest his ankle on his left knee. "She's quite something, sir. Refined, educated, fashionable, and able to discuss almost any topic . . .Why last Saturday evening we were discussing the planetary changes affecting the weather and how it could affect agriculture throughout the United States." Glancing at his father, he saw Murdoch raise his eyebrows and nod slightly.

"And is she pretty?"

Scott dropped his foot to the floor, leaned his weight on his forearms and rested his forearms on his thighs. He held his snifter in both hands and rolled it slowly back and forth between his palms. "Is she pretty? My God, she's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen! She has this long dark brown hair with sort of a reddish tint to it. I suppose you could call it auburn. She's almost as tall as I am, fine featured, high cheeks bones, full lips and the most fascinating emerald green eyes . . ." Scott's voice trailed off which caused Murdoch to grin to himself. Scott was staring into the fire.

"You said she was from Baltimore?" Murdoch said, purposely to bring Scott out of his trance.

Scott startled slightly, blinked his eyes a couple times and cleared his throat. "Yes, Baltimore. Millicent's family is very well known there in social circles. Her father is Jebidiah Montgomery. He owns several coal and iron ore mines."

"Impressive. And didn't you say she is here with her brother. Some sort of business venture?"

"Yes, sir. I don't know exactly what it is but I do know that he has two investors and so they have a 60-20-20 partnership. I asked Millicent for the details but she said he doesn't involve her in his business because, as a woman, she wouldn't understand it anyway." Scott's voice took on a slightly sharp tone. His irritation with the man and his opinion of women was clear. Scott drained his glass and placed it on the table. "I told her that some of the largest ranches in this part of the country were run by women and she seemed very impressed. Perhaps if Millicent and her brother extend their stay in San Francisco, I could arrange to have her meet Mrs. Barkley. I think she would like Victoria and could gain a great benefit from her knowledge."

"If you ever want to follow through with that plan, son, just let me know. Victoria and I go back a long way. I'm sure I can arrange for the two of you to stay at the Barkley ranch for a couple days and, if not, arrange to have Victoria and her daughter meet you and Millicent in San Francisco. With three strong women at the dinner table though I doubt you would get a word in edgewise." Murdoch smiled at Scott before draining his glass and placing it next to his son's empty glass on the table.

"Sir" Scott said hesitantly. "How do you know . . . I mean how does it feel . . ."

Murdoch knew what Scott was trying to say. "How do you know when you're in love?" Scott dropped his eyes in embarrassment and nodded his head. "I think it's different for every man. With Catherine – your mother – well . . . every time I saw her the world seemed to stop revolving. Her smile made me dizzy and the touch of her hand . . . " Murdoch's voice trailed off in memories. Clearing his throat he tried to disguise the emotion in his words. "I could think of nothing else but her. It didn't make any difference if I was plowing a field, milking a cow, listening to Sunday sermon, or eating a meal. She became everything to me. I stopped looking at all the other girls; they didn't matter to me anymore. Only her, only my Catherine." Murdoch swallowed the lump forming in his throat and paused a moment before continuing. "Are you in love with Millicent son?"

"I think I am. I mean I live for the days I can be with her. I have to make sure everything's perfect; the flowers, the dinner, the seats at the theatre . . ." Scott stared into the fire. "When we're together I just want to . . . to melt into her. My heart aches every time I have to leave." Scott turned toward his father. "Sir, I think . . . well, I think she may be the one."

"The one?" Murdoch echoed. "Are you sure son?" Scott nodded. Murdoch folded his hands except for his index fingers which he drew into a point in front of his lips. Scott waited. The clock ticked off the minutes. Dropping his hands back to the arm rests, Murdoch continued. "Just be sure son. Be very sure. Marriage is forever unless, God forbid . . ." Murdoch's voice broke.

"I'm as sure as I can be. I want to ask her. . . the next time I'm in San Francisco, that is, if she will give her hand in marriage."

"Have you met her brother? Any other members of her family? Thought about the possibility of her brother's business venture failing, forcing her to leave San Francisco to go back east?" Murdoch paused seeing a cloud falling across his son's eyes. "Scott, all I'm asking is that you not jump into anything. After all, you've only known her a couple months. Would she be content to live a rancher's life or would you be satisfied going with her to Baltimore and taking a nine-to-five job in the city?" He could see the wheels spinning in Scott's head. "I am not trying to discourage you. Far from it. It would make me the happiest man on this good Lord's earth if you've found your one true love. You know how badly I want grandchildren." Murdoch teased. A blush rose on Scott's cheeks. "All I'm asking is that you give it some time and some thought. If it's meant to be, she'll wait for you, and if there's anything, anything at all I can do just say the word." Slapping his knees, Murdoch rose and stretched. "Well I've got payroll to finish. Don't stay up too late son. Good dreams." He added, winking at Scott.

Scott sat before the fire for a while. He tried to recall every detail of Millicent from what she looked like to what she wore to what her perfume smelled like. Then his father's words began tumbling about in his mind. So many things to think about. So many things. His heart had made its decision now all Scott had to do was convince his intellect to agree.

Chapter 8

Johnny couldn't help but whistle. He felt like he was on cloud nine. It was Friday afternoon. Scott had already left for San Francisco and Johnny had just returned from Avalon the previous evening. Mending tack was not his favorite task, but today he didn't seem to really mind it. It was a warm autumn day, the sky clear blue and the first hint of color on the trees so Johnny was sitting outside to finish his work. Murdoch had spied his younger son while standing in the kitchen having a cup of coffee. Draining his cup, he placed it near the sink, grabbed his hat and walked out toward the barn.

Johnny, smiling broadly, saw him coming. "Hey, Pa," he said.

"Son." Murdoch replied. "Mind some company?"

"No, I'd actually welcome it."

Murdoch stood an empty crate on end and took a seat. "How's the tack coming along?"

"Fine. I'm almost done. Just need to soap a couple saddles and I'll be ready for supper." Murdoch nodded, picking up some reins and studying them closely. His son did good work.

"So how is every going with . . . Jennie, is it?"

Although he continued to repair some loose stitching on a bridle, his pace slowed considerably. "Jennie . . . Jennie Whitfield. We're mighty fine, Pa. There isn't a lot of things to do in Avalon but we manage."

Murdoch's heart swelled to see his son so obviously happy. "Tell me about her?"

Johnny stopped working and laid the bridle in his lap. He got this far-away look in his eyes. "Pa, she's just about the prettiest thing I ever saw. Her hair is this kind of honey color and real shiny. She likes to wear it pulled back in a ponytail. She's just half a hand shorter than me, and real . . . well, skinny isn't the right word."

"Petite?" Murdoch offered.

"Yah, petite if that means skinny in a more fancy way! She's a real good dancer and packs the best picnic lunches of anyone I know. She sometimes get real shy . . . about certain things, that is . . . but I think that's because she worries that her uncle might find out and she'd get in trouble with him."

"Are you and he getting along any better?"

"The only time we get along is when he isn't there and I don't have to deal with him. There's somethin' about him, he's got these real dark narrowed eyes. I don't know, if I was going to do any business with him, I'd sure think twice. I just don't trust him. Gut feeling, you know?"

"Yes I do know and Johnny, listen to your gut. There were a few times I didn't and I regret it to this day."

Johnny lowered his eyes and became rather quiet. After a few moments he asked, "Pa, can I talk to you about somethin'?"

Murdoch leaned forward with his forearms on his thighs and folded his hands between his knees. "Of course, Johnny, about anything. You know that by now don't you?"

Johnny nodded slightly. "I know but . . . well, this is kinda different." He stammered.

"Different? How so?" Murdoch asked with concern echoing in his voice.

Johnny fussed with the buckles on the bridle. "You know Pa, just forget it. I shouldn't have brought it up." Murdoch could see that Johnny was blushing slightly even under his son's dark tan.

Murdoch placed his hands on his knees. "Okay, son. Maybe another time." He was about to stand when Johnny suddenly spoke.

"How did you know you were in love with my ma?" He asked quietly, looking into his father's eyes.

Murdoch relaxed back down and resumed his previous position. "Well, there's a lot of things, a lot of little things that can endear a woman to a man. The first time I saw Maria she was dancing. She had on this yellow dress with real full skirts that had lots of trimmings and embroidery on the bottom. She had her hair pulled back into a bun and wore a fancy comb holding a black lace mantilla that hung down just past her shoulders. She was playing the castanets, as I recall." Murdoch cleared his throat. He felt as though he had drifted back to that day in Mexico for just an instant. "It was a festival and there were lots of girls dancing but there was just something about her. I guess you could say it was love at first sight. When she finished her dance, I asked if she would go with me to the cantina for a drink. She agreed and we sat and talked all night. It wasn't too long after that that I asked her to marry me. She had the most incredible eyes – almost black – but they sparkled like diamonds." Murdoch paused for just a moment. "Why do you ask, son? Are you falling in love with Jennie?"

Johnny dropped his gaze. "I don't know. I feel kinda funny when I'm around her. I never felt that way around a girl before." Lifting his head, he focused on the far pasture in front of him. "I want to talk to her and hold her hand and put my arms around her and . . . Well, it took a little while, but she finally let me kiss her. I thought I was drowning." Johnny's voice faltered just a little bit and Murdoch could see his son struggling to control it before continuing. "I get this kinda sick feeling when I have to leave to come back to the ranch. She's in my head all the time and I count the days . . . the minutes until I can be with her again. Is that love Pa?" Johnny turned in his seat and gazed directly into his father's eyes.

Murdoch thought for a minute. He wanted to give the right answer but he also wanted to give Johnny much of the same advice he had given Scott. He could hardly believe that both his sons had asked him nearly the same question at nearly the same time. "Could be. Men sometimes have trouble differentiating between love and . . . well, desire."

Johnny's eyebrows knit together. "Differen . . ."

"Differentiating," Murdoch repeated. "It means . . . telling the difference between."

"Oh," Johnny murmured.

"Son you've only known the girl a few weeks. She doesn't even live around here. She's only here for a short time. Besides, you said yourself that you and Jennie's uncle can't get along. What about her folks? You know you don't just marry the woman, you also marry her family. There is a lot of compromising between a husband and wife. Men don't always rule the roost, even if they like to think they do." Johnny dropped his eyes and began fussing with the bridle again. "Johnny nothing would make a father more joyful than to see his children happy. All I'm saying, son, is take your time. You're young, very young. You have a lot of life ahead of you. If it's meant to be, it will happen no matter how long you wait. And if it isn't meant to be . . ." Seeing the hurt on Johnny's face at even the possibility of losing her, Murdoch silenced himself a few minutes. He could see that Johnny was really thinking about what he had said and that was good. "Son, I don't mean to discourage you. All I'm asking is that you slow down a little bit and put some thought into your relationship with Jennie, okay?"

Johnny nodded and went back to work on the bridle. Murdoch rose, put a hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Murdock was almost to the gate of the corral when he suddenly stopped and turned.

"A notion just came to me. I would fancy meeting your special lady. Why don't you invite her to the ranch? Teresa is a little younger but I'm sure they will find all kinds of things to talk about. We have a guest room that seldom gets used. I bet she would enjoy seeing your home. You could show her around, go horseback riding, let her see what you've accomplished since you came here. There's probably more to do here in one day than in Avalon for a whole week. Ask her next time you see her. Tell her it was your father's idea. You know how welcome we would make her feel."

Johnny looked up, a wide smile on his face. The twinkle had returned to his crystal blue eyes. It made Murdoch feel better that he wasn't leaving his son in turmoil. "I'll do that Pa. It's a good idea. Thanks!"

"Just remember one other thing, as much as I would love nothing more than a grandchild, marriage first, babies second!" Murdoch turned to go back into the house.

"Oh Pa," Johnny called. "You were tellin' how about ma's eyes, how beautiful and everythin'. Wait until you see Jennie's. You'll get lost in them just like I did. They are the most amazing emerald green."

Teresa had made a big pot of chili for supper, and with it fresh baked cornbread, a large relish tray of pickles, olives, spiced beets and various sliced fresh vegetables. Dessert? Cottage pudding with thick lemon sauce. None of the men needed pressuring into taking seconds. As had become usual, the conversation remained light with the boys bantering back and forth about the strategies of chess and when they could go together into town for just some plain good-old-boys time. Retiring to the parlor, Murdoch took his usual seat and Teresa informed the group that she might be able to finish her project if she stayed up just a little later. Scott and Johnny pulled out the chess set and began their first game. They had taken up wagering on the outcome, betting chores instead of money, and whoever won the most often that week got to have the other perform whatever task he chose. So far, Johnny had mucked out the stall of Scott's horse twice and polished his boots before Sunday service. This week, he was ahead of his brother if his skill held. The wide smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye after each victory conveyed to Scott that Johnny had probably thought of the worst chore possible.

Murdoch was reading the weekly paper and, if an interesting headline appeared, would read part of the article aloud. The fire crackled and snapped in the hearth and the clocked ticked quietly in the corner. Suddenly Johnny jumped up.

"Yes," he hollered, throwing his arms in the air. As he did a little dance all around the room, Murdoch looked over at Scott who had his chin supported on one fist and a scowl on his brow. "I won again!. I won again!"

"Johnny" Murdoch barked. His son immediately stopped his little celebration but his lips still held a smile and his eyes still held their mischievous twinkle. "If you have so much energy, you can go in the kitchen and do the dishes for your sister so she can finish that altar cloth." Teresa looked up and gave Murdoch a coy smile.

"Dishes!" Johnny spat.

"You do know how to wash, dry and put away dishes don't you?" Murdoch stated, peering over the top edge of the paper in his hand.

"Yes, sir." Johnny shoved his fingers into his front pockets and left the parlor walking down the hall in the direction of the kitchen. "Dishes," he mumbled.

After he was out of earshot, Murdoch, Scott and Teresa all burst out laughing. Teresa thanked Murdoch but added that it really wasn't necessary to which Murdoch only shrugged before disappearing back behind his newspaper.

Scott walked over to the sideboard. Taking a clean glass, he poured himself a generous portion of Scotch.

"Pour me one too, would you son?" Murdoch asked. Scott took out another glass.

"Scotch?" Scott queried, holding up the decanter.

Murdoch, usually a bourbon man, pursed his lips and drew his brows together. "Why not." Scott poured some liquor in the empty glass, put the stopped back in the decanter and set the decanter back on the tray. He took a sip of his drink before crossing the room and handing the other glass to his father. Murdoch took a swallow and winced. He hated Scotch but he knew it was Scott's preferred choice and so would make do to please his son. Folding the paper and dropping it on the floor next to his chair, Murdoch motioned for Scott to sit down opposite him. "I would very much like to meet your young lady, son. I have some business that will take me to San Francisco next week. It will take several days and I was thinking I could leave on Monday and meet you and Millicent Saturday evening for sup . . . dinner. We could ride back together on Sunday." Murdoch was glad to see a smile appear on Scott's face. He was afraid he might be considered an intrusion.

"I would like that very much, Sir. I'm sure you will find her as delightful as I do. As which hotel will you be staying?"

"It would work out well to stay at the same hotel as you, if you don't mind that is. You've often said how delicious the food is in the dining room there. Perhaps they would have a suite. You and I could share it unless . . ." Murdoch wanted to bite his tongue. Maybe Scott had a need for a private room.

"That would be acceptable. I will send a wire tomorrow and have them change my reservation. Do you have any special requests, sir?" Murdoch shook his head and forced himself to take another sip of scotch. "I am quite sure you will find the accommodations and the service to be to your liking. The staff is more than willing to grant your every request. I should tell you that you will be expected to dress for dinner. I believe your black suit, white tucked shirt and black tie would do nicely. I am excited to have you meet Millicent and to obtain your opinion of her, sir."

