Word count: 4.370
#7 in the Delgado Legacy series
These two consecutive scenes came up while I was writing That the Devil Drives, but they didn’t fit because they take place after what had to be the novel’s final scene. A story for them never materialized, which left them with no home. However, I couldn’t let these orphan scenes simply disappear into the ether. So, here they are as a short vignette of life in the Lancer household as the family adjusts to its new circumstances.
María awoke from a light sleep. She watched a stray moonbeam as it reached across the ceiling. It had been so many years since she had shared a bed with a man that she found the warm closeness of another body strange and disquieting. Someday, it would become the most normal sensation in the world, the warmth, the sound of another’s breathing, the smell of warm skin and all the pleasures of its closeness. But in only four days of being back with her husband, it felt odd and somehow…uncomfortable. She hoped this would pass quickly.
From the sound of his breathing, María could not tell if Murdoch was awake. She would have to get to know him all over again. She had the unfamiliarity of a new bride, but without the novelty. Once, exploring that strangeness with him had been alluring; now, it felt like a task to accomplish. How odd. She had not expected this.
When she had dared to dream of being with Murdoch again, she imagined it would be the stuff of fairy tales, not work. Yet, somehow, she felt this discomfort seemed rooted elsewhere…. The mattress was comfortable; that could not be the cause. With such a huge bed custom-made for his tall frame, she had an absurd amount of room. Plus, the space was familiar. This was the same room they had shared long ago, when he first brought her to California. No, that did not seem to be the source of her restlessness. Did she feel that she did not belong here? That sensation lingered around her. But was it her unease, or was it his? He had been alone in this room for decades. Perhaps he was experiencing the same discomfort she felt, of sharing a private space with another person. Or….
She hadn’t realized she had exhaled a thoughtful “hmm” until Murdoch asked in a low voice, “Is something the matter?”
She rolled over to regard him, half-propped up on her elbow. “This is a very pleasant room.”
In the moonlight reflecting off the ceiling, she could see his smile. “I’ve tried to make it comfortable.” He extended his arm to her, and she slipped in next to him, resting her head on his broad shoulder. “It’s more comfortable with you here.”
“Oh, Mr. Lancer, you esay such things.” She absently tapped his chest, still trying to solve the mystery, and he took her hand in his and kissed it. She smiled and rolled onto her back, still tucked into his side as she held his hand.
…Oh, that’s what was floating around in the back of her mind. “I find it hard to believe that you have been alone every night in this room for two decades.”
He didn’t respond.
“Of course, I do not blame you. You are a man. A man has needs. And for years you thought you were a widower.”
She hoped he couldn’t see her smile. Where she was going with this might be mostly teasing, but she still felt obliged to know the truth. “If anyone is to blame, it is most ecertainly me.”
“Would you please stop berating yourself?”
“I forgot. You have accepted all of the responsibility. You are to blame.”
“Stop. What’s past is past.”
“Oh,” she said with an archness that was modestly playful. “You wish not to talk about your past. You have things to hide.”
She felt as well as heard his deep, exasperated sigh as he squeezed her hand.
She said, “All the years of those pleasures you have lost. You were justified in finding your own happiness.”
She let her hand slip from his, and she lightly tapped his chest with her fingertips. She watched the moonbeam slowly progress across the ceiling, fading as the angle of the moon shifted. “It would have been unplanned. You are not a….” She tried to find the right word in English. “Conniver.”
He took in a deep breath and let it out with a hint of frustration.
“So, she would have to be convenient.” She watched the thinning trail of light above them. “The housekeeper is a widow, is she not?”
“She is a fine woman. I can imagine her providing great comfort in a time of need.”
“And, of course, I do not blame her. I know how persuasive you can be.”
“María, please be quiet.”
“Especially when you speak eScottish.” She sighed with contentment.
With more insistence, he said, “María, I have one word to say to you.”
“I believe I know what this word is.”
“I shall be quiet.”
She watched the moonbeam thin to a fine trace across the ceiling, then slowly fade out. She let out a light sigh, then rolled over onto her elbow and placed her other arm across her husband’s chest as she looked down at him. She could not contain her smile, and even in the faint reflected light from the window, she could see the warmth in his eyes.
