Brothers by LindaB (Kona)

Part 1 of 2 | Chapters 0ne – Fourteen

Word count: 86,470

Chapter One

Johnny clung desperately to Barranca.

His left arm was a mass of throbbing, searing pain. Why had he let Murdoch goad him into doing something he knew he had no right trying alone? Why hadn’t he just turned around and walked away? But his temper had got the best of him…his mother’s explosive temper…fired all too often by the man he both loved and hated.

He groaned in misery as Barranca missed a step sending pain shooting through his left arm, so exquisite that he nearly passed out.

What a sight he must have made, sagged over the saddle, his face resting in Barranca’s golden mane. He had lost the reins an hour ago, or was it two…? Johnny couldn’t remember. He had simply let them slip out of his right hand to dangle along the ground as Barranca slowly, but unerringly, took his compadre home.

It should have worked. It would have, and that stump would have been history, Murdoch would have been happy, and he would have been sitting at the table eating Teresa’s famous roast beef dinner, if the tackle hadn’t broken. He could still hear the snap of the rope, could see the heavy wooden block catapulting toward him. He tried to jump out of the way, but it still caught him. The velocity knocked him off his feet, tearing a gash in his left arm clear down to the bone, and most likely breaking his collarbone as well.

Why hadn’t he stayed home? He knew a storm was heading their way. He’d sensed it in the air. Now he could feel the cold snap of wind blowing from the east, down off the Sierra’s. The kind of storm that tore at the land and feasted on both man and animal.

The cattle would have sense enough to put their backs to the wind and wait out the storm. But what was he doing? Trying to reach home…hurt and defenseless. It would be a miracle if he made it all the way to Lancer.

The feel of warm blood slowly flowed down his throbbing arm, dripping off his fingers and saturating his pant leg. How much he had lost, he didn’t know.

There were a lot of things he didn’t know. How long he lay in the hot sun before the clouds started rolling over the valley. How long Barranca nuzzled him with his soft nose, prodding him to awaken. How he got into the saddle. How he was going to make it home.

Johnny sighed and slipped closer to unconsciousness.

***

Murdoch let the letter slip from his fingers and watched it flutter to a silent landing on top of his desk.

“I’m sorry, Murdoch. I thought you would want to know as soon as possible,” Arthur Bell said, his regret at having to bring the unwanted news to Murdoch Lancer etched in his face. As Murdoch’s attorney for fifteen years, he both respected the man as a client and as a friend.

“Are you sure?” Murdoch asked, his voice a shadow of the strong, confident owner of the largest ranch in the San Joaquin valley.

Arthur nodded. “I checked it out myself before coming here. To tell you the truth, I received the information two days ago. I wanted to make sure it was true before bringing it to you. There’s no doubt, Murdoch. I’m sorry.”

Murdoch grabbed for his over-stuffed desk chair and dropped into it, his legs no longer able to support him.

In the distance, another clap of thunder rumbled, but Murdoch didn’t hear it. “How?” he asked, the disbelief and misery in his voice reflected on his face. “The Pinkerton Reports…”

Arthur shrugged. “I contacted them. They stand by this newest report. The letter stands true. I’m sorry.”

“You said that already,” Murdoch snapped. “Twice.”

Arthur knew what this news would do to Murdoch. He had cautioned his friend about sending for his sons. He knew Murdoch had been waging a losing battle against Day Pardee and his gang of land pirates. But his sons were complete strangers to him. And his decision to offer them both a third of the ranch was, in his estimation, a very dangerous move. He had tried to persuade him to send for Scott only. College educated, a lieutenant in the cavalry, a background in business and a protégée in his grandfather’s firm. He was an acceptable risk, even if he didn’t know a thing about ranching.

But Johnny Madrid was a wild card Murdoch was a fool to play. What would he do if they defeated Day Pardee? Turn on his father and his brother and take the ranch for himself? Arthur had argued long and hard that there was no room in the valley for a gunslinger like Johnny Madrid.

But he had been wrong. Johnny Madrid had fallen into the role of Johnny Lancer like a man starving for stability in his life. Within six months the brothers had formed a friendship that seemed to be strengthened by their years apart. And Murdoch, with a few remarkably stupid blunders at first, had a family at last.

Arthur glanced down at the picture frame sitting on Murdoch’s desk. He remembered the day Murdoch had herded a reluctant Johnny Lancer into town to take a family portrait from a traveling photographer. He would never forget the high jinks that boy went through to avoid sitting still for the hour required to get the perfect shot. The time and effort on Murdoch’s part had been worth it. Somehow the photographer had captured each Lancer perfectly as they sat on a riser, Murdoch on the top step and Scott to his left and Johnny to his right on the step below. Murdoch’s pride could be seen by a blind man. Scott’s military background was evident in his straight posture, but there was a look of contentment in his eyes…this was where he wanted to be, this is where he belonged. Johnny was the surprise; somehow the photographer had caught that mischievous twinkle in Johnny’s eyes. He may have been a hardened gunfighter, and could still turn into Johnny Madrid at a drop of a hat, when needed, but that day he was Johnny Lancer, sitting with the family he never knew he had and always wanted.

And now the letter he had delivered to Murdoch had destroyed all that.

“What are you going to do?” Arthur asked softly.

The life seemed to drain out of Murdoch. He looked up, his eyes pleading for an answer that would not destroy his world. Arthur didn’t have one.

Murdoch leaned back in his chair and swiveled it so he could look out the picture window.

The incoming storm was already whipping up the wind and the bank of dark ominous clouds marched closer with each clap of thunder. It seemed fitting, this turbulent weather, the forbearer of his world once again shattering in front of his eyes.

“There was a time when this was all I cared about,” he said, his voice heavy with the memory. “This land, this house. I convinced myself that it was enough. There was nothing more important. Scott was healthy and getting the education he deserved. And Johnny…God…Johnny. I prayed he was safe, that someone had taken him in after Maria died. I convinced myself, right or wrong, that there was nothing more I could do for him. Still, there was never a night that I didn’t think about them both as I closed my eyes. In the morning…in the morning I pushed them back in my mind and took care of the only thing I could nurture, this land. Damn it, Arthur, if I had tried harder. If I had spent more money on the Pinkertons to find Johnny, or demanded to have Scott live here, by my side where he belonged. This never would have happened.”

“You can’t blame yourself, Murdoch. You were deceived. You believed he was your son because he wanted you to.”

“He looks so much like his mother…”

Arthur sighed deeply. “We believe anything if we want it badly enough.”

Murdoch slammed his hand down on his desk. “I won’t believe it. There has to be a mistake.”

“There’s no mistake. The Pinkerton’s have proof.”

Murdoch reached out for the portrait and pulled it toward him. “It was all I ever wanted. My sons home where they belonged.” He looked up at Arthur. “It doesn’t really matter. They were strangers when they got here. They are both my sons now.”

“It does matter, Murdoch. You are denying your true son his share of this ranch. Doesn’t he deserve what is his birthright?”

Murdoch closed his eyes. How was he going to rip this family apart?

“How am I going to tell him his brother is an imposter?”

***

Scott turned the collar of his jacket up against the stiff cold wind coming down from the Sierras. Thunder that had been rumbling in the distance was getting closer at an alarming speed. He would never make it home before the storm hit. Now he wished he had stayed in San Francisco one more week, but something was niggling in the back of his mind that he needed to get home. The stagecoach ride had been uneventful, but discovering that Jelly had not been back to Green River to leave his horse at the livery had furthered his feeling of unease. It could be that they hadn’t received his telegram in time, or thought he would not try to travel with an approaching storm. But it could also mean that something was terribly wrong.

His rented horse was already getting nervous and he had to keep a tight rein on him. Remembering Johnny’s alternate route to the house, avoiding the steep road that dropped down into the meadow where the hacienda sat, he turned south, heading directly into the wind.

Scott hadn’t traveled another half mile when he suddenly pulled his horse to a stop. Something had caught his attention. He remembered his brother’s warning that a smart man gave into those uneasy feelings. If it turned out to be nothing, then nothing was lost. But if you ignored it…you could regret it for a lifetime.

He squinted against the wind and saw something moving across the crest of a hill a quarter mile away. It was a horse walking slowly southward toward the hacienda. It took him a moment to realize the pale horse, silhouetted against the approaching storm clouds, was Barranca.

His heart skipped a beat. What was Barranca doing out here alone? That niggling feeling quickly grew into outright worry.

Tapping his reluctant horse with his heels, he coaxed the animal into a fast trot and, as he got closer, he realized there was someone splayed precariously over the saddle and the neck of the palomino. With a sickening feeling, Scott knew Barranca would not allow anyone but Johnny to ride him like that.

As he approached, he saw Barranca slow down and stop, his head held high, his nostrils flaring. Barranca had no idea who he was. If he had been riding Charlemagne, Barranca would have recognized his stable mate immediately.

“It’s all right, Barranca,” he called gently as he dismounted. He took a few steps closer to the nervous palomino. “It’s me. I just want to help Johnny.”

Johnny was draped over Barranca’s neck, his black hair hanging over his face, a startling contrast to the blonde mane of his beloved horse. His left hand dangled over Barranca’s shoulder, his sleeve drenched with blood, dripping off his fingertips to stain the Palomino’s coat. His pant leg glistened with more blood.

He took two steps closer, slowly reaching out for the dangling reins. He dropped the reins to his own horse, hoping the nervous animal would stay ground tied.

“That’s it, Barranca.” Scott kept his voice calm and steady, despite the fear that rode up his spine when he got a closer look at Johnny. There was so much blood on Johnny’s shirt and pants he could not tell if his brother had injured his left leg as well as his arm.

Another clap of thunder shook the ground but Barranca just sidestepped.

Scott quickly checked Johnny’s arm, pulling apart the torn shirt and seeing the deep gash in his bicep. Blood still trickled from the ugly slash, but most of the bleeding had seemed to stop. From the amount that coated Johnny’s sleeve and pant leg he knew his brother had lost too much blood already.

“We have to get him home,” he said. Knowing that Barranca would do all he could to keep the ride gentle, Scott decided to leave Johnny as he was. To move him might start the bleeding again.

Giving thanks that his rented horse had not spooked at the thunder, he mounted and slowly walked both horses toward the house, keeping close enough to Johnny to catch him if he started to slide off the saddle.

***

Murdoch poured himself a stiff drink and downed it in one gulp. Offering a drink to his friend, Arthur shook his head. “I better get going before this storm gets any stronger. As it is I’ll be drenched by the time I get home.”

As if on cue, the rain began. “You’re welcome to stay the night, Arthur,” Murdoch offered.

“No. I have a feeling you and your boys have things to settle tonight.” Arthur looked at him severely. “You are going to confront him on this.”

Murdoch nodded reluctantly. “I will. When the time is right.”

“Murdoch, putting it off is not going to make it any easier. In fact it will just fester in your craw. Don’t make it worse on yourself by waiting. It won’t go away with time.”

“I know. I’ll take care of it. I…”

On the heels of another clap of thunder, both men heard a frantic plea for help from the courtyard. “Murdoch! I need help out here!” Murdoch froze as he recognized the voice.

He looked toward Arthur. “That’s Scott,” he said in disbelief. “He’s not due back from San Francisco for another week.”

Both men moved to the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk.

“My God! Johnny!” Murdoch’s knees nearly buckled at the sight of Johnny draped over Barranca’s neck, blood saturating his clothes and the horse’s side. The stupid argument they had over breakfast reared up and punched him in the gut. He had sent Johnny out to remove that tree stump on his own. Scott was in San Francisco and the men were in town for the weekend after payday. Why did he insist that stump had to be removed today?

Before he knew it, he was standing next to Barranca holding the palomino’s reins, trying to keep him calm as Scott rounded both horses. He could feel Barranca trembling, sensing the fear in the air and the coppery smell of blood. It was a miracle neither horse bolted.

“What happened?” he demanded, his voice harsher then he intended. But he was just so damn scared.

“I don’t know,” Scott shouted, reaching up to pull Johnny out of the saddle. “I found him slumped over Barranca, on his way here. I decided not to move him and let Barranca carry him home.”

Scott worked to pry Johnny’s fingers open, but the boy had a death grip on the Palomino’s mane. “Come on, Johnny!” Scott shouted, “Let go. You’re home. You’re safe.”

Arthur was by Scott’s side waiting to help him pull Johnny off the saddle. A guttural sigh came from Johnny’s lips as if he lost all the fight left in him and he slid off the saddle into Scott’s waiting arms.

Arthur quickly helped Scott shift Johnny’s weight in his arms and ran toward the house to open the door.

Murdoch stood for a long moment frozen in place. Lightening streaked through the sky, followed by a shattering clap of thunder, and the horses reared back in fear, bringing him to his senses. The rain started to fall in earnest, and he turned back to the house, Scott’s back just disappearing through the door. He didn’t have time to look after the horses and prayed they would stay close.

Inside he rushed past Scott, clearing the massive dining table with one swipe of his huge hand.

“What happened?” he barked as he helped Scott gently lay Johnny on the table. Johnny’s normally deeply tanned face was as white as a sheet, his black hair heavy with sweat and plastered across his face. His left sleeve and pant leg were soaked with blood.

“I don’t know,” Scott answered, ripping Johnny’s shirt open. “I didn’t have time to check him over, but he’s got a deep gash in his arm. And it felt like his shoulder was dislocated when I carried him in.”

Murdoch nodded. “We’ll need plenty of hot water. Arthur, would you get the water started, and you’ll find a basket of medical supplies in the kitchen pantry.”

“Of course,” Arthur said, quickly running into the kitchen.

Murdoch searched through the utility drawer in the hutch behind the dining table and found the sharp knife he was looking for.

“Where’s Teresa?” Scott asked.

“At the Hamilton’s for the week.”

“We could use her now.”

“I know. But I’ve done my share of sewing up wounds over the years.”

Arthur came running back from the kitchen. “The water’s on and here are all the medical supplies I could find.”

Murdoch took the basket and set it on the table next to Johnny. “I’ll need more light than this. Bring all the candles and lanterns you can find.”

Arthur looked from the stunning amount of blood covering Johnny to the knife in Murdoch’s hand. “Shouldn’t I go for Dr. Jenkins?”

Murdoch shook his head as another clap of thunder pealed overhead and the steady cadence of the rain hitting the roof grew louder. The brunt of the storm drew nearer. “No, you’ll never make it. If this storm is as big as it looks, it could be days before the roads are passable again. You would never get Sam back here in time.”

“What are you going to do?”

“What we always do. Take care of our own.” Murdoch looked up at Scott, a grim look on his face. Scott nodded determinedly.

Scott began unbuttoning Johnny’s pants, noticing for the first time that he was not wearing his gunbelt. What would make Johnny relinquish his gun?

“Do you know what Johnny was doing?” he asked Murdoch, not able to keep the accusing tone out of his voice. He hadn’t read the look on his father’s face until just now. Guilt.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Murdoch snapped. “Right now we have to get this bleeding stopped. Arthur, is that water ready yet?”

Scott would not be dismissed so easily. “Yes, we will talk about it later.” He moved down to Johnny’s boots and pulled them off then continued to strip Johnny of his damp clothes. Suddenly, he realized his brother’s clothes were damper than just sweat alone would account for, but the rain had not started until after he had gotten him into the house. He let the questions wait. Murdoch was right about getting the bleeding stopped. Johnny could die while he questioned his father. But later he would get his answers.

Arthur set the large candelabra at the head of the table and lit the tapers, then set the lanterns and candles he had found in the downstairs rooms around the table.

Murdoch dipped a towel into the hot water and began wiping the blood from Johnny’s arm. “This looks bad,” he said grimly. “It’s clear down to the bone.”

Even unconscious, Johnny shifted on the table against the pain of the carbolic acid as Murdoch cleaned the wound. Blood flowed freely again from the jagged tear and Scott quickly threaded the needle and handed it to Murdoch. Murdoch nodded, taking the needle and hesitating for only a moment, then began sewing the wound closed. “Sam will probably have to reopen this to check the bone, but we have to stop the bleeding.”

Scott nodded, handing Murdoch a roll of bandaging from the basket. “We’ll need to pop that shoulder back into place and look at his chest.” Dark bruising was beginning to appear on his left side. “He may have broken a rib too. What in the hell was he doing?”

“Taking out that stump in South Creek,” Murdoch answered through clenched teeth.

“Alone?”

“You know how stubborn your brother can be.”

“I also know that he is too smart to attempt something like that unless he was goaded into it.”

Murdoch ignored the taunt and tuned to Arthur instead. “We’ll move Johnny into one of the bedrooms down here. Would you see that the fireplace is lit and the bed turned down?”

Arthur nodded, taking one of the lamps with him. The storm had sent the interior of the house into dark shadows even though it was still hours before night would arrive.

Turning back to Johnny, Murdoch gently probed his ribs and felt the tell-tale give of a broken rib. “Set him up so we can bind this rib, then we’ll set his shoulder. We’ll wrap his arm against his chest to protect his shoulder and support his arm.”

The two men worked in silence, moving Johnny about, his arms and legs as boneless as a rag doll’s. It seemed surreal to Scott as the large candelabra cast dancing shadows over his lifeless brother. They had removed all the other lamps around the table so they could bind Johnny’s ribs and shoulder. Now he laid motionless…his face as white as the towel his head rested upon.

“He’s going to be in a lot of pain when he wakes up,” Scott said. The anger he had felt for his father was gone now in the quiet moments, as shock and fatigue set in. He had seen dreadful things when he was in the army, but none struck him so soundly as seeing his own brother so badly injured.

Scott could hear the fatigue in Murdoch’s voice as he gently wiped Johnny’s face with a cool towel. “I have a nearly full bottle of laudanum left upstairs. Johnny refused to take it after Pardee’s bullet.”

“He’ll be taking it this time, at least until Sam can get here. We can’t afford to let Johnny move around with that arm.”

“Johnny’s room is ready,” Arthur said as he returned to the great room. “I collected extra pillows and blankets from the other rooms in case he needs them.”

“Thank you, Arthur. Now, if you could help us move him.”

Laying a sheet and blanket over Johnny to keep him warm, the three men carefully lifted Johnny between them, carrying him with infinite care across the great room and down the hall to the bedroom. The storm raged overhead, lightening flashing beyond the windows and thunder shaking the walls like the devil himself was on a rampage.

It would be a long night before any of them knew if they had done enough to stave off the hungry Angel of Death.

.

Chapter Two

The flickering light from the hearth’s roaring fire warmed the downstairs room, but it gave no solace to the two men who sat beside Johnny’s bed, waiting for a sign that he was going to wake up.

It had been several hours since they moved the youngest Lancer into the bedroom and settled him in as comfortably as they could, with pillows cushioning his left arm.

Murdoch’s thoughts were as turbulent as the storm raging outside. His own complicity in Johnny getting hurt trying to move that stump alone weighed heavy on his shoulders.  His inadequate medical care, when his son needed the expert care of a trained doctor, added to his guilt. But above all that, the damn letter from the Pinkerton agency hung like a specter over his every thought. He could not, no…he would not believe that his son was an imposter. Surely there was a feeling that only a father knew…that feeling that his son carried his blood through his veins. Because as sure as he knew that God created this earth, he knew his boys were his.

Scott stood, wrung a cloth out in a cool basin of water and wiped Johnny’s face. “We need to get him to drink some water soon. He’s already developing a fever.”

“I know.” Murdoch tried to resettle himself in his chair, his back and leg protesting his sedentary position. “I’m afraid even that carbolic wasn’t enough to stop the infection. Damn it, we need Sam.”

“We wouldn’t need him if you hadn’t sent Johnny out to move that stump by himself,” Scott snapped, regretting his harsh accusation the moment it passed his lips. “I’m sorry, Sir, I was out of line.”

“No. You have every right to be angry. I’m angry with myself. We had been doing so good, then this morning…one thing led to another and words were said. Just so you know, I was wrong. And I will admit it the moment Johnny is well enough to understand my apology.”

Scott looked over at his father and knew there was more than Johnny’s injury and whatever angry words they had exchanged. And whatever it was had spilled over to include Arthur. He had seen it in the interaction between the two older men. There was something between them. And Arthur… the man could barely look him straight in the eye. As soon as Johnny showed some improvement he would talk to both of them. Murdoch and Arthur had been friends for too long to have something come between them.

Another clap of thunder exploded overhead, rattling the windows until Scott feared they would shatter. Johnny’s head lolled to the left then settled again. Murdoch was out of his chair quicker than any man his age should have been capable of, bad back or not, brushing the hair from Johnny’s forehead gently.

“It’s all right, Son. It’s just the thunder.” Murdoch’s voice was as gentle as a spring rain, and Scott had to wonder what kind of father he would have made if fate had not intervened and robbed him of his paternal rights.

Arthur appeared in the doorway, leaning his shoulder against the door frame. “I don’t think we’ve had a storm like this in ten years,” he said, cringing as another clap of thunder shook the house like an earthquake.

“The horses!” Murdoch began to push himself away from the bed when Scott waved him back down.

“I took care of them after we settled Johnny in here. They’re fine. I gave Barranca a couple of apples Johnny had stashed in the barn for him. I thought he deserved an extra treat.” Scott re-wet the towel and folded into a square before placing it on Johnny’s forehead. “I don’t think Johnny would have survived if it wasn’t for Barranca.”

Murdoch combed his fingers through Johnny’s unruly hair. “Johnny said Barranca picked him. I have no doubt that he’s right.”

Arthur cleared his throat and said from his position in the door way. “And I have no doubt that the both of you are starving. I took the liberty of raiding Teresa’s kitchen and made a quick stew from the leftovers in the pantry. If you would both like to take a break I will watch Johnny for you.”

“Thank you Arthur, but I want to stay here with Johnny. One of us should be here when he wakes up.” Looking up at Scott, Murdoch nodded toward the door. “Why don’t you take a break and have some of Arthur’s stew. Arthur may be a lousy lawyer, but he is one hell of a cook.”

Arthur bowed dramatically at the waist. “I will accept half that compliment.” Turning to leave he poked his head back in the room. “But the other half I will consider the ranting of an overwrought father. I’ll bring you up a plate in a few minutes.”

Scott reluctantly followed Arthur out the door. It promised to be a long night. He was sure at some time Murdoch would need some rest himself and he wanted to be there for Johnny. There were so many questions swirling in his mind right now, but he knew now was not the time to try to get answers. When Johnny was out of danger. Then he would be every bit as formidable as Arthur Bell.

***

Sopping up the last of the gravy on his plate with a piece of bread, Scott had to chuckle to himself. What would his grandfather think of his lack of manners? Without a doubt he would be appalled. But the freedom he found here was a balm to his heart, and he couldn’t see himself returning to the staid and formal life he led in Boston.

Pushing himself back from the table, he headed into the great room to look out the picture window behind Murdoch’s desk. He had seen his share of storms, but this one was one of the worst. He could smell the ozone in the air, and feel the thunder pounding in his veins. This was Mother Nature at war.

Moving away from the window his eye caught the painting of his mother hanging on the wall, for a moment lit with breathtaking beauty by the lightening.

“She was beautiful,” the voice came from behind Scott and he turned to see Arthur standing by the dining table, ready to take the empty dish back into the kitchen.

“Did you know my mother?” Scott asked. The knowledge that so many other people knew his mother when he had never met her haunted him.

“Yes. I was part time lawyer, part time swamper at the saloon when Murdoch and your mother arrived. Morro Coyo was little more than a one horse town…little need for a lawyer.” Arthur smiled, “Cleaning spittoons put money in my pocket, what little there was, but the law fed my soul.”

“You seem to be doing quite well now.”

“At times, too well. I may need to take on a partner sometime in the future. I’m not getting any younger, you know.”

“It seems to be a condition none of us can avoid.”

“Well put.” Arthur glanced up at Catherine’s portrait again. “Your mother would be proud of her Harvard educated son. Ironic how capricious life can be. If your father had not sent your mother away for her safety, you would have been born here. And if Maria had not left with Johnny. Instead you both return some twenty years later, strangers to each other and your own father. I can’t imagine how difficult those first few months were.”