"It's all set then. I look forward to spending time with you and am sure we will have a lot to talk about on the ride back to the ranch." Murdoch set his glass on the table. He just couldn't stomach any more of the rancid liquid. Rising, he yawned broadly then excused himself for doing so. "I believe I'll make an early evening of it. I have an exceptionally interesting book waiting for me upstairs and want to do a little reading. Good night to you both. I will go up the back stairs so I can bid sweet dreams to Johnny." Scott and Teresa both wished him a pleasant sleep.

As he had taken his boots off earlier in the evening, his stocking feet made no sound on the wooden floor in the corridor that ran towards the back of the house. When he arrived at the kitchen door, he saw Johnny, back turned towards the door, shoveling what he supposed was the leftover cottage pudding into his mouth. "How are those dishes coming, son?"

Johnny froze holding a spoonful of dessert half-way in between the pan and his lips. Forcing his last mouthful of pudding down his throat, he placed the pan and spoon on the counter before turning. "Fine Pa. Almost done. Just this last pan . . ." Johnny's expression was that of a little boy being caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

Murdoch drew his brows together, a scowl upon his lips and his eyes narrow. He pointed the index finger of his right hand at his son. "You better be quick about finishing your chore, and I would advise to use these back stairs when you're done. I should skin your hide but I think the tongue lashing your sister is going to give you when she finds out will suffice." Murdoch watched as Johnny slunk back to the dishpan and began rinsing and wiping the remaining plates. As he turned the corner and began ascending the back staircase, Murdoch had all he could do to not burst out laughing. 'That boy,' he thought. 'He'll just never learn.'

Johnny thought he had come up with a clever idea. He dug out a slightly smaller pan than the one Teresa had used to bake the cottage pudding. Scooping out the last of it, he turned the smaller pan upside down and placed it inside the dessert pan. He then picked up the clean linen towel his sister had covered the leftovers with and smoothed it out over the pans, tucking the edges underneath so it would look totally undisturbed. He made sure to put it in exactly the same place on the counter. It wouldn't save him but it would buy him enough time to make a clean getaway. After all, tomorrow he was to take a couple dozen hands and start driving the herds up to the high pastures. He would be gone for at least three days. By then Teresa would either have cooled down enough to make do with just a scolding or maybe she would have forgotten all about it. At least that's what he hoped.

Sneaking up the back steps, he planned to provide himself a little extra insurance and sleep in the bunkhouse tonight. He quietly gathered his gear, tiptoed back down the stairs and slipped out the back door. The men would rise at sunup and be long gone by the time the family came down for breakfast. Johnny snickered to himself, thinking himself pretty clever. He doubted that Scott could come up with a better plan even with all his fancy schoolin'.

Chapter 9

Murdoch looked the picture of high society as he waited alongside Scott in the hotel lobby. He had gotten a haircut that very afternoon and his gray hair looked silver in the light from the overhead chandeliers. The staff had pressed his suit, which was impeccably tailored and accentuated his broad shoulders and impressive height. His black dress boots gleamed, as did the fine sterling chain of his white-gold pocket watch. Scott looked equally handsome in a dark blue suit and pale yellow shirt. Millicent was due to meet them at exactly seven o'clock. Scott had informed his father earlier in the day that he hadn't told Millicent he would be joining them. He wanted it to be a surprise.

Precisely at seven, she appeared at the top of the stairs. Both men looked up but only Scott advanced a few steps to wait at the bottom of the staircase. This evening she wore a dress of deep purple silk. Rather than sleeves, it had matching gathered mesh straps that rested just off her shoulders. She wore a black beaded choker, matching earrings and black elbow length gloves. Scott was pleased to see that on her left wrist, over her glove, she was wearing the slender silver bracelet he had given her upon his last visit. Stepping down onto the lobby carpeting, she offered her cheek to Scott who kissed it lightly. Taking her arm, he steered her over to where his father waited. As she approached, Murdoch gave her a tight-lipped smile and bowed just slightly.

"Millicent," Scott said. "I would very much like you to meet my father, Murdoch Lancer. Father, it is my extreme pleasure to introduce you to Miss Millicent Montgomery of the Baltimore Montgomerys."

Murdoch extended his hand and when she put her fingers in his palm, he bowed more deeply and placed a kiss on the back of it. Was it shock or surprise that he noticed on her face?

"My father has been in San Francisco a few days on business. He expressed a great interest in meeting you as I have often spoken of you to my family. Therefore, he will, of course, be joining us for dinner."

It took Millicent a few moments to gather her wits. Murdoch thought she suddenly looked a little pale. He had to admit, however, that it did seem quite warm in the room and perhaps she was just in need of a cool glass of water.

"Well, son, should we advance to the dining room? I'm sure the maître d' is holding our table and we shouldn't tarry so as to lose it." Millicent had dropped Scott's arm and so Murdoch took her by the elbow. "May I?" She nodded slightly, looking back over her shoulder at Scott, who walked a pace behind. They were led to their usual table only tonight there was an extra place setting rather than a vase of flowers. Scott had not forgotten but rather had the florist deliver them to her room earlier in the day. Murdoch held her chair until she was settled than he and Scott took their seats.

Scott had preordered both the wine and the meal. As soon as the diners were all seated, the waiter brought over the silver ice bucket with the linen wrapped wine bottle inside. When he offered to pour Scott the first taste, Scott declined telling the waiter it was his usual order and therefore he knew it would be excellent. After the waiter had filled their glasses, Murdoch was the first to raise his in toast. "To my son and his excellent taste in dinner companions." Scott smiled, locking eyes with Millicent and raised his glass. Millicent appeared a bit anxious. She didn't like surprises. Especially not the type of surprise that had been sprung upon her this evening. Hesitantly, she, too, raised her glass. As the rims of all three goblets touched, she quickly brought her glass to her lips and took a rather generous swallow. Scott and Murdoch glanced at each other before taking a sip from their own glasses. Murdoch held his goblet up to the light. "I recognize this wine without even looking at the bottle. It's that burgundy we enjoy so much at home on special occasions, isn't it?" Scott nodded and grinned. Millicent held her glass to her lips. "Those Barkley's sure knew what they were doing, turning that one section into a vineyard."

Millicent almost choked on her sip of wine. Scott began to stand but she motioned with her hand for him to remain seated. "Oh, I do so apologize. I must have swallowed too quickly." Millicent took a drink from her water goblet. "I'm fine now. Please do accept my apology"

"Why of course, my dear. It could happen to anyone. It is a very bold wine which, at times, can be an unexpected taste." Murdoch grinned as Millicent took another sip of water.

Scott looked up and snapped his fingers gently. Immediately, two waiters with silvered trays held high came to his side. As one lowered his tray, Scott surveyed the plates and nodded his approval. Millicent was, of course, served first then his father. They waited until the other waiter stepped forward and delivered Scott's dinner at which time the men gently shook out their napkins and draped them over one knee. Millicent removed her bracelet in order to pull off her gloves, which she dropped in her lap before placing her own napkin over them. She left the bangle on the table and would put it back on her wrist after the meal was finished and her gloves were back in place.

The men waited until Millicent took the first bite before picking up their own forks. "Father, I do so hope you like Veal Cordon Bleu. It's Millicent's favorite. If it's not to your liking, I will have the chef prepare whatever you wish."

Murdoch took a small bite. He didn't recall every tasting the dish before but it was superb. "It's absolutely delicious, son." Turning to look at Millicent, he continued. "You have excellent taste in both costume and in cuisine."

"Thank you Mr. Lancer. There is a very fine establishment in Baltimore whose specialty is Veal Cordon Bleu. I just never seem to tire of it." The diners ate in silence for a few moments. "I must extend my apologies to you Mr. Lancer. I'm afraid Scott's surprise was such that I momentarily forgot my manners. It is my pleasure to meet you, sir, and I am delighted that you were available to join us this evening."

Murdoch swallowed his veal and took a sip of wine. "It is my pleasure to be dining with you . . . and, of course, with my son, but Mr. Lancer is far too formal. Please call me Murdoch." Millicent looked over at Scott who nodded his approval. "I understand your brother is in this city on business. Scott was explaining to me that he is forming some sort of partnership. Perhaps you would do me the honor of introducing him to me. I'm always interested in new ventures."

Millicent laid her fork down on her plate and took a drink of water. She seemed a bit flustered. "I would be more than happy to introduce you, Mr. . .Murdoch. But I'm afraid he is out of town for a few days. His business took him to San Jose. I don't expect him to return to San Francisco until mid-week."

"Perhaps another time." Murdoch replied. He glanced at his son over the rim of his wine glass as he took another swallow. Scott's face absolutely beamed. He seemed mesmerized by every move she made and every word she spoke. Finishing dessert, Millicent pulled on her gloves and reached out for the bracelet. "Allow me my dear," Murdoch said, holding it out to her. "It's a beautiful piece of jewelry. Sterling?"

Millicent slipped her hand through the bangle. "Yes, sterling." She repeated. "A gift from your son." Murdoch snapped his head around to look at Scott's face. A sterling silver bracelet, especially one purchased in San Francisco, was a rather extravagant present but he found his son as before, hanging on her every word.

Scott and Murdoch pushed their chairs back from the table. Scott hurried around to help Millicent to her feet. As his elder, Scott relinquished Millicent's arm to his father and fell into step behind them. Once in the lobby, Murdoch lifted her hand to his lips and placed another kiss upon the back of it. He then gave her hand to his son.

"I so enjoyed our brief time together. I am in debt to my son for inviting me to share in your company. I know the two of you have such little time together, and that is why I am now excusing myself to retire to my suite." Murdoch winked at Scott but Scott was paying no attention to him. As the couple walked away, arm in arm, Murdoch watched them from the stairway landing. Something bothered him but he couldn't put his finger on what. His gut just told him that Millicent might not be everything she seemed to be. He recalled the words he had spoken to Johnny just last week 'listen to your gut. There were a few times I didn't and I regret it to this day.'

Father and son had an early breakfast delivered to their room. Murdoch had packed the night before but Scott hadn't returned to the suite until quite late. Holding a piece of toast in one hand, he was scurrying around the room stuffing items in his bag with the other. He knew his father was anxious to get back to the ranch. As Scott walked down to the livery to retrieve their horses, Murdoch checked out and paid the bill. He had the clerk go over the charges twice, not that he couldn't afford the total, but that he couldn't believe the total. He would have to speak to his son about the value of a dollar.

The men spurred their horses into a canter as they cleared the city. After a few miles, they slowed down to give the horses some respite. Riding side-by-side, Murdoch remained pretty much silent. It wasn't hard to do. He wouldn't have been able to get a word in edgewise as Scott rambled on and on about Millicent. Isn't she refined, isn't she beautiful, isn't she intelligent, isn't she well-bred, isn't she well-mannered . . . Murdoch tried to pay attention but his mind was somewhere else. Occasionally he would utter a "hmm" to convey to his son that he was interested in what he had to say. He was relieved when they broke back into a slow gallop. It meant a few miles of silence.

Chapter 10

Johnny left for his three days off the morning after his father and brother got back to the ranch. The weather looked less than promising which meant he and Jennie would probably have to find something to do indoors. He could take her to a late breakfast at the café but then what? Maybe the rain would hold off, at least until evening, when he could take her back there for supper. He had become pretty well acquainted with Pete who ran the livery. After all it had become Johnny's "hotel" when he was in town. Pete didn't charge him any extra for staying there, just the cost to board and feed Barranca, and he always had fresh hay, a clean blanket, and even a pillow in the loft. It was a small sacrifice to make for his Jennie.

Luck was with them and the rain did hold off until almost dark the following day. After breakfast they had walked down to the creek – to their usual spot – and Johnny tried to teach her how to skip rocks but her hands were just too small.

"My Pa wants me to invite you to the ranch. I mean I want you to come see my home and my Pa said . . . oh, I'm getting the words all mixed up." Johnny skipped another rock across the water. Jennie smiled gently. Rising, she walked over to a large oak tree and arranged her dress around her to sit on the ground underneath and lean back against its trunk. She held out her hand. Johnny skipped one last rock, then crossed over to where she sat. Taking her hand in his, he dropped down beside her. Stretching out his legs, he rested his head in her lap. She smoothed back his hair and began to tenderly stroke his forehead. Johnny crossed his ankles and then intertwined his fingers and rested them on his belly.

"Ask me again." Jennie whispered.

Johnny looked up at her beautiful face and into those sparkling green eyes. "My family would like to meet the girl I can't stop talkin' about and I would like to show you my home, how I spend my time when I'm not with you. Teresa is a little younger than you but I'm sure the two of you would find lots of things to talk about. We have a guest room. Hardly ever have anyone in it though. It's down the same hall as Teresa's room." Jennie remained silent. She had stopped stroking Johnny's forehead and had folded her arms around herself. Some of the sparkle had gone out of her eyes. Johnny pushed himself upright and, turning, sat cross legged to face her.

Dropping his gaze, he picked up a nearby leaf and started picking at it with his fingers. "My Pa . . I would like you to meet my Pa." He said quietly. "It would be real important to me for you to like him . . . and my brother . . . and Teresa." Johnny tossed the leaf aside and, raising his knees, put his arms around his legs to hold them there. Jennie hadn't said a word. Johnny turned his head to look over at the water and wondered if he had said the words right or if he had somehow offended her. "You don't have to come, I guess." He muttered.

Jennie stood and walked a little ways upstream. Johnny watched her walk away and it broke his heart. Standing, he shoved his fingers in his back pockets and sauntered over to stand behind her. He put his arms around her and rested his chin on her shoulder. "What's wrong?" He murmured. "Did I say . . ."

Jennie twisted around in his arms and raised both hands, placing one gently on either side of his face. She leaned forward and gave Johnny a soft, tender, lingering kiss. Afterward, she put her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. His arms tightened around her and they stood that way for some time. Finally Jennie pulled away. Taking his hand in hers, she led him back to the oak tree. Moving her skirts aside, she sat and patted the ground next to her. Johnny dropped down beside Jennie. He put his arm around her shoulder and Jennie shifted to rest against his shoulder. She raised her hand and interlaced her fingers with his.

"You didn't say anything wrong. In fact, you said everything just right. It sounds wonderful Johnny." She paused as he pulled her closer, laying his cheek against hers.

"But . . ." he whispered.

"But my uncle . . . well, he'd never allow it. He hates us being together even when we are all here in the same town. I know he has spies all over who tell him everything we do. Sometimes I feel more like his slave than his niece." Johnny sighed and raised his other hand to rest on her shoulder. "I would love nothing more than to see your home, your ranch, meet your family. They all sound so nice. I would feel like I was free, at least for a little while." Johnny's heart ached. He had to do something.

"Run away with me," he whispered. "Now, today. We could go somewhere, get married, start our own ranch. I could build you a house . . . any kind of house you want. You could be free and we could be happy." Jennie slowly shook her head and dropped her eyes. Letting go of his hand, she pretended to fuss with a stray thread on her dress. "Why not . . . don't you love me?" Johnny's voice cracked; he was choking back tears.

"It's not that I don't love you, Johnny, because I do but it wouldn't work."

"Why not? I've survived on my own for years. I could do it again, only this time I would have a reason – you."

He saw tears in Jennie's eyes. "My uncle would never stop looking for us. We could never stop running and I would never be able to go back and see my family. My parents, Johnny. I couldn't do that to my parents." Her tears had begun sliding down her cheeks. "How would you feel if you could never see your father, your brother or Teresa again. If you could never go back home."

