Letters from Murdoch

By Cadillac Red ()

This is a sequel to an earlier story called "Names and Numbers"

Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.

Murdoch Lancer stood at the front door of the family home, contemplating the ranch he'd built with more than a quarter century of blood and sweat. It always gladdened his heart, never more so than since his sons had returned a little more than a year earlier. But today his mood was somber and he looked out with new eyes, and wondered what the future would bring.

He had promised Theresa a week in San Francisco for her eighteenth birthday, a day that had passed the week before with happy festivities shared with family and friends. Today he and Theresa would leave Lancer for that city and she was looking forward to it with girlish glee. She had money for new dresses, they planned to attend the theater and dine in the best restaurants. His ward had been anticipating this week for months and Murdoch would do nothing to dampen her pleasure.

In fact, he'd been looking forward to the trip himself until a couple of weeks earlier when he realized there was bad blood between his sons. Scott and Johnny had bonded with each other almost immediately on their arrival at the ranch last year, despite the fact neither of the half-brothers had even known about the other's existence before the day they stepped down from the stage in Morro Coyo. They had grown close in spite of vast differences in their backgrounds and experiences. It was a small miracle and Murdoch had grown so used to thinking of them as a team, that he had begun to consider where on the ranch to build homes for his sons and their future wives, and to envision their sons and daughters, his grandchildren, growing up together on this land.

He'd tried talking to them individually but they each clammed up about the problem, directing him to the other brother for answers. He'd even considered knocking their heads together once or twice, or as Jelly had advised more than once, "cuttin' a switch and hauling them boys out to the barn." Murdoch shook his head. He rarely felt unsure of what to do in any situation but fatherhood did not yet come easily to him. He'd started out too harsh, then perhaps grown too lenient. His sons were grown men but Johnny was barely twenty-one and had not had the benefit of a father's guidance. And Scott was still fairly new to the West and Murdoch sometimes felt he might need a stronger lead on occasion as well. It was hard to know and it gnawed at him. And if he didn't get it right now, this chance for them to become a true family, to build a shared life that would endure whatever came at them, might be lost forever.

The tension between the boys was starting to affect the running of the ranch and Murdoch had begun to assign them jobs that ensured they would not cross paths during the day. But the stress was taking a toll on everyone and last night, Scott had quietly informed his father he was planning a trip back East once Theresa and Murdoch returned from San Francisco. He'd said it was to take care of personal business and that he'd be glad for a chance catch up with old friends for a little while but Murdoch had seen through his story. Scott wanted to defuse the situation and thought his stepping away would help. It wasn't hard to imagine that Scott also thought it would be easier, and better, for him to be the one to do it. After all, Johnny had nothing good to which to return. He was the brother who "needed" Lancer and despite whatever was going on between them, Murdoch knew his older son would do nothing to harm his younger brother. Still, Murdoch feared that, once he was gone, Scott would not return. And deep in his heart, he'd come to believe Scott was the main reason Johnny stayed

Well, he'd had enough. It was time Scott and Johnny were reminded of the importance of family, and the precious thing they might be letting slip away. And it was past time he shared some things with his sons….

"Murdoch! I'm sure I have everything now," Theresa chirped from behind him and he turned to bestow an indulgent smile on his ward. Her brown eyes sparkled as she handed him the final satchel to be loaded on the buggy. Once in Morro Coyo, they would catch the stagecoach and be in San Francisco by evening. "Are you sure you've got room for all the things you're planning to buy?" he chuckled.

Her eyes lit with amusement. "Well… I may just have to buy another bag."

"Well, if you do, I'm sure we can find a nice one there." Off to the left he saw Scott step out of the door to his bedroom, coming to say goodbye. At the same moment, Johnny's voice out called from the direction of the corral. "If you don't go soon, you may miss the stagecoach." It clearly tickled him to be the one reminding his father of the time. When he'd first arrived, they'd had many a row over the younger son's inability to be anywhere on time.

"I know. We're going now," he answered, helping Theresa up into the buggy. One of the hands was holding the reins of the matched set of chestnuts so he felt at ease stepping away from it. "Boys, I'd like to see you for a moment."

Johnny's eyes narrowed and Scott did his best to hide a grimace but they both followed him back through the door into the house. Johnny went immediately to lean against a wall, his arms crossed over his chest. Scott stood in a formal "at ease" posture that told Murdoch he was decidedly not at ease. He sighed quietly, then took the next step he'd planned.

"I know you both have things to do today but I need you to work on the books tonight."

Scott nodded. "I'll take a look at them right after dinner. Is there anything in particular you want me to review?"

"Actually, I'd like both of you to review them. As partners, I need both of your eyes on it."

Scott's eyes flickered to his brother momentarily then he nodded tightly. "Fine."

Johnny's face reflected annoyance. "What Boston's tryin' to say is, what would I know about bookkeepin'?"

"Don't go putting words in my mouth, brother," Scott retorted and Johnny came away from the wall ready to bite back but Murdoch stepped between them.

"Enough! I don't ask a lot of you as my sons but I'm asking this now. Tonight, the two of you work on the books. Together. There are some things I want you to know and then we can talk about them when I return. I trust you'll do as I ask because you're trustworthy men. Theresa and I will be back a week from tomorrow. In the meantime, can you try to be civil with each other?"

They both seemed to be considering their answer.

