Word Count 20,785
An alternative Homecoming
The stage bounced along the dusty road jostling the passengers within. The young blond Easterner held onto his bowler hat as a wheel found a particularly deep rut. Pulling it on a bit more securely, he glanced at his fellow passengers. Clearly, they were more acclimated to this mode of travel. Annoyed, but not exasperated. With a sigh, he attempted to return to the book on his lap as a distraction.
When they hit the next rut in the road, he closed the book in defeat. It was proving impossible to follow the ever-moving words on the page. He contemplated closing his eyes and pretending to sleep but figured it would be just as uncomfortable and further estrange him from his traveling companions.
He was pleasantly surprised when the coach smoothed out, until he realized it was because they were slowing to a stop. He leaned out of the window to find the cause. They certainly weren’t near any sort of civilization.
The cause appeared to be a dusty young man holding a saddle and negotiating a ride. The man wore a bright reddish shirt and dark pants with silver buttons down each leg. After confiscating his gun, the driver agreed to take him on.
The blond traveler pulled his head in and mentally measured the space, or lack of, in the coach. Three on the opposite side and he was already sharing his side with a priest.
The new passenger entered with a friendly nod to everyone and promptly fell onto the blonde’s lap as the stage lurched into sudden movement. He squeezed into the small space in the center of the seat and tossed off an apology for “messin’ up your outfit”.
“Can’t be helped,” he responded, grabbing his bowler again before it flew out of the now much closer window.
The newcomer wiggled a bit in an attempt to better fit in the allotted space. Then he pulled his hat down over his face, crossed his ankles and appeared to go to sleep. The blond stared at him in envy for a moment, then with a tiny sigh, turned back to gazing out the window, hoping devoutly they came across no more stranded souls.
Around dusk the stagecoach rumbled to a stop at a way station. The newcomer immediately opened his eyes and reached for the door. After stepping down, he turned to help one of the women passengers, but the lady held her skirts away from his outstretched hand and frowned. With a nonchalant shrug, the young man left her to her own devices and went to fetch his belongings from the top of the coach.
“Okay, folks,” the driver called to them all. “We’ll be stayin’ here tonight. I’m sure the wayman has some vittles for ya inside. And you’ll find some bunks and bedrolls. Ain’t fancy but it’ll get us through the night well enough.”
‘Vittles and bedrolls,’ the blond man mentally echoed as he dusted off his traveling suit and adjusted the ruffled cuffs. He eyed the building. ‘Well, I’ve had it worse.’
After the meal, he took two cups of coffee and went out to the porch where their latest addition stood leaning on the rail. “Care for some?”
The man looked back in surprise at the cup extended his way. “Thanks.”
They sipped the strong brew in silence for a minute or two.
“You missed the ‘vittles’,” the Easterner observed. “It was some type of stew – and not bad.”
The other man smiled. “I had some jerky.”
“Ah. A veritable feast.”
“It’s okay. And I figured the ladies would like it better if I wasn’t at their table.”
“I noticed. What’s that about?”
The dark-haired man cocked his head. “Not from around here, are you?”
“How could you tell?” They smiled at each other. “Actually, I’m from Boston.”
“That’s back east, right?”
“About as far east as you can go and not get wet.” He took a sip. “And you?”
A slight pause. “Border towns mostly.”
The Bostonian raised an eyebrow. “Not a very specific location.”
“I move around a lot. Always have. Sometimes this side of the border, sometimes the other.”
“Hence the motif.”
He thought quickly how to rephrase his comment. “Your dress seems Hispanic influenced, yet you do not appear to be Mexican.”
“Not entirely. My mama was.”
“Surely that’s not the reason for our fellow passenger’s reluctance.”
“Partly. The rest is this.” He patted the gun on his right hip.
“I’ve observed what seems to be the majority of men out here wearing a gun.”
“Not low. Not unless they’re a gunfighter.”
He blinked at this information. “A gunfighter. As in the novels.”
“Shit, Boston, you read those things? Hope you don’t believe them.”
“They did seem a bit farfetched.”
“So, correct my misinformation. What does being a gunfighter entail?”
He thought for a moment. “You gotta be good. Good, and fast. Else you have a real short career. And people hire you to do what they don’t want to.”
“So, you’re good. And fast.”
Another smile. “I’m very good. And very fast.”
“In that case, might I have read about you in one of those terrible little books?”
“Might have.” He turned away to peer out into the distance and the subject seemed to be closed.
The Bostonian was not to be thrown off the scent that easily. This was too interesting. “You referred to your mother in the past tense.”
“She died when I was a kid,” he told the horizon.
“I’m sorry. Any other family?”
There was a long pause and another sip of cooling coffee. “Got a gringo father, but I don’t know him.”
Now there was a long pause on the other side. The gunfighter turned back around with a dark expression. “Got a problem with that?”
“No, actually. I was wondering at the coincidence. I am in much the same situation. My mother passed when I was born. I’ve never met my father.”
“Huh.” The dark expression vanished as quickly as it had come.
“I do have my grandfather. Whom did you live with?”
The young gunhawk shrugged. “Me.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I took care of myself. Did a lot of that while she was alive anyway.” His tone became defensive. “I did alright.”
“Where did you live?” He kept his voice conversational. He somehow knew pity would not be acceptable.
“Here and there. Wherever I wanted.”
“That sounds very…free.” He tried to keep the envy from leaking through. Evidently, he did not succeed.
“That grandfather keep a tight rein?”
“That my friend, is an understatement. Control is very important to him.” He had to smile at his own understatement. “He’s not very happy with me at the moment.”
“For coming out here?”
“Very astute. However, it is not so much the where as the why. He sees no reason for me to meet my father after twenty-four years of silence.”
The other man frowned. “I thought your daddy would be in Boston.”
“No, he and my mother came here to build a ranch.”
The gunfighter went still. “A ranch, huh? Around here?”
“Morro Coyo. A quaint name I assume means something.”
“You are coming to Morro Coyo to meet your rancher father,” he stated flatly.
“Yes. What does that…?”
“So am I.”
In the silence that followed a thousand impossible possibilities passed through his mind.
“Maybe our daddies know each other.”
That was one possibility. “Maybe so.”
“Maybe nobody in this Morro Coyo keeps their kids.”
That was another.
“What…what’s your old man’s name?”
“…Lancer. He offered a thousand dollars…”
“…and all expenses…”
“…for an hour of my time,” they finished in unison.
The shocked silence lasted longer this time. Then the blond Bostonian gentleman extended his hand. “I’m Scott.”
With a small smile, the half Mexican gunfighter took it. “Johnny Madrid.”
“A pleasure to meet you…brother.”
Johnny blew out his breath. “Suppose there’s any more of us runnin’ loose?”
“I don’t dare to presume anything at this point.”
Another firm shake of agreement, then they both sat down, Johnny on the railing, Scott taking a rickety chair.
Scott studied his new sibling. “I was told my parents came out together from Boston. I assume you were born here after my mother died.”
Johnny snorted angrily. “Born and then tossed aside.”
“’What do you mean?”
“From what I heard the old man threw me and my mama out when I was pretty little.”
Scott was horrified. “Why would…”
“Reckon he didn’t want a breed son.”
Scott took a breath before proceeding. “I don’t mean to be indelicate. You said your name was Madrid…?”
“They were married. At least eventually. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go by his name, though.”
Johnny played with his coffee cup, running his finger around the rim. “So, now what?”
“I guess we’ll find out when we arrive at Morro Coyo.”
“He expectin’ you?”
“Not for a few days, actually. My travel itinerary changed, but I didn’t extend myself to keep him apprised.”
Johnny gave a little laugh.
“Just wonderin’ if your mouth ever gets tired spoutin’ them big words?”
Scott smiled indulgently. “Not as I’ve noticed. Is he expecting you?”
“I suppose the Pinkerton fella told him I was takin him up on his offer. Never told him when.”
The stagecoach driver poked his head out and called carefully, “Uh, Mister Lancer? Everthin’ okay?”
“I haven’t shot him yet, if that’s what you mean,” Johnny told the man with a grin.
Scott frowned disapproval, whether at the question or the answer, even he wasn’t sure.
“Everything is fine. We’ll be in shortly.”
“Oh. Ah. Okay.” He disappeared back into the station.
“Shoulda told him just you’d be in, Boston.”
“You have a right to sleep inside. And the name is Scott.”
He shrugged off the correction. “It’s a nice night I’ll just grab me one of those bedrolls and keep watch out here.”
Scott looked around at the quiet land around them. “Is that necessary? And if so, wouldn’t it be the driver or station attendant’s duty?”
“Just earnin’ my keep, so to say. He did give me a ride after all.”
Scott couldn’t argue with the logic of fulfilling one’s responsibility. “I’m rather glad he did.”
Again, the grin. “Not so much at the time, though, huh?”
Scott smiled back. “Well, you never know who they’re going let get on. And it did make it a little crowded.”
“And it will be again tomorrow.”
“Yes, but now I know who I am sharing my bench with.”
Johnny’s eyes darkened again a little at that. “No, you don’t.”
Scott cocked his head. “Are you a danger to me?”
“And what does that mean?”
Johnny looked at him steadily. “Depends on why you really came out here.”
“To meet my father. Why did you come?”
“A thousand dollars and a free ticket out from in front of the firing squad I was lookin’ at.”
Johnny shrugged this off as well. “Got mixed up in a little revolution.”
“Yeah. The ruales, part army, part thugs, take what they want from the villagers. The people got nothin’ and the bastards take half of that.”
“And you thought you could right all the wrongs.”
Johnny started to bristle at the words, until he took in the look on his brother’s face. “What would you know about it?”
“Ever hear about a little thing called the Civil War? Let me correct you. There was nothing civil about it.”
And so, they talked. The coffee cups were long since empty, the sky grew dark and the stars came out. And still they talked. About horses, about girls, about guns. About anything except Murdoch Lancer. Scott felt abandoned, Johnny felt betrayed, and they chose to not spoil the camaraderie they had discovered with bitterness.
When morning came, Scott found himself covered by a warm blanket, lying on a bedroll he didn’t remember getting. Another bedroll lay beside him, but it was empty. He sat up and attempted to stretch the kinks out of his back and neck. Then he tossed the blanket off and went in search of an appropriate place to relieve himself. When he returned, Johnny was sitting on the railing, holding two cups of coffee.
“Figured I owed you,” he said, handing one cup over.
Scott took it gratefully. “Thanks.” The brew was hot and strong. After taking a careful drink, he nodded his head toward the door. “Are there more vittles available this morning?”
Johnny flashed that grin again. “You like that word?”
“Yes. I think I shall add it to my vocabulary. I can just see the faces in Boston.”
Johnny paused in drinking. “You planning on headin’ back after you collect your money?”
Scott joined him on the rail. “I haven’t actually decided what to do.” He looked again at the scenery around him. “It is quite beautiful out here. Perhaps I will explore the West in more depth. If I could find myself a native guide.”
“Hey!” Johnny slapped his arm, sloshing his coffee. “Who you callin native?”
“My mistake. If I correct my description, would you be interested? In seeing this land together?”
“I just might, Boston.”
“Ah” Scott held up a finger. “If I can’t say native, you have to drop the ‘Boston’.”
Johnny appeared to think about that trade for all of about a second before he grinned again and suggested they check out the breakfast vittles. They both pushed off of the railing and opened the door.
“You don’t seem bothered about the ladies’ sensibilities this morning.”
“Nope. I figure if they give me any grief, I’ll just get my big brother to take ‘em on.”
Scott paused with his hand on the door as he considered the flippant remark. The casual statement drove home the simple truth of their situation as nothing else had. He was someone’s big brother. He looked at Johnny. At his swagger, his grin, his low-slung gun. And couldn’t imagine ever having to take anyone on in order to protect him. But he knew he would if it came to it. “Anytime, Little Brother.”
At long last, the stage rolled into the town of Morro Coyo. Scott shook Johnny awake who, to Scott’s equal parts amusement and annoyance, had insisted on sleeping with his head on Scott’s shoulder. Not that he believed for a second his brother was actually asleep. At the shake, Johnny sat up and adjusted his hat. This time they both waited until the other passengers had disembarked.
