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Reverberations by chrischime

Word count 17,019

2nd in the Betrayed Series

This story is a follow-up to Dichotomy, which should be read first.

Profound thanks to Sherry and Diana. Kindly forgive any inaccurate legal references.

SPOILER ALERT: Recap of Dichotomy: After meeting a woman at the Cattlemen’s Ball in San Francisco, Murdoch abruptly messages the ranch that he is getting married, moving to Scotland, and turning his share of the ranch over to Teresa. With Teresa under Victoria Barkley’s guardianship in Stockton, Scott and Johnny travel to San Francisco to search for their father. They discover that Murdoch was abducted and blackmailed by none other than Catherine Garrett Lancer, who had faked her death and resurfaced as Avery Castile. Johnny engages the assistance of friends to hold Catherine in a secret location while she awaits a trial for her crimes. Reverberations follow the Lancer men through the aftermath of Catherine’s treachery.


After a somber and mostly silent train ride from San Francisco, the Lancers arrived at the Barkley ranch the day after Christmas for a joyful reunion with Teresa. Murdoch kept the details of all that had happened extremely vague, mainly focused on reassuring Teresa that he had never wanted to give up her guardianship and that they were safe from further scheming on Catherine’s part.

Following a lavish dinner that rivaled the previous day’s Christmas feast, Nick, Heath, and Audra excused themselves to get ready to attend the barn dance at the Miller’s. Teresa hesitated in joining them, reluctant to leave Murdoch’s side. When she was out of earshot, Victoria told Murdoch that the dance was the first time Teresa had shown any interest in a social event since she’d been there and urged Murdoch to convince her to go, which he did. Johnny and Scott were also invited, but both pleaded travel-weary and went up to their rooms.

Jarrod shared an after-dinner drink with Victoria and Murdoch but then retired to his study, ostensibly to do some work related to the case, but more to give Victoria and Murdoch some privacy.

With Victoria’s compassionate prompting, Murdoch spilled his heart out to his longtime friend. He couldn’t believe he had been so blinded to Catherine’s self-righteous anger after he’d signed the deed for Lancer and still struggled to reconcile the woman he’d adored with the one who had faked her own death and blithely given their son away to a man they both despised. He blamed himself only slightly less than he blamed Catherine for the damage that had been done to their finally-reunited family.

He spoke of his feelings for Ailith and his fear for her life. It was difficult to see a path forward for them, given that Catherine had manipulated every aspect of their meeting and courtship. He admitted they had lived on the island as husband and wife, despite knowing their marriage wasn’t legal with Catherine being alive. But they had believed they would never be allowed to return to their homes, so they decided to act on their feelings for each other, the only thing that was true amid all the lies.

He was anxious to have Teresa’s guardianship reinstated and the coerced partnership agreement nullified. More than anything, he wanted to get back to Lancer. He missed the land and the people, but more, he felt his family couldn’t begin to heal until they were together in the sanctity of their home.

“Am I wrong that Teresa doesn’t exactly seem interested in going back to Lancer with us?” Murdoch asked.

“I think she’s just overwhelmed by all this, Murdoch,” Victoria replied, her voice gentle. “She took your disappearance very hard, especially the loss of your guardianship. She felt somehow responsible for the bizarre conditions Catherine had put into the partnership agreement.”

“The boys told me how worried they’ve been about her, especially around the holidays.”

“Indeed, we’ve all been worried as well. She’s been very depressed and quiet, definitely not her bubbly self. Audra has gently pushed Teresa to go with her to see friends and to attend the holiday events. She said Teresa perked up when they brought the presents to the orphans at the mission.” Victoria smiled knowingly. “Apparently, Tad Wilson, the pastor’s son, made quite an impression on Teresa. In fact, knowing he’s going to be at the dance tonight seemed to be what prompted Teresa to want to go.”

“If I had known that, I wouldn’t have sent her!” Murdoch said, only half joking. He couldn’t tolerate the thought of Teresa being old enough to like a boy, never mind one that might convince her to stay in Stockton when her home was at Lancer.

“She’s not a little girl anymore, Murdoch. It’s quite normal for her to like boys and for them to like her back.”

“And I suppose you’d think the same if it was Audra who was doing the liking and being liked in return?” he teased.

Victoria chuckled, a sound that was music to Murdoch’s ears. “Now, I didn’t say that….”

Scott lay in the darkness of the Barkley’s expansive guest room, staring at the shaft of moonlight that crept through a gap in the drawn curtains. It created a dagger of silver on the ceiling midway across the room and a bent arrow of light where it was reflected in the beveled mirror over the highboy dresser. If he turned his head slightly, the reflected light shortened and broadened, but the one on the ceiling remained unchanged.

He wanted it to change.

He needed it to change.

Just like he needed the truth about his mother to change.

He’d been brought up with the fairy tale of a sainted mother desperately attempting to cram a lifetime of love for him into her last moments on earth. He’d also been told that his father hadn’t wanted him and believed his grandfather had selflessly provided a loving home for him.

It was all a lie.

His mother had never loved him. She saw him as nothing more than a weapon against the hated men in her life. His grandfather had unwittingly conspired with the daughter he believed was dead for his own selfish and vile reasons. In reality, it was only his father who had loved him, sight unseen, for two and a half decades before they were reunited.

His entire life had been like the reflection in the mirror, warped and inaccurate, twisted to fit his grandfather’s and mother’s egocentric whims. And no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make it look right again.

He felt mortally betrayed by his mother and yet longed to see her, to crack open the evil outer shell that he prayed hid some kernel of regret and love for him inside. His logic warred with his emotions, leaving him confused and angry. Unspeakably angry.

Especially with Johnny.

He didn’t want to be. He tried to talk himself out of it. Johnny had saved his life and Murdoch’s. If not kindness, Johnny had certainly shown restraint with Catherine, something Scott almost hadn’t been able to do himself back in the library with his gun pointed at his own mother’s chest.

But Johnny was keeping him from seeing his mother again, keeping her location secret from all of them. It was that control that infuriated Scott. He needed control because everything that was once predictable and steady in his life was now thrown entirely out of balance. He wanted his life of one year ago back, yet knew it was never to be again.

Barnet had wired Mitchell to report the group’s safe arrival at the undisclosed location, confirming that Catherine’s holding cell was reasonably comfortable and the sheriff firm but fair. Mitchell and Jarrod were rapidly compiling evidence of her many crimes and sorting through ways of limiting her access to Castile’s powerful connections without violating her civil rights, quite the tricky endeavor. They had begun to think that Johnny’s idea of sending her to Scotland first to atone for her crimes against Roland Dunbar might not be a bad start after all.

It wasn’t even that Scott really wanted to see his mother again. The confrontation in Barnet’s cabin had sickened and demoralized him enough. She’d wanted him to believe that everything she had done was for him: Murdoch had sent them away from the ranch and never bothered to confirm if either of them had survived the horrible trip; his grandfather had literally stolen him from her arms, leaving her to die—which she almost did—in that tiny, dirty town all alone. It took years for her to earn the money and power she needed to fight back. But that’s all she had been doing, fighting for him, for them to be reunited, to become the family they were always meant to be.

Oh, he had wanted to believe her—at least the part where she professed her love for him. As a child, he’d always wanted to know what it would be like to have a loving mother. And now, maybe he had that chance.

Yet he had heard too much while hiding outside the library’s side entrance, trying to decide the safest way to free the captives. He knew what she’d done and why she had done it. And love had absolutely no role in any of it.

He got out of bed and angrily whipped open the drapes, dispelling the offending reflections. It was a cloudless, cold night; he could feel the chill from the glass panes as he leaned against the window frame. The moon was nearly full, outlining the garden, corrals, and outbuildings in shiny gunmetal gray. The sights of the ranch reminded him of home and made him ache to be at Lancer.

And yet, he wondered if he’d ever feel at home there again.


Johnny angled his hat to block the sun from his eyes, trying to lessen the stabbing pain in his head. He’d insisted on helping Heath’s crew round up some cattle that had strayed through a broken fence, even though he’d been unable to shake the persistent headache from his concussion. It was a chilly day despite the bright sun. Johnny was glad Victoria had insisted he borrow one of Heath’s fleece-lined jackets and a pair of leather work gloves. He hated the cold. It was just his luck that after a dramatically warm December, Stockton was now in the midst of a cold snap in the final few days of the month.

With the last of the strays rounded up and the other three men of Heath’s crew tasked with repairing the fence, he and Heath rode off to check the remaining fence line. After finding and fixing one leaning post and clearing a large branch off another section of fence, they stopped by a small creek for lunch.

As was the way with them, their conversation was minimal, mostly about the two ranches, the cattle drive, and Heath shared a bit about the dance a few nights before.

“What do you think about this Tad Wilson that Teresa’s taken a fancy to?” Johnny asked as he leaned back in the grass, covering his face with his hat in preparation for a short siesta in lieu of eating the generous fare Silas had sent with them.

“Don’t worry; he knows we think of Teresa as family and wouldn’t dare try anything with Nick and me around.” Heath answered around a mouthful of beef sandwich. “Besides, he’s a pretty nice kid, a bit on the shy side. Ya coulda fit a fatted hog between ‘em when they danced. Don’t know if he was more scared of Nick and me or of Teresa.”

Johnny smiled. “She’s pretty tough.” The smile drifted. “Or at least she used to be. This whole mess with Murdoch and the partnership agreement really threw her for a loop. I don’t know what would have happened if your mother hadn’t offered for her to stay here.”

“We were glad to have her. But now that you all are back, I’m sure she’ll be hankering to get back home.”

“I don’t know about that, Heath,” Johnny pushed his hat back slightly but kept his gaze on the leaves overhead. “She told me she doesn’t wanna go back until she’s off the partnership agreement.”

“I reckon Jarrod will have that back to what it was in a day or two. It can’t be legal if Murdoch signed it with a gun to his head.”

“Maybe not, but things are different this time around, so it won’t exactly be going back to what it was.”

“What do you mean?” Heath swallowed and took a drink from his canteen, watching his friend’s face.

“When we signed it the first time, Murdoch thought he’d been married to my mama when I was born. With Catherine being alive, that ain’t the way it was.”

“Do you think that matters to Murdoch?”

“I doubt it,” Johnny replied slowly.

Heath brushed some crumbs off his leg. “To Scott?”

Johnny looked over at him, then away. It took a while for him to answer. When he did, his words were very quiet. “I’m not sure. Time was I woulda said no, but….” His voice trailed.

