Names and Numbers
By Cadillac Red ()
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Setting: About 4 months after Scott and Johnny arrived at Lancer.
Author's note: This came as a result of recent discussion on one of the Lancer lists regarding the ages of the Lancer sons. There's no science behind my conclusion and apologies in advance if it conflicts with any evidence from canon.
Scott Lancer picked up a towel and wiped the remnants of shaving soap from his face. He looked at his image in the mirror hung over his dresser and smiled to himself at the difference between what he saw today, and what he would have seen four months earlier.
His newly-discovered brother had called him a "dandy" on the occasion of their first meeting. To be honest, he'd kind of prided himself on his "dandiness" back in Boston. He'd been known as a charming and sophisticated young man-about-town there, wealthy by right of birth, admired by virtue of his looks, connections and education.
His grin widened as he spied the unbuttoned beige shirt and brown pants he was wearing this morning, over well-worn boots that still had some of yesterday's dust on them. If the folks in Boston could only see me now—
"Scott! Whatcha doin'? Admirin' yerself in that mirror again?" The whirlwind known as Johnny Lancer banged open the door and bounded into the bedroom, launching himself onto the freshly-made bed.
"These are the moments I most regret our not growing up together, little brother," Scott said, turning around. He leaned back against the bureau and crossed his arms, waiting for the inevitable response. Johnny couldn't help himself. His curiosity about what "might have been" always got the better of him.
"Why?" he asked, as if on cue.
"Because," Scott responded as he walked over to the bed and leaned down to put a hand on either side of his reclining brother. "I would have taught you to knock."
Johnny's grin lit his deep blue eyes from within. "Well," he drawled lazily. "You would have tried."
Scott grinned back, then slapped him on the stomach. "Oh, you better believe I would have succeeded, Johnny, my boy."
Johnny turned on his side and watched as his brother straightened up and began buttoning his shirt. "When ya leavin' for Stockton?"
Scott's eyebrows rose a little. There was an opportunity for the Lancer ranch to negotiate access across some railroad land for the upcoming cattle drive. It would mean knocking as much as five days off the time it took to drive their herd to market. That meant less cost, fatter stock and more profits. He expected Murdoch to send one of them, or maybe take on the assignment himself. But no decision had been made about which Lancer would go.
"What makes you think it's my job?"
Johnny snorted. "Murdoch's got that friend of his comin' to town so he's not leavin' now. And he don't send me out to negotiate no contracts."
The boy said it so matter-of-factly, it was easy to miss the way the light in his eyes wavered. It hurt him that Murdoch showed so little faith in him when it came to the business side of things. Johnny was a consummate horseman, second to none on the ranch at gentling wild horses then turning them into fine cutting stock. He was a good cowboy, becoming better all the time, and after a few run-ins with their father, he'd even begun to adjust to the expectations of his new-found family when it came to showing up on time and getting things done on a schedule.
"You're making assumptions, Johnny. No telling which of us will get sent to Stockton. I've made the last couple of trips. It may be your turn, you know."
Johnny smiled. This was the self-deprecating grin that hid a world of hurt. In the last months, Scott had begun to learn how to decipher the nearly endless array of his brother's facial expressions. "Nah. I'll betcha a dollar he's not askin' me to handle any Lancer business in Stockton or anywhere else. I'm allowed ta sign for feed and haul it home, so long as the old man can inventory it when I get here." He rose, leaving the bed covers mussed in his wake, and headed out into the hall. "But, on the other hand, I'll be home for some of Theresa's apple pie tonight…"
As breakfast ended a little later, the family patriarch Murdoch Lancer began to assign the day's chores to his sons while Theresa cleared the dishes from the table. "Johnny, I'd like you to get a crew together and get the herd moved to the south pasture. We seem to be losing some head into the brush where they are now. See if you and the men can locate the strays while you're at it. Over the next few days we'll need to ride the fence line to see where they're getting out and make repairs."
Johnny nodded over the rim of his milk glass. He'd generally have a cup of strong coffee to start the day but the glass of buttermilk was a treat their cook Maria always had at the ready, knowing the younger son's preferences. And Johnny never passed it up.
"And Scott, I want you to go to Stockton to—"
"Why me, sir?" Scott interrupted him. "I mean, I've made the last two trips. I think Johnny could benefit from the experience of negotiating—"
Johnny cut him off immediately. "I'm sure Murdoch's got it figured the way he wants it, Scott—"
"No! I think we have the right to make suggestions, Johnny—"
"Scott, I said leave it be!" Johnny blurted, the timbre of his voice rising a notch.