Then they looked at each other, took a breath, gave each other a nod and stepped out.
Scott retrieved his luggage as Johnny collected his saddle and saddlebags, which seemed to be the total extent of his belongings. They peered around at the dusty little town. It was about half and half Mexican adobe and newer wooden buildings.
“Quite the metropolis,” Scott quipped.
Johnny hefted his saddle up onto his shoulder. “Boston, if I knew what the hell you just said, I’d probably be offended, so don’t explain it.”
“Fair enough. Lead on, oh native guide.”
Johnny glared for a second, which did nothing to intimidate his eloquent brother. So, he adjusted the saddle and nodded toward the hotel. “A room and a meal?”
“And a bath Not necessarily in that order.”
Once inside, Johnny went up to the desk and got a double room under the name Madrid. Which made the clerk sputter, stutter and nearly drop their key. On the way up the stairs, Scott gave his brother a mock frown.
“You enjoyed that.”
“Just how it is.” Then he grinned. “But, yeah.” He set the saddle down on the floor to put the key in the lock. “Besides, no point in you signin’ Lancer and announcin’ to the whole town we’re here until we’re ready.”
“And when, in your humble opinion, will we be ready?”
“After we’ve checked out the town. Found out a few things about our old man. I like to know who I’m up against.”
Scott followed him into the room and looked around. Simple, but clean and comfortable enough. “We’re not going into battle.”
“Maybe you aren’t.”
“Is everything a fight for you?”
Johnny dropped all pretense of kidding around. “My whole life is a fight, Scott. I had to learn early on the way to survive is to have an advantage. Right now, our advantage is that he doesn’t know we’re here. And I’m going to keep that advantage as long as I can.”
Scott thought back on all the little things Johnny had said over the last two days about his life. Which, he suddenly realized was not a lot. But what he knew was that Johnny had only himself to depend on for the majority of his life. A hard existence where everyday was a fight to survive. While he sat in a mansion on Beacon Hill. “I leave it to your discretion for now, Brother. But don’t forget, I have some tactical training as well.”
Johnny smiled. Not the amused at the world grin he wore so often. This was a smile just for him. Because they were on the same side. Because they were brothers. “I’m countin’ on it.”
While Scott took his much-anticipated bath, Johnny went to “look around”. They met up in the hotel dining room. Much to Johnny’s apparent delight, the establishment served both Mexican and Anglo food. His delight doubled when he talked Scott into trying some of his tamales and watched him down an entire glass of water to put out the fire. This brother thing was going to keep him on his toes, that was for sure!
Scott’s sputtering and Johnny’s laughing both stopped abruptly when a gentleman entered the hotel dining room and greeted the man at the next table.
“Murdoch! Mind if I join you?”
The brothers froze, eyes wide. Then Johnny looked down and began quietly eating as if he hadn’t a care. Scott wasn’t sure his acting abilities were as well honed, but he gave it a try.
“Sam! What are you doing clear down here in Morro Coyo?”
“Just checking on a few former patients. Such as yourself. How’s the leg?”
“Same as usual. Old news.”
“Speaking of news…is it true? He’s coming?”
“Yes, Sam. For the first time in nineteen years I will have my son right in front of me.”
“It’s wonderful, all right. Why do suppose the old goat let it happen after all this time? Oh, thank you, ma’am.”
The waitress had brought the doctor some coffee. During the pause, Scott and Johnny barely breathed, wondering what would be said next.
“Scott is over twenty-one now. He has no legal say over him anymore.”
“He never should have. What do you suppose he’s told the boy?”
“I have no idea, Sam. Since Garrett didn’t allow any contact, I don’t know what he thinks. But it’s past. He’ll be here in a few days.”
“Do you think he’ll stay?”
“I pray he will. That’s all I can do until he’s here and we can talk.”
“And what about John?”
Lancer gave a long sigh. “I don’t know. The agent delivered the message and said Johnny agreed to come. But I’ve had no word. With his lifestyle, for all I know…” he trailed off.
“Don’t think like that, my friend. He’s survived this long.”
“I know. But as bad as the heartache of having Scott kept from me was, at least I knew he was safe. Loved and cared for. All these years of not even knowing if John was alive… I only wish I had found him sooner. Or that he had known to come home.” There was a pause, then another sigh. “It’ll be a miracle if they both don’t hate me.”
“I’m sure they have questions, but I doubt they hate you.”
Murdoch chuckled. “You sound like Teresa. Always positive. “
“And how is that darling girl? “
Scott and Johnny’s eyes darted back to each other. ‘Girl?’ Johnny mouthed. Scott just shook his head.
“She’s visiting the Andersons. I was just getting ready to meet up with her. I must confess something, Sam. I would have her father back with us if I could but having Teresa has literally kept me going this past few months. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
“Soon you might have all three of them with you. Life could get very different.”
“It will be worth more than I can say to have them home.” A slurp and the sound of a cup hitting a saucer was heard. “I better go and get her.” Chairs scraped across the floor. “It was good to see you, Sam.”
“You, too. Let me know when the boys arrive. I would love to meet Scott. And to see Johnny again.”
Johnny barely waited a second after the two men had left before he jumped up and bolted up the stairs. Scott followed at a slightly more restrained pace. He found Johnny in their room pacing back and forth like an angry cat.
“Did you hear all of that!!”
“Yes, I heard it. Calm down and…”
“He’s lying! Why would he have cared if he threw us out?”
Scott softened his own tone. “Why indeed?”
Johnny stopped and looked at him. “Was that your grandfather he was talking about?”
“You believe it? That he kept you there? Kept you away from…” he waved his arm at the room door.
Scott sat down on the bed. “I don’t know, Johnny. I don’t know who is lying. Murdoch Lancer? My grandfather? Your…?”
“Don’t say it,” Johnny warned in a deadly serious voice.
“It’s a possibility.”
“Then what do you want to do?”
Johnny thought for just a moment. “I’m gonna ask around. Somebody knows something.”
“Well, that’s a precise plan.”
Johnny stood with his hands on his hips, glaring. “You got a better idea, Mr. Tactical Training?”
“We could take the simple approach and go to the ranch and ask him.”
“He’ll just lie to us.”
“Guilty until proven innocent?”
“So now you’re on his side?”
Scott stood back up. “Calm down, Johnny. I’m not the enemy. I want the truth as much as you do. Neither of us has the whole story.”
“Well, I’m going to get the story. With or without you.”
“Joh…” His words were cut off by the door slamming between them. Scott sat back down and took a deep breath. There had to be an explanation. He knew his grandfather was a ruthless businessman, but surely that ruthlessness didn’t extend to his own grandson. Did it? And what was that comment about nineteen years? Surely the man knew how old he was. He never saw his father when he was, what, five? Did he? The questions kept growing the more he thought about it.
He went over and looked out of the window in time to see his brother cross the street and head toward a saloon. He wondered whether it was answers he was really going to look for in there. Unlike Johnny, he had no desire to go barreling off and seek information about his most personal anguish from strangers. He only hoped that Johnny could deal with the answers if he found them.
It was dark and Scott was in bed when he heard the door open. Even with spurs on his boots Johnny walked quietly across the floor. He muttered a curse when the bedsprings creaked beneath him as he sat.
“Are you alright?”
If Johnny was surprised Scott was awake, he didn’t show it. “I’m fine.”
“Do we have a plan?” There was no answer. Scott sat up and leaned on his elbow looking at his brother in the dimly lit room. “Johnny? I said…”
“I heard you.”
A boot hit the floor. “Everybody says he’s been wanting us for twenty years. “
“Who is everybody?”
“The bartender. The liveryman. The storekeeper. This busybody old lady…”
Scott straightened up further. “You told our business to a busybody old lady?!”
“No, Scott. I didn’t tell anybody anything. I asked and I listened. She had heard from somebody that heard from somebody that Murdoch’s boys were coming home and how happy he would finally be.” The second boot joined the first. “I’m tired. I’m going to bed. I reckon we’ll figure something out in the morning.”
Scott laid back down, wondering if his brother was still angry at him. He really couldn’t tell. He hated to think that they had let something come between them so quickly. He listened as Johnny got into bed having only removed his boots and gun belt. After some shifting around and a final sigh, he seemed to settle.
Only a slight pause. “Goodnight, Boston.”
Scott smiled to himself. They were back on the same side.
Johnny lay in the dark for a long time, listening to his brother breathing. He was pretty sure ol’ Boston was really asleep this time. He had to smile to himself at the nickname. The man complained about it, but Johnny had a funny feeling he actually liked it. At least, liked having a name only his brother used.
And wasn’t that something. He was somebody’s little brother. How in the hell he deserved to have a big brother like Scott Lancer, he would never know. Anyone else would’ve taken one look at a half-breed gun hawk and said, hit the road! But not Scott. He stood up and shook his hand, all gentleman like. Like Johnny was somebody.
Not in the way that Johnny Madrid was somebody. Somebody to be feared, somebody to be wary of. Sometimes somebody to act friendly with just because he was known. No, he was somebody to Scott in spite of Madrid, not because of it. Like Scott didn’t even care about who or what Madrid was. He just cared who Johnny was. He couldn’t remember anyone in his life since his mama that had cared about him for himself.
He took a long, quiet breath. There was no way he would believe she had lied to him. Sure, she was restless, and temperamental. But she had loved him. Right up to the end. He had to believe that. It was the only thing that had kept him going sometimes. The knowledge that she had loved him and that he would avenge her. He couldn’t fix things for her then, but he had sworn to himself he would fix it now.
The first to go had been the bastard that had actually killed her. The next on the list was the man who had thrown her out to live the life she had been forced to live. Murdoch Lancer.
Scott shifted in his sleep and settled more comfortably against the pillow. Johnny heard his breathing even out once more. What was he going to do about Scott? He had tried to get a better idea how his brother felt about Murdoch Lancer. Scott was hurt, and angry, yes. But he had come all this way to meet his father and to get answers. He didn’t want him dead. Damn, damn, damn.
It had all seemed too good to be true when that Pink agent had shown up and offered him a free ride right to Murdoch Lancer’s door. He had found it quite amusing that Lancer was going to pay Johnny to come and shoot him! It didn’t seem funny anymore.
And what about all the things the old man and the doctor had said? And the town folk? Did Lancer have them all fooled? Or could it be true? What if he had changed his mind after sending his wife and son on their way and decided he wanted them back after all? Maybe it was that simple. It would explain a lot.
But it wouldn’t save Murdoch Lancer’s life. Nothing could do that. Nothing except a mir…
Scott stirred again.
Johnny signed. Nothing except his brother. He couldn’t kill Scott’s father. It was that simple.
When he woke up the next morning, he slipped out of the room and went downstairs to find some coffee. Heading back up with two steaming mugs, he smiled to himself at their little tradition. Juggling two cups in one hand, he opened the door quietly.
He frowned at the empty bed until he found Scott standing at the wash stand behind the door, shaving.
“Good morning,” The razor waved in his direction. “I wondered where you had wandered off to.”
“Just gettin’ some coffee. I’m pretty sure it’s better than the stuff at the waystation.”
Scott put away his shaving kit and toweled off his face. “That could go without saying. The coffee there was…” He looked like he was trying to think of a polite word.
“Coffee?” Johnny suggested.
“If you say so.”
He grinned and handed over a cup.
Scott smelled it, sampled it, and nodded approval before draining half of it. Then he set it down and began putting on his boots. “Do we have an agenda this morning?”
Johnny leaned back against the dresser. “Been thinkin’ on that. Do we want to face him on his terms or ours?”
Scott pulled his second boot on and reached for his shirt. “What do you mean?”
“I mean if we go out to this ranch, that’s his territory. If we make him come to us, at least it’s neutral ground…and what the hell are you wearing?!”
Scott looked down at his outfit. “I’m not sure what the term is out here, but back East we call these clothes.”
“We don’t call those clothes, Boston. You can’t go out in public like that.”
“Like that! Plaid pants?”
Scott grabbed his jacket. “There’s nothing wrong with my clothes.”
Johnny was trying real hard not to laugh. “If you say so,” he quoted.
“You should talk. Red shirts and silver buttons aren’t too colorful?”
“No. And they’re conchos, not buttons.”