He said, “Can you please tell me why I love you?”
She traced a finger along his cheek. “Because you are a man of fine taste.”
“Is that it?”
She nodded. She let her fingertip drift across his cheek, then up and over the tip of his nose. She could feel the suppressed chuckle shudder in his chest. “And because you have no choice. No more than I do.” She brought her fingertip to her mouth and kissed it, then placed it on his lips.
He absently played with a lock of her hair as they regarded one another, and then she slipped off her elbow and settled into the crook of his shoulder. He put his hand on her forearm, stroking it lightly, and they drifted into silence.
María lay with her eyes closed, listening to his breathing deepen and stretch out into the rhythm of sleep. Her mind would not let go. He might have declared the past over, but she needed to tell him something. She waited another few minutes to make sure he was asleep, then began in a whisper. “Mi corazón, it has always been you. Only you.”
She waited, listening for his breathing to change. When it did not, she continued. “Rodrigo, he was nothing. Less than nothing. I thought he was wealthy. I was desperate. I wanted to provide for Juanito. He deserved so much better than what I could give him. You do not understand what a mother will do for her child. I thought Rodrigo was the answer. But he had even less money than I did.
“As for being a husband….” She knew men hated to hear talk of this. But he was asleep, and she needed to say it. “He was no husband. When he was sixteen, he and a friend ‘borrowed’ a horse to ride. The horse bucked him off, and he was hurt. The bounce off the horse…forgive me, corazón, for saying what men dread to hear…damaged him. He still felt the fire, but his body could not respond. Of course, he did not tell me this until after we were married. At first, I considered it a blessing. Only later did I understand this fueled his hatred for Juanito…the daily reminder that he could have no eson of his own.”
A tear slipped from her eye and trickled down her cheek to the soft fold of skin below his shoulder. She thanked God that he was asleep. How she hated what she was about to confess. “To my shame, at first I did not believe our eson when he told me Rodrigo had beaten him. When I finally understood that he had told the truth, I went to the priest to get an annulment.” She almost smiled. “When I told him of Rodrigo’s affliction, the priest actually thanked me for estaying married to him for as long as I did. But then Rodrigo found out my intentions, and that was when he took Juanito away. I thought he had killed him.” For a moment, she became lost in the dark memories that always lingered in the shadows, waiting to claim her. “So many things I have done wrong, I cannot begin to count them all. I do not understand how you have welcomed me back.” Two more tears skittered down her cheek.
In the softest possible whisper, she stated, “But, my one true love, amid all of my follies, the one for which you may not chastise me is Rodrigo. All of my life, it has only been you.”
She took in a deep breath, and, when she let it go, it came out in shudders. There, she had said it all. Perhaps now she could sleep. In a slow, gentle roll, she slid off his arm and turned away, settling just beyond the reach of his warmth. She nestled into her pillow with another sigh.
With a long, deep exhale, Murdoch rolled over and slipped up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and drawing her gently back against his chest. She shivered at his unspoken forgiveness and wrapped her arms around his gentle grasp of her waist.
He rested his chin on her shoulder. “Mi cielo, I thought you said you didn’t have any more secrets.”
“I cannot believe you pretended to be asleep while I wallowed in my eshame.”
She could feel his smile on her shoulder. “If you didn’t want me to hear it, why did you say it?”
“There is a difference between wanting to espeak and wanting to be heard.”
He smiled again and kissed her shoulder. “Well, you were right about one thing. Men don’t want to hear about accidents like that.”
“The next time you annoy me, I eshall describe the injury to you in great detail.”
He shivered dramatically, and she giggled. His deep, half-suppressed laugh in response made her feel safer than she had in twenty years…perhaps her entire life. Of course, she could not allow the unfinished topic to rest. “…Is there anything you wish to confess to me?”
His lack of an immediate denial surprised her. His moment of thought stretched out into several. “Well, perhaps there’s one thing you should know.”
“A passing stranger?”
“No.” He gave her a gentle squeeze to make her stop. After several more moments, he said with some reluctance, “I told the boys we had to get married.”
She knew that somehow she had conveyed her displeasure when he gave her another gentle hug. It didn’t work. “Why?”