"I asked you a question!"

"Yessir," Johnny replied as he turned and stalked off toward the front door. He took his hat off the rack nearby and shoved it onto his head, headed out the open door, then on past the buggy. "Have a good time in San Francisco, Theresa!"

Murdoch could see Scott's jaw tighten with anger as he watched Johnny go but he exhaled and pointedly relaxed his posture. "Yes, sir," he replied quietly. Then he walked out the door and said goodbye to Theresa, reminding her to visit several shops and restaurants he'd enjoyed on his previous trips to the city. She assured him she'd written down all of his advice and planned to see "everything."

"God help me," Murdoch said with a smile as he stepped up into the buggy and took the reins from the vaquero. "Remember what I asked, Scott. Make sure your brother remembers too," he called as he slapped the reins onto the horses' rumps and drove off.

Scott had eaten dinner in the dining room alone, using the time to catch up on reading the newspapers that were infrequently delivered to the ranch. He got a chance to read them even less often than they were delivered. Until now, that hadn't bothered him.

He was nursing a glass of brandy in the great room, having heard Johnny come in some twenty minutes earlier. Since his brother didn't arrive in the dining room, he surmised the younger man had convinced their housekeeper Maria to feed him in the kitchen.

Scott picked up his glass and headed into the lion's den. He stopped at the door of the kitchen and leaned against the door frame. "Nice of you to show up," he said.

Johnny didn't bother looking up. He had a rolled up tortilla and was dunking it in Maria's hottest salsa, the one she made especially for her Juanito. With his other hand, he forked up rice and beans. "The fences down in the south pasture ain't in good shape. We spent all day on 'em, and we'll have to go back tomorrow."

Scott nodded. "Well, when you're through eating, why don't we get started on those books?"

Now Johnny raised his head. "What's the use of my workin' on the books? You and Murdoch handle that stuff and that's fine with me. I don't even know enough about it to be dangerous. I'll just keep doin' the ranch hand stuff and you two can handle the business."

"And maybe that's why Murdoch wants you to start learning it," Scott answered, trying to hold his temper. It was a simple thing their father had asked. Couldn't Johnny comply with even one little request without an argument? "You own a third of the ranch. In time… in time maybe you'll own it all. You'll need to know more than how to lay fences and brand cows."

Johnny sighed and looked to the side, closing his eyes. Was that all Scott thought he was good for? And what did he mean, maybe someday Johnny would own Lancer outright? Once Murdoch was gone, would Scott go too?

"Come on, Johnny. I'll wait for you in the other room. Let's just do what he asked, then… we don't even have to see each other until Murdoch and Theresa return. I'm sure we can divide up the work so one of us is gone every night."

Johnny's gut clenched but he fought to maintain his nonchalance. "I'll be there in five minutes," he answered. Scott nodded once and removed himself back to the great room.

Fifteen minutes later, Johnny finally showed up. Scott tamped down his growing irritation and the sons entered their father's study together. Each of them lit a lamp, one on the desk and one on the sideboard. The ledger was sitting in the middle of Murdoch's desk and Scott brought a second chair around the large desk so that the two of them could sit together. Johnny simply watched him, not offering his help. Scott sighed inwardly but kept his annoyance to himself. He sat down and waited until Johnny had come around and took a seat in the chair that remained, Murdoch's desk chair.

"So what are we s'posed to be lookin' at?"

"I don't know any more than you do, but let's just see what we've got here." Scott opened the ledger book and turned to the page marked by a ribbon. He was surprised to find an envelope between the pages, addressed to him and Johnny.

"What's that?" Johnny asked.

"Not sure. But I assume we're supposed to open it." He picked up Murdoch's silver letter opener and cleanly slit the thick vellum.

"What's it say?"

"As you may have noticed, I haven't read it yet, brother," Scott replied, his exasperation barely held in check. He removed the letter and unfolded it. "Let's see. It's a letter to you and me from Murdoch, dated yesterday."

"Well read it," Johnny said and Scott began to read aloud.

My dear sons,

I'm writing this letter because there are things I find it hard to say to you both in person. I'm not a man given to speaking about his feelings. It kept me from being able to tell my first wife how very much I loved her, and lost me my second wife. I loved them both but I'm not certain they knew how much.

I have failed to say the words again, so I'm not at all sure you know that I love you both more than I can say. You are such different men, but so very much the same when it comes to how I feel about you. You make me proud, although I know I can take no credit for the admirable, honorable men you are.

I told you some time ago that I had marked every one of your birthdays since you were each born. I've been trying to get up the courage to show you the truth of it. The time never seemed right and now I fear that one of you may leave and not return. And it would be my greatest failure to let that happen.

"How did he know I was plannin' to leave?" Johnny asked. "I—I never told anyone."

Scott didn't look at his brother. "He's pretty good at figuring things out. And… and I told him last night that I'm going to head back East for a while….."

"You're thinkin' of leavin'?"

Scott cleared his throat and returned his attention to the paper in his hand. "Let's finish this," he said quietly.

There are two bundles of letters in the bottom left drawer. I ask that you both take the time to read them. When I return, ask me any questions you may have. I will answer any and all of them. I have treasured every minute of every day that you have both been home, although I may not always show it. Whatever you each choose to do, I implore you not to make the mistake I made in keeping your feelings to yourselves. Good or bad, share them with each other. There will be many people in both of your lives over the years – wives, children, grandchildren, I hope – but you will never have another brother. I pray you come to understand that that the most precious gift I will ever give to my sons is not a name, or a ranch. It is the brother you have at last been able to know.

