The Loser

by Wendell Jackson

Copyright© 2018 by Wendell Jackson

Action/Adventure Story: Head of family must solve murders of own members.

Tags: Western   Detective  

The story told to all that would listen, was of old Jim Lancer and how he found the fabled Lost River Canyon. He was following a wounded Elk, that just wouldn’t go down. After tracking it most of the day, he found himself surrounded by tall cliffs. The wounded animal was cornered and succumbed to Jim’s final shot. It was so late in the day, that Jim made camp right there. A fire kept predators at bay that night. Jim tired, finally laid down the skinning knife and rolled up in the hide for a nights sleep.

The next day, Jim wasn’t sure of the way out, so he started following a strong flowing stream. He was sure it would flow out of the heavy wooded canyon, but after a quarter mile, it simple flowed into the ground and ended there. That was how the canyon got its name, and Jim was able to find his way out. He would return later to home stead the canyon.

The upper end, had several meadows, just right for crazing cattle. The meadows couldn’t feed a large herd, but it was a start, and later he was able to claim the lands at the canyon mouth, which enabled larger herds.

That was the way it was told to the younger generations, and it might all be true. Course Old Jim Lancer had a way of stretching the truth, so one couldn’t be sure. One thing was certain, and that was, The Lancer spread was the largest this side of the cascades. The adjacent ranches had water, from other creeks and streams, but none flowed like the lost canyon river.

Not all the water disappeared into the ground. Jim started digging channeled ditches, to carry water to the other ranch properties. Later on, a few wells were dug for the ranch buildings. Timber was harvested off its lands to build the houses and corrals. Most fencing was done with barbed wire, and kept sections from being over grazed.

The years passed, and the ranch grew and improved. The first world war brought good prices for cattle. All the ranches made profits those years. Most spent the money as it came in, but the family of Old Jim Lancer, saved and put some back into improving the ranch. The hard times following the war, was a drain on saved profits. The Lancer ranch was no exception, but it carried through when many failed.

Lee Lancer, the family head at the time, was able to enlarge the ranch again, by buying sections from the neighbors when they began selling out. There were those that resented The lancers, but as Lee said, they didn’t have to sell to him. The fact that Lee offered the best price, had everything to do with it. The brand was a large L with a an L crossing it. Most called it the Bar L, but the family referred to it as the Lee Lancer brand.

Lee Lancer helped pay the collage education for several nephews and nieces. The extended family slowly left the ranch as life with an education was easier than ranching. When Lee passed away there wasn’t much of a struggle for control. A husband of a grand daughter wanted to take the reins but it didn’t set well with the other grand children, who were men at that time. Most felt that it should stay in the hands of one with the Lancer name.

Mark Lancer finally announced that he was taking over, and offered to buy the others out. Where he got the money, no one knew. He later told his sister, that their father left it for just that purpose, but that was a lie. He’d bought a corner section of timber land from the State Forestry dept, and sold the timber. It was all on paper and he never paid for the land until after selling the timber. He kept quiet about it, as he didn’t want others to get the same idea.

Course the cousins were not happy on being cut out of ownership, but what was done was done. The brother in-law, Jacob Howard would leave the ranch after that, but often returned after failing at his endeavors. He wasn’t successful at anything he tried. Most were get rich quick schemes that never worked out. Low on funds, he got his wife Angela to ask Mark for money. Mark was blunt when he told her no. If Howard needed money, he could work for it. There was plenty to do around the ranch, and he could start earning his keep. Nothing more was said about needing money, but Jacob Howard continued to do nothing, day after day. Angela did her share of keeping the ranch up and running. So Mark didn’t say anything about making Jacob leave. The sister was needed and did more than her share.

Then tragedy struck in the form of a killer. One that killed from concealment. Two of the Lancer cousins were shot while moving cattle from the high meadows, to the winter range. It was suspected the deaths had to do with control of the ranch. There had been talk of breaking the ranch into smaller sections with three of the cousins taking owner ship. With seven males that wanted owner ship. One of them, must be the killer.