“Don’t seem to me that Scott would wanna cut you out of what’s rightfully yours. You said he left behind a lot of money from his grandfather’s business to come out here. I mean, look at me, I’m about as illegitimate as they come, but even Nick, who pinches pennies so tight his are half as thick as anyone else’s, accepted me into the business. Not that it was easy or quick, boy howdy, but once he decided he wasn’t gonna kill me for hurting his mother, he wasn’t gonna deny me my share.”

Johnny sat up slowly, plucking a blade of grass and folding it over on itself. “No, it wouldn’t be about the money with Scott.”

“What would it be about?”

“He ain’t happy with me not telling him where I have Catherine locked up. He…” Johnny struggled to find his words, “… I guess my gunfighter past doesn’t sit as well with him as he mighta let on. He looks at me differently since all this stuff with her. I’m thinking he might be glad to see me move on.”

Heath frowned. “That doesn’t sound like Scott. If it’s causing problems between you, maybe you should just tell him where Catherine is. You don’t think he’d actually help her get off, do you?”

“I don’t know. She’s got a powerful way of talking people into things. I know how hard it was for me to believe Teresa that my Mama had left Murdoch and not that he’d thrown us out.”

Heath answered quietly, his eyes averted from his friend’s face. “And now you know neither of those things were the truth.” He allowed Johnny to react to the comment while he fished in his saddlebags for one of the apples. “That had to have gone down hard.”

Johnny gave a caustic laugh. “Yeah, just a bit. I was rightly itching to pull that trigger when Catherine was bragging about what she did to us.” He frowned as he began to tear the blade of grass into strips. “You know, when I first saw a picture of her at Lancer last year, it gave me a funny feeling in my gut. I thought at the time it was just cuz she looked so much like Scott, except it wasn’t a good feeling. Now I wonder if maybe I saw her threatening Mama some time when I was little.”

“She’s certainly a piece of work, that one.” Heath took a few bites of apple. “If you need some help, um, gettin’ her someplace you all won’t need to worry about her anymore, I’m game.”

Johnny tossed the mutilated grass into the dirt. “Thanks for the offer, Heath, but I wouldn’t want to draw you into this mess any more than your family already has been.”

“I owe you, Johnny. I’d be dead two times over if not for you.”

“I don’t keep score, Heath, and even if I did, you coming to Lancer for the cattle drive so Scott and I could go up north would have paid any debt in full.” Johnny watched Heath toss his apple core toward his horse. “Now Tipper is gonna be plum jealous of Charger over that apple. How ‘bout I trade you my sandwich for the other apple so he can get a treat too.”

Heath pulled a face. “I won’t turn down the sandwich if you don’t want it but I gotta agree with Mother that you’re looking mighty wrung out these days. She’s gonna ask me if you ate.”

“Well then, toss me that apple so you can tell her I did and not be lying.” They exchanged food items and ate in silence for a stretch. “Don’t shoot me for asking this… but did you ever think you didn’t deserve a stake in the ranch with your Mama and Papa not being married and all?”

Heath was somewhat surprised by the personal question but not angered by it. He understood that Johnny was trying to make sense of his new status within his family. “Not at first. All I thought was, he abandoned me and Mama with nothing, not even his name, and I was gonna come and claim what was mine. When I found out about his amnesia and that he didn’t know about me, the anger I carried with me all my life kinda drained away.” He poked a loose piece of meat back between the slices of bread. “But it was mostly how Mother treated me, accepting me as not only Tom Barkley’s son, but as hers too, that really threw me. She’s a good woman, and I started to see Nick’s point that my being here was like a slap in the face to her that her husband cheated. He may not have known he was married when he was with my Mama, but he knew what he’d done when his memory came back. Yet he never told Mother about it, never came back to Strawberry to check on Mama to see… well, he didn’t do right by either of them to my mind. My being here and claiming his name suddenly didn’t feel right anymore because it was hurting her.”

“What made you stay?”

“She did. She was even more adamant than I was that I deserved the name and a stake in the ranch. She doesn’t care much what the neighbors say.”

“And things are better now with you and Nick?”

That prompted a huge grin from the blond. “Yeah, working the ranch together, we’ve gotten real close. It’s good having a big brother. I know I’ve got two, but Jarrod acts more like a father than a brother, which is kinda nice having not ever had one.” Heath watched a cloud shadow Johnny’s features. “This stuff with Scott is really painin’ you.”

“Yeah.” Johnny cleared his throat. Perhaps his last bite of apple had been too large as it had left a lump there. “Part of me wants to tell him where Catherine is and let him do what he feels he has to by getting her a high-priced lawyer and all. Then maybe he could go back to seeing me as his brother…again.” That apple piece sure was making it hard to talk. He tossed the mostly uneaten fruit to Tipper. “Thing is, what she did to my Mama, what she mighta done to Jelly and Clete, the way she just sucked all the joy outta Teresa… if Scott gets twisted into making a mistake that lets her escape or gets her off, then I think I’d be the one having a hard time doing the forgiving.” His voice dropped low. “And I know Murdoch couldn’t.”

Heath cocked an eyebrow. “Did Murdoch say something to make you think that?”

“Yeah.” Johnny stared at a pair of hawks riding updrafts in the distance, remembering the conversation he’d had with his father after Scott had taken both Mitchell and Jarrod to task for not forcing Johnny or Barnet to disclose Catherine’s whereabouts.

Johnny had escaped to the Barkley’s side porch when he could no longer stand his brother’s glares and biting accusations. It was late afternoon, so the work crews were still out on the range, exactly where Johnny wished to be instead of here, watching his bond with his brother eroding like arroyo walls beneath a flash flood.

He heard the side door open, then close, and footfalls behind him. Time was it would be Scott, coming to check on him, ready to pour salve on the wounds an argument with Murdoch would have opened. But those days seemed far in the past now.

Maybe gone forever.

He gripped the porch railing so tightly that his knuckles blanched. Murdoch came to stand beside him, his newly lit pipe in one hand. They didn’t speak for several minutes as Johnny held a silent argument with his father over telling him and Scott where Catherine was being held for trial.

Johnny knew he was right, keeping it a secret from them.

Yet, he also knew that being right was helping Catherine to continue to destroy his family.

Back and forth he went in his head until, finally, he sighed heavily. “I’ll have Barnet wire their location to Jarrod.”

His concession was met with a deep draw on Murdoch’s pipe, and a long exhale of earthy smoke. When he’d first come to Lancer, the scent of Murdoch’s tobacco lingering in the study had felt ominous and imposing to Johnny, a vivid reminder to whom the hacienda, the land, and the power belonged. Unlike the smell of cheap cigars and quirleys that seeped from the walls of saloons and bunkhouses, this tobacco scent spoke of wealth, prestige, permanence. Over time, he’d come to equate it with something more—his father relaxing with the family in the evenings, sharing stories of Scotland or early days at Lancer. The rich smoke accompanied the comfort of Murdoch’s laughter, warmth, and paternal wisdom.

It felt out of place here, far from home, where laughter no longer visited his family. He shivered.

“No, son,” Murdoch said, without looking at him, “you’re right to keep it from us. Emotions are so raw; we might do something we’d regret.”

Johnny looked at him in shock. “You’d let her go after everything she’s done?”

“No. No, that’s not what I fear I’d do. Not at all,” Murdoch ground out. There was an icy hardness to his words. His hand that held the pipe slammed against the railing, dislodging tobacco embers onto calloused skin unnoticed. “I want to believe I could do the right thing….” A head shake and a sigh. “I’m grateful you have saved me from facing that choice.”

Johnny looked across the yard to the weathervane on the barn’s cupola, its rooster outline standing firm and immobile in the still air. “It sure ain’t gratitude Scott’s feeling about it.”

Murdoch nodded slowly, his gaze absently following Johnny’s. “All the more reason for me to feel grateful,” he said quietly. “Despite what he knows she did, despite the wretched things he heard from her own lips, there’s a part of Scott that is so desperate to see a loving mother in Catherine; I’m afraid of what she could convince him to do. If you could have seen his face that night at the cabin, Johnny, when she was spilling lie after lie about why she did what she did.” He shook his head sharply. “I’m trying to support him, trying to understand… but even more than fearing what I might do if I were face to face with her, I’m terrified that she could persuade him to do the unthinkable… the unforgivable. If she isn’t brought to bear for the horrific things she’s done, I couldn’t….” Murdoch turned suddenly and gripped Johnny’s arms in his hands, the forgotten pipe dangerously close to singeing the material of his shirt. “You can’t let Scott destroy our family by giving in to her!”

Johnny was alarmed by Murdoch’s entreaty. “I know he’s worried that she will get a fair trial; you don’t really think he wants her to get away with what she’s done, do you?”

“In his logical, adult mind, no. I believe he knows she deserves to be severely punished for her crimes. But she pulls that little boy out of him, the one that never had a mother or even a father who he believed cared for him. She dangles her love in front of him like a jailer brandishing a key just within reach. How long before he grabs for it?”

“But don’t you think the more we…, the more I keep him from doing what he can for her, the more it pushes him over to her side? Instead of seeing all the evil things she’s done, it’s as if he can only see me fighting him. I don’t expect him to hate her, Murdoch, but, Dios, I can’t take him hating me!”

“He’ll get over the anger he’s feeling toward you. He just needs a little time. I was mad at first, too. But, he’ll see this is best, just like I did. I know it’s hard, Johnny, but think of it as protecting our family. I don’t think even he could forgive himself for playing into her manipulations, never mind whether the rest of us could live with it. Your instincts were right in keeping her hidden until we all get our wits about us again. The family is depending on you to be the strong one, son.”

The weight of that responsibility was crushing him.

Abruptly, he came back to the present, realizing Heath was patiently waiting for more of an answer.

Unfortunately, he had none to give.

The first two weeks of January were a stormy and tumultuous time at Lancer. Following the unseasonably warm December, driving rains and powerful winds joined rapid snow melt, pummeling the land, flooding creeks, and toppling trees and fences. A series of mudslides buried cattle, roads, and trails, diverting even more water into pastures and farmland. Before the worst hit, the crews had managed to move some cattle to higher ground, but soon the hilly terrain became impassable. Stranded cattle would have to fend for themselves until the waters receded.

Even as they struggled to keep their own ranch going, the Lancers helped their neighbors where they could, sending men and sharing supplies with the smaller spreads nearby. But with no more than a day or two between vicious storms, there was little anyone could do to temper the siege.