With all my love,

Your father

Johnny leaned down and opened the drawer to which the letter referred. He removed two bundles of letters, each tied with a strip of leather. The first one had his name on the top letter. He passed the second stack to Scott.

Scott slipped the top letter out of his bundle and noticed the envelope was yellowed with age and addressed to him. He picked up the letter opener again, slit it open and began to read, then stopped when he heard Johnny mumbling to himself.

".. sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one." Johnny stopped at the last letter and looked over at his brother, appearing surprised to see Scott was staring back at him. "What?" he said.

"Nothing," the older brother replied, turning back to read his first letter.

"I was just checkin'."

"I know."

"What's that s'posed ta mean?"

Scott sighed and looked back at his younger brother. "It means exactly what I said. I know you were just checking to see if there was one for every birthday."

"Oh. Well ya don't have to make it sound like…."

"Like what?"

"Never mind. I think I'll turn in."

Scott watched him go, his heart sinking. Murdoch obviously thought this exercise would bring his sons together. It was apparent from Johnny's exit that it was too late for that. He sighed again, then settled back to begin reading.

September 21, 1846

My darling son, Scott,

Today you are a year old. I know you are too young to understand yet, or know that I am not there. But I have been missing you every day of your life, my boy. I hope that you have your mother's eyes, and her smile. She had the most wonderful smile. I recall the day she told me that you were on your way. Her smile was brighter than the sun that day as she told me all of her plans for you, our son. Somehow she knew that you were a boy. She loved you before you were born, Scott, and so did I. Things have been a little hard this year and I couldn't come to get you, but by next year, I will have you here with me. I know you are safe in the meantime but I will bring you home soon, I promise. This land, this ranch called Lancer is your heritage. Every minute of every day, every chore I do, I am building this dream for us to share. I love you, son.

Your Papa

Scott blinked back tears and scanned the next letter and several after that. He paused over the fourth one.

September 21, 1849

My dearest Scott,

You are four today, and I am still missing you. I had hoped to arrange for your grandfather to meet me in Kansas City so that I could get you, but his business has kept him from making the trip again this year. I will come to Boston next year if necessary. I want you home.

You have a stepmother, Scott, and a little brother or sister on the way. Not only do I need you now, but someone else will need you to help them grow and learn all the important things you have learned already. Like how to walk, and how to talk, and how to ride a pony. Do you have a pony, Scott? I have one waiting here for you. His name is Pokey and he's not as slow as his name would make you think, but he's gentle and calm, and just waiting for a little boy to call his own. And when you've outgrown the pony, we'll pick a horse for you together, one that you can name and take care of, a spirited horse you can ride across the pastures of Lancer by my side, son. I've been waiting so long to have you here and this year, I know it will happen.

Upstairs, Johnny Lancer had thrown himself onto his bed and torn open the first of his letters.

December 23, 1850

My darling son, Johnny,

You are one year old today. I don't think I can find words to say how very much I love you. You have brought joy and laughter back to this house. When the sun rises and I get up to face the day, the first thing I do is look for your smiling eyes. You are the sunshine in your Mama's and my life.

You have a big brother named Scott. You haven't met him yet but I know you will love him, as I already love him. And I know he will be happy to have a little brother. I started the tradition of writing a letter on his birthday each year because he is not here with me and I want to make sure he knows how much I love him anyway. But I will do it for you also. It seems like a good tradition for a family to have. And we are a family even though things have kept us from having Scott here with us. Unlike you, he has not had the chance to grow up at Lancer yet. I will fix that this year because you will need a big brother soon. You began to walk only a short while ago but you moved right to running, my boy, and the next thing we knew, you were somehow leading Pokey around the corral. You nearly gave us both apoplexy when we found you! Your Mama and I will need another, younger pair of legs to keep up with you, I think.

We had a birthday party for you today, with a big cake and one candle on it. You and I practiced blowing out that candle for the past few days but you don't quite have your blowing muscles yet, I guess. Next year will be better, I am sure of it!

With all my love,

Your Papa

Johnny sat back against the headboard and blinked back tears. He had no recollection of any of the events described in the letter but the handwriting was definitely Murdoch's and the paper was old and yellowed. It had been written a long time ago. He looked for the second letter and tore open the envelope when he found it.

December 23, 1851

Dearest Johnny,

I don't know where you are today, on your second birthday. You and your Mama left last month and I haven't been able to find you. I miss you more than I can say, and hope you are safe, and happy. Whenever I think of you, and that's many times every day, I see your smile, my boy.

Your brother Scott is not here at Lancer either. I tried to bring him home but the situation turned out to be more complicated than I expected. He is well, and while you look very different from each other, you have the same smile. At least, that's what I think. Perhaps if I'd managed to bring him home, you would still be here also, perhaps your Mama would have understood how important it is for you to be together. I had such dreams of you two growing up side by side. But don't worry, son, I will do everything I can to make that dream come true, for both of you. And in the meantime, I am sending you love on your second birthday. I'll find you soon, I promise.