Johnny swallowed hard. He had just found his family. He couldn't imagine ever being separated from them again. He had a home, a real home, for the first time in a long time. He was doing work he enjoyed, this cowboy lifestyle. He didn't have to be a gun-for-hire anymore just to get enough money to fill his belly. He suddenly realized just how much he was asking Jennie to give up. "What if I talk to him? What if I tell him how I feel about you? What a good life I could give you? He wouldn't deny you that, would he?"

Jennie wiped her tears away with both hands. She nodded slightly. "He probably would, yes."

Johnny thought a minute. There had to be a way. Finally he deciphered the situation. Placing both hands around Jennie's upper arms, he twisted her to face him. "He's your uncle. It's not up to him, he's not your father. It's your father's permission you need not your uncle's." Excitement shown in Johnny's eyes. He rose to his knees and pulled her up on hers. "I could take you back east. I could talk to your father. Ask him for your hand." Jennie head dropped as she shook it side-to-side. "Why not?" Johnny's hands tightened subconsciously around her arms and his voice held anger.

"You're hurting me Johnny," Jennie cried, trying to twist her arms free. His hands immediately relaxed.

"I'm sorry. Oh Jennie, I never want to hurt you. Please . . . please forgive me." Johnny pleaded, dropping his hands to his thighs.

Jennie stood and smoothed out her dress. "I think you better take me home now." She said, flatly.

"Jennie," Johnny croaked.

"Now Johnny. Please."

Johnny forced himself to his feet and put his hat back on his head. He took her elbow and steered her a pace in front of him until they reached the road where he dropped her elbow and reached out for her hand but Jennie pulled it away. They walked back to the little clapboard house in silence. As Jennie put her hand on the doorknob, Johnny grabbed her other arm. "Supper tonight? At the café?" Jennie shook her head, her eyes avoiding his.

"I don't think so Johnny."

Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat. "Can I see you again?"

Jennie shrugged her shoulders. "If you want." She mumbled. Johnny dropped her arm and she quickly entered the house and closed the door.

Johnny stood there a long time. He didn't know what else to do. He thought Jennie was "the one". He had imagined their whole life together and now . . . Anger suddenly boiled up inside him. He jumped off the porch and literally marched up the street to the livery. If it wasn't for the low gray clouds hanging in the sky with their promise of rain he would have started for home right that minute, but it would be darker than usual this night and he decided not to risk it. Entering the livery, he brushed past Pete and scaled the ladder into the loft. He wasn't just angry, he was damn mad! He kicked the blanket to the side and did the same with the pillow. He slammed his hat down on the windowsill. He paced and paced, running his hand through his hair. There just had to be a way, there just had to be. Johnny heard the first drops of rain on the livery roof. Over the next few minutes it turned into a downpour. He was glad he hadn't started for home. He was sure the roads in the low land would hold standing water and he knew the bridge he needed to cross near the mesa would probably be washed out. It usually was with even the least little bit of rain.

Johnny's temper slowly subsided. There was, after all, nothing he could do tonight. He picked up the blanket and spread it back over the hay. Dropping down, he reached over and grabbed the pillow as turned on his side he folded his arm beneath it and pulled the blanket around him. The sound of the rain on the roof was oddly calming. He could hear Barranca blowing to the other horses and the other horses blowing their reply. The next thing Johnny knew it was morning. He brushed the random bits of hay off his pants and shirt, put on his hat, descended the ladder and grabbed his saddle off the stand. Barranca nickered when he saw his master and poked Johnny's arm with his nose once he got close enough. Johnny slung the saddle blanket and saddle up on the horse's back. He reached under Barranca's belly and tightened the cinch. After putting on Barranca's bridle he patted the palomino's neck. He led his mount out the stable doors. The roads were muddy but the rain had stopped. Johnny hoisted himself into the saddle and made a clicking sound with his tongue. Barranca was well trained and started walking toward the south end of town. Johnny let the horse determine the gait in the slippery mud. A little way out of town, the road began a gentle climb. As water runs downhill, the road was not nearly as muddy and so Barranca picked up the pace. Not wanting to risk the mesa bridge, Johnny steered the horse down the other fork in the road. It would add extra miles but so would doubling back if the bridge was indeed washed out. He just wanted to get home. He was hungry. He was cold. He felt somehow empty. He needed a hot meal, a warm fire, and a soft bed.

Johnny was sullen for days. He moped around the house and snapped at anyone who dared to speak to him. Meals were taken in silence and a heavy tension seemed to fill the house. Immediately after breakfast, he would grab his hat and stomp out the back door, slamming it behind him more often than not. He seldom came in for lunch and when he did, he would grab whatever was handy, stuff it into his pocket and leave. He ate his supper quickly and without saying a word, not even "amen" at the end of grace. He would be the first to leave the table, even if the others had not yet finished their meals and would spend the evenings up in his room. Not only did his family notice the sudden change, but so did the hands and, when Johnny was out of earshot, they actually flipped a coin to determine who would have to work with him that particular day. Even Barranca noticed. His master had always personally brushed him down at the end of the day and made sure he had a clean stall, fresh water and fresh food. Now when Johnny came back to the ranch at the end of the day, he simply jumped down and handed the reins to whoever happened to be working the stables that day.

Murdoch was lenient the first couple days. Every one, at one time or another, could go through a bad streak but his tolerance was wearing thin. It had gone on long enough. Whatever the problem was – and he had a good suspicion of exactly what it was – it was no longer just affecting his youngest son. It was affecting the entire family and, actually, the entire ranch. The men complained daily. This night, when supper was finished, Murdoch excused himself and climbed up the back stairs. His fought hard to control his desire to give his son a good 'what for' as he knew that doing so wouldn't accomplish anything. When he got to Johnny's room, he took a deep, calming breath before knocking. There was no answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He was going to have to break his own house rule. He opened the door and took a step inside. Johnny was laying on his bed staring up at the ceiling.

"Didn't you hear me knock son?" Murdoch asked. Johnny didn't move a muscle. Walking over to the side of the bed, Murdoch stood looking down at his youngest son. "I don't mean to barge in but I think we need to talk about some things." He stated. Johnny never batted an eye. Murdoch grabbed the chair from in front of the window and placed it next to the bed. Sitting down with a sigh, he placed his hands on his knees. "Do you want to tell me what's got you so riled up or should I guess?"

Johnny rolled on his side, away from his father, to face the wall. Murdoch hung his head in exasperation. It would be so much easier to get angry, to yell, to shout, to wave his fist in the air but that would only put more distance between him and Johnny. "You don't have to speak to me if you don't want to but I do insist that you listen to what I have to say." He paused a minute. What was he going to say? He would talk about the ranch first; it would be the easiest to deal with. "Johnny, you've always been the favorite with the hands. You could get them to do anything for you, all you had to do was ask. Frankly, I was very proud of the way you stepped right up and took charge. Getting a hundred men under control is never an easy thing to do, but the hands have come to me to complain these last few days. They told me they are actually flipping a coin to decide who has to work with you that day. I doubt you are angry with the men, you would have no reason, but you're taking your anger out on them and that's not fair." Murdoch paused to let his words sink in a little before continuing.

"It's much the same thing with your brother and sister. You aren't angry with them but, just the same, your attitude is affecting them greatly. Teresa was nearly in tears last night at dinner and I've never seen Scott so quiet. They are becoming afraid of you, of what you might do if either of them should unintentionally cross you. They have had to change their routines – their very lives – just to live in this house. It breaks my heart. I was so happy to see the three of you working toward a common bond. Don't fritter away all your hard work. They freely accepted you and they've come to love and care about you. Don't destroy that Johnny. They might not give you a second chance." Murdoch shifted in the chair. Johnny had not moved a muscle, not shown the least bit of emotion since he entered the room.

"And as for me, well, my heart aches because I can't help you take care of whatever is bothering you if you won't tell me what it is. I suspect it has to do with Jennie. You were fine when you left the other morning, and not so fine ever since you've come home. She seemed to make you so happy. What happened son?"

Johnny lay motionless. Murdoch actually wondered if he fallen asleep. Obviously his son was not ready to talk about what bothered him and that was too bad. He wasn't sure that he could offer any advice but Murdoch did know that he could offer comfort. Rising, he put the chair back in front of the window. He stood just a moment more and looked at Johnny. He had to restrain himself from simply reaching out and pulling his son into his embrace. Sighing, he crossed to the door. As he turned the knob he glanced back over his shoulder once more. Murdoch was just about to step out into the hall when Johnny mumbled, "Thanks, Pa."

The next morning, when Murdoch and Johnny came to breakfast, they politely greeted each other as well as Scott and Teresa, who already sat at the table. Although the mood had lightened and Johnny acted more civilized, he was still not back to his old self. The men exchange casual banter about the day's chores, who was going to take care of what, and so on. Teresa ate her eggs and decided to keep quiet. After they left, she took a deep breath and began gathering the dirty dishes. As she sat them in the dry sink, she glanced out the window to see Scott and Johnny walking towards the corral.

"Scott, wait up." Johnny called. Scott stopped and turned. Johnny stood right in front of his brother and looked directly into his eyes. "I'm . . .I'm sorry about the last couple days. I was mad about somethin' and took it out on you. I didn't mean anythin' by it." Scott offered a tight-lipped smile as Johnny extended his hand. Shaking it, Johnny leaned in and gave Scott a brief hug. As Johnny turned to walk away Scott said, "Hey Johnny. If there's anything I can do just name it. I am your big brother and that's what big brothers are for."

Johnny walked back to the house. He could see Teresa through the window. He took his hat off as he entered the back door. He hesitated at the kitchen doorway until Teresa looked up. Johnny then advanced a few steps until he was directly in front of her. He captured her eyes with his. "I'm sorry, sis, for the way I been actin'. I was angry about . . . well, it doesn't really matter what, and I took it out on you. Forgive me?"

Teresa dried her hands on her apron and then threw her arms around Johnny's chest, giving him a squeeze. "I forgive you these last couple days." She murmured. Raising her voice slightly she continued, "But I do not forgive you for eating all the pudding and trying to fool me with those pans." She shook her finger at him and Johnny took a step back. He had forgotten all about the pudding.

"Pretty clever though," he said with a grin on his face.

Teresa grabbed the dishtowel and began twisting it between her hands. "I'll give you clever!" She teased, whipping the towel at him. They played a short game of tag around the kitchen table until Johnny, being on the side with the door, raced out in the hallway and toward the front entrance. "Clever," Teresa grumbled, going back to her dish washing.

Only Murdoch and Johnny showed up for lunch. Scott was working with some men in the east pasture and wouldn't come back to the ranch until supper. Murdoch asked Johnny to take care of some work in the barn and Johnny replied with "yes, sir". Teresa had never heard Johnny call his father 'sir' before. Murdoch informed the two that he needed to go into town and take care of some business but that he expected to be back in plenty of time for supper. He asked if either of them needed anything but they both shook their heads. When Johnny had finished eating, he stood, pushed his chair under the table, placed his dirty dishes in the sink and thanked his sister for the meal. Putting his hat on his head, he walked out the back door closing it quietly behind him. Teresa looked at Murdoch, who simply grinned.

All the way into town, Murdoch kept going over and over what had taken place the night before. He struggled with the feeling that, perhaps, he should have done more, said it differently. After all was still suffering with the same problem as before. He thought about buying something special in town to cheer up his son, something Johnny had maybe wanted for a long time, but rejected the idea. It would be like rewarding his bad behavior. No, he would have to find another way.

Murdoch stopped at the livery. The last order of feed they had sent out to the ranch wasn't worth the sacks it came in and he wanted to know what they intended to do about it. He then stopped at the blacksmith's shop. He made an appointment with the smithy to come out and check over the horses' shoes. Next he went into the telegraph office and sent a wire to an old friend out east. He had almost forgotten about Barnabus after all these years. The man used to be his neighbor way back when Murdoch had first started the ranch. He walked over to the lumber yard and put in an order for fence posts and then crossed the street to the general store. He asked Jacob to let him have a look at the mail order catalog but while flipping through it, he reminded himself that he had decided not to gift Johnny. He did note a handsome pocket watch though, and made a mental note to consider it as Johnny's Christmas present. He could even have it engraved. He closed the book, thanked Jacob and walked outside. Murdoch scanned the street first in one direction and then the other. No, he couldn't think of any other business he needed to attend to so he headed to the saloon for a beer.

As soon as he walked in the door, someone called out his name from the far back corner. As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior, he saw it was the sheriff. Telling the barkeep to bring a beer over to the table, he sat down while shaking the sheriff's hand. "George, haven't seen you in a coon's age." The barkeep delivered Murdoch's mug of beer and he took a long swallow.

"That's 'cause yer boy there Johnny ain't been bustin' up the town lately." George drawled.

"No, not this town anyway." Murdoch chuckled and took another swallow of beer. "So how is everything around here? Been pretty quiet?"

"Can't complain. Busted up a couple soused cowpokes that were throwin' punches at each other in the street this Saturday night past. Gave 'em each two days in the pokey. 'fore them, well let's see, I think the biggest crime we had was when the Peterman boy stole some candy from the general store."

Murdoch chuckled again. "You must be a hell of a good sheriff, to keep this town under such tight control. I can remember when the jail wasn't big enough to hold all the men caught fist fighting, cheating at poker, and the like. Maybe I should send Johnny into town more often. Give you something to do besides sit in the saloon and drink . . . what is that anyway?"

"Sassperilly" George said. "Can't drink when I'm on duty. Not much of a drinkin' man when I ain't!" Murdoch finished the last of his beer.

"Well, George, it was good seeing you again, especially under these circumstances and not because I needed to bail Johnny out of jail." Murdoch stood and pushed the chair back under the table.

"Say, Murdoch, you got a minute?" George asked.

"Yes, I guess so. Promised to be back at the ranch for supper but I have a little time."

George drank down the last of his sarsaparilla and threw two bits on the table. Standing, he stepped in front of Murdoch and motioned over his shoulder. "Follow me over ta the office. Just thought of somethin' I should have you take a gander at. Just came yesterday and I . .." George removed his head and scratched his balding head. "I don't 'xactly know what to do with it. Figured a smart, educated fellow like you might have some ideies."

When the men got to the jail, the sheriff went around his desk and began shuffling through a pile of papers in one of the drawers. Murdoch took a seat opposite the sheriff's and waited. "Now just a gall darn minute, where did I put that gall darn thing. Just got it . . .Oh, here. Read this and tell me what you think."

George handed a rumpled sheet of paper to Murdoch. It was about the same size as the wanted posters nailed to the wall but this one didn't have a picture on it. Just big bold black letters across the top which read "Attention Ranchers: Beware". Murdoch read the notice and then read it a second time. "Well George, I'm afraid my answer might disappoint you. I don't exactly know what to with it myself. You might want to tell Dan down at the livery. Maybe tell the blacksmith and the lumber yard. Places a rancher would frequent." He could tell George didn't know what the word 'frequent' meant. "Places a rancher would go to a lot." George nodded in understanding. "Probably a good idea to let Merton down at the hotel know too."

"Yah, tell 'em to keep an eyeball out for strangers and such."

"Can I keep this George?"

George nodded his head. "Yah, go ahead. Least I can do for you helpin' me out and all."

Murdoch folded the sheet and tucked into his shirt pocket. Standing, he shook George's hand. "Well, like I said, good to see you under these circumstances. Just let me know if you want me to send Johnny into town, liven the place up a little."

"I'll do that but I wouldn't be holdin' your breathin' if'n I was you. I kinda like it peaceable like this."

Chapter 11

When Scott returned to San Francisco the following weekend to see Millicent, he made the same preparations as before by ordering flowers for the table and entrees from the chef. He again requested the Barkley's burgundy wine be served with dinner. The next evening, exactly at seven, they met in the lobby. Millicent was wearing the ivory dress she had worn weeks earlier. She said it was her favorite.

