A Life in Dreams
By Cadillac Red ()
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
"Let's head home, boys," Murdoch Lancer said as he and his sons stepped through the double doors of the bank into the late afternoon sun. He and Scott reseated their hats on their heads as they exited but Johnny's remained where it had been throughout the meeting with the president of the Morro Coyo bank, hanging down his back by the stampede strap.
A look passed between the two sons that stoked Murdoch's curiosity, then Scott spoke up. "We were thinking about having a beer first," he said, "if that's okay with you, sir."
Johnny nodded. "Ya know we missed comin' to town last weekend 'cause of the trip to the north line shacks….."
Murdoch tried to tamp down the finger of irritation that arose inside. The three
had gone to the northernmost section of Lancer the previous week, a part of the ranch neither of the young men had seen since they arrived two months earlier. It was in all of their interests that the Lancer sons learn the full extent of their legacy, and the burden of responsibility that came with it. But Scott and Johnny had developed the habit of spending Saturday nights together in town and obviously felt the trip north with him was a poor substitute for that weekly ritual. Their Saturdays had begun to last until the wee hours and he figured they were planning to make up for lost time tonight. Murdoch looked down the street at their horses tethered by the livery before answering.
"Fine," he said abruptly. "Better get those horses unsaddled if you're staying. I'll let Theresa know you won't be home for supper." He started to walk toward his own horse, then turned back. "One of these days you'll both have to learn there's a difference between being a ranch hand with one eye on payday and Saturday night, and part owner of a ranch the size of Lancer." He turned on his heel and called back over his shoulder. "Don't be late. We have a long day tomorrow and you'll both be expected to carry your load." With that he strode off, leaving his sons with their mouths hanging open.
"What the heck was that about?" Johnny finally erupted. "We ask him to stay for a beer and he acts like we're slackin' off! I been up since sun-up, worked for six hours brandin' his cows, and then came to town for a boring meetin' on loans and I'm not even allowed to have a beer before headin' back?"
Scott watched their father stride purposefully toward his horse, then mount, kick his horse into motion and turn for home without looking back. He sighed. "I don't know, Johnny. Maybe he didn't realize we were asking him to join us?"
Johnny snorted. "Yeah, ya can see how much he wants to be havin' a beer with me. You maybe. But then it'd be a brandy or one of them fancy wines ya both like."
Scott shook his head in consternation. Murdoch ran hot and cold with both his sons, one moment seeming almost like an affectionate father happy to have his sons home at last, the next a stern taskmaster biting their heads off. And he still couldn't predict which Murdoch would show up at any moment.
"Maybe we should follow him, Johnny. See what's got him so fired up…" The meeting had gone well but Scott had been a little surprised at the size of some of the outstanding loans. Not that the ranch couldn't handle it but it told him the drought that hit the valley several years before had taken a bigger toll than he'd imagined. He had vowed to ask Murdoch to tell them about it, and offer some ideas for paying them off faster when they had a quiet moment.
"Nah. He and I'll just get into it if I don't get a beer and a chance to cool down 'fore headin' home. You go if you want. He don't get that way when it's just you." He headed toward the saloon in a huff.
Scott watched him go and grimaced at the unwelcome choice before him. He hated to be pulled between the father he'd only gotten to meet two months earlier, and the brother he never knew he had until they both arrived at Lancer on that fateful day. He sighed and followed Johnny into the saloon, thinking it would be good for the both of them to have that cold beer before taking on their obviously angry father. And wondering what put the burr under Murdoch's saddle today.
Murdoch Lancer rode hard for the first ten minutes after leaving them, working off his anger. As he put distance between him and Morro Coyo, he slowed the horse to a walk, and immediately started to berate himself for flying off the handle the way he had. The fact his sons had turned out to be such good though different men was a miracle. That they quickly developed a strong bond and had become true brothers in every respect, was a joy to their father. He could not have hoped for more and he wouldn't change it for anything.
Still, Murdoch had to admit, he himself had not been able to make that same kind of connection with either of his sons yet. He and Johnny seemed to be like a match and dry tinder at times. And Scott, well Scott was a hard read. He often looked as though he had something to say, or ask, but he kept his own counsel most of the time. There were times Murdoch felt he knew and understood Johnny better than Scott at this point.
Murdoch cursed under his breath. He wasn't an unfeeling man, although in truth, he'd always found it difficult to show his feelings. His own upbringing had been somewhat stern, with few outward expressions of love from either of his parents. Their daily struggle to make ends meet, and their own reserved personalities meant there were few displays of affection or even pats on the back. When it came time for Murdoch to leave his native Inverness for America, his mother had given him one of only a few hugs he could remember. And his father had slipped him a pouch with a few extra coins in it, "in case ye need it, boy," then clapped him on the shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze. The gesture had meant a great deal to Murdoch for he knew it was his father's only way of expressing his love and support.
Murdoch sighed. When his first wife Catherine agreed to marry him, he had vowed to be more open and affectionate with his own children. She'd been the first person to whom he'd verbally expressed love, and he had croaked it out the first time, which made her laugh. But she made him promise that he'd always say it to her, and to the children they planned to have. But then Catherine had died, and Scott had been taken away. Murdoch lived his life alone for several years after that, and in his grief-fueled solitude, he had slipped back into old ways.
When Murdoch met and married Johnny's mother Maria in what could only be called a whirlwind courtship, it was partly because she was so different. She was a fiery, passionate woman who expressed all of her feelings spontaneously, often without thought. In the beginning he'd been attracted by that aspect of her, and later he'd hoped she could learn to tame it, at least some of the time. But he'd loved how affectionate she was with their child Johnny. And he wished now that he'd remembered Catherine's request when it came to his second wife. She'd required so much more attention than he thought he could give her while trying to get the ranch established, convince Harlan Garret to return his first-born, and fight continued battles with land pirates. If he'd only been able to tell her he loved her each day, would it have made a difference?
