Word count: 20,290
Murdoch Lancer slid his arms through the armholes of his favorite leather vest and pulled it comfortably into place with a smile on his normally stern face. In the hallway outside his room he heard the voices of his sons.
“That ground’s soft now but once the heat really sets in those posts will be cemented into place.” Johnny spoke lowly.
Scott’s voice responded, “I’m sure that’s true, but it is going to rain again next winter. If we plant them properly now we won’t have to redo the work then.”
Six months ago in the midst of his battle with the gang he had come to call the land pirates, Murdoch would not have believed that either of his sons would be living at Lancer or that they would turn out to be such hard workers.
The battle with the land pirates had cost him dearly-he’d lost most of his vaqueros; had nearly lost his life and still felt the effects of his wound; and most grievously his dearest friend had been killed. There had been times during the winter when he doubted he would ever have reason to smile again.
And then his sons came home, home to a place Johnny barely remembered and Scott had never seen. But it was their home. Now the border pistoleer and the Boston gentleman were discussing how long it would take to fence off a marshy field.
Leaving his large bedchamber, he quietly followed them to the great room and took his seat at the head of the long table. His housekeeper placed a plate of eggs and bacon before him. Scott and Johnny were already sitting at the table.
Johnny looked up at Maria as she put his breakfast down. He spoke to her in Spanish, his tone light and teasing. The woman, old enough to be his mother, blushed like a schoolgirl.
Murdoch hid his smile. At moments like this he could see the little boy Johnny had been. Johnny was young still and there was a lot of that charming little boy in him. For the first few months maybe more, Murdoch had expected Johnny to disappear without a word, but lately he was starting to believe that in some small way he might be allowed an opportunity to be father to his son.
Scott said a polite good morning, sir before he started eating. Murdoch studied his elder son for a moment. In looks, if nothing else, he had changed a great deal from the tailored eastern dandy who had first walked into the great room. For a short time Murdoch had been worried that Scott would work himself into ill health. During the roundup, Scott lost so much weight and got so little rest his clothes hung on him and his eyes had dark circles under them. Murdoch had not expected that Scott, who had been raised to push numbers around not cattle, would throw himself so completely into learning to be a cowboy.
Following the roundup, they had had a few weeks of normal ranch work. Though it was still hard and demanding, it was less grueling and Scott was looking healthier. He was lean now rather than skin and bones. He was tanned and his fair hair had lightened slightly.
Teresa came into the room slowly; her hand covering her yawning mouth. “Morning,” she mumbled as she took her seat beside Johnny.
Murdoch smiled sadly. Like her father, Teresa was not a morning person. In the nearly thirty years they were on the ranch together, Paul rarely came to the breakfast table wide awake.
He wasn’t sure what name to put to the emotion he felt when he thought of his old friend. Grief was certainly part of it. And maybe disappointment that Paul who had always believed the boys belonged on the ranch had not lived to see them here. Murdoch could almost hear him saying what a handsome family they were. He’d be right. Maybe it was time to show them off a little.
“We should all go over to Green River for the Fourth of July,” Murdoch announced without preamble. “It will give you boys a chance to meet some of our neighbors.”
Scott and Johnny were both forking eggs and bacon into their mouths. They looked up in unison. In the several months they’d been on the ranch Johnny had spent a few Saturday nights away. Except for the trip to the lawyer in Spanish Wells and one very adventurous shopping trip, Scott hadn’t left the ranch. They both looked interested.
“We’ll go on the third. We can stay with Sam. It might be good to stay in town for a few days. I’d like to see a few of the ranchers from the east of town. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, darling? You can spend some time with your friends. And we’ll see about getting a new dress made for you.”
Teresa had been slowly sipping her coffee. She looked up at Murdoch. “It would be nice to see Doc. I don’t need a new dress.”
“Of course you do. A pretty girl always needs a new dress,” said Murdoch with a slightly false heartiness.
A few weeks earlier a trio of Pardee’s men had abducted Teresa. She had been roughed up some but not, thank God, badly injured or violated. At first Murdoch had thought she had weathered the experience remarkably well. But he soon realized that she had been putting on an act. Several of the women on the ranch had told him quietly that the señorita was not herself. Making an effort to pay close attention, Murdoch noticed that her sweet smile didn’t quite reach her eyes these days.
When Johnny told Murdoch what had happened that day, he had taken responsibility for Teresa being taken. He’d said bluntly, “they got the drop on me.”
It was when Scott had given him an account that Murdoch realized how near Johnny had come to being killed. Scott had spoken so calmly, in such clear precise language that at first Murdoch had been disappointed that Scott felt no deep emotion over the danger Johnny and Teresa had been in. It had dawned on him while his son was speaking that Scott’s manner was that of a junior officer giving a report to a senior officer; something he must have done frequently in the past. And that the formal speech and the almost at attention stance was a facade; Scott was seething with fury over what had happened that day.
“They don’t care about the 4th of July in Mexico,” said Johnny, breaking in on his father’s thoughts, “and in Texas it ain’t real popular except on army posts. So I ain’t ever been to one of these celebrations. What do they do?”
“Well, they have a big picnic; they roast a steer and a couple of pigs. The ladies all bring their best baking. In the evening there is a dance and after dark fireworks are set off. Ranch folks come to town from all over the county. Since the war they’ve had a parade on the fourth. Some of the veterans wear their uniforms, not all of them. Any veteran is welcome to march,” said Murdoch his gaze redirected at Scott.
“Yes, parades have become very popular on the Fourth,” said Scott politely. He turned his attention back to his breakfast.
Murdoch tried not to frown. He’d thought Scott would be interested in the parade. Of course Scott didn’t have his uniform with him but that wouldn’t matter. Murdoch would be proud to see his son marching with other brave men. It would be a good way to introduce him to other ranchers and the townspeople. Most of them would be surprised to meet his sons. There might be a few who remembered Maria and the history of her running off with Johnny. When Catherine was alive Green River was nothing but grassy meadow with a river running through it. Johnny’s past, if it came to light and it was likely to, might ruffle a few feathers, but it was Scott who would come as a complete surprise even to people he’d known for twenty years.
“We’ll plan to leave the morning of the third. We’ll take a wagon with us; have Walt come along too. May as well get supplies while we’re in town,” said Murdoch realizing none of them had voiced much excitement about going to town. At least Johnny looked interested, but Murdoch suspected that had more to do with saloons than picnics.
Scott walked slowly towards the barn. He knew that his father had expected a different reaction to the news about a parade on the Fourth. In a way he had been rude responding so blandly.
“Although I have no right to take any credit, I am proud of all my children.” Murdoch had quietly made this assertion the night Scott and Johnny had rescued Teresa. The words had pulled at Scott’s thoughts for weeks now. What had his father meant? Was he trying to tell Johnny that his past as a pistoleer was something he could accept? Scott hoped so. If Johnny was going to really feel at home on the ranch he had to be sure his past was not something he had to hide.
But it hadn’t been just Johnny and Teresa Murdoch was claiming to be proud of; he had made a point of looking at Scott when he spoke. Of course there was no reason not to be proud of him. Scott had always been an excellent student and a good soldier. If in the past few years his behavior had been less than exemplary, he had been careful that it hadn’t reflected badly on his family. He was, if nothing else, a man who paid his debts out of his own pocket. Damn right Murdoch Lancer had no right to take any credit for the man he had become.
Obviously his father would like to see him march in that parade. For the pride he would feel in a son who had done his duty for his country and, Scott suspected, for more practical reasons. California was no different than the rest of the country — having served with honor in the Union Army greatly affected how his fellow citizens valued him. Didn’t need a uniform to march, did he? Well, he supposed he still had a uniform, a rather silly dress uniform with brass buttons and a wide sash. Scott grinned as he thought of what Johnny would say if he saw him in that uniform marching in a parade. Mrs. Hudson would have carefully wrapped it in linen with sprigs of rosemary scattered among the layers to keep the moths away. It would be in a trunk in the attic at home. He’d worn it less than a dozen times. His uniform, his real uniform had been burnt because it was full of lice. By then it was little more than a rag anyway.
The Fourth of July meant different things to him than it did to other Americans. He’d witnessed the Confederate general Pemberton surrender to General Grant on July 4, 1863 ending the Siege of Vicksburg. That same day they had gotten the first lists of the dead from Gettysburg — with the names of men he had known all his life among them.
In a way, two years later, weeks after Appomattox, after Lincoln was killed, his war really came to an end on July 4th.
Lost in his thoughts he almost walked into Teresa. She was standing in the doorway of the tack room. Johnny was inside pulling his saddle off its rack. He said, “You don’t seem all that excited about going to Green River. Don’t you want to see your friends?”
“I don’t really have any friends there now,” answered Teresa stepping out of Scott’s way. “I used to; Mary Beth and Charity. They were at school with me. Charity died of pneumonia last September. Her older sister is still in Green River but she’s married and I don’t know her very well. Mary Beth’s folks had the way station between Green River and Morro Coyo until this past February. P-Pardee’s gang burned them out and her pa took them back east somewhere.”
Teresa swiped at her eyes. “I guess Murdoch never really knew who my friends were or what happened to them. I know he meant what he said kindly.”
“Do you always go into Green River for the Fourth?” asked Scott. He’d heard the quiver in her voice when she spoke of Pardee’s gang. He feared that she was having bad dreams about her experience a few weeks back even though she hadn’t spoken about it.
“We have for the past couple of years,” she answered, forcing a smile. “Until the war we never paid much attention to the Fourth of July.”
Johnny held his saddle by the horn and swung it up over his shoulder. “I can’t see the vaqueros or their families caring about the Fourth of July. Most of them probably think they’re still Mexican,” he said as he walked out of the tack room and hung the saddle over the top rail of the corral fence.
“My dad always said it didn’t matter where he was – he was an Irishman,” responded Teresa, her smile now genuine. “As for the Patrón, I mean Murdoch, I don’t know that he gave it all much thought, but during the war, even I could tell doing a bit of flag waving was important if you were going to get along with people.”
Scott nodded. He supposed that was true everywhere in the country. It was human nature for people to insist on proof that their neighbors were on their side. Growing up in Boston, the home of the Adamses, Hancock and Revere, Independence Day had always been one of celebration. In 1861 he was anxious to march in parades; he couldn’t wait to put on a uniform and defend the Union. How long ago that was; at times he felt that the events of his adolescence had happened to someone else.
Carlos led the horses from the corral. Johnny and Teresa spoke with him in Spanish, slipping easily into the language as they always did. Scott had been diligently studying the notebook of Spanish words and phrases his mother had created years ago. He could follow the conversation well enough to know that it was about Carlos’s dog who had just had puppies.
Watching them, Scott thought about how ironic it was that Johnny and Teresa, who had had Mexican upbringings and spoke Spanish so comfortably, had been born in the United States. While he, who had had a quintessential American childhood, had been born in Mexico.
Teresa watched Johnny and Scott ride away with a crew of vaqueros. They’d be gone three or four days working on a fence to keep the cattle out of a mire that always formed as soon as the winter rain set in. There had been a fence around it for years. It had been wantonly destroyed by Pardee’s gang.
Teresa turned towards the garden then looked back over her shoulder at the cloud of dust stirred up by the riders. There was nothing to worry about she told herself. There were six of them and they would be working out in the open. No one could take them by surprise. Besides it was her fault that Johnny had been taken unaware a few weeks ago. If she hadn’t been distracting him, if she hadn’t gone after him in the first place, those men would never have snuck up on him.