With all my love,

Your Papa

Johnny laid his head back onto the headboard and stared at the ceiling, swallowing down a lump of emotion in his throat. Something told him Scott was downstairs doing the same thing he was doing, reading his letters and feeling afresh the lost years and opportunities that had been stolen from all of them. He thought to go down and find him but then he remembered the estrangement between them and realized it would not make a difference.

A knock interrupted his train of thought. "Yeah?"

There was an extra split second of silence, then Scott asked if he could come in. When Johnny called out his assent, the older brother opened the door.

"You okay?"

"Don't tell me you read 'em all already? I mean, you got a few more than me and I only finished a couple…."

"No, I didn't read them all. I just thought… well, I thought maybe we should read them together. I think that's what Murdoch had in mind."

"Why? Because you need to explain the big words to me?"

Scott's jaw tightened and he set his mouth in a hard line. "Never mind," he said, pulling the door closed.

Johnny started to call him back, but the words didn't come. Instead he watched the door shut and heard Scott's footsteps disappear into his own room across the hall.

"Dammit," he berated himself. He hadn't meant to drive Scott off, only to show him… what? That you're still angry? Hurt? Truth was, he wasn't even certain Scott knew why he was mad. He wasn't even sure he fully understood it himself. He looked down at the array of letters and randomly picked up another to open.

December 23, 1861

Dearest Johnny,

You are twelve years old today. I can't believe it's more than ten years since I saw you last. Every day, the hole in my life seems to grow a little larger with you and your brother not here with me. But today I write of other important things.

You are growing up, and I hope well, my son. I know you have a good and kind heart. That is something I knew about you when you were just a baby. Do you know you sucked your thumb? Well, you did, though I imagine you outgrew that a long time ago. I mention it only because you used to offer that thumb to everyone, me, the hands, our foreman Paul O'Brien, neighbors in town. You would take that thumb out of your little mouth and hold it out, offering to share it with everyone. While none of us took you up on that offer, it showed you had a generous heart from the first. I know that hasn't changed.

You are reaching an age where you'll need to make important decisions, Johnny. I wish I was there to guide you. I wish your brother Scott was there to back you up, and set an example for you to follow. I was so happy to have two sons because I knew you would be there for each other, in ways that friends and other people—even a father-- cannot be. Even after I am gone, you will always have that special bond of blood that no one else can ever share. I am so sorry I haven't been able to bring you both home, and make sure you know each other. But I keep trying and Johnny, we will make it happen. Nothing in my life is more important than the two of you and I will continue to do everything I can to bring you home to Lancer. I love you, boy. I know life will bring you some hard times, and you'll make some mistakes along the way. Every man does. But the test of his true character is the way a man deals with those errors, and the way he forgives the people who hurt him… and himself when he makes one of those inevitable bad choices. And the way he changes course and goes on. I wish I was there to tell you all of these things in person, to guide you when you hit one of those rough patches. Know I'm sending you all of my love and keeping you in my prayers, son. May God bless and take care of you until I can get you home.

Love always,

Your Pa

Across the hall, Scott had poured himself a whiskey from a seldom-used bottle he kept in a dresser drawer. He sat in the chair next to his bed and propped his sock-clad feet on the bed, trying not to let his anger at Johnny boil over. The younger man had started to act strangely about three weeks earlier and the bad feeling between them seemed to grow with each interaction. Scott's patience had run out several times but tonight, when he'd tried to bridge the void and been rebuffed again, he realized it did not matter any more. Scott knew there was a host of opportunities waiting for him back East. His education and connections assured that. Johnny had no other options, not good ones. Whatever his brother's problem with him, however unfair it might be to the older brother, the only reasonable option was for Scott to leave if they couldn't live and work with each other. The other option, Johnny returning to his former life and profession, was too frightening to contemplate.

He shook off the unwelcome thought and went back to his letters. He found the one that was written on his seventeenth birthday.

September 21, 1862

Dearest Scott,

You are seventeen years old today. I almost cannot believe it's possible but I have sixteen other letters here so I know it is true. I've written to you many times over the years but since you have never replied, I am not certain you received them. I don't know which would be worse – that you got them and refused to respond, or that you do not even know I have been trying to reach you all these years. So I am keeping up the tradition of writing to you on each of your birthdays so you'll know for sure, someday, that you have always been in my heart.

You are a young man now, my son. I don't know what you are doing, or what choices you've made for yourself but I pray you make good and honorable decisions, as you go through your life. Your mother had a good, compassionate heart and I hope you have inherited her ability to see the world with all of its faults and problems, yet continually try to make it better – one day at a time. If there is anything you get from her, I hope it is the ability to know the people you love are not perfect, and love them anyway. Lord knows she gave me the benefit of the doubt many times during our short time together.

Your brother Johnny is still missing. I've tried many times to find him and written him twelve birthday letters so far. It is a great yawning void in my life, not having the two of you here with me. I will never lose hope that I'll have you here soon though, no matter how difficult that seems on any given day. The ranch is doing well but it is hard work, sometimes back-breaking work. Yet this is the most beautiful place in the world to me and I get up and work it each day because I know I will share it with you and your brother some time soon. There is nothing more important in my life than that dream.

Take care of yourself, my son, and know that, wherever you are, I love you more than I can say. You are always in my thoughts and prayers.

With all my love,

Your Father

Scott put the letter down and closed his eyes. How could Murdoch have known when he wrote this letter than his son was only a few months from enlisting in the Union army? He could not have known, yet… this letter, like so many of the letters he'd read so far seemed to show a connection to what was going on in Scott's life at the time that couldn't be explained.