Scott opened his mouth to argue but this time Murdoch cut him off. "I've already made my decision," he announced in a tone that brooked no dissent. "Johnny can't be negotiating any contracts on behalf of Lancer. You'll go to Stockton."
The last vestige of light in Johnny's eyes went out. He lowered his gaze to the tabletop, and Scott's eyes flashed with anger at the slight to his sibling. How could Murdoch not see that his lack of faith in Johnny hurt the boy? Johnny made to rise but Scott just couldn't let it go.
"No. Not until I understand why you don't want Johnny negotiating on our behalf. You had to let me get experience at it. Now I think it's Johnny's turn."
Johnny rose suddenly from his chair, shaking his head angrily. "You don't listen, do ya, Boston? The old man says he doesn't want me to do it. That's good enough for me. I think it oughta be good enough for you." He turned on his heel and headed out of the kitchen toward the great room. "Have a good trip," he called over his shoulder as he strode out of the room.
"Wait, John," his father ordered. "You know it's not that I don't want you to do it. You can't—"
Scott's patience reached its end. "Why the hell not?" he demanded of his father. "What could possibly keep Johnny from being able to negotiate a contract?"
"For God's sake, do I have to spell it out for you two? He can't sign a legal document on his own because he's under twenty-one. You oughta know that, Scott," Murdoch bellowed.
Scott's mouth opened in surprise and at first, no sound came out. How was it possible Murdoch didn't know how old Johnny was? "No, he's not," he finally responded.
"No, I'm not," Johnny echoed, coming back to the door of the kitchen. "I turned twenty-two last year—"
"Do you think I don't know how old my sons are?" Murdoch flashed back. "For the love of God, I marked every single one of both of your birthdays every year since you were born. I know how old you are, John."
"Well, obviously ya don't, 'cause I'm twenty-two," Johnny bit back at him.
The two men squared off and Scott instinctively stepped between them. "Johnny, what year were you born?" he asked quickly.
Johnny stopped in his tracks and turned his attention to his brother. "What do you mean?"
"What year were you born? This is 1870 and you were born in….."
Confusion passed over the younger man's face for a moment. It appeared no one had ever asked him this before, and he probably had never filled out a bank or school or government form that might require the information. "Well, it's simple arithmetic…., and I did get some schoolin'," he added, shooting a dark glance at his father. "Eighteen forty-seven, I guess. Yeah, that would be right. I'll be twenty-three come December."
Murdoch was shaking his head now. "Impossible," he said. "Scott was born in 1845. I didn't even meet your mother until 1849. You were born later that year."
Johnny stared at his father as if the man had suddenly begun speaking an unknown language.
"Are you sure, Murdoch?" Scott asked. "I mean, we were both gone a long time and one year can pretty much bleed into the next…."
Now it was Murdoch's turn to look askance. That look was overtaken by thunderclouds that both sons had quickly learned to recognize as trouble for at least one of them. "Come here," Murdoch ordered. Long, purposeful strides moved him into the great room.
Neither Scott nor Johnny moved. Each pair of blue eyes sought the other, then finally Johnny spoke worriedly. "What do you think he's gonna do to us?" he whispered urgently.
Scott swallowed fast. "Do? I mean, what would he do? We just asked a question—"
"I meant now!" their father roared from the other room. Both younger men double-timed it into the great room, then saw Murdoch had continued into his office. They followed, coming to a stop near the desk. Murdoch was searching for something in a bookcase on the wall behind it, and the boys instinctively kept the large piece of furniture between them and their obviously irate sire.
Murdoch turned to them, dropping a large book onto the desk before him. He opened the leather cover and leafed through it. "Here," he said. "Take a look for yourselves."
Johnny appeared temporarily paralyzed but Scott's curiosity won out over his concern. He moved closer to the desk and turned the leather-bound book around to read it. "It's a Bible," he said slowly. He turned his gaze up toward his father. "The Lancer family Bible?"
Murdoch nodded. He hadn't thought to show it to his sons before and he couldn't think why not. "Read it," he ordered.
Scott leaned over the desk. "Murdoch Ian Lancer married Catherine Elizabeth Garrett, July 10, 1844, Boston, Massachusetts." His voice softened. "Scott Murdoch Lancer, born September 21, 1845, Carterville, California."
"That was the name your mother wanted. I didn't like the idea of naming a son for me so we compromised on a middle name….. I didn't realize until years later that your grandfather chose something different," Murdoch said gruffly, then he sighed. "I need to change it for the record."