When there was a break in the wicked weather, the brothers worked from dawn until dark with the hands, taking on the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs themselves. At night, they’d stumble into the hacienda, eat something if they could stay awake, and then fall into bed for a few hours before starting all over again.

As demanding and exhausting as the work was, it was easier for the father and sons to handle than the long hours spent inside while the storms raged. There was no energy left in them for the highly emotional work of dealing with the aftermath of Catherine’s brutal lies and vicious acts.

Jarrod and Mitchell had successfully filed an injunction to freeze the assets of Avery Castile, using the evidence of fraud and blackmail provided by the Pinkertons and statements from abandoned and disgruntled staff members. For the assets to be unfrozen, Castile would need to come forward in person to defend against the criminal allegations.

Catherine was provided with an attorney by the state of California, as was her right as an indigent person. She immediately attempted to reclaim possession of Castile’s assets.

Although Castile had made many enemies among the rich and powerful, Catherine’s attorney still found several influential “friends” willing to stand up for Castile’s good character with the courts and banks, hoping to remain in Castile’s good—and wealthy— graces. Such declarations of support proved problematic when several were forced to admit under oath that they had never actually met Avery Castile. The two intrepid souls who claimed they’d had the pleasure of a face-to-face meeting were thoroughly discredited when their disparate descriptions of the “gentleman” clearly didn’t match Catherine in any manner.

Ailith was located safe and sound at a coastal mission and agreed to testify against Catherine. Because Catherine had first approached Ailith at the southern land grant of Rancho El Cajon, where Ailith’s traveling companion had abandoned her, it was decided that Catherine’s first trial should be held there. She could only be charged with blackmail and threats against life in that jurisdiction, not kidnapping or assault, as those both occurred in San Francisco. But it would mean a speedy trial with a high likelihood of conviction taking place in a relatively isolated location. While Rancho El Cajon had become a popular one-night stopover for people traveling north from San Diego to the gold strike in Julian, it remained insulated from the rapid development and power-mongering of its neighbors. The circuit judge was due to come through in three weeks, so Catherine was quietly moved to the jail there.

Still unaware of Catherine’s exact location, Murdoch arranged to meet Ailith at the mission once the trial ended, and Catherine was—hopefully—sentenced. Ailith was still overwhelmed and reeling from all that had happened. She felt it was best for all involved if she returned to Scotland afterward, but Murdoch fervently hoped to convince her to stay. He had filed for divorce from Catherine on the grounds of abandonment and was pleading for the court to make it retroactive to when she had faked her death so his marriage to Maria could be deemed legitimate.

The partnership agreement remained in limbo, as did the family. Mitchell and Jarrod had both advised against crafting a new agreement, needing the old one to be in force as evidence against Catherine in her trial for kidnapping and blackmailing Murdoch and Ailith. Teresa had refused to come home until the new agreement was signed, so she remained at the Barkley’s.

Johnny wasn’t convinced that he should be included as a partner in the ranch, given his illegitimate birth. Scott wasn’t prepared to jump in to defend his brother at the moment and wasn’t even sure he wanted to remain in California with everything that had happened. He’d been tempted to wire his grandfather to let him know Catherine was alive. But he feared Harlan would use his considerable power and wealth to free her. He knew it would devastate his family if that happened, perhaps himself most of all. Yet, the guilt he felt over not supporting his mother was choking him more each day, like a steadily tightening iron collar around his throat. Shouldn’t he want his mother to be free or to have at least the best representation money could buy?

Despite the driving rains, Johnny stayed out on the range as much as he could and hung out in the barn or his room when the downpours forced him inside. Scott felt a brief tremor of guilt when, once again tonight, Johnny went right from his half-eaten supper upstairs to bed. It reminded him only too keenly of those terrible months when Murdoch was lost to them, and Johnny was so heartbroken. He felt more than saw Murdoch’s gaze trail after Johnny and then fixate on him. Prepared for a stern lecture, Scott was surprised when Murdoch murmured, “You don’t own any guilt for the terrible things Catherine did.”

The rare times Catherine’s name was mentioned, she was never referred to as his mother. Part of him understood that she had forfeited all but her biological right to the title, yet it stung. How pathetic was he to not be allowed to have a—albeit deeply flawed—mother? Even knowing Murdoch was trying to protect him, he felt the need to strike back.

“No, you seem to have claimed that right all for yourself.”

Murdoch dropped his head, wounded but not silenced. “I suppose you’re right about that. I keep going back twenty-six years, trying to figure out what signs I missed and how I could have prevented all this. And yet, I know I can’t undo what’s been done. I can’t prevent the devastation she has wreaked against this family.” The massive hands drew away from his coffee cup in a gesture of helplessness. “I feel so… inadequate as a husband, a father. I can’t… I can’t face myself in the mirror. And I have absolutely no idea how to help us all heal from this.”

Scott didn’t raise his head from his own barely touched plate.

“Maybe we can’t,” he said softly, sadly.

He jumped when both of Murdoch’s fists slammed down onto the table. “I won’t accept that! I won’t let her win by destroying our family!”

“Is that all this is to you, Murdoch? A game? A contest to see who comes out on top?” Scott shot back hotly.

“Of course not, Scott. It’s far more serious than a game. We are fighting for our lives, our very existence as a family!” Murdoch grabbed Scott’s wrist. “This is what she wanted from the very beginning, to tear us apart with her deceit and manipulations. Why are we letting her do it?”

Scott yanked his hand back. “She’s not the only one playing things to an advantage. Johnny is quite in his element, controlling access to her, using Madrid’s gunfighter friends to keep her from getting a fair trial.”

Murdoch looked at his son, stunned. “Do you really think that’s what this is about?”

“Of course, it is, Murdoch! And part of me doesn’t even blame him for wanting to see her punished for what she did to his mother, to him. But he has no right to lock her away from me and keep her from having a decent lawyer.” Scott stood, knocking his chair back and nearly over. “He might as well have arranged for his friends to have created an ‘accident’ on their way to whatever hellhole they have her in. It’s just a different version of vigilante justice!”

“Now hold on, Scott, you are out of line. The men who traveled with Catherine have nothing to do with Johnny’s past. In fact, Barnet is a trusted friend of your friend, Mitchell. And Raul is someone Johnny came to trust while trying to protect you from Catherine’s schemes. She is in a regular jail with a trustworthy sheriff and has a lawyer….”

“Come on, Murdoch, a lawyer assigned by the court going up against Jarrod and Mitchell? He’s probably either a drunk or bottom-of-his-law-school-class reject. It’s like sending a kid up against Johnny Madrid with a pop gun! He’ll be dead in the street in an instant!”

A heavy thud on the back stairs made both men turn. Johnny had sunk down onto a step halfway up, looking like he’d taken an upper cut to the jaw.

“Son?” Murdoch moved toward him. “Are you alright?”

But it was Scott that Johnny’s pained gaze turned to. Scott instantly felt remorse.

“Johnny, I didn’t mean that the way it came out.”

“Yes, you did.” The words were hoarse, ripped from a deep and painful place. “Just like you meant it in the library and at the cabin. You can say something like that once and maybe not mean it, Scott, but it’s pretty damn clear you believe I’m the gunfighter Madrid far more than your brother Johnny Lancer.” He pulled himself up using the railing and started back upstairs. “I’ll ride over to the Lindstrom’s; they’ll be needing a hand with that roof in the morning.”

“Johnny, you aren’t going anywhere tonight; it’s dark and pouring down rain,” Murdoch argued.

“Okay, I’ll bunk in the barn, so I don’t wake anyone getting an early start.” The weary voice trailed down the stairs as he trudged up.

Murdoch spun on Scott. “I know you are hurting and confused, Scott, but you have no right to take it out on your brother like that. Think back to all the times you took me to task for treating Johnny like the gunfighter he used to be. Now you’re doing the very same thing. It isn’t Johnny keeping you from knowing where Catherine is, it’s me, and I’m more than ready to take on your wrath over it.” He towered over Scott in his anger. “But only after you make it right with your brother. Because if he leaves, it’ll be you, not Catherine tearing this family apart. And you don’t want to see the wrath that will bring out in me!”

Scott gave the barn door a mighty shove with his shoulder to push it open through the cloying mud just as a cold stream of rainwater from the barn roof slithered under the upturned collar of his oilskin slicker. He stepped into the barn and gave the heavy door three forceful pushes to get it closed again.

It was dark and quiet inside, save the muted breathing and rustling of several stabled horses. Scott shook the rain from his slicker, squinting into the blackness as his eyes struggled to adjust.

He’d paced the kitchen in fury for several minutes after Murdoch had stormed out to the great room. First, he fumed at Murdoch. How dare he keep me from my mother? Then he drew Johnny back in. The two of them, locking me out, treating me like I’m too weak to handle her!

But it wasn’t long before he realized that he was mostly angry at himself. Dammit, they’re right. I can’t handle this. And I shouldn’t be taking it out on Johnny.

He’d heard quiet voices in the hallway and realized that Johnny had taken the main stairs to the front door, probably to avoid another encounter with him on the way to the barn. Murdoch was likely trying to talk Johnny out of going out in the rain. Before Scott could convince himself to join them, he heard the front door close and knew Murdoch had been unsuccessful.

It took him a few more minutes of arguing with himself before he grabbed his still-wet slicker from the peg by the back door and threw it over his head. As he stepped into the deluge, he knew he should be grateful for the rain. Without it, his brother would likely be long gone by now, perhaps for good. But Johnny wouldn’t risk Barranca in this mess and certainly wouldn’t leave the ranch without him.

It was going to be a cold and miserable night in the barn. Scott shivered, thinking about the warm kitchen he’d just left, and the blazing fire Murdoch undoubtedly had going in the great room. He felt for the lantern that was kept on a hook by the door and the tin of matches that lay beside it on the wooden ledge. Fumbling a bit with rain-slick fingers, he lit a match and then the lantern wick. Ever wary of fire in the barn, he snuffed the match between his wet thumb and forefinger before tucking it into his pocket, then raised the lantern.

The yellow light cast eerie shadows as he carefully swung it in an arc, looking for his brother. He found Johnny sitting on a haybale at the far end of the barn, close to Barranca’s stall. Scott made his way down, pausing to give Charlie a little pat when he raised his head over the stall wall and nickered a greeting.

Johnny had been braiding the leather strips of a bridle in the dark and didn’t raise his head as Scott approached. Hands trembling a bit, Scott hung the lantern on a peg and turned to lean against the wall.