He lay there a few more minutes, then realized how late it had gotten. There was a ranch to keep running tomorrow, with or without help from his brother. And that meant exercising some discipline. The rest of the letters would have to wait for later. Scott gathered the letters together, putting all the ones he'd opened and read on the bottom and the unopened ones on top. Then he tied the bundle together with the leather strip and turned in. Murdoch wouldn't be back for a week. He'd have plenty of time to finish reading by then.

Across the hall, Johnny tore open another letter.

December 23, 1856

My dear son, Johnny,

You turned seven this year. It's been more than five years since I last saw you but I keep looking, every chance I get. We're lucky to have a good foreman in Paul O'Brien. He keeps things running here during the slow season so I can search for you. I'm starting to run out of places to look though, my boy. Nevertheless, I will not give up. I will never give up.

I miss seeing your smile every morning when I wake up, and the thought of it –of you and your big brother Scott—keeps me going even when it seems like this ranch will never pay off. I won't let that happen though, because this is your legacy, yours and Scott's. Whenever I think it's too much, I think of you, my sons, and I know every last minute spent working is just a way to show my love for you boys. Because some day, I will have you at my side, both of you. This is where you belong.

I know that's all too much for a seven -year-old boy to understand but…you'll be older when you finally read this. I imagine you have started school. I remember how smart you were. You walked and talked earlier than any of the children in these parts, at least that's what the local women all said. Even as you were first learning to talk, you would switch effortlessly between Spanish with your mama, and English with me. Everyone told us you would grow up to be a great man some day, perhaps a lawyer or a doctor. I always said a fine rancher but whatever you choose to be in life, I know you will set a high standard and be the best there is. You always jumped into everything with both feet, Johnny!

Well, whenever you read this, I want you to know then that I was thinking of you today especially and wishing you a happy, happy birthday, Johnny

Love always,

Your Papa

Johnny's arm dropped and he closed his eyes against a storm of emotion that passed over him. When he was seven, he had started school. And he'd loved it, he remembered now. He'd been so proud to come home with a paper with a gold star on it that first week. But his mother had been upset over something at that time. "No ahora, niño," she'd told him when he tried to show it to her. "Not now." He'd tried a few more times but it never seemed to be the right time and eventually he'd given up. A few months later, they'd moved on to another town, another man…. The next town hadn't had a school if he remembered correctly. His education had been sporadic after that—a few months or even a year in, then months out because there was no school, or he wasn't welcome there, or his mother just never got around to enrolling him.

He snorted in disgust. Yeah, he'd set a high standard for himself and tried to be the best….. just like Murdoch said. When he wrote those words, Johnny guessed Murdoch could never have imagined the profession he'd eventually chosen.

Then something made him pick up another letter he'd randomly chosen to read. What was that Murdoch had said, he thought as he searched? About mistakes, and needing to forgive people—and even yourself sometimes?

He looked at the clock on the side table. It was nearly 2 am. It would be light in a few hours but suddenly, he couldn't wait to speak with Scott. He picked up the scattered letters and headed across the hall. He opened the door quietly and noticed the light was out and Scott was sleeping. He almost retreated but something made him go on.

"Scott?" he said softly. His brother didn't stir so he tried again, a little louder. "Scott!"

"Huh?" Scott roused a little, and looked around the room in confusion.

"Scott, are you… I mean, I thought you'd still be awake."

Scott sat up a little further in the bed. The moonlight streaming in the window threw enough light for him to see Johnny was still fully dressed, although his shirt hung open and out of his pants. He glanced at the clock on his nightstand. "It's 2 o'clock."

Johnny smiled uncertainly. "Yeah, I know," he said. "I just—well, I figgered you'd still be readin'…"

Scott sat up. He was bare-chested, sleeping only in his drawers. It was a habit he'd picked up in the warmer clime of California that he was certain would have made his very proper grandfather faint. "I—I decided to get some sleep and start again tomorrow night."

Johnny's face fell. "Oh. I didn't—I didn't think of that…. I guess, well, I guess I figgered the old man wanted us to read 'em all at once….."

Scott blinked and his mind raced. Why would Johnny think that? Then he realized it was Johnny after all. He lived fully in the moment, and did everything in double time. He started to tell the younger man to go back to bed, still smarting over having been rejected more times than he could count over the last few days. But something in one of Murdoch's letters niggled at the back of his conscience, something about having his mother's ability to see someone's flaws and still love them. He decided to take one more chance.

"Come here," he said, moving to the side and patting the mattress next to him. He reached over and got his stack of letters off the night table. Johnny came in and took a seat at the foot of the bed, crossing his legs Indian-style while Scott struck a match and lit the lamp.

"How far did you get?" Johnny asked.

"I read about a half dozen. How about you?"

"'Bout a few more, I reckon. It's … I mean, I never thought much 'bout what he was thinkin' all them years, did you?"

Scott shook his head. "I guess not. I thought I did, when I was in Boston…. thinking he didn't want me. But not since we came home…." His voice faltered at the thought it wouldn't be his home much longer.

"Some of the stuff he said in the letters… well, it's kinda spooky, ya know? Like he knew what was goin' on in my life—"

"I know. I kept thinking he was giving advice that was exactly what I would have needed to hear at that time…. And he talked about you a lot in my letters. I would have liked to know…. About you, that is."