“It’s been worth all the blood and sweat. I can’t see myself anyplace but here now. Boston and Harvard are in the past.”

“But it must be hard sometimes to find stimulating conversation.”

Scott walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself and Arthur two fingers of Murdoch’s good scotch. “If you mean the staid conversation with pompous politicians or Harvard teachers with overblown egos…then no I don’t miss it a bit. In fact I would much prefer to sit down with Johnny and talk over a couple of beers. Most people don’t know just how smart Johnny is. They find it hard to see past the cowboy or the reputation.”

“He means a lot to you.”

Scott turned toward the hallway that led to Johnny’s room. “I never met anyone quite like him. I’m not sure I would have stayed at first if it had not been for Johnny. Murdoch may have needed his sons to help him fight Pardee, but Johnny needed a family more. I couldn’t walk away from him, no matter how hard he tried to push us away.”

“It must have been quite a surprise to find that you had a brother after all those years growing up alone with your grandfather.”

“Surprise is an understatement. I thought I was prepared for what I would find here…”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Did your homework before you came?”

“You could say that. But I only had my grandfather’s slanted view of my father and this ranch. It turned out to be so much more. I…”

Murdoch’s voice trailed away on a clap of thunder, but Scott had heard the call and was half way down the hall before Arthur had a chance to react.

Scott found Murdoch leaning over the bed trying to calm Johnny as he tossed and turned in a fit of delirium.

“Hold his legs,” Murdoch ordered as he held Johnny’s uninjured shoulder against the mattress. “He’ll rip those stitches in his arm.”

The thunder and lightning raged over the house as Johnny fought a storm of his own.

Arthur lumbered into the room beneath the weight of a large bucket of water. “Take those covers off. We have to cool him down.” Grabbing the top sheet, Arthur dunked it into the bucket and pulled it out dripping wet. “Lay this over him. We have to get that fever down.”

Scott covered Johnny with the soaking sheet then raced to the bureau and pulled another sheet from the drawer. He soaked that one in the water while Murdoch kept changing warmed towels for cold ones to lay across Johnny’s forehead as his fever continued to rise.

For the next hour not a word was spoken. Scott kept soaking the sheets in cold water as quickly as Arthur could refill the bucket from the kitchen. Murdoch kept replacing towels until he suddenly stopped, feeling Johnny’s forehead.

“Thank God,” he breathed.

Scott placed the back of his hand on Johnny’s forehead, and smiled and nodded. “He’s cooler.” The feeling of relief almost staggered him on his feet. He felt like every ounce of energy was depleted from his body. But they still had work to do. The mattress was soaked and Johnny’s body had sunk into the center of the soggy bed. “We’d better get him to a dry bed.”

Arthur shook his head. “It will take too long to get the fire going in a cold fireplace. We need to bring a new mattress here.”

Murdoch gave his old friend a grateful smile. “I’ll get Johnny ready to move and get this floor dry while you and Scott bring the fresh mattress.”

It was another half hour before the three exhausted men could sit back and relax. The soaked mattress had been tossed outside and the new mattress now supported a dry and cooler Johnny. Even though his face still was flushed from fever, it was not the life threatening inferno it had been earlier.

Murdoch sat in a chair, his feet spread in front of him, his weary body almost too heavy to hold his head up. Scott caught Arthur’s eyes and nodded toward his father. Arthur nodded back and gently, but firmly, coaxed Murdoch out of the chair and over to a cot that had been brought into the room for him.

“Rest,” Arthur said as he laid a blanket over his old friend. “Johnny will sleep most of the night. He will need you rested in the morning.”

Murdoch nodded gratefully, but suddenly reached out and grabbed Arthur’s arm. “What we talked about before,” he whispered, “stays between us for now. Promise me. I want Johnny healthy before we start asking questions… Promise me.”

Arthur nodded, patting Murdoch’s shoulder before pulling the blanket up over his chest. “I promise. We will talk about it when you are ready. However, that doesn’t mean years down the road. We will settle this as soon as Johnny is able.”

Murdoch closed his eyes. The inevitable taunted him, but exhaustion commanded his body and he fell into a deep sleep even as the house shook with thunder and the room lit up like daylight as each streak of lightning raced across the sky.

***

It seemed like only minutes since Murdoch had closed his eyes, but the crick in his neck told him he had laid too long in the awkward position on the short cot. He looked over toward the bed and saw Johnny sleeping, his face still flushed, but nothing like it was earlier. They had dodged that bullet…he hoped there would not be another one before this damn storm let up and Sam could get there to give him the proper medical care he needed.

Scott was also asleep, his head listing forward, moving just slightly with each breath he took. It had been an ordeal for all of them. He was proud of the way his son worked under fire. He wasn’t sure if he could have saved Johnny if he was alone. It had taken all three of them, working together to get Johnny through the crisis. All three…He had forgotten about Arthur for a moment. Damn the man and his principles. Murdoch knew his old friend would never let this rest. Why couldn’t he understand that both these boys were strangers to him, and imposter or not, they were both his sons. If truth be told, he would leave things as they were. He loved them both.

Struggling to lift himself up from the cot he stretched his cramped muscles and moved his head around trying to loosen the crick in his neck. The storm still raged outside. It was impossible to tell what time it was with the dark clouds still blotting out the sky. He would check the old grandfather clock in the great room later. Time really didn’t mean anything at the moment. He walked over to the bed and looked down on Johnny. He looked so incredibly young when he was sleeping, and the flush to his cheeks made him look like the boy Murdoch had envisioned as he counted off the years they had been apart.

Now, at last, they were together. But all too soon they would be torn apart again. He sighed heavily. Arthur was right. If his son was an imposter, where was his real son? Alive somewhere… or dead? And if he was dead, how had he died? Natural causes, or at the hands of a man who wanted to steal his identity? His eye caught the portrait of Johnny and Scott on the nightstand. A chill went down his spine. At best he was looking at a criminal, at worst he was looking at a man with murder on his mind.

.

Chapter Three

Scott startled awake as a clap of thunder exploded right overhead.

“It’s just thunder, Boston.” Johnny’s voice came weakly from the bed.

Scott bolted from his chair, both angry with himself for falling asleep, and happy that Johnny had at last awoken.

“How do you feel?” he asked, noting the flush of fever still dusting Johnny’s cheeks and the glassy, not quite focused eyes. There was a tightness around his mouth that told Scott his brother was in a great deal of pain. “And I want the truth.”

Johnny lifted his head just enough to see the thick bandages binding his left arm to his chest and sighed, letting his head fall back into the softness of the pillow. “I’ve felt better,” he said with a grimace.

“I should hope so. Here.” Scott gently lifted Johnny’s head up a little higher to sip at a glass of water. “Drink as much as you can, it will help with the fever.”

Johnny swallowed a couple of sips then shook his head. “Enough.”

“All right, for now. But you’re going to have to drink a lot more than that. And you’re going to take this.” Scott held up the dreaded brown bottle of laudanum and Johnny shook his head emphatically.

“Sorry, Brother, but I’m pulling rank. You need this, and you are going to take it, one way or the other.”

“I’d listen to him, Son.” Murdoch’s voice hitched on the tail of a loud clap of thunder, making the suggestion sound like an order from the Gods.  

Scott waited, bottle in hand, as his father walked across the room. “I won’t pull any punches here, Johnny. Your arm is broken, you have a gash clear down to the bone that I sewed together as best I could, and at least two broken ribs. We have a storm out there that is hell bent on blowing us to kingdom come, and no way to get Sam out here to tend to you. We’ve done all we can, now it’s up to you to do your part. That means staying in this bed and taking the laudanum.”

Sheepish is the only word Scott could think to describe the look Johnny gave their father. Taking advantage of Johnny’s unaccustomed acquiescence, Scott poured a liberal spoonful of the opiate and watched him swallow the medication.

“That should take effect in a few minutes.” Scott rinsed the spoon in a glass of water and laid it next to the bottle for the next time.

Johnny looked around, confused. “How did I get here?”

“Barranca was bringing you home when Scott spotted you.”

“Barranca?” Johnny suddenly tried to sit up, gasping at the pain. Both Murdoch and Scott quickly pushed him back down,

“Lie still,” Scott admonished. “He’s fine. I brushed him down and gave him two apples from that barrel you have stashed in the barn. If Teresa knew where her best apples were going.”

Johnny smiled. “He’s worth it. Best horse I ever had.”

Scott watched Murdoch gently pull the covers up over Johnny’s chest and then brush his brother’s flushed face with the back of his hand. “Something I learned a long time ago,” Murdoch said softly. “A horse is a good judge of character. Barranca is no exception. He picked you for a reason.”

Why was it that Murdoch could find the perfect words to say to his son when he was hurt or sick, but those same words never passed his lips when Johnny was healthy? Scott remembered the talk he had planned to have with his father. He would add that one to the list of questions.

“Can you tell us what happened?” Scott asked, noticing the look of guilt in Murdoch’s eyes.

“I was pulling that stump out at South Creek. Don’t know why, but the rope broke and the block nearly took my head off.”

“You never should have been out there alone in the first place.” Scott shot his father an accusing look. “There was still two feet of water left in that creek. He could have drowned.”

“I’m sorry, Johnny, I pushed you into it,” Murdoch said softly

Johnny sighed. “I was just being stubborn. I should’a known better,” he said, his words slurred as the laudanum started taking effect.

Murdoch combed his fingers through Johnny’s thick black hair. “I would never do anything to cause you harm.”

Scott hoped Johnny heard those last words as his heavy eyelids slid closed. They had come so close, once again, to losing Johnny. But they were a family now. Nothing would pull them apart…ever again.

***

Arthur stood in the hallway listening to Murdoch and his sons. It made him question the Pinkerton’s report. But it was there in black and white. Had the imposter played the game so well that he now thought that he was truly Murdoch’s son? And why the deception? He had made no overt acts, so far, to suggest he wanted to take over the ranch. Was he simply in need of the love and trust he found here? Perhaps he had other plans when he first came here, but found himself accepted almost without question. Surrounded by a father and brother that was not his by birth, but now his by desire?

He knew he was asking a lot of Murdoch. His old friend had waited years to be this happy. Damn, he should have been sure. He owed it to Murdoch to search for the truth before handing him the Pinkerton’s suspicions. But Murdoch needed to know. If there was another man out there who truly deserved to be here, then what right did he or Murdoch have to deny him what was justly his?

And if his son was an imposter…they could all be in danger.

Clearing his throat, he stepped into the bedroom. “Was that Johnny I heard talking a minute ago?”

Murdoch nodded. “He came to long enough for us to get some water and laudanum down him. He’ll sleep for awhile. Hopefully this storm will blow over soon and we can get Sam out here.”

“I was hoping I could have a minute of your time, Murdoch.” Arthur ventured carefully.

Murdoch looked at him suspiciously.

“Go on, Murdoch,” Scott said, sitting back in his chair. “I’ll watch Johnny for awhile. It looks like you could use a strong cup of coffee.”

“Yes, I could. Can I get you anything?”

“A cup of that coffee sounds good. The stronger the better.”

Murdoch patted Scott’s shoulder. “Consider it done.”

Arthur studied the two brothers again. Could it be possible?

***

Murdoch led Arthur to the kitchen then turned on him, their friendship strained to its limits. “I told you I didn’t want to discuss this until Johnny was better.”

“Murdoch please, just hear me out.” Arthur deliberately took his time pouring himself a cup of coffee and Murdoch was losing his patience rapidly.

“Get it said, Arthur. Then not another word.”

Arthur nodded. “We’ve been friends for a lot of years, Murdoch, and we’ve been through our share of highs and lows. You more than I. I just don’t want to see you hurt again. But you have to face facts. If there is a chance…You have to speak to Johnny.”

Murdoch slammed his coffee cup down on the butcher block table in the kitchen, spilling the hot liquid onto his hand. “And tell him what?’ Murdoch roared. “Johnny, your brother isn’t really your brother. He’s an imposter.”

“It has to be done. Murdoch, think about it. Do you have any proof Scott is who he says he is? Do you have a picture of him?”

“I showed you the picture of him standing next to General Sheridan.”

“You showed me a picture of someone standing next to General Sheridan. How do you know that is Scott Lancer? Because he told you so? Do you have any pictures of him standing next to his grandfather? Do you have anything solid to prove that Scott is who he says he is?”

Murdoch shook his head, striving to find answers to Arthur’s damnable questions. If he asked, and he was wrong, would he lose Scott forever? Scott was a proud man. To have his identity questioned, to have his own father question who he was could drive him away in a heartbeat. And once the question was asked, it could never be taken back again.

“Scott looks so much like Catherine.”

“Because you want him to.” Arthur reached across the table and laid his hand atop Murdoch’s. “Whether you want to believe it or not, Johnny could be in grave danger, if Scott is an imposter waiting for just the right moment to strike. Murdoch, why did that rope break? I know Johnny has had his share of accidents….but have they all been accidents? Did that rope have help breaking?”

“That’s nonsense. Ropes break. A ranch is a dangerous place to work.”

“More so if there is someone trying to get your share of the ranch.”

Murdoch stood, the chair scraping the tiled floor. “I’ve heard enough, Arthur. I don’t want you saying a word to either of my boys, do you understand?”

“You’re making a mistake, Murdoch.”

Murdoch leaned forward, his knuckles on the table. “You brought me this information as my attorney, not as my friend. It will stay between lawyer and client. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes. But I hope for Johnny’s sake, you are making the right decision.”

Murdoch strode out of the room, angry at Arthur for pressing him on the matter, and angry at himself for having a niggling doubt about Scott’s identity.”

***

Murdoch was down the hall before he remembered Scott’s coffee. The tumultuous weather outside couldn’t hold a candle to the feelings he had inside. Damn Arthur and his Pinkerton report. The idea was ludicrous. And yet…

Murdoch stepped into Johnny’s room. The drapes were pulled tight against the ferocious storm outside. Still the room lit up with each streak of lightening, playing shadows against the walls.

Scott sat by Johnny’s side, book open on his lap, but his eyes were glued to his brother. His brother…was he?

“How is he?” Murdoch asked. Could Scott hear the hesitation in his voice?

Scott leaned forward on the chair and resettled the covers over Johnny’s chest. “He seems to be sleeping comfortably. I checked his arm a few minutes ago, no new bleeding. You may have missed your calling, Sir. You should have been a surgeon.”

“With these?” Murdoch held up his huge hands.

Scott smiled. “I’m not sure size has anything to do with it. Some people just have an innate skill. I’m just glad you knew what to do for Johnny. I think he will be all right until Sam can get here. His fever hasn’t gone back up and his fingers are a healthy color and warm to the touch.”

“It could have been so much worse. Thank God that block didn’t hit him in the chest or the head. It could have killed him. I can’t believe that rope broke like that.”

“It does seem odd. I know Jelly checks all the equipment every time it’s brought back to the tack room. If it was frayed I’m sure he would have noticed it. And if he hadn’t, Johnny should have. I guess that’s why they call them accidents…”

Murdoch looked from Johnny to Scott. “Accidents?”

“You know that Johnny is accident prone. Sometimes I think he goes about things with so much enthusiasm that he forgets to be careful”

“A man doesn’t survive the life of a gunfighter by not being careful.” The coldness in his voice surprised him. Murdoch saw Scott raise an eyebrow but said nothing in return. He couldn’t let himself fall into the trap of second guessing every word Scott said, dissecting his every movement. Either he trusted Scott or he didn’t. He couldn’t walk the tightrope of suspicion.

Clearing his throat, he gently laid his hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You didn’t get much sleep last night. Why don’t you get a cup of coffee and try to relax? You know what a handful Johnny can be when he thinks he’s better. Save your strength for the fight ahead.”

Scott smiled, so reminiscent of Catherine’s smile. How could this not be his son?

“I think I’ll do that, Sir. We’re still looking at a few days before Sam can get here. Even after this rain ends the roads will be impassable.”

“That last time we had a storm like this, it was a week before anyone could travel. I’m afraid this one is worse. But we have plenty of food and a strong roof over our heads, we’ll ride it out. And with God’s help, Johnny will too.”

Scott took one last look at Johnny before smiling at Murdoch. “Knowing my brother, he will do just that. Call me if there is any change.”

“I will, now get some rest.”

Scott turned down the hallway leaving Murdoch to ponder exactly who he had just been talking to.

.

Chapter Four

The brunt of the storm had finally moved on, leaving behind a steady light rain. It had been three days since Scott had brought Johnny home, and although Johnny still had a mild fever, the constant hot compresses had drawn most of the infection from his arm and the laudanum had kept him mercifully quiet.

Flashfloods and sodden roads still kept most ranches in the area isolated. It would be another three days before anyone could travel. And longer if this rain didn’t stop soon.

Scott finished his breakfast, a far cry from the meals either Maria or Teresa set forth each day. He could whip up a fried egg or an omelet, but he had to admit that he had gotten used to the Mexican breakfasts, with their spicy sauces.

He broke the yoke in his egg and watched it spread across his plate, stopping an inch away from his limp bacon. It was better to watch the intricacies of a sunny side up egg than the growing tensions between Murdoch and his old friend Arthur. Whatever had come between them seemed to be festering more each day they were forced to be together.

Sometime today, when Murdoch was sitting with Johnny, he would speak to Arthur and try to find out what was causing the rift. He knew the fragility of friendship in times of crisis. Words could be said, feelings could be hurt. Whatever it was, he hoped to get to the bottom of it and reunite the two.

Arthur set his fork down on his plate, overly loud in the silence. “Compliments to the chef,” he said, trying to keep his voice light. “I’m afraid I always massacre my eggs. You surely didn’t learn to cook at your grandfather’s house. I’m sure he had a staff of cooks around the clock.”

Scott saw the angry scowl Murdoch aimed at Arthur.

“Grandfather had some of the best cooks in Boston. I use to sneak into the kitchen and watch them. When Grandfather was away, Myrtle would let me help her.”

“I’m sure your grandfather would not have approved.” Arthur chuckled, easing the simmering tension.

“She would have been fired on the spot if he had found out.”

“Is Myrtle still working for your grandfather?” Arthur asked.

Scott shook his head. “I’m sure she is long retired, or dead. She was not young when I knew her.”

“You must miss Boston.”

“Sometimes. Especially when it’s a hundred degrees out and I’m pushing some dumb cow out of the underbrush. At those times I can see myself sitting in the balcony of the Arena Theater.”

“On the corner of Chandler and Tremont Streets, right”

Scott nodded, noticing how intently Murdoch was now following the conversation. It was odd that it should pique his curiosity. Most conversations about Boston bored his father to tears.

“Nothing could be better than a night at the opera,” Arthur continued.

“Opera?” Scott laughed. “Mr. Bell, the Arena Theater was a far cry from the opera. At the Arena you would see burlesque acts, singers and pantomime. For an opera you would go to the Boston Museum.”

“Yes, of course.”

Murdoch looked between the two men. “Why would you go to a museum to watch an opera?”

“A very good question, Murdoch.” Arthur nodded to Scott to answer the question.

“The Boston Museum is a theater, but it also houses a gallery of curiosities. One of my favorites was the wax tableaux. A collection of full size figures sculpted in wax. It was an amazing sight.”

“I have to admit it gave me the shivers. I would much prefer to stroll down State Street or Commercial Street.”

Scott nodded. “My favorites were Winthrop Square and Franklin Street. I can’t imagine what it looks like now after the fire. I’m sure it will be remembered as one of the worst fires in history. Over seven hundred buildings were lost.”

“A terrible disaster. I’m afraid I haven’t heard all the details. I hear very little from back east of late. You must get regular reports on the comings and goings in Boston from your grandfather.”

“I get a letter from him at least once a month.”

That statement seemed to surprise Murdoch. “I had assumed Harlan had washed his hands of you since I haven’t seen any letters.”

Scott shrugged. “I guess they have always arrived when I’m in town. And I didn’t think either you or Johnny would be very interested in what he had to say.”

“Probably not.”

Suddenly feeling a little uneasy, Scott stood and excused himself from the table. “I made some light chicken soup for Johnny. I was hoping he could start eating something more than broth.”

“Good idea,” Murdoch agreed. “If he can hold that down, maybe some toast soaked in milk.”

Scott nodded, feeling two sets of eyes watching his back as he ladled the soup into a bowl. It seemed that whatever was between Murdoch and Arthur Bell somehow involved him too.

***

Scott knocked lightly on Johnny’s bedroom door and received a soft, but truculent, answer. “It ain’t locked.” Scott sighed heavily. His brother was beginning to feel trapped. It was both a blessing and a nightmare. It meant that Johnny had gotten through the worst, for now. It remained to be seen what Sam would have to do to set his broken arm. But it also meant that Johnny had beaten the life threatening infection. Now it was up to him and Murdoch to keep their patient quiet and in bed until Sam could look at his arm.

He opened the door and stepped in, a smile growing in spite of himself at the sight of Johnny petulantly staring at him from the bed. It was times like these that he found it impossible to believe that his brother had at one time been the infamous Johnny Madrid. Now he looked like a very sick, very vulnerable young man. Murdoch had spent the night watching over his youngest son and at some time had lifted Johnny into a semi- sitting position, his back supported by a nest of pillows. There was no longer any blood showing through the heavy bandaging trapping his left arm against his side.

Even across the room Scott could see the glazed look brought on by the laudanum, but Johnny’s complexion no longer looked pasty white. The drug, whether Johnny liked taking it or not, was controlling the pain and keeping him quiet. But even the opiate would not keep him down for much longer. They certainly had their hands full.

“Morning,” Scott grinned. “I thought you might like something besides just plain broth. I made a very nice chicken soup, if I do say so myself.”

“I’d rather have huevos rancheros,” Johnny grumbled.

“I’m sure you would. But one: I can’t cook like Maria, and two: you aren’t ready for anything but soup.”

“Maria would make it for me.”

“No, she wouldn’t. Not until Sam had a look at you. Nice try, Brother.”

While Scott talked, he unobtrusively slipped a napkin under Johnny’s chin and dragged the chair sitting next to the bed closer. Filling a spoon with the savory soup he raised it toward Johnny.

“I’m not a baby, Scott. I don’t need spoon feeding.”

Scott sighed. “I know you don’t like to have to admit that you need help. But, Johnny, you are as weak as a kitten. Let me, let us, help you. That’s what families do. They help each other. And they take the help when it is needed.”

Scott saw the conflict in Johnny’s eyes. He was asking a lot of his brother. To admit he needed help, to allow anyone to care for him was a big step for the ex-gunslinger. He had lived a solo existence for most of his life. To trust anyone was the biggest step of all.

After he had been felled by Pardee’s bullet he had needed help. But he never once accepted it willingly. He fought everything they did for him. Never wanting to admit he wasn’t able to take care of himself. Now, again, he needed help. Would he accept it this time? Had he learned to be a part of this family enough to allow the family that loved him to care for him?

The answer came in a soft sigh. Johnny nodded toward the bowl. “Well, you better get spooning, ‘cause I’m starving.”

Scott grinned. “We can’t have that.”

Johnny was only able to take a few bites, but it stayed down and he soon fell asleep. Scott pulled the blanket over Johnny’s chest and gently brushed his cheek. There were simple moments in life when the smallest of things seemed the most important. This was one of them. Johnny had trusted him, and that was a gift that was immeasurable. He had read once that every journey begins with a single step. This morning had been one of those steps.

***

It took another two days for the rain to stop and the roads to dry up enough to become passable. Reluctantly, Scott agreed to be the one to ride into town and bring Sam back. He didn’t want to leave Johnny, especially with Murdoch and Arthur acting so strangely, but Murdoch would never leave Johnny’s side and Arthur was too old to make the journey safely.

There was also a concern about Sam. Would the old doctor be able to sit a horse long enough to get to Lancer? There was no way his surrey could get through the mud that still covered the roads. It was horseback or nothing.

Murdoch handed Scott his rifle and he stowed it in the rifle scabbard on his saddle. “Take care,” he said. “If you can’t get through, come back. Johnny is holding his own now.”

