Tomorow's Child

By Cadillac Red ()

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

Setting: About two years after the Lancer sons joined their father.


Johnny Lancer sat on the edge of Val Crawford's desk, tossing a rock that the Morro Coyo sheriff used as a paperweight from one hand to the other. Val was an old friend and allowed him that familiarity, although he almost always groused about the youngest Lancer "makin' hisself at home."

"What's got you hangin' 'round my jail today, Johnny?" Val asked over the rim of a cup of boiled coffee. He grimaced at the taste and put it back down.

"Can't a fella visit a friend just to say howdy?" Johnny asked lazily.

"Sure. But you already said howdy…. And you're still here…."

Johnny gave him a lopsided grin. "Well, truth is I'm waitin' for Murdoch to finish at the bank."

"So, you're just using me as a convenient….. convenient—"

"Way station?"

"Yeah! That's it," the sheriff growled, catching his paperweight in mid-toss. He plunked it down on top of his stack of Wanted posters and glared at the younger man.

Johnny's grin just widened. He opened his mouth to speak but the front door burst open.

"Johnny! Johnny Lancer!" A tall, skinny boy burst in. "I just seen ya through the window as I was passin' by and I thought you'd want to know there's some folks over to the hotel askin' after Scott."

Johnny turned to face young Cal Johnson, sweeper and part-time desk clerk at the town's only decent hotel. The boy was one of a half dozen young men in the town who had a serious case of hero worship for Johnny Lancer. Truth be told, it was his past as Johnny Madrid that held their interest, although Johnny did nothing to encourage them in that direction. Although there was little more than a few years difference between the boys and Johnny, there was a lifetime of experience that made the gulf between them wide and unbridgeable.

"Who's lookin' for Scott?"

"Some people from back east. A man and a lady. I think she's his daughter. 'Counta they got the same last name." He frowned as another possibility occurred to him. "Or maybe his wife. I tole 'em Scott was in San Francisco."

One of the consequences of being a member of the most successful ranching family in the area was that the local populace tracked the Lancers' comings and goings in a way Johnny found unsettling. But the boy was right. Scott was in San Francisco.

"I tole the ole man that Scott wouldn't be back for least a week."

That too was true, and the fact Cal knew it annoyed Johnny almost as much as the idea of people from back East asking after Scott. That had never proved a good thing in the youngest Lancer's opinion.

"They say what they want with 'im?" Johnny asked the young man.

"I dunno, Johnny. I don't like to poke my nose in other folks' business," the boy replied somewhat pompously as he headed back out the door. "Bye, Johnny!"

Johnny heard Val snicker behind him as he got up and started to follow Cal out to the street.

"Where ya goin', Johnny?" Val called after him.

"To find out what strangers from back East want with Scott."

Val shook his head as he slid the stack of Wanted posters out from under the rock and began leafing through them. "Pokin' yer nose in yer brother's business. Now there's a surprise…."

Johnny opened the door to the hotel and scanned the lobby as was his usual habit when entering a public place. He noted a pair of older women taking tea by the fireplace, and a middle-aged man reading a newspaper nearby. Off to the side, a young woman and a toddler were looking out the window at a couple of horses tied up outside. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim interior, and he noticed another older man by the front desk, completing a registration form. He wore a suit that had seen better days before Johnny was born, and was trying to negotiate a lower rate for his room. Johnny sauntered over to the wall and leaned back to observe as he tried to determine which of these people, if any, might be looking for his older brother.

"That's the best I can do, sir," the desk clerk was saying. "I'm sorry."

"I may need to stay a week or more," the man was saying. "Isn't there anything else you can do? I came all the way 'cross the country to see someone and he's travelin' out of town—"

"You lookin' for Scott Lancer?" Johnny interrupted. He came off the wall and took several steps toward the man.

The old gentleman turned and Johnny noted his thin grey hair was a little shaggy and he had a day's growth of beard on a gaunt face. "What's it to you?"

"I'm Scott's brother, Johnny."

The old man looked at him through rheumy eyes, giving Johnny a close inspection. "I know Scott Lancer, young man," he said slowly. "And you don't look much like him."

"Well, that may be, but I'm his brother just the same."

The desk clerk jumped in. "I can assure you, Mr. Pedersen, Johnny Lancer here is Scott's brother."

The old man looked at Johnny again and shook his head. "Well, it don't matter none. My business is with Scott, and it's personal. I don't care who ya are, I'll just wait to speak with him."

Johnny started to argue but was interrupted by a voice from behind him.

"There you are, Johnny," Murdoch Lancer said. "I stopped by Val's office to get you and he said you were over here. Said something about people looking for Scott."

Johnny turned his head slightly and gestured toward the man who was now looking toward his father. "'Cept this man don't wanna say why he came all the way from back East to see Scott."

Murdoch stepped forward and smiled. "Welcome to California. Let me introduce myself. I'm Murdoch Lancer, Scott's father. And you are?"

The old man seemed startled by Murdoch's friendly manner. "I—I'm William Pedersen," he replied. "From Pennsylvania."

"Well, you've come a long way then," Murdoch said warmly. "And how do you know my son Scott?"

"He and my boy Tim served together in the Union Army. Tim was Lieutenant Lancer's Corporal."

Johnny's guard went right up but Murdoch gave him a speaking look and he held his tongue.

Murdoch stepped closer to Mr.Pedersen, his voice gentling. "Were they in the prison camp together?"

A cloud passed over the other man's face. "No. No, I know Scott was in that prison camp but my Tim—he died 'afore then. A fever took 'im."

Murdoch laid a hand on the other man's shoulder. "I'm sorry for your loss," he said.

Pedersen nodded and seemed to close in on himself momentarily.

The desk clerk cleared his throat and spoke again. "As I was saying, Mr. Pedersen, that's the best rate I can give ya. But there's a boarding house at the edge of town. Perhaps they can do better for you—"

"Nonsense," Murdoch interrupted him. "You'll come to our ranch, Lancer. Scott is in San Francisco and may not be back for a week or so. You'll be our guest in the meantime—"

Now Johnny interrupted. "Murdoch, Mr. Pedersen won't even say what he wants with Scott—"

"As I was tellin' your other son, it's personal business—"

"I understand. I'm sure Scott will want to see you when he returns. And in the meantime, you'll be our guest, Mr. Pedersen," Murdoch said firmly.

"I thank ya, but I'm afraid I'm not alone," Mr. Pedersen said, gesturing toward the windows. "My daughter and my grandson are with me."

Murdoch and Johnny turned toward the young woman who was rising from the window seat. The girl was in her early twenties at most and she appeared exhausted. There were shadows under her large grey eyes, and her light brown hair hung limp around a heart-shaped face. A simple cotton dress that hung off her frame said she'd recently lost weight.

A little boy who looked to be between two and three was kneeling on the window seat and he scrambled down to stand beside her. He had golden hair and bright blue eyes in a chubby, smiling face. "Horseys!" he cried, pointing out the window. "Look, Pop-Pop! Horseys!"

"Yes, Timmy," the old man answered with an indulgent smile. "I see them." He turned to Murdoch Lancer and smiled ruefully. "We've seen about a thousand on the trip west. He's excited every time."

Murdoch chuckled. "It's that age. Johnny here was the same. With horses and cows. And we had thousands of those on the ranch. Every day he reacted like he'd never seen one before."

"I did?" Johnny asked without thinking.

"Yes, son, you did," Murdoch answered affectionately. He turned back to Mr. Pedersen. "Your daughter and grandson are most welcome at Lancer. We have plenty of room. And my ward Theresa will be glad for the company."

The matter was settled and Murdoch sent Johnny off to the livery to rent a buggy since he and Murdoch has ridden to town on horseback. The younger Lancer wasn't happy with the turn of events but after thinking on it, he reckoned they were more likely to get answers if the Pedersen family was nearby. And he meant to get answers before he let Scott walk into what still could turn out to be some kind of trap.

"That was a wonderful dinner, Theresa," Murdoch said as he finished his coffee.

"Yes, Miss Theresa," Mr. Pedersen concurred.

"Please, just call me Theresa," she insisted. "Everyone does."

"Well, my family and I haven't eaten so good in a long, long time. Ain't that right, Mandy?"

His daughter looked down at her hands self-consciously and nodded. She and the boy had taken a nap when they arrived at Lancer and there was a little more color in her cheeks but she still looked tired. "Not for a long time," she said quietly. She picked up her napkin, dipped it in her water glass, and used it to clean the face of the little boy in a wooden high chair beside her. "And you ate real good, Timmy," she said she cleaned the remnants of apple pie off his chin.

"Yes, you did," Murdoch said to the little boy. "Where did you put all that food?"

"In hewe!" the child replied, pointing at his stomach and pushing it out to show how big it was.

"In that big belly? You put all that food in there?" Murdoch asked, reaching over and tickling it. The boy giggled.

Johnny watched his father in quiet amazement and Theresa laughed openly. "Murdoch, I never would have guessed you had a way with little ones!"