He watched his brother work for a few moments, no closer to finding the right words than when he’d searched for them before leaving the house.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things.”

Johnny didn’t look up. “Don’t matter if you say them or just think them. At least this way, I know how you feel.” The sadness in his brother’s words was intense.

Scott crouched down in front of him. “But that’s just it, Johnny. They aren’t the way I feel, not at all. I’m mad at the world, and you were just an easy target.”

Johnny’s silence screamed of disbelief.

Scott continued trying to explain something he didn’t fully understand himself. “When Murdoch is angry, he bellows. Teresa cries. You get quiet, and your eyes rake us over the coals. I learned biting sarcasm at my grandfather’s knee. ‘Go for their soft underbelly, Scotty,’ I can hear him say to me. Shamefully, because you and I are so close, I know exactly how to make you hurt as much as I do.” Scott bowed his head and blew his air out. “It was a despicable thing to do to you, brother.”

Johnny’s fingers stuttered slightly in their braiding.

“I don’t know how to make this right, Johnny. But I want to. More than anything in this world. Please tell me I haven’t totally ruined what we had.”

The silence pounded in Scott’s ears.

“So you ain’t mad at me?” Johnny asked, sounding impossibly young.

“No, I’m not mad at you. I’m furious at my mother and at myself but not mad at you.”

“How can you say that, Scott?” Johnny slapped the leather down on the hay bale. “You wanna see her and I’m not letting you. You gotta be mad. I would be.”

“Murdoch said he was the one keeping me from knowing where my mother is.”

“Well, he ain’t the only one, Scott! He wants things to be good between us so he’s taking the hit, but I’m the one who came up with the plan, and Barnet and Raul work for me. If we’re gonna get through this, it’s gotta be honest. There’s been more than enough lies going around.”

“Okay, you’re right; I am upset about that.” Scott stood out of his crouch and started pacing. “But it’s more hurt than anger. Johnny, you don’t trust me. That’s what this comes down to. After everything we’ve been through together, I can’t believe you don’t trust me to do the right thing!”

“Do you trust yourself?” Johnny asked softly.

“What the hell kind of question is that?”

Johnny sighed heavily and stood up. “You and I were raised different, that’s for sure, but I think for some things we’re a lot alike. I know how much I wanted to believe my Mama didn’t lie to me about why she left. Even though I knew Teresa had no reason to lie to me, I kept looking for reasons not to believe her. If my Mama had been alive and insisted she was telling me the truth, I woulda believed her, despite what other people said. Kids wanna believe their mamas… no matter how old we are.”

“Your mother had no choice but to lie to protect you from mine.” Scott acknowledged shakily.

“Maybe, but that ain’t what I’m saying. In your place, I think I’d believe my Mama, even if her lies didn’t make sense, cuz I wouldn’t wanna believe she didn’t love me enough to tell me the truth. I’d fight you and Murdoch, even though I’d hate myself afterward for doing it. I think you’re like me in that. You wanna believe your Mama even when most of you knows she’s lying. It ain’t about me not trusting you, Scott. It’s about me not trusting her. She knows how to twist things up and I ain’t gonna let her hurt you more than she already has, even if you hate me for it.”

“She’s my responsibility.”

“Is she? If she’s anyone’s responsibility, she’s Murdoch’s. But she chose to cut herself off from that a long time ago. She doesn’t deserve you rescuing her from the consequences of what she’s done.”

“She’s my mother,” Scott whispered, sinking onto the hay bale Johnny had abandoned. The chill of that statement went straight to his bones.

He waited for Johnny to argue that she had no right to consider herself that, but instead, his brother came to sit beside him in supportive silence. That simple act released a flood of emotion that overwhelmed him. He bowed his head into his hands.

“What is wrong with me that my own mother couldn’t love me? And even my grandfather, he never cared about me, only about keeping me away from Murdoch.”

“It ain’t you, Scott. Think about it. Neither of them has a speck of love in them for anyone. It’s all about power and control.” Johnny nudged Scott’s shoulder with his. “I think you’re real strong that you came outta that such a good man, all kind and honest and the like. That’s what says something about you, not the things they did or didn’t do.”

Scott choked back a sob of emotion. “Oh, Johnny, now I feel even worse for how I’ve been treating you. How can you say such nice things about me when I’ve been such a heel?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get my payback from you soon enough. The Lindstroms still have that roof that needs fixing in the morning, and I’m planning on sleeping in.” Johnny grinned that grin that melted Scott’s heart. “And I hear you’re going to be doing it in another gully washer….”

Marlin Somerset, Esq. anxiously scanned his surroundings as he entered the telegraph office in San Diego. He’d left Rancho El Cajon under cover of darkness to avoid those pesky sentries that had the sheriff’s office under close surveillance. They were thugs, really, hired by that gunfighter Madrid to try to keep Somerset’s poor sweet client, Catherine Avery Castile, from getting a fair trial.

Although the woman’s legal name was Catherine Garrett Lancer, who could blame her for wanting to bury the surnames that had brought her such misery over the years? Oh, the things the beleaguered woman had been put through at the brutal hands of her husband, Murdoch Lancer! The barbarian had sent her off to give birth to his unwanted child in an abandoned mine town, then he told the despicable lie that she had died in childbirth so he could foist the boy off to be raised by her equally conniving father back east. While the two men thrived in luxury, sharing her inheritance, she lived under the threat that the son she so adored would likewise be dumped in some godforsaken ghost town if she ever tried to make contact. Heartbroken but willing to give her life for the boy, Catherine had struggled for years just to survive. Slowly, she rose from the ashes, then used her considerable strength and intelligence to rebuild her life and fortune.

Somerset marveled at the woman’s fortitude in the face of such adversity. She had survived abuse and abandonment to become a powerful force in the business world and in life. A force that Murdoch Lancer was trying to destroy for a second time by bribing the circuit judge who was due to arrive in a few days. He even had his gunslinger son provide two of his gun-toting friends to try to intimidate anyone trying to help Catherine. Well, Marlin Somerset, Esq. would not be intimidated! He was bound and determined that Lancer would not succeed in his evil plan.

Somerset hadn’t had the most stellar legal career to date, due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, not one of which was his fault. But the time had finally come for him to garner the acclaim his keen mind so rightfully deserved. For once, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. He had been assigned to Catherine’s case after her first lawyer, Wilson Prescott, had been recalled following his bumbling decision to have two men basically perjure themselves to gain access to Avery Castile’s fortune. Somerset wasn’t sure if Prescott had simply been an idiot or if he had been bribed by Lancer to try to lose Catherine’s case purposely.

Regardless, Somerset’s plan for helping Catherine get her money without getting tangled in the pending charges against Avery Castile was far smarter than Prescott’s. Well, Catherine suggested the plan first, but he was sure he would have come to it himself in a day or two, even without her help. Avery Castile’s assets might be frozen in California, but she had untold riches in banks in Paris and Glasgow and numerous small institutions across the states. All Catherine needed was someone she could trust—unlike that conniving Prescott, whom she said she could tell from the beginning was only after her money—to wire a special message to a contact in Yuma. The contact would then have the money wired to the trusted friend in San Diego.

After the way she had been failed and abused by so many men in her life, Somerset felt extraordinarily honored that Catherine was entrusting him with the several thousand dollars that was to be sent. Of course, he knew she’d fallen in love with him, despite the short time they’d been together. While ordinarily he would not have allowed himself to get into a relationship with a client, Catherine was exhausted from always having to fend for herself and needed him to take care of her. He couldn’t turn his back on such a poor battered soul. It certainly didn’t hurt that she was stunning even in the drab clothing sent over to the jail by the mercantile or that she was filthy rich. He wasn’t driven by money like all those other men. And Catherine would see that virtue when he faithfully delivered her funds to Harold Black, a long-time acquaintance of Somerset’s who would ensure that Catherine got a fair trial… or no trial at all.

Years back, one of those unfortunate circumstances beyond his control found Somerset under the threat of a trouncing by his client’s hired thugs if he didn’t get the man acquitted. His client was guilty as sin, and everyone knew it. Desperate, Somerset approached Black who had the reputation of being very persuasive with judges for the right amount of money. His client paid Black’s quite sizable fee, and a few days later, a very pale and trembling judge dismissed all charges against the man. Somerset didn’t know—or want to know—how Black had accomplished it, but he was relieved to leave town with all his body parts intact and a sizable sum of his own in his pocket.

When he told Catherine that he knew someone who might be able to thwart Lancer’s attempted bribery of the judge, she was understandably hesitant. She repeatedly said she didn’t want to do anything illegal and would rather go to prison than have anyone threatened or hurt on her behalf. Such a pure, innocent woman! No wonder evildoers took advantage of her. He reassured Catherine that he would never break the law or stoop so low as to harm a judge. In his mind, Somerset was telling the truth. He wasn’t going to do either thing and he had no knowledge of how Black did the things he did. Somerset imagined there were lawful ways for Black to mitigate Lancer’s influence on the judge, although he couldn’t think of any offhand.

Once the charges against Catherine were dropped, they could leave the state—hell, leave the country—and start their lives together somewhere far from the dust and smell of Rancho El Cajon. While he wouldn’t think of charging his beloved the exorbitant fee his expert handling of her case deserved, he wouldn’t object to her financing his establishment of a new law office in whatever extravagant city they chose to live in.

Somerset whistled happily as he exited the telegraph office, deciding to treat himself to a bourbon at the Horton House. After all, he reckoned, he should start getting used to a higher class of living. Smiling, he crossed the street toward the three-story building, never noticing Steve Barnet, as the ex-Marshall slid out of hiding and stepped into the telegraph office.

When the sun finally returned to the San Joaquin Valley, it did so with a vengeance. In the process of drying the saturated ground, the intense rays turned puddles into steaming hot springs and made the damp air so heavy it was difficult to breathe. Scott Lancer muttered a string of curses that would have made even him blush a year and a half ago as he watched a scrawny young steer wade right into the same mud bog from which Scott had just pulled a thousand-pound heifer. The overworked muscles in his shoulders screamed as he tossed his lasso over the steer’s head and dallied the rope.

After this one, any beeve dumb enough to slog into a mud hole will stay there until tomorrow, Scott grunted to himself as he urged Charlie to back up. Fifteen minutes and a lot of tugging and mud splatters later, the steer was free, and Scott decided to call it a day. He was exhausted from the long work days and even longer sleepless nights spent obsessing about his mother’s upcoming trial.

