“Sam called it a brain hiccup.”
Johnny had emerged from the hacienda the moment Scott’s feet hit Lancer land. Wearing a mien of pinched frustration. the younger brother insisted on a private conversation before going inside where females are ruling the roost. Now, with folded arms, Scott leaned against one of the barn posts supporting the rafters above and absorbed the retelling of Doc Jenkins’ diagnosis.
“That call’s got a whiff of manure stuck to it, if you ask me.” The toe of Johnny’s boot pushed aside some loose hay that had filtered down from the loft above. “You thinkin’ the same?”
“I’m thinking I’m not a doctor.” Not the best response he could’ve given to address the edginess in his little brother’s voice which was currently driving the discussion. Stepping into their father’s shoes, Scott suggested the man’s often spoken advice. “Why don’t you start at the beginning. When did this happen?”
“The day you left. Jelly was with him and said -”
Scott’s brow gathered at the sound of the very last name he wanted to hear.
A scowl countered. “Yeah, I know what you’re gonna say.”
“Jelly Hoskins hammers out a straight story like a cross-eyed blacksmith.”
The out-of-step remark hit its target with the intended reaction. As his head cocked to one side, Johnny’s mouth slowly etched out a crooked grin, releasing a soft whoosh of air. “I was betting on some wise words from that poet fella.”
“Even Emerson gives pause when it comes to Hoskins.” The small jests were given in hopes of easing his little brother’s agitation so as to nudge words down a different path. “Why don’t you tell me what you know, not what Jelly said.”
“I know the old man is lying up there looking grayer and…” The sentence traveled through the barn’s slotted, dusty rays of light and toward the hacienda. “I swear to God, brother, he looks smaller.”
Murdoch Lancer looking smaller - an impossible vision. Scott let silence hang in the air between them to gather thoughts before offering encouragement. “Go on.”
“It's been a struggle to keep him in bed and I don’t see his stubbornness allowin’ that for much longer. Jammed his bad leg when he fell -”
“Off his horse. Jelly said the animal started a skittish sidestep - that Murdoch seemed confused - didn’t know where he was.”
“Well, if he hit his head when he landed -”
“Jelly’s sayin’ the old man’s confusion happened before he fell.”
Travel fatigue wrapped itself around Scott’s clarity. Before, not after. What the hell?
“I shoulda been there.” Johnny swept his arm out in front of him. “Instead, I’m at a mission building a goddamn oven.”
“And I bet I’m in Sacramento kicking up my goddamn heels. And those calls have a whiff of a whiskered curmudgeon stuck to them.”
“We should be grateful Jelly was with him.”
“And ashamed we weren’t?” Scott pinched the bridge of his nose. Fatigue had squeezed the stuffing out of clarity and was gaining a stranglehold on the patience needed to unravel the damage done by Jelly Hoskins’ finger pointing. “Did Sam mention checking up on Murdoch again?”
“Said he’d ride back out in a day or two. I s’pect we might see him before supper.”
“All right. The man can stay for a meal, a scotch and to answer a few questions.” Scott pushed off from his barn post lean and settled a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Questions from us - family. No Jelly and his opinions. Not this time. Agreed?”
“Yeah… agreed.” A reluctant grin welcomed back its customary casual drawl. “I’ll get the boys to start up a poker game and invite Jelly. A few silvers from us might persuade them to let a cross-eyed blacksmith win a couple hands so he stays put.”
“Good.” A quick shake to his brother’s shoulder approved the strategy. “I consider that to be money well spent.” Scott’s gaze traveled the same path to the hacienda Johnny’s had taken earlier. “So, the females have gained the high ground on convalescing. No doubt a force to be reckoned with.”
“They’re driving the old man loco.”
A smile was allowed to surface. “I’ll try to negotiate a reprieve on his behalf.”
Entering through the courtyard and bounding up the stairs undetected was a good omen which gradually dissolved as Scott’s strides carried him down the hall to his father’s bedroom. Puffed cheeks followed by a heavy sigh commented on Kinsey’s voice resonating through Murdoch’s closed door.
“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.”
Evidently the steps to good health included broadening the convalescent’s horizons through the healing power of women poets. A real medical miracle when applied to a man who preferred Melville. A quick wooden rap with the knuckles, a turn of a brass knob and Scott stepped in.
“You’re home!” The reciting nursemaid sat in a cushioned chair, her poetry book held at arm's length for a touch of drama. Kinsey’s bright smile did little to hide the shaded crescents under her eyes.