Scott knew that. He also knew every day that Johnny’s arm was left unset made it that much harder for Sam to correct it. If they couldn’t get Sam out here in time, Johnny could have a useless arm. He would do anything to keep that from happening.

“I’ll get there and bring him back. Might take some time to track him down. Who knows where he might be.”

Murdoch laid his hand on Scott’s knee. “The most important thing to me and your brother is that you come back safely. Johnny can live with a busted arm. He wouldn’t want to live without his brother.”

Scott was overwhelmed by Murdoch’s uncharacteristic sentimentality. His odd behavior was getting worse by the day. Whatever was simmering between him and Arthur was spilling over and affecting everyone. Even Johnny. Johnny had noticed it too, and had asked about it. Scott could tell him nothing more than he knew himself. Which was nothing.

Tipping his hat, he turned his horse toward the Lancer arch and rode away.

***

Another morning and Johnny watched the sun brighten the sky outside his window. He felt every bit as much a prisoner here as he would in a real jail. His shackles were his own body, too weak to even climb out of bed, and the iron bars were the window and door leading out of his room.

Murdoch and Scott were his wardens, as calculating and tough as any warden he had met in his frequent stints in Mexican jails. They were not cruel or vengeful like real wardens; they used love and guilt to keep him in this bed.

If he laid very still, he found he could go for longer periods of time without the dreaded laudanum. But that gave him time to think. To try to remember.

He had only faint memories of what happened. He had to rely on Scott and Murdoch to tell him what really happened…what he had told them in his delirium. He vaguely remembered the stump and Barranca nuzzling him awake. But after that, nothing until he awoke here in one of the downstairs bedrooms.

There was also something else going on, something he could not put his finger on. A feeling of tension that went beyond his accident, and no one was willing to tell him what it was. He had sensed it the minute he was cognizant long enough to put two and two together, and had asked his brother, but Scott seemed as confused as he was.

Murdoch seemed worried about something, and it went far beyond the ill conceived guilt his father felt for sending him out to tackle the stump. He could see it in his eyes. He could see it whenever Scott came into the room. For the first time since Pardee had attacked, Johnny saw distrust in Murdoch’s eyes. Not for him, but for Scott. What could Scott have done to test Murdoch’s belief in him?

From the very beginning, Scott had been the favored brother. It didn’t bother Johnny all that much. He knew Scott was the son any man would be proud of. College educated… a war hero. And what did he have to offer? A reputation as a fast gun? It was a miracle that Murdoch had not told him to hit the road once Pardee had been taken care of. And in the months that followed, hard as they were at times, he came to feel that this was his home, and Murdoch was his father.

Now he felt a rift, and it worried him.

A light cough startled him and he looked toward the door to see Arthur standing there. He had been so lost in thought that he had not heard the man walk down the hallway. Was he feeling so comfortable here that he was losing his instincts, or was the laudanum still addling his brain? In either case, he did not like that he had lowered his guard so completely.

Feeling the awkwardness of the moment, Johnny waited for Arthur to speak. He watched as the lawyer crossed the room and poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the night stand and offered it to him.

“Your father is out looking over the damage from the storm. I thought I’d look in on you.”

“Gracias.” Johnny accepted the water and drank half a glass. “Where’s Scott?”

“He left at first light this morning to bring Dr. Jenkins out here. It seems you have quite a reputation for not behaving. They want the doctor here as soon as possible.”

Johnny snorted.

“Can I get you anything besides the water?”

Johnny studied the old man. He was near to Sam’s age, he guessed. Never saw him in anything but a suit and bowtie. Johnny knew he was an old friend of Murdoch’s. But something had happened to test that friendship. If Scott hadn’t mentioned it, he would have seen it himself.

“I’m fine, thanks.” Johnny handed the glass back. “You’ve been friends with Murdoch for a lot of years,” he said, determined to find out what was going on between his father and Arthur.

Arthur nodded. “I met Murdoch when he and Catherine first came to Morro Coyo. He still had a Scottish brogue back then.” He laughed.

“Never could figure out how a refined woman like Catherine Garrett could marry a man like Murdoch Lancer. I mean, he ain’t exactly refined.”

Arthur had to laugh. “Catherine may have been refined and used to the finest social circles in Boston, but she had a temper. She was as strong as any woman born out here, had to be to survive this wild land.”

“But she didn’t. Survive I mean.”

“It nearly broke Murdoch’s heart when he found out. But who knows what would have happened? Perhaps she would have died in childbirth here as well as on the road. And if she hadn’t, then your father would never have met your mother.”

“Was she happy here? At least in the beginning?”

“She seemed to be. Your father had a propensity for marrying strong minded women. Maria had a temper, and when she let it go the whole valley could hear her. But your father took it in stride. She was so beautiful and so full of life. After he lost Catherine, he seemed to lose that spark of life. Your mother brought it back to him.”

“Then destroyed it again when she left,” Johnny said dourly.

“He was a broken man when she took you away from him. I thought I would never see him happy again. But when you and your brother returned, despite the hardships, he was happy.”

“Was?” Johnny prided himself in reading men. He could see, an instant before they knew it themselves, when a man was ready to draw his gun. And he could tell when something was biting at a man’s craw. Arthur had something on his mind and Johnny was bound to find out what that was.

“Murdoch has a lot on his mind right now, not the least being your health.”

“It’s more than that. I’ve been hurt before. He almost looks lost. I don’t know what’s causing it. And I can’t help him if I don’t know what it is.”

“It isn’t my place to discuss it. It falls under lawyer client privilege.”

“If it has to do with the ranch then it concerns me too.”

“It’s not about the ranch. And even though it concerns you, it is not about you. Now, I think I have said more than I should, and you need your rest.”

“If it’s not about me, is it about Scott? Is Scott in trouble?” Johnny reached out and grabbed Arthur’s hand as the old man turned away, the action drawing a gasp of pain from his lips. “I asked you a question. Does it concern Scott?”

“What’s going on here?” Murdoch demanded from the doorway.

Johnny looked at his father and held him fast with a look that said he would not be denied. “We have some talking to do.”

.

Chapter Five

Murdoch watched as Arthur left the room, Johnny’s eyes on both of them. What had Arthur said? He had no intention of telling Johnny about Arthur’s suspicions. Or his, as much as he hated to admit it. But once his younger son’s curiosity was piqued, nothing but the whole story would satisfy him. This time, the whole story could rip this family apart.

The door swung closed behind the lawyer and Murdoch was left to look down at Johnny. The young man was in obvious discomfort and if he could, Murdoch would medicate him with laudanum, both helping with the pain and getting past the interrogation he knew was coming. But Johnny loathed the medication and would fight tooth and nail not to take it.

“Arthur says you’re worried about something,” Johnny started off immediately. “Something to do with Scott. Mind telling me what it is?”

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Murdoch answered sternly. “It’s a private matter and has nothing to do with you.”

“That’s not what Arthur said. He said it involved me, but wasn’t about me. If it involves me, I got a right to know.”

Johnny leaned back against the mound of pillows and tried to find a more comfortable position, the small movement still causing him considerable pain. Murdoch saw the grimace and hoped Scott could find Sam.

“If I wanted to discuss it with you, I would. And I will, when it’s time. For now, please, trust me that I’m doing what is best for everyone.”

Murdoch saw the hurt look pass over Johnny’s face. Damn Arthur for saying anything. This was not the time to discuss it, and he would not burden Johnny with the doubts that now plagued him. Without knowing it, old discussions between him and Scott would tumble unwanted into his head. He found himself second guessing everything the young man said.

“Johnny, try to understand. I’m not keeping secrets from you. I have come across some facts that need to be verified. It would be unconscionable of me to say anything until I know the truth of it. Johnny, you’ve lived with the pain of half-truths all your life. I know the pain they have caused you. You above anyone should know the danger in speculating. I will tell you everything when I have enough information.”

To Murdoch’s surprise, Johnny nodded. But the set of his mouth told him that his son was not satisfied with the answer. It stunned Murdoch to think that they had come this far, that Johnny was willing to wait, for now at least. They had come a long way since that first afternoon in the great room when two strangers stood before him. Now he had to wonder if Scott was still a stranger.

Johnny fingered the edging on the blanket covering his chest. “Tell me one thing…does it have to do with Scott?”

Murdoch could see that Johnny had his answer when he hesitated.

“If Scott’s in trouble and your silence hurts him…”

Murdoch raised his hand. “I promise I will do everything within my power to help my son. Now you need your rest. If Scott is able to find Sam, they should be back in a couple hours.”

Johnny closed his eyes and Murdoch knew he was being dismissed. He had come so close to saying something to Johnny. Why did this have to happen now? When they were a true family, when they were happy? It wasn’t fair. Damn it to hell, it wasn’t fair.

***

Johnny felt a light touch on his forehead and smelled the strong order of soap and medicine that always clung to Sam Jenkins clothes. With a soft sigh he opened his eyes. At last, maybe he would get out of this damn bed.

“Well, young man, what have you done this time?” Sam asked. There was worry in his voice, but no condemnation. Sam was an old friend of Murdoch’s and Johnny’s first true friend when he arrived here. He felt instantly that he could trust the old doctor, and Sam had never let him down. Truth be told, there were things Sam knew that no one else in the world knew. And Sam understood the trust Johnny put in his hands.

“An old stump got the better of me.” Johnny grinned. “Then Murdoch and Scott got it into their heads that I couldn’t get up out of this bed. Been waiting for you to spring me.”

“Is that right? Well, let’s have a look.”

It seemed to take hours for Sam to finish his examination. By the time he was through Johnny was sweating and hurting almost as much as he did when he first woke up almost a week before.

Sam washed his hands and set the towel on the nightstand. Ladling a dose of laudanum, he gave Johnny that look that said he had better obey, or else. Johnny wouldn’t give in to just anyone, but Sam wasn’t just anyone. Johnny took the medicine. “You rest for a few minutes, Johnny, and I’ll have a talk with your family.”

“No.” Johnny bristled. “You got something to say about me, you can say it in front of me. Bring them up here.”

Sam nodded reluctantly. “It won’t be just your decision here, Johnny. Your father still has a say in your treatment.”

“I’m over twenty one,” Johnny snapped.

“Yes, but not by much. Let’s get them up here and make some decisions.”

As Johnny watched Sam open the door and disappear down the hall he had a terrible feeling that he was not going to like what Sam had to say.

It took longer than it should have before Johnny heard the hurried footsteps approaching his room. It appeared Sam had a talk with Murdoch and Scott, and they had already made THEIR decision. Well he still had a say in it.

Johnny felt as if he were facing a firing squad as the three men filed in silently. Sam took the chair in front of his bed and sat for a moment deciding what to say.

“Get it said, Doc,” Johnny said.

“All right. You know of course that when the block hit you it ripped a gash in your arm clear down to the bone, breaking the bone as well. Murdoch did the right thing under the circumstances…the only thing he could do; stitched up the tear and immobilized your arm. But broken bones are a funny thing. Even if they are not aligned properly, they begin to re-set, knitting in the position they are in. That is what has happened to your arm, Johnny. It has already started to set. If we leave it as it is, I’m afraid it will be useless to you.”

Johnny couldn’t find enough spit in his mouth to swallow.

“The wound looks clean and your fever is down, but of course I am concerned about the broken bone.”

Johnny somehow found his voice. “You said if you leave it…sounds to me like you can do something.”

Sam nodded. “The bone will have to be re-broken and set properly. It will require surgery and more time in bed. But it is the only chance for you to have complete use of your arm.”

Johnny looked from Sam to Murdoch and Scott. He could tell in their faces that they had already made their decisions. He had to admit to himself it wasn’t that hard. Either do as Sam said or have a bum arm the rest of his life.

“When will you do it?” Johnny asked, hoping his voice didn’t give him away.

“In the morning. I don’t want that bone knitting any more than it already has. It will require anesthesia. And afterwards you will need to stay in this bed for a minimum of two weeks.”

“Two weeks! I’ve been here for a week already.”

Scott leaned forward, patting Johnny’s knee. “Two weeks will fly by. In a couple of days everyone will be back and you’ll be too busy warding off Teresa and Maria’s mother henning to notice the time.”

Johnny glared at him. “It’s not Teresa and Maria I’m worried about. It’s him.” Johnny nodded toward Murdoch. “He’s the worst mother hen I’ve ever met.”

“Damn right,” Murdoch agreed, a hint of humor in his stern voice. “Whatever Sam says is gospel.”

Johnny’s eyelids had begun to close of their own volition. As he sank toward sleep he wondered if he would ever find out what was troubling Murdoch. Tomorrow…tomorrow he would ask Scott. If it involved his brother then maybe he had some answers.

***

Johnny wasn’t ready for this. Somehow they had carried him down the hallway and now he was lying on the dining table. He felt as if he were drifting just above the table, the feeling both comforting and frightening. He tried to move his arms and legs but they didn’t exist.

Scott leaned down over him, his face close to Johnny’s face. “Hey, you’re awake.” Scott’s voice sounded distant and unreal as if he were in the midst of a nightmare. Maybe he was.

“Not to worry, Johnny.” Sam took Scott’s place and looked down at him. “You’ll just go to sleep and wake up when it’s all over. Scott is going to put a mask over your face to administer the chloroform. Don’t fight it, Johnny. I promise you’ll be safe.”

There was an odd confusion of words then Murdoch was looking down at him, brushing the bangs from his forehead. “Sam’s right, Son, you won’t feel a thing. And in a couple of weeks you’ll be up and around again.”

There was something bothering Johnny. He couldn’t remember exactly what it was. Scott…Something was wrong with Scott.

Scott placed the mask over Johnny’s nose and mouth and he smelled the sickening sweet odor of the chloroform. But he was still worried. “Scott…” he gasped, trying to fight the anesthesia. “Keep…Scott…safe…” And he knew no more.

***

Scott was both fascinated by the surgery and repelled by it. So much blood, and the seemingly callous way Sam re-broke the bone. He carefully administered the drops of chloroform onto the cloth mask to keep Johnny under, making sure he didn’t inhale too much of it himself. The surgery took longer than he expected, but at last Sam was ready for the heavy splints that would keep Johnny’s arm in place. He could only imagine how uncomfortable the contraption would be. But he also knew how necessary it was. The trick would be to convince Johnny of its necessity.

At last the surgery was done. Sam was satisfied with the outcome and together Scott, Murdoch and Arthur carried Johnny back to his bedroom and his waiting bed. Pillows were placed at his sides to keep him from trying to turn over in his sleep. His ribs were once again bound tightly, and his now newly broken arm was strapped to his side. A folded sheet protected his skin from the rough wood.

Sam assured them all that it would be several hours before Johnny regained consciousness, and that they had better take the time to rest before he awoke, because he would not be happy.

***

Happy Johnny was not. And after being trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey for a week he was ready to take some heads off. At the moment he didn’t care who his target was, he just let loose with a salvo of venomous diatribe that would behead any lesser man. Luckily Scott was that man, and he was ready for Johnny. In fact he was waiting for this moment, knowing that when his brother started to heartily complain, he was on the road to recovery.

It was almost comical, in a macabre way, and Scott had to fight hard not to smile in sympathy. Johnny didn’t like sympathy.

Sam had been over judicious when it came to Johnny, though it was not hard to understand, given Johnny’s track record for listening to Sam’s orders. After setting the broken bone, Sam had set his arm in three heavy strips of wood from just below his armpit to his fingertips, and then strapped the splint to his side. That left Johnny without the ability to bend at the waist to sit up or crawl out of bed.

Sam had also been aware of Johnny’s antics when he had been injured before, and tied the bandaging that held his arm prisoner behind him and out of his reach.

After several expletives, both in Spanish and English, Johnny got down to the heart of the matter. “Would you get this damn thing off me? I’m not a damn cow, I don’t need to be hogtied! I swear when I see Sam he’ll regret the day he ever met me. Never heard of a man being trussed up like this just ‘cause he has a broken arm. All I need is a sling, and I’ll be fine. Come on, Scott. I promise to wear a sling for as long as you say, just get me out of this contraption.” Johnny’s voice was starting to weaken, and so was he.

“Sam explained why you needed that ‘contraption’. It wasn’t a simple break, and you know it. Besides that, you dislocated your shoulder and broke a couple ribs. Another week and he’ll change it to something lighter and I’m sure he’ll let you out of bed. Patience, Brother, just a little patience.”

“Easy for you to say,” Johnny snapped.

Scott hung his head. “I know, Johnny. And I’m sorry this happened to you. It shouldn’t have. You should never been out there on your own…”

“Don’t want to go over that again, Scott. I was the one who made the decision to go out there. It wasn’t Murdoch’s doing.”

“He goaded you into it.”

“I could have said no. It was an accident. It just happened. Let’s leave it at that.”

Scott pushed the chair sitting next to the bed closer, looking back at the door. “I get the feeling our father doesn’t think it was an accident. Has Murdoch been asking you any strange questions?” he asked softly.

“Strange…like what?”

“I don’t know. About the rope and how it broke. Why it broke.”

Scott saw Johnny’s surprised look. “I thought I wasn’t hearing things right with all the medicine Sam’s got Teresa and Maria shoving down my throat. But, yeah, now that I think about it, he has been asking some strange questions. Scott, I gotta tell ya, there’s something not right going on here. First Murdoch and Arthur Bell ….”

“What kind of questions?”

Johnny looked up at Scott then turned his face away, nesting his head deeper in the pillows.

“Johnny, what kind of questions?” Scott coaxed.

“Nothing that makes sense,” Johnny answered, his voice muffled in the pillow. “Like if you ever seemed confused about who you were.”

“What?”

Johnny turned his head back. “I told you it didn’t make any sense.”

“Arthur was asking me about Boston. If I didn’t know better I would think he was quizzing me.”

“About what?” Johnny groaned, shifting on the bed. Scott quickly readjusted the pillows supporting his arm.

“Do you want something for the pain?”

Johnny shook his head. “It’s not my arm. It’s my legs. I’ve been laying in this bed so long they’re cramping up.”

Scott knew the feeling, lying in bed so long after coming back from the war. He raised the blankets and began massaging Johnny’s legs, probing his fingers deep into the lax muscles.

“About what?” Johnny asked again, his breath coming in short hisses as Scott’s fingers worked throbbing muscles.

“I don’t know. It seems like Murdoch’s built a wall between us.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I’ve always been the one Murdoch’s not sure of. Hell, he was downright scared of me at first. But he took to you like a duck takes to water.”

“Well, the duck seems to have an aversion to water lately. At least I know I’m not imagining things.”

“Maybe I can talk to him. Most times he doesn’t talk to me the way he talks to you, but I can try.”

Scott nodded. “Thanks, Johnny. I’ve got to admit, I don’t like being on this side of Murdoch. I don’t know how you take it the way you do.”

Johnny chuckled, languidly pushing the hair from his eyes with his good hand. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

Scott saw the signs of fatigue but couldn’t end it like this. “I know it’s been rough on you, and to be honest, I don’t know why you have stayed this long.”

“It’s getting better, Boston. Besides…” Johnny’s voice faded as his eyes closed despite his best efforts to keep them open. Scott barely heard the last words, but he did and he felt touched beyond words. “…I stayed for you.”

.

Chapter Six

Murdoch sat at his desk, his ledger open to the same page, the same column of numbers he had been hunched over for the past three days. It was at the end of the month when bills had to be posted and accounts balanced. But he could not get past the growing dread that Arthur might be right, and the man he called son was an imposter.

He shifted position and his knee bumped the bottom drawer of his desk. He almost felt ill at the thought of the paper that sat locked in a file at the bottom of that drawer. He had not looked at it again after Arthur showed it to him. He didn’t have to. He knew every word by heart as if it had been branded into his brain.

Now his days and nights were haunted with questions. Were the stories Scott told of his years growing up with Harlan Garret just that – stories? Facts and fabrications carefully planned and executed to deceive him?

Murdoch had spent six months in Boston after coming out west, smitten by the woman he knew he could not live without. She had been beautiful and headstrong and, for some unexplainable reason, madly in love with the boy fresh off the boat from Inverness. They had married despite Harlan Garrets objections and left for the wilds of California with a handful of money and a dream of a life together. Then fate had stepped in. Now twenty six years later he had their son beside him, or did he? He saw Catherine in Scott’s every move, in the slightly crooked smile, in the dip of his head when he was contemplating a verse of poetry, or the fire in his eyes when he debated a passage in a book that mesmerized him. How could a stranger know these things? Scott was his son, he knew it in his heart…but his mind would not let the question rest.

A soft clearing of the throat drew Murdoch from his inner reflections, and he looked up to see Scott standing in front of his desk.

Scott looked exhausted. Not only was he taking up the slack created by Johnny’s accident, he was also overseeing the cleanup after the storm. The job was daunting, and Murdoch knew he should be out there directing the men himself, but he could not pull himself away from the house, away from Johnny’s side. Just incase.

“We’ve tallied the herd,” Scott said, his voice mirroring his fatigue. “And we didn’t lose as many as we thought. The main herd made it to high ground before the flooding.”

Murdoch nodded; even that news did not brighten his spirits.

“However,” Scott continued, “most of the fencing is down. I put Cipriano in charge of the work crew. He’s going to concentrate on the areas that are a danger to the cattle first. I sent Emanuel into Morro Coyo to buy fencing.”

Murdoch jerked his head up. “All the fencing?”

Scott dragged a chair over to the desk and sat down heavily. Murdoch could see the weight of decision weighing heavily on him.

“I told Emanuel to talk to the other vaqueros from the surrounding ranches. We were hit hard, but so was everyone else.”

“And…?”

“I told him to buy only what we needed. And, if another ranch needed more we’d discuss it.”

Murdoch realized he had been holding his breath. He studied the young man sitting before him, the man he proudly called son. Could he ask for a better son? He saw the strength of leadership and the compassion for his men. If this was not the Scott of his loins, he was the Scott of his heart.

He nodded. “As long as everyone sees it the way you do we’ll come out of this just fine. Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll have Maria bring your dinner up to Johnny’s room. Your brother is being exceedingly cooperative. But I have the feeling the dam is going to break any minute.”

Scott laughed; a sound Murdoch hoped he would hear for a long time to come. “He’s been ‘almost’ the perfect patient. I have a feeling that will all change tomorrow when Sam takes that splint off and puts his arm into a cast. Care to wager a bet that he’ll find some way to saddle Barranca?”

Murdoch laughed. “That would be a fool’s bet.”

“No takers, huh? Didn’t think so.”

“In fact,” Murdoch added. “I think it might be the perfect day for you to spend with him. You’ve been doing the work of two men, you could use the rest. And Johnny could use a big brother.”

The smile that spread across Scott’s face nearly killed Murdoch. What was he going to do?

***

Johnny looked down at his arm dejectedly. The still wet cast glistened in the sunlight pouring in through the open window. A rubber sheet covered the bedcovers protecting them from the messy plaster. It was nearly as heavy as the wooden splint, but at least his arm was in a more comfortable position. Bent at the elbow, his arm now rested across his waist.

“There now, that should be a little more comfortable.” Sam smiled sympathetically. “I know its still a bit cumbersome, but in a few days you can be up and walking around.”

“A few days!” Johnny would have bolted from the bed if Sam wasn’t pushing down on his shoulder.

“Johnny, behave yourself,” Murdoch warned.

Sam kept the pressure on Johnny’s shoulder. “It takes three days for the plaster to harden properly. After that you can move around the house freely, even outside. But, no riding, Johnny. Not for at least a month.”

“A month?” If Johnny had stared at anyone else but Sam Jenkins the way he stared right now, the man would have been out the front door. However Sam never let Johnny intimidate him, and Johnny knew it.

“If you took a spill and broke that arm again it might never heal properly. I’m telling you Johnny, stay off horses and…” he winked back at Murdoch and Scott, “fences.”

Finding Sam not the least bit funny, Johnny harrumphed loudly and turned his face away, dismissing them all. Three days was an eternity tacked onto the time he had already spent in this bed, but he would stay. He would stay because that is what families did, they stuck it out together. That was the hardest thing he had to learn, living here at Lancer, with a father and a brother. That comfort accepted was sometimes more important than comfort offered.

