(The) Prodigal: Aftermath by Olley

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An episode tag for The Prodigal

Word count: 3785

I watched Murdoch top up his glass of scotch. My father had always enjoyed a glass of Glenlivet but lately, it was more than a glass. In my experience drinking to forget never worked.

“Drink?” Murdoch waved the bottle at the sofa where Johnny was sprawled, eyes almost shut.

I felt the pause and intake of breath from my brother. A storm was brewing. A diversion was needed. I spoke up, “I’ll have a small one before I retire thank you, sir.” 

Johnny opened his eyes, “I’ll give it a miss.  Think I’ll go check on the mare that’s due to foal.”

I watched as he bowed his head hiding his eyes. He turned and walked out through the French doors. It worried me that Johnny was reverting back to the remote wary attitude he had displayed in those first few weeks of our arrival at Lancer. I now knew it wasn’t simply a surly attitude, it was his defence against harsh words and disapproving looks.

I sipped my drink and watched as Murdoch finished his. “Well, sir, as you and I have an early start tomorrow getting to the Cattlemen’s meeting. I think we can call it a day.”

I smiled the smile I had practised and used so many times to wind up long boring Boston evenings.

Murdoch blinked and nodded, and we both rose from our chairs. “Goodnight, son. As you say, it will be an early start tomorrow”.

I followed him up the stairs. He was as steady as a rock. My father certainly could hold his liquor.

When the only sound from Murdoch’s room was his snoring I made my way down to the kitchen. I lit a lamp and waited.

It was more than an hour later I heard quiet footsteps.  Johnny appeared in the kitchen, and I pushed a dish of apple pie towards him. “Cream sir? Perhaps a glass of buttermilk?”

Johnny Lancer, my younger brother, favoured me with a smile, and I smiled back, relieved I wasn’t going to be dealing with Johnny Madrid.

It never ceased to tug at me how much he enjoyed his food and with a cream moustache how young he could seem.

“So, Scott, our old man passed out yet?”

There was no humour, just a disappointed knowing in his voice. I knew then some time in his past Johnny had experienced a similar situation.

“He is asleep in his own bed.” I decided to get to the point while Johnny was still sitting down and, if not in a good mood, at least approachable.  “It occurs to me that our father is still coming to terms with a broken heart.”

He snorted in derision. “Phooey. That’s horse shit Scott. That woman used him and he knows it. He’s angry and looking to let loose.”

“Johnny, don’t be so cynical. It seemed they once were in love, and he must have had expectations to have invited her here to Lancer.”

Johnny let out a short laugh. “Oh boy brother, I do admire your romantic outlook. Me I learned a long while ago to see through to the truth of a situation.”

I looked at Johnny and wondered whether it was his mother or a girl who had hardened his heart.

“You ever been in love, Scott?” Johnny was looking down drawing a circle with his trigger finger on the table top.

Lordy, can he read minds? I told myself, not to lie because he will know. “Well. I thought so once or twice, but I’m ashamed to say there were girls who fell in love with me, and I disappointed them. There was a time when I was a cad.”

Johnny looked up and raised an eyebrow, “Cad, uhh?”

I let the silence last, hoping he would fill it.

“Murdoch said Mrs Dane could’a been my mother. So way I reckon he met her before my mama. But then got Mama with me and did the honourable thing and married her instead of Mrs Dane.”

Showing sympathy was not what my brother needed. I instinctively knew he needed reassurance. “Murdoch loved you and your mother, Johnny. Why else would he have searched for you and set the Pinkertons on your trail?”

Johnny sat up straight and pointed his finger at me, his voice harsh. “There it is, Scott. He searched for me.  I don’t doubt he loved having another son to replace you, but we both know it was your mama who was, and always will be, his true love.”

All that hate and bitterness in my brother’s life was there in those words and his voice. He had pushed his chair back and was on his feet, the Madrid look in his eyes to hide the pain.

Now was not the time for us to discuss my mother. “Johnny, please stay. Sit. Let’s talk this out.”

Johnny remained standing, his blue eyes flashing dangerously in the half-light of the kitchen. “None of it is your fault, Scott, but it hurt when he so easily gave his trust to the Dane boy when he can’t or won’t trust me and my instincts. I could read Jeff Dane; he was a no-account coward and liar. And Mrs Dane well I can’t blame her for wanting to put her boy first and seeing Murdoch as the man who would set him on the right path.   But he didn’t want to hear that, did he?”