"Well, Timmy here's just a little older than Johnny was when…." He paused, not sure how to continue in the presence of strangers. "… when he stopped using that high chair."

Theresa and Johnny knew what he had really meant to say, and Johnny was stunned by the fact his father referred to it so freely. He'd been even more shocked to learn Murdoch still had some of his baby things in storage. Earlier in the day, the father had gone to the attic and gotten the high chair himself, and had a couple of the hands bring down a wood crib into the room where Mandy and her son were staying.

"Well, how about a nightcap, William?" Murdoch asked the other man as he rose from his place at the head of the table. "I have a fine Scotch whiskey… or some brandy, perhaps?"

"Thank ya, but I think I better turn in," the other man said. "We've had a long trip and Mandy and I could use some sleep. And this little fella will nod right off after his bath."

"I remember those days also. One minute, they're a bundle of activity, the next they're out cold."

Mandy picked up Timmy and balanced the three-year-old on her hip. She looked barely big enough to hold him, let alone be his mother. "Th-thank you all. For your kindness. And for lettin' us stay here," she said, gazing around the great room as she spoke. "You have—you have a beautiful home, Mr. Lancer."

"Thank you, Mandy. And it's our pleasure to have you here," Murdoch replied. "And to have a little one in the house again." He chucked Timmy under the chin and then turned to William. "Let us know if there is anything you need."

"Theresa and your housekeeper have taken good care of us," Pedersen responded. "Good night."

The Pedersen family ascended the stairs together and Theresa headed to the kitchen to help with the clean-up from dinner. Murdoch could see Johnny had something to say and he went to the sideboard for a glass of whiskey to sip while he heard what was on his youngest's mind. "Johnny?" he asked. "Can I get you one?"

"Nah," the son replied. "But ya can answer a question."

"And that would be?"

"It don't bother you we got no idea why they want to see Scott?"

"I'd like to know, but William said it's personal. I guess we'll just have to wait for him to speak with Scott. And hope Scott will share it with us."

Johnny shook his head in frustration. "It don't feel good. The last time old friends from the war turned up, it was trouble and this don't feel good either. I mean, it's a helluva long way to come to look up a former comrade of yer dead son—"

"William told me he lost two sons in the war," Murdoch answered as he went to look out the large glass window onto his vast ranch. It was dark and only a few stars could be seen through the cloud cover. "I can't imagine…. I mean, I lost you at a young age, and I never had Scott, and it felt like a part of me was missing all those years. If something were to happen to both of you now…." He shook his head and momentarily lost himself in his reverie.

Johnny stood behind him, touched by his father's words, and not wanting to disturb the older man's thoughts. Suddenly Murdoch shook off his contemplation. "Besides, Johnny. I can't imagine what trouble an old man, a young girl and a baby could be to your brother."

Johnny listened but something told him the answer might be a whole heckuva lot.

Chapter 2

Over the next days, the Lancer and Pedersen clans fell into a routine. Young Timmy was a popular diversion for everyone on the ranch, from the housekeeper Maria, to the cleaning girls, to the hands who took him down to the corral to pet "the horseys" whenever they saw him around. Theresa was thrilled to have Mandy for company, and the small boy for amusement. And Murdoch spent some time with William between chores and ranch business.

On the Pedersen family's third day at Lancer, Theresa and Murdoch took William, Mandy and Timmy on a tour of the property. Johnny was off to check line shacks to make sure winter supplies were laid in before the onset of cold weather, and Scott was still away so Murdoch thought to take advantage of what might be the last warm spell of autumn. They showed their guests some of the best views of Lancer and Theresa informed them "it was the most beautiful place in the world." William and Mandy were awed by one visage but young Timmy spotted some stock in the distance and began to jump up and down on the seat of the buggy.

"Horseys!" he cried.

"No, Timmy," Murdoch laughed, putting one arm out to catch him around the waist and make sure he didn't fall. "Cattle."

The boy looked at him quizzically. "Cats?"

"No, cattl—cows, Timmy," Murdoch finally settled on something he thought the boy would know.

"Cows!" he responded gleefully. "Moo-oo!"

"Yes, that would be right," Murdoch chuckled. "You are a quick study, my boy." He pulled the buggy over into a clearing near a stream and pointed out a shady area where they could spread out a blanket and enjoy the lunch Theresa and Maria had packed.

A spread of cold fried chicken, potato salad and lemon poppyseed cake washed down with lemonade sated everyone's appetite and in a little while both Timmy and Mandy had fallen asleep in the warm sun. Theresa decided to sit with them while Murdoch and William took a stroll along the stream.

"Your daughter is lovely," Murdoch told the other man. "May I ask where here husband is?"

"You can ask," William responded sharply, then seemed to regret his protective reflex. "My apologies, Murdoch. It's—it's hard to talk about. Mandy's my baby girl. Her Ma died when she was just four, birthin' our youngest. I miss her to this day….."

Murdoch nodded and they walked in silence for a minute. He too knew the pain of losing a beloved wife in childbirth. He waited, letting William speak in his own time.

"The babe died a day later. So then it was just my two boys, Joe and Tim, and Mandy. It were a hard life. I worked in the mine, Joe had to grow up fast. He was lookin' out for the two younger kids from the age of nine. He joined me in the mine at fifteen….. And Tim a few years later. Mandy was cookin' and cleanin' for us. Then the War come."

The two men had walked a good way and William was beginning to breath heavily. Murdoch could see he was tiring and gestured toward a few rocks by the side of the stream where they could rest and let the afternoon sun restore them.

"Both your sons joined up, I take it," Murdoch said quietly.

"First Joe, then Tim a few months later….Joe was in the regulars, rose to Sergeant 'fore he… he died. At Antietam."

"We read the reports about the battle," Murdoch said quietly. "It was a terrible day. For both sides."

"That it was…. My boy Tim was horse-mad as a youngster. He had a powerful hankering to be in the Cavalary. He managed it too. Met your son there. Tim wrote to us about the Lieutenant. Said he was a fine man. Said Lieutenant Lancer looked out for him, kept him out of some trouble one time… and gave him a good talkin' to about how to avoid it in the future. Tim admired the Lieutenant a lot. Said the men respected him, despite that he was so young hisself."

Murdoch's heart warmed. It never failed to surprise him how much pleasure he got from hearing someone praise one of his sons. "Thank you for telling me that."

"It's a long way for me to be tellin' you 'bout my Mandy," the other man continued. "But you see, she was our only girl, and we… protected her a lot, I guess. Then the War come and neither of our boys made it home….. Then I got sick. My heart, the docs say, and the mine company wouldn't let me work down in the shafts no more 'cause they said I couldn't carry my load. I tried findin' other work but I never had much schoolin'…. I picked up odd jobs here 'n there but not enough to keep body and soul together. Things were real bad…. Finally, Mandy got a job in a town a ways from our house. 'Bout a three hours walk it is, when the weather was good. She'd stay for six days, then come home and cook for me, we'd go to church, and she'd spend the day. She's a good girl, Murdoch. She's always been a good girl."

Murdoch did the calculation in his head and realized Mandy could have been no more than sixteen when she went to work to support herself and William. He shook his head, thinking how impossible it would be for him to see Theresa forced to do something like that. He could guess where this was leading, and wanted to spare the other man from having to say it.

"I can see that. She's a good mother too," Murdoch replied with a slight smile. "Your little grandson is a delight. Even the hands are vying with each other to spoil him while he's here."

William smiled. "Yes, he's down to the corral every chance he can get. Horse-mad, like his Uncle Tim was."

"Perhaps we should head back," Murdoch said, rising and offering a hand to William.

William looked at it for a few seconds, then took the offered assistance. "I guess you figured out Mandy don't got a husband," William said quietly as the two men began to walk side by side. He stared out at the stream as they moved slowly along the bank. "Most of the men who went to fight didn't come back. And those that did, well, some of them weren't right no more. There were few men 'round our parts that weren't already married, or not right in the head. Mandy… I guess she just….got lonely…." His voice trailed off as he struggled to find a way to explain.

"No need to say anything more, William," Murdoch told him. "War is a terrible thing, a devastating thing for those who serve and those who wait. We've seen many survivors come west, trying to find new lives, new opportunities. You and Mandy and Timmy can find that here, if you want it."

William's eyes were filled with tears and he swallowed hard. "I'm not sure that's possible but… I'm hoping something good will come of it. We'll see..."

That night, Mandy and William retired just after dinner and Theresa did also. She was heading into town early the next day for a sewing circle and had asked Mandy to accompany her. Murdoch bid them all good night, then went to his study. He wasn't surprised when Johnny followed soon after.

"Whiskey?" the father asked.

"Sure."