Lost in self-recrimination, Murdoch didn't notice movement in the hills above him until too late. A single shot from a rifle rang out, piercing his shoulder and knocking him off his horse. He fell hard, hitting his head on a rock and slipped into unconsciousness.
"I think we better head back now, Johnny," Scott said as he finished his second beer, standing over his brother at the card table. Johnny had met up with a couple of hands from the Bar T ranch and gotten into a poker game that looked to be heating up now that a stranger had joined them. Scott thought it a good idea to get Johnny out of it before it got too late.
"Ah, I don't think these fellas are ready to give up yet. And our new player's just gettin' started."
Scott nodded his head at the stranger who took the time to introduce himself.
"Jack Whittaker," he offered as he half-stood and reached over to shake hands with Scott. "Perhaps you'll join us?"
"That's a New England accent," Scott said, smiling graciously. "I'd say Maine."
"Good guess," the other man responded, surprise apparent on his face. "Portland, to be exact. Although I've been living in New York. Working on Wall Street."
"Wall Street? I had some idea of making a run at the exchange myself a while back."
The other man looked surprised. "Really? New York's a long way from California."
"I was living in Boston at the time. Just out of Harvard. Seemed like an exciting thing and I was looking for a place to… make a mark, I guess."
Now Johnny's eyebrows rose. "You were thinkin' of leavin' Boston 'fore the ole man got in touch with ya?"
Scott grinned at his brother. "Johnny, my boy, there's a lot you don't know about me."
"So, ya in or out, Scott?" Clyde Johnson, the Bar T foreman interrupted, clearly impatient to try to win back some of his week's wages.
"Come on, Scott," Johnny cajoled. "Murdoch's not expectin' us back for supper anyway, you heard him. Let's just pretend it's Saturday night."
Scott hesitated a moment, torn between the chance to spend a pleasant evening in town, and his lingering concern about the altercation with Murdoch. But he decided the problem would be waiting for the two of them whenever they got home, and Murdoch could use the extra time to cool down. "Sure," he said, sliding a chair out and seating himself. "What's the ante?"
Murdoch Lancer lay unconscious in the gathering dusk. The two bushwackers had rolled him for his cash and pocket watch and left him for dead.
"Pa? Pa? Are you here?"
Murdoch Lancer heard his elder son bang the front door as was his usual habit. "In here, Scott," he called from the study. "How was school today?"
The eight- year old came into view, swinging his book bag. "Good. I got an 'A' on my essay. And we're reading 'Oliver Twist.' I told Mrs. Colter I already read it but she said maybe I'll learn some more from reading it again."
Murdoch smiled. Scott was a precocious student and the man had begun reading the classics he loved with the boy before Scott even entered the local school. He suspected Mrs. Colter had her hands full keeping him challenged but the teacher had told him it was a joy to have a student like Scott in her classroom so it didn't worry him overmuch. "I hope you told her we read it together. And you said that in a respectful way, young man."
"Yes, sir," he replied as though it was obvious. "Where's Johnny?"
"Oh, your brother managed to find some trouble this afternoon. Maria was giving him a bath. He apparently decided to go for a swim in a mud puddle."
Scott wrinkled his nose and sniffed in a big brotherly fashion. "I guess his middle name shoulda been 'Trouble' instead of Thomas, huh?" Murdoch smiled as he recognized the boy was parroting something he'd heard the ranch foreman, Paul O'Brien say many times.
"Oh, you got into your fair share when you were his age too, my boy," Murdoch responded, ruffling Scott's silky blonde hair. He'd gotten his elder son back at the age of five and could recall at least a few similar episodes with Scott. Once the child had begun to feel at home, his natural curiosity about everything on the ranch led him into his share of scrapes. And his detailed explanations about what he had been trying to do generally left Murdoch and Paul smothering grins. Murdoch rose and dropped a hand over the boy's shoulder. "Let's go find Johnny, son. I could be wrong but I think I smelled some of Maria's oatmeal cookies baking a little bit earlier..."
Murdoch's horse ambled back just after the full moon rose, stopping to munch on some grass before making his way over to his owner. The big stallion had been spooked by the gunshot earlier but had wandered back, looking for the man who'd been his sole rider for years now. He made his way over to the prone figure on the ground and nudged him a few times. When there was no response, he snorted once, then set to grazing on nearby grass.
Murdoch Lancer opened his eyes as a huge clap of thunder sounded over the hacienda, followed by a loud, daytime-bright crack of lightning. Before he could get up to check on his sons, the first scream of terror came from down the hall.
"Papa! Papa!" His door opened and five-year-old Johnny ran into the room and leaped onto his father's big bed as more thunder boomed overhead. The nightshirt-clad boy threw himself into Murdoch's arms, then tried to pull the quilt up over his head. "I'm scared!
"It's okay, Johnny," he said soothingly. "It's okay. It's just a storm, boy. Nothing to be scared of." He moved himself over in the bed and pulled the sobbing child more fully into his arms as another lightning bolt hit nearby, momentarily lighting the room. He smiled as Johnny buried his head further into his father's neck. "We better make room for Scott, I guess."
"Scott's big," Johnny declared, his tears forgotten fast. "He won't be scared."
Murdoch was always touched by his younger son's faith in his older brother but something told him one more big boom would do it. The thunder sounded and Scott ran through the bedroom door and across the room, jumping up onto the bed. His blue-grey eyes were saucer-wide as he knelt on top of the bed in his nightshirt.