Nodding, I deliberately spoke quietly. “You were right about both of them, and I think you did the right thing. You said your piece then left it without arguing about it. Murdoch is, after all, a man with a mind of his own, but it doesn’t stop him being foolish where the opposite sex is concerned. I think his pride is hurt as much as anything and maybe he is embarrassed his grown sons have seen it.”

I waited hoping my words would calm him. At least he sat down. His Madrid persona gone, he now looked so young and uncertain. “You don’t suppose he is Jeff’s Papa do you, Scott?”

“God no! Where did you get that notion from?”

He shrugged. “Dunno. He ain’t much different in age to me.”

“Johnny, you should give our father a little credit. I think he may have realised he was being a little hasty fetching Mrs Dane to Lancer from San Francisco as he quickly passed the task of escorting her around the ranch to me. During that time she told me when she first met Murdoch he was a widower, struggling to make Lancer a success. Her parents thought he had no prospects and did not encourage the courtship.  While he went away earning extra money as a deputy for Joe Barker, she met George Dane, a respectable bank clerk who had her parent’s approval.  In the meantime, Murdoch had met and married your mama.”

My brother pushed his bottom lip out and his finger once again drew circles on the table top, I waited.

“What we gonna do about his mood? It’s like waiting for a storm to break? If he starts in on me I may say something that can’t be unsaid.”

I sighed. What needed to happen was for Murdoch to allow the past to be aired, to tell us both the truth about our mothers, and not just wave the damn Pinkerton reports at us. “We need to tell him it’s time he acted like our father and not a senior business partner. Of course, it would mean we would have to agree to act like his dutiful sons.”

I grinned at Johnny thinking that the odds of my old – before- his – time, notorious, border- town -gunfighter, younger brother being a dutiful son were slight.

He surprised me.

“Guess if he can agree to being on the true about Mama I could give being his dutiful son a try.”

It was my turn to take a moment to fully comprehend what he was saying. Regardless of the hurt caused by Murdoch’s lack of trust in him, he was willing to give him a chance to be his father. When Murdoch says he doesn’t understand the boy I know what he means. Understanding how Johnny’s mind works will be my lifetime’s work.

“Okay, here is what I propose; on my way home with him from the Cattlemen’s meeting I shall tell him I am calling a family meeting, at which there will be no scotch or tequila, and no loud voices.”

Johnny raised both eyebrows at me. “You really gonna say that to our old man? He may just take you out to the barn and turn you over a hay bale.”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Yes, and I shall remind him I am an adult, unlike my younger brother who has not yet reached his legal majority.”

“Uhh, good luck with that, Scott. Me, I’m hiding the booze and keeping well out’ta of his reach, leaving you to do your fancy talking.” He gave me a half grin.

We looked at each other; the Lancer brothers with our plan to turn Murdoch’s business partnership into a family. I shall tell Murdoch Johnny is unsure of his acceptance as the youngest son and needs a father’s reassurance regardless of his mother’s reason for leaving.

I need him to talk to me about my mother and the reason why he didn’t claim me before I was of use in the battle against the land pirates. But that can wait. The first step is to the open the door in Murdoch’s heart that will allow Johnny to truly be a Lancer – his son. My brother.

******

“That went well.” I smiled across at Murdoch as we rode out of Green River after the Cattlemen’s meeting. I had watched him manage the other men as they discussed the forthcoming round-up and drive to market. He was very much the top dog as Johnny would say.

He nodded “I learnt years ago to allow everyone to have their say. Then we agree to my plan.”

“So they dance to your tune, sir?”

“Lancer is the largest ranch in the San Joaquin valley Scott. We owe it to ourselves and our neighbours to work together. It ensures we stabilise the prices we can expect at market.”

“So we are not competing against each other with the danger that brings of prices being undercut. It is a good strategy, Murdoch. I can see it benefits the whole community. It is not perhaps how I experienced business in Boston.”

Murdoch turned to look closely at me. “No, son, this is not Boston.”

I allowed some time to pass as we rode home at an easy pace. “Murdoch, tonight after dinner I would like you, I and Johnny to have a family meeting.”

His horse shifted as he tightened the reins. “We can tell Johnny what was decided at the meeting over dinner.” His voice had taken on a stern edge.

I could imagine the frown between his eyes. I kept my face forward and my hands loose on the pommel of my saddle. “Actually, sir, it is a family matter that I think needs discussing.” I ploughed on, “the fact is I am concerned that Johnny is unsettled.”

“Unsettled” it came out as a snort. “The boy is surly and when he does open his mouth insulting and disrespectful.”