He glanced over to the far fenceline to see if Johnny’s day was faring any better than his. Even from a distance, Scott could see that his brother was just as plastered in mud as he was. He had the brief thought that he could get a headstart on the tub if he rode back to the hacienda now without stopping to meet up with Johnny. As tempting as that was, Scott wouldn’t risk the fragile truce they had built over the last week.

Their talk in the barn had been a critical first step, but as the trial date approached, nerves had frayed and several arguments had been rekindled. Scott didn’t understand why he kept battling feelings of guilt over his mother’s situation or why he found himself defending her in arguments, especially with Murdoch.

If only this would just be done. I need to trust that Jarrod and Mitchell will do the right thing and that she will get a fair trial, one that ensures she has consequences for her actions.

The attorneys had reassured Scott that the judge assigned to Catherine’s trial was well-respected and unimpeachable. It should have been enough.

And yet, it wasn’t.

Scott wanted to be there. He needed to hear the evidence against her presented in a calm and unbiased manner. And he needed to hear her lies again. Oh, he knew they were lies. He’d heard the truth from her very own lips as he’d waited to enter the library at the Richmond estate.

Yet, as time passed, he found all he could hear in the darkness of his room at night was her telling him she loved him, had always loved him.

And his heart ached for her.

Scott didn’t know exactly when the trial would be, but Mitchell and Jarrod had gone on to the town where it would be held, so he knew it was soon. He’d tried again to find out where she was and to convince his father and brother that he could handle attending the trial. Johnny seemed to be leaning toward his way of thinking, but Murdoch, if anything, was even more adamant that he not be told. Not only was it making things more strained between him and Murdoch, Scott was starting to see a growing rift between Johnny and Murdoch.

Scott felt guilty about that too. It had been a hard-fought battle for his brother and father to build a trusting and close father/son relationship. Far harder than it had been for Scott and Murdoch. Now, he was the reason that relationship was unraveling.

As Scott’s thoughts swirled, he saw Johnny stop work to watch an approaching rider. Scott couldn’t determine who it was from this distance, but Johnny apparently could, as he made no move toward his rig that was wrapped around the pommel of Barranca’s saddle several feet away.

By the time the rider reached Johnny, Scott had identified him as Billy, the telegraph operator’s son who had brought them that fateful package from Murdoch in September. His stomach churned as he watched Billy hand Johnny a telegram. Johnny patted his filthy pockets to show his regret that he had no tip to offer, but Billy waved him off and rode away. Likely whoever had told Billy where Johnny was working had also taken care of the tip, knowing money was usually left behind on days like this, so it didn’t end up at the bottom of a mud bog.

Johnny read the message and then raised his head to look at Scott. When Johnny didn’t motion him over, but instead fastened his rig around his hips and mounted Barranca, Scott quickly mounted Charlie, ready to intercept his brother. He had a right to know what was in that telegram!

His righteous anger was immediately quelled when, instead of heading back to the hacienda, Johnny reined Barranca around to meet up with him. The look on his brother’s face was grim.

“What is it?” Scott asked with dread.

Johnny took a deep breath and seemed to battle with himself a moment before answering.

“Barnet thinks Catherine’s lawyer has hired someone to tamper with the judge.”

Scott’s breath caught in his throat. “H…how?”

“Doesn’t say. I have to go to Rancho El Cajon.” The sapphire eyes held his intently while Scott realized Johnny had just told him where his mother was being held. “Do you want to come with me?”

The further south the brothers traveled, the more barren and severe the landscape became. While the earth was now bone-dry, evidence of recent flooding was prevalent along the way. Rivers of sand and debris frequently buried the road, forcing the stagecoach driver to pick out a new path every few miles, not an easy task with a top-heavy, narrow-wheeled coach and a skittish four-horse team. The night they’d spent in the broken down, bug-infested waystation had left Scott actually looking forward to this bone-bruising final leg of the trip. Pain and heat exhaustion were preferable in his mind to a long, sleepless night listening to critters, both large and small, skittering around in the darkness. Johnny had taken one look inside the filthy three-room shack and announced he was sleeping outside. Once the lights went down and the creatures seeped from cracks and crevices, Scott wished he had joined him.

Now, they were finally in San Diego, easing themselves stiffly to the ground, the last ones to leave the stifling coach. Johnny helped the driver pull the strongbox off the roof while Scott assisted fellow passengers retrieve their belongings from the baggage boot. The shotgun messenger had been thrown from the driver’s box during one of the coach’s rougher detours, resulting in an injured shoulder and ankle. He expressed deep appreciation to the brothers for sparing him those tasks before hobbling off to the doctor’s.

Scott nudged Johnny with his bag. “Which way?” He’d never been to San Diego before but knew Johnny was very familiar with the city. He had his eye on the impressive new three-story Horton House hotel across the way and sighed as Johnny turned in the opposite direction.

“There’s rooms over the saloon.”

“Of course there are. And probably lots of empty ones there given the two fine-looking hotels not two blocks away.”

Johnny gave a faint smile, knowing Scott was well-aware of the need for them to lay low, at least until after their meeting that night with Barnet. “Cheer up, Boston, there’s a barbershop and bathhouse up the boardwalk a bit, and the rooms have got to be better than the way-station.”

Scott raised a jaundiced eyebrow. “A very low bar, brother.”

Johnny patted his sibling on the back, raising a cloud of road dust. “I’ll buy you a beer. They’ve got some good stuff down here. There’s a man and his wife who came over from Austria and make it right on their farm. Best tasting beer I’ve ever had.”

Scott had to agree with Johnny’s assessment after they settled in a back corner of the saloon, freshly scrubbed and shaved, with steaks and the rich, foamy beer in front of them.

“Do you think we can lure the brewmasters to come up north? Or at least send up regular deliveries? It can’t be any harder to get beer from San Diego to Morro Coyo than to get Taliskers there from Scotland.”

“From what I hear, not much beer leaves the farm. Horton can’t get it into his hotel, even with all his money. The farm is way out by the cemetery. Word is, there’s a lot of mourners who visit their dead regular-like nowadays, and just happen to stop by the farm on the way home for a drink. The undertaker has even been known to take his fee in beer.” Johnny took a swig of the referenced brew. “Les here was real good to the couple when they first settled; not many were, with them being foreigners and all. So they supply Les with a few barrels to sell. And ya gotta know to ask for Christian beer here, or you get the regular swill water. Most travelers assume Christian beer is watered down for religious types. But Christian is the brewer’s name. Nice guy and his wife makes the best bread from the beer fixin’s.”

“It sounds like you’ve made a trip or two out to the farm yourself….”

Johnny smiled, spinning his beer in the circle of condensation on the table. “I might have offered to help dig a grave or two in my time….”

The smile faded abruptly, and an uneasy glance didn’t quite make it to Scott’s eyes. “Not what you’re thinking. They weren’t my gunfights…”

Scott set his beer glass down. “That wasn’t what I was thinking, Johnny,” he said quietly. But he could see in his brother’s drawn expression that his past accusations about Madrid had left wounds that had not yet healed.

Might never heal.

The silence between them was heavy.

“Anything at the telegraph office?” Scott attempted to change the subject.

“Raul says Catherine’s lawyer is back in Rancho El Cajon. Judge isn’t due there until Tuesday. He’s coming here first. Barnet will let us know the plan when we meet tonight. I wired Murdoch that we made it here.”

Another sore subject.

Murdoch was livid that Johnny had told Scott where the trial was being held, and, worse, was letting Scott go with him to Rancho El Cajon.

“I trusted you to handle this, Johnny. I told you how vital it is to our family!”

“Don’t berate him for doing what should have been done in the first place,” Scott intervened. “I’m not a child to be protected nor a threat to our family, and I’m offended to be treated as such.”

“She’s the threat to our family, Scott.”

“Yes, she is, sir. All the more reason for me to go with Johnny to attempt to mitigate that threat.”

“You can’t! Don’t you see? You’re opening the door for her manipulations again.”

“No, I don’t see it that way at all,” Scott replied stiffly.

Murdoch rounded on Johnny again. “You broke your promise to me. Ailith is putting her life on the line to testify against Catherine. You’re putting her even more at risk.”

“How is that, Murdoch?” Johnny shot back. “The biggest risk to Ailith is if Catherine’s lawyer can get to the judge. We’re gonna try to keep that from happening.”

“That’s what Raul and Barnet are for… not to mention Mitchell and Jarrod.”

“Raul can’t be in two places at once, and Jarrod and Mitchell are busy working on the case. That leaves Barnet all alone to try to head off whatever Catherine’s lawyer is trying to pull. He needs help, and I’m going. Scott wants to come with me, and that’s his right.”

Murdoch was literally trembling with emotion. “You are choosing to go against me—and against your promise to me. If Ailith is hurt again, or if that woman goes free, it’ll be on your head. Remember what I said about some things being unforgivable.”

Scott could see the remembered pain from that conversation in his younger brother’s eyes.

“Murdoch was quite brutal to you when we left,” he observed softly.

Johnny blinked several times, not looking up. “To both of us.”

“He mostly ignored me; he treated me, at best, as a non-entity, at worst, a huge liability. What exactly did you promise him?”

“Not to put you in a position of having to choose her over us.”

“What does that mean?”

“Mostly that I wouldn’t tell you where she was.” Johnny’s gaze was on the lacey patterns the beer foam had left along the sides of his nearly empty glass.

Scott’s eyes remained on his brother. “Mostly…?”

Johnny took a deep breath. “And that I wouldn’t let you do anything to help her twist her way out of going to prison for a long time.”

“How exactly were you planning to do that?” The words were ground out through a tight jaw.

Johnny slumped back in his chair. “However I had to…” He spoke in the direction of the tabletop, then raised his eyes. “I ain’t gonna pretend like I know what I’m doing here, Scott. No matter how I turn, I’m hurting you or Murdoch… or betraying Jelly and Clete… or my Mama.” He ran his finger along the rim of his glass. “Time was my reputation was all that kept me alive. Not just the reputation of my gun. My word meant something. People who didn’t know me, knew they could trust my word… and trust me. I never broke my word once, even when it meant that things didn’t always work out so good for me.” The blue eyes drifted unseeingly to the mirror over the bar. “But I broke it with Murdoch.”

Scott inhaled sharply. “Because of me….”