Murdoch poured two measures into a couple of glasses, then handed one to his youngest son. He took a seat in one of the leather wingchairs and watched as Johnny paced up and down the room, stopping finally to stare out the window. It always struck Murdoch how differently Johnny seemed to view the ranch from that vantage point, different than when he or Scott looked out that same window. Murdoch saw the expanse of land with a pride of ownership that came from building Lancer, from having carved out this legacy for his sons with his own two hands. Having been there from the beginning, the father was in many ways the link to Lancer's past.

His first-born Scott looked at Lancer as an ever-challenging opportunity, to make the ranch better, more profitable, more modern, to expand the scope and influence of Lancer in the San Joaquin Valley and the state. His trip to San Francisco was in aid of one of those plans. He correctly surmised water rights and land ownership laws would be the key to the future for the large ranches in California. And Scott was among the growing number of young cattlemen already pushing for land use legislation that would help the state ensure a better economic future for all of its people. Scott was in his way, the promise of tomorrow.

But Johnny, Johnny lived fully and vibrantly in the present and he saw Lancer as something that needed his constant vigilance and protection. Johnny looked out at the dark landscape and Murdoch knew he was unconsciously checking for danger, watching for anything that might pose a threat to this land and the people he loved. The older man surmised the son was sensing danger now.

"Say what's on your mind, Johnny," he said.

Johnny sighed and turned around. He'd yet to take a sip of his whiskey. "I don't like it, Murdoch. What do they want with Scott?" He started to pace again.

"You're going to make me dizzy with all that running up and down, John. Take a seat and tell me why you're so concerned."

Johnny shook his head at first, then capitulated. He sat down and took a sip of the whiskey before continuing. "I just got a bad feelin' 'bout it. They said that Scott only visited them once, after the war. Why would people he only met once just pick up and come all this way 'cross the country, just to see Scott? It don't make no sense."

Murdoch shrugged. "They said it's personal business with Scott. I guess we'll just have to wait until he comes back and hope he tells us."

Johnny dropped his glass on the table next to the chair, then flung himself out of it and began pacing once again. He ran a hand through his hair and seemed to be arguing with himself about what to say next. Finally he came to a decision and walked back to Murdoch. He sat on the ottoman at the foot of his father's chair, but he kept his eyes lowered and stared at his hands clasped between his knees.

"Murdoch—I think I know what they want. I—Theresa told me the girl, Mandy, she's not married to her baby's father. She used to be a waitress in a tavern back in Pennsylvania. I don't hold that against no one, you know that. People do what they gotta do to survive. But—I know what them places are like. And… girls who work in them places they… they gotta do things to… You know what I mean."

Murdoch looked at his son struggling with this discussion and knew without a doubt that Johnny was thinking of his mother. Maria had supported them working in cantinas after the man with whom she'd left Murdoch had run out on her. And then again later, after the next man was killed. Johnny had never said explicitly and Murdoch never pressed him about what his mother had done during those years. Murdoch had already known the details from the Pinkerton's reports.

"They tell you exactly when Scott visited them?" Johnny asked, looking directly at his father now. "The old man told me he went there to pay his respects, to tell them 'bout Tim's service, and how he died. Got a fever after takin' a saber meant for Scott. You know Scott felt guilty 'bout that. It's how he is. He just had to go there and tell them their kid died a hero. Mr. Pedersen said that was almost four years ago. They want to try to make Scott take responsibility for the baby, Murdoch. The timin' is just perfect if Scott was there almost four years ago, and the boy just turned three….."

Murdoch's mouth tilted up slightly at the edges. "I know how long it takes to have a baby, Johnny," he said affectionately. "I've done it twice, you know."

Johnny smiled self-consciously. "I didn't mean it like that," he murmured. Then he closed his eyes and let his head fall back a little. "I—It's not that I think they're bad people, Murdoch. But they got a desperation around them, you know what I mean? You can see it. I—I been around a lotta folks who have that look. And they'll do anything to try to fix it. They probably know Scott's a soft touch, and they already knew he had money—"

"What you're saying has occurred to me, Johnny. But some things don't add up. Why did they wait so long to come to him if all they wanted was money? He was a lot closer to get to in Boston than here."

Johnny just shook his head. He had no answer to that.

"And there's one other thing," Murdoch said, almost to himself.

"What's that?"

"Timmy's the spitting image of your brother when he was a boy."

The comment surprised Johnny. "How would you know that?"

Murdoch sighed. "I went to Boston once, to get Scott. I was there for his fifth birthday."

"Why didn't you bring him home?"

"Let's just say his grandfather didn't think letting your brother come with me was such a good idea. He threatened legal action that would go on for years. There was no way I could afford to fight him in the courts in Boston, an entire country away from Lancer. And I couldn't stay away from the ranch any longer. You and your mother were here alone, with just Paul O'Brien and our vaqueros….." Murdoch's mind went back to that time, when he had returned to Lancer, despondent over failing to bring Scott home. He'd soon learned that Maria had been unfaithful to him with a gambler who came through the area while Murdoch was away. Despite her unfaithfulness, he'd tried to forgive his young and passionate wife, tried to understand how she'd felt abandoned by his decision to go to Boston. They struggled on together for a while. But less than a year later, Maria left with that same gambler when he returned for her, and took Johnny with them.

"Murdoch, lotsa little kids have blond hair and blue eyes," Johnny countered with logic, forcing him out of his recollection.

"True. It's only a small thing. But that and the timing…."

"If it's true. You know as well as me that people can… lie about little kids' ages. My mama did it."

Murdoch nodded.

"And—and there's one other thing. You know Scott. Do you think he's the kinda man who would go to visit a dead friend's family, then sleep with their daughter? I don't see it, not Scott."

Murdoch bit back a smile. It was always interesting to hear Johnny talk about Scott. His younger son looked at most of the world with suspicion and hard-earned cynicism but he'd developed a strong and abiding faith in his older brother, almost from the first moment they met.

"No, that doesn't make any sense to me either, son" he answered honestly. He exhaled forcefully. "So, as I said, I guess we'll just have to wait until Scott comes home to find out the truth."

Chapter 3

Scott Lancer was seated on his favorite horse, cantering along at a good pace but taking the time to truly enjoy the rolling hills of home. It was home now. There wasn't a moment of any day when he thought of Boston that way any more. He'd given it much thought on this trip, during solitary hours on horseback and it still amazed him that he felt such a powerful connection to this place, to the father he'd never even met for the first twenty-four years of his life, and the brother he hadn't even known existed until the day they both arrived in this land. And yet the past recedes, and blood binds. And three former strangers were a family now. No truer thought had ever emanated from his heart.

The sun was setting as he approached the hacienda. It was that moment of the day when the earth seems to come to a stop, and the gathering dusk prepares to push back the day. A pale half moon was already visible. The sun lingered momentarily before retreating below the horizon and the sky dimmed from pale blue to deep indigo. There was a hint of chill in the air, a precursor of the autumn to come. Scott smiled to himself. Johnny would be sorry to see the summer go but Scott loved the crisp, cool evenings of autumn and even California's version of winter. Each season in California brought something to treasure, and a reason to anticipate the season to come.

He spurred his horse into a gallop, let him run a few minutes, then reined him in, and came to a stop at the top of the hill overlooking the hacienda. This was his favorite view of home, at this, his favorite time of day. The hands were back and unhurriedly completing the final chores of the afternoon, the ones that signaled another work day had ended well. The lamps inside would have just been lit and they cast a warm golden glow through the windows. It was impossible, but he would almost swear he could smell the aroma of dinner cooking in their housekeeper Maria's kitchen. He watched contentedly for another minute, then gave the stallion his head and raced for home.

Scott rode through the white arch and pulled up near the barn. He dismounted with his usual grace, then tethered the horse to the railing, surprised that none of the hands had come to collect him as usual. He immediately knew something was wrong. There were shouts coming from the barn, and several of the vaqueros were conducting what appeared to be a search of the corrals. Before he could ask, Luis ran up to him, talking even more animatedly than usual.

"Señor Scott! Falla el niño--. No podemos encontrarlo! Buscamos todo el mundo pero—"

"El niño? What boy? Do you mean Johnny? Johnny's missing?"

Luis shook his head and grew even more excited, which rendered him even less comprehensible. Scott had nearly mastered Spanish in the two years he'd been here, having come West with a firm grounding in Latin, conversational French and even a smattering of Italian. But the dialect of some of the hands, and the rapidity with which they spoke it, still defeated him at times like this. Scott looked around for someone else to ask, then decided to go up to the house to look for Murdoch. The chaos everywhere told him there was a problem. Now he meant to find out exactly what it was.

He strode purposefully into the house. Hearing raised voices in Murdoch's study, he immediately veered in that direction. Murdoch, Theresa, the ranch's foreman Cipriano and the housekeeper Maria were all in a state.

"Where was he the last time anyone saw him?" Murdoch was asking, his voice tinged with worry.

"He had his bath, then he just disappeared," Theresa said, choking back tears. "We only took our eyes off him a minute—"

Murdoch turned to the others. "Maria, you've checked the kitchen? Cipriano, have the boys scoured the barn and the corrals? Let's eliminate the most dangerous places first," Murdoch said to his Segundo. Cipriano made to reply but Johnny hurried in through the open French doors at that moment.