Johnny nodded. "I wanted ta read ya something from one of my letters. Let me find it…. Oh, here it is. 'I was so happy to have two sons because I knew you would be there for each other, in ways that friends and other people—even a father-- cannot be. Even after I am gone, you will always have that special bond of blood that no one else can ever share.'"

Scott smiled. "I have one of those too. Give me a second …." He sorted through the stack and pulled out one he'd marked by folding up the flap. 'There are many things I'd like to give you and your brother but none is more important than each other. I had a brother but he died of the fever on the voyage across the Atlantic. Fergus and I planned to start a ranch together somewhere out here in the West. He's been gone almost twenty years now but I miss him to this day. I named the ranch "Lancer" to honor the memory of my brother as much as to be a legacy for you and Johnny. My greatest hope is that someday you boys will fulfill that original dream of the Lancer brothers running this ranch together."

Johnny exhaled slowly. "I didn't know he had a brother," he finally whispered. "I—I guess that musta been real hard, losin' him like that…. And havin' to go on alone…."

The two fell silent for a moment, considering the tragedy of losing a brother. Then suddenly they both spoke at once.

"I'm sorry, Scott, 'bout—"

"Johnny, I'm sorry for whatever's come between us….

"No, it's my fault," the younger brother insisted. "I thought… well…." He looked down at his hands. "I guess I never had a brother before and… I just don't know what it's s'posed to be like…."

Scott frowned. "It's supposed to be however we want it to be, Johnny. I know I must have done something that bothered you but… if you don't tell me what, I'll never be able to fix it. And I'll probably keep doing it—"

"No, you didn't do nuthin' ya shouldn't of done…. I was just bein' prickly 'bout nuthin'."

"No, John. I'm putting my foot down now. This is too important. Get it said, brother." He smiled encouragingly, using the same words he'd said to Johnny on the first morning after they met in an effort to remind the younger brother how far they had come in the intervening months.

Johnny looked like he'd rather wrestle a rattle snake than go on but Scott prompted him with another nod and just waited him out. Finally, the silence got to Johnny and he relented.

"Well, it's kinda stupid…." His eyes drifted downward and he began to fold and refold a section of blanket.. "I know you weren't such good friends with that fella at the bank, Jasper Hardaway until…. I mean, when you was spendin' time in San Francisco workin' on that deal on water rights, and seein' that Becca Pearce…."

Scott's mind raced. He'd been tasked by his father with representing Lancer's interests, the Valley's interests really, as a bill worked its way through the California legislature. It required him to travel frequently between Sacramento and Lancer for many months and while there, he'd been introduced to the daughter of one of the State's most powerful legislators. Rebecca Pearce and her mother Abigail were accomplished social climbers, his Grandfather would have said. They latched onto Scott, "a son of Boston Society and a Harvard man" as Abigail continually introduced him to her friends. Scott let the uncomfortable situation work for him. He had been well-trained by Harlan Garret to make use of social contacts to advance business interests. After all, he'd once nearly married Julie to further one of his grandfather's business deals.

"….When her family came to visit the ranch, I know she and her Mama didn't have much use for me. Guess that's not a surprise. And they made such a big deal 'bout that cousin of hers comin' to visit. Then all of a sudden you were takin' Jasper with ya to Sacramento, you and him were escortin' them girls to all those fancy parties. I guess I wasn't thinkin' too clear. Of course it made more sense to introduce Jasper to that cousin. I'd never fit in with them folks anyway…"

Scott listened with growing surprise. Johnny thought he actually preferred Jasper to him? Hardaway was yet another person with more social aspirations than sense. A graduate of a small Eastern college who'd come West to get into the banking business, probably because his family connections didn't gain him entrée into the hallowed halls of the top Eastern financial institutions. He was anxious to meet "the right people" and thought Scott could help make those introductions. When Scott had realized there would be another Pearce girl to squire around, it hadn't even occurred to him to saddle Johnny with her. He'd reached out to Jasper and the man had leapt at the opportunity.

Scott bit back the laughter that threatened to erupt. As Johnny said, the younger man had been prickly lately and he didn't want to do anything to lose the momentum of this conversation. But at some point, he planned to have a good laugh over this one.

"Johnny, let me tell you something about Becca Pearce. And Jasper Hardaway. They're … two peas in a pod, if you will….." He went on to explain how he came to ask the banker to accompany him to Sacramento, and escort the cousin to several social events during her visit. He explained how he expected she'd be cut from the same bolt of cloth as the other two Pearce women. "And obviously, I'm a pretty good matchmaker because—"

Johnny's eyebrows rose. "Jasper and the cousin…..?"

"No, he and Becca are engaged to be married. And Jasper's moving to Sacramento to work for her father. Which means I only have to see him or her on my occasional visits to the capital. A perfect ending, as far as I'm concerned."

Johnny grinned. "What about the cousin then?""

"She turned out to be a lovely girl. Very sweet and down-to-earth. Unfortunately she's engaged to a lawyer in St. Louis."

Johnny looked down at his hands and his smile faded as he thought about the last few weeks, and what had gotten he and Scott to the point where one of them might leave Lancer. "So, it wasn't that you're…." he shrugged as though it didn't matter. "… that you're ashamed 'bout havin' a brother like me? Not here but with city folks—"

"Johnny, I swear sometimes it's all I can do to keep from smacking you! Have I ever done anything to make you think that? Why wouldn't you give me the benefit of the doubt and ask?"