The Bodies of Fred and Larry Lancer were interned in the family grave yard. A tall cross marked the location on the rise behind the house. A constant reminder of death each time one looked in that direction. The white picket fence had to be enlarged for the added graves. Which caused the Sheriff to remark, “ It should be made large enough to hold the rest of the family too. He was sure there would be more deaths before it was all over.

Snow was falling again, as Mark Lancer stood looking out the large front window. Snow wasn’t a worry for him as it was late in the season and wouldn’t last long even if it did stick. Most of the herd was wintering south Lost River Canyon. He’d have to ride out later in the week to check on them. There was always some unforseen problem that rose up, especially when all seemed to be going well. Nothing had been heard from the fence rider, but that wasn’t unusual as they often kept to themselves. It was a lonely job, but well paid, plus a bonus for staying the whole winter.

The last fence rider had quit, at least that was the opinion every one come up with, when they last checked on him. The line shack was empty, and all his belongings were gone. It was logical to believe he’d pulled out. It wasn’t uncommon for a man to suddenly quit half way through a winter. Riding fence was lonely no matter how it was done.

Line riders job was to keep the cattle from straying out, and making sure the fence was in good repair. Limbs and small trees heavy with snow some times fell across the wire, giving the cattle an easy escape. It was simple for them to step over the downed fence and venture onto new country.

Staying cattle was the least of his concerns after reading the letter from the attorney representing several Lancers. It was about his buying up the property rights. A restriction imposed by the last title holder, made it impossible to pass the property to the next son an heir. It could only go to a brother or cousin. When the last brother or cousin died, then the property could go to a direct heir. Mark tried to break that stipulation, but the letter was telling him that it was air tight. The rule would stay until there was only one heir in the generation. After that, the land would go from father to son and so on.

It wasn’t the news he hoped for. The monies spent only gave him control of the ranch, not the ownership. He was disgusted and angry. The job of working the ranch with all the problems that came with it, had taken up all his time. He’d never courted a girl or married, so even if he was to be the last remaining heir, he had no one to leave it too.

Oliver and Richard Lancer, were not interested in ranching. Getting an education was the foremost thought going on in their minds. They worked around the ranch, and earned extra money working for several other ranches, during haying time. It was hard but rewarding work, that paid well, and food was provided. Still they were not interested the slightest in owning the ranch or staying on after collage. Richard planned on attending medical school, which went along with his tendency to care for any injuries around the ranch. Oliver, was more into mechanics, which was luring him into the workings of diesel engines. Once they had their educations, they would be gone.

Mark wasn’t the tallest of the brothers, Emery held that title. He was the one that first saw that the ranch was failing, and did something about it. It was he, that rousted the brothers out and got them rounding up strays and branding new calves. No one liked branding cattle nor cutting the gonads either. The two were jobs that needed doing, and Mark got them done.

Work had toughened Mark, especially during the cold winter. He sported hard calloused hands and a wind burnt face. He was most often seen wearing a broad brimmed hat, some times tied down against strong winds. A worn vest with a fleece lined coat. He looked the part of a modern Cow Boy, but wouldn’t be caught dead with a cigarette in his mouth. He’d seen too many old men coughing up phlegm because of smoking. He didn’t need a scientific study to convince him it was bad.

Thinking he might as well get it over with, Mark went to the stable and began saddling his horse. No one had rode out to check on the fence rider for over a month. It would take almost the full day, to get to the line shack and back. He had no thoughts of spending the night, as he didn’t like his own cooking, and preferred his own bed. There was one bed at the line shack and a bunk nailed against a wall. The line rider wasn’t going to give up his bed, just for the owner of the ranch.

There was a rough road out to the line shack, but it was just too rough. The chevy pick up they used, was old and some times pron to breaking down. Most times it was a matter of cleaning battery or washing the dust from the carb, as they hardly ever changed the air filter. He preferred riding a horse.