Johnny shook his head. “No, not because of you. Because of me. I promised him something I had no business promising. I really wanted to show him he could rely on me, that I was worthy of his trust. I knew even as I promised it that I was going to go back on my word to him. But I did it anyway.”

Scott leaned forward, sensing a rare opening into his younger brother’s deeper thoughts.

“Why did you change your mind about telling me?”

Johnny turned his head slightly, showing he’d heard the question, but his gaze remained distant.

“Because I chose you,” he said softly.

Scott froze. “What…what do you mean you chose me?”

Johnny gave a half-shrug. His death grip on his beer glass belied the casual gesture. “I don’t see this nightmare having a good ending. It’s a war both sides are going to lose. Part of me…would do anything to make Murdoch proud of me. But not at the cost of losing you.”

The air became difficult to breathe. Scott clamped his hand onto Johnny’s wrist. “That’s not a choice you have to make, Johnny!”

“Isn’t it? You aren’t planning to stay at Lancer after the trial, are you?”

How could he know that?

“I…I haven’t thought that far….” At the doubt-filled cock of Johnny’s head, Scott amended his response to a more truthful one. “I haven’t decided anything yet. It’s all been so much… I don’t even know where I’d go, what I’d do if I left. I can’t go back to Boston—not that I have that desire. For God’s sake, I haven’t even brought myself to tell my grandfather that his daughter is alive… and I thought he was the manipulative one!”

“It ain’t manipulative when you know darn well he’d think with his money and not his head. Your mother would be free in a heartbeat.” Johnny sat back as the saloon girl set fresh beers in front of them without being asked.

“That’s exactly why I haven’t told him. He’d never believe Murdoch. Worse, he’d probably enjoy learning what she did to him.”

“Until he finds out she has worse in store for him….” Johnny reached for his beer, and Scott followed suit.

Sipping the hoppy ale, Scott reviewed their conversation. Johnny knew, or highly suspected, he was uneasy about his future at Lancer. He hadn’t exactly been subtle in expressing his unhappiness with both Murdoch and Johnny, so perhaps that wasn’t a surprise. Murdoch believed his son’s anger would fade after the trial; Scott had similar hopes, although his resentment toward Murdoch seemed to grow daily. Not only did he resent his father treating him like an unstable danger to the family, there was something about Murdoch’s concern for Ailith that tweaked Scott’s feelings of abandonment. It was as if Murdoch was more interested in getting Ailith her pound of flesh and securing a future with her than he was in how the events of the last four months had impacted his son.

Scott had never been in a position to need either parent. He’d grown up in both luxury and security with his grandfather. Oh, there were many times he had longed to have a mother or father, as the other kids did. But he’d never needed them. He’d grown into a strong, independent young man capable of making his way in the world, even through a war and prison camp, without them.

So why did he feel such a driving need for them now?

He wanted the reality of finding his mother to match the image of her that had been so carefully crafted for him over the years. But more, he wanted—no needed—Murdoch to be the understanding, comforting father to help him deal with the fact that his lifelong dream of that loving mother had been brutally and irrevocably shattered.

Scott feared that if Ailith came to live at Lancer, she would be a constant reminder of all he had lost. If she didn’t, Murdoch’s resentment toward Catherine would continue to drive a wedge between them. Scott didn’t think he could bear either scenario.

Yet he loved Lancer, the land, the work, the people. He loved being part of a family, especially one that included the younger brother who sat across from him. Scott had rarely met a person who intrigued him more than Johnny did.

A hardened gunfighter with a heart of gold.

A man who’d experienced more hardship and pain than most men endured in several lifetimes, yet who retained a child’s spirit and an improbable innocence.

A brother who soothed the empty ache in Scott’s heart that had pulsed there for as long as he could remember.

“Johnny, what did you mean before about choosing me?” he asked gently.

A long silence stretched. Johnny’s fingers tapped tensely but silently in an uneven rhythm on the tabletop.

“When Murdoch was gone, I felt like I’d fallen into a deep hole and just couldn’t climb out. It seemed like this family thing was just one more lie. If he could just up and walk away—especially then, right after Jelly died—maybe nothing about family was real or something that could last. And then Teresa left….” He shook his head and then met Scott’s gaze. “But you didn’t. No matter how bad things got, you stuck it out.”

“Oh, but Johnny, I hardly made it easier on you. I got so wrapped up in my misery half the time I was taking your head off over things that weren’t your fault.”

“Nah, a few angry words with all that was going on didn’t hurt me none. Bottom line was, you stayed and kept the ranch going, and then you went to San Francisco with me, even when you thought it was a wild goose chase.”

“In which I was totally wrong….”

“Point is, you went with me because it was what I needed you to do. No one’s ever stuck by me like that. You listened to what I thought, even when it went against what made sense to you.” The restless fingers found a gouge in the wood and proceeded to direct condensation from the beer glass into it, creating a tiny pond. “After the stuff with your mother… it was just gone. The trust we’d worked so hard to build… Losing Jelly, then Murdoch, then Teresa was real hard. But losing you….” Johnny’s words were very soft against the riotous noise of the saloon patrons, but Scott heard them, felt them. “I couldn’t take that, Scott.”

Johnny cleared the emotion from his throat. “So when it came to keeping my promise to Murdoch or my promise to you… I chose you.”

“You never promised me anything about my mother,” Scott argued hoarsely.

“No, I didn’t. But the day I came back to the ranch after the stuff with Wes, I promised to be your brother…with all that carries with it. To be someone you can lean on, talk to, even yell at when you have to… someone you can trust no matter what. And, brother, that’s a promise I will never break.”

It was a surprisingly simple thing to derail Harold Black’s plan to threaten Judge Carson into dismissing the charges against Catherine. Barnet’s reputation as an ex-Marshall smoothed the way for a clandestine meeting with the judge to warn him of the impending blackmail attempt. Black’s savage threat was made during a hotel room break-in that night—and easily overheard and then thwarted by the sheriff and Johnny who had hidden out in the adjoining bedroom. The luxury suites at the Horton House accommodated the set-up quite nicely.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Marlin Somerset, Esq. had his day in court in Rancho El Cajon. It wasn’t at all the one he had anticipated. Instead of reveling in the joy of watching the much-lauded attorneys, Jarrod Barkley and Mitchell Desmond’s case against Catherine disintegrate under a tainted judge’s defense-favored rulings, Somerset found himself charged with obstruction of justice, threatening an officer of the court, and blackmail. Having been caught red-handed, Harold Black was in no way planning to go down alone, so pointed the finger directly at the lawyer who’d hired him.

Somerset was convinced throughout the relatively short proceeding that the love of his life would save him. She would explain that it was a misunderstanding or even that Lancer had set him up. Yet somehow, an entirely different woman appeared in court that morning. Catherine’s glare seeped hatred and disgust as he was dragged by her, pleading for succor. Somerset’s bowels threatened to release when the courtroom doors opened to reveal the prison wagon—with a furious Harold Black chained inside—waiting to take him to San Quentin. Behind him, Somerset could hear Catherine’s claims of innocence and ignorance of the threats against the judge, insisting she had once again been betrayed by a man she should have been able to trust.

How could she say those things after all he’d done for her? They were supposed to spend the rest of their lives together. Now, trying to avoid meeting Black’s rage-filled gaze, he wondered if he’d even survive the trip to prison.

For an anxious eight hours, it looked as though Catherine’s case would be delayed for weeks until yet another new attorney could be assigned and allowed time to prepare her defense. But Somerset’s self-serving gloating over his case preparations, and rehearsals of his opening and closing arguments, with the young attorney with whom he shared an office provided a last-minute reprieve.

Garrison Chapman was a brilliant, God-fearing, and extraordinarily competent attorney who had temporarily rented office space with Somerset to have a place to work while awaiting a business meeting at the end of the month. Although he found his office mate insufferable and arrogant, he listened intently to Somerset’s review of the evidence and his plans for defending his client. It was a compelling and complicated case. Chapman identified many holes in Somerset’s preparations, but any attempt he made to point out even the most glaring errors were angrily brushed aside. So the young lawyer bided his time until his meeting by quietly preparing what his own defense of the client would be—as weak as the case was—were he her lawyer. His father, the Attorney General of the state of Virginia, always told him he could learn almost as much from a terrible lawyer as from a brilliant one.

He was present in the courtroom for what was to be Catherine’s trial which instead became Carson’s judgment against Somerset. Upon hearing that Catherine’s case was to be continued, Chapman asked to be heard as an immediate substitute for the disgraced attorney. In chambers, he quickly demonstrated his knowledge of the case and convinced Carson he would need no more than a day or two with his client to prepare for trial. The opposing attorneys readily agreed to the brief delay, so Carson gladly granted it.

Chapman’s meeting with Catherine was as disturbing as it was enlightening. Everything in the stunning woman’s posture spoke of years of being battered down, of clawing for survival, of meekly awaiting the evil hand of fate to smack her down yet again. Her voice was timid, her gaze downcast as she expressed her gratitude to him for stepping in to help her following the serial betrayals by her previous two lawyers. Did he truly think there was any hope of defending her against high-priced lawyers like Jarrod Barkley and Mitchell Desmond?

Chapman assured Catherine that his youth belied a sound history of defending complex cases. In fact, his recent success in just such a matter was behind his serendipitous presence in Rancho El Cajon. He was actually scheduled to meet with Judge Carson at the end of the week to discuss a prestigious District Attorney appointment in Los Angeles county, a fact that had already been disclosed to the opposing counsel without objection. It would only benefit Chapman’s future aspirations to acquit himself well in her trial before Judge Carson. Catherine practically glowed upon hearing that revelation.

The glow quickly dimmed as Chapman pressed her repeatedly for any way to refute the damning evidence against her. Her well-rehearsed tales of woe did not move him. He ignored her subtle, and then not so subtle, flirting. Frustrated, Catherine went all in, displaying a very impressive pout.

“Do you really think someone like me could do all those terrible things and amass all that money after having been abandoned penniless by my husband?” A manufactured tear slid down one cheek.

Chapman tilted his head as he met Catherine’s tearful gaze. He knew this was the moment of truth… brutal truth.

“Honestly, yes. I not only believe that you could… I believe you did.”

And there it was.

The transformation.

Gone was the frail, vulnerable shell of a woman, and in her place materialized a viper.