Johnny squirmed uncomfortably, staring at the pile of letters in front of him. "No, ya never did but it makes sense…."

Scott realized yet again there was a deep well of insecurity buried beneath the tough, cocky exterior Johnny Madrid Lancer showed the world. And he kicked himself for having forgotten it for a while.

"Listen to me, there's no one in the world I'd rather have around, anywhere, Johnny. You're smart and you read people and situations faster than anybody I ever met."

Johnny glanced up, surprise visible in his eyes.

"When I was working my way through the negotiations for that bill, I wished you were there to bounce ideas off instead of Jasper. All he could think about was which haberdasher and boot maker I thought was best, and whether he should accept this or that invitation."

"Yeah, I can see why you'd hate that. Least with me, ya wouldn't have to worry 'bout anybody invitin' me anywhere!"

Scott reached out and cuffed him on the side of the head. "That's enough of that. I don't hold with anyone saying anything bad about my little brother. Not even you."

Johnny smiled shyly. "I guess maybe he meant for us to read 'em together after all. Wanna read another letter?"

Scott grinned. "I'm pulling rank as the older, wiser brother here, boy. Put those letters away and get some sleep. We have a ranch to run, you know. It's almost a week before Murdoch gets back and he's going to be looking to see how well we do without him. We'll start again tonight, and read them together, just like you said…."

And they did. They used the next nights to work their way through their letters from Murdoch and get to know each other a little better along the way. They talked about where each of them had been on a given birthday, and what was going on in their lives. Scott learned things about Johnny's life that were far worse than he'd feared and yet, there were some good times too. The older brother realized those early years, with Maria and one decent 'step-father,' had laid the foundation that allowed him to survive with an open and compassionate heart and the ability to love.

Johnny found out a lot about Scott also, about how Harlan Garret, a man for whom the younger brother had no respect, could possibly have raised someone like Scott.

"What's a 'boarding' school?"

"That's a school where you live most of the year, with a headmaster and housemasters and the other boys in the school…."

"Ya mean your grandfather sent ya away to school? Why the heck didn't he just let Murdoch have ya then?"

Scott shrugged. "Boarding school's just a given in certain levels of Eastern society, Johnny. He thought he was giving me the best education, preparing me to take my place in his world."

Johnny shook his head. "I don't get it. But it sounds like ya liked it."

"I did," Scott smiled at the recollection. "It was lonely in my grandfather's house. At school, I had a kind of family. I was assigned a 'big brother' when I got to Andover and he looked out for me, helped me learn how to fit in. Later, when I was considered an older boy, I got assigned a 'little brother' and had to teach him how to get along, and help him feel at home in a new place, with new rules."

It suddenly dawned on Johnny that this was the reason Scott had fallen so quickly and easily into his role of big brother when they'd both arrived at Lancer. Unlike Johnny, he had prior experience.

"What happened to them fellas? Your school 'brothers?'"

Scott grew somber. His eyes drifted toward the window. "My big brother, Will Carstairs, went into the Army the year before me. He died somewhere near Gettysburg….. And Cameron Stevenson…." Scott stopped and took a deep breath. "When I went into the Cavalry, Cam was still at Andover. There was an accident during a horse race, his mount shied away from a crazy jump when he was taking a shortcut through a field near the school. He broke his neck and died instantly. He was fifteen….. "

Johnny bowed his head, immediately understanding why Scott occasionally grew overprotective when he thought the younger brother was being reckless. "You figure you could have stopped him, if you'd been there?" he asked softly.

Scott looked him square in the eye. "Yes," he said quietly, firmly. "He wouldn't have been too happy about it but…. Nothing would have stopped me from trying to save him from his own bad judgment."

Johnny heard the message in the soft words and instead of itching his rebellious streak, he was somehow comforted by the knowledge this man, this brother of his, would be looking out for him, whether he wanted it or not. It seems he'd already lost a younger brother to recklessness.

As if reading his mind, Scott spoke. "I cared about them, Johnny. I thought it was like having brothers. But this is so much more. We share… blood, and a heritage. And a father. We are both… of this place, Lancer. Wherever we grew up, this is where we were both conceived. It's where I hope we'll spend the rest of our lives… together."

Johnny had begun staring at his feet as Scott spoke but now he looked up and there was moisture in his eyes.

"It's where I hope I'll die," Scott continued, "many years from now, a very old man who lived a full and happy life…. With my little brother sitting at my bedside."

Johnny smiled in surprise. "Who's to say you'll die first?"

"I do. And I'm the older brother so you'll be expected to mind me."

"Now wait a minute! Long as I live, you'll always be the older brother. That don't mean--"

"Yes, it does. Some things in life just have to be accepted the way the cards were dealt. I'm the older brother. And you're the prettier brother—"

Johnny sputtered with indignation. "What?"

"No use fighting it, brother. I'm a handsome fella but you are nudging mighty close to pretty."

"Who says so? I'll shoot the first man says that to my face—"

"Oh, everybody says it. You won't have enough ammunition to go around…."