Mark chose Jubel, a paint with large markings. He could pick out Jubel from a good distance, even among other Paints. A gilding with pride, that was some times embarrassing when the horse, showed interest around the ladies. Other men would kick a horse when its member began to erect, but not Mark. He’d place his hand over the muzzle and get its attention by talking in low tones. Some times it worked, but not always. He figured people just had to except the fact that these things happen around animals. It turned out, that Jubel would come to Mark when ever he was in the open corral or simply grazing in the pasture. Having a bit of apple helped attract the horse.

Today, the wind was cold and all that was on the man and animal’s mind was to get some place, sheltered from the cold wind. Jubel took the trail and traveled at a comfortable trot. Mark wrapped his scarf around his face for protection against the cutting wind. His ears felt like a slight touch of a finger would snap one off. He made sure his scarf covered both.

Once they were beside the wire, Mark slowed Jubel to a walk. The ground was uneven and full of rounded stones. Even in the six inches of new snow, rocks presented a problem for the hooves. The slower walk, enabled Mark to get a good look at each post. Checking to see if the wire was wrapped or properly stapled. Occasionally the wire would pop the staple out, and would sag enough, a steer might decide to jump. The cattle didn’t do it often, but there were times when he had to round up more than a dozen that did.

The wind was growing stronger, with flakes hitting his eyes. He hoped it was just snow being blown out of the trees, but when it turned to flurries that hope was gone. Fighting the urge to ride straight to the line shack, Mark forced himself to continue his inspection of the fence line. He could come back tomorrow and finish, but there was miles more to cover, and he wanted this section done and behind him.

Jubel came to a stop, looking at something in the trail ahead. Through the swirling snow filled air, Mark thought he could see a figure in the distance. The sky was so thick with snow, the air was darkened. A dark shadow was quickly hidden by strong snow filled winds buffeting the man and horse. The shadowy figure was gone the next time the air thinned. He knew some one had been there, Jubel saw it too. The horse wouldn’t have stopped with ears pointed ahead, unless there was a reason.

Just to be safe, Mark reached back and brought the saddle gun up and laid it across the front of the pommel. The jacking of a shell into the chamber, was barely heard over the wind. Mark gave Jubel a gentle jab of his spur and the horse moved forward. No sign of the shadowy figure, but when reaching the spot, The snow on the ground showed the tracks of a horse and where it left the trail, heading into the forest.

Looking into the trees, it was completely dark. In there under the canopy, he wouldn’t be able to see anything let alone a trail. Who ever it was that took that route, didn’t want to be seen. He had no doubt that the rider had something to do with the shootings of his cousins. No one had any business out here, but ranch help. The area wasn’t a crossing from one town to another, so a traveler would be out of his way. So the figure shouldn’t have been there.

The rest of the ride to the line shack, Mark kept checking his back trail. There was some one out in the storm with him, and would be needing shelter just as he was. He was going to make sure, it wasn’t his line shack.

At the Line Shack, Mark dismounted and led Jubel into the stable half of the shack. It was built with half for a horse and the other the line rider. It saved on building another shelter for the animal, and kept it out of the weather. The fence rider wasn’t there. Neither was any of his belongings. Mark assumed he’d had enough and lit out for brighter accommodations, and whiskey.

Mark quickly removed the saddle and tack, then giving Jubel a quick rub down with hands full of straw. An old blanket left there for the purpose was thrown over his back. From the oat barrel, half a bucket was tossed into the feed trough. Mark replaced the lid, and checked the rain barrel. There was enough water to fill the tin tub for the horse.

The door was nothing more than slats, nailed on a hinged board. Mark tied it shut and then tucked the old hanging tarp over it and blocked out the wind. In the still air of the line shack, out of the wind, Mark felt warmer. Once a fire was going in the small wood stove, he was able to relax.

A window to the stall, Mark opened so that heat from the stove could warm the horse too. He was confident Jubel was comfortable for the night.

The first thing was heating up a pot of coffee. Which he did, while making sure his rifle was always within easy reach. The door was easy to block and keep intruders out, but the window to the stall, was the danger spot. No way to block the large entrance. The tarp would be pushed aside and in a couple steps a gun could be aimed into the living quarters.