“Fine. To each their own, then. So, what about meeting Murdoch Lancer?”
The humor died abruptly. “You said he was expectin’ you in a day or so, right? So, we just hold here and let him come to town to pick you up.”
“I don’t know, Johnny. I’m not sure I want our first confrontation in public.”
That’s exactly what Johnny wanted. In public with witnesses. A lot harder to lie when you’re surrounded by folks who know the truth. He looked at his brother’s face. Scott was still here to meet his father, not his lifelong enemy. He was here because Lancer owed him answers, not for vengeance.
He didn’t want to be at odds with his new-found brother. Maybe they could figure something out over breakfast. “For now, let’s go get you some vittles.”
Scott put his jacket on and straightened the collar. “Ah, yes, morning vittles. Lead the way.”
Smiling, Johnny opened the door and held it for him.
As Scott passed him, he said, “And don’t for a moment think I missed that ‘Boston’ earlier.”
Johnny laughed outright and shut the door behind them.
The compromise they reached over eggs and flapjacks, was to send word out to the ranch that Scott had arrived early. Scott saw no merit in waiting two more days, and Johnny would have his meeting in town. So, they found a boy at the livery to take a message and then sat back to wait.
They didn’t have to wait long. They were sitting in rockers on the hotel porch after lunch when a wagon pulled up in front of them. It was being driven by a pretty young woman with two cowboys as escort. One of the cowboys lifted her down from the driver’s seat and she came hesitantly up to the porch steps.
“Ah, Mister Lancer?”
Scott stood up. “That’s me.”
Johnny stood as well. “Yeah?”
She looked confused. “I’m sorry?”
Scott smiled. “I’m Scott Lancer.”
Her eyes shifted over to the other man present. “You’re Johnny?”
Her face lit up. “That’s wonderful that you’re both here! We weren’t expecting anyone until the next stage came through.”
“I arrived yesterday, in fact,” Scott told her. “But I chose to clean up and rest from the trip.”
She smiled again as if that made perfect sense and turned to Johnny for a similar explanation. He just looked at her with a little half smile and said nothing. “Well, I’m Teresa O’Brian and I’ll take you out to Lancer.”
As they piled their luggage into the back of her wagon, Johnny murmured, “Looks like you got what you wanted, Boston.”
“That’s two,” he answered. “I’m going to have to find a suitable moniker for you.”
Johnny had to grin as he climbed into the back to sit on Scott’s suitcase.
During the long ride, Scott and Teresa chatted about how she had grown up not only on Lancer but in the main house, or hacienda as she said. Her father had been the ranch foreman and Murdoch’s longtime friend as well. Upon her father’s murder the year before, she had officially become Murdoch’s ward. She seemed to talk about him affectionately, which made Johnny feel even more conflicted about his resolution to seek revenge for his mother’s plight.
And while they were on the subject of dead parents, “Murdered by who?”
She half turned to include him in the conversation, while keeping a steady hand on the team of horses. “Murdoch will explain all of that.” She paused and looked like she was trying to decide whether to say more. Finally, she took a breath. “He’s a really good man. I know how much it will mean to him that you came. I just don’t know if he’ll tell you. I hope…”
“Hope what?” Scott encouraged her.
“That you can understand what he’s been through.”
Johnny couldn’t help a snort at that. What he’s been through? Was she kidding? Scott glanced back and they exchanged skeptical looks. His brother raised one eyebrow in question. Johnny shook his head. No promises, brother.
Teresa reined the horses to a stop on a ridge overlooking a large valley. “Well,” she told them breathlessly, “there it is. Lancer.”
Both men stood and stared awe-struck at the sight before them. Rolling green pasture with a ribbon of water running through it, all surrounded by hills and mountains extending out into the distance.
“All of this?” Scott managed.
Teresa nodded. She waved her arm vaguely behind her. “From the river all the way to those mountains. Isn’t it the most beautiful place in the world?”
Johnny hadn’t seen much of the world, but he knew from their conversations that Scott had. He snuck a look at his brother’s face to see if he agreed with Teresa’s opinion. But he couldn’t decipher the expression he saw. It reminded Johnny of a hungry man being shown a banquet. He recalled Scott’s comment that first night about freedom.
He turned back to the view before him. He didn’t see freedom. He saw the life that had been stolen from him. They both sat down, and Teresa flipped the reins to start the team moving again.
Out of the corner of his eye, Johnny saw Scott look back at him, but he ignored it. He couldn’t face the hopefulness he knew he would see in his brother’s eyes. He blew out his breath. What was he going to do about Lancer?
They drove under an arch and through a gate. Oddly, some vaqueros had to push a loaded cart aside that seemed to be blocking the way. They smiled and bowed excitedly as they passed. What the hell? Johnny looked around him more carefully. Despite the happy excited faces, every man around them was armed. The ones not physically moving the cart carried rifles. He looked at the large white hacienda they were approaching. A guard watched them from a tower on its roof. Another was in position near the barn.
This was a ranch expecting trouble.
They stopped in front of the portico and hands hurried to help hold the team and lift Teresa down to the ground. She in turn led the two of them to a carved wooden door. She seemed to take a breath herself before opening it and gesturing them to enter through an arched doorway to the right of the foyer.
Johnny and Scott exchanged another fortifying look and stepped into the room.
The room itself was large and airy, pleasantly decorated and comfortable. Across from the entry was a huge window looking out over the pasture. An impressive desk sat in front of the window. And an impressive man sat at the desk.
Even sitting, Johnny could tell he was tall and strong and had an unreadable expression on his face. The man stood slowly, grabbed a cane that was beside him, and limped around the desk. Johnny would have thought that the disability would have made him less intimidating, but it didn’t. He seemed the type of man who could overpower anyone in his path whether with words or simply his presence. Johnny mentally shook himself. He was acting like a kid. This was just a man. He had hired out to powerful men before.
Lancer was studying them. Staring at their faces as if to memorize them. After a long, silent minute, he seemed to come out of his reverie. “That’s a dusty ride,” he stated. “Drink?”
Scott took a small step forward. “No, thank you.” Ever the polite gentleman.
Lancer pointed the cane at Johnny. For a split second, reflexes almost kicked in. The gunfighter’s hand twitched toward his weapon. Then his brain recognized the object was not a gun and he kept himself from drawing. Murdoch Lancer never had a clue how close he had come to death.
“You drink?” Lancer was asking.
“When I know the man I’m drinking with,” Johnny heard himself reply.
Lancer almost smiled. “Well, I want one.” He went to a drink tray and poured a glass of whiskey.
“You’re wastin’ your hour,” Johnny told him, coldly.
The old man spun around faster than they would’ve thought with an injury bad enough to need the cane. He stared at his sons for a moment longer, then went back around his desk and pulled out two envelopes. He tossed them down and sat back in his chair. “A deal’s a deal. There’s your money.”
Interesting. He’s paying up front? His loss. There was now nothing to keep them here to listen to him. Johnny hurried over and scooped up his envelope, pulling it open to reveal hundred-dollar bills. It didn’t take long to verify it was indeed a thousand dollars.
Scott wandered over more slowly, made a show of putting down his hat and then almost casually picked up his money. He obviously wanted Lancer to get the message that he needed nothing from him. “Thanks.” He put it in his breast pocket without so much as opening the envelope. Then he straightened up and looked his father in eye, and said forcefully, “Why?”
Murdoch Lancer blinked at the commanding tone. Johnny had to swallow a laugh. Damn, Boston.
“Why now, you mean?”
Scott sat on the edge of the desk. “That will do for a start.”
Murdoch got up and faced the window. “A year ago, my segundo, Paul O’Brien was killed. I nearly lost my life at the same time. The ranch is under threat.”
Johnny snorted. “So, it’s the ranch you’re worried about.”
Murdoch looked at him, then back to the window. “This ranch is everything. It kept me going when nothing else did. When nothing else mattered. If I lost it now, I’d have nothing to…” He turned back to them and leaned on the desk, hands splayed out before him. “Don’t you see? This is all I have to leave to you. This is your legacy, your inheritance. And they’re trying to drive me off of it!”
For a second, both young men were speechless. The passion in their father’s voice took them by surprise. Johnny’s mind reeled. Legacy? Inheritance? He didn’t want an inheritance. He wanted a… The self-revelation shocked him to his core. No! He told himself. He hadn’t come here because he wanted a father! He hadn’t!… Had he? He shifted away from the thoughts and focused on the rest of what the old man had said.
Scott was already there. “Can’t the law do anything?”
“What law? They’ve either killed or run off any in the area. We’re on our own. And if we don’t stop him, he’ll own it all by summer.”
Johnny found his voice. “Who?”
Murdoch had wandered back to his abandoned drink. “The leader is called Pardee.”
“Day Pardee?” Johnny grinned, but it wasn’t humorous. “Yep, you’ve got some trouble alright.”’
“You know him?”
“Yeah, I know him. He’s a gunfighter. He’s real good…” a glance at Scott “… and he’s ruthless. But he’s not a rancher. He must have a buyer waitin’ “
“How many men does he have?”
Murdoch took a sip and seemed to be thinking. “Probably twenty. Maybe twenty-five.”
Scott was not impressed. “Hardly an army.”
“You have an idea?”
Johnny watched as his brother walked over to a map of Lancer ranch hanging on a wall. Tactical training, huh? We’ll see.
“How many do you have here on your ranch?”
“Last fall I had 150. Now there’s eighteen. With you two, it would be twenty…”
Johnny interrupted that before it went further. “Now wait a minute, Ol Man. You said this,” he patted his pocked with the envelope, “was for listenin’ to you for an hour. I haven’t seen any gun money. I don’t work for free.” The statement brought back a sudden and painful memory, but he pushed it aside.
“I don’t want to hire your gun. I want you to help me fight for your home!”
Johnny smirked. “Only one problem with that. It ain’t my home. It’s yours.”
“It’s yours too. At least one third of it.”
“What are you talking about?”
Murdoch pointed out the window. “One hundred thousand acres. Split equally between the three of us.”
Scott came back over. “But only if we help you defeat Pardee?”
“If we don’t defeat Pardee, it’s a moot point. There won’t be a Lancer to divide.”
Johnny walked over to the window. He gazed at the same land they had seen from the ridge. All this could be his. All this should have been his. It meant a lot to Murdoch Lancer. Would losing it hurt him enough to be Johnny’s revenge without actually killing him? Was that his answer? But he would have to think this through. Shooting a man was easy. Killing a dream took some doing. He needed time.
“You got all this in writing?” He gave Lancer another mock smile. “No offence.”
Murdoch went over to his safe. After opening it, he took out a leather wallet. Inside was a paper. He unfolded it and handed it to Johnny. “Will this do?” Johnny looked it over, then handed it on to Scott.
Scott read it and frowned. “This is dated more than twenty years ago.”
Johnny tried to take it back, but his bother wouldn’t let go, so he had to settle for peering over his shoulder.
“Yes,” Murdoch sat down heavily in his chair once more. “I had hoped to have you both home long before now. I knew you couldn’t actually sign it until your majority, but at least you would know my intent.”
Scott took the paper back to his father and laid it carefully on the desk. “Why, sir? Why weren’t we both home?”
Lancer sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Oh, Scott. There’s no one simple answer.”
“All right, How about a complicated one. I’m a big boy. I think I can handle it.”
Johnny stared at them both. What? Here? Now? Just like that? Not that it mattered what he said.
Murdoch got up once more. He waved toward the couch by the massive fireplace. “Can we at least be a little more comfortable?”
Johnny paused a moment before following them over and sitting down. He settled back into the cushions and crossed one leg over his knee. Scott sat on the other end of the couch, back straight and face blank. You asked for it, brother. Hope you can take it.
Murdoch sat in a leather chair facing the couch. He sat for a moment with his hands on his knees, as if he was trying to decide how to start. At last he looked at Scott. “Your mother’s family thought she was daft to marry me. Not a year off the boat from Inverness. I took her away from everything they considered important and brought her here to build a dream. I had been saving since long before I set foot in this country. I bought twenty thousand acres, sight unseen. The house was here, but in disrepair. We fixed it up, bought some cattle, hired some men. Things went well. Then some trouble began in the valley. Not unlike what is happening now. I thought it was unsafe for Catherine as she was expecting. Her father was in San Francisco and she was to stay with him there until the fighting was over. But you were born early. And she died before I could get to them. He took you back to Boston, for safe keeping, he said. To give me time, he said. I left you there while I tried to put things back together here. The ranch was safe, but we lost a lot. By the time I was ready…” He stopped. “What did he tell you?”