"He's not down there," he said. "We looked everywhere. The horses are all settled, so it's not likely they seen him runnin' around or they woulda been worked up—"

Scott breathed a silent sigh of relief, finally seeing Johnny in addition to Murdoch and Theresa. Knowing they were all okay, he shouted a question above the din. "What the heck is going on around here?"

Until that moment, no one had noticed him, but now they stopped talking at once and everyone turned to look at him. There was an uneasy silence that worried him, and he moved further into the room. He was travel weary and thought to take a seat in one of the wingchairs, but just then Murdoch spoke up and he halted his progress.

"Scott! Son, it's good to have you home. I want to hear how things went. But first we have a—a little problem." He glanced oddly at Johnny and Theresa, then continued. "We have a lot to tell you but right now, we're looking for someone…."

Scott listened but an unexpected movement in the wingchair on the other side of the fireplace caught his eye. A small boy wearing only a diaper and undershirt had been curled up sleeping in the chair that faced the hearth. At that moment, the toddler was startled awake by the raised voices. He rose onto his hands and knees and cautiously peered over the chair's arm.

But Scott was the only one who'd spotted him so far. "Well, now, who's this little fella?" he asked, smiling at the boy.

The others followed his gaze, then shouts erupted from all over the room. "There he is!" "Timmy!" Murdoch's voice rose above the others as he strode over to the chair where the little boy was kneeling, gripping a toy cow in one hand and a horse in the other.

Theresa rushed to the threshold of the room and called to someone back down the hallway. "Mandy! We found him!"

Cipriano chuckled and jogged out of the room through the outside doors, calling to the hands to call off the search, and Maria went back to the kitchen smiling and shaking her head at the same time.

Murdoch picked up the child and gave him a hug. "Did you come back to get your cow and horsey?" he asked the little boy. "I should have realized that's where you would have gotten to…"

The conversation between the old man and the child put a bemused smile on his older son's face. Scott had never seen his father with a little one before and would never have guessed the big man had it in him. But the kiss the older man bestowed on the top of the boy's golden head gave him pause. Johnny had quietly sidled up next to him and Scott cast him a curious glance. "I can't wait to hear this story. Just please don't tell me we've discovered another brother, Brother. This one looks young enough to be one of our sons."

"You don't know the half of it," Johnny muttered.

"What?"

"Nothin'," the younger brother replied, knowing their father would want to be the one to break the news of their visitors to Scott.

But fate apparently had other plans. William and Mandy raced into the room, going immediately to Murdoch's side, and Mandy reached to take her son. Then the pair spotted Scott and Mandy gave a little cry of surprise. It took Scott a moment to recognize them but then it dawned on him who the man was and that meant the woman…..

"Miranda?" he asked, slowly, searching her face to be sure he was right. "What—what are you doing here?" A flicker of suspicion took hold and he glanced from Mandy to the boy settled contentedly in Murdoch's arms, then back again to the woman's face and then finally he looked at the child again, this time with new eyes. A host of emotions flickered across his face, one after the other.

The boy smiled shyly, then held out a wooden toy. "Horsey!" he said. Then he offered the other, a cow painted brown and white. "Cat!" he said. "Moo!"

Scott's brain reeled in confusion about so many things but the one he reflexively responded to first was the least important. "Cat?"

Murdoch smiled ruefully. "It's a long story," he said, glancing around the room. "Actually… it's a very long story. Why don't you—"

He was interrupted by a sudden intake of breath from Mandy. Her arms flailed out as if trying to regain her balance but her face went ashen and her eyes began to close. William and Scott instinctively reached out to catch her but the younger man was quicker. Mandy fainted into his arms and he lifted her up with little effort.

"Take her to the guest room, Scott," Murdoch instructed him quickly. "She and the boy have been using the back one."

Scott carried her into the guest room and laid her gently on the bed. William and Murdoch had followed him after giving the boy over to Johnny with instructions to keep an eye on him. Scott stepped back and let William past and the old man sat on the edge of the bed. He took Mandy's hand and spoke softly to his daughter, trying to wake her.

"William," Scott asked quietly. "Has she been ill? She looks—I mean, she's much thinner and paler than I remember. Is she all right?"

William shook his head slowly, still watching his daughter's face. "It's been a hard few years, Scott," was all he said.

Theresa came into the room with a bowl of cool water and some cloths. She wrung one out and laid it gently on Mandy's forehead as William continued to speak to her.

Scott stepped back to stand beside his father. "What's going on, Murdoch?"

His father looked at him straight on. "I think you may know more about it than I do," he said, gesturing to the hallway and silently asking Scott to join him outside the room. He left and Scott looked at the woman on the bed for a few seconds longer, then he followed his father. Murdoch quietly closed the door once Scott had stepped into the hallway. He walked down the hall and out the side door into the courtyard silently commanding his son to follow.

Night had fallen hard in the time since Scott had entered the house. An array of stars were scattered across the ink black sky and the moon shone brightly now from their midst.

Murdoch waited for Scott to speak but when his oldest did not offer anything, he decided to press him. "You know the Pedersen family, son?"

Scott nodded. "Tim Pedersen and I served together. He… he died after a skirmish in a place whose name I can't remember, if I ever knew it. He was barely more than a boy…. But a good soldier. And a good man."

Murdoch waited but Scott offered nothing more. "Go on," he said, gently but with authority.

Scott's jaw tightened almost imperceptibly but it did not go unnoticed by his father. He sighed then continued as requested. "He died saving me. My horse was shot out from under me, and as we went down, the horse rolled over my leg. I was trying extricate myself when a Rebel soldier came at me. Tim hurled himself from out of nowhere and took the bayonet in his side. I—I commandeered a horse from another fallen man and carried him back to the field hospital when the fighting stopped temporarily. I could only drop him off and go back to the fighting. I know the doctors did what they could but….. He—he developed a fever. There was no medicine to be had at that point in the war…. He died a day later. I—I didn't hear about it for a week. He was my corporal and he died saving my life, Murdoch. And he died alone.

Murdoch bowed his head, touched by the pain his son still felt over the death of the young man.

"After the war, after I went back to Harvard, I couldn't stop thinking about Tim's family. He used to get letters now and then from his little sister, Mandy. She wrote for his father because the old man… well, he couldn't read or write. In a way—I envied him his family, I guess. I let Tim read the letters to me, sometimes over and over. My grandfather's missives weren't very homey, as you can probably guess. They were mostly business and social news, interspersed with admonishments about my 'poor judgment' in deciding to join up."

Murdoch noticed Scott had glossed over the intervening year, when he'd been captured and held at Libby prison camp. The story of his subsequent escape had brought trouble to Lancer the year before in the form of his former commanding officer. Had that incident not occurred, Murdoch wondered if Scott would ever have told him and Johnny about being captured and the year he'd spent in that hellhole.

"Anyway, I decided to visit them on a break during my last year of university—" He stopped talking as Johnny walked into the courtyard.

"Where's Timmy?" Murdoch asked in concern.

"Theresa's got 'im. Mandy's awake but Theresa thinks she needs to rest so William's gonna stay with her, and Theresa and Maria will take care of feedin' the little 'un his dinner." He looked at his older brother. "So, what happened when you went to see them?"

Scott dropped his eyes. "I—I think I need to speak with Miranda—Mandy—first. It… It seems I may not know the whole story…."

"Well then, just tell us the parts you know for sure," Johnny responded argumentatively. Scott's shocked gaze flew up to meet Johnny's steely one but he couldn't figure what was fueling the anger behind his younger brother's words.

"As I said, I should speak with the lady first," Scott said firmly.

The two brothers stared at each other until Johnny finally gave in. He lowered his own eyes and exhaled forcefully. "Yeah, you do that, Boston," he said as he turned and walked away, down toward the corral.

Murdoch and Scott watched him go. "What was that about?" Scott asked angrily.

"I'm not sure," Murdoch replied continuing to watch the figure of his youngest as he disappeared into the barn. "Let him simmer down before you try to talk to him. And…. And get some answers, Scott. We've had the Pedersen family with us for a week now and they haven't shared much with us. It's been stressful, wondering…." He looked into his oldest son's eyes and laid a large hand on his shoulder. "We all need some answers, son."

Chapter 4

Early the next afternoon, Scott knocked on the door to the guest room, then entered when Mandy softly called her permission. He walked tentatively into the room and stood next to the bed. Mandy was sitting in a rocking chair by the window. She had Timmy in her arms and was slowly rocking him.

"Is this a bad time?" Scott whispered, not wanting to wake the boy. It was his nap time and he'd thought this might be the best time to try to get her alone.

"It's all right," Mandy answered, smiling down at her son. "He fell asleep a few minutes ago. The ceiling could fall in now and he wouldn't wake up till he's ready."