She took a deep breath and walked through the garden gate. It was always a little disheartening to be in the garden this time of year; the plants struggled in the dry heat. The children of the vaqueros would spend the morning hauling water from the creek, dribbling it carefully where it would do the most good. If the pumpkin vines could be kept alive through the next few weeks they would reap the fruit in the early fall.
She went straight to the tomatoes. The vines were tied to stakes and covered with small yellow flowers. There were tiny green fruits starting to form. She began patiently pulling the yellow worms and striped caterpillars off the vines.
It was past mid-day when Abuela Mariah went looking for Teresa. The children had finished their work, their mothers had called them in for their lunches and siestas.
Teresa was alone in the garden; on her knees among the plants. She was damp with sweat, dirt streaked her face.
“Teresa?” called the old woman. Her eyesight was poor. She would wait for the girl to come to her.
“I’m here,” answered Teresa in Spanish.
“El Patrón is looking for you. He wants your company for the meal.”
“I just want to finish this row,” Teresa called back. Murdoch would want to talk about the trip to Green River. She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t have a good reason, at least not one that Murdoch would consider good, for not wanting to go into town.
“Teresa, it is too hot, child,” remonstrated Mariah. “Come, now.”
Mariah, Maria and the other women of the ranch were all a little worried about Teresa. They could tell she hadn’t been sleeping well or eating normally. She had always been a willing worker especially in the garden, but this wasn’t the first time she had missed the mid-day meal because she lost track of time. She knew better than to stay out in the sun like this.
“Now!” insisted the old woman.
Teresa sighed. With anyone else she would simply say I’ll be in soon but the habit of obeying Abuela Mariah was deeply ingrained. She squashed two more caterpillars and came reluctantly to her feet.
“Where is your hat? You were out in the sun without your hat. Teresa, what were you thinking?”
“I’m all right.”
“No, you are not. You are too hot. Come, you drink two cups of water and then you go lay down in the great room. It is cool in there.”
“Abuela, don’t fuss.”
“When you are foolish, my girl, I must fuss. Did you have bad dreams again?”
“No,” answered Teresa too quickly.
For the thousandth time Mariah cursed the land pirates to the depths of hell. She had done everything she could to persuade Teresa to tell her what had happened that day. Teresa had talked about it. Mostly blaming herself for Johnny being in danger.
For the first week Mariah’s eldest granddaughter, Rosita, had shared Teresa’s room. She’d told her she was fighting with her mother and didn’t want to stay at home. Teresa had accepted the excuse and welcomed Rosita. Mariah wished now they had kept up the ruse and Rosita was still sharing Teresa’s room at night – at least then she would know if the girl was sleeping at all.
“Come, child, come in where it is cool,” she said firmly, pulling gently on Teresa’s hand. Tiredly Teresa followed without a word.
The trip to Green River for the Fourth of July was not mentioned again. However , Johnny and Scott knew their father well enough now to realize that once he had spoken it was to be assumed that they were going. And so in the pre-dawn hours of the third of July, even earlier than they normally did, they stumbled out of bed and saddled their horses. Murdoch had chosen Walt, a newish cowhand, to drive the wagon. He’d figured that Walt who was from the east might want to celebrate the Fourth more than his vaqueros would. Scott, who heard the soft twang of Tennessee in the man’s voice, wondered which side Walt had fought on. Tennessee had many counties that remained pro-Union. Not that it mattered anymore.
It was a long ride. The wagon slowed them down. Murdoch switched often from his horse to the wagon and back again. It was hot. They stopped for several hours in the middle of the day along the small stream lined with cottonwoods. Walt unharnessed the team and the boys untacked the riding horses; allowing them to graze. Teresa laid out a picnic lunch. She gathered dry grass and spread a blanket over it for Murdoch to take a siesta in the shade of a tree.
Murdoch grumbled about being fussed over. He ate his lunch. He lay down on the blanket reluctantly. Johnny and Walt played poker using pebbles to make their bets.
Scott had settled against a tree trunk. He opened a thick book to the page he had marked with a photograph. A smile curved his lips. The photograph was of his goddaughter and her new baby brother, the children of his cousin Constance. He’d been reading the book MIDDLEMARCH, by the British novelist George Elliot, since his second week on the ranch. It was a long book but Scott had never taken months to read a novel. The problem was when he settled down in the evening to read he would fall asleep.
Teresa washed the lunch dishes in the stream. She dried them with the table cloth she’d laid their lunch out on. Then she packed everything into a large basket. Once finished, she set the basket in the back of the wagon and turned to look at the rest of them.
She smiled. Murdoch had claimed they were only stopping for so long to spare the horses. He was now fast asleep on the bed of dried grass. Johnny and Walt had tired of their game. Both had settled down with their broad brimmed hats pulled down over their eyes. Johnny’s hand rested on the handle of his gun. Only Scott was still awake. He sat with his right leg stretched out, his left bent at the knee, his back against the tree. He held a book propped on his bent leg; his fair head was angled over it. As if he felt her gaze Scott looked up.
“You should rest.”
“Yes, I suppose I should,” she said swatting a large fly away. Teresa walked towards him; the ripe grass crunching under her boots, grasshoppers leaping away. She sat down cross-legged and wiped the back of her neck with a bandana. “Does it get this hot in Boston?”
“Not that I remember. I’ve been places that were very hot but not this dry,” he said rather tersely. Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia where the air was so heavy at times it felt like he was swimming through it.
Teresa drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them. She rested her cheek on her knees and looked at Scott. She’d seen that look on his face before. He’d gone somewhere in his mind; in his memory. Teresa had never heard him speak of the war. Although her world had nearly been destroyed by violent conflict, Teresa had little experience of violence. Only the final confrontation with the land pirates and those horrible few hours when she was taken and held prisoner. She couldn’t imagine how a solider survived days, weeks, months, years of the intense violence of war.
“Is that a good book?” she asked softly, hoping to draw him back to the present.
Scott blinked his gray-blue eyes and nodded. “Yes, it is very good. It is about a small English village and the people who live there. At the rate I’m going I’m unlikely to finish before Christmas but you are welcome to borrow it.”
“I’d like that. England is very different from here, isn’t it?”
Scott nodded. “Very different. When I was there last summer it rained everyday.”
“Rain in the summer,” repeated Teresa looking up at the clear blue sky. “We almost never get rain in the summer.”
“Lay your head down here,” he said patting the thigh of his extended leg. “I’ll read to you.”
She hesitated for a moment. Then she did as he told her. Once she was settled Scott began to read. As he did, he marveled at the distance he had traveled in a year. A distance measured not only in miles but in skills, people and knowledge.
Scott had a pleasant, expressive reading voice. Teresa lay very still; fighting to stay awake. After a while Scott stopped reading, the book slid from his hand and his head fell back against the tree. His breathing was slow and even.
Teresa raised her head slowly, careful not to wake him. She sat up and looked around the clearing. Except for the buzz of insects and the occasional movement of one of the horses it was quiet. The men were all asleep even Johnny. His hand was still on the handle of his gun. Teresa leaned her head back to look up through the green leaves to the blue sky overhead.
How beautiful, how peaceful, how deceiving she thought.
In spite of the long siesta, Murdoch was exhausted and in pain before they reached Green River in the late afternoon of the third of July. He knew it would be wiser to ride in the wagon, his seat cushioned by blankets. But this trip was not a mere whim to see fireworks and eat the Widow Hargis’s famous sour cherry pie. Years before the Gold Rush, before California had become part of the United States, Murdoch had owned the largest ranch in the northern valley. He had worked tirelessly to build the ranch and his fortunes. He owned interests in mines and stage lines. He was the most influential man in this part of the state. Or he had been before that bullet entered his back.
Except for a painful trip to Spanish Wells, a town in the opposite direction from Green River, to sign the papers that made his sons part owners of Lancer, Murdoch had not been off the ranch since he was shot. In fact, he had barely been away from the hacienda. He knew there were rumors abroad that he was an invalid confined to a Bath chair.
Murdoch had long been aware of the advantage his height gave him. There seemed to be something inborn in people that they accorded respect to a large man, a strong man. If he was to hold onto his influence; perhaps even to his empire, for himself, for his sons, he had to project an image of strength. He couldn’t do that sitting in a wagon cushioned by blankets.
A mile outside of Green River Murdoch called a halt. He climbed down slowly from the wagon and limped to his horse.
Teresa watched him with tears in her eyes. She started to say something. Scott quelled her with a warning glance. Then he looked at Johnny who nodded his agreement. They knew Murdoch would not welcome their help. However long it took they would wait sitting quietly on their horses. They didn’t understand much about their father but they understood his pride, it was a family trait.
Green River had once been a collection of miners’ tents strung out along a promising stretch of the river from which it took its name. There were no mother lode strikes, but enough gold had been taken from the river and the surrounding hills so that the miners had stayed and built permanent structures. Over time storekeepers, a pastor who built a church, and a blacksmith joined them. Saloons were built and gradually it became a fair-sized town, the center of an expansive ranching and farming district. Unlike the older Morro Coyo, it was an Anglo town, born with the statehood of California.
The White Rose was a large saloon for a town the size of Green River. It had a big, square room with a long bar along one side and a small stage on the other. Through an archway, framed by heavy velvet drapery and hung with strings of glass beads, was a sort of parlor with comfortable sofas, chairs and a rosewood square grand piano. There was a staircase in one corner that led to the rooms above.
A woman in her late thirties stood by the piano cutting the string from a package wrapped in brown paper. She was tall with red-gold hair pulled loosely back from her broad forehead and caught in a snood. She wore a dress of dark blue silk, neatly trimmed with white lace. She called herself Rose La Femme; the saloon belonged to her.
Opening the package, she removed a stack of printed sheet music. A faint smile curved her lips. The Chopin and Beethoven pieces she’d requested from the publisher in New York were there as well as new pieces by Brahms.
A noise in the barroom drew her attention. She was pleased to see so many men already standing at the bar this early. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, the town was filling with people from the outlying farms and ranches. It would be a good couple of days for business.
“Miss Rose,” called a voice from outside.
Rose crossed the room to the French doors that led out onto the veranda. A half dozen women were lounging there in various stages of dishabille.
“What is it, Dahlia?” she asked as she stepped through the doorway.
“We thought you’d want to see who was riding into town.”
Puzzled, Rose turned towards the street. She smiled.
So, all the stories were true. The Lancer sons had returned to their father and the ranch.
They made a fine sight; the three of them riding their sleek horses down the street at a trot. Murdoch Lancer riding between his sons. One of the boys rode a beautiful palomino; his dark head was bare, his hat hung on his back by the stampede cord. His bright eyes swept over the street pausing for a moment when he caught sight of the women on the veranda. A handsome young man with a smile that made even these women, jaded by far too much experience of men, feel a slight flutter. The other son rode with a straight back; his face shaded by the wide brim of his hat.
Nearly everyone in Green River had heard the story of how Murdoch Lancer’s wife had disappeared one night taking their two year old son with her. Few knew that Maria had been the second wife and her son the second son. Rose did. Not because Murdoch had told her. Murdoch never spoke of anything personal. On the rare occasion that he was in the mood to talk, they spoke of books or music. Paul O’Brien had not been quite so reticent about the past.
Rose stifled a sigh. She missed Paul. He’d been her friend, nothing more than that, just a friend. A true friend was a rare gift in her life.