“This is your story, sir. Not mine. I want to hear your…version.” The words were spoken precisely.
Murdoch sighed again. “Very well. I know Harlan loved Catherine and blamed me for her death. I have always hoped and prayed that he cared for you the same as he did her.” He was stalling.
Scott knew it. “When you were ready…” he prompted.
“When I was ready, I tried to make arrangements to get you. He informed me that as I had abandoned you in favor of building my ranch, the courts had awarded him custody and I was not to contact you.”
Scott showed no emotion at all. “And you let it stand.”
Murdoch shot to his feet. “Of course not! But Harlan owns half the lawyers and judges in Boston. I couldn’t begin to afford the caliber of attorney to take him on. My only hope was to build Lancer and make enough money to eventually fight him. In the meantime,” he turned to Johnny. “I met Maria. After losing Catherine and Scott, I was cold and dead inside. Maria was fire and life and everything I needed to have hope again. She…we married. And I brought her here. When you were born, I was thrilled that I had another chance to have a family. I thought that with a mother and a brother and a stable home, the courts would finally have to listen to me. But…” He looked down at his hands. “I woke up one morning and you were both gone. I looked, but I could never find…”
Johnny sprang to his feet as well. “You’re lying, old man! That ain’t the way I heard it!”
“I don’t know what you heard, son, but…”
“Don’t call me that! You didn’t want her, and you didn’t want me.”
“That’s not true! I loved your mother. Maybe not enough. Maybe not in the way she needed. But I loved her, Johnny.”
“No! She wouldn’t…” he flung his arm around. “Look at this place! She wouldn’t have left here. She loved to have…” Johnny stopped and took a breath. This damn old man was getting to him. He needed to get out of here and think. “I’m not listening to this.” He took the envelope of money from his pocket and dropped it on the ottoman. “A deal’s a deal. I’m not stayin’ an hour.” He looked at Scott. “You comin’ or stayin’?”
Scott stared at him. “Johnny, wait. Listen…”
Something inside hurt at the words. They were no longer on the same side. “Reckon that answers that.” And without another word, he stormed out of the house.
He stood on the porch for a moment trying to steady his breathing. Now, what? He had a saddle, but no horse. And no where to go. He looked around. Well, it was a ranch. Surely, they had horses. He would just borrow one. Adjusting his hat more firmly, he grabbed his belongings from the wagon and headed to the barn.
Inside, he found a decent little sorrel. Once he had it saddled, he informed a ranch hand that they would find the animal at the livery in Morro Coyo. As he passed the house, he saw Scott standing in the doorway. Neither said anything. He kicked the horse and galloped away.
Scott watched as his little brother faded into the distance. The hollow disappointment was surprisingly similar to what he felt at hearing of his grandfather’s betrayal. How had someone he met only days ago come to be so important?
His father came up behind him and joined him in peering down the lane. “How long have you two known each other?”
Scott thought back. Was it really only… “Three days. He waved down the stage for a ride shortly before we stopped at the last way station. It didn’t take more than a little conversation to discover our common heritage and purpose.” He stopped himself. “I thought our common purpose.” He looked again at the empty road. “You know about his career?”
Murdoch sighed. “Do you mean Madrid? Yes, I’ve been informed.”
Scott turned and gave his father a hard look. “And do you understand what that means? He’s had a difficult life, sir. With very few things he thought he could rely on. Your news just shook the foundations of the most important one. His belief in his mother.”
“He deserved the truth. Just as you did.”
“Yes, but,“ Scott had to smile to himself, “stability was not lacking in my life. Except for my time in the war, my whole world was stable, orderly, predictable. I may not be happy at finding out about Grandfather’s deception, but I can see him doing such a thing. And in his mind I’m sure it was for my own good. Johnny doesn’t have that. She appears to have told him outright lies. That must be very confusing to say the least.”
Murdoch thought about all of that. “Do you think he’ll be back?”
“In my short association with him, this is not the first time he has taken off by himself when upset. The last time, he returned much calmer.”
With a last glance down the road they went back into the house and Scott shut the large wooden door rather regretfully. Then he straightened and gave his father an ironic smile. “I think I’ll take that drink, now, sir.”
Johnny rode hard for a few miles, then slowed his borrowed horse to a walk. As they covered the ground at a more leisurely pace, he looked around him. Lancer. One hundred thousand acres that could be his home. If he wanted to swallow the old man’s lies.
The words in his mind were the same, but somehow, now that he had met the man, they felt different. Was he starting to believe him? Would Mama have really done that? Just up and left? With a sigh, Johnny had to admit to himself that it was possible. She had up and left dozens of homes in his short lifetime. Of course, none of them had been as grand as the Lancer hacienda. That’s what he couldn’t figure. She was always trying to get better things. A better dress, a better house, a better man… She had all of those things here. Why would she have left it? Why had she taken him away from all of this?
Why had she taken all of this away from him?
He realized that he had pulled the horse to a stop. He also realized that was the real question. The real problem. Mama was temperamental, rarely satisfied, and if his memories were correct, pretty selfish in her desires. But he had loved her and he thought she had loved him.
No matter how hard it had been, his mother’s message to him, in words or actions, had been that they were better off on their own than at Lancer. And it wasn’t true.
He slumped in the saddle. That was why he was so angry at Murdoch Lancer. At the words he had said. Because if his father had not thrown him out, if he had wanted him, if he had loved him…then it meant Mama had not.
Nudging his horse back into action, he continued on towards town.
Scott stared at the empty seat next to Teresa. The seat where his brother should have been sitting, eating this first meal together. He remembered Johnny eating some jerky all alone on the porch of the way station because he had not felt welcome in with the other passengers. And how that had changed the next morning simply because he had his big brother by his side.
Is that what Johnny was doing tonight? Sitting alone, eating jerky because he didn’t feel he belonged? What could he have done differently to assure Johnny his big brother still had his back? What would it take for Johnny to believe he belonged here? And what was Murdoch saying?
“I’m sorry, sir. My mind was elsewhere.”
“Obviously. I asked how much riding experience you have.”
Scott was glad that the inquiry into his potential ranching abilities was starting with something he was confident about. “I started riding lessons when I was seven. And I was in a cavalry unit in the war.”
“Good. Good. I’m sure the Cavalry experience will be very helpful. The gear is a little different, but the basics are very similar. What about cattle?”
“I’m afraid the closest I’ve come to that is the handful of animals we kept at the fort.”
“Hmm. Well, everyone starts somewhere.” He gave a small smile. “I’ve been so immersed in this life for so many years I forget that I wasn’t born doing this either.”
Scott smiled back. “I do tend to learn quickly, I’ll give myself that.”
Murdoch looked thoughtful. “It’s been my dream for so long to work side by side with my…” His words were cut off by the clanging of a loud bell. “Fire!”
They raced out of the house and to a field behind the barn. Flames engulfed the plants that had been growing there. Vaqueros, their wives, even some children were already busy shuttling buckets of water to the field. Other men stood with shovels and blankets beating out the flames.
Without a thought, Scott grabbed a nearby shovel and joined the battle.
Rounding a bend in the road, Johnny happened to glance back at the ranch. He was about to chide himself for doing so when he saw the black smoke roiling up to the sky. He couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from, but it looked to be in the vicinity of the main buildings. Without a thought, he spun his horse around and kicked it into a gallop.
Scott paused in his beating just long enough for Teresa to throw a bucket of water onto the fire he was fighting. As soon as she turned back to get more, he resumed alternately pounding the flames and digging up a shovelful of dirt to toss on them. He could hear Murdoch shouting encouragement to them, but he couldn’t make out the words over the roar of the blaze.
Another shovel appeared next to him and a voice shouted in his ear. “I’ll dig, you hit!”
With a surprise he didn’t have time to acknowledge, he nodded to his brother and renewed his attack. They worked steadily side by side until arms ached, and lungs burned from smoke and effort.
“Let it go!” they heard Murdoch shout. “We’ve turned it away from the barn. It’ll have to burn itself out.”
Exhausted, but reluctant to claim only partial victory over an enemy, Scott finally ceased and joined others at the wagon. Teresa and the ranch women now began handing out water to people to quench the fire in their throats instead of the one in the field. Scott gratefully downed a ladle full and passed it to Johnny.
“Thanks,” he mumbled and scooped out a drink for himself.
“Thanks for the help.”
Scott assumed Johnny would have some sort of smart answer, but instead he just looked down at the ground for a second. “I saw the smoke, and just…” he shrugged.
Murdoch limped over and accepted the next drink of water. He looked at Johnny steadily for a moment. “I’m glad you came back when you did. It could’ve been a lot worse.” He waved an arm at the ruined acreage. “This is the third field Pardee has destroyed.”
Johnny looked out over the still burning plants. “It’s pretty typical for him. Seems pretty stupid to me to burn up something you might need later.”
Scott nodded agreement. “It’s called a Scorched Earth Policy in the military. The idea is to keep resources out the enemy’s hands, anyway you can.”
Johnny scoffed at that. “Don’t give Day that much credit. He’s just being mean.”
Teresa came closer and leaned tiredly on her guardian. “What are we going to do?”
Murdoch looked at his sons. “Fight for our home.”
Johnny shook his head, but before he could answer, Scott said,” For the moment, we can clean up and finish dinner.” He turned to Johnny. “Unless you’re too full of jerky.”
Johnny looked at him, then at Murdoch, then at the field. “Hadn’t got to it yet.”
“Good. I guarantee, the home cooked meal we were having is better.”
Murdoch interrupted his protests. “I would like to try again.”
Scott watched Johnny’s face, hoping. ‘Come on, Little Brother,’ he silently pleaded.
Finally, he looked at Scott seriously. “Pretty good vittles, huh?”
Scott grinned broadly. “The best yet.” He put a hand on each of Johnny’s shoulders and turned him toward the house. “But maybe we should clean up a bit first. I don’t know if you know it, but you smell like burnt alfalfa.”
Johnny pushed him off and rewarded Scott with a smile. “Only because I’m standing too close to you, Boston!”
“If I wasn’t so tired, you would pay for that.”
Still bantering back and forth, they headed for the house, with Murdoch and Teresa trudging wearily behind them.
Johnny stood looking out of the bedroom window. His bedroom window. His bedroom. Teresa had been very adamant about him knowing that. He assumed that it was suppose to mean something to him. Suppose to make up for everything somehow.
He had to give the old man credit for trying at dinner. Lancer didn’t push, but gave him space. In fact the whole meal went better than he had thought it would. Maybe because they were all too wore out from fighting the fire to bicker. But even with having to be warmed up after everyone was back and washed a little, the food was good. Teresa and Scott tried to start a conversation a couple of times, but it fizzled out like a lantern with a bad wick.
And even though he didn’t answer much, and kept his head down and ate, Scott seemed glad that he was back. And that felt real good.
The evening breeze still smelled of smoke and burnt grass. Probably would for a while. He sighed. What a mess. The whole thing was a mess. The ranch, his old man, his brother, Pardee, his vow to his mama… It all tumbled around in his brain. He needed to sort it out. Okay, one thing at a time. The ranch. What was he going to do about the ranch?
It was his birthright, the old man said. His inheritance. Did he want it? Did he want to deal with cows and fences the rest of his life? Did he want a bedroom to call his own, a hot meal at the end of the day, a family that was glad when he came back? And how long would any of that last when they found out who he was? Who he really was. What was the point of signing on to something he knew he would just lose in the end?
A few short hours ago he had been ready to help Pardee take the ranch, just to make Murdoch Lancer suffer. What happened? When did that change?
A knock on his door pulled him from his thoughts. “C’min”
Scott pushed the door open and entered, holding two cups of coffee. He elbowed the door shut behind him, then held a cup out towards Johnny. “Here, Brother. I figured it was my turn. And I must say this is the best coffee we’ve had so far.”