He heard Sam putting his supplies back in his medical bag and felt a gentle tap on his knee. “I’ll be back at the end of the week. Make sure you have someone with you when you get up. You’re going to be weak as a kitten after all this time in bed. But you’re young and strong and you’ll get your strength back in no time.”

“I’ll see you to the door, Sam.” Johnny heard Murdoch offer. He didn’t miss the uneasiness in the old man’s voice. He wondered if anyone else had heard it. “Johnny, Teresa will be up in a few minutes to clean up this mess before lunch. Scott, would you mind helping her?”

“Not at all.” The sound of the chair being pulled closer, and the heartfelt sigh as Scott sat in the chair, was the answer he was hoping for. He wanted time to talk to both Scott and Teresa. The old man was getting worse by the day.

“Very well, I’ll see you this weekend, Johnny,” Sam called and the door closed leaving Johnny and Scott waiting in silence.

***

Murdoch walked down the hall stopping abruptly. Sam had to side step him to keep from plowing into his back.

“What is the matter with you, man? You were acting like a horse with a burr under his saddle in Johnny’s room. The boy is going to be all right. You did everything you could, and you did the right thing.”

“It’s not that, Sam.” Looking at Sam as if he was looking at the last friend he had on earth, he asked. “Do you have time for a drink?”

“It appears you need more than a drink. What’s going on here, Murdoch?”

Murdoch led the way into the great room, his steps heavier than usual. Sam had not seen the man in so much turmoil since his sons had first come home. Of late they had settled most of their differences. It would be a great exaggeration to say they were the perfect family. But they had come a long way, and at least until now, they seemed to be getting along.

He watched Murdoch pour him a drink and a double shot of scotch for himself. Murdoch was not a heavy drinker, and seeing him with the liquor nearly reaching the top of the glass worried him.

“What’s wrong, old friend? I haven’t seen you like this in a long time.”

Murdoch heaved a sigh and dropped into his favorite chair facing the roaring fireplace. “I don’t know what to do, Sam.” The pain in Murdoch’s voice scared Sam.

“Can you tell me what’s bothering you? The ranch? Johnny?”

“Johnny?” Murdoch hissed. “Why does everyone think it is Johnny when there is a problem? It’s not Johnny. It’s…” His voice trailed off as he turned his head toward the fireplace.

“Murdoch, we’ve been friends for a lot of years. Been through our share of hard times, and good times. I thought we could talk, that we could come to each other when there was a problem. Whatever it is, it’s tearing your insides apart. It doesn’t take a doctor to make that diagnosis.”

Murdoch raised his glass to catch the reflection of the flames in the clear liquid. “Arthur Bell came out to the ranch the day Johnny was hurt. He brought me news that I still can’t believe. New that I don’t want to believe.”

Sam waited. Murdoch was not a man who could be rushed. He was also not a man who could be easily thrown for a loop. At this very moment, Murdoch looked like he was hanging on by a thread.

“Arthur showed me a letter from the Pinkertons. He’s acted as my lawyer for more than twenty years and handled most of the correspondence when I was looking for Johnny. Sam…they have reason to believe that Scott…that Scott may be an imposter.”

“What!”

“They think the man that arrived here was not the real Scott Lancer.”

“My God man, you can’t believe that. Scott looks just like Catherine. He talks about Boston, Harlan Garrett. He knows…”

“Knows what?” Murdoch demanded. “Everything that was in the Pinkerton report or could be found by spending a few days in Boston?”

“You really believe this?” Sam asked incredulously.

Murdoch downed the scotch and climbed heavily to his feet, walking over to the liquor cabinet to pour another glass. “I don’t want to. But…Sam how do I know? Scott says he gets a letter from Harlan once a month, but I’ve never seen the letters. He says it’s just his good luck that they come in when he’s in town. I have one picture of him, standing next to General Sheridan. Is that Scott Lancer? I don’t know.”

Sam was stunned. He knew Johnny. He had held him in his arms as a two year old. There was no doubt in his mind that he was Murdoch and Maria’s child. But Scott…He had never thought to question the man who arrived to meet his absent father and collect a thousand dollars “listening money”. Still, he could not believe that Scott was an imposter. The idea was ludicrous.

“Murdoch…I don’t know what to say. Have you made inquiries with the Pinkertons?”

“Of course I have. Arthur’s been writing to them. But you know how long it takes to get answers back from them. I don’t know what to do Sam. Damn it, I love him like a son. If he’s not, do I want to know?”

The question seemed suspended in silence, only the crackling of the fire daring to intrude.

Finally, Sam found his voice. “You have to know. If nothing else, it’s fraud. But, Murdoch, if the Pinkertons are wrong…”

Murdoch nodded wearily. “If I ask Scott to prove who he is then I’ll lose him. And Johnny. I’m not fool enough to think that Johnny stayed here for me. He stayed because he found a brother he had always wanted. It’s just in the past couple of months that Johnny and I have found our way. Then I do something stupid like goad him into pulling a stump out that I know takes two men. Sam, I don’t want to lose either one of them. I love them both.”

Sam seldom found himself lost for words. But at this moment, he couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Murdoch stood up, swaying slightly. “Sam, I know you know the way out. I’m going to rest for awhile. I haven’t been sleeping well the last few nights.”

“Murdoch…promise me you won’t say anything until you know more. You have too much to lose if the Pinkertons are wrong. I have doctor friends in Boston, let me write them. I’ll be discreet.”

Murdoch nodded, then turned back as he headed for the stairs. “Arthur thinks if he is an imposter, that Johnny’s accident may not have been an accident. And eventually he will own Lancer.”

Sam felt his heart jump in his chest. The ugly shadow of doubt had just ingrained itself in his mind. Could he ever look at Scott the same way again?

***

“He just has a lot on his mind,” Teresa said, paying more attention to getting the mess of plaster wrapped in the rubber sheet than Scott’s questions. “He’s worried about Johnny and all the damage from the storm. He’ll be himself again soon.”

“There’s something more,” Scott persisted. “He seems on edge all the time. It’s like…”

Johnny looked at Scott and smiled faintly. “It’s like you are me.”

Scott flinched, but could not deny it. Murdoch had always treated him differently than he did Johnny. Maybe that was why it bothered him so much now. While not considering himself the favored son, he felt that he had a closer relationship with their father than Johnny had. He had hoped in time that they would be equals. But now it looked like he had done something to topple his place in Murdoch’s eyes. For the life of him he could not figure out what.

Teresa wrapped the rubber sheet in a bundle and threw it on the floor. “You are both over reacting.”

“Are we?” Scott helped Teresa straighten the blankets on Johnny’s bed to his brother’s chagrin. “Has he asked you anything unusual?”

Teresa thought for a moment. “No, just…well, he wanted to know if I ever saw you writing to your grandfather or if I ever saw one of the letters he sent to you.”

“Why would he ask that?’ Johnny asked.

Scott shrugged. “I never shared the letters with him because I didn’t think he would be interested. I know there is no love lost between the two of them.”

“That’s an understatement.” Teresa said, starting to look concerned.

Scott looked to the other side of the bed at Teresa as if he was trying to decide if he should ask the question that was most on his mind. “Teresa, when you were cleaning my room, did you go through my writing desk?”

Teresa looked up surprised. “Even if I had the time to clean your room, I would never invade your privacy.”

“No, never.” Johnny smirked. “You’d never invade our privacy by running into our rooms without knocking.”

“That’s different,” she answered, indignantly. “I may forget to knock sometimes, but I would never go through your personal possessions. Scott, did someone go through your desk?”

Scott nodded. “Grandfather taught me to keep a neat desk, everything in its place. Things were disturbed.”

“Who…” Teresa began.

“Murdoch?” Johnny asked. “If he was so interested in the letters between you and your grandfather, then maybe…”

“He wouldn’t have found anything. The last letter I received from Grandfather angered me so much that I threw all his correspondence into the fire. He demanded that I return to Boston where I belong. He said that he had spent too much money and time on my education for me to waste it here playing cowboy. It was childish, I know, but I enjoyed watching the letters burn.”

Johnny groaned in frustration as he tried to shift the heavy cast into a more comfortable position. “Nothing makes sense,” he said, pain and fatigue straining his voice. “But until we figure this out I’d stay out of his way for the time being.”

“You’re probably right,” Scott sighed. “There’s enough work to keep me busy for a month.”

“Murdoch’s not about to talk about it until he’s ready, but maybe I can find out something.”

“And I’ll see what I can find out too,” Teresa said, combing the black bangs back from Johnny’s forehead. “For now, though, you need to rest. We’ll figure this out together.”

Johnny’s eyes closed despite his best effort to keep them open. The house that had settled into a comfortable home was now falling apart round them.

.

Chapter Seven

A week had passed and Johnny was prowling the house like a caged cougar. Despite his bravado, he had to admit that the cast was heavy and cumbersome, and his ribs were still hurting. Even with the sling, which he wore without complaint, each step bounced the cast against his side. Teresa, the angel of mercy that she was, had fashioned a harness from strips of sheet that secured the cast across his stomach so it did not move when he walked. For once it was worth being trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey.

This morning was worse than others. Scott had left before dawn to check the line shacks and the damage in the outer perimeters of the ranch. Cipriano and Jose rode with him. As he listened to them joking through his bedroom window, he would have given anything to be riding with them.

Instead he was stuck here. First he pestered Maria in the kitchen until she nearly took her stirring spoon to him, then he found Teresa weeding her vegetable garden. The hoe was enough of an incentive for him to leave her to here chores.

That left Murdoch. It wasn’t a secret that his father was up in the attic again. It seemed he spent an inordinate amount of time up their lately. However no one had asked him why. Johnny’s mood was primed for just such a question.

Climbing up the steep, narrow drop down stairs at the back of the kitchen, Johnny worked up a legitimate sweat by the time his head breached the attic floor and he saw his father hunched over an old trunk pushed up against the far wall.

Murdoch hadn’t noticed his arrival, even though he made more noise than a herd of mustangs. Johnny watched him, feeling a moment of guilt that he was intruding on his father’s privacy. But he couldn’t look away. This was a different side of Murdoch, a tender, soft side of his father he had only had glimpses of when he was too hurt to respond. Was this the man his mother and Scott’s mother had fallen in love with?

He found he was holding his breath as Murdoch’s huge hands carefully lifted a delicate dress, fringed with fine lace and delicate pearls, once white but now tinged yellow by age. Instinctively Johnny knew that it was Catherine’s wedding dress. What had his mother’s wedding dress looked like? Surely nothing like this. But that was unfair, and he knew it. It was not Catherine’s fault that she came from money and his mother hadn’t. Knowing the man his father was, he knew that was how he felt too.

Not for the first time did Johnny wish that his father would open up to him and Scott. His boot heel suddenly slipped on the narrow step and he had to reach out with is good arm to keep from falling back down the stairs.

Murdoch jerked his head up, anger and concern flickered over his face.

“Sorry,” Johnny said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I was just wondering who was up here.”

Murdoch carefully laid the dress back into its resting place in the trunk and closed the lid.

“What are you doing up here?”

Johnny struggled to climb up the last few steps and sighed in relief when he was at last sitting on the attic floor, his feet dangling down the opening.

“I never heard anyone up here before.” He lied. “Teresa mentioned there was a lot of old stuff up here, but I never thought to check it out.”

Murdoch studied him for a long moment then sat down, resting his back against the wall and stretching his long legs out in front of him.

“It’s been years since I’ve been up here. I’d forgotten the memories.”

“Was that Scott’s mother’s wedding dress?” He knew he was stepping on thin ice with the question, but there didn’t seem to be any other question that needed asking.

Murdoch took a startled breath. He looked from the closed trunk and back to Johnny. Johnny held his breath again. His answer could mean so much.

“Yes,” Murdoch said softly. A smile graced his face, a smile Johnny had never seen before. “She tried to tell me that a wedding dress wasn’t that important. The important thing was marrying the man she loved. But I could see it in her eyes, a girl’s childhood dream of walking down the aisle in the perfect wedding dress. And it was. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.”

Johnny smiled sadly and Murdoch interrupted it all wrong.

“Son, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that your mother….”

Johnny shook his head. “I know. Catherine and my mama were as different as Scott and me.” He chuckled. “It’s like Scott in his plaid pants and me in my conchos”

Murdoch nodded. “Catherine was refined, but strong. I learned early in our relationship that I didn’t stand a chance in winning an argument. No one knew her true spirit, not until she announced that she was traveling to California with her husband. At one time I thought all of Boston would take arms against me. But Catherine had made up her mind. She was everything a young man off a boat from Inverness could have ever dreamed of. There was a time when I couldn’t start the day without wondering what life would have been like if I had not sent her away and she had not died in childbirth.”

“You ever stop wondering?”

“After Catherine died, and Harlan Garret made it clear that I didn’t stand a chance in hell of raising my son, I put everything I had left into making Lancer a ranch to be proud of. I might not have been equal to Harlan Garret in Boston, but by God, I would be someone worth reckoning in California.”

“This was all just payback against Scott’s grandfather?”

“It was. At first. Then I took a trip to Mexico and ended up in a town called Matamoros.”

“Where you met my Mama.”

Murdoch snorted. “You didn’t just meet Maria. She was like no one I had ever met before. I fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her. We talked night after night at the cantina. I told her about Catherine and Scott. I told her that I wanted to build a great ranchero where I could bring Scott home and raise him alongside our child. She seemed swept up in the moment. We were in love; in love with a dream. Two years later reality was more than she could handle and she left with you.”

Johnny hung his head. “I wish I’d known.”

“I wish you had too. Johnny, I searched for you, for so long. When I knew riding from one border town to the next was not getting me anywhere, I returned here and hired the Pinkertons. It took them years to find you.”

Johnny nodded. “I can’t say I’m not glad you hired them. I was about two minutes away from saying hi to the devil. He’d been saving a place for me for a long time.”

Murdoch jerked his head up. “Don’t ever say that. Don’t every say that again. What happened to you should never have happened. You should have lived a safe life here.”

Johnny shifted, trying to find a more comfortable place to sit. His arm was hurting, his ribs were aching, but it was nothing compared to the pain in his heart. Never had he seen his father’s defenses down so much. Never had he seen the pain exposed so openly. This was the Murdoch he had caught snatches of when he was sick, when he could not respond or contradict his father’s words.

“I killed the man who killed my mama,” Johnny said coldly. “It was a rightful kill. After that…”

Somehow Murdoch was beside him, his powerful arms pulling him into an embrace that he both wanted to break and desperately needed.

“You were thrown into a life no child should have to endure,” Murdoch ground out. “You did what you needed to survive. There is not a man alive who could stand before you and condemn you for what you did unless they walked in your shoes. I made the mistake of thinking I knew who…what you were, when you first came here. Never have I been more wrong.”

Johnny was at a loss for words.

“I was so willing, so eager to condemn you when Scott…”

Johnny froze. “When Scott…”

Murdoch was suddenly alert, realizing that he had said too much. But Johnny would not back down.

“When Scott…?” he repeated.

“It is between your brother and me.” Murdoch seemed to suddenly realize that Johnny had climbed up the narrow stairs with his cast. “And you know better than climbing up here with that cast. When will you ever listen to orders?”

“When you stop hiding the truth,” Johnny said.

Johnny waited for Murdoch’s triad, but it never came. Instead his father seemed to collapse into himself. He crawled back to the trunk, as if Catherine’s presence could save him from whatever demon haunted him.

It would have been so easy just to leave Murdoch here with his memories and nightmares. But Johnny had faced his own demons before and he knew how powerful they were. He was not ready to let Murdoch face them alone.

“What is it, Murdoch?” he demanded. “What’s making you treat Scott the way you have the last few weeks? He’s my brother. I have the right to know.”

Murdoch looked up at him with a face so haunted it took his breath away. “Are you so sure he’s your brother?”

The question stunned Johnny. “What kind of question is that?”

“Nothing. Just go back downstairs. I’ll be down in awhile.”

“I asked you a question, Old Man.”

“Don’t be insolent with me, Boy.”

Johnny’s temper flared. “You’ve got this whole family wondering what’s got into you. I’ve never seen Scott more eager to get away from here. Whatever it is, you better figure out how to make it right. I’m used to being on your wrong side, but Scott isn’t and it’s got him tied up in knots.

Murdoch looked down at his hands clamped almost white in his lap. He’d never known his father not to be in control. Slowly Murdoch climbed to his knees and opened the trunk, sifting through it until he found what he wanted. A blue knitted baby’s cap. “When Catherine found out she was pregnant, she began knitting six baby hats. Three pink and three blue. She said she wanted to be prepared. Then the raids started and I sent her away…And you know the rest.

“I saw Scott for the first time on his fifth birthday in Boston. He was a shy, quiet little boy, and I would have recognized him in a crowd of a hundred five year old boys. He looked so much like Catherine.

“I didn’t meet him again until I saw him downstairs in the great room, standing beside an arrogant and angry young Johnny Madrid. You demanded so much attention. I accepted Scott into my life without question, because he was safe and you were anything but.”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. It was not his cast, or his ribs that pained him, but the look of anguish on Murdoch’s face.

“What are you trying to say, Murdoch?”

Murdoch pointed toward Johnny’s right hand. “That little scar you have on your thumb, you got that when you tried to hog tie a rooster like you saw the vaqueros hog tying the calves. The old rooster took exception and Sam had to sew it closed with three stitches. There are so many other small things that prove beyond doubt that you were my boy.”

Johnny raised his hand to look at the thin white scar in the middle of his thumb. He’d collected so many scars that he couldn’t remember where he got half of them. This one was just always there.

“I don’t have that with Scott. I never held him in my arms and rocked him until he cried himself to sleep. I never rode him around the ranch on my horse, so proud I nearly burst at the seams. I never paddled his behind for not obeying the rules. A ranch can be a dangerous place, and for a toddler who was into everything you were an accident waiting to happen.”

“And you didn’t have that with Scott. That’s not his fault.”

Murdoch inhaled deeply. “No it’s not. But Johnny, don’t you understand. I know who you are…I don’t know who Scott is.”

An uncomfortable silence suddenly descended over the attic. All the life seemed to drain out of Murdoch. Johnny saw his shoulders sag as if the weight of the world were on them.

“Exactly what do you mean?” Johnny finally asked, his voice sounding hollow in the stillness.

Murdoch cleared his throat. His voice was but a shadow of what it should have been. “Arthur Bell came to the house the morning you had your accident. He had a letter from the Pinkertons…”

Johnny waited. He held no love for the Pinkertons. They put plenty of facts together, but never bothered to fill in the story. If they were accusing Scott of something…”

“The man you met on the stage to Morro Coyo, the man I call son…they think he is not really Scott Lancer, he is an imposter.”

A Burma bull kicking Johnny in the chest could not have taken his breath away as suddenly as Murdoch’s statement. His mind could not process it. He stared at Murdoch dumbfounded.

“You mean you think that Scott is not your son? Not my brother?”

“I don’t know,” Murdoch said helplessly. “God have mercy on my soul. I don’t know.”

Johnny stood up awkwardly on the stairs, swaying at the sudden movement. “I need some air.”

“Johnny, wait. Please.” Murdoch climbed to his feet and approached Johnny cautiously, as if he would retreat like a wounded animal. “Talk to me, help me. I don’t want to believe it. I love Scott. But there are so many things that don’t make sense.”

“Like what?” Johnny demanded.

“No letters from Harlan Garrett, no pictures with his grandfather. He knows facts, places, even people, but he could have learned all those things from the Pinkerton file.”

“Nothing you say will make me believe that Scott isn’t my brother. I trust him with my life.”

The letter the Pinkertons sent…it says they have proof that a man fitting Scott Garret Lancer’s description boarded the Cimbria, a merchant ship headed for England, a week before they delivered my invitation…summons… to you and your brother to come here to Lancer.

“That doesn’t mean it was Scott.”

“They have several witnesses that knew Scott and swear it was him. They sent an agent to check the ship’s passenger manifest for that trip. Scott’s name was on it.”

“How do you know it was Scott who signed it?”

“How do I know it wasn’t?”

“You could find out. If this Scott, who ever he is is in England then find him. Make him prove who he is.”

“It’s not that easy, Johnny. He may not be in England anymore. The Pinkertons found that he had plans to travel to France.”

“France?”

“It’s another country in Europe. A man could disappear there, even if he didn’t intend to.”

“If he’s Harlan Garrett’s grandson, then he’d know where he is.”

Murdoch nodded. “The Pinkerton’s have sent agents to question him. But he is always too busy,” Murdoch growled.

“He won’t be too busy for me.”

“What?” Murdoch reached out to grab Johnny’s right arm, but Johnny whipped it away.

“I’m going to Boston. If you want proof that Scott is your son and my brother you’ll have it.”

“Johnny, that’s insane. You can’t travel all the way to Boston. Your arm…”

“I can’t do anything here for another month, you won’t miss me. Murdoch, I haven’t had anyone but this family to give a damn about me, and the one who cared the most from the very start was Scott. I’m not giving up on him because of some stupid Pinkerton report.”

“Johnny, please.”

“Don’t tell Scott where I’ve gone. He doesn’t need to know that you don’t trust him.”

“I’ll go with you.” Murdoch said urgently.

“No, Old Man, you would only get in the way. Someone fed the Pinkerton’s a heap of lies, I plan to find out who and why.”

“But you’ve never been to Boston.”

“There always has to be a first time.”

“I don’t know, Johnny.”

“I do. I’m going to make this right,” he promised.

Murdoch gently eased Johnny around so he could climb down the ladder then followed him, closing the attic door behind him. If it was only that easy to close the questions in Murdoch’s mind. Johnny had no questions. It would take more than the Pinkertons to make him doubt Scott. He had waited a lifetime to have a brother, and he had hit the mother lode with Scott.

.

Chapter Eight

Scott wearily followed Cipriano’s lead as they made their way toward the line shack. He had spent three grueling days assessing the damage wrought by the storm. The land that was not still underwater was mired in thick mud. It seemed that every once in awhile, Mother Nature had to prove her power to the lowly humans on earth, lest they erroneously forget who was in control.

Dismounting with a tired groan, Cipriano pulled the reins from his hand. “Jose will see to the horses, Señor Scott. If this roof did not leak, there will be food and blankets waiting inside. If not, there is firm ground a mile north. We will sleep under the stars again tonight”

Scott shuddered at the thought as he looked toward the door, still closed despite the fierce winds. He was so cold and wet he wondered if he would ever be warm again. So far, three of the four line shacks had leaked so badly that everything inside was ruined.

Saying a silent prayer, he opened the door and smiled. Though it smelled of mildew from the damp air, it seemed to have weathered the storm. Even the blankets on the two bunk beds looked dry and comfortably inviting.

“I’ll start the stove and see what there is to eat,” Scott said.

“Si,” Cipriano smiled. “There will be suficiente here. Your padre always keeps the line shacks well stocked with food and medical supplies. He is a good patrón. He takes care of his vaqueros, and they in turn would do anything for him.”

The mention of his father brought back that unsettled feeling in his stomach. He really didn’t need to be out here checking line shacks. Cipriano and his men could have handled the job. But, he had needed to get away. Not since the first day he had set foot in the great room had he felt so awkward in his father’s presence. The clandestine looks, the sentences started and abandoned. He felt like a stranger in his own home.

At first he had attributed it to Johnny’s injury. But once Johnny was out of danger, Murdoch had seemed to distance himself. It was as if his father blamed him for his brother’s accident. If there was fault to be meted out, Murdoch need look no further than his own hot headed disregard for Johnny’s safety.

Thinking back on it, he realized things had seemed to mellow out over the past month. No longer were Johnny and Murdoch censoring their words, afraid that they might say the wrong thing and start another battle. Instead they seemed comfortable with each other. They were at last a family. Then he had retuned to find Johnny so horribly injured and now they were back to square one. No…a new game had been started, with Scott playing the outcast.

“Señor.” Cipriano looked concerned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

Scott flinched, realizing he had been daydreaming. “No. No thank you, Cipriano. I’ll have dinner ready in a few minutes.”