Scott nodded. He himself was a heavy sleeper so he took that to mean he could talk normally now. "Do you want to put him in the crib?"

"Yes, I guess I should. It's just—I like holdin' him for a bit when he first falls asleep. He's such a—such a miracle." She made to get up but Scott waved her back in the chair. "Let me." He took the boy in his arms, then gently transferred him to the old wooden crib. He stood watching the child sleep for a moment, then he turned his attention back to Mandy.

"How—what… I'm not sure where to begin," he said, struggling to find the right words to start.

"I know. I'm—" she choked up, and fears filled her eyes. "I'm so sorry. We shouldn't have come—"

"No! No, don't feel that way. I'm glad you did. I just want to know…. Well, so many things."

Mandy nodded slowly. "What do you want to know?"

"Well… after we—after we were… together…. You found out you were going to have a baby?"

She nodded again, and closed her eyes. A single tear leaked out of one eye and made its way down her right cheek. Scott crouched down beside her. He reached out and used his thumb to gently wipe it away. Her eyes opened in response and they were flooded with fresh tears.

"Don't cry, Miranda," he said softly. "Don't cry."

"You're the only one who calls me that."

Scott thought back to the day they'd met. He'd been heading to Georges Creek, Pennsylvania to visit Tim's family. After a twelve hour day in the saddle, he rode into Potter's Junction, still a two hour ride from Georges Creek. His horse was worn out as was he, and he hadn't wanted to show up at the Pedersen' place at night, without having written to say he was coming. The trip had been a spur of the moment decision on his part. He took a room in the one hotel in town, and went into a nearby tavern to get some dinner.

He'd sensed some tension in the main room, but Scott had ignored it and ordered his dinner from a pretty young waitress. The girl was getting some trouble from another patron, a large, dark-haired man who looked to be drunk and kept calling for her attention. Scott watched the interaction between them warily, hoping the man would leave, or the girl would have another champion nearby. No such luck, and Scott had finally stepped in when the oaf began to manhandle her. They'd scuffled and Scott laid the man out. When he introduced himself to the girl, after the trouble, he almost thought he'd seen a glimmer of recognition in her eyes but since he'd never been in that part of the country before, he dismissed it as nothing more than interest. When she'd shown up at the door to his room later that night, he assumed he'd sensed the kind of interest correctly, and had seen no reason to decline her offer. He left early the next morning, leaving ten dollars on the nightstand next to where Miranda still slept. He never expected to see the girl again.

"Well, Miranda's what you told me the day we met… and I think it fits you. It's … a pretty name, for a pretty girl…"

She smiled shyly, then began to worry her lower lip. He remembered her doing the same thing when they met the second time.

After leaving her in bed, Scott had traveled to Georges Creek, to the shanty where William Pedersen lived and paid his call. But the old man had been lonely and desperately wanted to talk with someone about his son. He asked Scott to stay for a day or two and the younger man couldn't refuse the request. Mr. Pedersen had been ill most of the winter, and was more feeble than Scott had expected so he spent the time helping him repair some of the damage the hard winter had inflicted on the shabby three-room house. He'd stayed for several days to help, then a final day when William begged him to remain to meet Tim's little sister Mandy. It had taken all the reserve and social skills he'd learned at his grandfather's house to keep from showing his surprise when "Mandy" turned out to be "Miranda." Her shock at finding him still there was palpable but they'd struggled through a day together without letting William know they'd ever met. Then he'd given her a ride back to Potter's Junction.

"I left you my address in Boston, just in case there were… consequences," he said, wincing at the inadequacy of the word. He also recalled leaving her almost all the cash money he'd had on him. "Why—why didn't you contact me?"

"I did! Twice! Once I knew 'bout the baby, I wrote you twice!"

"I never got a letter from you. Did you use the address I left?"

"Twenty-one Beacon Hill, Boston. That's what you wrote," she said.

That was correct and Scott's mind reeled at the thought of what had happened. He had gone back to Harvard for his final term when he returned from Pennsylvania. Was it possible his grandfather had not passed on her letters? A part of his mind answered with the obvious conclusion. Of course, it was possible, and probably likely. He wanted to kick himself for not leaving a more reliable way to contact him.

"Then, when Timmy was born, my Da wrote to you again. That's when we got the letter from that lawyer. Tellin' us to 'cease' contactin' you. With a hundred dollar bank draft sayin' if we cashed it, it would be like a contract. And we would be in big trouble if we ever wrote to you again."

Scott's anger had risen with each word she spoke. This was a tactic he'd seen his grandfather use before with good but simple people he wanted to make go away. "Pay them a little to salve your conscience, then put the fear of God in them, Scotty," Harlan had intoned to his grandson on more than one occasion. But to think he'd do it in this circumstance, it made Scott more furious than he'd ever been before with the old man who'd raised him.

"I never got any of your letters, Miranda," he said vehemently. "It seems I was… foolish to think my grandfather would forward any mail I received. I'm—I'm sorry."

"I got the other money you sent. Two times every year, a bank draft for fifty dollars. We figured it was to take care of Timmy…."

"I didn't know about him, Miranda! I sent that for you… and William. To help out. So maybe you could stop working in the tavern…." He'd thought the old man's pride would keep him from accepting "charity," so Scott had directed the money to the daughter. "I thought he might need to see a doctor, perhaps…."

"We used it for doctors, most of it anyway," she replied softly. "After the baby come, I—well, we had to move. People in Georges Creek don't take too kind to havin' babies with no husband. They thought I was a bad example to their daughters. We moved to Chester, and I got a job in a factory, sewin' shirts. Said I was a war widow. We were doin' good too until…. Well, until things happened…."

Scott felt his jaw tighten. "Miranda. I—I don't know what to say but…. We'll make it right. I promise, we'll make it right." He looked over at the child sleeping peacefully in the crib. "For him. For you. And for your father."

She was silently weeping and shaking her head. "It's not fair to put this on you…. We shouldn't have come…." she said over and over.

"Shhh. Miranda, it'll be okay. I promise. We'll get married."

The girl looked up at him in surprise, her grey eyes darkened by worry, and clouded with tears. "I can't let you do that—"

"You're not letting me do anything, Miranda. It's the right thing to do. It's what I want to do…." He stopped himself, knowing he was mucking this up. He knelt in front of her and took her small hands in his much bigger ones. "Miranda, I know this isn't the way a girl would like it to happen. But I'd be honored if you'd consent to be my wife."

Scott entered the great room a little while later. He wasn't surprised to see Murdoch waiting for him. The older man looked up and a silent question was immediately communicated. Scott knew his father was expecting an answer.

"Where's Johnny?" Scott asked.

"Down at the corral."

Scott stepped out the open doors and motioned to a hand nearby. "Would you find Johnny and ask him to come up to the house, Charlie?" The man nodded and trotted off to deliver the message.

When Johnny appeared a few minutes later, Scott asked him to sit down. The younger brother stared at him for a moment, then defiantly went to lean on the edge of Murdoch's desk when Scott simply chose to wait him out. "What's this about?" he asked, settling himself not far from where Murdoch sat in his desk chair.

"I have news. I'm… getting married."

There was only silence from the other two men that worried. He opened his mouth to speak again but Murdoch finally found his tongue.

"I'm happy for you, son," he said. "She's a lovely girl."

Johnny cast his father a dark glance. "You sure about this, Boston?"

"I know it seems sudden," Scott replied, tamping down his irritation at the question.

Johnny snorted derisively.

"John," Murdoch interrupted, sending a warning with a single word. Johnny stood down but he crossed his arms and continued to stare at his brother.

"I'm sure you've already figured out that the boy is my son," Scott replied. "It's—it's the right thing to do."

"Marriage is a big step, Scott. And a permanent one…."

"Cept around here," Johnny muttered.

"Johnny! Why don't you go back to what you were doing? You're not helping."

Johnny started to say something more, then thought better of it. Instead he gave Scott a hot glare, and stomped off.

"What's eating him anyway?" Scott asked heatedly. "I'm the one whose life is going to change permanently."

"I guess Johnny's had you on a bit of a pedestal, Scott. Sooner or later, we all learn no one can live their lives on that perch. But… I don't think Johnny ever felt that way about anyone before so this may be the first time he's had to learn that hard lesson."

"What do you mean?"

"Don't worry about it, son," Murdoch said, slapping him on the back. "He'll come around. Let's toast your… good fortune, and your new family."

He went to the sideboard and poured a measure of whiskey into each of two glasses. He held one glass out to Scott. His first-born looked at it for a moment, then sighed and took the glass. His father clinked his own glass against Scott's. "Congratulations, son," he said warmly. "Mandy and Timmy are welcome here. And William too."

Scott exhaled the rest of the tension he'd been holding. "Thank you, sir," he said. He took a sip and savored the taste on his tongue before swallowing.

Murdoch watched him with caring eyes, this son of whom he had grown so proud. "You are sure about… all of this?"