“I needed to clear the air.”
“How does one clear the air by waving about dirty laundry?”
He sighed. “When they first arrived, they were a little hostile.”
“I cannot imagine why.”
“And I felt that I needed to lay all my cards on the table with them.”
“And my cards as well.”
“I didn’t blame you.”
“As well you should not.”
She lay in his comfortable embrace for a while, fondly remembering the events that led up to their needing to be married, and then she recalled something he had said. “When did you have this conversation with them?”
“…After they arrived.”
She’d heard his slight hesitation before he answered. “True. Before they arrived would have been fruitless. When did you say this? The first week? The second morning they were here?”
Another pause. “Our first conversation.”
“…How long into the conversation did this topic arise?”
A longer pause. “A few minutes.”
She slipped from his arms and turned to sit up and face him. “‘How do you do? I am your father. Let me tell you about your mother’s shame.’”
He let loose a sigh of exasperation as he sat up. “It wasn’t like that.”
“I cannot believe you would talk about your wife that way.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“I cannot believe you would talk about your dead wife that way.” She glanced around the dark room. “What else did you tell them?”
“That was it.”
“So, this was all they heard about me.” She wasn’t as angry as she made herself out to be, but he deserved every bit of discomfort she could inflict on him. “Every time they have talked with me, this is what they are thinking.”
He said nothing.
She concluded that he had figured out she wasn’t truly angry with him. After all, she hadn’t stormed out of the room. Of course, she wasn’t wearing enough to make a dignified appearance in the hallway. Doing her best to keep her smile in check, she promised, “We shall continue this conversation later.”
“I have no doubts about that,” he said, then reached out and began to trace the curve of her knee.
She shivered. Oh, this scoundrel she had married, for this, she would make him pay.
Light was filling the clear eastern sky as Scott arrived for breakfast. Johnny was pouring his coffee, while Murdoch mapped out the chores for the day. Teresa and Annie were due back in the evening, after they had finished this week’s edition of the Morro Coyo Beacon. While Scott didn’t know how he felt about the possibility that Teresa might catch the journalism bug, he admired her willingness to help the women with the manual labor of printing and distributing the newspaper while Annie continued to recuperate from the gunshot wound to her leg. He still had achy muscles left over from when he and Johnny had been pressed into service—figuratively and almost literally—to run the printing press.
Of much greater interest, however, was Murdoch’s ebullience since María had returned unexpectedly five days ago. He appeared for all the world like a young newlywed. Nothing disturbed his rosy outlook. Even when a new ranch hand didn’t secure a gate properly and hundreds of cattle wandered free, everyone who waited for a blow-up became dumbfounded when he greeted the news with equanimity and told the chagrined young cowboy that mistakes can happen to anyone.
María, in turn, bloomed after her emotional reappearance and reunion with Annie, whom she had not seen since the day of the child’s birth. No longer circumspect with occasional glimpses of charm and good spirits, she now embodied confidence, generosity, fiery energy, and love. This only confirmed what Scott had decided during María’s first return to the estancia: She was good for Murdoch, and he was good for her. Scott could not have been happier.
Johnny seemed pleased with the situation, although he was more guarded in showing his feelings. He had seen too many reversals in his life, perhaps, to count on this lasting.
As the housekeeper appeared with the fresh bread and butter, Murdoch’s bride swept into the room, dressed a bit more elegantly than usual. Perhaps she was expecting company. Scott noticed Murdoch’s mildly expectant glance up at her from his sip of coffee. Scott thought he had heard talking coming from their end of the hall in the middle of the night. From the looks of things, the next few minutes might prove rather entertaining.
María descended into her chair with the flair of an opera diva, then glanced at the men before she surveilled the first wave of their meal. In his side vision, Scott noticed Johnny watching his mother with more than his usual circumspection. He seemed prepared for anything.
“Good morning,” María chirped to the young men with a warm smile. “I hope you have eslept well.”
“Very well, thank you,” Scott replied.
Johnny was more to the point. “What’s the matter?”