Jubel wasn’t the kind of horse that strangers could approach with out a few snorts and whinnies. Especially here and now, with a storm blowing out side, He would be nervous with anyone coming. Mark figured he’d get ample warning time to meet any danger.

With Jubel taken care of and fed, Mark looked to the cupboards, seeing what would be an easy fix for dinner. The food supply was mostly can goods. A large jar of honey was his main focus. So he decided to fix something easy. Boiling a pot of oats, Mark settled for Oatmeal and honey for dinner. It was filling simply because he made a large pot. The one thing he didn’t like besides cooking, was going to bed hungry.

With the cabin warm now, he began removing clothing that needed drying. His socks were hung on a wire, strung across the room. His pants and shirt soon draped the line, but he kept his long handles on. The wool underwear was warming, so no need to sit around naked.

From his saddle bag, Mark used the wool blanket to wrap himself and laid back on the single bed, rather than use the bunk with half a bale of straw scattered from one end to the other. The mattress was okay, having been flattened several times on the floor to take out the lumps. For a pillow, Mark tucked the saddle bags under the bottom layer of blanket. He was tired from the days exposure. His face wind burnt, felt a little rough on the blanket. Tired as he was, sleep didn’t come right away. The wind out side, made strange noises, blowing against the cabin and nearby trees. Despite the wind, he did close his eyes and drifted off.

Something woke him, not long after he’d finally fallen asleep. Out side it was quiet, with no sound of the wind. Mark listen several moments, with out hearing anything. He supposed it was the quiet that woke him. After hearing the wind all day, the sudden quiet could have that effect. Then he heard a clumping sound, just as Jubel snorted and stomped the ground. Something or some one was coming.

Tossing his blanket aside, Mark grabbed his rifle and moved in the dark to the wall furthest from the door. A few dying coals glowing through the stoves air intake, dimly showed the edge of the table. It didn’t give enough light to see about the room, but it did help him know where he stood and where the table and chairs were.

Jubel whinnied, and an answering snort and whinny came from out side. “Hello in the shack.” a woman’s voice came loud and clear. Out side there was a glow from a lantern they carried to light the way. Horses didn’t need light, as they could smell the trail, even in snow, but riders like to see where they were going.

“We want to come in.” The woman spoke again. The sound of them dismounting and feet thumping in the snow, followed. “Can we bring our horses in?”

“Sure, bring the lantern too, but keep your hands where I can see them.” Mark wasn’t going to take a chance on being shot when they entered.

There was two of them, a man and woman. The woman was bundled tight in a large fleece coat with a wide brim hat tied to her head. The same way Mark had done on the ride here. The man was wearing a dark fur coat, and also had his hat tied against the wind. Snow covered both their shoulders and hats, which they swept off before coming through the tarp.

After wiping the snow off the horses backs, and replacing the tarp, the two riders came in carrying saddle bags. The woman set her lantern on the table, then brought out a blanket from her saddle bag. She took a look around the line shack, and the single bed with Marks blanket on it, she moved to a corner near the stove.

“I guess this will have to do.” She said tossing her blanket and saddle bag down. “It let up blowing, but the snow is still coming down.” She watched as the man with her, tossed his bundle into the straw filled bunk. Sleeping where bed bugs and other varmints crawled didn’t appeal to her.

Turning back to Mark, She introduced her self as Rose Donovan, from the Shamrock Ranch. Mark knew who she was, and introduced himself just incase she didn’t remember him. They’d met the summer before when both ranches had a round up, and cut out each others cattle. It took several days, but at the end, there was a party with every one and the extra hands that took part. Rose wasn’t very friendly then, and Mark didn’t expect her to be any different now. He wasn’t much for socializing ether.

“What brings you to be riding the Lancer spread?” Mark was blunt. There had to be a reason for anyone to be out on a night with this weather.

“Riding fence, like you I suspect.” Rose took one of the chairs and moved closer to the stove. Sitting she held her hands towards it, rubbing the cold out of her fingers. “I suppose your missing a hand?”