“How dare you ask to become my lawyer when you’re already convinced of my guilt! You even admit to having it in with the judge. I’ll demand a new attorney!” Catherine jumped up from her chair, her eyes wild. “Do you know who my father is? Harlan Garrett. You bragged about going to Harvard; you certainly recognize the name. Whatever favor you hope to garner with this old broken down circuit judge will mean nothing once my father’s attorneys trounce you into the ground. If you don’t want to see your legal career turned to ash, you’ll wire him immediately to send your replacement!”

Chapman casually leaned back in his chair. “Ah, now there’s the bite of Avery Castile that I’ve heard so much about. ” The steely gray eyes took on a hardness of their own. “Unfortunately, Castile’s appearance will not help your case in the least. I can do exactly as you demand of me, ma’am, but I imagine the consequences of doing so will be far worse than those of the course of action that I propose.”

Chapman’s calm shook Catherine out of her furor. She seemed stunned to realize he wasn’t the wet-behind-the-ears hick lawyer she’d expected to manipulate to her will. He curtly nodded to her abandoned chair.

“If you would…”

Catherine retook her seat, shoulders erect, chin raised, understanding that this was an adversary she could meet on equal ground. But she would give no quarter.

“I’m listening.”

Chapman allowed himself a moment to be impressed by her regal bearing and newly calm demeanor.

“A larger case can be lost by a lawyer wasting time trying to defend indefensible lessor charges.” He scanned his prolific notes. “The evidence that you threatened and blackmailed Ailith Dunbar is quite compelling. Her testimony will be damning.”

“She’s a weak little wretch who will do anything to convince Murdoch Lancer to validate their sham of a wedding.”

Chapman’s lips twitched up. “Perhaps. But she’s your best path to possibly avoid a series of trials that will land you in prison until your beauty and accumulated wealth have shriveled to nothingness.”

Catherine flinched at the terrible imagery. “How so?”

“You’ll get exactly one play at being the poor little rich girl who married a selfish man, was abandoned, and then acted badly out of your desperation to see your beloved son after decades of enforced separation. I recommend you use it to admit you were wrong to threaten and extort Miss Dunbar and plead for leniency from the court. The kidnappings and other charges against you cannot be raised in this jurisdiction. Despite his feelings about your, I mean Black’s, attempt to threaten him, Judge Carson will follow the letter of the law on that. As Miss Dunbar was physically unharmed in this jurisdiction, leniency is a possibility. First offense, a woman with no financial resources….” Chapman raised a cynical brow as his thoughts corrected: no current access to vast financial resources. “If leniency is granted, we might only get a sentence of a year or two, which I would ask to have served at the new women’s reform cottage in Fresno. The matron there holds the strong belief that women who commit crimes do so as innocent victims of male seduction. When they are abandoned into poverty, they have no other option for survival. The focus at the cottage is redemption over punishment. Her approach seems sympathetic to your… proclaimed situation. Of course, I can’t promise any of this. The decision will be Judge Carson’s.”

A slow smile coursed its way across Catherine’s face, curdling Chapman’s morning coffee in his gut. “…who already knows what a terrible time I’ve had with unscrupulous attorneys. I’m sure he’ll be lenient with me.”

“One can hope,” Chapman gritted. “I’m certain a resourceful woman such as yourself could use any time served to adequately prepare for the forthcoming litigation in other jurisdictions….”

“If there is any. I suspect that once Murdoch sees that I have made nice with his little…diversion, he’ll decide not to press charges against me. I’m sure he doesn’t want to force poor traumatized Scott to testify against his own mother and certainly won’t want to risk having the gunfighter and his hooligans on the stand.”

“Murdoch Lancer might not need to press charges; the state may do so on its own. Do remember that Mitchell Desmond himself witnessed you holding a weapon on Lancer while he was bound and gagged. And I’m afraid several of your ex-employees are champing at the bit to testify against you.”

Catherine waved a negligent hand. “I’m sure that desire can be mitigated with the right financial persuasion. I could tell by the tone of your comment earlier that you know I am not the indigent damsel in distress that they made me out to be.”

“That they made you out to be?” Chapman echoed sardonically.

Catherine allowed an enigmatic smile. As she started to speak again, he interrupted.

“And I will assume I misheard the words ‘financial persuasion’ regarding your ex-employees. I will not be a party to witness-tampering, and would report any knowledge of it to the judge.”

“Ah, a lawyer with a conscience, a highly unusual breed.”

“Not as unusual as you might think… or perhaps have experienced, given your first two lawyers.”

“Prescott was an idiot who couldn’t see past getting his share of Avery Castile’s fortune. And Somerset tried to hide his incompetence by bribing the judge. I definitely have not had luck with lawyers so far.” She placed her hand on Chapman’s wrist, rubbing it suggestively. “But I feel my luck has changed. I’m sure that with the right attorney….”

Leaning forward, Chapman carefully extricated himself from her hold.

“…which will not, under any circumstances, be me.” His voice was low and tight but completely calm. “Do not mistake my suggested path for this phase of litigation as compassion, or worse, collusion. You are an evil, conniving bitch who deserves to rot in the unsegregated section of San Quentin for the rest of your life for what you have done to innocent people, including your own son!”

Catherine’s eyes opened wide at the man’s vehemence. She started to protest but hesitated as Chapman raised a cautionary hand.

“However…” Pulling back, he graced her with a tight smile. “You are the evil, conniving bitch that I have committed to defend to the best of my ability on this one case.” He carefully collected his papers and closed up his pen and ink traveling case. “I’ve laid out my plan for doing that. Compare it against what is liable to happen if you contact your father, the great and wealthy Harlan Garrett. A man whose excellent lawyers will undoubtedly dig into the evidence against you even more deeply than I have, including certain actions that Avery Castile took against several of Garrett’s business interests in and around Boston. Your choice.” Chapman stood. ”If you still wish to request my removal from your case, I will not object. In fact, I may well celebrate my good fortune with a lovely bottle of champagne. If not, I will see you in court in the morning.”

Chapman shoved his things into his work valise and exited the holding cell. He managed to make it outside and behind the jailhouse before he vomited.

The meeting house that served as the courtroom for Catherine’s trial was stunned to silence. Chapman had given the judge and other attorneys the heads-up that Catherine was changing her plea. Suspicious that this attorney was as crooked as the two before him, everyone expected some dramatic courtroom escapade: a secret witness suddenly revealed at the last moment, a psychiatrist richly paid to announce that Catherine was incompetent to stand trial and must immediately be sent to one of the luxurious sanatoriums in Chicago or Richmond to recover.

But no one was prepared as she meekly stood beside her attorney and quietly pleaded guilty to the charges of extortion and threats against life. She apologized to Ailith, saying, “In my desperation to try to get back what was taken from me years ago, I used you abominably and caused you great pain. I am deeply sorry for that and will accept whatever punishment the judge sees fit to invoke.”

The stunned silence was only broken by frantic dual objections from Jarrod and Mitchell when Chapman requested that any sentence be carried out at the Women’s Cottage of Reform and Redemption in Fresno.

“Your Honor, the defendant has pending litigation on multiple additional counts of extortion, kidnapping, assault and battery….” Mitchell sputtered.

“Any such allegations have absolutely no bearing here,” Chapman countered. “There are just two charges before this court today to which my client has willingly pleaded guilty. That alone can be considered in His Honor’s ruling.”

“The Women’s Cottage of Reform and Redemption is an experimental program intended for women who have committed minor crimes such as prostitution or adultery…not extortion and threats against life!” Jarrod argued.

Chapman offered no argument to that. His duty was to present Catherine’s plea and request for leniency, and to ask that she be sentenced to a segregated prison. He truly believed that women should not serve time in San Quentin in the same cell blocks as men—including murderers and rapists—although if any woman could hold her own in that horrific environment, it was Catherine Avery Castile.

Judge Carson announced a brief recess to form his ruling. Jarrod and Mitchell spent the entire time trying to calm an irate Johnny, while both Scott and Ailith separately sat in numb shock. Ailith would not have to testify, and neither would Catherine. All the anticipation, anxiety, and dread of the last two months had been for nothing. There would be no battle for justice, no refuting the lies that had spilled so effortlessly from Catherine’s lips.

Carson returned a mere ten minutes later, settling soberly behind the raised bench and calling the court back to order.

“Mrs. Lancer, please stand for my ruling.”

Catherine started to object to the name but was silenced quickly by Chapman. He drew her up with a hand to her elbow to stand beside him. Lancer was still her legal name, no matter how much she wished it wasn’t.

“This court accepts your guilty plea to the charge of blackmail of Ailith Dunbar. However, your request for leniency is soundly denied. The level of cunning, manipulation, and viciousness involved in your crime does not lend itself to belief in the quiet desperation you claim drove your actions. Certainly, the pain and fear you caused Miss Dunbar is reason enough to disclaim leniency.”

Catherine’s face grew pale. A slight tremor began to overtake her lithe form.

“The maximum sentence allowed for this crime is three years. And that is the sentence I now pronounce.”

Catherine’s quiet gasp echoed in the room’s somber hush.

“As for the location of your incarceration, the members of the court should know that I am a strong proponent of the reform movement as it relates to separating men from women in the penal system.”

The slender shoulders relaxed. Three years sounded terrible, but Catherine was willing to bet she’d be out in less than one. Her story would play well at the women’s reformatory, and all she needed was a better lawyer to get her off. The other charges would surely be dropped once she granted Murdoch’s divorce, and he and Ailith were all cozy at the ranch. Fresno was close enough that Scott could visit. She was sure he would. She’d almost had him back at that ramshackle cabin. He’d only been with Murdoch a year. It wouldn’t be hard to unravel that bond in a few visits. In fact, she suspected he had one foot out the door already, especially now that he’d seen his gunfighter brother in action.

The judge was speaking again. Catherine reluctantly pulled herself back into the room.

“…segregating women in their own section of the building, which may not be ideal, but meets an acceptable standard of separation. So I hereby pronounce that Mrs. Lancer’s sentence will be carried out at San Quentin.”

Catherine blinked.

No, that wasn’t right. Chapman said it would be at The Women’s Cottage of Reform and Redemption. Yes, I’m sure there was something about a cottage…

She looked at Chapman pleadingly. Cool gray eyes offered little comfort as they turned to her after the fall of Carson’s gavel, ending the proceeding.

“Your father’s attorneys can’t appeal a guilty plea, but perhaps the location of your incarceration….”

“You bastard!” she shrieked, pummeling Chapman with her fists until the sheriff intervened and secured her wrists with chains. He led her outside to the waiting prison wagon, which had hurriedly been summoned from San Diego, as the first wagon was still on its journey to San Quentin with Somerset and Black inside.