With a grin, Johnny came over and took the cup. He took a drink and grinned again. “Have to agree with you there, Boston.”
Scott wagged a finger at him. “I am keeping count you know.”
Johnny gave a little laugh. He was becoming more and more sure that Scott actually was enjoying the nickname. But it would ruin the fun to point that out.
Scott sat on the side of the bed, took another drink and eyed his brother expectantly. “So?”
Johnny knew what he was asking. But he wasn’t ready to answer it yet. How could he put into words all the swirling thoughts that he couldn’t even sort out for himself? So, he took another sip and said nothing.
“I want you here, Johnny.” Scott said bluntly.
Johnny looked down at his coffee. “You don’t understand what I really am.”
“You are the only other person in the world who understands what it means to be Murdoch Lancer’s estranged son. Learning to know him is going to be an interesting journey. I would appreciate some company on that road.”
“Interesting don’t begin to sum it up with Pardee in the mix,” Johnny reminded him.
“Just another reason for you to be here with us.”
An idea suddenly struck him at Scott’s words. “Maybe not.”
Scott paused with his coffee cup halfway to his mouth. “What do you mean?”
“Pardee. Might be easier to take him down from the inside.”
Johnny watched his brother sit up taller and become that Cavalry officer. “No.”
“You don’t know Day like I do.”
“And knowing him as you do, what would be his response if he discovered what you were doing?”
“Land wars are risky business, Scott. Don’t mean we stay home and hide under the bed.”
“It also does not mean you waltz into town with a target painted on your back. ‘Shoot me! I’m a Lancer!’ “. He shook his head. “I repeat, no.”
“Just in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not very good at takin orders even when someone is my boss. Which you aren’t.”
“No, I’m just your older brother who is trying to keep you alive! Be reasonable, Johnny. There has to be another way to stop him.”
Johnny shrugged. “I’m tellin you. He’s mean and he’s sneaky. He’s not gonna play fair.”
They were interrupted by another knock. Johnny blew out an exasperated breath. “Well, ain’t this a busy place all of a sudden.” He walked over and opened the door. He blinked at his father, then stepped back, opening the door a little wider.
Murdoch looked at the two of them with their coffee cups. “I, ah, was going to turn in. I just wanted…” He trailed off as if forgetting what he was going to say.
“What?” Johnny’s voice came out harsher than he had intended. But he didn’t try to apologize.
“It’s just that…” their father tried again. “I’ve waited 20 years to have you boys both under this roof.”
Johnny and Scott looked at each other. What was there to say to that? Johnny hoped Scott would come up with some of his fancy words and answer for both of them. Yup. There he goes, standing up and facing the old man.
“Arson notwithstanding, it has been an impactful day. And tiring. I believe I will be retiring soon, myself.”
Johnny almost laughed at Murdoch’s expression as he tried to figure out whether Scott had said anything positive. Finally, he simply nodded to them both. “Good night, then.”
“Good night, sir.”
Another nod in Johnny’s direction, and he turned and continued down toward his room.
Johnny shut the door then cocked his head towards it, indicating the person in the hall. “What do you make of him?”
Scott frowned. “Don’t change the subject.”
“It’s all the same subject. Him, me, you, this place, Pardee… it’s all the same mess.”
“A mess we will not figure out tonight.” Scott stood up. “I wasn’t kidding about the eventful day. I think I really will retire.” Johnny opened the door for him, but Scott stopped halfway through. “We will finish this discussion tomorrow.” He looked at Johnny steadily. “And this is where you promise me that you will not do anything rash.”
“The only rash thing I’m gonna do right now is go to bed.”
Johnny shrugged. “According to you, tomorrow we’re gonna finish this.’
Scott just shook his head. “I wonder if all big brothers go prematurely gray.”
His little brother grinned. “Aww, don’t worry, Boston. It’ll never show in that blond hair of yours.”
“Good night, Johnny.”
“Good night, Scott.”
And this time when he shut the door, he hoped it was for the last time tonight.
Scott was shaving the next morning when one of the doors to his room opened and Johnny entered, shirt hanging open and a mug in each hand.
“Good morning. Sleep well?”
Johnny grinned as he set one of the cups on the table. “I always sleep well.” He picked up a coin laying there. “Well look at that. Found one in my room too.”
“What?” Scott finished cleaning up and began sorting through his clothes.
“This. Twenty dollar gold piece. Guest money, you know. Saves people from having to ask for a loan.”
“Nice custom.” Scott ignored the coin Johnny was holding out to him and instead picked up the coffee. “It’s yours.”
“Thanks.” Johnny tucked it into his shirt pocket and sat down on the bed. He watched Scott putter around for a minute. “I’ve been thinking. Do you think that paper of his is on the up and up?”
Scott cocked his head in puzzlement. “You think he would lie about something like that? You still don’t give him much credit, do you?”
“I tell ya, Scott, I don’t give anybody too much credit. Saves a lot of disappointment.”
He looked at his little brother sadly and knew it was true. There had probably been entirely too much disappointment in his life. “Yes. I believe it is authentic. I believe he wants us here with him.”
“To fight for his property.”
Johnny looked thoughtful at that. “Not yet, it ain’t. Not until Pardee is taken care of. And I still say a one man deal is the best way to do that.”
Scott plopped his coffee mug down on the bureau hard enough to slosh some of the contents over the side. “And I still say…”
Teresa burst into the room with a sunny smile. “Good morning!”
Scott looked from Johnny to her and put his hands on his hips. “Does anyone around here ever knock before entering a room?”
She waved his question away. “Just think of me like a sister.”
“And I would expect any little sister of mine to knock before entering a man’s bedroom.”
She blinked, as if the thought had never occurred to her. Then she pushed on with her original agenda. “Ciipriano says he’s got some horses picked out down in the corral for you to look at after breakfast.”
Johnny grinned again at her enthusiasm. “We’ll be right down.”
She turned to go, patting Scott’s bowler hat which was perched on a bedpost. “We’re going to have to find you some proper clothes for out here.”
When the door shut behind her, Scott found Johnny chuckling. He snatched up his shirt and jacket. “Don’t say a thing.”
“Don’t have to.” Still grinning, Johnny sauntered over to the door he had entered through.
Scott caught his arm as he passed. “And also forget any ideas of handling Pardee alone.”
Johnny looked him in the eye. “It’ll work.”
“At what cost? No,” Scott shook his head. “It’s not worth the risk. Let’s sit down with Murdoch and come up with a plan.”
Johnny smiled, but, Scott noted, did not agree to anything. “Right now let’s go down and get some morning vittles. It smelled pretty good in that kitchen when I was getting the coffee.”
Scott shook his head a little, but chose not to argue. At least about Pardee. He slipped his shirt on and followed Johnny out. “By the way, does anyone know what ‘vittles’ actually means…?”
Teresa sat on the fence in between Scott and a young hand named Miguel. They were watching as Johnny rode a bucking palomino around and around the corral. She clapped and cheered as the horse slowly wore himself down and submitted to the authority on his back. “Isn’t he something?” she exclaimed to Scott.
He acted puzzled. “Who? The horse?”
She rolled her eyes in disgust. “No! Johnny!”
She started to give him a piece of her mind, then saw by his expression that she was being teased. Men! She still thought about complaining to him, but Johnny rode over to them and hopped down and she turned her attention to him instead. “Good, Johnny! You broke him!”
“Hope not,” he patted the sweating horse. “I just want to bend him. He’s a good animal.” He nodded to his brother. “You see one you like yet, Boston?”
Scott jumped down from the fence. “Just for that, yes I have. I saw this one.” And with that he mounted the palomino.
“Hey! What are you doing?” Johnny sputtered as Scott kicked the horse and took off across the corral.
They watched as Scott aimed the beast at the fence and kicked it again, sending it sailing over the top rail, scattering cowboys who had been sitting there. He aimed it at a few other obstacles around the yard, then returned over the fence to where he had started. Landing lightly on his feet, he handed the reins back to Johnny.
“You’re right. He is a fine animal.”
Teresa shook her head and laughed at the two of them. Growing up on a ranch surrounded by men, she was not surprised at the good- natured competition. She had long ago learned that everything was a contest. What did surprise her was the easy camaraderie between the two very different men.
“Well, you sure can ride, I’ll give you that. You scared the pants off those cowboys.” Johnny grinned up at Teresa. “Didn’t he?”
She laughed again. “And here we had that nag all picked out for the city boy.” She indicated a placid bay tied to a nearby fence.” I guess we’ll have to try one of the other unbroken ones for you.”
Scott smiled at his brother. “That will work. Johnny here can break it and I’ll reap the benefits.”
“In your dreams, big brother,” Johnny tossed his jacket across the pommel of the saddle and swung back up aboard. “I got better things to do than do your work for you.” He spoke to a couple of vaqueros by the gate. “Abrela.” They complied and opened the gate for him. With a nod of thanks, he rode out.
Teresa swiveled around on the fence to watch his movements. “Where are you going?”
“Into town. Get the lay of the land.”
Scott frowned at him. Hard. “I thought we had an agreement.”
“No. You had an agreement with yourself.”
“You’re going to ride an untrained horse all the way to town?”
“It’s a nice long trip. Plenty of time to work out the kinks.”
Scott moved as if he was going to grab the horse’s halter, but Johnny pulled him over and around. “See you later, Boston.” And with that he rode off.
Teresa jumped down and stood with Scott, watching the fading dust cloud. “What is he doing?”
“Playing with fire.”’
Murdoch came out of the hacienda door with a purpose in mind, but was quickly distracted by the commotion over at the corral. As he watched, his son Scott was just joining the crowd sitting on the fence. He and Teresa seemed to talk about what was happening. Murdoch could tell even from where he stood when she gave Scott one of her eye rolls. He smiled as he imagined her voice. ‘Men!’
His attention then went to the performance going on in the corral. It appeared his other son, John, was quite a horse handler! The wild, bucking palomino was wearing down and coming under the young man’s control. John brought it over to where his brother and “sister” were and dismounted.
Then to the surprise of all, Scott took the reins, mounted and kicked the horse back into motion. Murdoch took a few steps in their direction, fearing for his Easterner son’s safety. He had said he could ride, but… And then his fears turned to wonder as the golden horse and rider sailed over the fence, galloped around the yard, jumped a wagon, and returned over the fence.
Scott handed the horse back over to his little brother, who, after only a moment, mounted himself and took off down the road!
Murdoch went over to Scott and Teresa, wearing an annoyed frown. “Where is he going on a half-broke horse?”
“Into town. To get the lay of the land,” Scott quoted.
Their father turned his eyes to the small dust trail quickly disappearing from their sight. “Into town? With those high riders around? What is he thinking?” He looked back to his older son and saw him press his lips together in evident judgment of his brother’s actions. But he didn’t answer. “Scott? What is he going to do?”
“I honestly don’t know, Sir. He apparently likes to investigate situations in his own manner.”
Murdoch thought for a moment. And didn’t like where his thoughts were going. “He said he knew Pardee,”.
Scott turned slowly to face him, censure in his eyes. “Yes.” His tone left no doubt he didn’t like where his father’s thoughts were going either.
Father and son stood, not quite glaring at each other. Then Murdoch broke off his gaze and nodded to the corral. “When you’re done picking your horse, come into the house and I’ll show you the bookwork.”
“Very well, Sir.”
Murdoch had the feeling Scott just barely kept from saluting him. Was that how this son saw him? As just another in a long line of commanding officers, professors and others ordering his life for him?
He shook off the thoughts and went back into the house, totally diverted from what he had originally come outside to do.
He shut the door and crossed the room to his desk, almost without thought. It was what he did. If there was nothing else pressing for his attention, he sat at his desk. Spread out before him was the black and white facts of how the ranch was faring. And with a swivel of his chair, he could peer out the large windows and see the physical reality. It was his seat of power. His place of control and hence, security.
He looked now at the hills and pastures. It wasn’t dirt and grass for cows to walk on that he saw. It was his heart and soul.
And he had just given two thirds of it away to total strangers.
What was he thinking?
Did they understand what he was handing over? How could they? Neither of them had put in half a lifetime building it. Watching it grow and fade, prosper and fail, thrive and wither, but in the end always manage to stay alive.