My eyebrows reached up toward my hairline and I had to take a deep breath. “He is a young man who is uncertain, afraid even, that his own father does not trust or accept him.” I halted my horse. “How do you suppose he felt when you announced Marcy Dane could have been his mother? Your son who by all accounts was only 10 years old when he watched his mother die. A boy who then had to survive by trusting his instincts. Instincts you dismissed out of hand when he tried to give you his advice about Jeff Dane. Which I must point out were correct.”

His face was a picture, shock replaced by fury.

“I suggest, sir, you think long and hard on the question of whether you wish to be a father or merely our senior business partner.” With that, I turned my horse and spurred him into a gallop.

******

I broke the rule about racing under the arch and found Johnny at the corrals working with two vaqueros schooling cow ponies.

He listened with astonishment to my recounting the angry words I had directed at Murdoch.

“Madre Dios Scott did no one ever tell ya not to poke a stick at a bad-tempered bear?” Johnny stood with his hands on his hips and shook his head.

“Sorry Johnny, well actually I’m not sorry. Murdoch is passing his anger onto you and he needs to be put straight.”

Johnny put his head down and toed the dirt at his feet. When he looked up he was grinning at me. “Bet that took the ol’e man by surprise. It’s usually me he butts head with and you who act as the peacemaker. You make yourself scarce Scott an’ I’ll play your part.”

The anger drained out of me to be replaced by worry. “Now just hold on, Johnny, we don’t want to as you put it, poke this bad-tempered bear of ours too far.”

Johnny slapped the back of his hand against my belly. “Trust me, Scott I can play nice when called on. Come on, we’ll wait for him in the barn, I don’t want the entire ranch to see this it may ruin my reputation.”

He sauntered to the barn, spurs jingling his hat bouncing against his back. My younger brother seemed to be enjoying himself far too much for my comfort.

I hid in the end stall with a view through the wooden slats, while Johnny sat on a hay bale near the entrance plaiting a horsehair braid and quietly whistling. Murdoch approached leading his horse, his shadow falling into the barn.

“Hey, Murdoch.” Johnny greeted him softly and smiled.

Murdoch looked around and back down at Johnny. “Is Scott here?”

“Well, he’s around someplace. Seemed to be in a bit of a pucker.” Johnny went back to the horsehair braiding. “You seen that stallion we rounded up? Whoee its one fine animal, I’m thinking we should use him on some of our mares.  We’d get real good stock from him.”

 “I keep telling you Lancer is all about cattle.”

Johnny stood but stayed relaxed holding his hands up. “I know, I know, but a cattle ranch needs good horses. To be honest Murdoch, there are a couple in the last batch from the auction that are just plain crow bait. We could easily raise our own. Heck, we could probably get real good prices for broke and schooled ones.”

Johnny put his braiding down and went to Murdoch’s horse.  He kept his voice low and petted the beast. “Someone once said something about not having all your eggs in the same basket. Think of it as insurance ‘gainst any dip in the price of beeves.”

I had to admire Johnny, he hadn’t raised his voice and all the while he was untacking the horse.

Murdoch was silent and stood on the other side of his horse rubbing it down. “We can talk about this tonight, Scott wants a meeting.”

Johnny grunted as he lifted the saddle and carried it to the rack. “He say what he wants to meet about?”

Good grief, my brother could indeed act the innocent. I shall have to remember this.

Murdoch let out his own grunt as he led his horse into its stall. He stretched out his back and groaned. He was playing for time, not wishing to relay the words exchanged with me.

“Your back playing up, Murdoch?” Johnny tilted his head to one side. “Maybe you should have a hot bath and I’ll rub some of that liniment Sam left into ya.”

Johnny was not putting on an act his concern about Murdoch seemed genuine.

Murdoch clasped him on his shoulder. “That’s a good offer son. How about you and I have a drink and talk before I do that?”

A frown crossed Johnny’s face as he took a step back and sat down on the hay bale.

“Can we talk here an’ now please, Murdoch?”

I nearly said something then. What was Johnny playing at?

“If you wish.”

Johnny was looking up at him. “If I make a suggestion can you promise not to start roaring like a bad-tempered bear?”

“You’re talking about horse breeding again?” That harsh note had crept into Murdoch’s voice.

“Nope and I still need your promise Murdoch ‘cos I gotta tell you it makes my ears ache when you commence to your hollering.”

Murdoch snorted a laugh as he could see Johnny grinned at him. “Very well I promise. Now, what is this suggestion of yours?”