“I am.” In sharp contrast to his cousin’s enthusiasm was the gentleman propped up in bed donning the persona of a miserable, unwilling captive audience. “How’s our patient?”
“Gruff. Obstinate. Cantankerous.”
“Sounds like he’s well on the road to recovery.” On the contrary, Scott found Johnny’s description of their father quite accurate. Standing beside the chair, he leaned down for an important consultation with the poetic caregiver. “Why don’t you allow me a few quiet minutes with the man. Perhaps I can recommend additional attributes for your list.”
“Yes, of course.” Rising to the snap of her closed book, a final directive was given to the tune caller. “Rest, you mule!”
Murdoch’s grunt sufficed as an answer, not committing to a yes or no.
Scott gifted a brotherly kiss on the top of his cousin’s head, followed by a thumb jab over his shoulder. “You best get out of here before that mule turns back into a bull. And don’t wander far. You and I need to have a talk.”
The click of a closed door prodded the Lancer patriarch to find his voice. “Tell me, which child ignored my request and summoned you home? I doubt if it was your cousin, Emily Dickinson. She’s committed to deafening my ears with continuous verse. And certainly not my ward, Clara Barton. She's occupied with drowning me in barrels of chicken broth and weak tea. That leaves your brother. Benedict Arnold.”
Scott grinned as he claimed Kinsey’s relinquished seat. “Don’t you mean your youngest son?”
“Today he’s your brother.”
“Noted.” Crossing ankle to knee, Scott relied on his relaxed posture to scrutinize his father without discovery. It was apparent the man had reached his threshold of unwanted attention. “Any particular reason why I shouldn’t be back at the ranch?”
“Other than my wishing to avoid your obvious and unnecessary scrutiny?”
Scott cleared his throat. So much for a relaxed posture. “Fine. Why don’t you tell me what happened and ease my unwarranted concern?”
“The horse stumbled. I fell. End of story. And don’t sit there and claim your backside never left a saddle and hit the ground.”
“You won’t hear it from me, sir. I’d like to think I’m not pompous…” Humor tried its hand at healing. “Just judgmental.”
The upturned corners of Murdoch’s mouth softened wrinkles. “Sam’s due out here and, by God, he’s not leaving until he releases me from this prison.”
“Good to know. I’ll ask Maria to ready a room for the doctor since he’ll be staying for a few days.” A grin kept time with raised brows.
“You not only have your mother’s eyes, but you have also inherited her subtle smirk.” Adjusting his sitting position produced a flinch on the patriarch’s face, redefining the creases.
Scott stood, reached out and was met by his father’s rejection of assistance. “Sit down. I’m fine.” A pillow shifted and the patient settled back. “How was Sacramento?”
Mule. Slowly reseating himself, Scott agreed with Kinsey’s diagnosis over Jenkins’. “It went well. Mr. Stanford is open to discussions with the cattlemen, as soon as next month.”
“And your personal view of the man?”
“I’m uncertain if he’s a business-minded politician or a political-driven entrepreneur.”
“Don’t be in a hurry to make up your mind. They both need to be closely watched.” The patriarch retrieved his teacup from a small bedside table and took a sip, resulting in a disapproving review. “Needs a shot of the good stuff.” The cup returned to its post. “I understand Jane Stanford is a worthy billiards opponent… among other things.”
“Worthy, indeed.” Evidently, Emily Dickinson had recited more than just poetry. “Mrs. Stanford has a firm grasp on the importance of voicing an honest opinion and possessing a good listening ear.”
“How was the menu at the Arcade Hotel?”
The menu? Scott questioned whether his inherited subtle smirk could be completely credited to Catherine Garrett considering the one his father now displayed. “The menu was the same as I remembered from my last visit. Interesting appetizers. Spicy entrees. Sweet desserts. I think you would approve of the selections.”
“I believe I would. I hear the Arcade’s food is damn good too.” A growl of hunger rumbled from under the quilt. “Do me a favor. Go down to the kitchen and remind that little girl commandeering the stove of the Good Lord turning water into wine. Then suggest she try her hand at turning broth into beef.”
“And why do I sense I’ll be Daniel entering the lion’s den?” Scott’s teasing suspicious tone cloaked his relief of seeing a bit of color returning to his father’s face.
“Son, let’s stick with the New Testament for now, shall we?”