He again heard cheering from out near the corral and went to the French doors for a better view. Surely Scott would not try to… No, it was Miquel on a brown horse. If that was the one Scott had picked for himself, he had a good eye. He watched as Miguel brought the now much calmer animal, over to his son. Scott then mounted and took it around the enclosure. It still had some buck in it, but nothing like it was doing before. So Scott had good sense. He was willing to do and learn, but not be stupid about it. Murdoch smiled in pride. He was a fine young man.
The smile faded. And who had made him to be one? Not his father. He shook his head to clear the old thoughts away. It did no one any good to dwell on the past. Good or bad, right or wrong, it was gone. They had here and now to make of it what they would.
After a few more minutes of watching Scott work the horse, he seated himself at the desk once more. His hand reached for the ledger, but his mind strayed to the bottom drawer. The locked drawer. Holding twenty years of Pinkerton reports. He knew them practically by heart.
‘Scott G. Lancer, age 9 entered school at…’ ‘we regret there is no information concerning Maria or John Lancer…’ ‘Scott G. Lancer, age 14 received an award for…’ ‘We regret there is no…’ ‘Scott G. Lancer, age 17 has enlisted in service to the United States Army…’ ‘There is a possible connection between John Lancer, age 14 and Juan Rodrigues…’ ‘Scott G. Lancer, age 18 has been incarcerated by the Confederate Army. No details are available.’ ‘ We regret there is no further information at this time on John Lancer, aka Juan Rodrigues…’
And then, the two most profound messages he received.
‘Lt. Scott Garrett Lancer has been paroled to the United States Army. Enroute to Boston Mass…’
‘It has been confirmed that John Lancer, aka Juan Rodrigues, aka John Rodrigues has now assumed the name John Madrid…’
Murdoch jerked his attention over to the young man standing before him. “Scott…”
“You asked me to come and see the ledgers.”
Murdoch busied himself needlessly rearranging the books laying out on the desk. “Yes, yes. The ledgers are right here.” He waved at them, inferring that Scott come closer.
But Scott hesitated on his own side of the desk. “If it’s not a good time, we can look at them later. You seemed…occupied.”
Murdoch tried to hide his embarrassment at being caught unawares. He forced a small smile. “No, now is fine. I was just going over things in my mind. I’m afraid I’m not used to working things out with another person.”
Scott gave him a return smile. Either he was a better actor than his father, or he genuinely believed the not quite lie. “I can understand that. Have you always done the business end of the ranch on your own?”
“Yes. Others, like Teresa’s father, have been a tremendous help over the years working and building it, but there’s no one other than the bank and my lawyer that has ever been in on any of the bookwork.”
Scott seemed impressed. “It appears to be a large enterprise for one to handle alone. I admire your skills.”
Murdoch blinked. His son had just complimented him. His firstborn son admired him. He opened his mouth, but much as had happened at the bedroom door last night, his words failed him.
Over the past several minutes he had felt pride, old joys and pain, embarrassment and now this. It was far too much to deal with, and would only get in the way. So he pushed it all neatly over to the side of his mind and left it there. And if Scott’s brief appearance of discomfort and subsequent straightening of his shoulders was any indication, he had come to the same conclusion with the same response.
And so with no clumsy emotions to get in the way, they turned to the bookwork and the mathematical realities of owning and running a ranch.
Sometime later, Teresa appeared in the doorway. “Do either of you men want any lunch?”
Murdoch pulled his attention away from the figures of past cattle sales and smiled warmly at the invitation. “Yes, darling, I think that is a very good idea.”
“I heartily agree,” Scott told her.
“Good.” She turned to lead them back to the kitchen, but continued talking over her shoulder. “And after lunch, Scott can go with me into town.”
“Oh?” Scott started to pull a chair out for her, but she went over to the stove instead and retrieved some dishes. “And why are we heading into town?”
Teresa set the bowls of food on the table and sat in the chair closest to her, leaving Scott standing with his hands still on the back of the one he had intended for her. With a shrug, he sat in it.
Murdoch watched the interplay. It pointed out in a small way how very different they had lived. Would they be able to work it all out? But there was no use borrowing trouble. He sat in his usual place and reached for his coffee. “Yes, why are you?”
She stared at them for a second. “Because Scott needs work clothes,” she stated as if they were both children. “He can’t continue to break horses in his nice things.”
Scott looked down at his attire in surprise. His father looked at them, too. He hadn’t really given it any thought when he had seen Scott out at the corral, but he had to admit Teresa had a point. “That’s not a bad idea, son. You can get nearly everything you need at the store in Morro Coyo. Any of the basics, at least. If you want anything more, we can go to Green River later.”
Scott still seemed a little unsettled about their accusations concerning his clothing, but he didn’t argue. “Very well. To Morro Coyo it is.”
Teresa grinned happily and started eating.
Murdoch saw them off, as they headed cheerfully down the road. Teresa turned back to wave to him before they were out of sight, and he dutifully waved back. It was something she and her father used to always do. It seemed a small enough thing, but it pleased her so. And he enjoyed pleasing her.
As he headed over to the barn, he pondered on just how much he did enjoy having Teresa in his life. As he had told the doctor just the other day, he would have Paul back if he could, but there was no denying the place she had in his heart. If Paul’s child had been a boy, he would have looked after his friend’s son as he had promised to do. But he had always been secretly glad that she was a girl. It was silly, he supposed, but it always felt easier to care about her, as if her being a girl meant he was not betraying the two boys he should be watching grow up before his eyes.
And as hostile as Johnny had been yesterday, he could only imagine how much greater the schism between them would have been if jealousy of another boy had been added to the volatile mix. As it was, they accepted her as (he devoutly hoped) a sister, and not another brother to compete with for a place in their father’s life.
But now, with all of them gone for a little while at least, he could turn his attention to some of the regular needs of the ranch. And he had to admit, it felt rather good to do so. What was Scott’s word last night? Impactful. Yesterday had been an impactful day. With all the changes that they were facing, and that didn’t even include the land pirate threat, he was glad to get out and get his hands a little dirty doing some routine work with his men.
Branding was way behind schedule. And with a mere 18 regular hands, there was no way they were going to catch up. The best they could do was to round up a few at a time. They just could not afford to have everyone engaged in sorting, roping and branding the calves. Someone had to keep an eye on the horizon.
It was late in the day when one of those “eyes” came tearing back to the ranch with news. The man was terribly distraught and collapsed into his patron’s arms unable to describe what he had seen. While Murdoch was still trying to sort out the report, not only Scott and Teresa in the buggy, but also Johnny astride the palomino raced up to them.
Murdoch held his vaquero at arm’s length. “Take a breath, man and tell us!”
After a deep, shuddering breath, he began. “As I say, senor, I saw smoke at Gaspar’s place. I ride over to see… He is dead, senor!! His house burns, his barn burns..”
Murdoch looked at the stunned faces around him. They didn’t have time to be stunned. “Teresa! Get back to the house. Now! Scott, I’ll ride with you. Everyone else, mount up!”
The horses pounded down the road towards Gaspar’s home. He had raised crops for the ranch on his small farm for many years. Murdoch knew he shouldn’t, but he hoped the report was premature and they would find his friend alive.
When they pulled into the yard, all such hopes were dashed. Gaspar’s body hung by his feet from the barn. Silence reigned for a moment at the sight. Several men crossed themselves. Murdoch glanced at his sons. Scott looked grim, his mouth in a tight line. Johnny looked down. With no expression at all on his face. Before Murdoch could decipher what that meant, a horrible thought struck him.
Even as Scott climbed down to help the men retrieve the body of the neighbor he would never know, Murdoch headed as quickly as his cane and limp allowed for the house. “Maria!” he called desperately. “Maria!!”
He jerked open the door and scanned the room. Furniture was wrecked, food and dishes scattered across the floor. And there, next to the overturned table, with her dress pulled up and her throat slashed, lay the body.
Slowly he backed away from the door, swearing softly. He looked out over the men gathering around the porch steps. They all looked to him for instructions. For answers he didn’t have.
Cipriano rode back from where he had been following the tracks of the attackers. The butchers. “Trail is clear, senor. They lead to the mountains.”
Murdoch nodded at the information. But first things first. “Isidro. Have someone stay with you and take care of them.”
“Si, patron,” came the acknowledgement of the sad, but necessary orders.
He walked into the hacienda and headed straight for a drink. He needed his head on straight tonight, but he also needed something after what he had seen. Scott and Johnny headed upstairs, deep into some discussion.
“Murdoch?” Teresa’s voice quivered just a little. “What’s happening?”
He put the glass down and waved her over to his side. He wrapped one arm around her and kissed the top of her head, willing away the vision of what could happen if Pardee ever… He took a breath. “Gaspar and Maria are dead.”
“No!” she buried her face in his chest. “No! Maria? How could they?!” After a few moments, she collected herself and with a sniff, pulled back. She looked up at him much as the men had. And for the same reason. He was the patron. He had to know what to do.
“The men are getting ready to track them down. Scott seems quite sure they can deal with them.”
He frowned at her question. “What about him? He’s upstairs with Scott.”
“Well, at least they’re together. After what happened in town…” she bit off the end of the sentence and started to turn away.
He turned her back to face him. “Why? What happened in town?”
She paused a moment, as if she was betraying a confidence. “Some of Pardee’s men roughed Scott up.”
“What!” He looked at the stairs.
“He’s okay. He held his own against three of them,” she added proudly. “But Johnny, just…”
“Johnny just what?” He was getting more frustrated with her half answers by the minute.
“He didn’t help! When he met up with me and Scott down at the river, they argued.”
“I imagine so if John didn’t help his brother!”
She shook her head. “No. Scott wasn’t even mad about that part. He was yelling about Johnny playing some sort of game with their lives. I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but they were both mad. Then Johnny said something about you not caring about them and then I got mad. But then we heard all the yelling and came back here.”
Murdoch tried to follow everything she had said. And didn’t say. “What was Johnny doing if he wasn’t helping Scott.”
“He was at the cantina, drinking something.”
“You saw him at the cantina?”
“Yes. I talked to him. But he wouldn’t come. As we left town, Scott said I shouldn’t have talked to him, but I don’t know why.”
Johnny was at the cantina in town, casually drinking while his brother was being beaten. The cantina where Pardee and his men hung out when they were in town. Again, his thoughts took him where he didn’t want to go.
“Patron?” Cipriano came to the open French door. “Senor Scott said to come see him when the men were ready.”
“See him?” Murdoch frowned again. He must have missed something. “Alright. Both of the boys are upstairs. Come on.”
He and the segundo went up and along the hall to Scott’s room. They could hear the voices from the open door.
“I don’t like it, Johnny.”
“It will work, Scott. You just do your part.”
“I…” Scott broke off when he saw the men at the door.
Murdoch could not figure what the words he had heard meant. Were the boys working together, or not? “The men are ready.” He announced, coming into the room. “Cipriano said you wanted to see him.”
Scott looked pointedly at his brother, who just looked blandly back at him. “Cipriano. You said the tracks led to the mountains. Is there a pass there?”
“Si, senor. It is narrow and steep, but it is there.”
“Can you find it?”
“With my eyes closed, senor.”
Scott gave him a smile and a nod. He pulled on his new jacket and turned to Johnny. “Come with us.”
“It won’t work that way.”
Obviously frustrated, Scott turned to a higher authority. “You call the tune, sir.”
Murdoch didn’t know for sure what was going on, but he didn’t like it. He glared at Johnny who glared right back. “I say you should go now.”
With one last pleading look, which Johnny turned his back on, Scott left to ride out with Cipriano and the men.
Murdoch watched his son’s back for a moment. “Are you going or not?”
Johnny turned around. “Not.”
“You’re going to stay here while your brother…”
“Pardee is sucking you out in the open. Your only chance is to hold up here and wait for me.”
“To do what?”
All of his suspicions crashed together. “Maybe you found him already.” Deny it, Johnny, he prayed silently. Convince me I’m wrong.
But Johnny didn’t deny anything. “Go on.”
He had to know. “What were you doing in town?”
Johnny stared at him for an instant, while the meaning sunk in. “Is that what you think of me?”
Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know what to think of you,” he said honestly.
Johnny grabbed his hat from Scott’s bed. “Think what you like,” he bit out, and pushed passed his father out into the hall and down the stairs.
Teresa’s voice called out and the front door slammed. By the time Murdoch got downstairs, Scott, Cipriano and the men, and Johnny were all long gone. He went over to Teresa who was staring out the window.
He again put his arm around her shoulders. She leaned against him.
“He said…” she began softly.
“Who said what, honey?”
“Johnny. Before he ran out. He looked at me and said, ‘Trust me’.” She looked up at her guardian. “What did he mean? What is he going to do?”
Murdoch frowned out at the gathering dusk. Trust him? After he had taken off two, no three times? What was he up to? Could he trust Johnny Madrid? Did the boys have a plan they weren’t telling him? The thought angered him. He was their father! And the owner of this ranch until that paper was signed. How dare they… He stopped himself. How dare they ride out, risking their lives for a man and a ranch neither had seen before yesterday.
“I’m not sure,” he finally answered her. “But I know what you are doing. Get the women and children and all of you go down to the wine cellar.”
She stared at him, eyes wide as saucers. “No! I can help!”
He took her by both shoulders and looked at her seriously. “Yes. You are helping by getting them to safety.”
“No, Teresa! I will not have what happened to Maria…” he closed his eyes, unable to finish the thought. “You have to do this.”
She looked at him for several moments. Finally, she nodded her head. “I’ll get the others.”
He kissed her hair again. “Thank you.”
He watched her leave the room and sighed. And prayed he would see all of his children survive the day.
He unlocked and checked the rifles, laying more ammunition on the table. He looked outside more times than he could count. He listened for sounds that weren’t there yet. Finally, knowing that there was nothing more he could do, he took his drink and sat down in front of the fire.
The flames had helped hypnotize him to sleep many times over the years when fears and troubles kept him from resting. He had shouted his anger and grief at the fire, cried over the embers, and drank far too much. Tonight? Tonight he sat and thought.
A floorboard creaked behind him. All of the men were gone, the women locked away. Scott shouldn’t be back for a few hours more. Johnny was who knew where. Would Pardee dare to just walk into the house? “Who’s there?” he called, dreading the answer.
“It’s me.” Teresa walked over to him, seemingly unrepentant for disobeying his orders, even if she did avoid his gaze. “I’ll fix the fire.”
He watched her poke at the burning logs and didn’t say a word. After a while, she looked back at him.
“Are you thinking of your sons out there?”
“You mean the two strangers out there.”
She sat down on the floor by his knee. “Give it time. You can’t undo twenty years in as many hours.”
He sighed and leaned back. “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?”
She laid her head on his leg. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
He closed his eyes. “I can’t lose you.”
“Do you have a smart answer to everything?”
“Yes.” She smiled to herself. “And don’t say you want that dog that doesn’t talk back. I’ve been hearing that since I was a child. And besides “, she added, “all the dogs around hear bark a lot.”
He smiled as well, although it was short lived. “I wish your daddy was here.”
She snuggled closer. “Me too. But he’s not. And you are. And I want to keep it that way.”
He stroked her hair. “Teresa?” She looked up at him. “About my sons. What… You were angry at Johnny earlier. What about Scott? What do you think of him?” He was fumbling all over the question. Maybe he was wrong to even ask her. To put the pressure of helping him sort his thoughts on her. But since Paul was killed he had no one else.
She sat up straighter. “I’m not angry at Johnny. I think he’s so used to being alone that he doesn’t know how to tell us what he’s thinking.”
Murdoch was startled to hear almost the same words he had told Scott spoken back to him. But he had been describing himself , not Johnny. Were they really that much alike? He had pinned all of Johnny’s behavior on what he had inherited from his mother, not his father.
Teresa continued. “Scott? It’s funny, since he grew up in society, I would have expected him to have been surrounded by people his whole life. And yet, I get almost the same feeling about him. Maybe he had people there, but not for him.” She turned back to the fire. “I don’t know how to explain it. When you look at the outside, they seem so different. But they’re not. I don’t know if that answers your question.”
Did it? Did they all three really have something in common, other than a name? He let his breath out slowly. “I don’t know, darling. Maybe I don’t really know what the question is.”
“Give it time,” she advised again.
He thought of his sons out there in the dark, facing who knew what even now. Did they have that time? he asked the flames.
The fire was out and Teresa had gone to sleep on the couch, when the thunder of hooves were heard in the yard. Teresa sat up in panic and Murdoch leapt to his feet and grabbed his rifle. Then set it down and breathed in relief when Scott came in the door, looking nothing like his father expected. Instead of being worn and exhausted from riding all night, the young man seemed exhilarated.
Scott poured himself a drink and practically grinned at his father. “Nothing. We rode far enough for them to take the bait, then cut back through Cipriano’s pass. When they get here, they’ll think the ranch is unprotected.” He looked briefly around the room. “Is Johnny here?”
Scott’s hand paused with the glass partway to his mouth. “Gone.” The exhilaration was gone as well. “Did he tell you where?”
“No, he didn’t.” Murdoch poured himself a drink as well, then took in his son’s suddenly concerned expression. “Did he tell you?”
“He’s riding with Pardee.”
Murdoch’s glass slammed down on the table loud enough to make Scott and Teresa both jump. The silence that followed was deafening. “I see.” He left the glass where it was. “Teresa, get my rifle.”
“We’ll need to be in place before dawn.”
“I want all the men to..”
“SIR!” Scott finally got him to stop and look at him. “He’s planning on leading Pardee and his men into our trap.”
Murdoch’s guts twisted inside him. “Are you sure?”
Scott pulled himself up soldier straight. “I would bet my life on it.”
His father looked him in the eye. “You are.”
Teresa held the rifle Murdoch had asked for and looked back and forth between father and son trying to follow everything they were saying. Did they mean what it sounded like? Did he really think that of his son?
“Johnny wouldn’t hurt us,” she stated. In her mind there was no question.
Scott nodded agreement. “She’s right, sir. If that was his intentions, he’s had ample opportunity.”
“If we’re talking physical harm,” Murdoch said. “But what if it’s not us, but the ranch at stake.”
Scott frowned at this. “Johnny doesn’t need the whole ranch.”
“Neither does Pardee. But according to Johnny himself, there must be someone behind all this that does.”
Teresa saw Scott go rigid, as if angry, even though his voice came out very controlled. “Are you comparing my brother to Pardee?”
“They’re both gunfighters.”
“I see,” Scott’s voice conveyed the sarcasm. “And every gunfighter is the same. And by that logic every rancher runs his ranch as you do, and every rancher’s daughter east of the Mississippi is the same as Teresa.”
“No, sir. He is risking everything to try and bring Pardee down from the inside. I’ll not have you or anyone else slander him.”
Teresa digested that. Johnny was pretending to be with Pardee? The man had shot her father in cold blood. And according to the expression on Murdoch’s face, had done worse to Gaspar and Maria. “That’s why he didn’t help us in town. He couldn’t let them know he was with us.”
“But,” she began. “But what if they find out? What…?” she stopped at Scott’s worried face.
“I asked him the same thing when I tried to talk him out of it. He’s on our side,” he glanced at his father. “He just has to do it his own way.”
Teresa watched as Murdoch got up from in front of the fire and wandered to the windows for about the twentieth time. She sighed at the sight. She knew him and knew what that straight back and stern face meant. He was worried. And not just for the ranch. He was peering through the glass hoping for a glimpse of his son.
She got up from her own seat, looking over at Scott to make sure she didn’t disturb him. He was sitting on the settee, his head leaned back, legs stretched out, hands clasped over his chest. Glad that his eyes remained closed, she walked quietly over to her guardian. When she slipped her arm around his waist, his wrapped around her shoulders.
“You don’t really doubt him, do you?” she asked softly.
He sighed. “I don’t know, darling. I don’t want to. My heart doesn’t want to. My head just keeps getting in the way.”
She looked out at the predawn horizon. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for them to come home. I never pictured it like this.”
Murdoch gave a sad little laugh. “Neither did I.”
From his place across the room, Scott listened to their voices. Her whole life. Teresa had been waiting for them. Assuming they would someday be “home”. He wondered how she had pictured it. Them riding up some sunny day, full of smiles and forgiveness, ready to step into their unknown father’s world?
It struck him suddenly that had it not been for the impending threat upon the ranch and everyone on it, he might not have even stayed past his hour. Yes, hearing of Harlan Garretts’s manipulation and betrayal had changed his perspective on quite a few things, but it did not mean he would have just quietly and obediently accepted the life offered here. After all, he and Johnny had a deal to see the West, didn’t they?
Johnny. He couldn’t help the worried sigh that escaped his supposedly sleeping lips. Where was his little brother now, and in what condition? He did not doubt for a moment Johnny’s motives. He felt they had been fairly honest with one another in the time they had known each other.
Whether he went by Madrid or Lancer, was out there or in here, he would fight to protect this family and this ranch. Because he had decided it was the right thing to do. It was called integrity.
Scott mentally smiled at that. A gunfighter with integrity. But then, what did he really know about the profession? His only introduction into that world was his brother. He wondered what his opinion of it all would have been if someone like Pardee had been the first hired gun he had met?
The mental smile turned to a mental frown of shame. That was exactly what his father’s experience had been. No wonder the man was conflicted. Scott sighed, stretched and stood up. Murdoch and Teresa were still at the window.
“That might not be the safest place to stand,” he said as he negated his own judgement and joined them.
Teresa slipped out of Murdoch’s embrace. “I’ll go make some coffee. It’s almost morning.”
Scott smiled at her, and her suggestion. “Thank you. That would be wonderful.” He saw his father’s worried eyes follow her out of the room. “I have men posted by every entrance.”
Murdoch relaxed ever so slightly and nodded. “Good. Good.” He then looked his son in the eye. “Scott, about…”
“Sir, I must apologize for my arrogance earlier. You have the weight of all of this on your shoulders and must therefore consider every possible threat. As an officer in the army I should understand that.”
Some of that weight seemed to lift at least temporarily. “Thank you, son. I want to believe in him as you do.”
“I do have a few advantages. Starting out on equal footing with no past to put behind us being the major one.”
Murdoch turned back to the dark window. “Do you think we have any chance?”
Scott stood shoulder to shoulder with him. “To save the ranch? Or to build a family?”
It was a moment before his father answered. “Both.”
It was a moment more before he answered his father. Everything from the past three days flashed through his mind. The stage, the waystation, the time in town, the unexpected revelations, the fire, the talks with his brother… and he knew. “Yes.”
Eyes still pointed forward, Murdoch Lancer smiled.
Johnny rode along on his palomino, just behind Pardee and his second. Things were not going as he had wanted. They were getting close to the ranch and he had not had any opportunity to get Pardee alone. He knew Day. He could stay out of sight for another year if he needed to in order to accomplish his goals. Johnny knew he had to goad him, piss him off badly enough to do something stupid.
The initial plan had been to push Day just enough to draw on him. Pardee was a pretty good gunfighter. Johnny was better and they both knew it. It would have taken some well thought out pushing to make it work. Enough to piss off Day, but not enough for him to call in backup.
And that was the whole problem. Coley, Day’s second was always around. No need to call for backup when it was in your hip pocket the whole time. Plus, enough men would have had to see the fight to know Johnny had won “fair and square” and therefore had the right to order them off the job. But there was Coley messing it up again. He would not have rolled over and accepted a new boss as easily as all the short money recruits.
And every second he was pondering all of this brought their galloping horses closer to the ranch house and the people in it. Damn.
Much too soon they came over the last hill and were looking down on the peaceful hacienda. Day and all his men had seen Scott and the Lancer hands follow the carefully laid trail. Only Johnny had seen Scott give the signal to turn around and race home. The one and only advantage the ranch had was that Day thought it practically deserted and would hopefully be a little over- confident in his attack. Johnny needed him to be more than over- confident. He needed him to be downright sloppy. And at this point there was only one way to make that happen. Only one thing that would enrage Day to the point of making a really bad decision.
Johnny took a breath and dismounted, knowing this might very well be the day he found the bullet with his name on it. As much as he had come to hate Pardee, he still hoped if it came to it that it would be Day’s bullet and not Coley’s.