Murdoch Lancer pulled up on the reins, bringing the buggy to a stop on the road overlooking the hacienda. It was a place he traditionally stopped whenever he'd been away from the ranch for more than a few days, a place to observe the vast, peaceful valley that was the heart of his empire. No, his mind corrected immediately. The heart was in that house, in the two boys he prayed he would find there now. Together.

"Do you think everything's okay?" Theresa asked quietly. She had not spoken of the trouble between Scott and Johnny during their trip but he knew it weighed on her mind as well as his.

"Darling, I'm sure it's fine," he said, snapping the reins and heading the team toward home. He could only hope he spoke the truth.

They could see Johnny putting a newly-broken stallion through his paces as they rode through the white archway. Theresa waved and called to him and he waved back before dismounting. He turned the horse over to a hand and headed toward the house, just as Scott came through the front door.

"Welcome home," the older son called. He reached up and helped Theresa down from the buggy when it came to a stop.

"Yeah, welcome home," Johnny echoed as he came up beside his brother. The amount of luggage and boxes in the back caught his eye "Whooee. Looks like you bought out every store in San Francisco, Theresa!"

"I nearly did, Johnny," she said excitedly. "I have new dresses and shoes and oh, three new hats—"

"I'm sure they will want to know the entire inventory but I'd like to get in and relax a bit before you start, darling," Murdoch laughed.

"Oh, of course! And this way I can show you everything instead of just telling you." She started into the house as the housekeeper Maria came through the front doors, offering a giant hug. "Maria! Wait till I tell you about my trip! Later I'll show all of you everything I bought…."

Murdoch turned to speak to his sons but a quick exchange between them grabbed his full attention. They both rolled their eyes, sharing a look that was half amusement and half dread. It made the older man's heart leap with joy.

"Maria's got dinner almost ready, sir," Scott said. "I hope you don't mind but I just opened one of your best wines to let it breathe. Johnny and I will get all of this moved inside while you clean up—"

"We're havin' a welcome home celebration," Johnny added, grinning.

Murdoch smiled as the tension and worries of the past weeks drained from the deepest recesses of his heart and mind. "That sounds good, boys. Real good. We've got a lot to celebrate, don't we?"

EPILOGUE

Dinner had been a happy, lighthearted affair, then Theresa brought out what seemed like an endless supply of dresses, shawls, blouses, hats and shoes to show the men of the family. When it was finally over, she was exhausted.

"Well, that's everything," she said. "And now I'm for bed."

"That's it?" Johnny teased. "A whole week of shoppin' and that's all ya got?"

She was too tired to realize he was joking. "Well, I also bought a lot of….unmentionables—"

"That shouldn't be mentioned," Scott quickly interrupted.

"Or shown," Murdoch added firmly.

Now she and his sons had gone to bed, and Murdoch was nursing a brandy and standing by the window, staring out at the stars. He had not had a chance to find out how the breach between his boys had been healed but it didn't matter. It only mattered that it had been bridged and hopefully forgotten.

He wandered over to the desk, placing the half empty glass on the blotter, and picked up the accounting register. He knew Scott would have dutifully brought it up to date before his return. His elder son was nothing if not disciplined. He sat heavily into the leather desk chair and opened the book to the ribbon marking the current page. An ivory envelope with his name on it had been pressed between the pages.

No, not his name. The word 'Father' had been written in an elegant script, then scratched out and the word 'Pa' was written below it in a somewhat less schooled but strong hand. He picked up his silver letter opener, a wedding gift from his first wife, and slit the vellum. Then, his heart beating hard, he began to read:

Dear Murdoch,

We're not really sure what to say to you but it suddenly didn't seem right that neither one of us has ever written you a letter. So here is the first.

Johnny and I listened to all of your advice

The writing changed here.

And you sure do give a lot of advice.

Murdoch smiled. He could almost hear their voices in the written words.

As I was saying before I was interrupted, we just want you to know the letters mean a lot, to both of us. And your advice was heeded. We talked a lot in the last week about things that happened to both of us during our lives. Not to mention the 'misunderstanding' that was driving us apart. It isn't important what caused it, only that we might never have gotten past it without the fatherly advice you gave about sharing our thoughts and feelings with each other.

Though if it ever happens again, and I hope it don't (the word was scratched out neatly and rewritten with obvious instruction from his brother) doesn't, you should just go ahead and kick us both in the butt. That would be a whole lot less painful.

What my very colorful, and correct, younger brother is saying is that we should all take your advice and be a little more forthcoming with each other. This ranch is important. What you've built here is something we will both cherish and care for, so the next generation can grow up on this land, knowing their family and heritage. But nothing's more important than this family we've finally found. None of us should let it slip away because we're too scared to say what we feel. Although saying it doesn't come easily to any of us does it? Then again, that's not really Johnny's or my fault. We get it from our father.

Murdoch laughed out loud. "Yes, my sons, you both come by it naturally."

Well, that's all we've got to say except, we love you, Murdoch. I'm not sure I could say that if we were face to face

Me neither.

But it's true nevertheless. We thank you for never giving up on bringing us both home. And for writing us each a letter on our birthday every year. All those years when we each thought you didn't want us, all of those years disappeared as we read your letters. I think I can speak for both of us when I say we'll treasure them always.

Me too.

With all of our love,

Your sons

Scott and Johnny

Murdoch Lancer choked back tears as he carefully folded the first letter he'd ever received from his sons. He too would treasure it always.

THE END