Murdoch Lancer was a big man; impossible to mistake for anyone else. Rose recognized what she was feeling as relief. Murdoch was alive and well enough to ride into town on horseback. It had been a long time since that had been true. She had known Murdoch for almost fifteen years. He was largely responsible for her settling permanently in Green River.
With two other women, Rose had arrived in the small mining town in the middle of a rainy winter. A man named Blake had recently built the saloon. At the time it was just the barroom and a couple of tents in back he rented out. He was looking to turn a bigger profit and seized on the idea of “managing” Rose and her companions. Except for wagonbeds, there were few places to ply their trade in Green River in those days. Blake offered the tents for their use and he took most of the money. By chance Paul O’Brien saw Blake break the wrist of one of whores after she refused to give him his cut of a tip.
O’Brien damn near beat Blake to death before Murdoch Lancer pulled him off. Blake ran for his life. Rose seeing an opportunity took over the saloon. Six months later, Murdoch was lying in a narrow bed that sagged dangerously from his weight. He had his hands behind his head, watching Rose as she pulled her silk wrapper up around her bare shoulders. He offered her some money to improve the saloon. When she asked him why he said he admired her ability to take a bad situation and make it into at least a profitable one.
In this part of the northern valley, The White Rose became the destination for lonely cowboys. The respectable women of the town, whose numbers grew larger as the years passed, crossed the street rather than speak to her. Rose paid no attention to them; respectability was something she’d lost long ago. She had created a good life for herself in Green River. When the railroad came through it would be even better.
Rose wanted a better look at the older son. He was tall but not nearly so big as his father. He rode straight in the saddle like a soldier; perhaps he’d been a soldier. Yes, he might have been in the war. She thought for a moment and tried to remember what Paul had said his name was and where he was brought up; somewhere in the northeast. Well, no matter, chances were she would get a close look at him soon enough.
Murdoch turned his head in her direction. She doubted he could see her in the shadow of the wall. In a little while Murdoch would walk through the door on the other side of the parlor like he owned the place. He didn’t; she’d paid that loan back years ago. In his own time he would go upstairs to find clean sheets on the bed and a silver tray with a bottle of his favorite whiskey. Long ago it would have been Rose who joined him there.
It had been several years since Rose had been available to men. Now that she had a dozen girls working for her, she could afford to politely refuse when men asked for her favors. Some men took this refusal badly. Who was she to refuse them? Madam or not, silk dress or not, she was still just a whore. Rose agreed with them and she believed that even a whore had the right to decide to whom she sold her body. That was an unusual attitude for a madam; perhaps it was the reason her girls stayed loyal to her.
Murdoch had accepted her refusal with a show of disappointment. She didn’t know if he was really disappointed. Murdoch was a private man; whatever had happened between him and his wives had marked him. Rose understood. Even after all these years, it was better to keep it friendly but all business between them.
Rose lifted her skirt and started to go back into the parlor when she saw the girl riding beside the wagon some distance behind the Lancer men.
Paul’s little girl. Not so little anymore.
Rose had first seen Teresa when she was less than two years old. In those days, the town had been crowded with miners. The few white women were as likely to be in her profession as not. There was no one to tell Paul O’Brien he should not expose his daughter to fallen women. Paul said he brought Teresa to her so she could learn proper English. Nearly everyone on the ranch spoke Spanish except for him and Murdoch. You couldn’t call what they spoke proper English.
Rose had thought there was more to it than how she spoke. In spite of her profession Paul seemed to see her as a lady. They didn’t come to town often, but for a few years Rose looked forward to their coming, to the tea parties she and Teresa had on the veranda.
A sad smile touched her lips as Rose walked through the French doors. Teresa wouldn’t remember those tea parties. By the time she was six, the town had changed. The new storekeeper’s wife gave Paul an earful about bad influences on little girls. Paul had blustered about bony old busybodies. It had been Rose who insisted that Paul heed the warning. Paul might have seen her as a lady, the town didn’t. She hadn’t spoken to Teresa in ten years.
“Violet, go put clean sheets on the bed in the blue room,” Rose called over her shoulder. “And the rest of you, get yourselves together. Tonight is going to start early and end late.”
Rose La Femme gathered up her silk skirts and mounted the stairs.
Sam Jenkins had no advance warning of his house guests. Even so he wasn’t surprised to see Murdoch filling the doorway to his office late on the afternoon of the third of July. He shifted in his desk chair and said, “How did you stand the trip?”
“All right, I suppose. I traded back and forth between the horse and the buckboard, which meant it took us damn near all day. The horse was more comfortable until the last few miles.”
Sam nodded. He was glad that Murdoch had heeded advice at least to the point of not spending an entire day in the saddle. “You did bring our girl with you, didn’t you? A man ought to get some pleasure out of having company.”
“I did,” said Murdoch. He limped slowly into the room, leaning heavily on his cane. He sank down into the visitor’s chair. He groaned slightly. “I brought the boys too.”
Sam stood up and walked to the sideboard where there was a decanter of whiskey. He poured some into a small glass and handed it to Murdoch. He asked, “Is this the first time they’ve been to town?”
“Johnny may have come in with a couple of the hands a while back. Scott’s not been off the ranch more than a few hours since he got there.”
“Yeah, huh,” repeated Murdoch.
“I don’t suppose we’ll see much of them this evening.”
“Oh, what are you being so sour about?” said Sam with a chuckle. “They are healthy young men. I’d be worried if that wasn’t what was on their minds.”
“I suppose,” conceded Murdoch sipping from his glass. “I just wish I could be sure they’ll go to Rose’s.”
“Well, why would they go anywhere else?” demanded Sam frowning. “Rose’s girls are healthy and honest as far as it goes. Didn’t you tell them to go to Rose’s?”
Murdoch raised his head and snapped, “Tell them? Tell them which saloon and which whores they ought to patronize? Now how was I supposed to work that into a conversation?”
“You just say it.”
“That is easy for you to say, Sam. If I told them to go to Rose’s, they’d go anywhere but Rose’s.”
Murdoch had been stewing on this problem for the entire ride. Sam was right -Johnny and Scott were healthy young males. And neither had led the life of a monk. The truth was, he was looking forward to a little female companionship himself although he would be considerably more discreet about finding it than he expected his sons would be. The boys had worked hard. They deserved to have a really fine time while they were in town and that included women.
His frown deepened as Murdoch thought of the letter he’d received less than a month ago from a man named Henderson. Henderson accused Scott of taking advantage of his daughter. Murdoch had been shocked. He’d been pleased that both boys treated all of the women of the ranch with what he thought of as a polite respect. And they treated Teresa with gentleness, almost, dare he hope, with brotherly affection. The notion that Scott would . . . well-Henderson made it sound like Scott had preyed on his daughter. Murdoch had not wanted to credit that idea, but he was responsible for the families on the ranch and for Teresa. He had to warn both boys off.
When he did he could tell Johnny was deeply insulted. Perhaps it hadn’t been fair to Johnny to include him in the conversation. At the same time while he often found Scott hard to read, that evening his son’s face had paled and his shoulders had gone rigid. Scott had known the lecture was directed at him. And it had put a little more distance between the two of them. So how the hell was he supposed to tell them where to find willing women after a conversation like that?
“Well, it is easy to say,” mumbled Sam watching the doorway. He demanded, “Where are they? And where’s Teresa? She hasn’t even come in to say hello.”
“She went on upstairs. She said she wanted to tidy up a bit. The boys took the horses to the livery.” Murdoch paused. All thoughts of the boys and their animal appetites left his mind. “Sam, about Teresa-”
Sam was halfway to the door. He stopped. He felt a chill go down his spine. Slowly he turned back to Murdoch. “What about Teresa?” he asked warily.
As Murdoch spoke, Sam walked slowly back to his desk chair. He reached for the arm of the chair behind him and sat down awkwardly. Some of the color had drained from his face by the time Murdoch was finished.
“You’re sure they didn’t-” Sam stopped. He could not get the word rape out of his mouth. He had known Teresa all of her life. She had become a surrogate daughter to him -not so much a replacement for the daughter he had lost years ago but more simply someone he loved.
Murdoch drew in a breath, “The boys say not. Sorry to say I think they’ve both seen enough of that sort of evil that they would know. It was a near thing though. She won’t talk to me about it. I think she did talk to old Mariah because Mariah sought me out a few days ago to say Teresa was all right in body if not in spirit. You know we can trust Mariah to care for her.”
“Yes, no one better,” said Sam softly. “Our poor child.”
“Ah, Sam, I keep thinking about this time last year. Teresa was so excited about the dance and the fireworks. Paul bought her a new hat. The dance was her first. She was so pretty; excited and shy all at once. Paul was so proud of her. And now –so much has changed.”
Sam stared at the top of his desk. He spoke lowly, “It was a bad time. Lancer got the worst of it I suppose, but then you had the most to lose. Other people all over this part of the valley suffered. You know, you do have things to be thankful for this year.”
Murdoch looked up. The left side of his mouth tightened in what might have been the beginning of a smile. “Johnny and Scott. I am thankful for them, Sam, more than I can express. Thankful they came, thankful they stayed. Thankful that they seem willing to accept Teresa as family no matter their reservations about each other or me.”
“How are y’all getting along?” asked Sam. After his last visit to Lancer he was somewhat more hopeful that Murdoch’s dream of both his sons staying at Lancer was possible.
“It depends on the day. Sometimes Johnny seems almost settled-I think he likes eating regular,” said Murdoch, his smile now full. “Sometimes he just-well, let’s just say he warned me he didn’t care much for taking orders.”
“When I was Johnny’s age my father was still threatening me with the wood shed.”
Murdoch actually laughed. “I have never considered myself a coward, but it would take a braver man than me to take Johnny to the woodshed.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Sam smiling at the image his mind created. “What about Scott?”
“Scott has lots of experience taking orders and giving them. He’s,” Murdoch paused, his mouth twisting into a grimace, “‘polite’. Speaks up when he has something to say which is almost always about the ranch. He must have been an excellent junior officer.”
Sam nodded in agreement. “Is he planning to march in the parade tomorrow?”
“No.” Murdoch uttered the word flatly. He sat still for a moment, thinking about how difficult it was for him to actually communicate with his elder son. They could talk for hours about the ranch. Scott appeared interested in every aspect from what percentage of the herd they could expect to lose to predators to how much they spent on building supplies. But neither of them ever offered anything of a personal nature; he knew he was as reticent as Scott. “Without actually saying so he made it pretty clear he wanted nothing to do with it.”
Sam said nothing when Murdoch fell silent. He’d known him a long time. He knew there was something else. Something more important yet to be said.
Murdoch took a deep breath and said softly, “Scott was seventeen when he joined up. I don’t know why that seems so much younger than eighteen. I knew he’d enlisted. I knew he’d been captured and was in a Confederate prison for some months at the end of the war, but I didn’t know he was at Vicksburg.”
Sam’s forehead creased into a frown. He said, “Scott must be talking about something besides the ranch if you found that out.”
“Not to me,” said Murdoch shaking his head. “As I told you Johnny and Scott had an argument. Johnny took off and Teresa went after him without anyone realizing it until an hour later. Then the two of them ran into those bastards. What Teresa went through-well, at least for a few minutes it brought us closer together. Scott took responsibility for the argument. I never learned what it was about. I heard Scott apologize to Johnny and tell him that it was the anniversary of his cousin William Garrett’s death at Vicksburg. Scott was there. They were close; Scott called Garrett his hero. A few minutes later Johnny, bless him, suggested they drink to Garrett’s memory. And Scott invited me to join them.”