Cipriano nodded. “We are all hungry, si?” Then his voice softened. “I have spent many nights talking with your hermano. If there is anything you would like to discuss…” The old Segundo shrugged. “My ears, they listen, but my mouth repeats nothing.”

“Thank you, Cipriano, but I’m fine.”

“Si.” Cipriano chuckled. “You are as stubborn as your hermano. But even he understands that he needs an amigo when times are hard.”

Scott dipped his head, suddenly aware that he was taking up some of his brother’s mannerisms. “Thank you, Cipriano. I will keep that in mind.”

“Si. You will find dry wood for the fire in the corner over there. Your padre insists that everyone who uses the line shacks replenishes the wood.”

Scott looked to the corner and saw half a cord of dry wood stacked against the wall. Even though he could not restock the dry wood, he would make sure he stacked wet wood in the barn to dry.

Stepping inside, he pushed the door closed behind him. He went straight to work, checking the stove and the flue. Satisfied that the stovepipe was clear he began stacking wood inside the fire box. He had watched Johnny carefully place kindling in the stove first, then coax the small flame into a flickering fire before adding the split logs. He had grown up in the pocket of wealth and prestige in Boston, never once having to start a fire at the Garret mansion, or worry about when or where his next meal would come from. Then came Harvard, and for the first time he had to fend for himself. Looking back on it now, he had to laugh. At the time he had thought having to eat at the dorms dining room with the rest of the students a hardship.

Johnny had grown up far differently, his education not learned from a book, not abstract concepts and ideas, but real life. Knowing and respecting the land, making it work for him. Scott knew he had learned the art of survival when he was in the cavalry, pinned down behind enemy lines then captured. But he had done only what he needed to live day by day. Johnny knew how to co-exist with the land. He envied Johnny sometimes.

Satisfied that the stove was venting properly, Scott began to rummage through the pantry. Cipriano was right. There was an abundance of food. Cans of beans and jars of pickled vegetables, peaches and stewed tomatoes lined the shelf. At last, something more than just beans and beef jerky.

By the time Cipriano and Jose returned he would have a meal fit for kings.

***

The sound of Jose snoring softly from the top bunk lent a somnolent feeling to the line shack. Scott sat in front of the stove watching the flickering fire through the half open door. Behind him he could smell the faint odor of Cipriano’s cheroot. It was times like these that he knew why he stayed here…why the lure of Boston no longer enticed him.

Looking back on his life in Boston he knew he had been a mere actor in a play. Everyone in the business world was. A character was created and preformed from the moment you woke until you laid your head back on the pillow to sleep. His grandfather had taught him well. No one had known who the real Scott Lancer was. Not even Scott Lancer. But here, where men spoke their minds, where a man’s word was his life and his life was his word, Scott knew who he was. No more genuflecting to the false deity of the corporate world; he was free to be himself.

He remembered how content he had felt over the last few months, more sure of himself and his life. For the first time feeling a part of a real family. To find that he had a brother he had never known existed was amazing in itself. But, to have Johnny be that brother…He had learned more about life in the few short months they had been together than all his years at Harvard. Johnny showed him how to love the land, how to use and not abuse what nature had to offer. And in turn, he had opened Johnny’s eyes to a world that he loved: books. To his surprise Johnny could read, slowly, and with many questions about words and ideas, but more often than not, his brother would come up with a different interpretation that made him rethink his own ideas.

Suddenly he shuddered at the thought of how close they had come to losing Johnny again. If he had not taken the long route to the house to avoid the steep descent to the valley he never would have found Johnny. Would Barranca have brought him home in time? No one would ever know.

A log popped and hissed inside the stove and Scott watched the bright yellow embers drift toward the floor, disappearing before they hit the planking.

He heard the wooden chair Cipriano sat on protest beneath his weight, then the slightest sagging of the floor beneath him as the old Segundo joined him, chair in hand.

“May I join you, Señor Scott?”

Scott grinned, noticing Cipriano had brought his chair with him. “I was getting a little lonesome.”

Cipriano set his chair next to Scott, settling into it, his legs stretched out before him.

“Ah, this is much better.”

Scott studied the old man’s face. There was a wealth of information there. Not just in ranching, but in life. Did he have the answers to the questions Scott was seeking?

“Dinner was muy bien.” Cipriano sighed. “Your hermano, he would have added chili peppers to the beans and called it dinner.”

Scott chuckled. “The hotter the better.”

Cipriano patted his stomach. “Si. Too hot for me sometimes.”

A companionable silence settled around them. This is what his life had been missing.

Night sounds drifted into the shack, a wolf howling in the distance, mournful yet comforting, an owl hooting from a nearby tree. Above all, though, was the din of frogs croaking from every direction. It sounded like millions had taken residence in the flooded fields.

“Are there always this many frogs?” Scott asked in amazement.

“Si. Ten sounds like a hundred, and a hundred sounds like a million. But they are good to have around. Watch this.” Cipriano grunted as he lifted his tired body out of the chair and carefully opened the front door. “Holá,” he called softly and it was suddenly deathly quiet. He waited, shadows flickering across his face from the open stove, until first one frog then another started croaking. Soon the air was filled with their sound again. “They are as good as a watch dog, and they do not need a bone.” Cipriano chuckled.

Scott could not help but laugh out loud. “I learn something new everyday.”

“Si. A smart man knows that he has much to learn. Juanito listens and learns all the time. He tells me you are the same.”

“He does?”

“Si. He thinks much of his hermano. As I know you think much of him. But you are worried. He will recover. He is a strong man.”

Scott frowned, the levity suddenly gone. “I know. But he always pushes himself so hard.”

“That is his way. The way he learned to stay alive. You can not change that anymore than you could change the color of his eyes. It is who he is.”

“I will try to remember that next time he does something altogether foolish.”

“He is lucky to have you as his hermano. But, now I must go to bed. We have one more line shack to check before we can go home tomorrow.”

Scott nodded. “It will be good to be home.” As Scott said the words he didn’t know if he meant them. He would go home for Johnny. Murdoch? That was another question.

***

Johnny had spent a restless night, Murdoch’s words haunting him. The thought that his father, their father, could think of Scott as an imposter brought bile to his stomach. He would not believe it… could not believe it. Because in doing so, he was accepting that the most important person in his life was a liar. And he knew with every instinct within him that Scott was his brother, son of Murdoch, grandson of Harlan.

The thought of boarding the train and traveling clear across the county frightened him more than any gunfighter he had ever faced. But he would travel anywhere if it helped Scott. And he knew, without hesitation, that Scott would do the same for him.

After breakfast, Johnny had spent the morning with Jelly. He would only tell the old handyman that he was taking a trip, something he wanted to do, but hadn’t had the time until now. With his arm out of commission, and unable to do any ranch work, it was the perfect opportunity. But he was still not willing to leave the protection of the ranch unarmed. Even though his gun hand was not affected, he couldn’t strap on his gunbelt, and he wasn’t prepared to ask anyone to buckle it on for him. So he went to Jelly with his problem, and by the end of the day, Jelly had rigged a lightweight holster that hid inside the sling that supported his cast.

The combination of the cast and the gun sheathed in the holster pulled the sling uncomfortably around his neck, but with time he would adjust to the extra weight. He practiced all morning, not coming close to his fast draw, but it was far better than no gun at all. He could only hope that Boston didn’t have any fast draws looking for a reputation.

Murdoch had reluctantly bought a ticket on a train leaving Stockton tomorrow afternoon. At first Murdoch was categorically against the idea. Johnny was wholly out of his element. But Johnny had his mind made up. And once his son was determined to do something, a herd of wild horses could not change his mind. No one bothered to ask where he got his stubborn streak from.

That afternoon he packed a small traveling bag. He was used to traveling light, and he didn’t want to deal with anything more than he could handle.

He didn’t see Murdoch standing in the doorway watching him. Every move he made seemed awkward and painful. If it wasn’t his dislocated shoulder, it was his ribs that still raked across his chest with every move. He didn’t tell anyone how much he hurt. There were worse things in life than a little pain. Like losing his brother.

“Are you planning on packing a suit?”

Johnny swung around, startled that Murdoch had made his way down the hallway without him noticing. That was happening all too often of late.

“Not planning on going to any parties.”

“Maybe not, but…” Murdoch held up the dreaded formal suit he had tailor made for his son. “In Boston, a well dressed man speaks louder than a six shooter.”

Johnny was lost for words.

“It won’t hurt to pack it,” Murdoch cajoled.

Johnny reluctantly nodded and stood back while Murdoch folded the suit to put in his bag.

“May I?” Murdoch chuckled as he pawed through the bag. “I think I can make this a little neater.”

Johnny grinned. “I never was good at this.”

Murdoch dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed and began to reorganize. He didn’t flinch at the boxes of bullets Johnny had packed, and he didn’t ask how he was going to load his gun single handed. In the end, he had repacked the bag with room to spare.

“Sam sent word that he was coming out this evening to take a look at your arm.”

Johnny lifted an eyebrow. “Nothing is keeping me from that train tomorrow.”

“I know. And so does Sam. But he worries, like I do.”

Johnny turned quickly toward the window, still not accustomed to people worrying about him. He cleared his throat. “No need to worry.”

Murdoch smiled. “It’s a father’s prerogative. Now why don’t you try to get some rest before dinner? I’m not supposed to say anything, but Teresa and Maria have been working all afternoon to make you a special dinner. That can only mean that I’ll be up all night.”

“Then you’d better get yourself some sleep too.”

***

Johnny pushed his plate away, declaring silently that he could not eat another bite. Teresa and Maria had outdone themselves, the table laden with all of Johnny’s favorites.

“Gracias,” he grinned when Maria tried to offer him another tamale. “I will explode, Mamacita. I won’t have to eat for a week.”

“You had better eat properly, young man,” Murdoch admonished.

“Don’t worry, Murdoch, I’ll see that he behaves.” Sam wiped his mouth with his napkin, then pushed his chair away from the table. “Delicious ladies, even though I will probably use my entire supply of bicarbonate tonight.”

Johnny looked toward the old doctor. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means my stomach can’t take spices like these and…”

“You know what I mean. About seeing that I’ll behave.”

“Oh, didn’t Murdoch tell you?” Sam asked innocently.

Johnny turned to look at Murdoch, anger seething just below the surface. “Tell me what?”

“Well…Sam was planning a trip to Boston next month to visit an old friend, and we thought, since you were going to Boston…”

“No,” Johnny said emphatically. “I don’t need no nursemaid.”

Sam rolled his shoulders back indignantly. “I am no one’s nursemaid, young man. I happen to be going to the same place in a few weeks and I thought it would be nice to have some company on the trip.”

“No, I travel alone.” Johnny started to stand up and his left arm accidentally hit the edge of the table, eliciting a sharp gasp.

Sam shook his head in frustration. “As much as you want to believe that you are ready to travel, you are not. And especially not alone. Have you thought about how you are going to do the most mundane things? Like button your pants in the morning? I know Murdoch helps you with them now. But he won’t be there. You won’t let him. You need help Johnny, whether you like it or not.

And what will Scott think? He will already be suspicious that you left before you were healed. He won’t for one instant believe that you are ready to travel alone. Nothing but Val throwing him in jail would keep him from following you. If he knows I’m with you, then maybe Murdoch can keep him here until you find what you are looking for in Boston.

Be sensible for once in your life. Besides,” Sam seemed pleased with his next statement. “If you want to find the right people in Boston, then who better than a doctor to lead you to them?”

Johnny looked around the table and knew he had been set up. His anger waned as he realized he could not be mad when he knew they were just trying to help. Accepting help, he reminded himself, was as important as giving it.

Not willing to let them have the last hurrah, Johnny leveled an irate look around the table before he huffed and walked away, calling back over his shoulder. “I hope you don’t snore or we’ll be riding in different cars.”

.

Chapter Nine

Johnny ate the breakfast Maria set before him, knowing she would never let him go in peace if he didn’t. Murdoch sat at the head of the table, silently eating his steak and eggs. He had barely raised his head to look at Johnny all morning. Worry and indecision had robbed him of his sleep and he had said so as he slid into his chair.

“I still don’t like the idea of you traveling all the way to Boston. Even with Sam. You’re not ready. Give yourself a few more days to heal.”

Johnny shook his head. “Scott’ll be back this afternoon. He’s gonna ask questions, and I can’t lie to him. He already knows something’s wrong, and he’s got this way of tripping you up on your own words.”

“Then stay in town with Sam for a few days, at least until Harlan responds to the telegrams we’ve sent. Even if he ignores the messages from the Pinkertons, surely he’ll answer ours.”

“How many telegrams do you have to send before you get the message that he isn’t gonna reply? No, the only way to get answers is to go there in person.”

Johnny sipped at his coffee, remembering something that had come to mind as he fell asleep last night. “Why did you keep the Pinks on me and Scott even after we came here? I heard they ain’t cheap.”

“No they aren’t. In fact, I went into debt at one time paying them to find you and your mother. But…” Murdoch looked at Johnny, realization dawning on his face. “My account with them is closed. It has been since they contacted Scott and found you in Mexico.”

“Then why are they still interested in Scott? All that work, finding his name on the ship’s log, talking to the man who said he saw him get on board. Someone’s been footin’ the bill.”

Murdoch sat back in his chair, stunned. “It never occurred to me. Johnny, let me look into it before you go back east. We might find all the answers…”

Johnny shook his head. “You won’t get the truth from here. Someone is working real hard to make Scott look like an imposter.”

“And if he is? Are you prepared to accept the truth if it isn’t what you want to find?”

“I know Scott is my brother. I made a living reading people. Scott hasn’t been lying to me, or you. I’d stake my life on it.”

“Just be careful, Son.”

Johnny grinned. “I got Sam with me. He’s as big a mother hen as you are. What can go wrong?”

“Oh, John…I wish you had never asked that question.”

***

Scott heard the sound of cattle bellowing as they rode up the slight rise. His heart plummeted at the sight of a dozen or more cows huddled together in the center of a large bog. It would take the rest of the day to free them from the thick mud and, by the time they were done, it would be too late and too dangerous to try to make it home. He faced another night out on the trail, another night of not knowing if Johnny was still improving or what was behind Murdoch’s strange behavior.

Tomorrow he would sit down with both of them and get to the bottom of this. He was tired of feeling like an outsider. He had worked hard to learn how to work on a ranch. He had persevered through tired muscles and blisters on his hands and feet. He had learned to rope and brand and ride a cutting horse. There was still so much more to learn, but until just a couple weeks ago, he thought he had plenty of time. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

Could he live under Murdoch’s critical eye? He could go back to Boston and reclaim his life there. He would be the talk of the town, the slightly dangerous man from the Wild West that would attract any woman’s fancy.

But that was not what he wanted. He wanted things to be as they had been. The past two months had been the happiest ones since they first came together. Murdoch and Johnny had found a common ground and the three of them worked the ranch as partners. What had happened? What role did Arthur play in all this?

Questions, more questions and… no answers. But tomorrow he would demand an answer.

The sound of a frightened cow, trying to find purchase in the slimy mud, drew his attention, and he followed Cipriano down to the edge of the bog.

***

Johnny said very little on the trip into town. There was nothing more Murdoch could say to change his mind. He had pulled his hat low over his eyes after they passed beneath the Lancer arch and remained quiet. If truth be told, he was hurting much more than he had expected. He would never admit it to anyone, but he was glad Sam was traveling with him.

Sam Jenkins was rocking in the comfortable chair outside his office, his two large valises sitting beside him, with his medical bag propped on top.

“It’s about time you got here. I was beginning to think you had changed your mind.”

Johnny grinned and eased himself down off the wagon. “You would a thought I was gonna be gone for a year the way Teresa and Maria were acting.”

Sam chuckled. “I can imagine.”

Johnny felt the rumble before he saw the stage make the last turn down the center of town. He knew the hardest part of the trip would be from here to Sacramento.

Murdoch climbed down from the wagon looking suspiciously at Sam’s luggage. “How long do you plan to be gone?”

Johnny saw the twinkle in Sam’s eyes and fought hard not to bust out laughing.

“I travel with more than just a couple of saddle bags.” He nodded toward Johnny’s small traveling bag. “And more than one change of clothes.”

“I got all I need, Sam,” Johnny grinned as he climbed down off the wagon and headed for Sam’s valises.

Murdoch quickly stepped in front of him. “I’ll get those. No heavy lifting, remember?”

“How could I forget?” Johnny asked, not altogether happy with the situation, but silently thankful that his father had stopped him from doing something foolish…again. It was just hard having others do for him.

Murdoch lumbered across the street to the stage carrying the heavier of the two valises. To Johnny’s surprise Val was suddenly walking beside him, carrying the other valise, a silly grin on his face.

“I didn’t believe it when I heard you was traveling with Sam. Not that Sam ain’t good company. But Chicago? You think more than that arm of yours got busted…maybe your head too?”

Johnny hated lying, but he couldn’t take the chance that word would get back to Scott that they were headed for Boston.

“My head is fine. Nothing I can do at the ranch right now. So…”

“But you going to Chicago. That’d be like Scott going to Mexico. Don’t make no sense.”

“Sheriff,” Murdoch’s voice boomed. “If you want Johnny to stay at Lancer, then you can come out and ride shotgun over him. No heavy lifting, no riding., no…”

“I get the point,” Val grinned. “Chicago sounds like just the right place for Johnny.”

“Thanks Val.” Johnny glared toward his old friend, but his eyes flashed with mischief. “I thought at least you would be on my side. Instead of going off to Chicago with Sam I could bunk in with you. Keep out of trouble…”

“And in my hair all the time.” Val opened the stagecoach door. “Get in before I throw ya in.”

“I’m glad you agree.” Murdoch stood back as Val and the stagecoach driver manhandled the heavy luggage onto the top of the stage.

“I hope ya got someone to take these here bags for ya at the train station.” Val grunted as the last bag was secured in place.

“The porter will see to them,” Sam assured him. “And make sure they get on the connecting trains. They do it all the time.”

Two passengers climbed into the stagecoach and Murdoch held out his hand to Johnny. “Have a safe trip, Son. Send me a telegram when you reach Chicago.”

“I will.” Johnny leaned in close so no one else could hear his words. “Treat Scott right. He’s your son, I know he is. Don’t say something you can’t ever take back.”

Murdoch nodded. “I won’t say a word.”

Johnny nodded then climbed awkwardly into the coach. He was in for a long trip – one he hoped would give him the answers he wanted to hear.

***

The stagecoach ride had been as rough as Johnny feared and now, as they stood on the train platform ready to board the huge belching monster that would take them to Boston, he wondered if this was such a good idea after all.

But it was the only way to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Scott. And he would travel to the ends of the earth to prove that Scott was his brother.

“All aboard!” the conductor called and Johnny gave Sam a tentative look.

“I upgraded our tickets to a sleeping berth.” Sam smiled. “It will make traveling a lot easier. This old body isn’t up to sitting in a hard seat for the next six days.”

Johnny knew Sam was doing this for him and he felt a sudden sense of pride that he had found such a good friend. Not something he had a long list of in his past.

The porter escorted them to the sleeping car where two lines of bunks awaited the passengers. Two tiered, each bunk had a curtain for privacy. Johnny couldn’t help but cringe at the thought of sleeping in the elongated boxes. With his arm in the ponderous cast and his face glistening with sweat, he watched as the porter pulled a curtain open to a bottom berth. Turning to Sam, the porter suggested with a warm smile that the older man take the bottom berth right across from Johnny.

“When you reach Ogden in the morning you’ll find the Union Pacific more comfortable. They have Pullman cars.”

“Thank you.” Sam smiled and palmed a coin into the porter’s hand. “I suspect my friend here will sleep through most of the night. I just need a glass of water for his medication.”

“Of course, Sir.”

Johnny raised an annoyed eyebrow at Sam but sank down onto the bottom bunk, his head hitting the underside of the top berth. He cursed up a blue streak in Spanish, not caring if anyone heard or understood him. He was too tired and too sore to care. The stagecoach ride had been hot and stuffy after they picked up four more passengers along the way. His arm and ribs were throbbing from the rough ride. Again he thought that he should have listened to Murdoch.

“Here, take this,” he heard Sam direct and a glass appeared in his hand. “It will help you sleep. And not a word about you not liking to take medicine. You are in no condition to take this trip in the first place. So, if you want to continue on you’ll do as I say.”

Johnny reluctantly downed the glass of medicated water. He couldn’t think of very many people who would dare talk to him like that, or get away with it.

“You’ll be sound asleep before you know it. Now, let’s get that jacket and those boots off.”

Struggling to find a comfortable spot in the confined area, Johnny finally settled into a semi- tolerable position. He drew back the small curtain covering an even smaller window to see the train station slowly fall behind as the train shuddered and began to build up speed, amid a cloud of belching black smoke and the shrill call of the whistle.

What was he doing here? Would he really find the answers he needed to prove to his father what he knew without question: that Scott was his brother?

He felt his eyes grow heavy as the combination of the sleeping powder and the click clack of the iron wheels on the tracks lulled him toward sleep. He felt Sam cover him with a blanket and the curtain close as his last thoughts were of Scott and Murdoch. He should be there, running interference like Scott had so often done when he was butting heads with their old man. But he also needed to be here. Needed…he drifted off into a deep sleep.

***

Scott ached from head to toe as he stretched out on the hard packed ground. It had taken twice as long as expected to get the cows out of the bog, and by the time they were done, both men and horses were exhausted. The only thing they could think of was a warm fire and a dry piece of land to set their bedrolls on. But as the morning mist made way for the warming sun, Scott stood up slowly and inhaled the clean soft air. Boston with its factories and row upon row of houses, all with fireplaces, filled the city with an ever present layer of smoke. Out here the air was clean and fresh. He couldn’t think of anything that would send him back to Boston. He had everything he could want or need right here. Except for the way Murdoch had been acting of late. But that was going to stop as soon as he got home. He was determined to get to the bottom of the problem. He would get both Murdoch and Johnny together and demand to know what was going on. He knew Johnny would back him. His brother had been in this position all too often. How had he stood it for so long?

Breakfast was hot and nourishing, and bested some of the lavish displays that greeted him in the morning in Boston. Who would have thought bacon frying in a cast iron skillet over a campfire would taste so good? He drank a second cup of strong coffee before packing up the supplies and heading off toward home.

Scott was both comforted and dismayed as they passed beneath the Lancer arch. His enthusiasm for the coming confrontation with Murdoch had weakened as they got closer to the house. It had to be done, but now he wasn’t so sure he really wanted to know the answer.

He gave Cipriano the reins and headed for the front door.

Inside the house was quiet – overly quiet. He walked into the great room surprised and concerned when he didn’t see Johnny or Murdoch. Had Johnny taken a turn for the worse? He made his way into the kitchen to find it empty as well. The little niggle of worry was blossoming. Something was wrong, he could feel it.

He hurried up the stairs to Johnny’s room, alarmed to see the bed made and no evidence of Johnny having been in there for some time. He marched down the hall to his father’s room and swung the door open without knocking. It too was empty.

Making his way back down the stairs he heard the back door close in the kitchen and quickly walked back through the great room into the kitchen. Maria stood by the stove, beginning the preparations for dinner.

“Where is everyone?” he demanded.

Maria turned around, startled by Scott’s sudden appearance.

“Senor Scott, do not sneak up on someone like that,” she scolded him, holding a substantial wooden spoon in her hand.

“Sorry, but no one is here. Where did they go? Where’s Johnny? Is he all right?”

“He is fine. Your hermano is taking a trip with Senor Sam. It is the only way to keep him out of trouble.”

“A trip? Where?”

“To Shee ca,” Maria struggled with the name. “It is many days away by train.”

“Chicago?” Scott asked in disbelief. “Johnny went to Chicago with Sam?”

“Si. It was a way to keep Juanito out of trouble. He was already wanting to ride that horse of his.”