Pardee had finished calling out orders and was gazing down at the house, still calculating. Johnny waited until most of the men were scattering to their positions. From the corner of his eye, he could see Coley watching him. It was now or never.
He didn’t even turn around. “Whatcha want, Madrid.”
“It’s not Madrid.” Johnny had meant it only to surprise Day, but even as he was saying the words out loud, he realized it was true.
Pardee turned around at that. “What?”
“This is my land. And I want you off of it.”
Day sneered. “Your land? You’re not a Lancer.”
Time seemed to slow down. Johnny saw Coley make his move and took him down. But that gave Pardee time to draw and fire. Johnny shot back, careful to wing him and not kill him. If Pardee died now, with no witnesses, Johnny would be fighting the whole gang all by himself. He needed to take the fight to Scott.
Thankfully, it looked like that was going to happen. Day was holding his bleeding hand and screaming at everyone to get Johnny. He leapt onto his horse and flew down the hill. Yup, he had hit more than Day’s hand. He had hit his one weakness. A traitor in his midst.
The palomino ran like he had never run before. Bullets whizzed past, barely missing them. Johnny turned and took down two of his pursuers. More were changing directions and following their leader’s new orders, came barreling down the hill.
Johnny didn’t even have time to swear. The outer fence loomed before them. The golden horse took it easily. And then the next one. Just as Johnny was coming down from the jump and already a little off balance, that damned bullet found him. He spun from the force of it and tumbled off the speeding animal.
He hit the ground hard. Any pain was far overshadowed by the fact that he had no air in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t think. After a few seconds that felt like an eternity, he was able to draw a breath.
He realized he was hearing the battle raging around him. He also realized that by some miracle, he was still holding his gun. Someone jumped over him, assuming he was a dead body. A quick glance confirmed it was one of Pardee’s men. As soon as he landed, Johnny plugged him. He brought down one more and then he was out of bullets.
Well, he had done what he could. It was up to Boston now.
Scott watched in horror as his brother’s body hit the ground. For a few agonizing moments, hope had cruelly let him believe Johnny was going to make it. That his crazy, insane plan was actually going to work. He started to run down to him, but Murdoch’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“Scott. I can’t lose you both.” Their father looked out at the battlefield. “If only he had…”
“He was coming back to us!”
Teresa’s tear-filled declaration snapped Scott back into action and propelled him down the steps from his position on the balcony. He ran to the garden wall and began firing at anyone that came near Johnny’s still form. It was perhaps irrational to spend his energy and ammunition protecting a dead body, but that’s all he could think about. Until his father’s desperate cry.
“Look! It’s your brother!”
Scott watched in amazement as Johnny shot one, then another attacker. Then he dropped his pistol, bullets, strength or both, spent. Scott gripped his rifle with grim determination and shouted to anyone listening. “Cover me! I’m going after him!”’
Not waiting for a reply, he dashed out into the yard, firing his rifle at anything moving. He reached Johnny, grabbed him under one arm and began dragging him to the questionable safety of a large tree.
Scott scanned for the threat Johnny was referring to and saw the barrel of a pistol pointed right at them. Dropping his brother’s arm, he swung his weapon up, aimed and fired all in one fluid motion. That threat dispatched; Scott took out a few more then realized the gunfire around him was slowing. Still guarding Johnny, he watched the fleeing men and heard their shouts.
“They got Pardee!”
“Let’s get out of here!”
Pardee was one of the fallen? Right here in the main yard? Johnny had done it. He had led the ringleader into doing something foolish. As the last of the gunfire petered out, he turned back to his brother on the ground. Between the battle adrenaline, and the relief of Johnny being alive, he knew he had a silly grin on his face, but he couldn’t help it.
Johnny smiled back up at him. “Good shooting.”
“Thanks, brother. “ His grin slipped a little. “You had us worried.”
“I told you it would work.” Johnny failed to stifle a little groan as he tried to stand up.
Scott put his arm out to help “Take your time.”
With obvious effort, Johnny straightened up and shrugged off Scott’s assistance. “I can make it.”
Scott looked at his brother’s face. It wasn’t pride alone working. Pain, adrenaline, blood loss, possible concussion from the fall and more than likely no sleep for the past 30 or so hours. He was slipping into shock. He kept his eyes glued to him as Johnny took a faltering step, then another. Then his eyes rolled back, and he went limp. Scott quickly transferred his rifle to his other hand and caught him on his shoulder. Turning toward the house, he carried his precious burden to where his father and Teresa were waiting.
He came to consciousness slowly. Comprehension came even slower. Where was he? In bed obviously. What bed? Where? Some scattered images flashed through his brain. Facing off with Pardee. A wild, crazy ride. Scott. A gun pointing at them both from the bushes.
His eyes snapped open. He looked around the room almost in a panic.
There, sitting by his bed, was Murdoch Lancer. Images of their last confrontation also flitted through his memory. A confrontation that had ended with them each disappointing the other. But he was the only source of information at hand. So as leery as he was to initiate conversation….
His father noticed he was awake. “John?”
He couldn’t remember anyone else ever calling him that. It had always been Johnny… his mind was wandering. The headache he was becoming painfully aware of wasn’t helping. He needed to rein himself in and get answers. “Is everyone okay?”
Murdoch looked surprised at the question. “I guess that depends on who you mean by everyone.”
Johnny’s gut clenched. He again recalled that damn gun pointing at them.
His father continued. “Scott, Teresa and I are all fine.”
He relaxed back against the pillow. Couldn’t he have just said that to begin with?
“We lost three men. Another four, besides you, were wounded. The doctor should be here soon.” Johnny nodded understanding, but Murdoch continued. “The highriders lost a good half of theirs. Including Pardee himself.”
The gun pointing their way. A shouted warning to his brother. Scott swinging his rifle around… “Scott got him.”
Johnny smiled. He couldn’t have been more proud if he had taken the shot himself. Damn. His big brother was something.
He looked over at his father’s guarded tone, the smile slipping away.
“I… I doubted you.”
More images. Hearing Murdoch’s side of the story, riding away from the ranch only to come tearing back at the sight of smoke, his declaration to Pardee up on the hill. He took a breath and met his father’s troubled eyes. “I reckon I did worse than doubt. I been hating you for all these years for something you didn’t even do.”
Murdoch didn’t exactly smile, but his eyes lit up in hope. “Do you think we can work past all the doubt and hate?”
That was the thousand-dollar question, wasn’t it? “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t take orders too well.”
Murdoch grimaced. “And I don’t take disobedience too well.”
What little hope there had been seemed to flow right out of the room. “Well, then, that’s it, isn’t it? What can we do with that?”
Murdoch looked him in the eye, again. “What do you want to do with it?”
His stomach clenched all over again. What did he want? He knew. But he wouldn’t say it. He couldn’t. He couldn’t admit it and then have it yanked from his hands.
“Care to say any of that out loud?”
Johnny started at the words. And denied them. “Say what?”
“Whatever is looping in circles through your head.”
He closed his eyes. “No.”
Scott came to the door of the room and looked in. For a moment he was disappointed that his brother was still unconscious, until he took in the expression on Murdoch’s face. Something was going on. When he stepped in, Johnny’s eyes opened and flew to his. They smiled at each other.
“Well, well, look who has decided to join us!” he teased as he leaned on the bedpost. “How do you feel?”
Johnny frowned at him. “Kinda like I got shot off a horse.”
“A running horse,” Scott corrected. “It made quite an impact. We’re thinking of making a duck pond with the dent you made in the ground.”
Johnny grinned in answer.
Scott’s expression became more serious. “I must admit, your plan worked to save the ranch. But,” he crossed his arms for emphasis. “if I had known you were going to use yourself as live bait to lead them down to us, I would have locked you in your room last night.”
Johnny shrugged. “Wasn’t my first choice. Just how things worked out.”
“What was your first choice?”
Another shrug. “Get rid of Pardee, take over his men, and call the whole thing off. Day decided not to cooperate.”
Murdoch stood up and put his hands on his back and arched it as if it was stiff and sore. “Boys, I’m going to stretch my legs. I’ll be back.” And with that, he limped out of the room.
Scott watched him leave, then turned back to the man in the bed. “What was that all about?”
Johnny sighed, squirmed around, then caught his breath in pain at the movement.
“He wants to know what I want.”
“Did you tell him?” Aware of his brother’s discomfort, Scott carefully sat down on the foot of the bed.
“And what am I supposed to tell him?”
“That you want a chance to be here. A chance to be the person you really are.”
Johnny stared at him. “What the hell are you talking about? Who I really am is what’s gonna get me kicked out of here.”
“Listen, for a…”
“No, you listen Scott. You think you know me, but you don’t.”
“Alright, then tell me this. Why were you racing down to the ranch in front of Pardee?”
Johnny blinked in confusion. “To lead them down to you.”
“And what were you expecting to happen any second as you rode?”
He cocked his head, obviously wondering where this was going. “That’s easy. That the bullet with my name on it would find me.”
Scott nodded. That was what he had figured. Why couldn’t his little brother see what that meant? “Then why do it?” He pushed on before Johnny could argue. “You risked your life, your reputation, everything you have to protect this family and this ranch. That tells me exactly who you are.”
Johnny took a slow breath, eyes looking down at the quilt covering him. “It’s not enough.”
Scott gentled his voice. “Enough for what? To undo twenty years of pain and mistakes? Perhaps not. Enough to build a foundation for the next twenty? Perhaps so.”
Johnny’s eyes came back up to his with challenge in them. “Who in their right mind would want Johnny Madrid in their family?”
Scott’s little smile came back. “The question of my sanity aside, I do. I will say it again. And I will continue to say it until you believe it. I want you here. Murdoch wants you here.”
“I can’t want this and lose it, Scott. I can’t. Besides “, he waved at the window. “I thought we were gonna see the West.”
Scott looked carefully all around the room. “Seems I’m seeing the best of it right here. The rest we can get to a bit at a time.”
Murdoch stood outside the bedroom door, knowing full well he should not be eavesdropping. But there was little chance of his sons baring their hearts and souls to him as they did each other.
No! he chided himself. No more self-pity. If they were going to be a family, it was his responsibility to make it work. He was their father.
Turning around, he went back to his own room. Once there, he pulled a small chest out of a wardrobe and set it on the bed. Opening it, he took out two small bundles. He held them to his chest and closed his eyes. Would they understand? Would they believe him?
He took the two packages and retraced his steps to Johnny’s room. Their murmuring voices stopped as he entered. Looking down at his hands and what they held, he swallowed. “I, ah…I made these a long time ago. For your second birthdays.”
They were staring at him in bewilderment.
He handed one to Scott. “I saved it for when I went to get you. But that didn’t happen as I had hoped, and it just stayed in a box in my room.” He handed the other to Johnny. It was several moments before his son accepted it. “I had yours ready to give you when you turned two, but” his voice caught. He cleared it and forged on. “But you were gone before then.” He looked at them both. “Happy Birthday.”
They looked at each other, then at the parcels, then by some unseen communication opened them together. Scott held the small horse in his hand. Carefully caved out of blond wood, it looked wild and lifelike. Johnny was rubbing his finger over his little brown one. Over and over he caressed it.
Murdoch looked at the two of them and gave a little laugh. “I guess I got the colors wrong.”
Scott smiled as well and held his out. “Do you want to trade?”
Johnny’s hand closed protectively around the little horse. “No,” he said softly. “My father made it for me.” He finally tore his gaze away from the toy and raised his eyes to Murdoch’s. “I want to try.”
Emotion clogged Murdoch’s throat. He swallowed until he was sure he had a voice. “So do I.” He turned to Scott.
His older son looked as moved by Johnny’s declaration as he did. “I guess that makes it unanimous.”
Murdoch smiled at them both. “I guess it does. Now all we have to do is make it legal. And we’ll deal with that as soon as Johnny is up to it.” He caught movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to find Teresa standing in the doorway, tears flowing happily. He held out his arm and she came to his side.
She wiped a tear away. “We’re going to be a family, aren’t we?”
“Yes, we are, darling.”
Scott grinned at each of them. “From now on, come what may, we’re all on the same side.”
~ end ~
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