As she descended the stairs, Scott waited at the bottom as usual expecting a light kiss on the cheek as had become her custom but tonight she simply walked right past him as if he wasn't even there. Perplexed, he hurried to fall into step behind her. After they were seated at their usual table and the wine had been served, he found Millicent's attention wondering. She kept looking around the dining room, fussing with her gloves, staring at the wallpaper. Lifting his glass, he proposed a toast and held the goblet forward. Millicent picked up her glass and touched it to his but rather than take a sip, she placed it back on the table. Feeling foolish, he lowered his own glass.

"I proposed a toast . . . to you," he added. Millicent didn't reply, casting her eyes downward.

Scott was at a loss. He could see the waiters standing at the ready to deliver their food so he nodded at them and they hurried over to the table, of course serving the lady first. Millicent glanced at her plate but made no attempt to remove her gloves. Scott cleared his throat and adjusted his napkin. He didn't understand. "I believe we had better eat before our dinner grows cold." He said, picking up his fork.

"I'm really not very hungry." Millicent murmured. "I . . . I probably should have wired you not to come but by the time I knew . . . well, you were already on your way so . . ."

"Knew?" Knew what?" Scott asked. Millicent had never acted like this before and he was struggling with trying to figure out the problem. Perhaps she was no longer interested in being courted by him.

"Never mind. I don't want to discuss it, not here at least."

Scott's heart sank. "Perhaps we should skip dinner. Find a quiet place to talk." He signaled the waiter who looked just as perplexed. Scott asked that the plates be taken away and, no, not saved for later. "My guest is not feeling well this evening. Give the chef my apologies." He said, feeling the need to explain. Rising he walked around the table and held Millicent's chair as she stood. He took her arm and led her out of the dining room and through the lobby to the front door.

She turned and began walking the opposite direction from the norm. They strolled along in silence for two city blocks. Even though most of the shops were open, Millicent didn't seem interested in peering through their windows. As it was the dinner hour, the street was not very busy and only a handful of people were out and about and most of them going in the other direction toward the theatre district. Walking further, they found themselves alone and so Scott pulled her over to the inside edge of the sidewalk.

"What's wrong?" He whispered.

Millicent glanced around. "Wrong? What makes you think anything's wrong?"

Scott wrapped his hand around her upper arm and pulled her into the shadows of the alleyway. "Why are you acting this way? This is not the Millicent I've come to know and . . . frankly, to love." Millicent met Scott's gaze and when she did, Scott saw that tears were forming in her eyes. "Tell me." He whispered, offering her the handkerchief out of his breast pocket.

Millicent began to sob, holding the linen square up to her lips. Scott, like most men, was not adept at comforting a woman in tears. Finally, he put his arms around her and pulled her to him but she pushed him away. Turning, she advanced a few steps further into the shadows. Scott stood rooted in place. Dabbing at her eyes with his handkerchief, she stood with her back to him.

"I can't see you anymore." She stammered. "I'm leaving San Francisco. I should have sent you a wire but I didn't know until this morning. I'm sorry I made you come all this way for nothing."

Scott's heart fell to his feet. He swallowed the lump forming in his throat and struggled to be strong. Coming up behind her, he placed his hands on her shoulders. "Leaving?" He murmured. Millicent nodded her head while sniffing away the last of her tears.

"I'm sorry Scott. I truly am."

"But why? I don't understand. You said your brother's business . . ." Millicent began to sob. "I didn't mean to make you cry. I only want to understand . . ."

Millicent turned to face him. "My brother," she stammered. "He told me one of the partner's backed out. Without this man's investment . . . well, his business was really starting to take off but now he doesn't have the money to purchase the materials he needs nor hire the workers . . ." Her voice trailed off. Looking up into Scott's eyes, she offered a weak smile. "This isn't your problem Scott. I don't mean to lay this on your doorstep. It's just so unexpected. I just don't see any other alternative. I'll have to go back with him to Baltimore." She reached down and took one of Scott's hands in each one of hers. Looking deeply into his eyes she continued. "I'm falling in love with you Scott. I tried not to, thinking something like this might happen, but I couldn't help myself. You're a handsome, intelligent, wonderful man. I fooled myself into imagining we could make a life together, you and I. I never meant to hurt you. You must believe that; you must say you forgive me."

Scott pulled her into his arms. He crocked the index finger of one hand and lifted her chin with it. He kissed Millicent with such yearning and with such passion that he even surprised himself. Finally pulling apart, each as breathless as the other, she laid her head against his shoulder and wrapped her arms as tightly around him as she could. "I don't ever want to let you go, Scott Lancer." A few moments later she released her embrace, took a step backward and looked searchingly into his eyes. "I don't want to . . . but I have to. Thank you. Thank you for everything. You're a true gentleman and I very much appreciated that." Glancing down, she pulled her arm free of the silver bracelet. She held it out to him. "This was an expensive gift that I can't accept knowing we have no future. I want you to take it back. Give it to the next woman you fall in love with."

"No. I bought it especially for you. I want you to keep it. To remember me every time you wear it. There will never be another woman. I love you and only you. Your name is engraved on my heart."

Millicent put the bracelet back on her wrist. She leaned forward and offered Scott a final kiss which he readily accepted. "Good bye, Scott Lancer. I'll never forget you." She began to make her way back to the main sidewalk.

"Wait!" Scott called, turning. He hurried over to her side and grasped her arm. "Your brother's business, he still hasn't told you what it is?" Millicent shook her head. "But he told you it was really starting to take off, really starting to grow." Millicent nodded. "Why can't I become a partner? If he will make me the same indenture as his other partner . . . How much capital does he need?"

Millicent hung her head and cast her eyes downward. "Oh Scott, no . . . I . . .I couldn't ask you to . . ."

"You're not asking. I'm offering. My father invests in businesses all the time. Maybe now it's my turn. How much money does he need?"

Millicent searched his face. His expression reflected his sincerity. "Ten thousand dollars." Scott inhaled deeply. That was considerably more than he expected but, at the same time, he had ten thousand dollars and more, in a trust fund his grandfather had established for him. There was only one problem. He was not allowed to draw on the fund until he got married or until he reached the age of thirty, whichever came first. He would need Murdoch's signature on the draft as well as his own but perhaps he could persuade his father to take a chance. After all, it sounded like a sure bet.

"How soon does he need the money?"

"I would suppose right away. He said it would probably take him a few weeks to sell off what he can salvage." Millicent replied.

"So your brother would need a certified bank draft as soon as possible, is that right?"

"I guess so. I don't know all the details but . . . Oh Scott, are you sure? Do you even have that kind of money."

"The money is no problem. The only thing is getting back to the ranch and having a certified bank draft made out and wired to the bank here in San Francisco say by the end of the week. I think I can make it work. I will make it work." Scott's voice took on a note of determination.

Millicent threw her arms around Scott's neck and hugged him tight. "I can't believe you are doing this for my brother. Oh Scott, how can I ever thank you? This means I can stay in San Francisco; that we can still be together. It's like . . . it's like a miracle!"

"I'm not doing this for your brother. And I'm not doing this for my own gain. I'm doing this for you. For us. For our future. Millicent. . . I want you to become my wife. I want us to be together forever; to have our own home, our own ranch, children." Millicent blushed.

"I've thought about those things too Scott." She murmured.

"Are you saying yes?"

"This is all so sudden. It does depend on what happens with my brother's business." Millicent looked deeply into Scott's eyes. "I need to think about it for a few days. I can't even imagine what life on a ranch would be like. I want to make sure I'm ready for the next step. Can you understand that?"

Scott could not honestly say he did but she was right. It would be an entirely different lifestyle for her. He recalled how many adjustments he had had to make. He reasoned that a woman would find it even more difficult. After all, he had moved back to be with his family and she would be leaving hers. "Yes, certainly. Will you wire me with your decision?"

"Now how romantic would that be?" Millicent scolded. "I will give you my decision when next I see you."

Scott looked disappointed but tried not to show it. "I will count the very seconds." She hadn't said no, he kept reminding himself. All the dreams that kept him going when he was in the war, when he was struggling to exist in that prison camp, might finally come true. His own family.

Taking her hand he walked her back to the hotel. The dining room was nearly empty and the flowers still sat on their table. Scott nodded at the maître d' in passing and they reclaimed their chairs. Scott snapped his fingers. Immediately a waiter came the table. "Champagne. Your very finest." The wine steward turned and practically ran back to the cellar, returning just a few moments later. He had a wide grin of his lips and a bottle of the most expensive champagne the establishment stocked.

Setting two flutes on their table, he turned away from them to pop the cork. A long ribbon of bubbles flew into the air. Wiping the bottle with the towel draped over his arm, he poured a taste into Scott's glass for approval. With his guest's nod, he filled both glasses nearly to the rim. "Now if I make a toast will you join me?" Millicent smiled and nodded. "Then a toast to us and to all the possibilities our future might hold." They touched glasses and took a deep swallow. When he looked up at Millicent, he could tell she was thinking the same thing as he and so, almost simultaneously, they threw there glasses into the fire.

Chapter 12

It was past midnight and only Murdoch and Scott remained in the parlor. Johnny and Teresa had already gone up to bed. Suddenly there was loud pounding on the front door. Scott and Murdoch looked up from the books they had been reading and glanced at each other. Scott rose, laying his book on the chair. He walked to the door and opened it cautiously. Murdoch had also put his book down and now stood in the foyer slightly behind his son.

"So sorry Scott," it was a man's voice, obviously panting and out of breath. "I just got this. Sounded real important. Thought it couldn't wait until morning." Murdoch finally recognized the voice of Joe from the telegraph office. Scott thanked him and quietly closed the door. Murdoch walked toward his son to take the wire from his hand but Scott pulled it away.

"It's not addressed to you, sir. It's addressed to Johnny." Murdoch's eyebrows shot up as he subconsciously looked up the staircase. "Should I take it up to him?"

"No. The news probably isn't good. Never is, especially when a telegram comes in the middle of the night. I better do it." Murdoch took the envelope Scott handed to him and checked the name of the recipient. It did indeed say Johnny Lancer. Inhaling deeply, Murdoch clutched the message tightly. "You better go to bed son. It's late." Scott ascended the stairs a couple steps in front of his father. Murdoch waited in the hallway until he heard Scott's door close. The envelope wasn't sealed. It would be so easy to read the wire, refold it and put it back inside. Johnny would never know and Murdoch would have at least some idea of what was going on so he could prepare himself, but Murdoch Lancer was nothing if not an honest man.

He walked the few steps to his youngest son's door and knocked gently. There was no reply. Taking the knob in his hand, he opened the door as quietly as possible and closed it behind himself. He knew there was a lamp on the table just inside and so tucked the envelope in his pocket in order to use both hands to light it. Turning the wick low he found Johnny sleeping soundly. He was lying on his belly, his arms stretched out on either side. Murdoch swallowed hard before crossing to the side of the bed. He reached out his left hand and shook Johnny's shoulder.

"Johnny, wake up son. Johnny?" Johnny mumbled something into his pillow and rolled away from his father to face the opposite wall. Murdoch sat on the edge of the mattress and shook Johnny's arm. "Johnny, wake up. It's important." He said a little more forcefully than before. His son mumbled something undecipherable and rolled onto his back. Reaching out, he pulled the quilt up to his chin. "Johnny!" Murdoch shouted. Johnny's eyes opened slowly. He blinked a few times to focus them and rose up on his elbows.

"Pa, what . . ."

Murdoch pulled the envelope out of his vest pocket. "This just came for you son. Joe rode out special, says it's important. Can't wait until morning." Johnny stared at the message in his father's hand.

"What time is it?" He asked sleepily.

"Nearly one in the morning."

Johnny pushed himself into a sitting position and reached out for the message. Murdoch stood and crossed to the lamp to turn up the light so his son could read it. Standing near the table, Murdoch studied his son's face as he read. Suddenly Johnny's eyes snapped open. His lips moved as he read. Throwing the paper aside, he flung back the quilt, swung his legs over the side of the bed, reached down to the floor for his pants and quickly pulled them on. His socks and boots followed, then his shirt. He slammed his hat on his head and pulled a jacket out of the wardrobe. "I gotta go." He murmured. Pushing past his father, he bolted for the front staircase and in a mere moment Murdoch heard the front door close behind him.

Murdoch stooped down to pick up the note his son had tossed on the floor and read:

Johnny Lancer, Lancer Ranch, Urgent

Come quickly, trouble. Jennie

Murdoch stepped to the window, pulled the curtain aside and looked out at the barn. A dim light burned within. Minutes later, Johnny was leading Barranca out into the courtyard. Hoisting himself up into the saddle, he spurred the horse into a fast gallop and turned him toward the road to Avalon. Murdoch dropped the curtain and blew out the lamp before closing the door behind him. He still held the note in his hand. Once in the hallway, he reread the brief words, folded it and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. His brow was heavily furrowed and a frown creased his mouth.

As luck would have it, a full moon shone down from a clear, cloudless sky. In fact it was what they would call a harvest moon, exceptionally large and bright. The road was dry and, as Barranca already knew the way, Johnny made good time arriving in Avalon just as the first streaks of sunrise crept along the horizon. The street was empty and very quiet; the windows of each business still dark. Johnny rode up in front of the clapboard house. Its windows were dark too. He debated if he should wait until a more reasonable hour or pound on the door to wake Jennie and her uncle. He didn't know if Jennie's uncle knew she had wired him and he didn't want to aggravate the man as he would only take his wrath out on Jennie later. Turning Barranca toward the livery, he decided to wait, but only an hour. Then, if they were awake or not, he was going back to the house.

The light of dawn was just streaming in the east window of the stable. Johnny removed Barranca's saddle and saddle blanket. The horse was sweating and needed attention. First he filled a bucket with clean water and let him drink, then Johnny grabbed a brush and began to groom the palomino's golden coat. With each stroke his anxiety increased. He imagined all kinds of reasons why Jennie had sent for him. As the moon sunk behind the far hills and the sun rose, Johnny finished brushing his mount, secured him in a stall, got him some feed and was about to walk out the door when Pete came in. Johnny told him that Barranca had all been taken care of and that he'd be back sometime later, he wasn't sure when.

Johnny could see the little white house from here. No one seemed to be about. Walking up the front walk, he took a deep breath, stepped up onto the porch and knocked. Momentary relief showed on Johnny's face when it was Jennie that answered. When she saw him standing there, she literally flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pressing her cheek to his.

"Oh Johnny," she gushed. "Thank God you're here."

Johnny held her a moment than put his hands around her upper arms and moved her back a step so he could look at face. "I rode all night. What's wrong?"

Jennie glanced over his shoulders, looking up and down the street. She was twisting her fingers nervously. Johnny, too, glanced in all directions but only saw a few folks opening up their businesses for the day. Jennie suddenly grabbed his hand and pulled him into the house, closing the door quickly behind him. Johnny swallowed hard. It wasn't proper for a young unmarried woman to invite a man into her home unless a chaperone was present. He was worried that if anyone had seen them, it would ruin her reputation. He didn't care what they thought of him. He snatched the hat off his head and surveyed the small room. "Where's your uncle?" He murmured.

Jennie pulled him over to a large overstuffed chair and pushed against his shoulders. As Johnny plopped into the seat, Jennie climbed on his lap. She was crying and shaking her head. She was also wringing her hands. Johnny pushed himself more upright in the chair, trying to think of a way to get her off his lap. Not that he wouldn't have enjoyed it under different circumstances, but just to restore some kind of decorum. "Where is your uncle?" Johnny repeated. He half expected the man to barge in from the other room, gun in hand. From his position, and especially with Jennie on his lap, he wouldn't be able to draw.