Johnny turned his head and looked at the older boy. "Scott! Are you scared too?"
Scott licked his lips and seemed to be thinking fast. "Um, no. I… I just came to check on you," he said.
Murdoch stifled a laugh, and vowed to speak privately with the boy about fibbing. But he also understood the older brother's desire to maintain his position of respect and authority, such as it was given the four years between them. He shifted Johnny to one side and patted the bed next to him as a signal to Scott to come. "Well, now we're all here, it's time to go back to sleep. Scott, get under the covers and then I want both of you to close your eyes."
"We can sleep in your bed tonight?" Scott asked even as he settled himself under the quilt and yawned deeply. He snuggled up beside his father. "Johnny might want company if the storm keeps up.
"Yes… Johnny might," his father agreed affectionately. "You boys can always come to me when you're scared, or sick, you know that." He waited while they settled themselves down on either side of their father. "The rest of the time you stay in your own beds though, right, boys?"
"Yessir," Scott mumbled as he drifted back to sleep.
"Do you know 'bout the scary monster under my bed?" Johnny asked around a wide yawn as he settled himself under his father's muscled left arm.
His father realized the child was laying the groundwork for nightly visits and he knew he had to nip that in the bud. It had taken months after he finally got Johnny back from Maria for him to get the child to sleep in his own bed. "A monster, huh? Well, the three of us will just have to scare that monster off tomorrow, son..."
Scott grinned and showed his hand to the other players. The murmurs of disappointment around him were accompanied by chairs scraping and a few choice words about lady luck from the Bar T hands. Johnny sighed beside him and watched as his brother scooped up the pot again.
"Sorry I ever asked ya to sit down, Boston," he said. "I was winnin' 'til you got here."
Scott shook his head. "Well, I tried to get you to leave, brother. Remember that."
"What I remember is we're not expected for supper and I'm hungry. And the winner pays, right? That's the rule."
"That's the rule," Scott agreed. "Care to join us, Jack? My treat, since I seem to have acquired your stake in addition to my brother's."
The Easterner consented but he shot a look of amusement at Johnny. "That kind of boasting's to be expected from a Cambridge man. We're a lot more modest in New Haven."
"A Yale man? Wish I'd known that before I invited you to dinner," Scott laughed.
Johnny looked between them with curiosity. "I dunno what that means but it don't matter. Someone from someplace back East is buyin' me supper."
The sun had set more than an hour earlier and a full moon had risen right behind it. Murdoch lay motionless, bleeding out from wounds in his head and shoulder.
"Scott! Johnny! Get down here, now!" Murdoch bellowed.
The two boys raced into the room and skidded to a halt in front of his desk, wide-eyed with alarm. The guilty looks on their faces when they spied the local sheriff told their father everything he needed to know but he proceeded to ask anyway.
"Do you boys know anything about tricks being played on Sheriff Brandon?"
Neither boy spoke at first. Nine-year-old Johnny looked paralyzed with fear and a furious blush had crept up Scott's lighter complexioned face. The mulish look he gave the Sheriff riled his father, who expected his sons to show respect to adults at all times.
"Scott, do you have something to tell me, young man?"
Scott hesitated and swallowed hard. "Tricks? What kind of tricks are you talking about?" he finally asked but without much conviction.
Johnny blinked twice beside him, then tried to echo his older brother's tactic. "Yeah. We don't know about any tricks…." His voice fell off as he felt the weight of his father's glare.
"You both know how I feel about lying, boys. So think hard before you answer. Do you know anything about rotten eggs being put under the boardwalk outside the Sheriff's office? Or a pail of horse manure that somehow made its way into the back door of the jail?"
"And the rock that was thrown through the front window," Brandon added angrily.
Scott took a deep breath and stood up a little straighter. "Yes, sir," he answered. "We—I mean I know about those things.. It—it was just a—a—"
"A joke?" Murdoch cut him off. "You boys think that's funny? Well, you won't be thinking it's funny when you're eating your supper standing up for the next few days. Now apologize to Sheriff Brandon."
Scott's face reflected something that looked like indignation. "But—"
"Don't but me, young man! Apologize now, or I'll turn you over my knee right here," Murdoch sternly told him.
Johnny spoke up immediately. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "We didn't mean no harm."
"You didn't mean 'no harm?" the Sheriff replied, mocking the boy's grammar. "What did you mean by putting a bucket of sht in my jail? Or throwing a damn rock through my window?"
"Don't talk to him like that!" Scott yelled, moving to stand between the sheriff and his brother. Murdoch caught him by the shoulder and shook him a little.
"That's enough," he said.
"I'll be happy to see you two little brats get what's coming to you," Brandon yelled back at Scott but Murdoch cut him off.
"I said that's enough," he growled at the other man, stopping him in his tracks. "I'll handle whatever punishment's coming to my boys on my own, Sheriff." Then he looked at Scott. "Apologize. Now."
Scott gave him a last defiant look, then backed down. "Sorry," he said, his tone and body language saying he wasn't sorry at all.
Murdoch gave him a speaking look and his shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry… sir."
"I'm sorry, sir," Johnny followed in barely more than a whisper.
"Go to your rooms, boys. And stay there until I come for you." The two of them literally ran from the room and then he sent the sheriff on his way as quickly as possible.