Scott didn't answer. Instead he turned back to the book. "Catherine Elizabeth Lancer, died September 22, 1845, Carterville, California," he read even more softly, his voice cracking a little. He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes. He knew all of these facts but seeing it here, in the family Bible, in Murdoch's strong hand, brought it all home in a new and different way. The fact his parents had debated the name they wanted him to have and settled on something slightly different from the one he carried caught him completely off guard. But he pushed the rush of feelings aside, knowing this moment was about Johnny, not him. He turned his attention back to the list.
Scott cleared his throat. "Murdoch Ian Lancer married Maria Consuela García Alvarez, April 30, 1849, Matamoros, Mexico." He could hear Johnny move quietly to stand behind him, to peer over his shoulder.
"John Thomas Lancer, born December 23, 1849, Lancer ranch, Morro Coyo, California." Scott heard the rush of breath his brother exhaled behind him. "… Baptized, December 30, 1849…."
"You're twenty years old, John," Murdoch said gently. "I don't know why, or how, that got mixed up—"
"Well, it don't matter," Johnny announced suddenly. "'Cept about me not signing any contracts, I guess. I'll see you when ya get back from Stockton, Scott." He turned quickly on his heel and headed for the coat rack by the front door where his hat and gun belt were hanging.
"Johnny—" Scott called after him.
"John, we need to talk—" Murdoch started to follow him.
"No, we don't. It's nothing. Just numbers. And we all know I don't got the kind of education to be good with those. I'll see ya tonight, Murdoch. Have some fun in Stockton, Scott." Shoving his hat on his head, he strode through the double doors still holding his gunbelt in his hand. The door banged shut behind him.
Scott looked at his father. "How the hell could he be confused about how old he is?"
"There's things we'll never fully understand about how your brother grew up," Murdoch said, shaking his head. He leaned tiredly against the desk. "For you, birthdays were big events…. Parties, lots of gifts, a big cake and candles. It's likely no one Johnny knew even paid attention to the date, let alone whether any particular day was someone's birthday."
Scott's first thought was to ask Murdoch how he'd know anything about what Scott's birthdays were like. It's not as though the man had ever bothered to attend one. But he turned his attention back to his younger brother for the moment. "Well, I'm going after him," Scott announced. That's more important than this contract—"
His father grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back. "No, Scott. The contract's critical for Lancer, getting it done could almost double our profits on the herd this year. Your brother needs time alone to deal with this anyway. You'll be back in five days—"
"Five days is too long for him to stew on his own, Murdoch," Scott replied angrily.
"And I'll be here in the meantime," the older man said firmly. "And I can answer more questions than you can when it comes to this. You go to Stockton and get that contract nailed down."
Scott's heart was warring with his head. He wanted to go after his brother, to find some way to comfort him, and he somehow doubted Johnny would ask questions. Murdoch had proven to be reluctant to discuss the past with either of them, saying it was "over and done with."
Scott's head told him Johnny probably wouldn't welcome opening this line of discussion now anyway. Perhaps not ever. And his innate respect for authority generally drove him to do as he was told. He sighed. "Okay. I'll be back in four days," he said as he rushed off to pack.
Murdoch smiled. His elder son on a mission was something to behold. He knew without question Scott would get to Stockton, hammer out a deal advantageous to Lancer and get back in record time.
Four days later
Murdoch looked at the grandfather clock, then pulled out his pocket watch, checking again to confirm they both told the same story. Scott had been gone four days now and was expected back later tonight. And Johnny….. well, Johnny hadn't come home since the day he'd learned yet another new "truth" that called into question everything his mother had ever told him.
Each of the last four days the ranch's Segundo Cipriano had returned to the hacienda bringing Johnny's excuse of the day for not coming home. The first night he decided to ride ahead to check out fresh pasture land for the herd, telling them he'd make camp instead of wasting time riding back, and out again the next day. Each night thereafter, there was another reason he did not return for dinner and a good night's sleep. Last night, he'd gone into town and decided to bunk with "a friend" instead of returning to Lancer for the night. While there, he'd been the first recipient of Scott's telegram saying he'd successfully concluded his business in Stockton and would be home today, which Johnny then dutifully paid a local boy to deliver to the ranch.
Murdoch poured himself two fingers of good scotch whiskey and considered the harsh reality of his relationship with his sons. Scott and Johnny had quickly developed a bond that gladdened his heart. When in doubt or confusion, Johnny almost invariably turned to his older brother. Seeing them rely on each other in this manner was something that was no more than an idle dream for Murdoch in all the years the two boys were away from him. And yet…. He wished his younger son would come to him occasionally when he needed support or comfort. Or his older son for that matter. Somehow he'd not yet developed the paternal relationship to match their fraternal one.