Scott could not help but feel a twinge of anger. He was expecting Johnny to be here, to help him with Murdoch. It seemed so out of character for Johnny to agree to travel with Sam. A stagecoach ride, maybe. But a train? Johnny had never ridden a train for more than half a day and even that nearly drove him crazy. He was looking at four days getting from here to Chicago. Every which way Scott turned his world seemed to be hurtling toward chaos.

“El Patron says for you to rest today and he will be home for dinner.”

Great, he thought. Dinner should be a lively event. Turning to leave, Maria called. “Lunch will be ready in an hour.”

For some reason, he thought sardonically, he had suddenly lost his appetite.

.

Chapter Ten

Scott rested for a while until Maria called him back down for lunch. Murdoch was still not there and after eating a roast beef sandwich and drinking a glass of cool tea, he had headed out to the barn to check on Barranca.

The palomino raised its head and snorted a greeting as Scott grabbed an apple from Johnny’s hidden store. The horse snatched it from his hand and chomped on it with delight. Barranca was not the only one missing Johnny. His hopes of he and his brother confronting Murdoch this evening seemed to have been derailed. He would have to face his father alone. But what would he say? Nothing overt had happened, just an escalating tension…and a disturbing feeling of distrust when he was in Murdoch’s presence.

Whatever it was, it had to stop. He couldn’t continue to live like this. And with Johnny gone, he had no buffer. God, how often had he played that role between Johnny and Murdoch? He felt a flash of anger that Johnny was not here when he needed him.

The sound of Cipriano shouting at a vaquero caught his attention and Scott patted Barranca’s nose before heading back into the courtyard.

A horse had broken the corral fence and several men were trying to keep the rest of the horses from escaping the enclosure while Cipriano herded the horse back to its home.

“What happened?” Scott asked.

“Estúpido,” Cipriano cursed as he climbed out of the saddle, his own horse acting nervous. “Felipe, he kills a puma in the high country, then brings the hide back and asusta– scares – the horses. He will remember what he has done when he rides drag on the next cattle drive.”

Scott slapped Cipriano on the shoulder. “Remind me never to do something estupido around you.”

Cipriano chuckled. “You are learning the language, Senor Scott. Juanito has taught you well.”

The mention of Johnny’s name sobered Scott and he looked back into the stable, Barranca’s blond mane dimly visible toward the back of the building.

“I think I’ll take Barranca out for a run, let him stretch his legs.”

“Si. He misses his Juanito.”

“We all do.”

Scott headed back to the stable. Maybe a workout would be good for both him and Barranca.

***

Somehow time had gotten away from Scott and it was near dinnertime before he loped into the courtyard and handed a tired Barranca over to Jelly. The old handyman’s nod of approval said more than a thousand words and Scott knew he had done the right thing for Johnny, even if his brother had decided to head to Chicago, of all places.

The smell of ham and sweet potatoes greeted him as he opened the front door. He barely had time to take his jacket off and hang his holster from the peg on the wall before Teresa grabbed his arm and escorted him to the dining table.

“Don’t say anything to upset him,” Teresa warned as they entered the great room and saw Murdoch sitting at the head of the long dining room table. “He’s been a bear all day. I think it’s because he’s worried about Johnny taking that trip to Chicago.”

“What on earth made him go there? I thought Johnny hated traveling.”

“So did I. But he seemed determined to go yesterday morning. Oh Scott, I don’t know what is going on here. But please, try to fix it. Murdoch has been impossible with everyone.”

Scott leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Scott slid into his seat aware that Murdoch was deliberately trying not to make eye contact with him.

“I understand Johnny took a trip with Sam,” he said, coaxing his voice to sound as normal as possible. “Chicago I’m told.”

Murdoch nodded. “Sam has a medical conference there and we thought it would be a good opportunity for Johnny to see the city.”

“He never mentioned it.”

Murdoch busied himself with buttering a biscuit while he talked. “Sam had no intention of going until we realized how hard it would be to keep Johnny confined to the house. It would only be a matter of time before he would be in the barn trying to saddle Barranca.”

“So you sent him on a stage from here to Stockton. Didn’t it occur to either of you that Johnny was in no shape to be on a stage? And might I remind you that riding on a train is not all that comfortable either? What were you thinking?”

Murdoch raised his head and squared his shoulders but Scott would not be denied.

“When I left here Johnny was barely able to get down the stairs alone.”

“Sam felt that Johnny was healed enough to make the trip.”

“But why on earth would he go? Johnny hates big cities and crowds. He hates train rides and more than anything he hates being coddled. We both know that Sam will fuss over him like a mother hen.”

“The alternative was staying here being fussed over by Teresa and Maria, and looking at Barranca everyday knowing he couldn’t ride.”

Scott lost a little of his bravado. It made sense in a way.

“How long will he be gone?”

Murdoch shrugged. “A month. Maybe longer.”

“That leaves just you and me,” Scott said softly. Another reason, he thought, why Johnny’s timing seemed unusual.

Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “It that a problem?”

Scott stiffened. “It might be.”

“Just what is that supposed to mean?”

Scott could not keep a rein on his tongue any longer. “It means that you have been secretive and standoffish since the day Johnny was hurt. And I’m tired of it. I have done nothing wrong, at least that I know of. To tell you the truth, I was expecting Johnny to be here tonight so we could talk to you together.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. I’ve been worried about Johnny, that’s all. I’m not sure where you got the idea that I’ve been trying to avoid you.”

Teresa walked in, and set a platter of ham next to a bowl of sweet potatoes on the table then hurriedly returned to the kitchen before the inevitable explosion.

Scott cleared his throat. “I don’t believe I mentioned the word avoid, Sir. I said secretive and standoffish. Have you been trying to avoid me? Now that I think about it, that appears to be exactly what you have been doing.”

“I have not been avoiding you. I’ve had other things to worry about. I didn’t realize that I had to baby sit you. You’ve been here long enough to know your responsibilities and to carry them out. I expected you to understand that Johnny was hurt and needed my attention.”

“He didn’t need your attention as much as he needed a little honesty. He was the one who asked me if I knew what was bothering you. He was the one to ask me what I had done to make you mad. And he was the one who felt guilty that our roles had been reversed and you were treating me like you have always treated him.”

Murdoch jumped to his feet. “How dare you! What gives you the right to question me when you aren’t even…”

“Even what?” Scott demanded, turning to look up his father.

He watched in astonishment as Murdoch suddenly dropped his head and dropped his arms to his sides.

“Don’t push, Scott. Please. Don’t push. I can’t tell you what I don’t know myself.” The pain in Murdoch’s eyes took Scott’s breath away. “I know it is a lot to ask, but I’m asking you to trust me.”

Scott could only nod. Any words he might have said were forgotten in the face of his father’s desperate appeal. He watched Murdoch get up and walk toward the stairs. Scott heard him climb the steps slowly, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Scott sat back and stared at the ham, his appetite gone. He’d never seen his father so troubled. He looked at the empty chair beside him. Johnny’s chair. What did Johnny have to do with this? Why had he gone to Chicago? Why had he been in such a hurry to go? His anger at Johnny for leaving him here alone with Murdoch grew, along with a burgeoning suspicion that his brother knew more than he had let on.

He stood up slowly. He would honor his promise and not “push” Murdoch. But that didn’t mean that he wouldn’t try to find some answers on his own.

Half an hour later, Scott had his horse saddled and he disobeyed the cardinal rule of not galloping before reaching the other side of the Lancer arch. Val was Johnny’s good friend. Maybe he knew something. Someone had to know what was going on here. If he had to, he would follow Johnny to Chicago.

***

Johnny awoke to the clatter of the iron wheels on the tracks keeping cadence with the throbbing of his arm. His berth swayed and bucked as he looked out the small window and saw the end of the train. A lantern swung from the caboose, a half a dozen cars behind, following like a snake behind his car as the train tracks wound through a vast landscape just coming into view in the purple mist of morning.

Sam said they would be changing trains when they got to Ogden. He wanted nothing more than to be out of this claustrophobic berth, but he feared he would find the same thing on the next train. And he had another five days to go. He was beginning to think he wouldn’t make it.

But he was doing this for Scott. And if it meant riding on the top of every train from here to Boston he would do it.

Johnny saw the black drape slide open and Sam was swaying in the aisle, a glass of something in his hand.

“Take this, and no argument,” Sam ordered.

Johnny took the glass and sniffed at the contents. “Laudanum. I don’t want…”

“Take it, Johnny. We had a deal. You’ve been moaning in pain for the last hour. Now take it, or we head back home when we reach Ogden.”

Johnny drank it reluctantly, wishing he hadn’t agreed to let Sam travel with him. It wasn’t long before he felt the pain in his arm and ribs ease and his eyes grow too heavy to keep open.

***

Johnny was not sure how much time had passed as he awoke to the sound of the train’s shrieking whistle and the hiss of steam as the engine chugged to a stop. He heard a flurry of activity in the aisle on the other side of his drawn curtain and he carefully pulled it open just enough to see a line of both men and women walking slowly toward the car’s exit. It appeared that Sam was not in any big hurry and allowed the car to empty before pulling the curtain open all the way and smiling down at him.

“We have about two hours before we board the next train. How does breakfast sound?”

Johnny wasn’t very hungry. Between the motion of the train, the laudanum and his worry over Scott he would gladly forgo the meal. “How about a cup of coffee?”

“How about a couple poached eggs? Nourishing, but easy on the stomach?”

“Is this how it’s gonna be? You fussing all the time?”

Sam chuckled as he helped Johnny struggle out of the cramped berth. “You’ve given me plenty of practice. Now let’s get that breakfast before the next train arrives.”

And that’s how it was the rest of the trip. Though the next train had a Pullman car and it was just about the most elegant thing Johnny had seen outside a bordello, he still found it hard to find a comfortable resting place with the heavy cast on his arm and his ribs protesting all the time. Besides, Sam was a lot harder on the eyes than a working girl.

Johnny had no idea how long a trip it was from Lancer to Boston. He had naively thought that once he boarded the train in Sacramento he would stay on it until he arrived in Boston. But so far they had changed four trains before, at last, they pulled into the Boston Station.

Despite the luxury of the Pullman cars, Johnny was exhausted and hurting. He was looking forward to solid ground and a steady bed.

Johnny waited amid the noise and confusion of people arriving for their train or picking up passengers. He felt conspicuous sitting on the bench, his arm supported by the black sling. Everyone seemed compelled to look at him. His pistol concealed inside the sling gave him a modicum of security. He remembered Sam catching him slipping the gun into the holster Jelly had fashioned for him and, to the doctor’s credit, he had only raised an eyebrow. Sam knew Johnny Madrid was never truly safe anywhere.

A few minutes later Sam arrived in a cab with their baggage stowed in back and they were off to the hotel. A short ride later they arrived at the Parker House. Johnny wasn’t prepared for the size or the grandeur of the hotel and he felt even more out of place. But Sam took charge and they were soon following a bell hop to the second floor where they shared adjoining rooms. This was the world Scott had come from. He hadn’t realized, until now, what a transition his brother had made from this life to part owner of a cattle ranch. It made Johnny all the more determined to prove that Scott was who he was. His brother had worked too hard to have it torn from him because of false allegations.

Spotting a comfortable looking chair facing the fireplace, Johnny sat down heavily. He was tired, hurting and wholly at a loss as to what to do next. He was totally out of his element here. What would he do if Harlan refused to see him? Pull his gun on him and demand the old man tell him the truth? Somehow, he knew that was not going to work. So what then? He had thought of a lot of things as he traveled across the country. But he had only thought of what he wanted to do, not how to do it.

Sighing heavily, he ran his hand through his black hair and stood up. “Putting this off isn’t gonna get the answers we need.”

“You’ve had a long trip, Johnny. Rest today and we can go see Garrett tomorrow.”

Johnny shook his head. “I didn’t come all this way to lay around here. I’m gonna have a talk with the old man and get this settled.”

“Let me freshen up a little and I’ll be right with you.”

“No, Sam. I’ve got to do this on my own. If I don’t get anywhere with the old man then you can start asking around. At least this way, we’ll know where we stand.”

“Johnny, this is not Morro Coyo. You don’t know how to get around a city this big.”

“I know the address and I can get me one of them cabs. I’ll be fine, doc.”

“You are far from fine,” Sam said a little too loud, his exasperation growing by the minute. “You’re exhausted and in pain. I can tell by your face. You can’t lie to me, young man.”

“I’m not trying to lie to you, Sam. It’s just that I got to get this done as soon as I can. Scott is back home with Murdoch and I don’t know if Murdoch can keep from telling him what’s going on. Even when I have the proof that the Pinkerton’s report was a lie, I could still lose him. I can’t take that chance.”

Sam nodded. “All right. But let me come with you in the cab. I’ll wait until you have talked to Garrett. At least I’ll be there if you need me.”

A smile small sneaked across Johnny’s face. “Don’t you ever get tired of fussin’?”

Sam chuckled. “It’s part of the Hippocratic Oath.”

“The what?”

“The rules a doctor promises to follow. And no, I never get tired of fussing when fussing is necessary. Now give me five minutes to get ready.”

Johnny sat back down to wait. In truth, he was glad Sam was going with him. Even though he would not be by his side when he talked to Garrett it would be reassuring to know he was outside waiting if he needed him.

***

Johnny paid no attention as the cab wound its way up and down street after street. In reality Garrett’s house was not that far away, but the streets were so long that it seemed to take forever before the cab reached an intersection and the horse clopped on down the next cobblestone street.

Finally the cab came to a complete stop and Johnny looked out the window at a three story brick building. Even with the trees that lined the pathway to the front steps, it looked cold and uninviting. This is where Scott grew up? He suddenly felt a pang of guilt for having so much more than his brother had. Even though he didn’t always have a roof over his head, or food in his stomach, he didn’t have to live in a place like this. It seemed devoid of life.

He gave Sam a nervous smile and climbed out of the cab. He reached the steps and climbed them slowly. Not just because he was tired, but because he was about to look into Scott’s life and he didn’t know if he really wanted to. Ignorance was bliss, someone had once said. At this moment, he deemed them right.

Johnny patted his sling, feeling the familiar shape of the holster and gun then knocked three times on the foreboding front door.

It took several minutes before the door finally opened and a stiff- backed man in a black tailored suit stood in the doorway. The man arched an eyebrow and looked down on Johnny from the last step that led into the house.

“If you are looking for work, there is none here,” he said with repugnance.

Johnny held his temper. He had come too far to blow up at the first slight. He knew there would be many more to come. “I’d like to speak to Mr. Garrett.”

“Who are you?” the man demanded.

“You can tell Mr. Garrett that Johnny Lancer has come calling on him. He’ll know who I am.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“Look Mister, I just want to see Mr. Garrett.”

“You’ll find Mr. Garrett at the King’s Chapel Burying Ground,” the man said as he began to close the door. “He was killed in a buggy accident two months ago.”

.

Chapter Eleven

“Dead?” Johnny quickly stuck his foot in the threshold, leaning his good shoulder against the heavy ornately carved door, the word still echoing in his head. “Why didn’t you tell Scott?” he demanded.

“Remove your foot, or I will have you arrested for trespassing.”

“I asked you a question,” Johnny snarled. “Why didn’t you tell Scott?”

“Several letters were sent, if it’s any of your business. But no one knows for sure what part of Europe Mr. Scott is in at the moment.”

“Europe…?”

“Yes. Now, will you remove yourself from this door or will I have to summon the constable?”

Johnny felt like he was gut punched. He could barely breathe. He watched the door close in his face and just stood there, stunned beyond reason. Garrett dead? Unbidden questions wormed their way into his thoughts. If Garrett was dead then who was sending those letters to Scott? He had never actually seen the letters…no one had. No! He refused to allow those thoughts to take root in his mind. He trusted Scott. He was here to find the truth. But was Murdoch right? Could he accept the truth if it wasn’t what he wanted to hear?

He turned and walked back down the stairs toward the cab, a fog of confusion and despair blanketing his thoughts. Sam opened the cab door and Johnny climbed in, barely aware of what he was doing.

“Johnny?” Sam’s voice hardly registered.

“Garrett is dead,” he answered, his voice devoid of emotion.

“What?”

“He died two months ago.”

A long, stifling silence filled the cab, broken only by the driver when he opened the small window between the driver’s seat and the interior of the cab. “Where to, Gents?”

“Back to the hotel,” Sam ordered.

The cab lurched as the horse made a wide circle and began to retrace its steps back to the Parker House Hotel.

“I don’t understand. Surely someone would have notified Scott.”

Johnny looked out the window, not seeing anything. “They did. But it takes a long time for a letter to get to Europe.”

“Johnny, what are you talking about?”

Johnny felt as if the inside of the cab was closing in around him. He needed air to breathe, time to think. “Stop this damn thing,” he barked, grabbing the handle.

“Johnny, no!” Sam held his arm. “We’ll be at the hotel in a few minutes.”

Johnny snatched his arm free and opened the door as the cab slowed to a stop. Sam scrambled out after him, stopping only long enough to hand the driver the fare.

“Johnny, wait!”

Johnny barely heard Sam, his mind reeling. Garrett dead. It was the last thing he ever thought he’d hear. He walked past people, so many people. Could they tell that he had just been betrayed by the one person in this world he trusted most? Anger welled up inside him. He’d been so sure that he could confront Garrett and get the answer he knew in his heart was true. But now…//dead for two months//…Someone jostled his shoulder and he hissed in pain. //No one knows for sure what part of Europe Mr. Scott is in at the moment.// Lies, all lies. But who was lying? //Your brother may be an imposter’//. No, Scott was back at Lancer. His gut told him so. His heart told him so. But what if he was wrong? He’d never allowed himself to ask that question until now.

The unforgiving stone sidewalk jarred his arm with each step, but he couldn’t stop, not now. His hand went automatically to the gun hidden inside his sling. It was the only thing he could rely on, could trust not to let him down. He’d been a fool to let his guard down, to let people into his life. It was safer to stay on the outside looking in.

Suddenly he realized he was entering the hotel lobby. Sam was steering him toward the stairs, and he let him. He was too tired to fight. The pain in his arm throbbed with each beat of his heart. His feet didn’t seem to reach the ground anymore. Now he was sitting on the edge of the bed, Sam pressing a glass into his hand.

“Drink this,” Sam ordered.

Johnny complied because he didn’t have the strength or the will to say no. //No one knows for sure what part of Europe Mr. Scott is at the moment.//

Sam gently maneuvered him until he was lying on the bed, his left arm supported beneath a soft pillow. He knew Sam had given him something to make him sleep. Would it make him stop thinking? Would it stop the questions?

He felt his body sag deeper into the mattress as he drifted into a deep, drugged sleep.

***

Johnny awoke some time later. He lay very still, eyes closed, listening, trying to remember where he was. The lack of the constant motion of the Pullman car and the silence told him he was no longer on the train. //Mr. Garret has been dead for two months.// He threw the covers off and leaped to his feet, regretting the movement instantly. He clutched at his arm, damning the heavy cast that imprisoned the pain. His ribs joined the symphony of discomfort and he groaned in misery as he sat back down on the edge of the bed.

The door leading to Sam’s room opened slowly and Sam stuck his head in. “Is it safe?”

Johnny should have been mad. Sam had fought dirty last night, drugging his water. Most times he would have been. But the sleep had cleared his head. “Maybe…”

Sam produced a tray with two plates covered with white napkins. “I had breakfast brought up. I didn’t know if you would feel like eating in the restaurant downstairs.”

Johnny feigned annoyance. “In that case, come on in.”

Sam silently went about placing the dishes on the small round table in the corner of the room and disappeared back into his room. He returned with another tray with two cups and a porcelain coffee pot.

Johnny slipped into a chair and watched Sam pull the napkin off with a flourish. Scrambled eggs, toast and a small tumbler of honey filled the plate.

“Where’s the steak?” he asked, disgruntled. “I’ve had nothin’ but eggs and oatmeal for longer than I can remember.”

“Maybe tonight.”

Johnny nodded, knowing “maybe” most likely meant no, and reluctantly took a taste. It was good, but it lacked Maria’s special touch. The thought of Maria brought back memories of home, of sitting around the breakfast table, Scott grinning like a fool over Johnny’s inability to eat anything but oatmeal after a brawl in the Green River saloon. He hadn’t realized how important those moments were until it hit him that he might lose the chance of ever making more memories. He took a couple more bites and put his fork down. His stomach was a mass of knots.

“You have to eat, Johnny.”

Johnny pushed the bowl away from him. “Don’t feel much like it right now.”

Sam nodded, not saying anything until he poured another cup of coffee for both of them.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“About what?” Johnny’s voce was harsher than he intended. “That Scott made a fool of me? That I trusted him?”

“And now you feel betrayed.”

“I don’t know what I feel. I want to believe. My gut tells me that Scott is my brother. But everywhere I turn…what do you do when the facts say one thing and your heart says another?”

“I think you trust your instincts.”

“I wanna believe, Sam.”

“Then do what you can to prove that you’re right.”

Johnny adjusted the sling supporting his arm and grimaced.

“You should rest today,” Sam cautioned. “It was a long trip getting here.”

Johnny shook his head. “Don’t have time for that.”

Sam sighed heavily. “Something tells me I’m not going to like what you have in mind for today.”

“Answers, Sam. I need answers. First, I got to know if Garrett is really dead. Then I need to get inside that house. There’s got to be something there that will prove that Scott is Scott.”

“Johnny, they are not going to just welcome you in with open arms.”

“There’s other ways of getting in.”

“Now you’re talking about breaking and entering. That, my friend, could land you in jail.”

“Not if I’m not caught. Scott told me that everyone goes out on Sundays. The staff goes home or to church. Only the old man and his servant stay behind. Scott used to hate Sundays. They were long and boring and he was expected to stay in his room out of the way.” Johnny shook his head sadly. “I may have had it rough growing up, but at least I had a life.”

“Johnny,” Sam said softly. “Being Devil’s advocate here, what if you can’t find anything to substantiate Scott’s claim, what then?”

Johnny stood up slowly. “I ain’t there yet, am I? I’m going for a walk.”

“I’ll get my coat and be right with you.”

“No, Sam. I need some time to think. I’ll be all right. Everyone knows this hotel. If I get lost I’ll find my way back. Meantime, you think of what you’re going to say to keep Garrett’s servant busy while I have a look around inside.”

“What?”

Johnny smiled cheekily. “You’re my, what is the word Scott uses…accomplice”

***

Johnny stopped at the desk occupying the back wall of the lobby and asked directions to King’s Chapel Burying Ground.

The clerk gave Johnny a disapproving look as he unabashedly appraised the bolero jacket, the left side draped over the cumbersome cast, and the line of silver conchos running down the outside of his leather pants.

“Would you like me to hail you a cab, Sir?” The “Sir” seemed to come out strained.

Johnny shook his head. “I’ll walk.”

Stepping outside, Johnny was surprised to find the streets much quieter than yesterday. Though he didn’t remember a lot about his trip back from Garrett’s, he had noted the chaos of too many wagons and cabs filling the streets. Now he could see tracks traveling down the center of the street where horse drawn cars, looking very much like train cars, carried a dozen or more passengers. It seemed as if there were more people in the town of Boston than in all of California.

He made his way down School Street. Even though the weather held the sharpness of fall, he felt sweat trickle down his back and dampen his face. Was he ready to see what awaited him in the cemetery? If Garrett really was dead, what then?

Johnny didn’t have time to mull over the question before he came upon a distinctive granite building. The desk clerk had described it perfectly with its six columns in front and second story bell tower. He slowly walked past the church to the cemetery, knowing with each step he came closer to finding answers he might not be ready to accept. Fenced off by a stone and iron picket fence, he passed through the archway leading to the sacred grounds. Rows of small stone markers were intermixed with larger gravestones dating back hundreds of years. This was Boston’s history. He had seen cemeteries like this in Mexico, hundreds of years of history inscribed in stone.

As he walked along the narrow paths, worn by visitors over the years, he came upon a row of newer stones. His heart beat faster as he read each name, and suddenly froze before a finely polished, black ebony headstone. IN MEMORY OF HARLAN BERNARD GARRETT. AUGUST 13, 1807 –AUGUST 22,1870. LOVING FATHER TO CATHERINE GARRETT LANCER. LOVING GRANDFATHER TO SCOTT GARRETT LANCER. MAY HE REST IN GOD’S ARMS.