Mark gave her a questioning look. It took a second before he realized she was speaking of a ranch hand, and not his own. “Well, the fence rider, has up an gone.”

“Would his name have been, Ted Darkas?” The man with Rose spoke up. His question showed that he knew something of the man.

“That would be him.” Mark said an nodded towards the coffee pot. “You can use my fixins if you’d care for a pot.”

Rose looked at it for a moment before nodding her head and proceeding to fix a pot. She also added several sticks to the fire, as the stove wasn’t hot enough. “I’d even take a shot or two if I had a bottle. It will be dawn before I thaw out.” Then nodding toward the red haired man with her, she said, “This is Brian Barton. He’s new, but I’ll have him broke in damn quick. Especially in this kind of weather.”

“What about Darkas?” Mark brought the talk back to the missing man.

“Found his body on our side of the line.” Rose informed him. “Looked like he died of exposure, Just looked like it.” She added. “Some one went to a lot of trouble to make it look so.”

“You saying he was murdered?” Mark asked, but not surprised. With two of his brothers dead last year, he was expectant of more.

“Yeah, He was sprawled out on the ground. His pack, bed roll and other stuff was stacked against a tree.” Brian shook his head. “Ground was covered in snow, couldn’t see tracks, but it was murder. Blood all over the ground, the snow soaked it up. Didn’t melt it.” Brian continued to shake his head, not understanding what he’d seen. “Had to be murder, there was nothing there. No broken tree limb or anything that would have killed him.”

“What did kill him?” Mark was wanting them to get to the point. “You roll him over to see.”

“No,” Rose exclaimed, “I marked the spot with a tall stick, and a pink ribbon. The sheriff will want an undisturbed murder scene. So like I said, We marked it and left. They’ll be able to find it easy enough.”

“In the morning, we’ll head out and notify the authorities.” Mark said mostly to himself. “Better keep a watch on our back trail.” Then he told them about seeing the figure in the fog. How he disappeared into the forest. “Too dark to see, and with all this falling snow, I doubt that there’s even tracks under the trees. The snow blown in the wind, has covered every inch of ground.”

“I heard about your brothers being shot, but didn’t think the fence rider was a target.” Rose commented. “Maybe there’s more to your brothers killings than we know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe, it isn’t about who gets the land. We all kind of figured that last one living that got the ranch, would be the killer. The Sheriff wouldn’t have a problem figuring it out. Maybe the killer got wise and decided to include some others too. And then again, maybe it isn’t about who gets the ranch.”

Mark shook his head. He couldn’t rely on that kind of thinking. Didn’t matter why his brothers had been shot. They were dead, and it was a fair guess that if he didn’t keep alert, he would be too.

“Well, after you’ve had your coffee, I suggest that everyone turn in, and stay put. Any moving shadows, just might end up with a thirty thirty round through them.” Both Rose and the hired hand nodded that they understood his meaning.

The good thing about the line shack, was that it was warm. The stove chinked for the night, and the air intake adjusted, kept the place toasty. The light shining from the air intake, provided enough after the lamp was out, to see if anyone was up moving around. A person might not be able to tell who it was, but they could surely see the movement. Mark, was able to drift off to sleep once again.

Waking up while it was still dark. Mark waited for daylight before rising and adding more wood to the stove. There was still coffee in the pot, so he just reheated it. When his two guests awoke, he was calmly sipping a cup, waiting for them to shake the sleep off. There was light coming through the shellac papered window. They couldn’t see anything through it, but it did let in enough light that they could see with out a lamp or candle.

Seeing Rose Donovan in the daylight, was an improvement. She was still wearing bulky clothing, but Mark could tell she at least had a straight figure. A head full of dark read hair, that was still tied back in what passed for a pony tail. She was an attractive woman, but he doubted there was a soft spot on her. Mark placed her age around his, but couldn’t be sure.