“Why, that is a real step forward, Murdoch.”
“Maybe,” responded Murdoch with a wry smile. “Of course he may have just been being polite since they were drinking my whiskey.”
Sam was about to remonstrate when they heard Teresa’s light step in the hallway. Both men turned towards the doorway in anticipation.
Murdoch knew that Teresa would talk to Sam more readily if he wasn’t present. He said he had a few people to see in town and left the two of them together.
It took Sam an hour’s conversation and two cups of very strong tea to convince himself Teresa was indeed, all right. As a doctor, Sam believed that clean water, fresh air and sunshine were frequently better than any medication. Likewise he believed that a person ought to talk about bad experiences rather than stew about them.
“Hello, boys,” said Sam as he stepped off the stoop into the yard behind his house.
Johnny had his head under the spigot of the pump. He was working the lever with his right hand; water gushed over his dark head. Scott stood by the barn with a towel over his shoulder. Both of the boys were stripped to the waist.
Sam took a moment to do a quick visual examination. The scar left by the bullet Johnny had taken in the back was still pink and puckered. But it looked to Sam as if it was healing properly. Scott, Sam was pleased to note, had picked up a little weight since the last time he’d seen him.
“Good afternoon, doctor,” said Scott politely. He had set a small mirror on a window ledge of the barn. In his hand was a shaving brush thick with soap. He slathered it on to his cheeks. “I hope you will forgive us for turning your back yard into a bathhouse. There was a line down the street; our chances of getting hot and or clean water weren’t looking very good.”
Johnny looked up and said, “Hola, Doc.” He stood and shook his head. The water droplets sparkled in the afternoon sun. “Boston here travels with a barbershop in his saddle bags.”
“I know, you boys are anxious to get on with your evening plans so I’ll give it to you straight,” said Sam firmly. “There are three saloons in this town. You can get a drink and play a hand of cards in any of them. If you’re looking for female companionship you go to The White Rose. The girls there are clean and Rose is honest. The girl will offer you a French Letter. See that you use it.”
Halfway through this speech Scott stopped shaving and stared at the doctor. His expression showing equal parts embarrassment and amusement.
“Ain’t my first time, Doc,” said Johnny sharply.
“I don’t suppose it is Scott’s either,” said Sam sternly. It didn’t surprise him that Johnny was annoyed with his presumption. Young as he was Johnny had been making his own choices for a long time. “But I’m giving you good advice. If you’ve got any sense you’ll take it.”
Sam turned and started walking towards the back door. He stopped and looked back at them. “One more thing. Breakfast is at 7:00am. I expect to see you both here for it. I don’t want Teresa worrying over you if you’re not.” With that he went into the house.
Johnny looked at Scott whose mouth was twisting oddly. It was as if he was trying not to laugh. “Well,” growled the youngest Lancer, “what do you think of that?”
“I think we should go to The White Rose.”
“Just because he said so?”
“No. Not just because he said so,” said Scott as he expertly scraped the shaving soap from his cheeks with the straight edge razor. “You were planning on going there anyway, weren’t you? Those women you were ogling were sitting on the porch attached to that saloon. I’m sure they would be disappointed if you didn’t show up.”
Johnny glared. He had been paying attention to the women, not to which saloon it was. Trust Scott to have taken in both probably without looking directly at either one.
While Scott wiped his blade on a piece of toweling, he said, “Look, Johnny, you know just as well as I do this town is full of ranch hands looking for a little entertainment. Now, there are probably plenty of entertainers in town to take advantage of the situation. Personally, I prefer clean and honest. Dr. Jenkins is looking out for our welfare.”
Johnny grinned in spite of himself. Entertainers was the word they had used as a code for whores in case Teresa overheard them talking. It hadn’t fooled her.
“There is shaving soap left if you want it,” said Scott splashing a little water on his now smooth cheeks.
Teresa pulled the edge of the curtain back so she could watch Scott and Johnny step off Dr. Jenkins’s front stoop and head off down the dusty main street. She could tell by how they were walking- heads up, long strides with their arms swinging -that they were looking forward to where they were going. She knew where they were going.
When they rode into town Teresa saw Johnny smiling at the women on the veranda of The White Rose. She knew who those women were and what they did. Murdoch thought she’d forgotten her tea parties on the veranda of the whorehouse with Miss Rose. She hadn’t.
Perhaps because trips to town had been so rare when she was a little child she remembered them clearly. And Miss Rose had been so different from the women she knew on the ranch. The women of the ranch were her family. She loved them as a child loves family. Miss Rose, with her softly accented English, her silk dresses and fair hair, had been unique. Teresa could remember the taste of the milky tea. She could remember the poems Miss Rose had taught her- Tiger, Tiger burning bright. And the songs they sang at the small upright piano with the ivory missing from its keys.
Teresa also remembered the rare tantrum she’d thrown when her father and El Patrón had gone to town the first time without her. “But,” she’d cried, “Miss Rose was going to show me how to make flowers from ribbons.” Her father shook his head and mounted up.
Now she understood what had happened. The respectable women of the town had forced her father to keep her away from Miss Rose. Though her father hoped that she would copy Miss Rose’s refined speech and manners, he did not want her to become Miss. Rose. It was the same reason he sent her to school in Sacramento -her dad wanted her to grow up to be one of those respectable women-well, maybe not exactly since he didn’t seem to like them very much.
Teresa turned away from the window with a sigh. She didn’t begrudge the boys their fun. But she would have to find something to occupy her time. The house was clean and the mending was done. Dr. Jenkins often took his payment in trade: vegetables from patients’ gardens, housecleaning, his laundry done or meals provided.
Teresa bit her lip and thought about her conversation with Doc. She wished Murdoch hadn’t said anything to him about her abduction. It was over and done with; there was nothing Doc could do about it. She supposed she should consider herself fortunate there were so many people in her life who wanted to fix it so she would be happy. Those girls at The White Rose would probably envy her all the help she had. But it didn’t help-talking to Doc or being dragged to town to go to a dance or having Maria tell Lupe and Rosita to do her part of the laundry.
She’d be all right. Johnny and Scott had saved her. She just needed to stay busy. If she could stay busy she could keep the images out of her mind – of Johnny falling off the edge of the clearing, of the man lying dead at her feet with the stick protruding from his eye-the stick she’d put there.
She heard a knock at the door. Of course, she thought, those coming into town for the festivities would take this opportunity to visit the doctor for some nagging ailment.
Teresa went up the stairs and into the small room she used when she visited. She pulled her apron from her carpetbag. Her hand brushed against her silk dress.
Murdoch had insisted she bring her silk dress for the dance tomorrow night. It had been a gift from her father when she left school. It was made of light blue Chinese silk embroidered with tiny flowers. She’d felt so pretty, so grown up the first time she put it on. She’d worn it last year at the Fourth of July dance when she waltzed with her father.
Hot tears spilled down her cheeks. She wiped them angrily away. She pulled the dress out and shook it hard. She laid it over the back of a chair.
It was only a dress; nothing more. She was going to the dance whether she wanted to or not. She was fortunate enough to own a silk dress. It would be foolish, impractical, not to wear it.
Teresa put her apron on. She tied the strings behind her back as she walked down the stairs. She knocked on the door of Doc’s office and offered him her help. She kept busy all evening-lancing boils, dressing minor wounds, listening to the troubles of women who lived on the outlying farms.
Johnny had been in a lot of bars, cantinas, taverns and saloons in his life. Given that The White Rose was a large building, two stories with a painted clapboard facade, and that its sign was more artistic than most(the rose actually looked like a rose) he expected it to be done up like other prosperous saloons with walls covered with cheap red fabric and mirrors framed in fancy gilt; probably a few heavy drapes with thick fringes.
The inside of the barroom surprised him so much his mouth fell open. The walls and ceiling were painted white. The floor was painted black as were the long bar across one end of the room, the tables and chairs. There was a brass foot rail at the bar and brass spittoons close to the tables. The room was crowded with men; drinking at the bar, playing cards at the tables. A half dozen women carried serving trays. They wore knee length, flounced skirts and tightly laced bodices of silk in shades ranging from deep blue to light pink. A redhead in a violet dress passed close to Johnny. She smiled and leaned slightly forward giving him a good look at her barely contained breasts.
“We’ll get to that, brother,” said Scott softly in his ear. “Let’s have a beer first.”
“They are handsome.”
“Are they? They both look like their mothers.”
“I see you in them.”
Rose La Femme and Murdoch Lancer stood side by side in a small room that overlooked the barroom. There was a latticework panel covering the window. They could see those below but were not visible to them. Rose called it her aerie. It was a part of her private apartment. She had never before let a client join her there. She still wasn’t sure why she had invited Murdoch. It was unlike her to be impulsive and this was the second impulsive act of the afternoon.
Murdoch had been disappointed when he entered the parlor downstairs and Rose had not been there to greet him. The brassy blond Paul had preferred had welcomed him warmly and told him everything was ready and waiting for him in the blue room.
It was Rose’s custom to pair a man with one of the girls herself, at least the first time they visited The White Rose. Some men disliked this practice. They preferred to line the girls up and choose one like a horse at an auction. Murdoch didn’t mind; all of Rose’s girls were clean. He didn’t come to the whorehouse looking for the prettiest or the youngest; he didn’t come looking for a woman to remind him of Catherine or Maria. He came for sex, and once that need was satisfied for Rose’s company. He would have preferred the two together but understood that Rose was finished with that part of her business.
He paused at the top of the stairs and looked around. This place had certainly changed since the first time Paul and he had patronized it. He took a breath and walked towards the door of the blue room. He swung the door open, walked in and stopped.
“Rose,” he whispered hoarsely in surprise.
She sat on the bed wearing an open green silk wrapper over her camisole and knickers, her wavy red-gold hair loose and flowing over her shoulders.
“Hello, Murdoch. It is good to see you,” she said softly, unexpected tears filled her eyes. She didn’t let them spill over. The tears were for Paul O’Brien.
Murdoch noticed the tears. He knew they were for Paul. He hadn’t seen her since Paul was killed. He said nothing about them.
Rose blinked her tears away. Paul had been her friend and she missed him. He had been Murdoch’s friend for even longer and she had no doubt that Murdoch missed him very much. They might say nothing at all about Paul; even so they shared the grief.
She watched Murdoch close the door and limp into the room. When she’d seen him ride into town he’d looked like himself-strong, commanding. Now he looked like a wounded lion-still proud, still strong, still in control but hurting.
Rose jumped off the bed and ran to him. She slid her arm around his waist. She helped him sit on the bed.
“It’s all right. I’m all right,” he said forcing his voice to be firm. He was making a fool of himself. He should have rested as Sam had told him to do. What was he trying to prove? That he was still capable of bedding a woman? Dear God, what if he wasn’t. “We’ve been on the road all day. I’m tired. I suppose I should have waited until tomorrow. At least had a bath before I came.”
“Nonsense,” she said brightly with professional aplomb. “You want a bath you’ve come to the right place. Did you want to smell like violets, lilacs or a rose?”
Rose stood in front of him. Pushing the silk wrapper back she placed her right hand on her hip. She cocked her left shoulder forward in a provocative, teasing pose. Murdoch’s embarrassment faded away to be replaced by desire.
“A rose,” he said reaching out and snaking his arm around her waist. He paused waiting to see how she would react. He wanted to be sure he had not misinterpreted her lack of clothing before he gave in to desire.