“No,” he breathed. He felt the ground sag beneath him. Beside Garrett, another gravestone proclaimed to be the last resting place of Scott’s mother: Catherine Garrett Lancer. Was this a glimpse of the grandfather Scott loved so? A place he had given Scott to grieve for the mother he never knew?

He could not deny the truth now. //Mr. Garrett died two months ago// The voice that would not leave his head taunted him. The servant was right. With a growing disbelief, Johnny had to admit that Garrett was dead.

Turning away from the graves, Johnny silently walked out of the cemetery. What should he do? Send Scott a telegram? If he was truly Scott, the news would be devastating. If he was, as Murdoch feared, an imposter, it could put Murdoch in danger.

When would he get the answers he wanted…needed? Until now, all he had was more questions.

***

“We have to tell Scott. He has a right to know.” Sam poured a second cup of coffee for Johnny as he sat on the edge of the bed, looking as tired and defeated as Sam had ever seen him.

“I don’t know. Those letters he said he got from Garrett. A dead man doesn’t write from the grave.”

“So you aren’t sure anymore?” Sam prodded.

“He is Scott!” Johnny said sharply – too sharply. Was he trying to convince Sam or himself? With a softer voice he added, “I’m not giving up on him.”

Sam dragged a chair over to the bed sitting down heavily. “But what can we do?”

“We get inside Garrett’s house and prove Scott is Harlan Garrett’s real grandson. That he’s Murdoch’s son and my brother. I can’t believe Scott could have lied like that.”

“And just how do you propose to get inside the Garrett mansion? This is Boston, Johnny, not Green River.”

Johnny walked to the closet and brought over his traveling bag, rummaging in it awkwardly with his right hand, finally bringing out the suit Murdoch had insisted he bring. “Can you make me look like one of them men from Boston?”

Sam raised a quizzical eyebrow. “A shave and a few inches cut off that mop you call hair…maybe.”

Johnny shook his head emphatically. “You stay away from my hair. I saw some men with hair longer than mine. Besides, I don’t plan on meeting anyone, just don’t want to stand out like a sore thumb.”

Sam nodded. “I’ll see what I can do. But first I want you to get some rest. You won’t do Scott any good if you collapse from exhaustion.”

Johnny sighed heavily. “I know. I’ll rest. Could you send the telegram for me, Sam? I know you’ll know what to say. Maybe you should send it to Murdoch. But I don’t know how he’ll react. He was hanging on by a thread when we left. I don’t know what he will do.”

“They have to know.”

Johnny lay back on the bed. He only wanted things back the way they were.

“I’ll be back in a while. You rest now.”

Johnny nodded. Things were going from bad to worse.

.

Chapter Twelve

“You God damn son of a bitch! Who the hell are you?”

Scott had barely closed the front door when Murdoch came barreling toward him, his face frozen in anger, grabbing him under the arms and lifting him off his feet. He was driven back against the wall, Murdoch’s face just inches from his.

“Who are you?” Murdoch demanded again, pinning Scott’s shoulders with his huge hands.

“What are you talking about?” Scott gasped, his breath ripped from his lungs by both the impact with the wall and the shock of Murdoch’s sudden attack. He had never seen his father so out of control. And to have that anger aimed at him…

Scott’s knees nearly buckled when Murdoch released his grip. He watched in a daze as Murdoch ripped a letter from his shirt pocket and threw it at him. It fluttered to the ground, finally resting next to his boot.

“You tell me,” Murdoch growled.

With a shaky hand, Scott leaned down and picked up the letter. As he opened it he saw the Pinkerton Agency logo on the top right corner and began to read.

Disbelief turned to anger. “You can’t take this seriously!” Scott shouted. “You really believe…?”

Murdoch’s face turned darker as he pulled a telegram from his left shirt pocket. He flung it at Scott and waited, breathing hard while Scott picked it up.

Scott opened the telegram. He felt like he had been sucker punched. The words blinded him, the paper they were written on nearly singeing his hands.

“No,” he breathed.

“Two months!” Murdoch shouted. “He’s been dead for two months. How could you still be getting letters from a dead man?”

Scott couldn’t answer. He had received a letter two weeks ago. It had surprised him at the time. Most of his grandfather’s correspondence was polite and succinct. A few lines about Boston, about the business and a plea that he return home where he belonged. But this time his words had been threatening…demanding. He was to return to Boston or forfeit any claim to the Garrett estate. He would lose everything. Angry at the attempted blackmail, he had thrown his entire grandfather’s letters into the fire.

Scott shook his head. “I received a letter from Grandfather just two weeks ago.”

Scott’s answer seemed to only enrage Murdoch further. “How! From a ghost? How long were you going to play out this charade of yours? What did you think you would gain by it? Take over Lancer?”

Scott looked at Murdoch, for the first time realizing what his father was saying. “You can’t believe…”

“What else am I to think? I trust Sam.”

“Sam?” Scott looked at the bottom of the telegram. Sam Jenkins. “Johnny and Sam are in Boston?”

Murdoch nodded. “Johnny was determined to prove that you were who you say you are, and Sam wouldn’t let him travel alone.”

“He shouldn’t have stepped foot off this ranch in his condition.”

“There was no stopping him. You know your bro….” The word seemed to freeze in Murdoch’s throat.

Scott crumpled the Pinkerton letter in his hand and threw on the floor. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to pack.”

“Where are you going?” Murdoch demanded.

“Why would you care? You want me out of this house.”

“Scott.” For the first time Murdoch didn’t seem as certain as he had been when Scott first entered. “Don’t…”

“Don’t what? Don’t go? If I’m the imposter you think I am, then you should be happy that I’m going.”

“I don’t know what to think.”

Scott took a step closer to Murdoch, his own anger vying his father’s. “Think about this. You just did what my Grandfather’s pleading and threats could not do. You just convinced me that I don’t belong here. I’m catching the next train back east. Hopefully Johnny will still be there and I can assure him that I am, and always have been, Scott Lancer.”

Scott brushed past a stunned Murdoch Lancer. Never in his wildest dreams could Scott have foreseen something like this. He reached the stairs and took them two at a time. He couldn’t get out of this house fast enough.

***

Scott grabbed one of the traveling bags he had used on his trip out here and threw it on the bed. He never thought when he first stepped foot on Lancer land that he would be staying. Now he couldn’t believe he was going. This was his home. He loved it here. He loved his family and the hard work and, above all else, his friendship with Johnny. It had been a hard road at first, trying to figure out the enigma that was his brother. And even though Johnny was still a mystery at times, he couldn’t think of life without him in it.

Now what would happen? Suddenly the impact of his grandfather’s death hit him and he sagged against the bed, covering his face with his hands. It shouldn’t have been like this. He had hated him so much the past two weeks. If he had only read the letter more closely, had thought to scrutinize the words more. Would he have found that it hadn’t been sent by his grandfather? He would never know because in his anger he had burned the letter. All the letters. He had nothing left here of the man who had raised him. Who had loved him in his own selfish way. But in truth, it didn’t matter anymore. This was no longer his home. He had plenty of memories to surround him in Boston.

Taking a deep breath he retuned to his job of packing. Once he was settled in Boston he would send money for someone to pack up the rest of his belongings and ship them back east.

He grabbed the traveling bag and made one more stop before leaving the room. Pulling the top drawer of his dresser open, he rummaged beneath his clothes until he found a small leather wallet. Clasping it in his hand, he squeezed it once then headed for the door.

***

He found Murdoch where he could always find him, sitting behind his desk.

Scott’s footsteps brought a tired set of eyes up to look at him. The old man had aged over the past two weeks, but now it seemed he had aged another ten years in the last half hour.

“You should wait until Johnny returns,” Murdoch said softly, as if he knew his words were falling on deaf ears.

Scott shook his head. “I don’t stay where I don’t belong. If…if Johnny leaves before I can get to Boston, tell him I’ll write him.”

Murdoch raked his fingers through his grey hair. “What am I supposed to think?” he asked. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Trust me,” Scott answered simply as he tossed the wallet onto Murdoch’s desk.

“What’s this?”

Scott sighed deeply. “A thousand dollars listening money. According to you, it’s not mine.”

“Scott…”

“I’ll send for the rest of my things when I get settled, and I’ll leave my horse in town. You can send someone to pick him up tomorrow.”

Murdoch stood up slowly. “Don’t go, Scott. We can figure this out, somehow.”

Scott smiled ironically. “Johnny said that one day you would say something that you could never take back. We both figured it would be Johnny you would say it to. Seems we were both wrong. Say goodbye to Teresa and Maria for me. I’ll talk to Jelly and Cipriano on my way out.”

“Scott…”

“I’ll stop in Arthur’s office before the stage arrives tomorrow morning and have my name taken off the deed. And Murdoch, just so you know…” Scott damned the hitch he heard in his voice. “I am your son.” He turned and walked out of the great room, the heavy front door closing behind him.

***

Sam straightened his coat and cleared his throat before knocking on Garrett’s front door. News of Harlan’s death had devastated Johnny and rocked his resolve. But not for long. Johnny was determined to prove what he knew to be fact: the man he called Brother was the real Scott Lancer.

When Johnny first explained his plan for getting inside the Garrett mansion, Sam had vetoed it immediately. But Sam knew, with or without his help, Johnny would get into the house somehow. And the plan did have merit.

So now, he waited as Harlan’s man servant answered the door.

“Yes? Can I help you?” The man was near Sam’s age, tall and dressed in a three piece black suit. His voice was deep and refined and ever so proper. Sam had to wonder what Johnny’s reaction had been.

Sam smiled pleasantly. “Dr. Samuel Jenkins. I met Harlan a few years ago. He said to be sure to stop by if I was ever in Boston.”

The butler looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, Sir. Mr. Garrett passed away two months ago.”

Sam reached out suddenly, looking for something to support himself, the shock appearing too much for the old doctor.

“Sir! Can I be of assistance?” Harlan’s man servant asked, alarmed by Sam’s reaction.

Sam patted his chest. “I just need to rest for a minute,” he panted, struggling to grab the doorman’s arm. “I don’t mean to be a bother, but I need to rest. Bad heart you know. Just for a few minutes.”

The doorman looked back into the house nervously, then helped Sam in, guiding him to the front parlor.

***

Johnny wore the black suit Murdoch had insisted he take, and was thankful for his father’s forethought. With the black sling replacing the white one, he blended in with the gentlemen walking along Beacon Street. When he reached the Garrett Mansion grounds he surreptitiously stepped off the paved walkway and disappeared, unnoticed, behind a tree.

He made his way around the back of the mansion, crouching low. The weight of his cast made it hard to balance, but he was able to keep close to the ground. He tried opening four windows at the back of the house before he found one unlocked. Peering as best he could into the room, he decided it looked empty. He carefully raised the window, finding it harder than he thought with one hand, and slipped inside.

A huge four poster bed dominated the room, with a satin bedspread nearly the same color as the flowery wallpaper. He didn’t think anyone could crowd more furniture into a room if they tried.

The room looked too clean, too cold to be anything but a guest room. As quietly as he could, he made his way across the room, thankful for the thick carpeting dampening his footsteps, and opened the door slowly. He could hear Sam and someone else talking down the hall and he quickly went in the opposite direction. His heart was in his throat as he carefully opened each door along the hall, looking for Harlan’s office. Scott had once said he was never allowed, as a boy, to enter his grandfather’s office.

Johnny was sure he remembered Scott saying that Harlan’s office was on the first floor. He was at the fifth door, the sound of Sam’ voice still following him down the hall, when he opened it onto a room lined with books and a desk that would put Murdoch’s massive desk to shame. He slipped inside, closing the door behind him. Several windows lined the side wall, but thankfully it looked out on a wide expanse of trees and grass instead of the street.

Now that he was inside, he didn’t know what he was looking for. It was painfully clear that Harlan had not been in this room for sometime. There was no paper work on the desk, and only a hint of the smell of fine cigar smoke and expensive bourbon lingered in the walls and furniture. Scott had told him once how different Murdoch’s desk was from his grandfather’s. Murdoch’s desk was clean and organized compared to Harlan’s.

Johnny carefully opened each drawer, finding them all empty. It seemed that someone had stripped the room of anything that was Harlan Garrett. Whoever was running Garrett Enterprises now was not doing it from this office.

Swearing silently in disgust, he carefully opened the door and headed for the stairs leading to the second level. He had to find Scott’s room. He could still hear Sam talking. They had agreed that it would be dangerous for either of them to stay more than half an hour in the house, and Johnny’s time was dwindling away too quickly.

He made for the stairs, praying that none of the steps creaked beneath his weight. The second floor hallway was long and wide. He tried to remember if Scott had ever mentioned what room he was in. He couldn’t remember. He found two more guests rooms then opened the door to a room he knew instantly was Scott’s. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Scott’s cavalry hat and holster hung on the wall. Johnny walked around the room, picking up figures, some made of pewter, and others of crystal and wood, mementos of a privileged life. Yet Johnny knew none of this meant anything to Scott anymore. His life and his heart were in Lancer.

Bookshelves lined one wall. He opened the closet door and found more clothes hanging inside than all the clothes at Baldemero’s store. Suits and frilled shirts hung next to plaid pants and heavy woolen sweaters. He saw only a few empty hangers. Why would Scott travel all the way to Europe and not take his best clothes? Johnny remembered the tales Murdoch told of his trip across the sea from Inverness. The way he had watched and wished he could join the first class passengers, with their fancy clothes and fancier food. Scott would be one of those first class passengers. It seemed more likely that his brother had packed for a trip out west, knowing that most of these clothes would be useless out there.

Reluctantly turning away from the closet, he moved over to the writing desk in the corner of the room. A quill and inkwell sat next to a sheaf of writing paper. A book on western saddles sat on the corner, a bookmark saving the last page read. Why would Scott be reading a book about western saddles if he was headed for Europe? Johnny rifled through the envelopes and letters in the top drawer, some addressed to him in a masculine writing style. Still others held the unmistakable touch of a woman’s hand. Then he saw it. What he had been hoping to find. A train schedule from Boston to Sacramento. He picked it up, studying the underlined times. Scott had been planning this trip. Why else would he have a train schedule if he wasn’t traveling out west?

Afraid that someone might destroy the evidence, and yet not wanting to take it from Scott’s room, Johnny opened the bottom desk drawer and lifted several newspapers his brother had saved. Beneath them, to Johnny’s surprise, he found a framed picture of Scott standing next to General Sheridan: The same picture that sat on the bureau in Scott’s room at Lancer. There was no denying now who Scott was.

He needed to get word to Murdoch before he said something to Scott. It had been a mistake to send that telegram about Scott’s grandfather before coming here. Johnny said a silent prayer that his father would find the strength to keep quiet just a little longer. It would only be a matter of days before this was all cleared up. Questions of who and why would have to be answered. But Scott’s identity would no longer be in doubt.

Thrilled to have found something to prove Scott’s case, Johnny was anxious to get downstairs and out of the house before he was seen. If Sam hadn’t already left, he would any minute. Turning toward the door, his cumbersome cast caught the edge of the bureau. He gasped in pain and surprise, then froze as he saw the stained glass shade of an oil lamp totter on the chimney. The whole lamp tipped over, crashing to the floor.

The sound was enough to wake the dead. Johnny looked around for a place to hide, knowing that someone would be up to investigate any minute. The closet would be the first place a person would check. Taking a chance, he carefully opened the door. The sound of raised voices neared as Garrett’s man servant raced up the stairs.

.

Chapter Thirteen

“Weatherly, Sir, just call me Weatherly.”

Sam nodded, sipping tea from a fine bone china teacup. He suspected that one cup and saucer would cost him a month’s wages. Weatherly had brought out the silver tea service and set it down on the highly polished mahogany coffee table that sat between two expensive but uncomfortable sofas.

At first Weatherly had been reluctant to invite a stranger into the house, but Sam’s act had convinced the servant that Sam might die at the front door, and that would never do. However it wasn’t long before they fell into comfortable conversation. If not for Johnny skulking around the house, Sam would have actually enjoyed himself.

Sam set his tea cup down and Weatherly immediately refilled it.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Sam said. “This must be a hard time for you.”

“I admit that I enjoy your company, Dr. Jenkins. Except for the cleaning ladies who come in once a day for a few hours, I am quite alone here.”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “I thought Harlan had a grandson. In fact I’m sure of it. I remember him speaking highly of him. Expected him to take over the business one day.”

“That was Mr. Garrett’s plan from the time young Master Scott was in diapers. It was a dream of his. Mr. Garrett hired only the best teachers and governesses as the boy grew up. In fact, there was a time when it looked like Mr. Scott would follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. But the war lured Mr. Scott away. When he came back, things were never quite the same. Mr. Garrett hoped the boy would stay on. But…”

Sam nonchalantly picked up a scone and nibbled at it, his heart beating at the prospect of learning more about Scott. He wished Johnny were here to hear this.

“The war can change a man.”

Weatherly nodded. “Mr. Scott was a prisoner of war, held in Libby for over a year. His condition was appalling when he finally returned to us. Once he was healed and regained the weight he had lost, Mr. Garrett assumed he would return to the life he had led before the war. But there was something different about Mr. Scott. I could never put my finger on it. Perhaps a wanderlust that he had never had before.”

“He would not be the first to find it hard to go back to the same life he led before the war. But I guess with Harlan’s death he will have to take over the company, for a short time at least. It must have been a terrible shock to learn that his grandfather was gone.”

Weatherly looked down at his hands clasped in his lap. “Mr. Scott doesn’t know. We have been unable to contact him.”

Sam felt his pulse quicken.

“Where is he?”

Weatherly sighed deeply. “Mr. Garrett said …”

A crash from upstairs froze both of them.

Weatherly jumped to his feet. “There shouldn’t be anyone else in the house.”

Sam stood also, his heart beating in his throat. That crash was more than likely a blunder on Johnny’s part. He knew the boy was not up to this. But when Johnny had an idea in his head, nothing or no one could change his mind. They had agreed that thirty minutes was all the time they could spend in the house before he was spotted. It seemed that he was about ten minutes short.

“No one else is in the house?” Sam asked.

“No one.”

“You shouldn’t go up there alone,” Sam cautioned. “Let me go with you.”

Weatherly brushed him off. “No. You stay here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

To Sam’s dismay, he saw Weatherly open a drawer in the writing table to the side of the archway that led to the stairs, and draw out a derringer. Sam knew all too well that a bullet was a bullet, no matter what gun it was fired from.

As Weatherly disappeared from the parlor, Sam began a quick survey of the room. If wealth and influence were measured by possessions, then Harlan Garret was indeed a wealthy man. Everything spoke of a man’s influence, not unlike Lancer. But where the Lancer great room was comfortable but functional, this room was overcrowded with furniture and expensive cut crystal lamps, lace curtains that puddled on the floor beneath the windows and rich green velour drapes. Above the large fireplace two gold framed paintings hung on the wall. The likeness of Harlan Garrett was astoundingly lifelike. Though he had never met the man, he felt as if he knew him, that he could see the austere business man Scott had often spoke of. If there was a kind side to Harlan Garrett the painting failed to show it. The second painting was of Catherine Lancer. Sam had first met Scott’s mother after a long hard journey from Boston to Morro Coyo first by ship around Cape Horn, then by stagecoach from San Francisco. And even then she had been the most beautiful woman he had ever met. He often wondered how Murdoch Lancer had swept her off her feet. The artist had captured the brush of a smile on her lips.

As Sam studied the paintings he felt that there was something odd about them. Then he realized it was the placement over the fireplace. They weren’t centered. As he looked closer he could see the faint outline on the wall where another painting had hung. Curious, he walked over to the fireplace and looked at the wall more closely. There was a definite outline of another painting. As he turned to get a better look at the room he caught sight of the edge of a gold frame hidden behind a liquor cabinet to the left of the fireplace. It seemed to be exactly like the two frames hanging on the wall. Carefully, he slid the frame from in back of the cabinet and caught his breath. It was of Scott. He was a few years younger, his complexion lighter and his hair darker…but there was no doubt that it was Scott Lancer he was looking at. His hand trembled as he realized he had found the proof that Scott was the real and true Scott Lancer.

He carefully slid the painting back behind the liquor cabinet and quickly returned to the sofa. He hoped his excitement wouldn’t show on his face. He couldn’t wait to tell Johnny that he had proof.

The sound of Weatherly walking back down the stairs gave Sam time to school his expression.

“Did you find anything?” he asked innocently, as Weatherly walked back into the parlor.

“A lamp was knocked off the bureau in Mr. Scott’s room. I can’t explain how. I found no one up there, or any evidence that someone had been there. It may have been the cook’s cat. I told her to take the beastly thing with her, but it appears that she didn’t. I hate cats. Would you like another cup of tea while I clean up the spilt oil? I told the cleaning ladies to make sure all the lamps were filled. If they had followed orders then the cat could not have knocked it off. ”

Sam stood up slowly, trying to act nonchalant. He really wanted to race out of this house and back to the hotel. “Thank you, Weatherly, but I have an appointment this afternoon. And thank you again for your hospitality.”

Weatherly held out his hand. “It was a pleasure, Sir.” He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “If you have time, before you leave, I would enjoy another visit. A proper lunch perhaps.”

Sam shook his hand. “I would like that Weatherly.” And Sam realized that he truly meant it.

***

Johnny slowly and painfully uncurled himself from his hiding place. He had hugged the corner in the last bedroom for the past hour, scrunched behind a daybed with enough pillows for every bed at Lancer. Every time he was ready to leave his corner of safety, the old servant would walk the hallway, searching for something. He doubted the man was looking for an intruder; he was too relaxed for that. But he was looking for something.

Finally he heard the distant sounds of pots and pan being moved around in the kitchen downstairs and Johnny knew it was now or never. His ribs burned and his arm ached, but it was worth it. He had found the evidence to prove to himself and to everyone that Scott was exactly who he said he was…his brother. Johnny felt a niggling of guilt at having doubted Scott, even for a second. But mounting evidence that Scott was an imposter had come at him like a Gatling gun. He hardly had time to breathe before something new appeared.

Easing himself past the bedroom door, Johnny held his breath as he slowly and silently climbed back down the stairs. If it had not been for his arm being in the sling, he could have climbed out one of the upstairs windows. He made it to the room he had first entered and carefully lifted the window. He again thanked his good luck that the window casing was used often and slid effortlessly up for him to climb out.

Once outside, he straightened his black suit and causally made his way back to the sidewalk. He couldn’t wait to tell Sam what he had found.

The sky had clouded over while he was inside Garrett’s house and now he heard the distant sound of thunder. If his luck was still holding, he would make it back to Parker House before the rains hit. He knew he should take one of the cabs moving up and down the busy street, but he hated that closed in feeling.

Finally he made it to the hotel and slowly headed up the stairs to his room. He could only imagine how worried Sam was.

Worry could not begin to describe the look on Sam’s face when Johnny opened the door.

“Good God, man.” Sam flung the door open. “Where have you been? I expected to see you here when I got back from Garrett’s.”

“Sorry, Sam,” Johnny sighed as he carefully eased himself into an inviting chair. “Harlan’s servant kept searching the upstairs. Don’t think he was looking for me…but I couldn’t get back down the stairs.”

Sam took a deep breath then chuckled. “He was looking for the cook’s cat. It seems she left it behind and it knocked a lamp over.”

Johnny smiled. “Cat’s can be clumsy sometimes.”

Sam quickly pulled a bottle of medicinal whiskey from his medical bag and poured Johnny a glass.

“Here, drink this. I have some news to tell you.”

Johnny’s eyes sparkled. “Me too, Sam.”

“While Weatherly, Harlan’s servant, was upstairs looking for a ‘stray cat’, I had a look around the parlor. I noticed there was a painting missing above the fireplace. Johnny, I found the missing painting. It was of Scott. Our Scott! Why they hid it or why they are trying to prove that he is an imposter I have no idea. But I do know for a fact that the real Scott Lancer is back home with Murdoch.”