She crossed her hands on the edge of the table and took in a deep breath, casting a somewhat acerbic glance at Murdoch, who did not look up from buttering his slice of bread. She began in a voice with more than the usual amount of liveliness, “Last night, I learned that you young men, even before you had the dust of the road brushed from your clothing, were informed by your father that he had not followed the correct sequence of events when he began his esecond family.”
Scott had to think for a moment to recall what she was talking about, but then he remembered that testy first conversation between the three of them and had to take a sip of his coffee to hide his smile. Johnny did not appear similarly amused. Undoubtedly, he knew his mercurial mother’s many moods, and he must have had an idea of the direction where this could be going.
She continued, “I also understand that this was the only thing he told you about me. So, I have decided to give you a more complete understanding of what this man did.”
Scott eyed his companions. Murdoch was enjoying his slice of fresh bread. Johnny, well…the fearless gunman had vanished, leaving in his place an embarrassed eight-year-old child who wanted to be anywhere other than here.
She began with high drama, “This gringo,” with a gesture to her husband, “like so many foreigners before him, came to my beloved homeland with an eye for only what riches he could take away with him.”
Scott recalled María’s account from her first visit of how the two met—Murdoch had come to Matamoros to attend a cattle auction.
“And there, thinking only of himself, he happened to esee a beautiful, young, innocent daughter of México.”
Scott nodded. María had accompanied her father and brother to the auction.
“So, so young, so very innocent,” she said with a dramatic emphasis worthy of a melodrama.
Murdoch helped himself to the scrambled eggs that the housekeeper had just brought in and then passed the bowl to Johnny.
“A child,” she recited with great pathos. “Barely in her teens.”
Without looking up from taking a small, sizzling breakfast steak from the freshly-arrived platter, he said, “You were three weeks short of your twentieth birthday.”
“Barely in her teens,” she repeated. “Such a sweet, innocent child. And he was so, so old,” she said, shaking her head with terrible gravity.
Scott thought he saw a glimpse of a small smile pass across Murdoch’s face as he chewed.
“And this old, old man, this foreigner, took advantage of this sweet young child’s innocence.” She shook her head with terrible gravity.
Murdoch asked, “Would you like me to tell them what really happened?”
“No,” she replied, continuing in her same, overwrought manner. “So terrible, esuch a tragic tale. This poor child had to leave her family, everyone eshe loved, to come to this place eso very far away, this strange country. So terrible.” She eyed Scott and his brother severely. “I hope this estory eserves as a warning to both of you young men, to follow the correct path and not proceed as your desires wish…but I feel for both of you I am already too late.”
Scott caught his laugh soon enough that it sounded like a cough. Johnny had turned back into a professional, his face as opaque as a fogbound night.
She added, “Behaving properly will also help you avoid esquandering what you have been given. I can assure you, women do not appreciate a man who can offer only apologies.”
Scott liked to believe he had no worries in that matter, but he noticed Johnny frowning as he thought. He looked at his mother quizzically, then his eyes widened and he threw his head back and laughed. “Rodrigo! I shoulda known!” He laughed so hard that he kicked the table and almost tipped over his coffee cup.
María watched his undignified display with displeasure, and when the tide of his amusement ebbed, she eyed both young men sternly. “Be careful how you laugh. You do not wish to invite such misfortune. The accident that happened to him could happen to you as well.”
“María,” Murdoch said in a mild voice, “we agreed not to talk about that at breakfast.”
She acquiesced with a nod, then focused again on the young men. “I will add, if you repeat any of this to your esister,” she said, placing a steady hand over the knife next to her plate, “I will deny that this conversation took place, and then I will avenge my dignity.”
Scott couldn’t suppress his smile. “I find your threat hard to believe.”
“You think I will not defend my honor?”
Johnny smirked. “Aren’t you a little late for that?”
Scott knew he had meant it as a simple jest, but the men knew his joke had misfired when María directed an arch glare at her child. “You, who were in such a hurry to enter the world, you would esay this to your mother?” She pushed back from the table and stood.
Johnny, who turned a few shades paler, slipped to the edge of his chair, poised for a quick exit. “Come on, you know I was teasing.”