"I am, sir. She's been carrying this all on her shoulders. William's not well and there've been a lot of doctor bills apparently. I'd been… sending them money now and then, to help out. I didn't know about Timmy, it was just to help them get by, I thought. So Miranda could stop….," he hesitated, not sure how much he wanted to share with Murdoch. "…so she could stop working in the tavern. They seem to have used it all on doctors. Miranda's lost a lot of weight from when I knew her, from the worry and strain, I guess. She was such a pretty, fresh-faced young girl before. I—I almost didn't recognize her, she's lost so much weight."

He closed his eyes, trying to block out the image of the life his son and Miranda had been living. It was all so senseless, and it angered him every time he thought about it. "I can give her the kind of life she deserves. And Timmy. He's my son, Murdoch. My son. I can't explain what that means…."

His father smiled and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, believe me, I understand," he said, squeezing Scott's shoulder. "I understand completely, son."

.

Later that day, Scott went looking for Johnny in his bedroom where he was washing up for dinner. He rapped on the door and asked if he could come in. There was silence at first, then Johnny answered.

"Suit yourself."

"I will," Scott replied placidly. He walked into the room, shut the door behind him and waited for Johnny to say something. When nothing was forthcoming, he decided to forge ahead. "You have something to say to me, brother?"

Johnny shrugged and went on sluicing water over his face and torso. Then he picked up a towel and began drying himself off.

"Johnny, I think you owe me an explanation. I'm having a hard time understanding your reaction."

"Are ya, Boston? Them fancy manners of yours not up to handling the truth about yourself? All those lessons in etiquette didn't cover this, I guess."

Scott was struck by Johnny's fury but he still couldn't fathom what his brother was getting at. "I'm sorry if you're disappointed in me for having a child outside of marriage—"

Johnny laughed derisively. "That's not it."

"Then tell me what it is that's got you so riled, Johnny. I need to know."

The younger man turned angrily. He rested his hands on his belt buckle and locked eyes with his brother. "You know, I really started to believe you. 'Bout how a man needs a code of honor. I just never figured yours would include getting' your dead friend's sister pregnant while payin' a call on her family."

Scott realized now what had confused and angered Johnny. Early on in their relationship they'd had a discussion over a campfire, about the kind of girls it was all right to dally with, and the kind who were not. Johnny instinctively had a strong sense of right and wrong that guided his behavior but it was unschooled when it came to certain social realities. Scott had taken it on himself, as the older brother, to help him understand.

"Oh," he exhaled slowly, finally understanding. Scott struggled to determine how best to address this issue, one that was creating a rift with the brother he loved. He decided on a course of action immediately, knowing trust in Johnny could never be misplaced.

"I'm going to tell you something, Johnny, and I'll trust you never to repeat it to anyone."

Johnny turned his head to look at Scott. A glimmer in his deep blue eyes betrayed the hope that there was some explanation that wouldn't mean Scott hadn't violated every principle he espoused.

Scott walked over to the window and stared out, collecting his thoughts. "I met Miranda when I stopped for the night in a town near where they lived. She was working as a waitress at a tavern near the hotel. There was some trouble and I helped her out. I didn't know who she was, Johnny. I only knew Tim's sister as 'Mandy' and to be honest, I had a picture in my head a twelve-year-old girl. I never connected the Miranda I met that night with Tim's sister Mandy."

Johnny stared at him, listening intently.

"I didn't know who she was until almost a week later, when she came home for her day off and I was still at their house," Scott said turning to look at his brother. "Johnny, there's no way I would have…. It is unacceptable, no matter how you look at it. But it happened. And I'm going to do the right thing now that I know."

Johnny was staring at his own boots now, looking as though he wished he could disappear.

"I'm glad to know you think so highly of me, Johnny," Scott said quietly. "But I'm not perfect. No one is…."

Johnny looked up at him with a sly grin. "Oh, I knew you weren't perfect a long time ago, Boston," he said. "The day you wore them plaid pants—"

Scott reached out and punched him in the shoulder. "Can we forget those pants? I assure you they were the height of fashion back east!" He reached an arm around his brother's shoulders and pulled him into a hug, ruffling Johnny's hair with his free hand. It was good to put the tension behind them.

Johnny pulled away reluctantly and his now wide smile telegraphed his own relief that they were getting back to normal. Still, he seemed to have one additional worry to share.

"Scott, I—There's one other thing. I know you probably already thought about it but… I just gotta ask ya this. I think Mandy's a nice girl who had to do things to survive and I know more 'bout that than you do. I don't hold it against her. But…," he swallowed convulsively, not sure how his brother would react to the question. Still, he forged ahead. "Are you sure the boy's yours?"

Scott was taken aback to hear the question he'd silently considered on his own suddenly voiced aloud by Johnny. He turned away and stared blindly out the window, trying to decide how, or if, to answer. The silence between them stretched into what seemed like an eternity.

"Miranda told there was only one man before me," he said finally, quietly. "She'd been trying to make ends meet on just what she made as a waitress but…. It wasn't enough to support herself and William. She'd just decided about how to… survive as you say, just before I arrived. I saw the other man that day, Johnny. I intervened in an altercation between them. He had dark hair and brown eyes. I don't believe there's any way he could be Timmy's father…."

Johnny wasn't sure whether to question his future sister-in-law's account and before he could say anything more, Scott spoke again.

"And I'll thank you not to ever ask that question again, brother," he said firmly, his back still to Johnny.

Johnny bowed his head and nodded, fearing he'd set their relationship back to its recent acrimony. He thought to apologize then, but Scott turned around and continued.

"There's one other thing, Johnny. I'd like you to stand up with me Saturday, at the wedding. I want you to be my best man."

Johnny's mouth opened in surprise. "You sure you want me?"

Scott looked him directly in the eye and smiled as he laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "There's no one in the world I'd want more, little brother."

Chapter 5

The wedding had been set for the following Saturday and the ranch was in a frenzy of preparation. Miranda mostly kept to her room, resting and taking care of Timmy. She and Scott wanted a small wedding, with just family and a few close friends. They thought it best not to call attention to the fact that the marriage was taking place long after their first child had been born. Still, a few close friends such as Sam Jenkins would not make an issue of the timing. Their respect for Scott, and the Lancer family, was too great.

Johnny returned to the house on Friday morning at mid-day to change his shirt after a wrestling match with a steer trapped in the brush left it shredded into so many pieces, the vaqueros joked it could be used as confetti at the wedding the next day. Scott and Murdoch were in town taking care of last minute business with the family's lawyer, so after getting a new shirt, Johnny stopped in the kitchen and cajoled Maria into making him a sandwich, then started to head out again. As he entered the courtyard, he saw Mandy and Timmy. He stopped, deciding to walk out another way through the house but Mandy caught sight of him.

"Johnny! I- I was just lettin' Timmy get some air after lunch," she said as though she believed their presence required an explanation. "Before his nap…."

"No, it's okay! This is—this will be your home too," he said, uncomfortable that she'd seen him try to avoid her and the boy. "Feel free to make yourself at home." He squatted down next to Timmy and smiled at the boy who was playing with what had grown to be a small herd of wooden cows and horses the hands had whittled for him.

Mandy smiled in what appeared to be relief. "Thank you. I—I thought maybe you didn't feel so kindly to us. I know you don't think I'm good enough for Scott--"

"No! It—it's not that," he said, looking up at her. "I just think it's kinda sudden. And… and—"

"No, no need to feel bad about it. You'd be right, Johnny. Scott—Scott does deserve better 'n me. I never planned it like this—"

"No, don't say that, Mandy! Scott would be madder 'n a hornet if he heard ya. And then he'd have my hide…!"

She gave him a tiny smile. "I just want you to know, Johnny, I didn't try to trap him. I would never do that—"

Johnny was struck by the fact she'd reasoned out one of his concerns. "I don't think that. Least, not now anyway. Scott is real happy he found out 'bout Timmy…."

But the girl seemed to feel she needed to say her piece. "He didn't know who I was when we…. I knew him, soon as he said his name, but I never told him I was Tim's sister. Tim wrote about Lieutenant Lancer a lot. Said he was a fine man, said he treated Tim like he was as good as anyone."

Johnny nodded. Scott had that way about him. He'd treated Johnny like a brother from the moment they'd found out about each other.

"When I met him, things were bad for us, my Da and me. It was hard to make enough money to take care of both of us. I had to…." She stared off into the sky, lost in a troubling memory.

"You don't owe me an explanation," he said, trying to get her attention back so he could change the subject.

Mandy sighed and looked down at him. "It's just that I thought-- I thought it might be the last time—the only time—I'd get to be with a fine and decent man, Johnny. I just wanted one time to—to remember later—"

"I understand—" he began, but she interrupted him again.

"We would never have come here, except for Timmy…." Mandy's eyes brimmed with tears, but she blinked them back. "I just want you to know the only one I was thinkin' 'bout is Timmy. Things have been so hard, and…. And he's just a little boy. He needs—he deserves—the best life he can have. He deserves to grow up in a place like this, safe, with enough to eat, and a chance to get a education. With a Daddy who can help him grow up to be a fine and decent man, too….."