“Got anything for breakfast besides coffee?” was the first words out of her mouth. The harshness of her voice, vanished any thoughts Mark might have been entertaining. “There’s plenty of supplies, but I don’t want to delay leaving just for breakfast.” Mark got off the bed and began rolling up his blanket. “Best be informing the sheriff about Ted Darkas.”

“We have to see about our north fence line. Snow will be deeper there.” Rose pulled her boots on, and started on getting into her fleece over coat. “We can breakfast at the line shack.” She said to Brian, meaning the one on their side of the fence line.

“Might take care when you do. Some one could have spent the night there.” Mark warned. “Who ever killed Ted Darkas, had to find shelter from the storm some place.”

“Brian and I will be okay.” She responded, as Brian grinned and pulled his coat and boots on. “He’s a crack shot. Took the big prize at the fair last year. Thought the guy was going to bust into tears at the way Brian, shot out his rigged targets. We’ll be okay.”

With a cup of coffee drank by each, they got the horses out and saddled. Both Rose and Brian made a show of checking their revolvers, and shoving them back into the holsters. Mark only had the saddle gun and for the time being, he shoved it into the scabbard. He wasn’t wearing a sidearm, as he didn’t like the feel of one on his hip. After waiting until Rose and Brian rode off to check on their line shack or what ever else they planned, he headed Jubel towards home. For safety, brought the rifle out of the scabbard and rode with it laying across the saddle. If a problem came up, he didn’t want to be struggling reaching back for the rifle. Now it was only a moment to take aim and shoot. He felt better and in control.

He’d wanted to take a look at Ted’s body, but didn’t want to track up the murder scene. So he rode wide of the dead man and headed back for the ranch. He passed the spot on the trail where he’d met the shadowed figure in the fog, and looked for sign. Everything was covered in two feet of snow, and all tracks and sign were hidden.

The morning had started out, with some sun shining through, but the clouds closed in again, and with them came more snow. Mostly it was falling thin, drifting on a light breeze, but that would change. The black sky to the west was a sure sign that another storm was coming.

Mark was warm enough, and figured his horse Jubel was doing okay too. Though when Jubel figured out they were headed back to the ranch, he picked up the pace. The horse knew, a good rub down and plenty of oats were waiting at the end of the ride.

Cold as it was the last night, Mark didn’t figure anyone would have been lurking in the storm. The only place a person could wait out a storm, was in one of the two line shacks or if they’d made a camp complete with a good shelter. So he gave Jubel free rein to set his own pace.

The wind was swirling, seeming to come from several directions. With it came the smell of a smoldering camp fire. A good hot fire, produced smoke and the smell usually rose into the air and blew away. A smoldering camp fire smoke clung close to the ground and spread out over a large area. Some times impossible to know quickly where it coming from. Mark figured the camp was near, within fifty yards. He’d wait until he had company before looking for the camp. The sheriff and his deputies would be the best company for the search. He rode on after making a mental note of the surrounding area.

At the ranch, Mark found out that Rose Donovan had reported the dead body to the sheriff. It surprised Mark as he figured she was still riding fence. Course it would have occurred to her that Mark could have been the one to kill Ted Darkas, as anyone else. She and Brian probably rode straight to the nearest phone and called it in.

Sitting at the kitchen table, enjoying a breakfast was where the sheriff found Mark. Betty the ranches cook, let the sheriff in and offered to fix a breakfast for him too. Betty’s talents in the kitchen were well known and no body ever turned down a place at her table. Another fact about Betty was, she was the only black woman in the county.

Betty had come with her husband and young daughter to work a hotel in Idaho. They never reached the State line, before a tired husband, from driving all day, fell asleep behind the wheel and crashed. Injured and without funds, Marks father found them sitting beside the wrecked vehicle and offered them work, when he learned they were both cooks. Betty’s husband was tired in more ways than one. He was old and needed the slow pace of ranch living. It was still a lot of work, cooking for the house hold and any ranch hands they hired. Betty and her husband love the place and decided to stay on, taking over the kitchen duties.