"He's gone," Jennie stammered.

"What do you mean gone?" Johnny said, his voice rising slightly.

"They took him. Oh, Johnny, what am I going to do?" Jennie was nearing hysterics.

Johnny relaxed a little bit, taking comfort in the fact that – at least for now – he wasn't going to be shot. Bracing his hands on the armrests, he pushed himself up. Jennie had no choice but to get off his lap. She stood before him. Grateful that at last he could stand so that the grip of his revolver wasn't pressing painfully into his ribs, he took Jennie's hand and led her over to a small table with a chair on either side. As she sat down, Johnny pulled the other chair opposite her so he could study her face. "Well, the first thing you're going to do is calm down." Jennie inhaled deeply and nodded. "Can I get you a glass of water or somethin'?" She shook her head. Although her cheeks were still damp, she had stopped crying. Johnny caught her gaze and held it for a minute until she regained control of her emotions.

"Now. . . slowly . . . I want you tell me what's going on." He held her gaze.

Jennie took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again she looked directly into Johnny's. "My uncle and I were eating breakfast. There was this knock on the door. Uncle Claudius went to answer it. When he did, two men barged in and grabbed him. One of the men put hand cuffs on his wrists. The other man threw this paper at me. Told me it explained everything." Jennie pushed several folded sheets of paper to the middle of the table. "Then they . . . they took him!" Tears welled up in her eyes.

Johnny reached out and picked up the document. He unfolded the pages and glanced over them briefly, flipping the sheets until he came to the last one. He looked up to find Jennie's pleading eyes. "It's some kind of legal papers." He said. "I . . . there are a lot of big words and other mumbo jumbo I can't even begin to understand."

Jennie dropped her hands in her lap. She hung her head and dropped her gaze. "I read through it after they left but I don't understand everything either. It's something to do with him owing some money to some people. The men that took him said they were taking him to the jailhouse in Sacramento

"The men." Johnny squared his shoulders. "Were they law men?"

"I . . . guess so."

"Did they have badges?"

Jennie looked into Johnny's face. "I didn't see any badges but they both had jackets on. It was pretty early and there was a chill in the air."

Johnny thought this sounded strange. He had been in enough dealings with law men to know that the first thing they usually did was show you their badge. Maybe they were bounty hunters.

Johnny returned his attention to the document in his hand. Jennie was depending on him for help and he hadn't even had enough schooling to even guess at some of the words. "Give me a minute to think." Johnny leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Nothing made sense. He didn't know what to tell her but he did know that he wanted to do everything in his power to help and comfort her. Returning his gaze to hers he asked, "And you're sure you don't know what this is all about? I mean . . . think back honey. Did your uncle ever say anythin' you questioned? Anythin' that sounded strange to you somehow? Anythin' about money or owing money?" Jennie shook her head.

Johnny curled the fingers of one hand into a fist and hit the table. He was just so frustrated, so angry with himself. He felt so helpless. He didn't realize he was scowling until he looked up to see Jennie's eyes wide with fright. "Oh honey, I'm not mad at you. I'm mad at me . . . for not being able to decipher this!" He tossed the papers on the table. "Is there a lawyer or someone real educated like that in Avalon? Do you know?"

"I don't think so." Johnny nodded. As small as Avalon was, he shouldn't have needed to even ask.

"We need someone who can read this, who knows what the words mean." Johnny suddenly looked up. "My brother, Scott. He went to some fancy law school back east. He could help us! I can send a telegram and have him meet us here." Jennie noticeably paled. She got up from the table and paced around the room as Johnny turned to watch her. She came to a standstill in the center of the room, her back to him, and wrapped her arms around her waist.

"No, Johnny. I can't burden your family with my troubles. I'll find someone who can help me . . . somewhere."

Johnny rose and walked over to her, putting his arms around her and holding her tightly. "I want to be that someone Jennie. I'd do anythin' for you, you know that. Scott's my brother. True, we haven't spent a lot of growin' up time together and may not know each other real well, but I know all I'd have to do is ask him and he'd come." When Jennie began trembling slightly, Johnny pressed his cheek against her hair and began rocking gently from side to side. "Don't worry honey. We'll work this all out . . . you and me . . .together." Jennie twisted in his arms and brought her lips up to his in a tender kiss.

"I love you Johnny Lancer." She murmured. They stood holding each other a few moments until Jennie gasped suddenly and took a step back.

"What?" Johnny asked, not wanting to let her go.

"Wouldn't it be better to bring the papers to Scott? Wouldn't it save time? I mean even if you wired him right now, this minute, the telegrapher would have to deliver the message to the ranch, Scott would have to pack, saddle his horse, ride all this way . . . But, if you left at first light and took the papers to him . . . it just seems like it would work out better that way. Maybe even your father would have some ideas on what to do."

Johnny grinned. She was right, of course. "But I can't leave you here all by yourself."

Jennie pulled away and turned her back to him again. "I'll be alright." She murmured.

"No, I won't do it. I won't leave until I can find someone . . .a neighbor lady or somethin' . . .to come stay with you."

"There's a small boarding house on the other end of Main Street. I don't know if they have any rooms . . . A Mrs. Clawson runs it. She's a widow and very nice. She always waves to me when she sees me and we even chatted a bit in the general store one day."

"When's the last time you've eaten?"

"Breakfast yesterday . . . but I'm really not . . ."

Johnny grabbed her hand, put his hat on his head, and pulled her to the front door. "Let's go talk to Mrs. Clawson then, on the way back, we can stop at the café. You might not have much of an appetite but I'm starved." Johnny flashed her his brightest smile as an attempt to reassure her that everything would be okay.

As luck would have it, Mrs. Clawson did have a small room available on the third floor. It was only going to be vacant for one week however, she explained, as the new school teacher was coming then. "A week will be plenty of time," Johnny said. "Can she move in yet today?"

Mrs. Clawson nodded. "As long as she's here by eight o'clock. I keep a quiet house and can't have folks trompin' up and down the stairs after that."

"We're going for a bite to eat and then I'll help her get some things together. There should be plenty of time to be finished by eight." Johnny tipped his hat to her and took Jennie's elbow. "What's the special today?" He asked, steering her toward the café.

"I think it's meatloaf and mashed potatoes."

"My favorite." Sitting at a table by the window, Johnny ordered two specials, coffee, milk and asked the waitress to come back and check when dessert time rolled around. There were several others in the small dining room, which was immaculately clean right down to the impeccably ironed checked tablecloths. It only took a couple minutes for the food to be served and Johnny, momentarily forgetting his manners, dove right in. He grinned as he chewed. Swallowing and taking a sip of milk he smiled. "Oh boy that's good. Even better than Teresa's." He shoveled in another mouthful before wiping his mouth with his napkin.

Jennie picked at her food, taking tiny bites of the meat and potatoes every so often. Johnny finished in record time and drained his glass of milk in a couple swallows. "Don't you like it?" He asked, seeing that most of the food remained on Jennie's plate.

"It's good," she said, forcing herself to take another small mouthful. "I guess I'm just not very hungry. Would you like mine?"

Johnny hesitated. Would it be polite to accept? Would it be impolite not too? "Well, if you're sure you're not going . . ." Jennie shook her head and handed him her plate. The waitress walked over and poured Johnny another glass of milk.

"Dessert?"

Johnny looked over at Jennie, who shook her head no. He had been eyeing the pies on the shelf behind the counter since they walked in but knew it wasn't proper to eat it in front of another who wasn't. Jennie noted the quandary on Johnny's face. "Go ahead, I don't mind." She said.

"Are you sure? I shouldn't eat in front . . ."

Jennie reached over and touched his hand. "Will you share just one bite with me?"

"Sure," Johnny agreed. "What kind do you have?" He asked.

"Cherry, apple, peach and blueberry."

"Blueberry if you please ma'am. It's my favorite." Before the waitress could dish up a slice of pie and carry it to the table, Johnny had finished Jennie's leftovers. "Best meatloaf I ever had," he remarked to the waitress. "Tell the cook for me, will yah?" The woman nodded, placed the plate of pie in front of him, and laid two clean forks next to the plate. Johnny handed one to Jennie. "Ladies first," he said. After Jennie helped herself to a small corner, Johnny dug right in. The pie was as excellent as the entrée. Rubbing his belly after he had finished, he looked longingly over at the partial pie that still sat on the shelf. He really wanted another piece, but . . .

Johnny paid the bill and left a generous tip. He put his hat on and took Jennie's hand. "We better get a move on and pick up your things. We promised Mrs. Clawson." Johnny waited in the living room while Jennie packed her bag. When she returned, he immediately took it from her hand. They walked side-by-side back to the boarding house where Johnny carried the bag up to Jennie's room. It was tiny but clean, having only a single bed, a small dresser and a chair. He placed the carpetbag on the chair and headed downstairs where the women stood talking quietly. Seeing Johnny coming toward them, Mrs. Clawson excused herself and disappeared into the kitchen.

"You're all set."

"Thank you so much Johnny. Thank you especially for caring."

Johnny took her arm and pulled her into the darkened dining room. Glancing around, ensuring no one was about, he took her in his arms and kissed her. As he released her lips, she sought his hungrily and kissed him.

Resting their foreheads together, Johnny finally said, "Well, I better go." His voice was husky and he made no attempt to move away. "I . . . I'll leave at sunup. I'll send you a wire as soon as I know somethin'." He cleared his throat and gazed deeply into her eyes. Raising one hand, he gently cupped her cheek and kissed her tenderly. "Miss me." He whispered.

Jennie nodded. "Always." She murmured. Neither wanted to be the first to move away. Finally, Jennie gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, squeezed around him and quickly ascended the stairs.

Johnny closed his eyes for just a second and sighed. So close and yet so far, he thought. Reluctantly he left, crossing the street and walking the half block to the livery. As usual he found the loft ready for him. Pete had even left an extra blanket. He was exhausted, not really having slept the night before. Tossing his hat on the floor next to the pillow, he unbuckled his gun belt and placed it next to his hat. He shook out the second blanket and dropped it next to the makeshift bed. Not even removing his boots, he dropped down on the blanket-covered straw, punched the pillow before laying his head down and rolled on his side. He flipped the other blanket over his torso and tucked his shoulder underneath. Closing his eyes, he recalled Jennie's face, her scent, her full warm lips. Sleep came quickly.

Chapter 13

Johnny burst through the front door. He glanced in the parlor as he passed. Empty. He shouted up the stairs. No answer. Hurrying down the hallway, he passed the den door then stopped and back tracked. "Where's Scott?"

Murdoch glanced up and over the rim of his glasses. Without pause, he kept making entries in the large ledger book spread out in front of him. "Welcome home, son. I didn't expect to see you so soon." He returned his focus on the purchase order he was holding.

"Where's Scott?" Johnny repeated.

"No greeting?"

"Sorry. Hi Pa. Where's Scott?"

"I believe he's out in the bunkhouse. We had to make some changes in the schedule and . . ." Before he could finish his sentence, Johnny disappeared from the doorway and out the back door. Running the short distance to the men's quarters, he shouted Scott's name over and over.

"Where's the fire?" Scott asked, poking his head out the door. He tossed his pencil on the table.

Johnny, out of breath, stooped over and rested his hands on his knees. Taking a couple deep breaths, he straightened and reached into his pocket. "Here. Read this." Scott took the document out of his brother's hand. He scanned the first page, flipped open the second and then the third. Scott's forehead creased into deep furrows and his brows drew together. Johnny, still panting slightly, put his hands on his hips and looked into his brother's eyes. "Well?"

"Well Johnny . . . this looks like a rather complicated court order of some type. I will need to study it for a little while before I can explain it, if I can explain it. There is some legal jargon here I'm not familiar with."

"But I gotta know . . .now!" Johnny insisted.

"I have a book in my room . . ." Scott began.

"Well go get it. I'll go get it." Scott began walking slowly toward the house reading as he walked. Johnny followed barely a step behind. As Scott walked into the house with his brother practically breathing down his neck, he entered the kitchen where Teresa stood drying dishes by the sink. "Scott please read faster or somethin'. Go get that book. Tell me what it says." Scott looked into Johnny's face and saw the desperation in his brother's expression. His bright blue eyes were pleading for help.

Scott laid the papers down on the table. "I'll be right back." Leaping up the back stairs, he returned in moments holding a thick book bound in green leather. He laid this on the table next to the document, crossed over to the cupboard, pulled some blank paper out of the drawer and grabbed a couple pencils. "Is there any coffee sis?"

"I just put a fresh pot on the fire. It will be ready in a few minutes."

"Fine. Fine." Scott mumbled. He pulled out a side chair, sat down, reached over and grabbed the document, arranged the blank paper near his left hand, picked up a pencil and flipped open the book. Johnny pulled out the opposite chair, swung it around, straddled it and rested his arms on its back. Scott felt like his brother's eyes were about to bore right through him. Scott raised his eyes without lifting his head. "Must you do that?"

"Do what?"

Scott slowly shook his head. He laid down the pencil and the document. Teresa came to his side and poured him a cup of coffee. She raised the pot and looked at Johnny, who nodded. She got another cup and filled it for him. "I need a little background here. I'm not quite sure what I'm reading or why I'm reading it." Scott took a sip of coffee and waited for his brother to answer.

"Do you two want me to leave?" Both men turned their heads and looked at her in silent reply. "Okay then. I'll be in the library."

Johnny took a deep swallow of coffee. "Claudius Constantine is Jennie's uncle. They have been traveling around sightseeing; all kinds of place, I forget exactly where. But not Mexico, that I remember. Anyway, they've leased a little house in Avalon. I don't know all the details but day before yesterday some men came to the house. Said they were marshals but Jennie didn't see no badges. They handcuffed her uncle and took him to jail in Sacramento. As they were leavin' they tossed this here document at Jennie. She said she read it and I . . . looked it over, but neither of us know some of the big words or the legal stuff. I told her you could help."

"Thanks!" Scott muttered over the rim of his cup.

"Well, can you? What does it say?"

Scott put his coffee cup down and picked up the pencil again. "I might actually get to read it and explain it to you if you'll kindly quit interrupting me." Johnny moved his hand as if to indicate he was zipping his mouth shut. "Don't you have somewhere else to be? Some . . . work to do?"

Johnny shook his head.

"Well go find some," Scott suggested with exasperation in his voice.

"But . . ." Scott gave his brother "the look" and Johnny immediately shut up. He had already forgotten his promise to remain quiet. Draining his cup, Johnny stood, swung the chair back around and pushed it under the table.

"Come back in an hour," Scott mumbled, already flipping pages in the book.

Johnny shoved his hands in his back pockets. Sauntering down the hallway, he tried to think of something to keep him occupied. Wandering into the library, he found his sister curled up in a chair and obviously deeply involved in the book in her hands. He walked around scanning the shelves, stopped at the globe and spun it a couple times, picked up a knickknack from the table and played with it for a minute. Finally he sat down in the chair opposite Teresa, leaned his weight forward with his forearms on his thighs and studied her.

After a couple minutes Teresa lifted her eyes without lifting her chin. "Don't you have somewhere else to be? Something else to do?" Johnny shook his head. "Read a book," she suggested. Johnny shook his head. "Go get the cards and play solitaire." Johnny wrinkled up his nose. "Go polish your boots." Johnny lifted one leg, brushed a little dust off the toe of the boot, and put his foot back down on the floor. "Did Scott throw you out of the kitchen?" Johnny nodded. "I can see why," Teresa mumbled under her breath. "I know, go brush Barranca." Johnny's eyes lit up, he stood and left through the front door. Teresa glanced out the window and saw him walking toward the barn. "Brothers!" She sighed, going back to her reading.