Johnny nodded. “I found a picture in Scott’s room. The same picture he has in his room at Lancer. And a train schedule for Green River.” Johnny suddenly froze. “Sam, we have to get word to Murdoch that we have proof.”

“I’ll send a telegram immediately. There’s no telling what reaction your father might have had finding out that Harlan is dead. I just hope he didn’t say anything that he will live to regret.”

“He’s got enough of those to last him a lifetime already.”

Sam grabbed his coat. “You get some rest. I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

Johnny raised his glass. “I wish I could see his reaction.”

Sam closed the door leaving Johnny to think over what they had just found. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make it look like Scott was an imposter. But why? And was it just a coincidence that Harlan Garrett had been killed? Who had given the Pinkertons the wrong information? He held no love for the Pinks, and they didn’t always get their facts right, but this wasn’t just misinformation, this was outright lies. Johnny laid his head back against the seat back, more tired than he was willing to admit. His eyes began to close of their own accord.

***

Johnny wasn’t sure how long he had been sleeping when a knock at the door startled him awake. He knew Sam wouldn’t knock. Grabbing the gun that sat on the small table next to his chair, he slipped it into his sling before clumsily pushing himself out of the chair. He walked stiffly to the door. The long walk to Garrett’s house, then the even longer wait secreted behind the daybed had taken its toll.

He opened the door slowly to find a young man dressed in the same jacket as the man behind the desk.

“Mr. Lancer, a message for you.”

“Thank you,” Johnny said, confused as to who would send him a message to him. Sam was the only one who knew he was here, and Sam wouldn’t need to send him a message. The young man stood with his hand still extended waiting for something. “Thank you,” Johnny said again and closed the door but not before he saw the look of disgust on the young man’s face. He would never understand these people with all their rules and regulations.

Returning to the chair he sat down, taking his gun out of his sling and adjusting the cast so it didn’t anger his ribs anymore than they already were. Only then did he struggle to open the small envelope with his good hand and pull the note out with his teeth. He couldn’t wait to get this damn cast off.

The note simply read: ‘Things are never what they seem. Meet me at the Long Wharf as soon as possible.’

Johnny studied the note. It could be a trap. But could he pass up the chance that someone could tell him what was going on here? He left the note on the small table for Sam to find when he returned, then slipped his gun back into his sling before heaving himself out of the chair. Hopefully Sam would find the note and meet him down at the wharf before he had to head back here. He could make it there, but he was not all that certain he had the strength to make it back on his own.

Stopping for directions at the front desk, Johnny received a sneer before the measly little man told him how to reach the wharf. How Johnny longed to be back at Lancer.

Outside the smell of rain was heavy in the air. The clouds had moved in and looked ready to open up any second. Sam was going to be furious with him for going out in the rain. Following directions, he walked down School Street to Washington Street then turned on State Street. The first raindrop hit his cheek and he knew he would be wet before too long.

His steps slowing as exhaustion drained his energy, Johnny found himself at the wharf. Huge warehouses, some as long as the main street of Morro Coyo, stood cold and neglected in the gray drizzle. Johnny felt a chill run down his back, not just from the cold rain, but at a feeling that he was somewhere he shouldn’t be. Especially alone. Damn it. Why didn’t he wait for Sam?

The sound of the water lapping at the piers increased as a steady raw wind grew stronger. Two clipper ships sat anchored, sails lowered and gangplanks stretching from ship to wharf. He saw a handful of men loading supplies onto the ships.

The sound of a horse and buggy echoed in the distance and Johnny turned to watch a black horse and closed carriage appear out of the drizzle.

He reached into his sling, his hand on his gun. The carriage pulled to a stop beside him and the door opened. A middle aged woman, wearing a white dress and black apron, her black hair pulled back in a severe bun, leaned close to the door. “Mr. Lancer?”

Johnny nodded.

“Please, hurry,” she urged. “It isn’t safe for you here.”

The sound of another carriage echoed in the drizzle. Johnny looked from the woman to the second horse and carriage appearing in the gloom.

“You sent the note?”

“No! They set up a trap for you. Get in before it’s too late.”

Climbing into the carriage, he didn’t have time to sit before the carriage was in motion. He lost his balance and fell head first against the cushioned bench seat, driving his arm into the back of the seat. He couldn’t stop the grunt of pain before surprisingly strong hands pulled him up and helped him to sit down, the carriage still bucking wildly as it raced down the slippery Boston streets.

“Who are you?” Johnny gasped. The pain in his arm and ribs throbbed so loudly he could barely hear the woman’s answer.

“I was Mr. Garrett’s head housekeeper.”

Johnny drew in a deep breath, flinching at the pain in his chest, but he needed to clear his head.

“What’s going on here?”

The carriage swayed as the driver cut a corner too close and the coach nearly rolled over. Johnny and the woman were thrown against the left side of the carriage.

“Who’s after us?” Johnny barked, trying to right himself in the jostling coach, his heavy cast making it impossible to keep himself steady.

“You have to warn Mr. Scott. He is in great danger. They want him dead. And you too.”

“Who?” Johnny demanded. “Who and why?”

“Mr. Garrett wanted…” Bullets suddenly pierced the walls of the carriage and the woman gasped and fell forward, blood spreading across the back of her white dress.

.

Chapter Fourteen

More bullets plowed through the back of the carriage, whizzing by him. Johnny felt the red hot pain creasing his right side. The coach teetered on two wheels again as it careened around another sharp turn, throwing him against the door. The impact of his weight was too much for the lock and the door swung open. A cold blast of rain whipped air shocked him as he was flung from the carriage, weightless for just a moment, before he slammed into the ground. His arm and chest exploded in pain before his head hit the ground and he knew no more.

***

Sam cursed silently as he read the note Johnny had left behind. The boy was in no condition to be off on his own. He had already overdone it as it was today. And this note smelled of a trap. Grabbing his coat, he headed down to the lobby.

“I am not in the habit of reading ‘guest’s’ messages,” the desk clerk said a little too indignantly, the word guest said a little too loudly.

Sam leaned forward and whispered, “You may not know my name here in Boston, but they do in San Francisco. It’s Dr. Samuel Jenkins. And some of my patients travel several times a year to Boston and New York. In fact they recommended this hotel very highly. I guess they will be surprised to find that the son of one of the largest cattle ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley was treated so abysmally just because his skin was a little darker than yours.”

Sam enjoyed the play of emotions crossing the clerk’s face. “I’m sorry, Sir, I mean Dr. Jenkins.”

Sam leaned over the counter a little further. “Now, who delivered the note?”

“One of the boys who used to work at the Garrett house before Mr. Garrett had his accident.”

“Do you know where I can find this boy if I need to talk to him?”

“On the street somewhere, I suspect. At least that’s the way he looked. Most of the ‘Good’ homes in Boston have a full, loyal staff. There is hardly ever a need for extra help. If the boy didn’t have family or friends to take him in then…”

Sam had heard all he could stand. “If Johnny returns before I get back, tell him to stay put.”

“Yes, Sir. I will do that.”

Sam nodded and turned toward the door. Even in the lobby he could hear the rain pelting the buildings outside. If Johnny was out in that his cast would be ruined. His arm had not been stabilized long enough to go without the cast. Why couldn’t the boy wait?

Once outside, he hailed a cab and ordered the driver to head toward The Long Wharf. It wasn’t long before he saw the old dilapidated warehouses and beyond them ships anchored at the pier. Where was Johnny? Had he met the person who sent the message? Had he learned any answers to the puzzle?

The driver slowed to a stop. “Where to now, Mister?”

Sam squinted, trying to see through the sheet of rain. “I was to meet a friend here, but I don’t see him.”

“That’s no surprise. The constables cleared this whole dock out an hour ago. Some lady got shot in the back. Bullet went clean through her carriage. They’re looking for a man who was seen running from the carriage after she was shot. Riff raff down here, nothing but riff raff.”

Sam felt a chill run down his spine. “Who was the lady? Not the best place for a lady to be.”

“You telling me? She must have been daft being down here.”

“Does anyone know who she is?”

“Sure. One of the constables recognized her right away. She used to work as the head cook at Harlan Garrett’s house until he died and the staff was dismissed.”

Sam sighed. Now what, Johnny?

***

Scott vacillated between anger and heart numbing despair. In a matter of moments he had lost two of the most important people in his life – his father and his grandfather.

He pulled his horse to a slower trot. He didn’t want to get to town too fast. There was nothing there for him but a lonely hotel room and his thoughts.

He tried to make sense of it all. His grandfather dead for two months; his own identity stolen. Who would have done this? Who was behind this conspiracy to destroy everything he had worked so hard for here at Lancer? If Harlan Garrett were not dead, then Scott would have no qualms about laying the blame right at his grandfather’s feet. It was the type of psychological warfare the old man used in his business dealings. Hit hard and hit fast, his grandfather always said. Get them off balance, keep them off balance. Make them question every move they made. Make them afraid to make a decision. Then strike. Harlan Garrett had toppled companies like they were dominos.

Had he now toppled Murdoch Lancer’s world? What if Murdoch was the target and he and Johnny were just collateral damage?

***

Scott reached Green River just as dusk overtook the town. Stores were closing and lamps were lit inside homes. The smell of food cooking drifted on the smoke from stovepipes. He headed for the saloon for a room and a drink, maybe two. It felt funny walking through the swinging doors without Johnny by his side. They had made it a Saturday night ritual to ride into town to play poker and drink. Johnny’s preference was tequila. Scott had yet to acquire a taste for the stuff. He still preferred whiskey. Though at times it was questionable if what they served in the saloon was really whiskey

He paid for his room and dropped his saddles bags and valise on the sagging, but clean bed, before returning to the saloon for something to eat and drink. He automatically headed for a back table, realizing that he had adopted Johnny’s habit of always sitting with his back to the wall. He couldn’t imagine living a life where he could never let his guard down, knowing that the next man through the door could be the man who was just a split second faster.

The bartender appeared at his table with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

“I’m guessing Johnny will be along any minute. I ran out of tequila a few days ago and a new shipment won’t be here for another week.”

Scott pushed one glass back toward the bartender and filled the one sitting in front of him. “Johnny’s out of town for a few weeks. You’ll have plenty of time to get the shipment in.”

The bartender sighed with relief. “Good. I like to take special care of my good customers. I can always count on you and Johnny to treat the ladies right. Wish there were more like you boys around.”

Scott threw back the whiskey and felt it burn down his throat and land with a thud in his stomach. He had not eaten since breakfast and drinking on an empty stomach was not a good idea. But the bartender’s words had hit hard. The life he had here was no longer his. The weekends playing poker with Johnny were in the past. Boardroom meetings and stuffy Men’s Clubs would be his form of entertainment. He hadn’t known until he came here just how much he detested that life.

He had been truly happy here. After the initial settling in, finding a common ground with both Murdoch and Johnny, he had been happier than he could ever remember. At last he was part of a family, not just a member of a family.

He poured another drink and threw it back. Damn it. Murdoch’s sudden attack had hurt more than a gang beating in some back alley. It was so sudden. He had known there was something wrong. And now he could see all the signs: Murdoch’s sudden coldness, his abrupt temper. If only his father had said something.

And what about Johnny? Scott threw back another drink, the whiskey going down easier with each pass. He suspected Johnny hadn’t known about it for long. His brother had seemed as confused as he was. Then why didn’t he wait? Damn it, when would his brother learn that he didn’t have to protect him from all the hurts in the world?

Exactly what did Johnny know that he didn’t? The two telegrams Murdoch had bushwhacked him with had very little information. It must have been damning if he traveled all the way to Boston. The sudden realization that it was Johnny who discovered that his grandfather had died sent a shiver down his spine. Whatever conspiracy was afoot, Johnny may have landed right in the middle of it.

Damn it to hell! He should have been on that train with Johnny, not Sam. He should have known about Grandfather’s death weeks ago. Murdoch should have come to him and confronted him with the facts, the facts he was fed so easily. He grabbed the bottle and poured another drink, throwing it back. Damn, he shouldn’t be sitting in a saloon alone drinking cheap whiskey. He should be home, his home, with his father and his brother. Scott suddenly felt overwhelmingly tired. That was never to be again. The good days at Lancer were in the past now. The good times…

“Not like you to drink alone.”

Scott looked up, surprised to see Val pulling out a chair and sitting down.

“Sheriff. Shouldn’t you be out checking the town for ne’er–do–wells?” he asked sarcastically.

Val either didn’t notice the sarcasm or he ignored it. “Ne’er do who’s?” Val slipped his hat off and tossed it on the empty table next to them. “No wonder Johnny complains about you using them fancy back east words.”

“Well, he won’t be complaining anymore.” Scott raised his empty glass for the bartender to see. “Another glass for the sheriff, it appears he’s staying awhile.”

Val scratched at his whiskered chin. “What’s got your tail all in a knot? That brother of yours taking off for Chicago? Never thought Johnny would make it past the Mississippi. Hates traveling ya know.”

“Of course I know,” Scott snapped. “Only he isn’t in Chicago. He and Sam are in Boston.” Scott heard the bitterness in his voice and wished he could take the words back. He wasn’t mad at Johnny. He was hurt that he was left in the dark.

“What the hell are they doin’ in Boston. And without you?”

Scott grabbed the bottle and poured Val a glass before turning the bottle to refill his glass.

“I’d go easy on that stuff, Scott. Before ya know it, it’ll turn around and bite ya in the ass.”

Scott just snorted and grinned. “Salute”

“Look, Scott, I know it ain’t none of my business,” Val ventured. “But what the hell is going on back at Lancer? I saw Johnny a couple a times after he was hurt and he seemed fine…not that being hurt is fine, you know what I mean. But Murdoch…now I know he don’t like me all that much, but he was down right rude. He nearly took my head off, for nothing.”

Scott nodded. Everyone seemed to get a taste of Murdoch’s temper. Except Johnny. He still felt too guilty over Johnny’s accident to show his temper around his youngest son. Scott sat forward, his elbows on the table. “It seems that trust is a high commodity and Murdoch is too cheap to pay the price.”

“Sounds like you and the old man had a falling out. Anything to do with Johnny going to Boston?”

“That’s none of your business, Sheriff.”

Val shrugged. “I saw ya come in here with your saddle bags. You planning on going somewhere -like Boston maybe?”

Scott felt the floor lurch beneath him and knew that last glass of whiskey had gone straight to his head. “Not that it’s any business of yours. But yes. I’m taking the stage to Sacramento in the morning then catching the train.”

“Good idea. I can just see ole Johnny trying to fit in with them proper eastern folk. I’d pay anything to be a fly on the wall listening to him trying ta talk to your granddaddy.”

“That would be rather hard,” Scott suddenly vented, exasperated with Val now. “Seeing that my grandfather has been dead for two months.”

Val’s mouth dropped open. “Sorry, Scott. I didn’t know.”

“Neither did I.” Scott noticed he had begun slurring his words. This was not like him.

“Excuse me, Gentlemen.” Arnie Haskell wove his way through the tables in the now crowded saloon. When had that happened, Scott wondered. He had been so wrapped up in his own miserable world that he hadn’t noticed the time go by. “Mr. Lancer.”

Arnie handed Scott a telegram. “This just came for your father. I was going to have my boy ride out to Lancer with it. But I hate sending the young’n all that way in the dark. Then Mary Evens said she saw you come in here. Maybe you could give it to him when you go home tonight. I’d be much obliged.”

Arnie was gone before Scott could answer.

Scott took the note and opened it. To his surprise, he couldn’t stop the letters from shifting.

Scott reluctantly handed the telegram to Val. “Would you mind?” he asked. “I seem to be a bit inebriated.”

“Yer what?”

“Drunk,” Scott slurred. “I’m drunk.”

Val grinned. “You sure are.”

Scott watched as two Val’s opened the telegram and frowned at the message. “It don’t make much sense,” he said. “It’s from Sam. Says…‘We have proof. Scott is Scott.’ That’s all it says.”

“It’s enough.” Scott swayed to his feet, holding on to the table for support. How could a few glasses of whiskey render him so incapacitated? But he was still cognizant enough to know that Murdoch needed to see that telegram as soon as possible. He only wished he had the time to deliver the message himself. To see his father’s reaction when he realized what he had, so carelessly, thrown away.

“Val.” Scott grabbed Val’s sleeve. “Murdoch needs to see this tonight. Can you get it to him?”

Val nodded. “I’ll ride out as soon as I get you up to your room.”

Scott looked at the almost empty bottle of whisky and knew he would regret it in the morning. He let Val guide him up the stairs and into his room before collapsing on the bed, fully clothed. If Johnny ever found out about this…

***

Val made his way back downstairs. It was still a mystery what was going on with the Lancers. Johnny’s trip to Boston was the biggest mystery of all. Maybe he’d get some answers from Murdoch when he delivered the telegram.

The sound of gunshots down near the livery suddenly grabbed Val’s attention. He slipped the telegram into his pocket and drew his gun. It was not going to be the quiet night he had hoped for.

***

Scott woke with a pounding headache and a mouth that felt like it was filled with cotton. The bright sun streaming in the window hurt his eyes and he rolled over with a groan. Why did he think he could drown his troubles in whiskey? He knew better. Now he would spend half the day on a stagecoach and the rest on a train with a hangover.

Sighing heavily, he crawled out of bed and washed his face with water from a basin that sat on a washstand near the door. The water revived him somewhat and he quickly changed his clothes and went downstairs for a cup of hot coffee. He wanted to see Arthur before the stage came. Not only to take his name off the Lancer deed, but to ask questions. As Murdoch’s lawyer he hoped Arthur could make some sense of it all.

The coffee was surprisingly good and helped the headache some, but only time would take care of his roiling stomach.

It was later than he thought as he headed across the street to Arthur’s office, hoping the lawyer was in this morning. He knew he should have stayed and asked Murdoch more questions. But he was so angry and hurt he could not have spent another moment in that house. It was hard to reconcile with the thought that he would never be returning.

He opened the door, with its small plaque with the name and title Arthur Bell: Lawyer, written in gold lettering. The reception room was small with two chairs sitting on either side of a window. Agnes Stine sat behind her desk, watching as Scott walked in. She looked startled at first, then nervously smiled and looked back down at the file she was writing in. “Mr. Lancer. I didn’t expect you this morning. Do you have an appointment with Mr. Bell?”

“No. But I’m sure he’ll see me.”

Mrs. Stine looked up, her thin lips drooping at the corners. “Mr. Bell is a very busy man. He only sees clients when they have an appointment. I could make one for you…” She pulled a calendar toward her and made a show of looking from page to page… “Say next Tuesday…”

“I’ll see him now,” Scott said, the softness in his voice more alarming than if he had shouted. Without another word he walked past Mrs. Stine and opened the door into Arthur Bell’s office.

While the outer reception room was small, Arthur Bell’s office was large and well furnished with a highly expensive maple wood desk. Paintings and diplomas hung from the walls.

“Scott!” Arthur jumped to his feet. “What…what are you doing here?”

Scott strolled over to a chair facing the desk and slowly sat down. One of the best moments in his life had happened here when he and Johnny had signed their names to the Lancer deed. Now he was having it removed.

Scott cleared his throat. “I had a talk with Murdoch yesterday,” Scott said. “He told me some surprising things. Like I am not who I think I am.”

Arthur turned red first then a ghastly white. “I…I only passed on the information the Pinkerton Agency sent me. I have been Murdoch’s lawyer for years, and a good friend for longer. What would you have me do?”

“Made sure the information was correct before you passed it on. A letter to the Pinkerton Agency.”

Scott watched Arthur open a drawer in his desk, his hand shaking as he placed a file on top of the desk.

“I did write them. And sent them telegrams and also sent telegrams to your…ah…to Mr. Garrett. The telegrams from the Pinkerton Agency confirmed that their information was correct. I never got a response from Mr. Garrett.”

Scott sat forward. “I don’t know what is going on here. Or who is behind this. I am Scott Garrett Lancer. Murdoch Lancer is my father and Johnny Lancer is my brother. Nothing the Pinkerton Agency says can change that. If someone had come to me, had asked me…but no…”

“Murdoch didn’t want to believe it. But in face of all the evidence…”

“What evidence?”

“Here.” Arthur turned the file around so Scott could read along. “There were witnesses who saw you boarding the Cimbria merchant ship for England, a week before the Pinkertons delivered Murdoch’s invitation to come out west to Lancer.”

Scott’s heart skipped a beat. “Someone made a mistake. Thought they saw me.”

Arthur shook his head. “The Pinkertons found your name on the ship’s passenger list. Someone by the name of Scott Lancer boarded that ship.”

“Who would create such an elaborate ruse? I had made plans to sail to England then onto France, but that was before I received Murdoch’s invitation. It was a hard invitation to ignore.”

“When we couldn’t get an answer from your grandfather…”

Scott stood up suddenly; the enormity of the subterfuge involved in discrediting him was mind boggling. Someone had planned this out very carefully.

“You didn’t hear from my grandfather because he’s been dead for two months.”

“What?”

“He’s been dead for two months and no one informed me. I don’t know what is going on back east, only that Johnny and Sam are there. And…” he slapped the file closed. “They have proof that I am who I say I am.”

“That’s wonderful, Scott. Have you told your father?”

Scott shook his head. “I’m waiting for the stage to Sacramento then I’m going on to Boston by train. I didn’t have time. But I gave the telegram to Val and he said he’d get it to Murdoch last night. To tell you the truth, I expected to see him here this morning.”

Arthur raised his head and Scott knew he had heard the approaching stage. “There are a lot of reasons that could explain why your father didn’t make it in time.”

Scott snorted. “Name one.”

Arthur obviously couldn’t come up with an answer and Scott stood up. “When you see him tell him that I’m sorry things worked out the way they did. We had a real chance to become a family.”

Arthur reached out and laid a gentle hand on Scott’s arm. “Scott, don’t judge your father too harshly. I had a hand in making him doubt your identity. He tried his best to wait until he had proof. He didn’t want to believe he had been deceived. There was just so much evidence. Please, take that into consideration when you have solved this mystery. Murdoch waited a long time for you and Johnny to return. To lose you now would kill him.”

“Some things can’t be reversed, no matter how much you want them to be.”

“Just try to keep an open mind, and an open heart.”

“It’s too late for that. I’ve made my decision. I want my name taken off the deed. I don’t belong here. I should have known. I never did.”

“But Scott, you have proof now.”

“I would rather have had Murdoch’s trust than someone else’s proof. He should have stood by me.”

“Take time to think…”

Scott walked toward the door. “Get the papers ready and send them to me in Boston. I’ll give them to my attorney there. It was nice knowing you, Arthur. I’ll send a telegram when I reach Boston.”

“Be careful,” Arthur cautioned. “Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to erase your identity, don’t let them erase you.”

Scott closed the door behind him and passed Mrs. Stine without a word. He was just able to collect his saddle bags and traveling bag from the hotel in time to board the stage. So many things were happening at once. He just hoped Johnny was safe in Boston.

***

Arthur Bell left his office soon after the stage departed. He couldn’t help but believe Scott Lancer. There were too many things that just didn’t add up. And he had pushed Murdoch into believing that Scott was indeed an imposter. He only hoped that one day Murdoch and his two sons would reunite so he could tell them how sorry he was.

For now there was nothing he could do. He spotted the sheriff coming out of his office. Even from across the street he could see the bruising on Val Crawford’s face. He didn’t live in town so he never knew what went on during the night.

“Sheriff,” he called.

When Val heard his name called he reluctantly crossed the street. As the sheriff got closer, Arthur could see one eye swollen and a split lip.

“Rough night?” Arthur asked.

Val grinned. “You might have a client or two in my jail.”

Arthur chuckled. “Just let me know. Tell me, how did Murdoch take the news? I would have thought he would be in town at first light this morning.”

“What news?”

“The telegram Scott asked you to give Murdoch.”

Val suddenly tapped his shirt pocket and Andrew knew immediately what had happened. When would luck be on the Lancer’s side?

.

To Brothers, Part 2–>

.

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