She knocked his hat off and laughed softly.
He pulled her to him.
The bath came later, warm water scented lightly with rose soap, a sea sponge and a soft towel. Murdoch lay still under her ministrations, his eyes closed, his body relaxed.
Yes, thought Rose, he is hurting but he isn’t diminished. He is still powerful in body and in spirit.
For all the years she had known him, Murdoch had been a man who sought out a woman’s company for the release that sex gave him. For him it had always been a physical experience having nothing to do with his emotions. Sex was almost always a part of it, but men bought a woman’s time for many reasons including comfort and company. Murdoch had never been looking for a soft, gentle hand to caress his face or a sympathetic ear in which to pour his troubles. He had never been rough or unkind to her or to the other girls, but he had been all business.
Today he had been tender. His tenderness had surprised Rose; it disconcerted her a little. Where had it come from? His physical weakness? The trauma of the long-running battle with the land pirates? Or could the return of his sons have awoken something long dormant within him? She didn’t know. She didn’t kid herself that she had anything to do with it.
He sighed as she rubbed the towel over his chest. “Rose,” he opened his eyes and he asked, “why?”
“Why today after so long?”
She was quiet for a long moment. The ghost of a smile passed over her face. “I don’t really know except that when I saw you, I was relieved. Last November, the first reports said both you and Paul had been killed. I miss Paul.” She turned to look at him. “I would have missed you too.”
“So this was to welcome me back from the dead?”
She laughed. “In a way I suppose so.”
“And I shouldn’t–”
He let the question of whether it would happen again hang between them. He couldn’t read her expression.
“Was that Paul’s daughter who rode in with you?” she asked as she pulled her wrapper around her. It was a false question. She knew the girl was Teresa. But it was time to change the topic of conversation.
Murdoch’s mouth twisted into a wry smile. He supposed he would have to just see what the future brought.
“Yes. Teresa has had a hard time of it lately. I thought this trip would cheer her up but she doesn’t seem very interested in being in town.” He hesitated for a moment. He wanted to tell Rose what had happened to Teresa, but it had never been his custom to talk with her about personal matters. And yet, Rose and Paul had been good friends and long ago Rose had spent quite a bit of time with Teresa. Perhaps it would be right to talk to her.
Rose listened to him with growing concern that for an instant became an intense hatred for all men. The depth of her rage staggered her; forcing her to grip the back of a chair. She didn’t ask Murdoch if Teresa had been raped. He would have told her if she had.
“Give her time,” said Rose quietly. She did not want Murdoch to realize how deeply the story had affected her. “Keep her close and keep her busy. She’ll be all right. She’s strong; she’s like her father.”
“I know, but I wish with all my heart she had not gone through this particularly after everything else that has happened since Paul was killed,” said Murdoch sadly. He struggled to sit up on the edge of the bed and reached for his clothes.
“Murdoch, listen to me,” said Rose sharply. “Make sure you take her to that dance tomorrow night. Make sure your sons lead her out on to the floor in front of everyone. Make sure she knows she is wanted.”
Murdoch raised his head and studied Rose’s face. “I’ll make sure everyone in this county, in the damn state, knows she’s a Lancer in all but name.”
It was then that Rose gave into the impulse to show him her aerie. She’d recognized the Lancer sons as they came through the door. Had she not, the way Murdoch stiffened would have alerted her. Rose saw Violet catch the younger one’s attention. Then both young men went to the bar and ordered a beer. Once served, they turned around and leaned back against the bar. Sipping their beers they surveyed the room.
“It is Johnny, the younger one, with the dark hair, isn’t it?” Rose asked. The population of the county might be far flung, but that didn’t inhibit the rumors and gossip from flying around. Whether or not Johnny Madrid was a feared and respected pistoleer down on the border, he certainly had that reputation in the northern valley. Rose, observing the way his gun hung low on his right hip and his easy but alert stance, felt the gossip was closer to the truth than normal.
“Yes, that’s Johnny.”
“It’s because he’s dark that people think he looks like his mother. People always notice coloring first, but his features greatly resemble yours. And-” Rose turned to Murdoch and asked, “Are his eyes blue?”
“Probably the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. They remind me of my mother’s,” he answered, his face softening with a smile.
“And the older one, his name is . . .”
“Scott. Scott Garrett Lancer.”
Murdoch’s tone caused her to turn to him and study his face. He sounded gruff, but his expression was sad as his light eyes focused on the young man below.
“Yes, of course,” said Rose slowly. If there were colorful rumors about Scott Lancer, Rose had not heard them. Indeed, the most she’d heard was surprise that he existed. What was it about the young man that made his father so gruff when he spoke his name?
She returned her gaze to the room below. Scott had taken his hat off and set it carefully on the bar beside him. His hair was the color of ripe wheat, thick, long enough to curl over the edge of his collar. He was not as tall as his father but taller than most men; long legs, narrow hips, a good pair of broad shoulders. From this distance his features looked angular, but it wasn’t his looks that caught her attention. It was his manner. Stiff? No, that was the wrong word. Guarded, that was the word she wanted. He was as alert as his brother but it was in a different way. In the way that Murdoch was alert.
She turned again to Murdoch. His face had relaxed. He gave her a wan smile.
“They’re. . .” he paused searching for a word that would describe his sons.
“They are your sons,” she said gently. She resisted the urge to reach out and touch his face.
Rose glanced down at the crowded barroom. It was time to get back to business. “I have to get dressed and go down to the parlor. Do you want to come and have a drink?”
Murdoch looked again at his sons talking at the bar. He shook his head. “No. I need to get back . I told Sam I’d take him and Teresa to dinner.”
Rose nodded as if she accepted a lack of time as his reason. She had never known him to care about the opinions of others. Paul had often claimed that the Lancer Ranch was a kingdom and Murdoch its undisputed ruler. But she had a notion that fresh from her bed even the powerful Murdoch Lancer was not anxious to meet his sons in a whorehouse.
“Rose, I. . ”
He leaned down and brushed his lips across hers. In all the time she’d known him he had never kissed her good-bye. She had no idea what to make of such an action. And from the look on his face, neither did he. He left without another word.
“Have you ever seen a saloon that looked like this?” asked Johnny, his head angled back so that he could look up at the ceiling.
“Not a saloon per se. Restaurants in New York are often big and open like this.” answered his brother.
“With white ceilings? How do they keep them from turning black from the smoke?”
“We wash them every Monday morning,” said the bartender setting a second beer for each on the bar behind them. “Three times a year we repaint.”
“An awful lot of work just to keep the ceiling white,” said Johnny.
The bartender, a small cadaverous looking man, simply nodded and said, “Miss Rose likes it that way.”
Scott drained his first beer mug and handed it to the bartender. “The white ceiling reflects the light. It makes the room brighter and look bigger.” It also intrigued Scott. The black and white room seemed sophisticated for a small, dusty California town. He was looking forward to meeting Rose La Femme.
It meant Rose the woman in French. Scott doubted that she was French or that La Femme was her real name. But it showed a sense of humor or at least of irony for a madam to refer to herself as ‘the woman’. In Scott’s experience, madams were frequently middle-aged women whose hard way of life showed on their faces. Their speech was rough and often lewd. They dressed in clothes as gaudy as the girls they managed and were as likely to bite a gold piece to see if it was genuine as not. The one exception he knew was Katie Doyle who owned Number 10, a discreet and exclusive brothel in Boston. Mrs. Doyle, which was how Scott addressed her, was a woman in her late fifties who spoke and dressed like the wife of a successful grocer.
Across the room was an opening in the wall. It was framed by dark red drapes tied back with wide black ribbons. Hanging in the opening were strands of glass beads.
The redhead who’d smiled at Johnny earlier was standing in the opening. She looked at Johnny and cocked her head.
“I think-” began Johnny.
“Yes,” said his brother. Scott finished his beer and set the mug on the bar with care.
“Are you sure this is a whorehouse?” Johnny asked a few minutes later.
Scott assumed the question was rhetorical. No one could be in doubt as to the profession of the women in the room or the reason the men were there. Scott understood what prompted Johnny’s comment.
Had the room been empty, Scott might have believed he’d walked into the summer parlor of a seaside mansion. The walls were painted a pale green. On the floor was a tightly woven straw mat. There were chairs and a settee covered with fitted white linen dust covers. A set of French doors opened onto a covered veranda. Near them was a square grand piano on which sat a vase of white roses. From the ceiling hung a large rectangle of bleached canvas with a rope attached to it. A boy was pulling the rope so that the canvas swung slowly back and forth creating a breeze. Except for the piano, there was nothing costly in the room. But it was all arranged tastefully, with an eye to comfort.
By now Scott was expecting the western version of Katie Doyle.
Johnny had taken his hat off and was holding it in front of him. His winning, white tooth smile appeared on his face, but he still sounded a little bewildered when he said with a slight dip of his chin, “Do you reckon that’s Miss Rose?”
The woman Johnny indicated was descending the staircase in the corner of the room. She was tall, statuesque; she wore an off the shoulder dress of ivory and rose striped watered silk with an elaborate bustle. Her reddish blond hair was pulled loosely away from a broad, smooth forehead and caught at the crown of her head. She stopped on the last step to look over the room.
“I do,” said Scott softly. “I believe we should say hello and introduce ourselves.”
“I’ve got a feeling she already knows who we are.”
With a polite, practiced smile, Rose La Femme watched them approach. “Welcome, gentlemen,” she said extending her hand to Scott. “Welcome to The White Rose, Mr. Lancer. I’m Rose La Femme.”
Not French; American south; from along the coast not the mountains noted Scott as without giving it a thought, he bowed over her hand as he had done hundreds of times over the hands of society hostesses. He managed to stop himself from saying, thank you for having us. Instead he said, “It is a pleasure to be here.”
Rose turned to Johnny. Scott didn’t know if Johnny was simply following his example when he too bowed over her hand or if it was a Mexican custom when meeting a lady.
A lady, thought Scott as he scrutinized her face. Late thirties was his guess; there were light lines around her eyes and a little silver threaded through the reddish gold hair at her temples. Her face was artfully made up-cheeks rouged, lashes and eyebrows darkened, lips painted. Not beautiful but attractive, pleasant.
Scott knew that any good actress -no matter what her background -could learn to portray a lady. Indeed, he’d known a few who had far more ladylike manners than those born in fine mansions. The dramatic paint scheme of the barroom and the style of this room could be a cleverly designed stage set to put men at ease.
As Scott watched, Rose beckoned the redhead. She presented her to Johnny with the same polite grace any hostess would introduce two guests at a party. If it was all an act, it was a damn good one.
When she turned back to him Scott offered her his arm. She slid her hand through the crook of his elbow and stepped down. She snapped opened a Chinese fan and they walked across the room.
“I noticed your piano,” said Scott politely. “A Chickering square grand. Made in Boston.”
“I’m very proud of it.”
“Did you learn to play on a Chickering?”
Just like his father, thought Rose, looking into Scott’s slightly narrowed blue-grey eyes. Observant and straight to the point. She answered softly, “Yes, a very long time ago. What made you think so?”
Scott ran his hand lightly over the polished rosewood. “This is a recent model. It would have been challenging to buy it and bring it across the country. There would have been other good pianos more easily obtained. There must have been a reason you wanted this one.”
This time her smile was not professional or polite but genuine. “It cost me a fortune to have it shipped when the railroad finally came through. You’ll no doubt be amused, but I met it at the closest railhead with a wagon full of blankets. I sat in the wagonbed with it the whole way.”