“Too bad they couldn’t have held that prison wagon for two days and saved everybody a trip,” the sheriff muttered. “Watch your head there, ma’am, a bit of a low covering.”

The first thing that assailed Catherine as she awkwardly settled onto the wooden bench of the wagon was the stench—a vile combination of vomit, urine, feces, and body odor, strangely fragrant despite barred openings on all four sides of the wagon.

How could this be happening, she wondered numbly, as the wagon took off with a lurch that thunked her head against the wall, only a fraction short of hitting the bars. As she stared back at the shrinking view of the courthouse, Scott stepped out onto the boardwalk. She could detect the strain in his fine features even from a distance. She threw herself toward the back of the wagon and called out, “I love you, son. I did this all for you…for us. Please help me…”

He simply stared at her, flinching as she extended her hands desperately toward him as far as they could go between the bars before the chain at her wrists caught. She shouted another “I love you” as they pulled out of earshot.

Okay, that’s as much as I can do on that front.

She settled herself back on the seat, calmly dusting off her skirt. It would be a long drive, plenty of time to make her plans. She’d strategized herself out of tight spots before—maybe not quite this tight—but she still had a few tricks up her sleeve.

The first to mind was the two young, and not at all unattractive, men driving the wagon and holding guard. A little warmth and special attention on a cold night on the road while sharing her sad story…

Possibilities. Yes, definite possibilities.

Scott Lancer blinked in the bright afternoon sun as he watched the departing wagon fading in the distance. He was shaken by his mother’s emotional entreaty, even though his logical brain knew it was a calculated act.

After nearly two months of anxiety and dread around this day, he thought he should feel relieved. Catherine had admitted her guilt—at least as it related to Ailith—and an appropriate punishment had been meted out. He certainly wasn’t glad she was being sent to San Quentin, but at least he was reassured that the women had their own living area, separate from the men. As much as he wanted her to pay for her crimes, he couldn’t in good conscience have stood silently by while she was imprisoned with men. He was shocked that the practice of segregation, reformed for over a decade back east, was only newly implemented in the west.

Still, it wasn’t relief he felt.

His mother’s brief and anticlimactic court appearance had instead left him feeling frustrated and empty. He’d needed to hear her lies again, needed to feel anger—maybe even hatred—toward her to dispel the sense of longing that continued to cripple his thinking and thwarted his attempts to reconstruct the relationships he’d had with his father and Johnny.

He felt a presence behind him and knew it was his brother without turning. Johnny gave his shoulder a wordless but supportive squeeze. After a long silence, while the dust from the wagon wheels settled back to earth, Scott murmured, “What am I supposed to do now?”

“I hear there’s some pretty good fishing at the river that runs through those hills. Elias at the livery has a cabin we can use for a few days, and Miss Jessa at the cafe said she’d send us up there with a basket of her fried chicken and cornbread. I already got us each a bottle from Hal at the saloon, but I sorta drank a lot of mine last night to settle my stomach, so I’d best run and get another if we’re going.”

A slow smile touched Scott’s lips. “You had it all planned already?”

“Well, only if that’s what you wanna do. We ain’t gotta do any of it…except, of course, I got the bottles, but we can drink them anywhere. We could ride up to Julian. There’s supposed to be some wild gambling houses there. One even has a show of girls dancing, which I ain’t never seen but would sure like to. Or we could head back to San Diego to wait for the stage, drink us more of that good Christian beer and even rent us some rooms in one of them fancy hotels you wanted to stay in.”

Scott’s eyes drifted across the street to where Mitchell and Jarrod were escorting Ailith to the office they had been using. They had expected the trial to take a few days, so they would now need to arrange Ailith’s return to the mission.

Johnny’s easy camaraderie had drawn him out of his momentary self-pity and helped him regain himself. He suddenly knew without a doubt where he wanted to be and with whom. He could genuinely see Ailith now, not as a threat to the bonds he’d built with Johnny and Murdoch but as much a victim of Catherine’s ruthlessness as they all had been.

“We should introduce ourselves to Ailith and offer to escort her back to the mission, or if we can convince her, up to the ranch.”

“Really, with all those other choices, that’s what you wanna do?”

Despite the incredulity in Johnny’s voice, Scott saw only absolute pride in his brother’s eyes when he turned. There was no greater salve for his wounded heart. He draped his arm across Johnny’s shoulder and guided him off the boardwalk.

“Perhaps, if we’re lucky, Murdoch will meet us halfway, and—only to give them some much-needed privacy, of course—we could offer to go home by way of Monterey. I hear they have some lovely hotels there and just built a pier especially for fishing.”

Johnny crossed his arm over to Scott’s shoulder. “Sounds like a plan to me, brother.”

As they turned to catch up with the others, Johnny noticed Ailith stop abruptly, her gaze fixed upon a rider coming into town. He caught his breath, recognizing the unmistakable figure. “Looks like Murdoch decided to come more than halfway to meet up with us.”

Scott followed his gaze. Johnny saw myriad emotions flash across his brother’s face in an instant: surprise, anger, confusion…longing.

Murdoch caught sight of both parties at the same time as they stood on opposite sides of the street. It was clear to Johnny that Murdoch was torn over where to head first. As the older man locked on Ailith’s eyes, their passion was unmistakable. Johnny’s heart sank, realizing what choice Murdoch would make, in fact, had made clear even back at the ranch. The marriage might not be legal, but Ailith was Murdoch’s wife, and her well-being was paramount. He could feel the slump of his brother’s shoulders as Scott realized the same thing and started to turn away.

Murdoch dismounted, nodding briefly to Ailith, who smiled slightly and nodded in return. “Boys!” he called out, quickly crossing to them and uncharacteristically pulling them both into a bear hug. “I’m sorry it took me so long.”

Taking a stunned Scott by the upper arms, he scanned the drawn features. “I don’t know what I was thinking, not being here for the trial. Even though Jarrod said I couldn’t be in the courtroom, I need to be here to support you, son. Are you alright? Is the trial going okay?”

When Scott could do nothing more than stare into his father’s worried eyes, Johnny offered quietly, “It’s over, Murdoch. Catherine pleaded guilty, she got three years in San Quentin.”

“She pleaded guilty?” Murdoch gasped. “San Quentin?”

“She asked for leniency but the judge wasn’t buying it. Her second attorney got caught red-handed threatening the judge, so they gave her a new one.” Johnny quickly reviewed the events of the last few days. He was elated that Murdoch had come and relieved that their father had put Scott’s need for him above his desire to see Ailith again.

Scott drew himself up, pushing his overwhelming emotions back under years of decorum. “Thank you for coming, sir. I’m sure you are anxious to see Ailith. I’m afraid that with all that has happened, we’ve been remiss in introducing ourselves to her and we were just on our way to do so. We’ll give you some privacy first, but perhaps, if she is willing, we could meet for lunch at the cafe. Miss Jessa is a wonderful cook, and Johnny, of course, has already wheedled himself into her good graces.”

Murdoch followed Scott’s gaze across the street, although Ailith was no longer on the boardwalk. He glanced at Johnny, who cocked his head toward the now-empty meeting hall. Murdoch nodded, taking Scott by the arm and turning him toward the open door. “In a bit. Let’s sit down and talk for a few minutes. I have some heavy-duty apologizing to do…” His eyes met Johnny’s. “…to both of you. And I need to hear how you are doing with all this.”

Johnny touched Murdoch lightly on the arm, conveying that his presence and concern for Scott was all the apology Johnny needed. “You two go. I’ll take care of Toby and maybe try to catch a nap in the hotel room before lunch.” He grinned. “For some reason, I didn’t sleep too well last night. Come get me for lunch.”

The End

February 2023


Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email chrischime directly.



17 thoughts on “Reverberations by chrischime

  1. Oh, Chris, I love, love, love this story! There is just too much to say about it! You’ve conveyed the emotions for each character perfectly- from Scott’s confusion over his mother, wanting to know her, and the love only a mother can give that was denied him, to Murdoch’s frustrations, and mostly Johnny’s position of ‘damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t’. Your writing style is incredible and took me on an exciting Lancer ride. I’ll be reading Dichotomy and Reverberations again!


    1. Diana: That is amazing praise from a wonderful writer like you. I put the Lancer men in these terrible situations… and then feel bad for them! Is that crazy? I do love the warmth and protectiveness that comes alive when they are worried about each other. Thank you for your ever-present friendship and support. Chris

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Cannot believe you will leave this great story here! Catherine is too devious to wait in San Quentin and Murdoch and his new ‘wife’ need to make decisions. Harlan May just get involved and Johnny and Scott still need to settle things finally. Loved the plot and the writing (as always). Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pauline: You mean you don’t think Catherine will quietly submit to her three years at San Quentin? Maybe she’ll get time off for good behavior… or not. It would be interesting to see Harlan’s reaction to his angelic daughter’s demonic turnaround. He’d probably find a way to blame it on Murdoch! Thanks for reading and taking the time to write a note.


    1. Patricia: Thanks for letting me know you are intrigued enough to want another installment, lol. Time will tell what evil Catherine might conjure.


  3. What a great read. Could not put it down, and will anxiously await the next “chapter”. Very well written intriguing story.


  4. Chris, first of all I want to thank you for a really imaginative story, and having Catherine be the villain was so brilliant and fun. I love an angst-y Scott. Well written and impossible to put down. Just one question: how was Johnny able to recognize Scott’s mother when at best he only had a photograph 25+ years old? Just made me wonder…still loved the story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RonD, Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the story. I added a key element to the story when I posted it on the Gateway. For their first Christmas, Murdoch had portraits done of Catherine, Maria, and Paul and hung in the dining room so each of his children would have both parents with them at dinner each night. Scott was noted to indeed have Catherine’s eyes, but her smile was pure Harlan’s… It’s good to have astute readers to keep us honest, lol.


  5. Great series, I rather liked Chapman. While Johnny seemed to be a tat too accepting of Scott’s behavior towards him, his explanation that he “chose” Scott was convincing. The evil Catherine was an interesting twist


    1. I appreciate you taking the time to let me know you enjoyed the story. I don’t think Chapman’s actions would hold up to today’s legal standards, but it was good for Catherine to get a taste of her own medicine. Johnny understood only too deeply how Scott felt after finding out about his mother’s deceit, and was more tolerant of his brother’s anger than he otherwise might have been. The brotherly bond won out (as it always must, lol) as did the father/sons one. Nice to hear from you!


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