Later that night, he looked in on his sons as he always did before turning in. They'd been allowed downstairs for supper, a meal they'd eaten sitting at the table, then he'd sent them to bed. While he'd soundly spanked them both after the Sheriff left, he didn't believe in causing physical harm to children in the name of discipline, despite the threat he'd made earlier. He also didn't believe in letting bad behavior go unpunished, and he was adamant he was not raising any "little brats" despite what Brandon had said earlier. That remark had made him wonder about Brandon as his sons were generally considered the most well-mannered, best behaved boys in town. When Scott had once complained that he was considered "the strictest father in the valley," Murdoch had surprised the boy by agreeing and saying he wanted to make sure the sentence always ended with the words "with the best behaved sons in the valley."
He opened the door to the room the two boys shared. Johnny was deeply asleep, the covers on his bed half off and half on. Murdoch stepped quietly into the room and resettled the blankets back on top of his youngest. Then he moved over to Scott's bed. The light from a full moon illuminated the boy's face and Murdoch could see tear tracks on his face. He watched him for a moment and realized Scott was only pretending to be asleep. Murdoch sat down on the side of his bed and cupped his son's face, turning it toward him.
"Scott," he said, "I know you're not sleeping, boy."
The boy reluctantly opened his eyes. Blue eyes met blue eyes for a moment, then the child looked away. "I'm sorry, Pa," he sniffled. "I—I don't want you to be ashamed of me."
"I'm never ashamed of you, son," Murdoch said firmly. "I was disappointed in your behavior today. You know how I feel about showing respect to adults. Not to mention lying."
"I know," Scott replied. "But—but you always say respect has to be earned too. And—and…."
Murdoch frowned, wondering where this was going. "And…?
"And family stands by family. I just think you shoulda took up for Johnny 'stead of that sheriff." He choked back a sob and looked back at his father. "That's what I think, Pa."
"I'm not sure what you mean, son."
"I mean, Sheriff Brandon shouldn't be calling Johnny a 'breed.' Or saying how he's really a Mex, and everybody knows they're lazy and stupid…."
Murdoch's anger rose with each word his elder son said. "When did this happen?"
"All the time. When we go to school, we go past his office. He sits out there, sometimes pretending he can smell chilis and beans when Johnny goes by, and saying stuff about… about Johnny's Mama. We just wanted to show him he can't get away with it—"
"Scott, you should have come to me as soon as those things started happening. I appreciate you were trying to stand up for your brother. I'm proud of you for wanting to do that. But—but breaking windows—"
"We didn't do that, Pa! That was Nathan Fielding! I—I told him not to do it but he doesn't like the sheriff either 'cause he said he saw him stealing candy from the general store and told his Ma. And she gave Nathan a licking. That wasn't me, or Johnny."
Murdoch's heart lurched. He'd spanked both boys earlier, though Scott got the greater punishment being four years older. "Was Johnny involved in any of it?"
"The horse manure was his idea," Scott admitted. "And the rotten eggs was mine. But we didn't break any windows, Pa."
Murdoch exhaled forcefully. "I don't like you doing any of those things and if it ever happens again, you'll be very sorry boys. I expect you to keep your brother out of trouble, not help him get into more. But I am proud of you for taking up for Johnny, Scott. That's what brothers should do. And believe me, I will… have a 'talk' with Sheriff Brandon. Now, you go to sleep, we've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow." He leaned down and kissed the boy's forehead, then pulled the covers up under his chin. "Good night, son. I love you, boy."
Scott fell into a relieved sleep before the father made it to the bedroom door. Murdoch looked back, the bright moonlight making it appear almost daytime and watched his sons sleep. It had taken him more than three years to get Scott back from Boston. And more than a year to find Johnny and bring him home after Maria left with him. He'd fought hard to get them back, and paid cash money he didn't have to spare to get Maria to give up their son. But he thanked God every day for the gift of these boys. And he vowed to make sure they always knew it.
"We shoulda just stayed overnight, Scott," Johnny grumbled as the Lancer brothers headed home. We coulda gotten up a little earlier and rode home in time for breakfast."
"Little brother, if we stayed much longer, it would have been breakfast time before you were ready to turn in anyway," Scott said, finishing with a yawn. "You know Murdoch would be worried if we didn't come home at all tonight. And frankly, I'm gonna be tired enough as it is to deal with the extra chores he's going to find so we know he's not happy with us."
Johnny grimaced beside him, then sighed loudly. "Guess you're right. There's gonna be hell to pay, one way or the other. And this way we can catch a few extra winks of sleep 'fore he starts in on us." He shrugged and started thinking, and the more he thought, the more concerned he became. "Scott?"
"What do you think he's gonna do to us?"
Scott tried to hide his grin. Johnny was the first one to rebel, and the first one to start worrying what Murdoch would do when he found out. If he didn't know better, he'd think the former famous gunfighter named Madrid was a little bit afraid of their father.
"I don't know, brother. But…. At least I've got a pocket full of cash to ease my pain."
Johnny was silent for a moment, riding along, vigilantly watching for anything out of the ordinary as was his usual habit. Then he grinned. "If you were the big brother I always dreamed 'bout havin', you'd split those winnings with me, Boston."
Scott chuckled. "And if you were the little brother I always dreamed about, you'd be independently wealthy."
Johnny laughed. "You sure know a lot of two dollar words, brother—Hey! That's Murdoch's horse!"
"What? Where?" Scott spotted Chief, still saddled and grazing on the side of the road and spurred his own horse into a run. Johnny's mount raced up speed beside him and he watched as his younger brother sprang out of the saddle and took Chief's reins. Scott dismounted and began to search the area as Johnny inspected their father's horse.
"What's goin' on, boy? Where's Murdoch, huh?... No sign of any injury to his horse, Scott. And the saddle bags ain't been rifled…."