She liked his smile. He was amused but she could tell that he understood. He looked so much younger when he smiled. She asked, “Did you learn to play on a Chickering?”
Rose was a little surprised that he didn’t say anything else. She wondered if she had stumbled on the reason Murdoch sounded brusque and looked sad when he spoke of Scott. This young man wouldn’t give anything away. Everything Murdoch learned about him he would have to work for; being reticent himself it was unlikely he knew how to go about reaching out to Scott. But then perhaps she was wrong; after all, he hadn’t come to The White Rose to discuss pianos.
“Please feel free to play it anytime you care to; I’ve just gotten a packet of new music from New York,” she said gesturing towards the sheets of music scattered over the top of the piano.
Scott glanced at them-, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms. These were pieces that could be sitting on his cousin Constance’s Chickering grand piano in Boston. “Thank you, I would like the chance to play again.”
Scott looked over Rose’s shoulder at his brother. Following the girl named Violet up the stairs, Johnny sent Scott a triumphant smile. Scott chuckled to himself. Did his brother really believe he was going to have trouble finding a woman in a whorehouse?
“Excuse me for a moment.”
Scott nodded politely. He was sure now that she had started life with advantages-her gracefulness, her proper speech, even her taste in music seemed too natural to be affectations. Scott remembered what the bartender had said about the white ceilings. “Miss Rose likes it that way.” The graciousness of the room wasn’t for the customers, Rose was not pretending that this was anything but a brothel; it was all for her. She had created a lovely physical place for herself.
Someday, he thought, he’d like to learn her story. But today. Today he had other interests.
“Dahlia,” said Rose La Femme softly.
A woman who may have been pretty once turned towards her.
Rose nodded her head towards Scott Lancer. He was still standing by the piano. His keen eyes were surveying the room; no doubt assessing for which of the women to ask.
Dahlia raised a plucked eyebrow. “Miss Rose, that boy will want lamb not mutton.”
“That boy wants sex,” said Rose in a low voice. She was pleased that Dahlia understood her. It would have been difficult to put into words a more precise reason she thought Dahlia, who was not the youngest or the prettiest of her girls, was the one best suited to the older Lancer boy that night. That boy she said to herself is like his father -at least like his father was until today.
The barroom had gotten crowded. More men were finding their way through the strands of glass beads. She had no time for thinking about anything besides managing the girls. She did not mind that Violet and Dahlia would be occupied for the night. Instinct told her the Lancer boys would be generous. Daisy, Hyacinth and Iris were also spoken for by men who did not care to share. Until those men arrived quietly, going directly up the outside stairs to the second floor, those girls would serve the drinks. That meant a long, tiring night for the rest of the girls. The next few nights would be the same. Well, there was no help for it. The money they made in these couple of days was the reason she could keep a dozen girls in a town the size of Green River.
For just a moment she let herself think of the women in the other two saloons in town and those who had set up a small camp on the edge of town. Her girls would have an easy time of it compared to those women. No one would cheat them or beat them. If someone were to try, Rose had three strong men who worked as her bouncers. Her girls would not have to drink themselves senseless to get through the night. It was a lousy hand they’d been dealt; they played it as well as they were able.
The patients kept coming late into the evening so in the end they didn’t go out to dinner. There was no need. Mrs. Thomas brought fried chicken, Mrs. Mayes brought potato salad and old Miss Lewis brought by a ginger cake. They all stopped awhile to visit with Murdoch. Teresa was polite and quiet as was considered proper for a girl her age. She heard them ask Murdoch about his sons. He answered them without actually giving much information. Teresa was thankful when there was yet another knock at the door and she could escape into Doc’s office.
It was hunger and thirst that convinced Johnny it was time to follow Violet down the stairs to the crowded parlor. In spite of the fan still being pulled by the boy, it was hot and close in the room. Oil lamps had been lit but the corners were shadowy. The piano was being played. A group of men, perhaps waiting for their turns to go upstairs were gathered around it singing Camptown Races .
“We’re having quite a party,” said Violet smiling back at Johnny as she led him to the barroom.
“Sure sounds like it,” responded Johnny glancing at the group around the piano. He stopped and stared.
Scott sat on the piano stool; one of the women stood behind him with her arms around his neck. His fingers were flying over the keys; he was singing. His hair, normally so neat, was falling over his forehead. His face was animated.
“Play another one, lad,” called out one of the men when the song ended. “Do you know Froggie Went a Courting ?”
Scott replaced his hands on the keyboard. He started to play and sing.
“Is that your brother?” asked Violet.
“Yeah. At least it looks like him.”
“He’s quite a performer.”
“Ain’t he though,” said Johnny thoughtfully. It didn’t surprise Johnny that Scott could play the piano. It was the sort of thing, like reading big books and writing in a fancy script, that might be expected of an Eastern dandy. But Johnny did not expect to find his brother entertaining in a whorehouse.
Rose was tired. It had been a long night; profitable but exhausting. There had been the usual drunks with which to deal; two of the girls had gotten into an argument over a dress; a client objected to the fee. All the normal problems of a busy night.
She heard the music from the parlor while she was in the barroom talking to one of the bouncers. It was cheerful; everyone was having a good time. Good -they would be more generous.
Having had the conversation with Scott about the piano earlier, she was not surprised to discover he was the one playing Billy Boy when she reentered the parlor. She smiled as she watched him. He looked considerably more relaxed.
Dahlia came up behind her. She leaned in close and whispered into Rose’s ear. “That is a healthy young man.”
Teresa had slept heavily; tired from the long day on the road and the evening spent on her feet in the doctor’s office. She woke to the smell of bacon frying. When she opened her eyes she was confused for a moment. Then she remembered where she was and got out of bed quickly. She should be the one frying bacon. She dressed hurriedly and ran down the stairs to the kitchen. She stopped just outside the door and listened to the murmur of voices. She sighed with relief when she realized Johnny and Scott were there.
Murdoch and Sam Jenkins were sitting at the scarred oak table drinking coffee. Scott was standing by the cast-iron stove. On the top of the stove was a skillet of bacon. Scott was tentatively turning a piece with a fork. Johnny was by the dry sink, cracking an egg into a bowl.
“Why didn’t someone wake me?” she asked coming into the room. She took the fork from Scott who rewarded her with a relieved smile.
“That was my doing,” said Sam quickly. “I decided you needed to sleep after working for me all evening. Don’t want you too tired to enjoy the dance this evening.”
The dance, thought Teresa and forced herself to smile. “That was really kind of you, Doc. I’ll take over now.”
“You watch that bacon. It was too much responsibility for Scott, you’d have thought I asked him to kill and butcher the hog instead of just cut off a few rasher and fry them up. I’m going to make you the best flapjacks you ever ate,” said Johnny with a grin. He started to beat the mixture in the bowl, whistling under his breath.
Scott too was grinning when he brought her a cup of coffee. He and Johnny both were in happy, relaxed moods. Teresa felt a stab of jealousy. She chided herself for it. The boys didn’t make the rules she had to live by. It wasn’t their fault they had the freedom to go into town and enjoy the celebrations while she had to remain chaperoned at Doc’s. They were men. She was a woman.
“Did you sleep all right, darling?” asked Murdoch a slight anxious edge to his voice.
Teresa fixed her bright smile on her face and turned to her guardian saying, “Like a log.” She was determined that she would not spoil anyone’s day by seeming anything but happy.
It wasn’t much of a parade. An honor guard carrying the Stars and Stripes and the flag of California led. A band of bugles and drums was followed by a company of several dozen men marching down the broad, dusty main street of the little town. Some of the men wore ill fitting uniforms; most didn’t. They marched smartly in four columns behind a man dressed in a dark blue coat with a full skirt and two rows of small, shiny brass buttons. A shako with a tall fluffy plume sat on his head; its ornamental brass plate glinting in the sun. He held a saber aloft.
The street was lined with the citizens of the town and probably most of the county. The women wore their best hats decorated with wide ribbons and rosettes of blue and red and white. They waved their handkerchiefs. The men lifted their hats and called out “Hurrah!”
Scott stood at the back of the crowd on the boardwalk, deep in the shadow of the overhanging roof. Unnoticed by anyone but his father and Teresa, who stood across the street, Scott came to attention and saluted as the flag passed by. Then he slumped back against the wall of the saloon and let his memories take him.
He had begged to be allowed to enlist when the first call for recruits went out in April of 1861. His grandfather forbid him. Scott was fifteen. It was not the end of it. Scott had learned the skills of negotiating at his grandfather’s knee. He used them.
Harlan Garrett wanted his grandson to wait until he was eighteen; suggesting that he could go to West Point and train as an officer. The Garretts had a long history with the military. Harlan’s grandmother had purchased the family farm in Vermont with her widow’s pension from her husband’s death at Saratoga during the War for Independence. Harlan’s father lost an arm in the Battle of Fort Erie in 1812. In the current conflict his nephew John and grand-nephew Willy were both serving.
His wife had been an early adherent to the abolitionist cause. Harlan favored the abolishment of slavery, but it had been in her memory that he’d made the lectures of abolitionists part of Scott’s education. Harlan knew Scott would join up. Nothing would stop him; it was in the blood.
Now years later, Scott had gained some understanding of the dilemma his grandfather had faced. Harlan believed in the preservation of the Union. But to lose Scott was unthinkable. And yet it would be the height of hypocrisy to expect other men to lose their sons and grandsons for the cause and not be willing to risk his own.
They struck a bargain. Scott would finish his studies at Boston Latin. Once he had, Harlan would not stand in his way. Like most people Harlan prayed constantly for the war to end. He prayed a little harder in hopes it would end before Scott took his final exams. Scott feared that it would before he got his chance at glory.
Glory, he thought, what an idiot.
He applied himself to his studies and took his final exams three months early, on January the third, 1863; two weeks after his seventeenth birthday. His grandfather, true to his word, withdrew his opposition to Scott enlisting.
His cousin Daniel, two years older, left Harvard and enlisted at the same time. An uncle by marriage secured Daniel a lieutenancy in the Quartermaster’s headquarters in Washington. It was a safe posting. No one including Daniel thought he would make a good frontline soldier; small and myopic Daniel was not so much a coward as a realist. He wouldn’t last his first skirmish. The Quartermaster’s office with its incredible task of supplying a far flung army offered Daniel a challenge for which he was well prepared.
The uncle offered to get Scott a similar appointment. For all of half an hour Harlan considered trying to convince Scott to take it. After all, Scott had strong organizational skills and it would be doing something truly useful to the war effort. Scott had been ready to argue his case against such an appointment. But Harlan never broached the subject. Tall and handsome Scott not only looked the part of a line officer he had the character of one. Scott had always been a boy other boys looked to for leadership. To secure a post for him safe behind the lines would be just as hypocritical as paying some poor immigrant to go to war in his place.
Instead Harlan used every connection he had, personal and professional, to secure Scott the rank of lieutenant in the regular army and to have him posted to his nephew Willy’s unit. Scott had been thrilled. To join Willy at the front lines was a dream come true until the moment it turned into a nightmare.
Scott came abruptly back to the present when Teresa slid her arm through the crook of his elbow. She told him Murdoch was looking for him. It was time for the picnic. He didn’t resist as she led him down the boardwalk and through a narrow alley that opened out to a wide meadow. The Green River the town was named for cut a channel though the tall grass.