Johnny listened and his respect for this young woman grew with each word. He wondered how his own life would have been different if his Mama had put his needs first in her life.

"Mandy, you don't need to say anythin' more. I—I done some things in my life, I ain't proud of too. To survive, after my Mama was gone…. But my father finally found me and brought me here. And I found out I got a brother. They believed in me, when I didn't even believe in myself. And—and there's something about this place…. Well, it's the kinda place where you can start over. And be… the kinda person you always meant to be."

"Thank you," she whispered. "For listenin'. And understandin'…."

Johnny gave her an understanding smile, then he looked down and saw Timmy staring at them, a look of curiosity on his face. He gave the boy a wide grin as he sank down onto his knees and picked up one of the toy cows the boy had lined up in the dirt. He moved it off to the side and laughed when the boy immediately used the horse he was holding to cut it off and force his hand back. "Well, now, this 'un's a natural born cowboy', ain't he?"

Mandy smiled. "The men have been showin' him what to do with all the toys they whittled for him. Everyone has been so kind to us…."

"That's 'cause you're family now," Johnny said softly. "The thing about Lancer is, we take care of our own. You and Timmy… and William, you're family now."

Maria outdid herself on the meal to be served after the wedding, and Murdoch broke out his finest wines and liquors in honor of his firstborn and his future daughter-in-law. The preacher had arrived that morning and the house was polished and shining. Miranda and Theresa had fine new dresses and the men of the family were wearing their best as well.

Friends and family were gathered in the great room, awaiting the ceremony which was to have begun fifteen minutes earlier. Now they were murmuring among themselves, some wondering when the bride would appear.

Scott stood at the end of the room, in front of the preacher, with Johnny at his side. Murdoch was standing to one side of the room, looking out the French doors, craning his head to see if Theresa, and William and Miranda, were on their way. He held Timmy and absent-mindedly bounced the toddler up and down in his arms as he strained to get a look at the other end of the courtyard. Timmy peered over his shoulder, not sure what he was looking for but wanting to do just what his new "Grandpa" was doing.

"What's the holdup?" Johnny finally whispered to his brother.

"I don't know," Scott replied softly. "William went to get her a while ago. Brides are supposed to be late—"

"They are?" Johnny asked. "Is that to get you ready for a lifetime of waitin' on 'em?"

Scott shot him an amused glance and it helped ease the tension a little. He caught Murdoch's eye and raised his eyebrows questioningly but Murdoch just shook his head.

In another minute, Scott was getting nervous again, and slightly embarrassed on top of it. He felt himself flush as he realized people were starting to watch him and wonder what was going on. When he saw Theresa appear in the doorway, he thought at first that Mirada would be behind her but the girl simply gave him a helpless shrug. About another minute passed, then he decided to go find Miranda.

"Excuse me," he said, stepping through the crowd. "I'll just go—go see where my bride is. I—I'll be right back…."

He walked quickly down the hall and out the side door, crossing through the courtyard and into the wing that housed the guest rooms. He reached the door to Miranda's room and stopped outside the half open door.

"Mandy, sweetheart," William was saying. "It's all right. You don't need to do anything you don't want to do—"

"I can't do this," Miranda sobbed. "It's not that I don't want… I can't do it to Scott—"

"Can't do what?" Scott asked, stepping into the room.

The girl and her father looked up at him in surprise and William just shook his head. He started to speak but Miranda interrupted him. "Da, let me… let me speak with him. Please."

Her father looked at her intently. "Are you sure, Mandy? We can just call it off—"

"I'm sure. Please," she implored him. "Let me speak with Scott."

Scott watched the interchange between them with growing alarm. When William stepped out and closed the door, he turned to Miranda. "I think I deserve an explanation."

Miranda looked up at him from where she was sitting on the bed, her large grey eyes clouded with some kind of worry. It made him nervous and he dropped down beside her and took one of her hands in his own. "What's wrong, Miranda?" he asked gently. "People are waiting—"

"I'm sorry, Scott," she whispered. "I can't let you—I mean, I just can't go through with this.

Scott's stomach churned as his mind leapt to all sorts of conclusions about what she was trying to tell him. "Just tell me why, Miranda. Please…."

Her eyes filled with tears and she looked down at her hands. She was wringing a lace handkerchief between them and he could tell it was wet with tears shed earlier. He thought about what she might need to tell him and his heart seized to think it might be about Timmy. He'd grown to love the little boy and suddenly wondered if it could be possible Timmy was not Scott's child after all. Just the thought alone devastated him.

"Miranda, just tell me. Is it—is it about Timmy?"

She shook her head miserably. "No, no, he's fine."

Scott silently breathed a sigh of relief, then it hit him that Miranda might not love him, that she might be in love with someone else. "Is there—is there someone else….?"

"No!" she cried, her gaze coming up to meet his. "I love you, Scott. I—I think I loved you 'fore I ever met you…. I fell in love with you just from readin' Tim's letters…."

Scott squeezed her hand softly. "Then what's wrong, sweetheart. Please, tell me, so I can try to fix it."

She shook her head. "No. You can't fix it. It's…. it's me, Scott," she whispered, dropping her gaze once again. "I'm… dyin'"

Scott's mouth opened in shock and he struggled for a response to Miranda's statement. "What—what do you mean? Are you sick, Miranda? Do you want to—do you want to postpone the wedding until you're feeling better?"

She shook her head again. Her face was wet with tears. "I can't marry you. I'm dyin', Scott. I—I been to doctors and there's nothing they can do. There's nothing anyone can do. And I just can't—I just can't go through with this, knowin'…."

Scott slid onto the bed beside her and pulled her into his arms. He guided her into his embrace, gently laying her head on his own broad shoulder. "Are you sure, Mandy?" he asked her softly. "Were they good doctors? What did they tell you?"

She sobbed quietly. "I caught a fever a few years ago," she said. "When I was workin' at the factory in Chester. It—it killed a lot of people on the shop floor and I was sick for weeks. I thought I was okay and went back to work but… but I never got strong again, not like before. I just kept getting' sick, and … well, finally, I couldn't keep workin' and they let me go. Da took me to a doctor in Philadelphia. I went to lots of doctors. But they all said my lungs and my heart got weak from the fever. And there isn't anything anyone can do…."

"Mandy, listen to me, we'll find doctors in San Francisco and ask them. They have excellent doctors there—"

"We went to Baltimore too, Scott. They got good doctors. But no one can help me."

Scott laid his cheek against the top of her head and closed his eyes. "I don't want to believe that. There must be something—"

"Nothing," she replied. "And that's why I can't marry you, Scott. Last night, when you showed me the plans for our house, and where you want to build it up on the hill over there…. I—I realized I can't pretend… I can't pretend we're startin' a life together when I know I won't be around to….." She broke off in a sob.

Scott took a deep breath, trying to swallow down the lump of emotion that had formed in his own throat. "Mandy, did they tell you how… how long?"

She took a deep breath, forcing her self to be calm. "They don't know for sure," she said quietly. "Months. Maybe a year…."

Scott nodded, then pulled back from her a bit. He laid a hand on either side of her face and turned it toward him. "Then there's nothing to do but get married," he said tenderly, catching her gaze and holding it.

She shook her head. "Didn't you just hear what I said? I can't do that to you, not knowin' how long I got—"

"None of us knows how long we'll live, Miranda. Sweetheart, do you think my parents knew when they got married that they'd have less than two years together? I don't know if any of us has any more than today so we can't waste a minute of it, do you understand?"

Miranda shook her head. "But—but I'm gonna die—"

"As a very wise brother of mine once said to me, that comes to us all sooner or later, Miranda. We'll talk to the doctors in San Francisco and find out what we can do… to make sure we get as long as possible. And then we'll make a lifetime of memories for Timmy, and for us, in whatever time we have. Marry me, Miranda. I—I love you and I love Timmy. And I want us to be together, however long that is. Today, and God willing, tomorrow. And—and that's all anyone can be sure of anyway."

Scott escorted Miranda down the aisle himself, with William's silent blessing. They reached the altar and Johnny stepped to Scott's right side, and Theresa come to stand at Mandy's left shoulder. The preacher began the simple ceremony and everyone settled in to listen to his words. In a little while, Timmy grew bored and his squirming in Murdoch's arms made the big man put him down. He took the boy by the hand to keep him by his side but the child twisted away and ran up to the front of the room. "Mama!" he said to Mandy. "Pwetty!"

The preacher chuckled and the rest of the assembly laughed too. Scott reached down and picked him up. "Yes, she is," he said to the little boy who settled into his arms as though he knew he belonged there. "Very pretty."

Timmy looked at the preacher and patted Scott on the shoulder. "My Papa," he announced. Scott's heart lurched. It was the first time Timmy had called him that and he swelled with love and pride. But he reached up and put his finger to his own lips. "Shhh," he whispered as he winked at the little boy and gave him an affectionate squeeze.