"Johnny! Over here!" Scott yelled as he spotted the prone figure of Murdoch a short distance away. He rushed to the man's side and began to search for a pulse. It was hard to find and terrifyingly weak.
"Johnny! Go back to town and get Sam!"
Johnny came to stand over their father. "I got some first aid stuff in my bags—"
"I do too, but he's in bad shape. Go get Sam."
"Maybe I should ride to the house and send one of the hands for Sam. I could bring the buckboard back—"
"Johnny, do what I tell you," Scott insisted, his voice taking on a note of authority he'd learned the hard way in the Cavalry. "Go get Sam. I'll stay with him and fire off a shot every now and then. The night crew will come this way some time tonight and if I can flag them down, I'll send them back for the wagon. But he needs Sam fast. Just go! Now, Johnny!"
The note of alarm in Scott's voice spurred his younger brother past his natural reluctance to take orders from anyone. He ran to his horse and bounded onto his back. He and Barranca were at full gallop before Scott could say another word.
Scott shrugged his jacket off and bundled it up beneath Murdoch's head. Then he went for his own and his father's saddle bags to see if they had medical supplies that would make a difference. Murdoch's head was losing blood still, hours after whatever had happened to him. And his shoulder was a bloody mess as well. Scott wished once again that he and Johnny had left for him much earlier. He shook off a wave of fear and went to work.
"Pa!" Ten-year-old Johnny screamed as he spotted his father riding into the front courtyard. Paul O'Brien rode up next to him, one arm out to keep his injured boss from sliding off his horse. Murdoch was holding his left arm and his head was bandaged. Johnny started to run toward for the front door but Scott caught him around the waist.
"Stay here, Johnny," he said firmly. "You know we're not supposed to go outside. "There's been shots fired from the hills—"
"But Pa's hurt, Scott! I saw him from the window—"
The door opened at that moment and Murdoch Lancer came inside, supported under one arm by O'Brien. Johnny squirmed out of Scott's grasp and ran to their father.
"Pa! Are you hurt bad?" the boy asked, his voice choked with tears.
"No, Johnny, it's not serious," his father replied softly, using his good arm to cradle the little boy's head. Johnny sobbed again.
"Scott, take your brother, please. I'm okay but I need to have Paul look at this shoulder."
"Should we send for the doctor, Pa?" Scott asked.
"No, we can't risk it," his father replied. "There may be a few still up in the hills. I don't want to put anyone else at risk."
"Pa, I don't want you to die," Johnny sobbed.
Murdoch smiled, garnering strength he didn't know he still had and placed a hand on each of his younger son's shoulders. Johnny had been taken from him as a toddler and it took more than two years to get him back. But he'd kept a fear of loss and abandonment buried deep ever since. The father knew that's where this was coming from. "It's okay, boy," he said. "I'll be fine."
"Listen to me, John. I'm gonna be fine. I'm not going anywhere. And even if I was hurt, Scott's here with you. And big brothers look out for little brothers, right?"
Johnny looked at Scott, then back at his father. He nodded and bucked up visibly as Scott came to stand behind him and ruffled his hair from behind. "Right."
"Now, Paul's gonna fix me up and we'll both be back downstairs in no time. I'm pretty sure the gunmen in the hills have taken off but I want to wait a few hours before we test it…."
Scott had done everything he could to make his father comfortable. He sat on the ground now, cradling Murdoch's head in his lap and noted the older man's breathing was even more shallow. He had not been conscious since Scott and Johnny had found him. Scott had fired off a shot several times over the past hour but the ranch's night crew were likely still too far away to hear it. Murdoch ha never even stirred at the sound of gunfire, which had his son worried and scared.
Scott shook his head as a light wind arose and ruffled his hair. There hadn't been enough time for them to settle into the new family relationships they'd all discovered in recent months and now there might never be time. He'd felt bad about letting Murdoch leave alone earlier. But the last time there'd been such an explosion, the older brother felt he hadn't done enough to show Johnny how much he wanted him to stay at Lancer Murdoch and Johnny had recently clashed over a wild stallion and Scott still felt guilty about seeming to side with Murdoch when he actually felt the older man had come down on Johnny too hard, and unnecessarily.
Scott sighed and focused his attention back on his father. "Please, God," he prayed quietly. "Please let him be all right. Johnny and I need him. We haven't had a chance to be a real family yet….. Please give us one more chance."
Murdoch heard a shot in a distant canyon on his property and spurred his horse into a gallop to investigate. There was no reason for any of the hands to be in that part of the ranch today but rustlers still occasionally rode through and tried to steal cattle or the wild horses that ran on Lancer. He slowed his horse to a walk before the entrance to the canyon and heard six more shots fired. Tethering Chief to a scrub bush, he quietly worked his way around some rocks to see what was going on.
"Johnny!" he bellowed when he spotted his fourteen-year-old son pulling a gun from a holster worn low around his hips. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Pa! I- I- I was just—I mean, I was tryin' to…."
"You know the rule about handguns, young man," the father said sternly. "Is that Scott's gun?" He looked around and saw spent shells and shot up tin cans and knew exactly what had been going on. Johnny had developed an interest in wearing a gun and practicing his draw of late, despite the house rule that the boys could not wear a gunbelt until they were sixteen. They'd each been using a rifle for several years before but wearing a gun too young was asking for trouble in their father's opinion. And in the Lancer home, his was the opinion that counted.
"Pa, I just wanted to practice-"
"I see. And if you just wanted to practice, why didn't you ask me? Instead sneaking into Scott's gun and coming out here where you thought no one would hear you?"