He took a sip of scotch and stared out the window into the dark. Johnny would be home tonight, of that he was certain. Whether he'd come before Scott was another story. His ward Theresa was making a chocolate cake because she knew it was his favorite and Murdoch suspected she thought Johnny would magically know it was waiting. He hoped that would be the case.
They'd held dinner an extra hour and Scott had arrived in time to sit down with them for a roast beef feast in honor of the contract he had worked out with the management of the railroad. But Johnny had not appeared, and sent no note on this night. Murdoch had wanted to be angry but the only emotion that surfaced was worry. After coffee and a short meeting to review the terms of the contract he'd gone to bed, leaving Scott in the great room. "Don't stay up too late," he'd advised. "You've had a long few days. Johnny hasn't been home the last four nights….. He may not come tonight either—"
Scott nodded. "I'll just read a while then," he answered. But his newly-developed big brother instincts told him the younger man would walk through those doors at some point soon. And their father silently prayed he was right. This had gone on too long already.
An hour later, Scott was wakened from a light sleep by the sound of a rider approaching the house. The vaquero on night watch had not sounded an alert so he knew it was family, which meant Johnny as he was the only Lancer not currently at home. He heard words spoken quietly but couldn't make them out, then the front door opened.
"Good evening, brother," he said to the startled young man hanging his hat and gun on the rack at the front door.
"Scott! I didn't think ya'd still be awake." Johnny's surprised smile warmed his older brother's heart.
"Ah, well, I couldn't sleep yet. Needed to digest a little of Theresa's roast beef before turning in."
"Sorry I missed that," Johnny replied, looking not the least bit like he was sorry at all. "I'll 'pologize to her tomorrow." He looked toward the staircase as if considering whether to just head up to bed.
"She saved your dinner," Scott told him. "There's a plate in the warming oven—"
"I'm not hungry—"
"And some chocolate cake…." Scott smiled to himself as Johnny's gaze swung back to him.
"There's chocolate cake?"
"Yes, little brother, we have chocolate cake," he said, rising and heading toward the kitchen.. "And I'll let you have some… after you've had a sandwich."
Johnny automatically began to follow, then stopped himself. "Whadda ye mean you'll LET me have some…"
Scott chuckled as he continued into the kitchen, knowing his brother would be only a few steps behind him. He poured a glass of milk from a pitcher that had been left on ice and set it on the table.
"I'm not hungry—" Johnny repeated as he sat down and immediately picked up the glass. "I had a plate of beans earlier…."
"Uh-huh," Scott responded as he went about preparing a sandwich. He quickly cut a thick slice of beef, then reached into the bread drawer for a loaf that their housekeeper Maria had baked that day. He cut off two pieces, and transferred the beef onto the first slice. Then he found a hunk of cheese and cut a slice. He layered that on the beef, then slathered on some mustard and laid the second slice of bread on top. He cut the sandwich in half, then put the plate down in front of his brother. Johnny started to protest once more but Scott plopped himself into the chair across from him and cut him off with a question. "Where've you been, boy?"
Johnny narrowed his eyes in an attempt to warn his brother off, then gave up when Scott ignored it. "Around," he responded, picking up half of the sandwich and taking a big bite. "Working. Why? The old man say different?"
"Not at all," Scott replied evenly. "I just—wondered why you haven't been home since I left for Stockton."
"Things go okay there?"
"Fine. We got the access rights. But don't go changing the subject now—"
"No other subject to talk about," Johnny replied, taking another bite of his sandwich. It was quite good and he thought once again that Scott had a knack for doing things, even making a sandwich that was just slightly better and classier than what Johnny would have thrown together. He lifted the top off his bread to see what exactly Scott had put on it for future reference.
Scott reached over and picked up the milk glass. Raising it to his lips, he took a sip and nearly laughed at the glower his younger brother sent his way. He decided to go ahead and push his point. "It's gotta be hard finding out your mother… I mean, that you didn't know how old you are, Johnny. It's hard to understand how that could happen."
Johnny looked down at the plate in front of him, watching the half sandwich that remained as if it might sprout legs and walk away. The silence stretched between him and Scott until he realized his brother would wait as long as it took. "Nah. It's not hard to unnerstand at all," he sighed. "Once I thought about it, I knew how it happened."
Scott just waited for him to continue his explanation. While he waited, he picked up the remaining sandwich and took a bite, then placed it back on the plate. Johnny's eyes tracked the movement of the sandwich before speaking.