As Murdoch sat down next to Johnny, he picked up the horsehair braid and ran his fingers across it. “This is a nice piece of work John, where did you learn this skill?”

Johnny sighed. “Oh, a long while ago. An old guy who gave me some credit showed me how. He said I had nimble fingers.”

There was a silence broken only by the sound of horses shuffling in their stalls. I breathed slowly as I spied on them.

Johnny rubbed his hands together. “If you agree to burn them Pinkerton reports – which I gotta tell ya are a waste of the paper they’re written on – I’ll return your best scotch to the drinks cabinet.”

Murdoch did holler “What! Why?”

“Whoa, now you did promise, Murdoch.” Johnny held his hands up in surrender, his voice low. “It was Scott’s idea.” 

I very nearly let out a yell, the cheek of the boy.

I could see Johnny give his wide-eyed little boy lost look, “Well maybe not exactly in so many words. He tells me there are big brother rules. One is to listen to his advice.”

“And his advice was to hide my best scotch?”

I could see Johnny shake his head and his chin go down to his chest.

“Thing is Murdoch I saw as a kid drinking to forget your sorrows, mostly makes it worse. It can change a man, makes his temper mean. So it was my idea to hide the scotch.”

I heard Murdoch sigh, “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Nope,” Johnny shrugged, “it’s gone, in the past and I just don’t want to relive it. Know what I mean Murdoch?”

I could see Murdoch nod and run his hand through his hair. There was a long silence.

“So what have you done with my best scotch, son?” Murdoch’s voice was quiet.

He jumped to his feet and crouched in front of Murdoch. “See me an’ well Scott as well, we want you to talk to us ‘bout family. Now, Murdoch, before you start in, I know Scott. He doesn’t like to talk too much about being brought up in Boston. He knows it pains you, and I’m guessing he worries about how it compares with my life in Mexico. An’ I know it’ll be hard for you an’ me to get to where we can talk about Mama. But I gotta say right here an’ now, I am sorry how it turned out with Mrs Dane, but I’m glad she wasn’t my Mama.”

Johnny walked up and down a few paces and stopped in front of Murdoch. His head went down and his arms wrapped around his body in that protective hug.

“Anyway, what I want to suggest is you start by telling us stories of that place Inverness. What it was like for you as a kid with your Ma and Pa, while we share a drink without anyone losing their temper.”

He sounded so young and hopeful.

The silence stretched and I waited for Murdoch to break his promise.

“John,” Murdoch spoke softly, so unlike his usual tone. I squinted to see his face. “John, I’m glad Marcy wasn’t your mother too.” He gently put his hand against Johnny’s face to raise it. “It does you credit that you are so loyal to her.” 

Johnny stood back and nodded “We good, Murdoch?”

“Yes, Johnny we’re good.”

The look that passed between stirred in me a pang of jealousy.

 Murdoch smiled then raised an eyebrow.  “Telling tales of my boyhood in Scotland will be a small price to pay as a ransom for the return of my scotch. You may want to warn your brother that I will be having a word with him about giving you any further foolish ideas.”

A few minutes after Murdoch left, Johnny called to me “It’s safe to come out Scott.”

He was stood in the doorway watching Murdoch make his way to the hacienda. I stopped shoulder to shoulder with him.

“You played the peacemaker well Johnny.”

“I got lucky, Scott, catching him after he had a chance to think on what you said to him.”

Johnny turned to me, looking serious. “It’s like breaking that stallion. I don’t want to break his spirit so after the shock of him being caught, I’ve gotta be gentle and reach an understanding with him.”

“Are you seriously comparing our father to a wild horse?”

“Yup. He sure has been treating me that way, trying to break me into being a rancher and not a wild border town gunfighter.” Johnny showed no anger or disappointment, in fact, he looked amused. “I guess me an’ Murdoch are more alike than we look eh?”

I grabbed him around his neck and pulled him out of the barn. “You are a sneaky and smart little brother. I will need to keep a close eye on you. Trying to get me into trouble, ‘it was Scott’s idea’ indeed.”

I stared after Murdoch “I think we will need a great deal of patience to break our Patron into being our Papa.”

“Oh, I dunno Scott between us we have made a good start. Once we get him started on stories of this scotch family of ours it’ll open the way to our own stories.”

I turned to Johnny and laughed “That’s Scottish family, scotch is the drink that you need to return to his cabinet, as it will not doubt lubricate his storytelling.”

“Whoops better do that right now, wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of his hollering.”

With that my young brother raced across the yard leaving me to consider which stories of my life I could tell.

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~ end ~
July/Aug/Sept 2018

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