The boy looked down at his boots. He had no excuse. "You wouldn't have let me, if I asked," he said angrily. "You don't care 'bout me or you'd let me have a gun like Scott!"
The man was taken aback. "You know Scott wasn't allowed to wear a gun until he was sixteen—"
"Maybe he didn't need one before but I…."
Johnny kicked a rock with the toe of his boot. "Nuthin'"
Murdoch's fury made him want to shake the boy. Didn't he realize the rules were meant to protect him? He was too young to be walking around wearing a gun in a world where some people would think that made him a full-grown man, and fair game. He knew he needed to deal with this, but he needed a little time to tamp down his fear for the child's safety first. He put his hand out for Johnny to give him the gun. "Ride home, John. Right now. No stops along the way. And wait for me in the barn."
Johnny reluctantly handed over the gun.
"And the gunbelt."
Johnny unbuckled it and handed it over as well. His father slung it over his shoulder, then swatted his son's backside, sending him running for his horse.
An hour later, he raised an old harness strap and applied a fourteenth stroke to Johnny's jeans-clad rump. He traditionally gave the boys one lick per year of their age on the rare occasions when he'd had to punish them. Johnny had raised a ruckus on the first few licks, but a few moments earlier he'd begun to cry in earnest. Murdoch was certain his pride was more injured than his butt and as he laid the strap down, he gathered the boy into a hug.
"It's all over now," he said gently. "Except for the part where you tell me why you think you need to carry a gun, boy…."
"I—I just, I do…" he choked out, then stopped.
"Johnny, tell me what's bothering you, son."
"I—I miss Scott!" he sobbed. "Why did he have to go off to fight in that old war anyway?"
Murdoch's heart clutched. He was proud of Scott's decision to fight on the side of the Union but…, in truth, he also missed his elder son and sometimes wished he might have made another decision. And he feared for Scott's safety. It had been four months since his last letter arrived and every day without word was torturous.
"Your brother believes in the just cause of the Union," he said to Johnny, trying to find the words to explain adequately. "We should be proud of him. He's standing up for what he believes—"
"But why is it more important for him to protect some strangers? I—You and Scott always said family sticks together and now- now he isn't even here! How come he don't care 'bout me more than some people he never met?"
Murdoch noted the use of the word "protect" and probed again. "John, if you're having some trouble, why didn't you come to me?"
Johnny scrubbed the sleeve of his shirt across his eyes and choked back tears. "'Cause I know you're real busy, 'specially with Scott gone." His voice cracked and Murdoch knew he was terrified what the lack of communication from his brother might mean. They'd talked about it several times when Johnny had brought it up. "And you always said we should stand on our own two feet—"
Murdoch reached out and ruffled the boy's sweat-soaked hair. "I mean with things like doing your chores, and getting yourself to school on time, son. When one of the family is having trouble, then it's all of our problem. And you can come to me with a problem any time, son….."
With that the boy sobbed again, and Murdoch could tell this conversation was a losing battle with Johnny this tired and distraught. He hugged him to calm him down, then guided him into the house and to bed, where he fell immediately into a deep sleep. Murdoch leaned down and kissed the boy's forehead gently. This child was a handful and half, even compared to his older brother. But the man's heart swelled with love every time he looked at Johnny or his older son.
A day later, Murdoch sat with Mr. Boudreau, the teacher Green River had hired to instruct the older children several years earlier. Murdoch had stopped by after school had been let out for the day.
"I've been trying to keep it from boiling over," the teacher said, "but it's hard. Johnny's like Scott, the smartest child in the classroom. Only Scott was taller and wore that with more confidence. And he didn't have to put up with the Willis brothers."
The Willis family had moved into the area about six months earlier. The sons were a year and two years older than Johnny but they'd had little schooling before and were not interested in learning. They attended only because their mother insisted. Because of their age and size they were in the older children's class. It seemed that Johnny outpaced them in all subjects and they didn't take too kindly to being shown up by the smaller, younger boy.
"Johnny's been the lightning rod for them but they've gone after a number of the other kids when my back was turned. It seems Johnny stepped in to defend Melissa Jones the other day though and managed to blacken Harry Willis' eye. And Harry apparently made some threats after being embarrassed by that. And both boys carry a gun, though I don't let them bring them into the schoolroom."
"Well, I'll have a talk with Mr. and Mrs. Willis. And if that doesn't clear it up, I'll take it to the school board. Johnny's always loved school and he's been talking about college. Nothing's going to keep him from getting the education he deserves…."
Scott and several of the hands brought the buckboard into the courtyard of the Lancer hacienda just as Johnny and the local doctor, Sam Jenkins galloped in.
"We didn't find ya at the pass, so we just came on in," Johnny called as he slid down from Barranca's back. "How is he?"
"Not so good," Scott said. He'd finally managed to flag down the night crew a while earlier. Murdoch hadn't even roused when he'd been moved into the wagon. "Sam, he's not responding at all. He's lost a lot of blood. And his breathing's real shallow—"
"Thank you, Dr. Lancer," Sam said, trying to break the tension. "Let's get him upstairs into bed and then I'll tell you what I think."
Scott and Johnny waited outside Murdoch's door at Sam's insistence that he needed a free mind to work. Johnny paced up and down the corridor expending nervous energy and Scott stood leaning against a wall, watching him.
"It's been too long," Johnny said for the fourth time. "What's takin' so long?"
"I don't know but if—if things were getting worse, Sam would come out. You know he would--"
The door opened at that moment and both young men caught their breaths, fearful at the news they'd hear. They entered Murdoch's bedroom one by one. The older man was pale and still unconscious.