The meadow was dotted with blankets. Planks were laid across sawhorses creating long tables. Women, in wide skirts of striped muslin and broad brimmed hats, unpacked baskets of food and set them out on the tables. Children ran about playing games of tag. There was a cheerful, indecipherable chatter and the aroma of roasting meat in the air.
Scott smiled. Across the country there would be thousands of picnics resembling this one. His Boston family would be at the seashore. He wondered if Daniel had managed to find a good crew for the regatta. He crewed on the sloop last year. They’d come in second in their class, the best they’d ever done. He hoped his grandfather had joined the family on Nahant and was at that moment pulling the legs off a steamed crab and sucking the sweet meat out of the shell.
Teresa pointed out Murdoch in the middle of a group of men. There had been no need, Scott had picked his father’s tall figure out easily. He didn’t see Johnny. Johnny had not even pretended to have an interest in the Independence Day events. He’d come to town for the saloon. Scott wished now that he’d had sense enough to join his brother in the surprising barroom of The White Rose . But Murdoch had caught sight of him and to ignore his father obvious beckoning would have been rude.
He spent the next hour shaking hands, saying ‘How-do-you-do’ and smiling at strangers. It reminded of him of going with his grandfather to the evening public lectures at Harvard when he was still at school. His grandfather must have known everyone in the hall and each one of them had to be introduced.
Murdoch was holding court. Two dozen or more people came up to him to say how glad they were to see him. Little was said about the land pirates although a few people spoke to Teresa to offer their condolences about her father.
It became clear to Scott that stories about the final confrontation had circulated through the area. Like all such stories the details were scrambled. A few people told him that they remembered his mother but they were quickly corrected by a whispering spouse, “That’s the other one; there are two sons.” or Murdoch , “No, it was Johnny’s mother you met years ago.” Others asked him if he missed Baltimore or New York or Philadelphia. It struck him as odd no one seemed to know he was from Boston.
Despite the shade provided by his broad-brimmed hat, the noon sun was blinding. Scott’s head ached with the effort of being polite. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name. He had formed a few impressions. Some of these people really were glad to see Murdoch up and around; to know that the Lancer Ranch was once more a center of power. In others he heard insincerity. They didn’t care about Murdoch or Teresa; they cared only about being on the right side of the most powerful man in the northern valley. He wondered if Murdoch could hear the difference; if he knew which of these people he could trust and which would sell him out to the highest bidder given the chance.
A bell was rung announcing that the meal was ready. Johnny appeared from nowhere. They collected platefuls of food and found Sam sitting at a camp table. He had a chair for Murdoch. The boys and Teresa sat on a blanket at their feet. People continued to come by to say hello. Some made no effort to hide their curiosity.
Young women and girls whose names Teresa barely knew came over to give her a hug. They stayed to stare at the Lancer brothers. Johnny, surprised his family, surprised himself, by being a bit shy with these young ladies. He’d mumble hello when introduced and then go back to eating. Scott politely came to his feet each time a self-proclaimed best friend of Teresa stopped by. He smiled and shook hands.
Teresa collected the used plates and put them into a basket. She’d wash them when she got back to Doc’s. Murdoch said what a good piece of pie it was he was eating. She offered to get him another piece. She stood and smoothed out her skirts.
Johnny stood too, saying he could do with another piece of cake.
They walked together through the maze of blankets and picnickers. Johnny took sidelong glances at Teresa. Her face was shaded by her wide brimmed straw hat. She was looking straight ahead and though Johnny wasn’t sure, he thought she was deliberately ignoring those who were trying to catch her eye.
“Sure are a lot of people in this town,” he said looking over the crowded meadow.
“A lot of these people don’t live in town,” she responded. “More than half of them are from the farms and the ranches. Some must have traveled for a couple of days to get here.”
“Folks will go a long ways for a little company and music. That dance tonight ought to be a good time.”
“I suppose so.”
Reading people was a survival skill Johnny learned at a very young age. It had served him well in the time he’d been on Lancer. Both his father and brother were good at concealing their emotions. It took paying a lot of attention to know how either of them were feeling. Teresa on the other hand was an open book; her emotions played over her face. Even when she was trying to conceal them.
“You will save me a dance tonight won’t you?” he asked ducking his head slightly to get a good look at her face.
Johnny bit his lip thoughtfully. A young girl like Teresa ought to be excited about a dance. She wasn’t. In fact, Johnny was getting the idea that she was dreading it. Maybe she was shy. Maybe she didn’t realize how pretty she was and was worried no one would ask her to dance. Or maybe she wasn’t thinking about the dance at all.
There were several women standing in a knot behind the long makeshift dessert table covered with a white sheet. Their attention was directed across the meadow. Teresa recognized one of them as the mayor’s wife. What was left of the cakes and pies were set out on the table. Johnny snagged the last piece of chocolate cake. Teresa put a piece of cherry pie and one of peach pie on the plate she was carrying.
“Well, the nerve of that woman!”
“We simply have to form a committee for Public Morality. That woman and her establishment must go.”
Neither Johnny nor Teresa were surprised when they glanced in the direction the women were looking to see Rose La Femme and nearly a dozen women sitting on blankets in the shade of a huge cottonwood. Well over a dozen men had joined them. It was without a doubt the most cheerful group in the meadow.
Teresa spotted Miss Rose sitting with her pale pink skirts spread out around her. She held an open parasol trimmed in lace. To Teresa Miss Rose looked elegant and fresh.
“I have spoken to the mayor many times concerning just that. Unfortunately she owns her property . The law will not allow for her to be run out of town as she deserves. Why, Mr. Lancer, do you like chocolate cake?”
Teresa looked at the mayor’s wife. She was a large woman wearing a dress of red, white and blue striped taffeta. On her head was a straw hat with a wide ribbon of the same material. There were beads of perspiration on her upper lip.
“I’m fond of chocolate in most anything, ma’am,” answered Johnny flashing his winning smile.
“Well, you, your father and brother simply must come to dinner the next time you’re in town. My chocolate cake is light as a feather.”
It was possible that the mayor’s wife didn’t recognize Teresa, even more possible that she didn’t know Teresa was Murdoch’s ward. Teresa tried not to feel deliberately excluded.
“I’ll look forward to that, ma’am.” he said as he took Teresa by the arm. “Teresa, honey, I’ll walk you back. Then I want to pay my respects to Miss La Femme. Afternoon, ladies.” Johnny tipped his hat.
As they turned away Teresa heard one of the women sniff, “Well, I suppose the stories about that one are true.”
“I’m afraid you might not be getting a taste of that chocolate cake,” said Teresa softly.
Johnny chuckled. “Guess you’ll have to learn to bake one. I believe I’d rather spend an evening in the company of Miss Rose than any of those women.”
Johnny bit his lip; he’d spoken without thinking. He suspected that his father wouldn’t be pleased to hear him talking to Teresa about the local madam.
“So would I,” said Teresa with a sad sigh.
Blinking in surprise, Johnny asked, “Teresa, you do know why those women were, -ah . . .”
“I know they want to run her out of town because men go to The White Rose for-” she paused, her face going a little red, “for entertainment. I know I’m supposed to shun Miss Rose and those women who work for her because of what they do. But that’s not who Miss Rose is for me.”
Johnny glanced at the cheerful group under the cottonwood and then at where his father, Scott and Dr. Jenkins were sitting. He pulled at Teresa’s arm, bringing her to a stop. He wanted to finish this conversation before they got back to Murdoch. He gave Teresa a quizzical look and asked, “Do you know Miss Rose?”
“I did when I was little,” she answered looking down at her feet. Tears had flooded her eyes. She blinked hard to keep them from falling and looked up at Johnny. “They think I’ve forgotten. My dad and Miss Rose were friends. Don’t look at me like I’m an idiot, Johnny. I know Daddy didn’t go to The White Rose for tea but when I was little he took me there for tea. She was kind to me; really kind even if my father was just the segundo not the owner of Lancer. And then he stopped taking me. For years I didn’t understand why but I do now. Miss Rose isn’t respectable like those old–”
Teresa broke off. What was wrong with her going on like this?
“Muchachita?” said Johnny gently.
Shaking her head, Teresa gave Johnny a weak smile. “Don’t worry, Johnny. I know what’s expected of me. And right now it is to get this pie to Doc and Murdoch.”
Murdoch was talking to the man who had led the parade. He was still wearing the conical hat with the tall, fluffy white plume. Murdoch introduced him as the mayor of Green River. Even as he was shaking the man’s hand Scott realized he disliked him; it was something about that hat. Scott knew better than to judge a man by his uniform; some of the militias had uniforms that had been almost clownish. It had not made them poor fighters. He had a powerful desire to escape before the mayor started asking him about the war.
Scott started to back away when he caught sight of a group of men gathered at the edge of a field of short grass. Several had wooden bats over their shoulders. Two were tossing a ball back and forth.
Baseball. They were going to play baseball.
Johnny was about to join the group gathered around Miss Rose. He wasn’t sure Scott would come with him but he was startled to see his brother walking in the opposite direction. Johnny followed him out of curiosity. He heard Scott give his name to the small group of men. A fellow, who in Johnny’s opinion could only be a bank teller not a cowboy, asked, “Do you play, Mr. Lancer?”
“I do,” said Scott with the widest smile Johnny had ever seen on his brother’s face.
“What is Scott doing with those men over there?” asked Teresa looking across the meadow to the open field.
Murdoch and Sam turned around to see what she was talking about. Sam shaded his eyes and said, “It looks like they are playing some sort of game.”
Murdoch came to his feet. He saw Scott standing with a wooden bat held up against his shoulder. A number of men were spread out around the field. One was standing some distance in front of Scott, facing him. He swung his arm and threw a ball at Scott; very fast and very hard.
Scott swung the bat. It connected with the ball with a crack. The ball sailed out over the heads of the men standing in the field. Two of them ran for it. Scott dropped the bat and ran.
“Baseball,” said Murdoch with great satisfaction. “That’s baseball.”
It was the least skilled game of baseball Scott had played in since he’d learned the game as a ten-year-old. Only he and Jonah, who wasn’t a bank teller but a telegraph operator, had played enough to have any real skill. But it was fun. Pure fun. Jonah pitched for one side and Scott for the other. They were both careful to give the other players easy pitches so they would have a chance to hit and run the bases. But when they pitched to each other it was entirely different.
Those in the meadow drifted over slowly to rearrange themselves along the edge of the playing field. There was a lot of laughter as the players swung through pitches and tripped over their own feet trying to field the ball. Few of the spectators understood what they were watching or that it took great skill to play the game well.
Murdoch watched no one but Scott. He didn’t understand the game but he knew Scott excelled at it. There was so much ease in his movements; from the way he threw the ball to how his long legs ate up the ground as he ran. He was laughing, happier Murdoch feared than he had ever seen his son. All because of a sunny afternoon, a ball and a bat.
Teresa stared at her silk dress lying over the chair. She’d forgotten that it had a row of tiny buttons up the back. Last year she and her friends had made a party of getting ready for their first grown-up dance. They had fixed each others’ hair, pulled tight the corsets they didn’t really need and did up the endless rows of tiny buttons on their fancy dresses. Now, one was dead and the other was halfway across the country. The only other times she’d worn the dress were at the ranch where the women helped her do up the back.
What was she going to do? She couldn’t ask one of the boys or Murdoch to button her dress. It would have to be Doc.
There was a knock at the door.
Teresa was expecting one of the men. But there was a woman standing there when the door swung open. Teresa didn’t know her.