""Fore my Mama died, we moved to a new town, tryin' to lose the man she'd been with for the last couple a years," he said softly. "I was twelve. Leastways, I thought I was twelve…." His lips turned up into a half-smile, the one Scott knew didn't even reach his eyes. "She got a job at the local cantina, and was tryin' to get me to tell the owner I was thirteen, almost fourteen, so's he'd give me some work sweepin' and takin' out the trash in the mornings."
Scott's heart tightened at the thought of his brother having to go to work at that age – without even doing the math and figuring he was really around ten at the time.
"Anyway, I understand why she did it. And I know them places don't like girls with young'uns. They figure the girls won't be dependable if they got little ones. Mama probably added a year here, and another year there, just so she could get work when she needed it. She once said to me that yer age is just a number, that we could add to mine, and subtract from hers and nobody'd ever know the difference, 'cause it's just a number. I figure that's how it happened…."
Scott nodded, not sure what to say next but then Johnny spoke again.
"She had a way of tellin' a story, Scott. Pretty soon, she'd believe the stories herself…. I—I figure it explains why I was always small for my age….."
The grandfather clock in the hall struck ten as the brothers sat in the kitchen, content to share a silent moment while Johnny finished his sandwich. The clock tolled its final tone then Johnny spoke again.
"I understand how it happened," Johnny declared. "And it don't matter. So where's that chocolate cake ya promised?"
Scott smiled as he rose, shaking his head. His younger brother's resilience, and ability to forgive his mother, never ceased to surprise him and he wondered if he'd eventually come to the same place with their father. Scott cut a big slice of cake and put it in front of Johnny. He took two forks from the drying rack and handed one to his brother as he reseated himself. Scott took a forkful of cake and Johnny playfully moved the plate to his side of the table, grinning as he took another big bite for himself. When he picked up the milk glass to take another big swallow, Scott snaked a long arm across the table and stole another bite, causing his brother to physically insert his left arm across the table in an effort to protect his dessert. The two of them laughed like little boys as the chocolate cake eventually disappeared, most of it into the younger brother's stomach, which was how the older brother had planned it.
Scott finally rose and rinsed off the dishes they'd used. It would keep Theresa and Maria from wanting their heads on a platter come morning. Then the two men headed up the back stairs together. Scott draped an arm across his brother's shoulders as they came to a stop in the hall in front of Johnny's bedroom door.
"You okay?" Scott asked, affectionately ruffling the hair on the back of Johnny's head.
The younger man smiled but kept his eyes on the toes of his own boots. "Yeah," he said. "I'm fine."
"Good night then, little brother," Scott responded. He started to move down the hallway toward his own bedroom.
"The only thing I can't figure…" Johnny said quietly, almost as if he was talking to himself.
Scott turned around and saw Johnny had stopped with his hand on the doorknob. "What's that?"
"I got a middle name, Scott," he said. "I never knew that…. How come she never told me that I got a middle name?"
"I don't know," Scott said quietly. "I guess we may never know the why of it…."
"Yeh, ye're probably right. See ya in the mornin', Boston." He disappeared into the bedroom and Scott waited a moment. No light appeared from under the door and Scott knew his brother had simply shed his clothes and fallen into bed. He sighed and entered his own room, gently closing the door behind him.
Down the hall, Murdoch Lancer stood in the shadows. He'd been poised to go down and join them when he heard the two boys coming up the stairs. Not wanting to intrude on their conversation, he'd remained silently in the dark at the end of the hall. His youngest son's last words had torn at his heart.
I know why, John. Memories of long ago disagreements with Maria regarding a name for their baby flooded back into his mind. She'd wanted to give the child a Mexican name, Juan Carlos if it was a boy. Murdoch insisted the child have an American name as they'd both chosen this new country as their home, and the home of their future children. He'd offered John as a first name since it was the English version of her father's name, and asked her to agree on Thomas, the name of his own father, for a second name. He thought at the time that they had compromised, as he and Catherine did when choosing a name for Scott. Looking back, he realized Maria had never really agreed, she just stopped arguing the point.
Murdoch returned to his own bedroom and sat down heavily on the big bed there. He opened the bottom drawer of his night stand and carefully removed two packets of letters, each bound with a leather tie, and held them in his big hands. He'd told his sons that he'd marked every one of their birthdays and here was the evidence it was so. Perhaps some day soon he'd find the right moment, and the right way, to share them with their intended recipients. He smiled sadly to himself. Some day. But not today.
He only hoped he'd recognize and seize the chance when it arose. Murdoch knew it would be difficult for him. It was not his way to talk about the past or his feelings, and he had no experience being a father to the two young men who slept behind closed doors down the hall. But something inside told Murdoch Lancer that, without a doubt, it was the most important work he'd ever do. He put the letters back in the drawer and quietly closed it once more.