"The shoulder wound's not as bad as it looked at first. A lot of blood but it'll be all right," Sam said wearily. "His head wound is more worrisome. He seems to have knocked it pretty hard and is suffering from a bad concussion. It's the kind of injury that is unpredictable. But he's got a hard head, boys—"
"You can say that again," Johnny said.
Scott cast an exasperated glare in the direction of his younger brother, and that brother's big mouth.
"I just mean, well, maybe that's a good thing after all—"
Murdoch stood tall, Scott at his side, Sam Jenkins, Theresa and Paul O'Brien nearby. They watched proudly as John Lancer accepted his diploma from the San Francisco college where he had completed a degree in animal husbandry. Johnny had always had a way with animals and it had led him to seek out training that would advance Lancer's cattle-breeding program, and establish the horse-breeding business Scott and Johnny had finally convinced their father to undertake.
After returning from the war, Scott had finished his college studies four years earlier. But his interests ran toward the business end of ranching and he'd been instrumental in getting Murdoch to diversify their interests as a hedge against droughts and other natural disasters that came their way every few years. With Johnny covering the breeding side of the business, Murdoch knew his considerable legacy would be in good hands for another generation, a fine thing for a man who came off the boat from Inverness with nothing more than the clothes on his back some thirty years earlier.
They celebrated over a dinner in the hotel restaurant, then Murdoch, Paul, Theresa and Sam retired for the evening. Scott had taken Johnny out to celebrate some more and Murdoch heard them return to the room they were sharing next door to his own some time ago. Laughter erupted from their room several times, loud enough for the father to surmise they'd probably had one more brandy than they ought. He smiled to himself, then opened the connecting door.
"Do I have to remind you boys that Sam's sleeping in the room next to yours?"
"No, sir," Scott replied with a grin from the bed nearest the window. His hands were folded beneath his head but he'd removed only his jacket, tie and boots so far. "I was just telling my little brother the same thing—"
"What? You were the one that brought up that 'incident' with Becky Shaw and the pigs." Both sons laughed again at a long-ago memory that made Murdoch smile too.
"That's enough, boys. We have an early start tomorrow. And plenty of time for you two to recall all your past mischief and misdeeds on that long stagecoach ride—"
"Mischief?" Scott retorted with mock indignation.
"Misdeeds? Us?" his brother chorused from where he sat on the other bed.
"You heard me," Murdoch answered affectionately, investing his words with just a touch of paternal authority. "Get some sleep."
"Yes, sir. Good night, Pa."
"Good night, Pa."
Murdoch started to close the door behind him. He halted mid-way, and turned back, feeling the need to tell his sons something on this day. "I just want to say—well, no man could be prouder of his sons than I am of you two…. Nothing on God's green earth is more important to me. I just want to make sure you both know that. I love you boys…."
"Scott! He's awake!" Johnny said, rousing his brother from the chair in which he was dozing. He went to his side of their father's big bed.
"Murdoch! It's okay. You're home in bed," Scott said quietly as his father eyes scanned the bedroom. Murdoch nodded slightly. Both boys looked pale and tired, and a little scared about his condition, especially Johnny. It reminded him of the time he'd been shot by land pirates, when Johnny was about ten…… No, he thought, shaking his head and immediately regretting the action. That had been a dream, just a vivid dream.
"Water," he croaked.
"Just a sip," Scott answered as he lifted the glass from the night stand and brought it to his father's lips. "Are you in pain?"
"No, not—not too bad," the father replied. "I—what happened?"
"Best we can tell, some bushwackers ambushed you at the pass near the creek," Johnny said. "Took yer gun, yer watch and yer wallet—"
"The payroll in the saddlebags?"
Johnny grinned. "Nah. Old Chief's a sly one. Musta took off when ya fell and didn't come back till they were gone."
"He was standing at your side when we found you. Or we might not have noticed you in the dark," Scott concluded.
"Hope you gave him an extra helping of oats," Murdoch said, the corners of his mouth turning up a bit.
"Sure did. Twice!" Johnny said. "One for me and one for Scott."
Murdoch was touched by the fact Johnny thought to show the horse his appreciation – twice.
Scott gently adjusted the pillows so he could sit up a little higher while filling him in on what had transpired while he was unconscious. "You've been out almost thirty hours. Sam dressed your shoulder wound, and said it'll heal fine."
Murdoch smiled to himself. Scott was always the font of information – even when he was a boy. Then once again he realized that he'd dreamed that part of his son's childhood. He'd only met his elder son one brief time when he was a child. Murdoch realized he needed to find a way to separate the dreams from reality or his sons would think he'd gone daft.
"The head injury was the biggest worry but you seem to be doing okay there," Scott continued. "Sam'll be back this afternoon to check on you. He said if you woke up, you're to stay in bed until he sees you."
"Said he's have both our hides if we let ya up before then," Johnny added.
Murdoch smiled tiredly. "Sounds like the Sam I know. He always says sleep is the best healer of all."
"He said if you came to and could remember what happened, that'd be the best sign," Scott told him.
"I remember," Murdoch said, as a healing sleep began to overtake him again. "I remember—everything."
Scott and Johnny exchanged a glance, wondering exactly what that might mean for them. They started to leave the room quietly but Murdoch called to them before they made it through the doorway.
"Yeah?" Johnny responded.
"Yes, sir?" Scott cast his brother a speaking look underscored with affection this time, then turned his attention to their father. "Do you need anything, Murdoch?"
"Just to tell you something. I haven't—Well, no man could be prouder of his sons than I am of you two boys. I know I don't always show it as well as I could….."
Both sons were caught by surprise and remained speechless.