She ambled around the table and went to the bookcase, her eyes trailing over the contents of the shelves. Even though she faced away from him, she shifted her weight from one foot to the other in a manner that resembled a mountain lion preparing to pounce. “I thought I raised you better than this, Juanito. I see now that I was too kind, and my lessons about good manners did not linger in your heart.”
The brothers exchanged a glance, Scott trying to hide his amusement and Johnny looking downright nervous. He turned his attention to his father, who continued his meal. “Come on, Murdoch, do something.”
Murdoch gave his middle child a fatherly look of regret. “Son, everyone knows you never get between a mother bear and her cub.” He returned to his breakfast.
María found something that suited her needs. She pulled the quirt off the shelf and looked at the men for further details.
Scott nodded. “A gift from an army friend.”
“May I?” she asked.
As she took slow steps towards him, Johnny stood. “Now, wait a minute!” She tapped the business end of the quirt in her hand as she continued in his direction, and he skittered around the table to get out of reach. “Come on, it was just a joke.”
She rounded the table at her deliberate pace. “A joke? Strange—I heard no laughter.” She tapped the quirt in her hand a few times. “Let us see how much amusement arises from my little joke.” She slapped the quirt loudly into her cupped palm to punctuate her remark.
Johnny hurried away from her and made it as far as the chesterfield before he realized his mistake. With remarkable speed, she reached the back of the large piece of furniture, and no matter which way he came around the barrier, she would be within swatting distance. His only option left was to grovel. “Look, I apologize, okay? I take it back.”
Her sweet smile was belied by the brisk tap of the quirt in her hand.
“Scott, do something!”
“What did you have in mind?” Scott asked, sipping his coffee.
Johnny tried a feint around the right side of the chesterfield and then made a break for it around the left, but María spun and deftly executed a backhanded stroke at him as he passed. The quirt hit him just below the back of his concho belt with a sharp thwack. Johnny yelped, more from embarrassment than pain, and turned to face her. Scott couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the feared gunman Johnny Madrid defensively hopping backwards away from his mother.
Beaming gloriously, María held aloft the quirt in triumph. “Aha! A laugh! My joke wins!” She saluted Scott her thanks, then gave her son a sweet curtsey, curling the quirt around to add an extra flourish to her gesture. She returned the mighty weapon to the bookcase and resumed her seat at the table.
Johnny approached his chair warily, watching her pick up her knife and piece of bread and begin to butter it. With a squint of suspicion, he asked, “Are you done?”
She regarded him sweetly. “Mijo, I am no tyrant. I have defended my honor, and my joke was superior to yours. What more do I need?” She took a bite of her bread.
Johnny watched her for a moment, then sat in his chair again and looked at his food. He gave Scott a glance, and his brother couldn’t keep the grin off his face. Scott snickered as Johnny shook his head with a small, chagrined smile of disbelief.
María gave Murdoch a significant glance. He regarded his sons. “There is one more thing. Last night, your mother and I….” He looked at Scott with an apology. “Forgive me, if sometimes I accidentally refer to María as your mother.”
Scott regarded her fondly. “That’s quite all right.”
Her smile at him overflowed with love.
Murdoch continued, “Last night, we discussed your very generous offer for all of you to go to San Francisco for two weeks so we could have some time alone here. However, we can’t ask you to make such a great sacrifice for us. We’ve decided that we’ll go to San Francisco, and you all can stay here and enjoy the comforts of home.”
Scott frowned. “Are you sure? It’s no sacrifice. Think of our taking that trip as a very tardy wedding present.”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah, you know, you two should stay here, and you can reacquaint her with the ranch. She’s probably forgotten a lot.”
“No, no,” Murdoch said, shaking his head, “we can’t ask you for such generosity. Besides,” he said with a smile to her, “I have to buy her a new wedding ring. We’re not going to find anything nice enough here. She also wants to pay a few social calls. She’d like to meet Fred Weiler of the Pinkertons…and Sister Mary Jerome.”
With reluctance, Scott abandoned their clever scheme to finagle a trip to San Francisco. Besides, he could not begrudge María’s wanting to thank the nun who held the key to finding Annie. “As you wish. However, if you change your mind….”
María nodded. “We shall tell you first.”
Scott could hope for no more than that. The family returned to the meal and discussing their plans for the day.
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