Johnny loved spending time with his horse and showering him with attention. He got out two brushes, one for each hand, and began stroking the animal. Barranca nickered and nodded his head. He liked to be brushed. When Johnny had finished with his body, he combed out the palomino's mane and tail. Taking a rag, he even stooped down and polished Barranca's hooves. All the while, he had been talking to the horse in low even tones; telling him how handsome he was, how strong he was, how all the other horses were envious of him. Barranca seemed to understand and when Johnny stood to stoke his nose, Barranca dipped his head and nuzzled his master's hand.

"Johnny", Scott shouted from the back steps.

With one last pat on the neck Johnny said, "Gotta go, big fella," before sprinting to the house. He reclaimed his place at the table and waited. Johnny noticed that there was a lot of scribbling on the blank sheets of paper.

"Okay," Scott said while sighing. "Here's what I can figure out." He picked up the document and the top sheet of scribbled paper. "It appears that while your girlfriend and . . ."

"Lady," Johnny interrupted. "She's my lady."

Scott blinked slowly and took a deep breath. "It appears that while your lady and her uncle were traveling around the countryside, they were also skipping out on their bills. Hotels, restaurants, just about anywhere they thought they could get away with it. Also, some establishments claim that items were missing after the two had been in their premises." Scott looked up to see bewilderment on his brother's face. "That is, stores are accus . . . are saying that either Jennie or her uncle stole things from them." Johnny opened his mouth to speak but before he could, Scott gave him "the look" again. Johnny closed his lips and waited.

"At first they took small items; things that didn't really cost very much. Probably wanted to see if they could get away with it. Obviously they did. Over time they gradually . . .slowly . . . took bigger and more expensive items. It seems that eventually the sheriff of one larger city or town would send out a warning to the next largest city or town. To spread the word, so to speak." Scott looked up to see if his brother was following what he was saying.

"However, Jennie and her uncle always seemed to be a step ahead of the law. I'm not quite sure how the law tracked them down to Avalon. Her uncle was put in the territorial jail in Sacramento. The only reason they didn't take Jennie was that she claims to be a minor . . .too young. Besides, the prison system doesn't currently have a woman's facility . . .jail."

"How do they know Jennie took that stuff? Maybe it was just her uncle and she didn't know about it?" Johnny retorted getting defensive.

"Doesn't matter. As long as she was with him at the time, she would be considered an accessory . . . a helper, if you will. In the eyes of the law she is just as guilty as Claudius."

Johnny's heart sank. He dropped his head and lowered his eyes. Scott felt his brother's pain. "But there is some good news." Johnny looked up and grinned. "The business places that claim to have lost money to Jennie and her uncle are willing to drop the charges . . ." Johnny's grin became a full blown smile. "IF . . ." Scott continued. "Either Jennie, her uncle, or someone on their beha . . . or another person pays back all the money."

Johnny swallowed hard. "How much . . ."

Scott shook his head. "Doesn't give an amount. You're probably going to have to send a wire to Sacramento and ask them for a total. I'm sure they will add in any money Jennie and her uncle may still owe in Avalon." Scott could see the wheels turning in his brother's head. "Does Jennie have any money?"

Johnny shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Probably not much, if any. She's real young you know. Besides, if they had the money why didn't they just pay in the first place?"

"I don't know." Scott said quietly.

"What can I do?" Johnny asked, his eyes pleading with Scott's for help.

Scott put down the papers. "It's hard for me to say until I know how much restitu . . . how much money they owe. If I were you, I'd go into town and send a wire to the courthouse in Sacramento and ask them." Johnny nodded and lowered his eyes. Scott rose and came around the table, standing next to his brother's chair. He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed it lightly. "I'm sorry Johnny. I guess I wasn't so much help after all. Please come talk to me . . . let me know if there's anything , anything at all I can do." Scott squeezed his brother's shoulder again and left.

Johnny sat at the table for a long time. He didn't have much money to speak of, always spending it the moment he got any; card games, buying drinks for the house, frivolous things at the general store, presents for his current lady. Now he understood what Murdoch had been trying to teach him about saving some for a rainy day. In Johnny's world it was not only raining, it was a monsoon.

Teresa, seeing Scott going upstairs, put down her book and walked down the hallway to the kitchen to begin preparing supper. She was surprised to see Johnny still seated at the table. "Oh," she exclaimed. Noting the sadness, the total look of defeat on his face, she asked, "Are you okay? Was Scott able to help?"

"Yah, he was a big help." At first Teresa thought she detected a hint of sarcasm in Johnny's voice but studying his face she decided he was being sincere.

"I. . . I don't mean to chase you out of the kitchen Johnny, but I need to get supper on the stove."

"I need to go into town. I'll get somethin' to eat there. Tell Murdoch I might be back kinda late." Teresa nodded.

Johnny grabbed his hat as he walked out the back door. Standing at the window peeling vegetables, Teresa saw him leave on Barranca a short time later. Her heart ached. She didn't know exactly what was going on, but the hurt on Johnny's face was so obvious it brought tears to her eyes.

Both Scott and Murdoch were surprised to come to the supper table and find Johnny's place empty. Teresa passed along her brother's message and noted the exchange that silently took place between the two men. The meal passed in relative silence. Afterward Murdoch excused himself and went back in the den, closing the doors. Scott walked into the parlor where he poured himself a hefty portion of brandy. Teresa returned to the library to finish her book. The silence in the house was deafening.

Teresa went up to bed first. She could see Scott sitting by the window watching the courtyard. When the clock chimed midnight, Scott stopped watching for Johnny to return and went to bed himself. Crossing the hall he glanced at the doors to the den which remained closed, just a small sliver of light showing beneath them.

Murdoch sat back in his chair and rested his crossed ankles on the corner of the desk. He held a large glass of bourbon in his hand. He kept going over and over the recent conversations he had had with his two sons. Had he given them the right advice? Did he explain things clearly? He wasn't sure, especially when it came to Johnny. He was much more impetuous than Scott. He was, after all, younger but he also grew up in a completely different environment that his older son and that fact, right there, was what worried Murdoch the most. He would have to hold a tighter rein on Johnny but not so tight as to not let him learn some lessons on his own. It was hard to know just where to draw the line.

Glancing over at the clock, Murdoch found it was almost two in the morning. Obviously Johnny would not be coming home tonight. Dropping his feet to the floor and draining his glass he reasoned he should try to get at least a little sleep. After all, he supposed that he would have to go to town tomorrow to collect his young son. He would not be surprised at all if George sent word as soon as the sun was up.

As Murdoch rode into town the following morning, he kept an eye out for Barranca. The townsfolk were just beginning to stir as the business establishments had just opened. He spotted the sheriff near the bank. "Hey George," he called. When the man looked up he simply grinned and jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the jail. Murdoch nodded. He knew exactly what George was saying. As he rode toward that end of town, Joe trotted out of the telegraph office and waved for Murdoch to stop.

"Mornin' Murdoch. You saved me a trip to the ranch. Got three wires for you." He held up the envelopes. Murdoch took them from Joe's hand and tucked them in his shirt pocket. "Boy you Lancers sure burn up the wires! Just had Johnny in the office yesterday and now you get three!" Murdoch thanked Joe and tipped his hat. He tied up his mount in front of the sheriff's office and slid down out of the saddle. He reminded himself not to get angry; to try to be understanding. He took a deep breath to steady his nerves before turning the door knob and entering the small stone building.

The first cell was empty, door standing wide. Passing it, he stopped in front of the second cell. He shoved his hat back on his head and wiped his face with one hand. Johnny was sprawled on the bunk, boots and all, sound asleep. Murdoch stood just watching for a few minutes. Spying an empty tin cup on the table, he picked it up, held it high in the air, and let go. The cup clattered loudly on the bare stone floor. Johnny moaned and squeezed his eyes tightly together. Murdoch bent down and picked up the cup. He repeated his previous action, but this time the cup not only clattered against the floor, it bounced up and hit the iron bars clanging loudly. Johnny raised his hands to cover his ears and winced. "Quiet," he slurred. One more time should do it, Murdoch reasoned. This time rather than simply dropping the cup he threw it down with a little force behind it.

Johnny threw his legs over the side of the bunk and sat up, perhaps to quickly for suddenly he raised his hands to hold his throbbing head. He opened his eyes and struggled to focus. When he finally recognized his father standing on the other side of the bars, he moaned and fell sideways on the cot, his feet still on the floor.

"Morning," Murdoch said a little louder than what was called for. "Have a good time last night, did you?"

Johnny pushed himself up to a sitting position and leaned back against the wall. He hung his head until his chin almost touched his chest and raised both hands to cover his face. George walked in the door just then and, opening the top desk drawer, took out the keys to the cell. He strode over and stopped a few steps from Murdoch's side. "Want 'im?" He asked. Murdoch sighed and tried to pretend to be deep in thought.

"I suppose," he muttered. " He is my son after all." George stepped in front of Murdoch and unlocked the cell. "Come on Johnny, time to go." Murdoch covered the width of the cell in two steps. He took hold of Johnny's upper arm and tried to pull him to his feet. As Johnny stood, he swayed to one side and Murdoch had to act quickly to catch him. "Come on son." With one arm around Johnny's shoulders and his other hand still holding his upper arm, he escorted his youngest son out of the cell.

As they passed George, the sheriff reached up and pushed Johnny's hat down firmly on his head, causing him to wince. George held out Johnny's gun belt and Murdoch let go of his son's arm for a minute to sling it over his arm and up on his shoulder. "Put it on my tab," Murdoch instructed. George grinned, reaching up to scratch his head. He chuckled to himself after they had gone.

"Where's your horse?" Murdoch asked, returning his hand to Johnny's arm. The day was bright with sunshine and Johnny winced when he opened his eyes wide enough to take a good look around.

"Barranca," Johnny called. "Here boy." He tried to whistle but was too uncoordinated to do so.

"He's a horse, not a dog!" Murdoch chastised. "Did you take him to the livery?"

Johnny bent his arms at the elbow and waved his hands while shrugging his shoulders. Murdoch supported his son while walking the short distance to the stable. As they entered, Johnny smiled widely. "Barranca," he slurred. "I knew I'd find you." He moved forward to rub the horse's nose but Barranca stepped back and shook his head. "I'll get your saddle."

Murdoch steered Johnny to a bench and sat him down. "I think I better saddle your mount this morning." Murdoch grabbed the blanket and tossed it over Barranca's back. He then grabbed the saddle horn and hoisted it up over the blanket. He quickly tightened the cinch and led the palomino out of the stall. Johnny was resting his head back against the fence. "Do you think you can sit a horse or should I tie you across the saddle like a dead man?"

Johnny looked up into his father's face and grinned. Murdoch suddenly knew what he must do. Tethering Barranca to the fence rail, he helped his son stand and walked him over to the trough, tossing him in. Johnny sputtered and spat in the cold water but after the initial shock he actually took a deep breath, dunked his head in and shook it around. Gasping for breath, he grabbed the rim with both hands and hoisted himself out. Standing, dripping wet, he shook his head spraying droplets of water from his hair in all directions. He looked at Murdoch and smiled. "Thanks, Pa." He grinned. "I needed that."

When Murdoch slapped his son on the back drops of water flew up and soaked his shirt cuff. Both men laughed.

Johnny's head still pounded but the cold water had actually helped. Walking back to Barranca, Murdoch held the reins while Johnny mounted. The horse clearly did not like the soaked rider on his back and the water running down his sides. He side stepped, tossed his head and shook his mane. Johnny patted him on the neck. "It's okay boy. Just water." Murdoch handed Johnny the reins and Barranca settled down under his master's touch. "Your horse by the jail?" Murdoch nodded and started walking that way.

Johnny walked Barranca slowly down the street to keep in step with his father. After Murdoch mounted, they started off toward the ranch. Once Murdoch was convinced that Johnny was doing okay, he spurred his horse into a rapid canter. He was anxious to get back to the ranch. He had work to do.

By the time Johnny arrived home, his father was already in the house. He handed Barranca's reins over to the stable master and went in through the back door. Slipping up the back stairs, he advanced to his room, stripped off his wet clothing, toweled off, and put on dry clothes. He managed to drag a comb through his hair and make it look fairly decent. He did need a shave so crossed to the washstand and began to sharpen his razor.

Chapter 14

Murdoch returned to the den and closed the doors. Once seated, he pulled the telegrams out of his pocket and spread them out in front of him on the desk. He didn't know which one to open first. Finally he picked up the middle one. Leaning back in the chair, he pulled out the message and began to read. Sighing, he tossed it on the desk and looked back and forth between the two remaining envelopes. He picked up the one on his right. More disturbing news. He tossed this note on top of the other one and picked up the last envelope. When he finished reading it, he tossed it on top of the others.

Murdoch sighed heavily. True to tradition, telegrams seldom brought good news and these were no different. Murdoch swung his chair around to face the window. He crossed one ankle up to rest on the opposite knee, rested his right elbow on the armrest and rested his chin on his hand. Most times he loved being a father but sometimes he absolutely despised it. This was one of those times.

"Have you seen Murdoch?" Scott asked his sister.

"I think he's in the den."

Scott nodded in thanks then walked quietly down the hall. Standing in front of the closed pocket doors, he wiped his palms on his pants, licked his dry lips and took a deep breath. His knock brought Murdoch out of his daydream and back to the present.

"Come in," he called.

Scott slid the doors apart just enough to enter, then slid them back together. "Sir, may I talk to you if you have the time?" Murdoch motioned for his son to advance into the room and sit down. Swinging his chair back to face forward, he laid his forearms on the desk. Scott thought he looked worried but perhaps he was just tired.

"How can I help you son?"

Scott paused, squared his shoulders and looked Murdoch directly in the eyes. "I need an advance on my trust fund, sir." Scott knew the value of money. During his time on the ranch, he had been diligent about putting a percentage of his wages into a savings account. Scott wouldn't be asking if there wasn't an important reason. Murdoch opened the lower desk drawer and pulled out a long, narrow blue book. He flipped it open to the first blank draft and picked up a pen.

"How much do you need?"

Scott's heart was pounding in his chest and echoing in his ears. He laid his hands on his thighs to keep them from shaking. "I thought perhaps you could just sign a draft and give it to me, I can fill in the amount later ."

Murdoch was shaking his head. "No way. No way I'm giving you or anybody else a blank draft. What if you would lose it? If someone found it, signed, they could put in any amount they wanted. They could bleed you dry. No son, I'm sorry but I have a responsibility to you and to your late grandfather to dispense these funds appropriately. If you don't know an exact amount, give me your best estimate. I can always write you another if you need more."

Scott's plan hadn't worked and now he didn't know any other way to get the money than to be honest. "Sir, I need a draft for ten thousand dollars." There he had said it while holding his father's gaze. He waited, studying Murdoch's face closely.

Murdoch fought hard to not show his shock on his face. He didn't want to make Scott uncomfortable or to feel foolish. "Well, you certainly have that much . . . and more . . . on account but ten thousand dollars is an awful lot of money. I swore an oath and signed legal papers when I took over guardianship of this trust giving my word that the funds would be used appropriately, not frittered away. I know it's none of my business but why do you need it?" Murdoch dropped the pen on the desk and leaned back in his chair.

Scott had expected this question and had rehearsed his answer many, many times. "I have been approached by someone I know quite well and been offered an opportunity to invest in a promising business venture. It would be a three-member partnership. I am aware that you hold interest or partnerships in many businesses. I would like to follow in your footsteps by taking advantage of this offer."

Murdoch intertwined all his fingers except the index finger of both hands, which he held in a point in front of his lips. "This is a legally filed partnership? Have you been given a contract and a reasonable time to review it?"