Betty’s husband died several years later, mostly from lingering injuries, from the car wreck. He hadn’t been one to complain, and so he suffered until finally a blood infection took him. Betty and her daughter stayed on, after Sidney Jones was buried in the ranch family cemetery. It was never stated as such, but Betty and daughter became part of the extended family. Betty received a wage for services, yet the Lancers included Daughter Sadie’s back to school clothing and other expenses as part of the families.

Sadie’s birthday was celebrated along with everyone else’s, with gifts and parties. Often Sadie’s party out shone those of the others. No one complained, as Sadie was a bright child, with flashing smile. Her exceptionally high grades at school, brought honor to the Ranch.

Today, Sadie sat at the breakfast nook, where she could hear the conversation at the large dining table. Her friend Sophy, would want a full report on the sheriff’s visit. Using the kitchen shopping list pad, she took several notes on what was being discussed.

Sheriff John Potts, a heavy set man gladly dug into the breakfast plate set before him. In between mouth fulls, he asked Mark to relate what he knew about the dead man laying along the West fence line. Any other ranch, the sheriff wouldn’t have sat down to a breakfast, but Betty’s cooking was something else. It came with good coffee, made with water from a sweet spring. Most other sources of water were heavy with mineral, giving the coffee a hard taste that was difficult to swallow. Only the need for Caffeine could a man drink the Mineral water Coffee. Some bragged that it put hair on a mans chest, but many agreed that the price was too high for chest hair. So Betty’s sweet water coffee was much appreciated.

Sadie wasn’t the only one taking notes, the Sheriff was jotting down facts in his leather bound note book. When he finally had all the information needed, he closed it and asked if Mark cared to ride out to the site with him.

Against his druthers, Mark consented. He wasn’t looking forward to the ride, especially in the thick of another storm. This time he left Jubel in the barn and rode another. He didn’t want to put his favorite horse through the deep snow that was building up on the trail. Using the four wheeled drives were out of the question too, as the snow was deeper than what a vehicle could plow through.

Watching the sheriff’s recovery team, and Mark ride off into the swirling snow, The brothers finally let the curtain fall back in place. Turning to face each other, Emery and Nathan Lancer moved closer to the large fire place, to take advantage of the warmth.

“Well, he’s got the protection of the whole sheriffs department.” Nathan said referring to the sniping being done, and that Mark was protected.

“That just leaves you, me, Richard and Oliver. Don’t we need protection too?” he sardonically sneered. “Who’s the next one to be shot?”

“Could be that the shooter, is one of us.” Emery pointed out. “Were the ones with the most to gain.”

“Don’t forget your brother in-law.” Nathan reminded him. He didn’t care for his sisters choice in marriage. Jacob Howard, was a prime suspect in Nathan’s view. He never liked the man, as he was always wanting to claim some part of the ranch. Nathan referred to him as his brothers relation and not his. “He’s always sneaking off, especially when there’s work to be done. Hell. I don’t know where he goes, do you?”

“No, but thank god he goes, at least for a while. I can’t stand the sufferable ass.”

“Damn tired of him, trying to convince Mark into giving Angela a part of the ranch. He should know by now, we can’t break it up. It stays in one piece.”

“Maybe he’s the killer. Shot both Richard and Fred.”

“Why. He can’t inherit anything. The Ranch has to stay with a Lancer, by blood and name. Angela is now a Howard. Out of the running.”

“So you’d cross him off the list of suspects?” Emery questioned with sarcasm.

“Well, yeah. He has nothing to gain.” Nathan pointed out again. “Unless he was hired for the job.” Slowly shaking his head, “I just don’t think Mark could be the phantom sniper.”

“And why not.” Emery shot him a hard glance. “What exempts him.”

“Well, he’s bought both acreage’s East and West of the ranch. He’s adding to the place. Trying to improve the ranch.” Nathan said with self assurance he was right.

“Good God, Nathan.” Emery eyed him with disbelief. “That makes him the prime suspect. He wants the land more than anyone else. I’m not writing him off. If anything, he’s got the most to loose, if the rest of us don’t die off.”

“Wrong. This place is too big for one man. It takes all of us to run it.”