“Hello, Miss O’Brien, my name is Iris. I come by to see the doctor about my weak chest. He said you was getting ready for the dance and I thought maybe I could help you.”
The woman was small and thin. She wore a blue dress of linsey-woolsey and a straw poke bonnet from under which strands of hair an improbable shade of gold were escaping.
“You’re a godsend,” said Teresa breathlessly. She couldn’t believe her luck; that one of the ranch women would come to see the doctor just when she was desperate for a woman’s help.
“Let me help you off with that dress,” said Iris unhooking the waistband of Teresa’s simple muslin. She nodded in the direction of the blue silk gown laid out over the chair. “That there is a real beautiful.”
For the next hour Teresa let Iris help her dress, brush her long lustrous, dark hair, and pin it up. She didn’t ask why Iris would have a spray of small white flowers that she placed in Teresa’s hair. She stood patiently while Iris pulled the silk dress over her head and did up the endless tiny buttons. There was no mirror in the room. Teresa didn’t know how she looked. But she was pleased that the dress still fit, was if anything a little big.
“You look real pretty, Miss.”
“Oh, please call me Teresa. You’ve been so very kind. I do appreciate your help. I hope I haven’t kept you from your family.”
“Oh, I had a good time gussying you up. I hope you enjoy that dance,” said Iris as she slipped quietly out the door.
“Teresa!” called Johnny from downstairs, “Ain’t you ready yet?”
Sam, Murdoch and the boys stood at the bottom of the narrow staircase. Johnny was tapping his foot impatiently. He didn’t really want to go to the dance. He knew enough to know he was expected to mind his manners at a dance; he just wasn’t sure he remembered his manners. He wished Teresa would hurry it up. He wanted to get this over with.
Scott was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed, grinning. He knew from long experience that a girl getting ready for a dance took as long as it took. It wasn’t going to do any good to try to hurry Teresa along. He took it as a good sign the woman in the poke bonnet had come downstairs, given a slight curtsey to them and headed out the side door. Scott had the idea that he’d seen the woman before even though he couldn’t catch a glimpse of her face. As he watched her walk out of the yard, he was quite sure he’d seen the sashay before.
“Well, good evening, Miss O’Brien,” said Sam formally.
Johnny turned around and started to say about time but he didn’t get the words out. Scott pushed off the wall and stood very straight. Murdoch looked at Teresa standing halfway up the stairs. “Your father would be so proud of you. You look beautiful, darling.”
She stood very still, one hand resting on the banister; her head held high. Her hair was pulled off her face and wrapped in a thick braid at the crown of her head. Small sprays of delicate white flowers were caught up in the braid. The dress had a modestly low neckline and short puffed sleeves, the bodice was fitted and the skirt fell straight to her ankles in front. In back it was folded and fluffed several times creating a pretty, simple bustle.
Scott mounted the stairs and offered Teresa his arm. She took it and smiled.
Teresa walked down the street between Murdoch and Sam. The boys walked behind them. She felt a swell of pride. They would never replace her father but these were her men, her family.
In the deep shadow of the veranda of The White Rose two women watched as they walked past. Rose La Femme smiled and touched the shoulder of the small woman with hair an improbable shade of gold. “Thank you,” she said quietly.
After being so reluctant to go to the dance Teresa had a very good time. When they first arrived, Johnny grabbed her by the hand and pulled her onto the temporary floor laid down over the dusty ground of a corral. They joined other couples making up a square. Teresa sent Johnny a puzzled glance. He said, “All you have to do is follow the caller.” It turned out that square dancing was very popular in the Texas border country.
A little while later she danced a polka with Scott who said, “Look at me – not your feet.” As the evening went on, she danced with most of the young men who’d played baseball with Scott that afternoon. When she waltzed with Murdoch late in the evening she answered yes honestly when he asked if she was having a good time.
Scott disappeared sometime during the fireworks. Johnny soon afterwards. Murdoch and Sam walked home with her. She kissed them both on the cheek at the bottom of the stairs and went up to bed. As she struggled with the tiny buttons she wished Iris back. But it was far easier to unhook them than to hook them and eventually she got enough undone to take the dress off. She was settling on top of the bed when she heard the front door creak. At first she thought it was Johnny or Scott or perhaps both coming in. But as she listened she realized it was Murdoch going out. She told herself it was all right. Doc was in the house, she was perfectly safe and nothing untoward was likely to happen to the men.
She lay awake for hours.
It was the fireworks that did it. He’d felt so good playing baseball again that his euphoria carried over into the evening. He was enjoying the dance. It was a little embarrassing to be fawned over because his father owned the largest ranch in the area. But the girls were sweet and he liked dancing.
He’d known the fireworks were coming. He’d seen a lot of fireworks in the past few years and he’d always managed to get through them. But get through them was all he managed to do. Some of what bothered him was the noise; not quite like cannon fire but close enough. Mostly it was the smoke, the smell, that put him back on the battlefield, that’s what stole his breath.
He wasn’t panicked, not really. He knew where he was – he just didn’t want to be there.
Scott escaped back to The White Rose. The girls were gathered on the flat roof of the veranda to watch the display. The barroom was nearly empty. Scott ordered a whiskey and drank it in one gulp. By the time the show was over he had his breath back.
Scott asked for Dahlia again. And it helped to lose himself within the physical act. But deep in the night he lay awake with the sleeping woman beside him. He couldn’t sleep; he knew he wouldn’t sleep. The memories were too close.
He got up and pulled on his trousers. He slid his arms into his shirt but he left his boots by the bed. Carefully he descended the stairs. There was a lit lantern hanging over the piano. Restlessly, he crossed the room and started looking through the sheet music.
Beethoven and Chopin, pieces he knew, pieces he’d played or heard played many times. Scott never saw a piano that he didn’t think of his cousin Constance. Constance was a wonderful pianist. When they were children they shared their lessons. She was much more talented than he was, but he tried to keep up with her and in so doing became far more skilled than he would have been otherwise.
Memories crowded in on him but thanks to the piano he was able to focus on a good one. His cousins, Daniel and Constance, a piano and the end of his war.
His fingers found the keys. From memory he softly played the old ballad Scarborough Fair and let himself remember.
He sat quietly on the stool for a few minutes as the last chord faded away. He didn’t want to disturb anyone’s rest, but the desire to play was very strong. Scott knew he could lose himself in the music, in the vibrations of the strings.
The light fell on a copy of Beethoven’s Sonata 19. Scott began to play.
The music rose through the building. It was too beautiful to be disturbing. The women quietly left their beds, some with clients sleeping off the effects of drink and sex. They gathered at the top of the stairs; their silk wrappers pulled hastily around their shoulders.
Johnny, a light sleeper, woke when Violet sat up on the edge of the bed. “Where are you going?” he asked slipping his arm around her waist.
“I was going to listen to the music but I don’t need to,” she answered rolling back into the bed and into his arms.
Johnny leaned his head back and listened. Music had been important in his life. His mother had often paid their way by singing and playing the guitar. He could play the guitar though not as well as he’d like. He’d never had time to practice the guitar.
“Kind of late to be playing the piano ain’t it? What sort of music is that?” he asked turning on to his back. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”
Violet laid her head against his bare chest and said, “I don’t know what they call it. Miss Rose plays music like that. She gets sheets of it from somewhere back east, all printed up. Some of it was made up a long time ago she says by fellows over in some place called Europe. She can play for hours and hours. But that ain’t her.”
Violet simply nodded. It was the first rule of the house that they never spoke of the men who came up the outside stairs. So Violet didn’t tell Johnny that she had let his father into Miss Rose’s private apartment just before midnight. A man the size of Murdoch Lancer couldn’t really be said to sneak around. But it seemed clear to Violet that he had no desire to run into either of his sons. What was still puzzling Violet wasn’t that Mr. Lancer was discreet about coming into the brothel. Hell, a few nights ago the mayor snuck in all wrapped up in a blanket when it was hot enough out to make tea without putting the kettle on the fire. What surprised Violet was that she’d never ever heard of a client being taken into Miss Rose’s apartment even on those extremely rare occasions that Miss Rose was working.
Johnny could feel the music. It wasn’t loud but it was powerful; it almost felt as if it could get inside of him. His mother’s music had been different but at times -when she was playing for herself -it had the same effect.
“It’s something, ain’t it,” said Violet as she snuggled closer to him. “It is so pretty, but it’s sad and happy and angry too. Is he like that?”
Johnny didn’t ask her who. He realized it had to be Scott who was playing the piano. “Yeah,” he said softly, “he’s a lot like that. There’s a word I heard -complex- it means something like a bunch of different things all mixed up together. That’s my brother — complex.”
Rose lay on her side with her back pressed against Murdoch. She was very still. She knew with the first note who was playing the piano in the room below. He was right, he needed practice, he missed a few notes. But the mistakes took little away from his playing. She was sorry when the last chord died away. She hated for him to stop. It was so nice to hear someone else play the classical pieces she loved so much.
Another note was struck. She recognized it immediately Chopin, the one called The Raindrop Prelude. The music had been in the packet she’d just received. It had been over twenty years since she’d played it. She’d first heard it played on a Chickering grand in a room with a view of the sea by a young man with russet colored hair that curled softly around his thin sensitive face.
Rose drew away from Murdoch. She pulled her knees up to her chest; surrendering to the old grief; the deepest grief.
Beside her Murdoch lay flat on his back staring up at the ceiling lost in his own memories. His wives had had very little in common. But he associated music with both of them. His happiest memories of Maria were of her playing and singing. He would not be surprised to learn that Johnny played the guitar.
Murdoch didn’t know why he had never considered whether Scott had inherited Catherine’s talent, her love, for music. Possibly because he didn’t look for Catherine in Scott. Each time he caught a glimpse of her in the boy it opened old wounds. He had not heard Scott play the preceding evening. He had never heard him speak of music. But he knew it was Catherine’s boy playing in the dark night.
He could see Catherine, small and delicate, sitting in a circle of light cast by candles. Long curls as pale as sunlight framing her face; eyes closed, lips curved in a secret smile. Her slender fingers flying over the black and white keys. Catherine had taught Murdoch how to listen to music; to hear hidden truths in the series of notes and in the pauses between them.
Catherine left her piano behind when she came west with him so long ago. He had promised her someday there would be a beautiful grand piano gracing the great room of the hacienda. Someday never came. Catherine died and Scott learned to play on his mother’s piano – half a world away.
Catherine’s boy, their son, a man grown. A man with a life history of which Murdoch had only the barest hints; Boston, the best schools, the honorable war service. Who was Scott Garrett Lancer at his core; this stranger who had Catherine’s eyes and his own stubborn reserve? What would it cost Murdoch to crack the shell of aloofness with which Scott surrounded his true self?
Loss, loneliness and the thrumming of anger underneath; the notes permeated Murdoch’s consciousness like drops of water saturating dry ground. Revealing his son, revealing himself.
~ end ~
I want to thank Mary O for reading the very rough draft of this story and offering suggestions that made it so much better.
I deeply appreciate all the time and careful attention Carmela gave the story. Her editing has taught me much and has made my writing far more readable. I am so lucky to have found her as a beta!
I asked Becky W of LANCER WRITERS to help me find a piece piano music that would express the right mood. She came through beautifully. It is easy to find a performance of F. Chopin’s The Raindrop Prelude on youtube should you care to hear it.
I hope this story is entertaining. If you’ve time I love feedback.
Thank you for reading
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