"A contract will be forthcoming. As the other two members are upstanding citizens and accepted in the best of social circles, I can only believe that everything is above board, sir."

"What kind of business is it?"

Scott swallowed hard. This would be the most difficult question to answer. "I have not been made aware of its exact nature. I have reason to believe it is proprietary information."

"Hmm," Murdoch murmured. "I am concerned about what you know . . . or rather don't know about this venture. Perhaps it would be best to do some research. Contact city management and find out if the business has applied for or has a license. Ask the assessor's office for a copy of their last financial statement. Wire the courthouse and have them reply with the document number of the partnership and the names and addresses of the current investors." Murdoch noted the disappointment on his son's face. "I'm not saying no, mind you. I think it's wonderful that you want to take this first step. I'm only offering advice from someone who has years of experience in this type of thing. If you can show me some kind of documentation, the replies to your telegrams for instance, and let me read over that contract before you sign it, I'll write you the draft."

"Yes, sir." Scott sounded so defeated. He dropped his gaze for a moment before looking up to meet his father's eyes again. "The only concern I have, sir, is time. I had hoped to wire the draft to the bank before the end of this week."

The hair on the back of Murdoch's neck bristled. Someone was obviously pressuring his son into getting them this money, and quickly. His gut clenched. "No son. If this is a legitimate business and a legal and binding partnership, then they shouldn't need the money that soon. I'm sorry Scott. I wish I could, but I have to refuse."

Scott inhaled deeply and stood. He extended his hand and shook that of his father. "Thank you, sir, for your time, your concern and your advice. I will begin immediately to gather the documentation you require. I understand your position." Scott turned on his heel, opened the doors, stepped into the hall and slid them shut. He took a few steps to the side, leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. Now what was he going to do? He knew his brother didn't have two bits to rub together and he was not about to ask Teresa, who would go directly to Murdoch and tell him he had asked. Besides her money was in a guardianship trust and his father would have to sign her draft as well. He tried to think of someone he knew or, perhaps, even someone he didn't know that would have that kind of cash and would trust him to pay it back. He pushed himself upright and slowly climbed the stairs. Once in his room, he flopped on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He had to think of something. He was not going to lose his prospective bride.

Teresa knocked on the den doors. When Murdoch told her to come in, she slid the doors apart just a fraction. "I'm sorry to disturb you. I was wondering if you know where Johnny is."

Murdoch shook his head. "Haven't seen him since we got home. He might be in his room or out by Barranca. Something I can help you with?"

Teresa pulled two yellow envelopes out of her pocket. "Well Joe brought these a little while ago. One's addressed to Johnny and the other just says "Lancer Ranch".

"The one addressed to the ranch is probably for me. I'll take it." Murdoch stated. Teresa slipped through the doors and handed it to him.

"I'll try to find Johnny. I'm getting to know all his good hiding places. I'm sorry I bothered you." Teresa smiled and pulled the doors shut as she left. Just as she was about to climb the back stairs to knock on her brother's bedroom door, she saw Johnny coming out of the corral headed to the bunkhouse. She stepped out onto the back porch. "Johnny!" She shouted, her hands cupped around her mouth. Johnny stopped walking and looked in her direction. She waved the envelope in the air. He turned and trotted over to the porch. Teresa handed him the message.

"When did this come?" He asked.

"Joe brought it out a little while ago."

"What's a "little while"?" His voice became edgy.

Teresa was slightly taken aback. "Maybe ten minutes. I've been looking for you; to deliver it to you right away."

Johnny looked down at the note in his hand. He swallowed hard. "Thanks," he muttered. Teresa turned to go back into the house and Johnny followed except when his sister turned to enter the kitchen, he turned and leapt up the back stairs. He walked to his room, entered, and quietly shut the door. Tossing his hat on the quilt, he sat down on the edge of the bed. His hand was shaking slightly. He stared at the envelope for a few moments. It had to be a reply from Jennie. Finally he slid his finger under the sealed flap and tugged the sheet out of the envelope. Tossing the envelope to the floor, he took a deep breath while unfolding the note.

"Johnny Lancer, Lancer Ranch from Jennifer Whitfield, Avalon Station

Happy to receive wire. Glad Scott could help. Was contacted by Sacramento. Need five thousand dollars. Wire to me in Avalon. Safer to travel than cash. Thanks to Scott and to you.

Love Jennie"

Johnny had no way of knowing that at the same time he read his message his father was reading the other.

"Mr. Lancer, Lancer Ranch from Federal Jailhouse, Sacramento,Calif

In reply to your inquiry about the settlement amount in the case of the People vs. Claudius Constantine, uncle of Miss Whitfield. As of this date the total sum of twelve hundred

dollars would satisfy the claims of the People. After all just debts are paid in full, any funds remaining will be applied to the costs of capture, arrest and processing. Please note: the

above amount is subject to change if additional claims are made."

Murdoch sighed. It was clear to him now that the wire should have been addressed to Johnny. He wrestled with exactly what to do with the information. Should he immediately deliver it to his son, making a sincere apology for the misunderstanding? His gut clenched. Something told him to hang on to it, at least for now. He was curious to see if Johnny would come to him, explain the situation and ask for his help. Besides it seemed peculiar that this request for money from his youngest son should come so soon after a similar request from his elder son. He tucked the sheet back into the envelope and dropped it in his bottom desk drawer.

Johnny thought he might have read it wrong and so read it again. Five thousand dollars. It might as well have been a million. He certainly didn't have that kind of money. He had never even seen that amount of money. Jennie and her uncle must have truly been living high on the hog. Well, the only thing he could do was ask Murdoch to loan it to him. He would have to work until he was a hundred years old to pay back a sum like this but what choice did he have. If he didn't pay it, Jennie might go to jail and his dreams would go up in smoke. No, this was the kind of thing you did when you loved somebody.

Johnny thought about waiting until after supper but he knew he would lose his nerve by then. Besides, Jennie was waiting for an answer. He might as well go and get it over with. Walking slowly down the front stairs, he rehearsed his approach over and over in his head. Standing in front of the closed den doors, he took a deep breath and knocked.

"Come in," Murdoch replied.

The doors slid apart once again and Johnny poked his head in. "Pa, you got time to talk?" Murdoch sighed. There truly was no rest for the weary, he thought. He nodded and motioned for Johnny to sit in the same chair which Scott had left only an hour before.

"Before you say anything, I want to apologize for dunking you in the horse trough this morning but, frankly, you needed it. It wouldn't have been safe for me to let you ride Barranca in the condition you were in beforehand."

"Thanks, Pa. I understand."

"Now that that's out of the way and all is forgiven, what can I do for you son?"

Johnny fidgeted in his chair. He really wanted to pace. It always helped him think but he knew it aggravated his father. Finally, he looked up to meet Murdoch's gaze.

"I have a . . . situation." Johnny stammered. Murdoch took a deep breath. Johnny always has a 'situation', he thought.

"Oh?"

"I need to ask you a favor. A really big favor."

"Go on."

"I need to borrow some money. I promised to help out a friend and I just can't go back on my word."

"I wouldn't expect you to. His word and his handshake are really the only things a man possesses in this world. How much do you need?"

Johnny swallowed hard. "I promise to pay back every cent, even if it means I have to work for you forever." He gushed.

"How much?" Murdoch had had a long day. He was tired and he was hungry and not in the mood for games.

Johnny dropped his gaze then squared his shoulders and looked directly into his father's eyes. "Five thousand dollars."

Again Murdoch struggled to keep his expressions as well as his emotions in check. Johnny didn't know the value of a dollar. He had tried to teach him but at his age it just went in one ear and right out the other. "That's an awful lot of money son."

"I know. Kinda surprised me too." Johnny paused. "But it's for a real good cause or I wouldn't be askin'. I thought maybe you could write a paper or somethin' for me to sign. Loan it to me against my third of the ranch. I swear I'll pay it back, Pa, I swear."

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second and sighed before opening them. "Son, do you know how much money five thousand dollars really is? At your wages – even if you signed over the whole amount to me every month – it would take you until the day you die. Maybe even longer."

"But if you take it against my share of the land, doesn't that count for somethin'?"

"In a way, yes, but when I drew up those papers it was with the intention of giving you and your brother a good start in the future. I can't take an acre of land to the feed mill and buy feed now, can I?"

Johnny dropped his head and focused on the toe of his boot. "No, I guess not, although it would be pretty funny." A grin pulled at the corners of Johnny's mouth and Murdoch had to agree it painted quite a picture.

"May I ask who this friend might be? Why they need that kind of money?"

Johnny didn't know if he should tell Murdoch it was for Jennie or not. He didn't want to lie. "I'd rather not say, Pa. It's . . . it's kinda personal."

"I see." Murdoch leaned back in his chair. "How soon would you need it?"

Johnny scooted to the front edge of the chair and leaned forward. He took his father's comment to mean he would say yes. "Right away. I mean the sooner the better."

"Well it doesn't happen just like that," Murdoch snapped his fingers. "It would take me some time to get that kind of cash together. Maybe as long as a week."

"Oh." Johnny's eyes clouded and a sadness fell across his face. Murdoch hated himself for making his son hurt so, but he had a responsibility. This was the part of being a father that he dreaded.

"It's almost time for supper. Why don't you go wash up and find Scott. I'm not saying no Johnny. I'm saying I need some time to think about it though. Okay?"

"Okay," he murmured, standing. "Thanks Pa, for at least considerin' that is."

"I'm always here for you son. Anytime, day or night."

Johnny opened the doors, stepped into the hallway and slid them closed again. He saw his brother coming out of the library from the corner of his eye and hurried in his direction. "Hey Scott?" Scott paused. "I got the answer, about the money I mean."

Scott took Johnny's arm and pulled him into the empty parlor. "How much?" He whispered.

"Five thousand."

"What?" Scott exclaimed, a little louder than he meant to. Both men looked around to make sure no one had overheard. "That's a small fortune. What are you going to do?" Scott asked quietly.

"I'm hopin' to talk Pa into lettin' me borrow it against my third of the ranch. I don't have no other choice." Before Scott could answer, they heard the den doors slide open. Peeking around the edge of the parlor door, they saw Murdoch on his way to the kitchen so they quietly stepped out into the hall and made their way to the dining room. "Found him," Johnny announced as Murdoch exited the kitchen and came face to face with both his sons.

"Well, your sister is just dishing up supper. Johnny why don't you go help her carry it in."

"Yes Pa, glad to."

After grace, the men bantered back and forth about chores, ordering a new part for one of the machines, if they needed to rotate the herd again before winter . . . Teresa felt she might as well have eaten in the kitchen. She couldn't feel any more alone.

Once in the parlor, Scott pulled out the chess board and challenged Johnny to a game. Teresa excused herself to the library to finish her book and Murdock, after helping himself to a swallow or two of brandy, said he was calling it a night and going to bed. After Murdoch and Teresa were out of earshot, Scott made his first chess move. Johnny was studying the board intently. "Johnny, can I tell you something in absolute confidence?" Scott asked quietly.

Johnny moved his chess piece then looked up at his brother. "In what?

"Confidence . . . it means . . .can you keep a secret? Just between the two of us?" Scott held Johnny gaze.

"Yah, sure." Johnny replied meeting his brother's eyes.

Scott leaned back in the chair and looked across the entry way to the library. He could see that his sister was deeply engrossed in her book. "You promise me you won't tell Murdoch or Teresa?" Johnny nodded. "You swear? Because if I hear anything around here I'll know it was you who said something and you can bet your last dollar that I'll get even."

"I swear," Johnny answered. Scott glanced over at the library again, just to make sure.

"I . . I've asked Millicent to marry me." Scott whispered. Johnny face visibly brightened and a wide smile spread across his lips.

"Congratulations!" He said more loudly than Scott would have liked, and just as Teresa came out the library to go upstairs.

"What did you say Johnny?" She paused on the stairs.

Scott glared at his brother. "I was just congratulating Scott on a really good chess move, that's all."

"Oh, okay. Goodnight." Teresa climbed the rest of the stairs. Silence hung between the brothers until they heard her bedroom door close.

"Johnny!" Scott hissed.

"Hey, you got to give me credit for fast thinkin'." Johnny protested, tapping one finger to his temple. "So . . . what'd she say?"

Scott smiled remembering. "She said she'd definitely think about it. I believe she will say yes!"

"Really? Did you get her a ring?"

"No. It was kind of a spur of the moment thing. I'm going to ask Murdoch if he has mother's rings and if he'll give them to me. If she says yes, and Murdoch gives me the rings, I will have it all ready to put on her finger the next time I'm in San Francisco. If Murdoch won't give me the rings, I will take her shopping for one. Oh, Johnny, I can't tell you how happy I am. I've dreamed of a wife, my own home, a family for a long time. You know that little rise in the northwest quarter, the one with the view of the creek and the big oak trees?" Johnny nodded. "Well, it sits on my third of the land. I want to build a fine house with big windows overlooking the water. Will you help me? I'd like to have it finished so that right after the honeymoon I can carry my beautiful bride over the threshold."

"Of course I'll help. Honeymoon, ha?" Johnny teased. Scott dropped his gaze for a second, a blush rising on his cheeks.

"Well, it is customary you know."

"Where you gonna take her?" The mischievous twinkle in Johnny's eyes was especially bright.

"I . . . I haven't really thought about it. Maybe New Orleans. I hear they have wonderful food, great hotels and lots of activities."

"What do you need those for? I bet you five dollars you'll never leave the room!" Scott grinned. "Oh Scott, you know I'm only teasin'. I'm happy for you, really I am. After everythin' you went through with the war and all . . . She'd be a lucky lady." The expression on Johnny's face conveyed his sincerity.

"Thanks Johnny. That means a lot to me. It really does. If she says yes, will you be my best man?"

"I never been in a weddin' before. I'd probably goof somethin' up. Are you sure there isn't a friend from college or . . . ."

Scott rose and walked over to stand beside Johnny's chair. He put his left hand on his brother's shoulder. "There is no one else I'd rather have standing next to me at that altar than you. You'll be the best best man ever." He extended his hand to shake on it. Johnny stood and extended his hand but after they shook hands, Scott suddenly pulled his brother into his embrace and hugged him. "Thanks Johnny. I couldn't have a better little brother."

Johnny stepped back, embarrassed. "I'm still kinda new at this brother thing but I don't think I could find a better one either." Suddenly Scott put one arm around the back of his brother's neck in a choke hold. Curling the fingers of his free hand into a loose fist, he gently but vigorously rubbed his knuckles on the top of his brother's head. "Ouch," Johnny said, trying to act angry while laughing at the same time. Just then, Johnny wrapped his arms around his brother's waist and squeezed until Scott stopped. "Now you're in for it!" He exclaimed.

Scott twisted loose, dashed to the front staircase and ran up them as fast as he could with Johnny only a step or two behind. Scott ran down the hallway past Murdoch's room and into his own, quickly shutting his door and leaning his full weight back against it. Johnny turned the knob and tried to push it open but Scott held his ground. His brother was laughing. The sound of Jonny's laughter warmed Scott's heart as it echoed down the hallway.

Chapter 15

Murdoch tossed and turned all night. Sleep was eluding him. He had too much on his mind. Finally, he got out of bed, put on his robe, and went downstairs to the den. As the house stood quiet, he reasoned that everyone else was enjoying that peaceful bliss that he needed so badly. He poured himself a hefty portion of bourbon and sat down behind the desk. Taking a deep swallow, he opened the bottom drawer and pulled out some papers. Taking another swallow of bourbon, he sat the glass on the desk and stared at the pile of documents before him. He knew well what they said, he had read them through many times in the previous couple days. He just couldn't figure out how to deal with them. He was stumped. He had never been stumped before. Perhaps if he read them just one more time he might find a bit of information he missed which would make things easier. He picked up the top sheet, leaned back in his chair and picked up his glass. The clock read three am.