“It didn’t take a bunch to run it when dad was alive.”

“When dad was alive.” Nathan shook his head with a subdued chuckle. “The place wasn’t being run. It existed simply by luck. We barely had two hundred head of cattle. We ate rabbit and sage hen, damn near every meal. If it weren’t for hunting deer and elk, the winters would have been pretty bleak.”

“We still don’t eat that much beef.”

“That’s not the pont. We have money for food now. Think about it, how many times Betty had to go kill something for dinner. Weren’t for her, we would have starved.”

Emery shook his head, saying he had other things to take care of, instead of spending the morning talking about old times. He left the window and climbed the stair way to his room at the back of the up stairs hall. He had some work to do on his assigned duties of paying bills. He didn’t get to handle the real money, just the funds allotted for the running of the ranch. The main funds were under Marks control. The only way he could get control of those funds was to get at least four family members to go along with him, and challenge Marks position as head of the family. That would be hard, as most thought Mark was the best of all of them.

Picking up a notification that came with the last mail drop, Emery opened the envelope and pulled out what appeared to be a form letter. He recognized the letter head of the Main Power Company in the area. Scanning down the page, he came to where a small diagram of the purposed path of the power line towers through the ranch. It was all eminent domain, which meant that they were not going to be paid much for the use of their land. On the second page, there was the purposed site of a power station.

A power station was news to Emery, as nothing was ever said of extra land being taken over. This did have a fee, connected with it. To build it, they needed deeded land. In the printing at the bottom, it asked for a speedy deposit of the check, to seal the contract.

Emery read over the pages several times. There was no mention of the amount the check was made out for, nor who it was that received the check. The letter was just address to Mr Lancer, care of Lancer Ranch. Emery carefully replace the letter in the envelope and locked it in a special desk drawer. The question in his mind, was who was the brother that was making deals with the power company. Being second oldest, he should have been included in the planning and discussions. He realized everyone should have been consulted and made known of the dealings. Mark might be in over all charge of the ranch, but he should run everything by him too. Seething with dark anger, Emery would pick his time to confront Mark. It would be when exposure would shock the whole family.

Late in the day, Mark came riding back, accompanied by the sheriff and several deputies. Richard and Oliver were quick to go out and greet them. Angela the oldest Sister was with them, and her husband. For the rest of the family it was too cold for them to brave an outing, no matter how short. Seeing no body draped over a horse, as expected, it was explained that the dead man was flown out by helicopter. Along with a couple others, which explained the empty saddles.

The next wave of storm clouds had been passing over them for the last two hours. Sheets of falling snow, flew through between the out buildings. Snow was building up fast on the weather side of the walls. The horses were quickly led into the barn, and unsaddled.

Mark called for the men in the house to come take care of the animals, while he and the rest of the riders came inside to warm up. Each man, paused to kick off as much snow as possible, before coming into the warmth. Not knowing if they would be back out in the cold, they didn’t want their clothing wet down by melting snow.

The long table inside the great room, was set with hot dishes and two large soup kettles. Betty and Sadie had been working since noon, preparing the meal. There was several pots of coffee stationed up and down the table, within reach of every diner. Satisfied that all was ready, Betty sent Sadie out to inform Mark, and invite the men in to eat.

The meal was consumed with gusto and cheerful talk. The weathered faces of the men around the table, was evidence of the cold conditions they’d encountered during the day. Cheeks glowed red as the men slowly relaxed in the warm room, with so many bodies wet with melted snow, the windows quickly steamed over.

Along with the coffee, hip flasks were brought out and added to the brew. Those that didn’t pour a dose of spirits in the coffee, remarked that it was made with sweet water. It didn’t need the added medicine to make it drinkable. When asked how he wanted his coffee, one old cowhand started to respond with the old saying, black just like his women. He caught himself half way through as Sadie came in carrying the desert. He mumbled an apology to her, which she just smiled and continued serving. The man still feeling embarrassed, shook his head at himself and said, “She’s beautiful and forgiving. More gracious than I deserve.” The room all agreed.

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