The preacher smiled and continued. "Do you, Scott Garret Lancer, take this woman, Miranda Jane Pedersen, as your wife, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, unto death do you part?"

"I do," Scott said with conviction.

"Me too!" Timmy piped up, and the whole room laughed as one.

"And you, Miranda Jane Pedersen, do you take this man as your husband, to have and to hold, to love, honor and obey, for richer or poorer, in sickness—"

Miranda looked up to see Scott smiling at her. He squeezed her hand in silent support.

"…and in health, unto death do you part?"

Miranda and Scott looked at each other for a long moment and he gave her a tiny nod.

"I do," she said.

"And me too!" Timmy echoed, and everyone laughed again.

"I know pronounce you man and wife," the preacher said with a wide smile. Then he looked at Timmy. "And son."

Epilogue

Scott didn't tell his family the news about Mandy until they returned from their three week long honeymoon in San Francisco. They'd walked along the wharf and visited the museums, attended the theater and the opera, dined in the finest restaurants, and shopped. Mandy had a new wardrobe and young Timmy had enough clothes to get him through the winter and most of the following summer. They also visited several doctors Sam Jenkins had quietly recommended to Scott. All had confirmed what Miranda had been told back East. None would predict how long she had but neither had they held out much hope, except to place their faith in God.

The holiday season came and the Lancer house was filled with love and laughter, good food and company, and the delight of celebrating Christmas through the eyes of a child once again. The winter that followed was particularly cold and damp and as one month rolled into the next Miranda's health grew more worrisome. In early April, just as the crocuses returned, she passed away in Scott's arms early one morning. They buried her on a hill overlooking the valley on one side, and the hacienda on the other, not far from where Theresa's father, Paul O'Brien had been laid to rest nearly three years earlier.

That evening William sat in Murdoch's study, staring at the fire in the hearth. He didn't hear Murdoch approach and was startled from his reverie when the big man spoke.

"Am I disturbing you?" Murdoch asked.

"No, no, Murdoch. I was just… remembering things….."

Murdoch went to the sideboard and fixed himself and the other man a whiskey. He returned and held one out to William, then took a seat in the other chair.

"I was thinkin' 'bout my kids, rememberin' when they was young. Life was so… full of promise in the beginnin'"

Murdoch nodded. In his own mind he began to contemplate the hole in his own memories, the blank place where recollections of Scott and Johnny as young boys should have been. But tonight was about William's memories and his children, and he shook off his own contemplation.

"It ain't right, Murdoch. It ain't … natural for a man to outlive his kids….."

Murdoch stared down into his glass of whiskey. "No, Will. It's not right."

"You gotta lot to show for your life, Murdoch. This fine ranch, the respect of your men, and the people in these parts. Not to mention two fine sons. When your time comes, you'll leave the world a better place. Me, I got nothin' much to show that I was here. My sons, my daughter, all gone. No legacy to leave for anyone…nothin' 'cept that grandson of mine. And I knew I wouldn't be here to see him grow to be the man he oughta be. Even if I could've given him the life he shoulda had…."

"You did the right thing coming here," Murdoch said with conviction. "You found a way to get that boy to his father, and his family, where he always belonged. You have done something for my son for which he and I will always be grateful. To think of Scott not knowing he had a son, perhaps never knowing….."

"That's why I had to make sure we come here, Murdoch. Even though I knew it would be hard on Mandy and me, and it would be a burden to you and your family. We had to find a way to get Timmy home…."

"You did that, Will, and it's not a burden. It's the greatest gift you could have given us," Murdoch said. "And that's a legacy of which you can be proud. We'll make sure Timmy knows about the Pederson side of his family, and understands how much you and Mandy sacrificed… to bring him home."

William died quietly in his sleep later that night, and was buried on the hill next to his daughter. The first daffodils of Spring were blooming nearby and Scott and Timmy picked some to leave on their graves while Theresa gathered a similar bouquet for her father's resting place.

Late that evening, Murdoch blew out the lamp in his study, then stood quietly looking at the leather chair where William had been sitting only a day earlier. He sighed, and whispered a silent thank you to the spirit of the man who had brought Timmy to their door some six months earlier.

He started to head up to bed but was startled by sudden screams from Timmy's room. He bounded up the stairs but he was a step too slow. Scott had raced from his own bedroom across the hall and was already in with Timmy when his father reached the boy's door.

"What's the matter, honey?" he heard his oldest son say as he picked up the crying child. "Bad dream?"

"I want Mama to come back," the boy sobbed.

Scott sat down in the rocking chair by the window, and let his son find a comfortable position in his arms. Timmy's head came to rest in the crook of his neck and Scott began to rock, and rub slow circles on the little boy's back to calm him.

Out of the corner of his eyes, Murdoch spotted Johnny creeping out of his own room, looking around the hallway, his gun in his hand. Seeing Murdoch, he pulled up and uncocked it, then put it in the waistband of his pants. The younger son came to his side and started to speak but his father put a finger to his lips and silently mouthed "Shhhh." Johnny frowned in confusion, then they both heard a small voice through the open bedroom door.

"I miss Mama."

"I miss her too," Scott answered quietly. "But you know she's in heaven, and she's watching over you now…."

"She's an angel?" The boy yawned as he asked the same question he'd asked everyone in the family in the last two days.

"Uh-huh," Scott replied. "She's an angel and she's watching over you all the time."

"And you too?" the child asked.

"Yes, me too."

"And Gwampa Murdoch?"

"Yes."

"And," another wide yawned punctuated the boy's sentence. "And Aunt Twesa?"

"Yes, Aunt Theresa too."

"And Unca Johnny?"

"Oh, Uncle Johnny's got a whole legion of angels watching over him. He needs all the help he can get…."

Johnny's eyes widened with indignation. "Why—" he started to say but Murdoch put a hand over his mouth.

"Go to bed," the father mouthed at him.

Johnny gave a final indignant shrug then turned on his heel and quietly stomped back to his room.

"Good night, Johnny," Scott called from Timmy's room.

Johnny turned to his father and shot a baleful glance back. "See?" he silently mouthed before stepping into his own bedroom and quietly shutting the door.

Murdoch sighed with amused exasperation, then walked into the little boy's bedroom as Scott rose from the rocking chair.

"Is he asleep?"

"Yes, just faded out. As Mandy would say, the ceiling caving in wouldn't wake him now." He placed the boy gently in the crib, then pulled the blanket up to cover him. He stood, watching his son sleep as Murdoch came to his side.

"I never thought about it from your point of view," Scott said.

"What's that?"

"All those years when I was in Boston, thinking… you didn't want me. Sometimes I was sad, sometimes angry. But even after I got here and understood a little more about what really happened, I never considered what it must have been like for you. Knowing Johnny and I were out there in the world, but… out of reach…." He nodded at the sleeping boy. "I don't know what I'd do if someone tried to keep him from me."

Murdoch nodded slowly. "It was like having a big hole in the world. I think I poured all the anger, all the sadness and pain—and all the love I felt for you boys wherever you were-- into this ranch. It took a while—too long, perhaps after you both came home—for me to realize the ranch was just a substitute for my family. It doesn't mean much without you boys." As he spoke, he had put an arm around Scott's shoulder.

Scott leaned slightly in his father's direction, taking comfort from the physical contact with the father he might never have gotten to know. "How did you get through it? Losing my mother. Johnny's mother. The two of us. How did you make it?"

Murdoch sighed "You just keep going. Putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forward. Even in the darkest days, I had a vision of tomorrow where you and your brother would be home. A picture of my sons, and my grandchildren, here at Lancer, safe and happy. And now that vision's come true."

"Well, if it's grandchildren you're wanting, we better get Johnny cracking," Scott said with a small smile.

"Oh, I think he's got a little more growing up to do before then. This little one's gonna have to fill that role until you, and eventually Johnny, are ready to give me some more grandkids." He pulled Scott closer for a second and dropped a swift kiss on the top of his older son's head. "And that's more than fine with me for now."

Scott's heart lightened in a way he hadn't felt in some time.

"Now, son, I think we both better get some sleep. Tomorrow comes early, and this little fella's up before the rooster every day."

"Yes, sir," Scott said, then he stopped, wanting to say one more thing. "Pa?"

Murdoch halted in mid-step and turned back toward Scott. "Yes."

"Thank you. For not giving up on bringing Johnny and me home. I don't think I ever said that before but—" he glanced back at his sleeping son. "If William and Miranda had come to Boston to find me, I—I think I would have done the right thing—"

"I know you would have," his father said firmly. "I have no doubt."

"But Timmy would have been alone with me. He wouldn't have had you, and Johnny in his life. He wouldn't have had a family, or the chance to grow up here on Lancer. I just want to say—well, thank you, for bringing us all home. It means more now than I ever thought it could….."

"You're welcome, Scott. And son, I couldn't agree more."

THE END

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