Murdoch was still sitting behind his desk when the clock chimed five times. He stacked the papers back into a pile and returned them to the bottom drawer. His glass had been empty for some time. He debated about having another drink but he knew that no matter how much liquor he consumed it wouldn't make any difference in the end. Teresa and the boys would get up soon, coming down for breakfast. Murdoch rose and climbed the back stairs to his room. He shaved then dressed. Staring at his reflection in the mirror he spread a wide grin across his lips. Would it fool his family when he went back downstairs? Probably not. His eyes would betray him.

It was a typical breakfast with pieces of conversation filling in the gaps between bites of food. Scott and Johnny were debating the pros and cons of starting the drive today versus waiting until next week when they would have extra hands. Although they asked their father's opinion, Murdoch simply raised his hands to indicate he was staying out of the matter. Teresa ate quietly as usual. When breakfast was finished, Murdoch stood. "Make sure you're back here for lunch." He knew that Scott had stable duty today and Johnny was going to work on the bunkhouse roof so they would both be close by.

Teresa had lunch on the table when the Scott and Johnny walked in the door. Sandwiches, potato salad and fresh fruit. As it was an unusually warm and humid day, Scott asked Johnny if he wanted to trade chores for the afternoon. Johnny nodded while biting into his second sandwich. It had been hotter than hades on that roof. At least the barn would provide shade. Swallowing, he was just about to ask where Murdoch was when he walked in. He apologized to Teresa for being late, took his chair and helped himself to a piece of fruit. Scott informed him that he and his brother were going to swap chores but Murdoch shook his head while taking a sip of coffee. He told them he had arranged for another hand to work the stables and that the roof could wait until tomorrow. The boys turned their heads to look at one another glances but had learned never to argue to get work, only to get out of it.

Murdoch, although he was the last to arrive at the table was the first to finish his meal. Standing he said, "Sons, I would like to speak to you in the den if I may." Scott and Johnny exchanged glances, each trying to recall what they might have done wrong to initiate a "talk", especially one that clearly involved both of them. Teresa started gathering the dishes. The men tossed their hats on their chairs and followed Murdoch down the hall. "Close the doors, please." Scott quietly slid them shut and he and Johnny each took a chair. Murdoch had centered himself behind the desk, which was totally devoid of paperwork. He sighed heavily. This was going to be the hardest thing he had ever done.

The only sound in the room was the ticking of the clock from the corner. Minutes passed. Scott and Johnny glanced at each other and then returned their attention to their father. Murdoch sat with elbows bent and fingers intertwined except for his thumbs which he held to his lips. Finally Murdoch dropped his hands to lie flat on the desk. He looked from one son to the other and took a deep breath. "A 'situation', as Johnny would say, had presented itself to me. A very serious situation. I have been struggling for several days on just how to bring it up to the two of you and have not found a very good solution so . . ."

"What . . ." Scott began.

Murdoch looked at his son. "Please, Scott, let me finish. This is exceptionally hard for me." Murdoch dropped his gaze to the desk for a moment, then looked up and into Scott's eyes. "Tell your brother about the new lady in your life, will you son?" Scott swallowed hard. Had Murdoch somehow found out about the proposal?

Scott turned slightly in his chair to face Johnny. "Well, her name is Millicent Montgomery of the Baltimore Montgomerys. She is refined, well educated, high ranking in social circles . . ."

Murdoch interrupted. "No son, tell your brother what she looks like." Scott gave his father a puzzled look. "Please son, just do as I ask."

Scott thought for a minute. "She's very beautiful, just a tad shorter than I am with long, dark hair that she usually wears up and she has a very nice hour-glass figure. She dresses well, she's very polite and fine mannered. She is the most stunning woman I've had the pleasure to know and . . ." Scott hesitated but reasoned that this was as good a time as any. "And I've asked her to marry me." The shock on Murdoch's face said it all.

"And you were going to inform me of this when?" Murdoch said, trying to control the anger in his voice.

Scott looked at Johnny and then back at Murdoch. "I was going to inform you of the circumstances when I asked you to please give me my mother's rings so that I may present them to Millicent upon our next meeting. . . Sir." He quickly added.

Murdoch leaned his head back and looked up at the ceiling. Scott's news was not going to make this any easier. He closed his eyes for a minute and then lowered his head and gazed into Johnny's eyes. "And son, tell Scott about your new lady."

Johnny squirmed in his seat. He didn't understand what was going on but now was not the time to ask. "Jennie . . . well, she's just the prettiest thing I've ever seen. She's about a hand shorter than I am, honey blond hair she likes to wear in a ponytail, shy, quiet spoken, and . . .What's that word you used for skinny Pa?"

"Petite." Murdoch offered.

"Yah, petite. I promised her that as soon as I could save up some cash we would run off and get married."

"Scott what color are Millicent's eyes?" Murdoch prodded.

"Green . . . emerald green." Johnny's head snapped to look at his brother.

"And Johnny, what color are Jennie's eyes?"

"I told you Pa. They're this real deep green." Now it was Scott who snapped his head around. "But that don't mean nothin'." Johnny continued. "Lots of people . . . girls especially . . . have green eyes! It's just – I don't know the right word, it's one of them big ones. Pa, what word means that lots of things happen at the same time?"

"Coincidence."

"Yah it's just coincidence, that's all." Johnny jumped out of his chair and began pacing. Murdoch watched him walk and back and forth. He could see the wheels turning in his son's head.

"I believe that Millicent and Jennie are the same woman," Murdoch said flatly. He knew an outburst from his youngest son would follow and he wasn't disappointed.

"What? You're crazy . . . Jennie can't be this Millicent person. She's shorter, her hair is a different color, she's mannered but not high society like, and she's . . ."Johnny looked at Murdoch.

"Petite."

"Petite," Johnny repeated. "Real petite!" He spat. "Besides how could Jennie be in two places at the same time?" Johnny continued to pace. "Same woman," he muttered under his breath. "No way!" He added. He came to a standstill on the opposite side of the desk from his father, clutched both hands into fists, putting them shoulder width apart on the shiny surface and leaned his weight forward. He narrowed his eyes. "Don't you think Scott and I would know . . . would figure it out if she was pretending to be Jennie or Millicent or whoever?"

Murdoch looked Johnny directly in the eyes. "Not necessarily." Johnny turned his head and grunted. "Please sit back down, son." Reluctantly Johnny obeyed. Murdoch shifted his gaze to his eldest son. "Scott, you've been awful quiet. Do you have an opinion?"

Scott had been staring down at his hands. Slowly he lifted his eyes to meet his father's. "Sir, I can't fathom how it could be possible. I agree with Johnny. Surely we would know if we were both courting the same woman; she can't be in Avalon and San Francisco at the same time. It must be coincidental, the eye color that is."

"Johnny think about it. You saw Jennie during the week. Scott always met Millicent on Saturday night. She wasn't in the same place at the same time. A couple days in between gave her plenty of time to travel back and forth." Murdoch opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out the stack of papers from the night before. He laid them down in front of himself and folded his hands on top of the pile. "Yesterday both of you came and asked me for money." Johnny looked at Scott and drew his eyebrows together. "Large sums of money. Neither of you could be specific about the need or to whom you planned to give it to. Scott", he said shifting his gaze, "for Millicent or perhaps her brother?" Scott nodded slowly. "And how were you to get the money to her?"

"She told me to have a certified bank draft in the amount of ten thousand dollars, made out to Miss Millicent Montgomery, wired directly to the hotel. . .in the event her brother was not available to sign for it. That she could cash it and then personally deliver the money to him." Scott dropped his head and shook it slowly back and forth. Was it possible? Could he have been duped?

"Ten thousand? I only asked for half that!" Johnny exclaimed. Murdoch furrowed his brow and shook his head at his youngest son.

"Johnny can I assume that the five thousand dollars you asked for was for Jennie?"

Johnny squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. "No, it wasn't". He retorted, noting the look of surprise on his father's face. "It was for her uncle, who's currently in the federal jail in Sacramento and I've got papers to prove it."

Murdoch sighed and wished Johnny would tone down. He knew how awful Scott must be feeling and Johnny's attitude wasn't helping. "Okay, it was for Jennie's uncle." He conceded. "So you were going to wire the draft directly to the jail?"

Johnny dropped his head. "Not exactly," he muttered.

"Well, don't keep us in suspense. How exactly?"

"Jennie asked me to make the draft out in her name and wire it to her in Avalon. She said it would be safer to carry then cash; that she would go to the bank in Sacramento and deposit it into an account. The jail couldn't give her an exact amount and she was afraid that if they got the whole five thousand and didn't need it, she wouldn't get it back."

Murdoch could tell by the expressions on his sons' faces that they were finally coming to the conclusion that they had both been taken. Murdoch lifted the top sheet of paper off the stack and unfolded it. "George gave this to me last week. I want to read it to you." Murdoch ensured that both of his boys were paying attention then cleared his throat.

Attention Ranchers: Beware

A husband and wife team, he going by the names William McCready, Theodore Maceman, Thadious Duncan, among others and she going by the names Sarah McCready, Kathleen Hutchins, Mary Susan Humboldt, among others, has been traveling the country posing as either brother/sister or uncle/niece. The McCready's have cleverly concocted a scheme to swindle money from some of the wealthiest landowners such as the King Ranch in Texas, the Garvey Ranch in Kansas, the Bell Ranch in New Mexico, the Cartwright Ranch in Nevada, and the Barkley Ranch in California. To date, they have managed to elude capture. If you know their whereabouts or have any other information, contact the federal marshal in your state.

Murdoch laid the paper on the desk. Both boys had their heads hanging down. His heart began to ache. "I would like to read you the rest of these messages." Neither of his sons spoke. Picking up the next sheet Murdoch continued.

Murdoch Lancer, Lancer Ranch, California from Barnabus Crutchfield Received your wire. Have never heard of the Jebidiah Montgomery family Baltimore. Asked son who lives there. He could not locate a trace. No business in that name. Good to hear from you.

Murdoch Lancer, Lancer Ranch, California from Victoria Barkley

Received your message. Got a substantial sum from Heath and Nick. Disappeared. Reported to law. Received same flyer. Sorry to hear. Sending wine on next stage. Come to visit soon.

Murdoch Lancer, Lancer Ranch, California from Benjamin Cartwright

Wire in hand. Capital lost through Hoss and Joe. Complaint filed with territorial marshal. Hired investigator. No news. Feel bad for your sons. Please report.

"Now I have a confession and an apology to make. Johnny, son, this message came only addressed to the Lancer Ranch. I thought it was for me and I opened it. It wasn't until after I read it that I realized it should have been delivered to you. I'm sorry son, but I'd like to read it."

"Mr. Lancer, Lancer Ranch, California from Federal Jail, Sacramento

In reply to your inquiry about the settlement amount in the case of the People vs. Claudius Constantine, uncle of Miss Whitfield. As of this date the total sum of twelve hundred dollars would satisfy the

claims . . ."

"Pa, stop." Johnny said. "We . . . get the point." Johnny stood and walked over to the chest in front of the window. Standing with his back to the others, he sighed. "I can't believe I was made such a fool."

"How do you think I feel?" Scott replied. Johnny spun around.

"What's that supposed to mean? That your little brother Johnny was too dumb to see what . . ." He grumbled, stopped only by his father.

Standing, Murdoch barked, "Stop it. Both of you. This is not the time to point fingers. This is the time to bond together. To support each other." He pointed at Johnny. "Get over here and sit down." Johnny clenched his jaw, struggling to obey. As he took his seat, Murdoch returned to his. "Intelligent,

experienced men fell for the same wiles of a shrewd woman as the two of you did. I have to thank God that I found out about this scheme before any monies were lost not to mention Catherine's heirloom rings."

"So what do we do now?" Scott asked quietly.

"Well, Mr. McCready is already in federal jail. I wired the marshal yesterday and told him to keep him there. That solves half of our problem. I also told him of Avalon and which hotel to check in San Francisco."

"But what about Jennie or whatever her name is," Johnny murmured.

"I met Joe on the road this morning. I'll read the telegram to you if you want."

"I don't think I can take anymore telegraph messages for a while." Scott mumbled.

"Pa, I just can't figure it in my head. I mean this woman . . . how could she be tall for Scott and shorter for me, dark haired for him and blonde when I seen her, quiet and shy around me and all society-like for my brother."

"I thought about that too. My first clue was when you both told me about those emerald green eyes. Few people have green eyes, especially deeply colored like hers. When George gave me the flyer I knew right off what was going on. I . . . I knew how badly you both were going to be hurt when I told you. I struggled to find a way to ease into it, especially when both of you asked me about marriage and love and how to know if your girl was "the one" but . . . in the end, I decided just to come right out and say it. To be honest. Not to beat around the bush. Especially after you both came to me on the same day and asked for such vast amounts of money."

"But I still can't wrap my head around it, Pa," Johnny held such pleading in his eyes that even Scott felt bad for him.

"Well, it would be simpler to read this telegram but perhaps I can sum up what it says. They took Mrs. McCready into custody this morning from her hotel in San Francisco. When they searched the room, they found – let's see," Murdoch found the passage in the wire. "Wigs, high heeled boots, face paint, padded clothing, jewelry including ten diamond engagement rings, and when they cut open the lining of her luggage, almost eighty thousand dollars in cash. I suppose when she was with you, Scott, she wore high heeled boots, padded dresses, a dark wig and when she was with you Johnny, she probably wore flatter shoes, no face paint, took off the wig. . ."

"I want to go to Sacramento," Johnny growled. "I want her to look me in the eyes from behind those iron bars and tell me how . . ." Johnny voice cracked. "How she could do this to me, to us, and to all those others."

Murdoch came around the desk and rested back on its front edge. He put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "It wouldn't do any good son. People who could do such things, well, they don't care who they hurt. All they think about is themselves."

Johnny's eyes rimmed with tears. He stood and put his arms around his father in a tight embrace. Murdoch held him with one hand and motioned with his free hand for Scott to join them. As the three men stood there simply holding onto each other, Murdoch's heart swelled. He hoped that it would be the first of many times they would bond as father with sons and brother with brother, only under better circumstances. "I am so sorry," he whispered. "I wanted to share in your joy. I really did. I can't explain how wonderful it makes a father feel to see his children happy. I'm so very, very sorry." Murdoch swallowed the lump in his throat. After a few minutes, the men separated. All of them wiped at their eyes.

"Thanks for bein' the one to tell us Pa. I can't imagine how hard it must have been." Johnny murmured. Scott simply nodded.

"Well brother," Johnny said to Scott, throwing an arm around his shoulder. "What say we go to town and have a beer. I'll even buy." Scott grinned. It was the first time his brother had ever invited him to go along. He raised his arm and threw it across Johnny's shoulder. They crossed to the doors, each taking hold of the handle in front of him and slid the doors open. As they walked into the hallway, Murdoch called after them. "Give George my regards." Murdoch chuckled. It looked like he would have to make another trip into town, another trip to the jail, more fines to pay. Good thing he had a tab at the sheriff's office!

Murdoch crossed to the window and held back the drape, watching his sons until they disappeared into the barn. Dropping the curtain back in place, he took a step backward and leaned his head back to look up at the ceiling. "Lord," he murmured. "You've made me a rich man. A very rich man by blessing me with two sons. These two sons. You brought us together after too long a time separated and for that I am extremely grateful. I know I have no right to ask for anything else, Lord, but please help me retain my sanity and please don't make the thorns on the roses quite as sharp the next time. Amen"