"I… I love you, boys. More than I can say. Having you both here—well, it's the greatest gift God ever gave me…." Murdoch's eyes closed into sleep. The two sons stood there another minute, and watched as his chest gently rose and fell.
"Well. Whadda ya think about that?" Johnny said quietly, his voice breaking a little.
Scott dropped an arm across his brother's shoulder and pulled him toward the door, closing it softly behind them. "I think we've got some big shoes to fill the next few days, little brother. And for the rest of our lives. I think it's a good thing there are two of us…."
Murdoch Lancer stopped in mid-sentence while talking with his Segundo about the day's progress. Cipriano wondered what he'd said, then he too picked up the sound that had captured the patrón's attention.
Scott and Johnny galloped under the white arch that led to home. Johnny had been gone for several days, working the northernmost range, getting it ready for the upcoming summer season. And Scott had been gone five days conducting business in Sacramento, then visiting a neighbor who seemed prepared to sell out land Murdoch had been eying for years. Despite having been sent in different directions days earlier, they had managed to meet up on the way home tonight.
They raced to the furthest corral fence, then pulled up, both of them laughing. Johnny
and Barranca had been in the lead by a nose until the younger son had looked back for a moment, then Scott and his horse had edged past them. It had often been that way over the years….
A glimmer of memory tugged gently at the edge of Murdoch's mind. He'd finally brought Scott home to Lancer at the age of five, then Maria had disappeared with 20-month old Johnny less than a year later. It had taken nearly two more years to get the younger child back.
At the age of seven Scott had easily taken to the job of being the big brother but sometimes it was a challenge. The four-year-old had immediately attached himself to the older boy. The hands joked that Scott had developed a permanent shadow and Murdoch had to admit the idea made him smile. He watched the two of them now, feeding the chickens, one of their morning chores. Scott had the hang of it but somehow half of Johnny's feed always ended up in his hair. Now Murdoch knew why.
"Johnny! I told you, on the ground!" Scott yelled.
"Maybe they'd like it to come down like rain," the younger boy said as he tossed another handful in the air.
"No, they don't want it to come down like rain – it's gotta be on the ground so they can eat it, not all over 'em." He started to back out of the chicken coop, then saw a large rooster heading toward Johnny, looking intent on getting the rest of his breakfast off his little brother. Scott rushed over and shooed the rooster away, then grabbed the boy's hand and pulled him out of the pen, locking it behind him. He spotted Murdoch and waved a hand toward Johnny impatiently.
"Pa! I told you he don't know how to feed chickens—"
"Doesn't," Murdoch corrected him.
"He doesn't know how to feed chickens and he gets me and him pecked every mornin'!" his older son said with exasperation.
"Well, you just keep teaching him then," the father answered with quiet affection. He reached out and ruffled Johnny's hair, brushing the last of the chicken feed out of the boy's thick, dark hair. "He'll get it right eventually. After all, you did."
"I can't wait till he can do it himself then," Scott said with a seven-year-old's wisdom. "So I don't have to get pecked too." He started walking toward the house and Johnny ran to catch up.
"Scott! Wait for me. I'm going to school now too!"
Scott gave a martyred sigh. "Yes, I know."
"I have to put on my new school shirt!"
Murdoch walked up beside Scott as Johnny skipped ahead, excited to be going to school with his big brother finally.
"What's wrong, son?" he asked his elder boy.
"Why does he have to follow me everywhere, Pa? Now I'll have him shadowin' me all day at school too."
"Oh, that's just the way it is with little brothers," Murdoch said. He clapped a hand on Scott's shoulder and squeezed. "Someday you'll feel very lucky to have him, I promise you…."
Murdoch shook off the images, knowing they were remnants of the strange dreams he'd had when he'd been injured and unconscious. But he smiled to himself. They were nice images, nonetheless.
"Welcome home, my sons," he said as Scott and Johnny dismounted and handed the reins to a vaquero who'd come out to take their horses. "Where did you two meet up?"
"Johnny was waiting for me as I came through the north pass."
"I figured he's been gone awhile, he might need help getting' back in time for dinner," Johnny grinned.
"Oh, it's good to get help from the resident expert on getting home on time for dinner," Scott chuckled.
Murdoch laughed too. "Well, I've got a vintage Bordeaux open to celebrate the successful conclusion of your business, Scott."
"And it was successful, sir," he replied. "I'll fill you in later."
"Good. Maria's got a beef wellington ready, and Theresa made chocolate cake—"
"Chocolate cake, too! Whoo-ee," Johnny responded immediately. "Good eatin' tonight!"
"And I think there's some vintage milk waiting for you, son," Murdoch replied, reaching out and ruffling the back of Johnny's hair.
"Now I'm sorry I didn't move him along a little faster," Johnny said, playfully poking an elbow into his brother's gut.
"We're all glad to have both of you home again," Murdoch said.
"Well, if you keep feeding us like this, Murdoch, you'll never get rid of us," Scott laughed.
"That's the idea, boys," Murdoch answered, laying a hand on Scott's shoulder. He squeezed it affectionately. "That's the whole idea." He gave them both a satisfied nod, then headed into the house to make sure dinner was ready.
"He seem dif'rent since he came to after bein' shot?" Johnny asked Scott as they both watched Murdoch disappear through the French doors..
The older brother shrugged. "I guess almost dying can change a man's perspective."
"Well, I don't know 'bout per… per—"
"Yeah, that, but it sure does seem like he sees things a little dif'rent…."
Scott laughed. "Yes, I know what you mean, little brother," he responded, laying an arm on Johnny's shoulder and propelling him into the house. "Whatever it is, I think we may like the new Murdoch even better than the old one."