By Cadillac Red ()

Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them. And I always give them back (albeit reluctantly!)

Setting: Late in the second season. The relationship between Scott and Murdoch in the show always bothered me, it never grew or deepened in the way the one between Johnny and his father did. I learned recently it was probably because Wayne Maunder planned to leave the cast. This is my explanation for what was happening with the characters. I also had a request for something that occurs in one of the final scenes. I hope it comes off right for these characters…

Murdoch Lancer entered the hacienda, his angry footfalls beating a rhythm on the tiled floor of the entry way. He strode across the great room and into his study. "Boys!" he bellowed. "Johnny! Scott! Come in here!"

The two younger men appeared in the doorway in less than a minute. Their faces reflected remorse and deep concern about how angry the older man might be. A misguided attempt to learn exactly what was going on at the experimental prison farm – to ensure their father was all right – had led to an attempted escape by the inmates, and ultimately the death of one prisoner. Murdoch had been holding his anger back until everyone else departed but now, it was erupting.

The older man glared at them as they walked in, alternating between the two. Johnny came to a stop halfway from the door, and stared at the top of his own boots, head hung low. He folded his arms over his chest in a gesture Murdoch always thought of as self-protective.

Scott looked anguished too but he held his head high as always and moved over to one of the chairs before the desk. He started to take a seat and something about that made his father explode.

"I don't believe I gave you permission to sit down!"

Scott's gaze snapped to engage his father's. His face colored but he replied in a controlled voice. "I didn't realize I needed permission to sit in my own home."

Johnny's head came up and his eyes widened with alarm. He sensed that the best way to handle this situation was to take the tirade full on, and let it pass. Why didn't Scott see that?

"My name's on the deed," his father bit back. "I think we established that I call the tune." He waited to see if Scott pushed back again but the older son merely pressed his lips together and nodded his head. "A man died," Murdoch said, slowly and intently. "Because of your actions – your disobedience – a man is dead. I hope you're satisfied."

Johnny nodded and hugged himself tighter, his gaze dropping to his boot tips once more.

"I asked you to stand down. To let me handle something without interference. But could you do that? Did you? No, you had to interfere and now that young man is dead."

Johnny nodded again, swallowing down the bile that rose in his throat at the unintended consequence of their actions. "I wish… I wish it hadn't happened, Murdoch," he said, softly. "I—All I can say is I'm sorry—"

"Well, sorry doesn't cut it when a man is dead!"

Johnny shook his head and hugged himself tighter. "I know…."

Murdoch turned to his oldest son. "And what about you? What have you got to say for yourself?"

Scott's head had swiveled from his brother to his father twice during their exchange, and his anger had risen beyond the point where he could contain it any longer. "I'm sorry too—'

"And I just said that means nothing under the circumstances—"

"And I'd like to finish!" Scott responded angrily. "I'm sorry that man died. If I could change it, I would. But I'm even sorrier to say that I doubt you'd be any more upset if it had been one of us."

Murdoch's face blanched and he looked like he'd been punched in the gut. "What?"

Johnny's arms dropped to his side in shock and he opened his mouth to speak but Scott cut him off.

"No, let me be more precise. I know you'd be very upset if something happened to Johnny," he said as he turned on his heel and strode out of the room. He grabbed his hat and gunbelt and opened the door, letting it slam against the wall as he walked out. It bounced back and closed behind him before either Murdoch or Johnny could speak again.

"Come back here!" Murdoch bellowed, knowing his raised voice would carry through the French doors but there was no response from his eldest son. A minute later a horse thundered past and away from the house.

"What the hell is wrong with your brother?" Murdoch yelled, turning on Johnny.

The younger son shrugged helplessly. His mind raced, trying to figure out what had sent his normally even-tempered brother, the one who had always been the peacemaker between him and Murdoch, over the edge of reason in this way. But no answer occurred to him. Always before it had been Johnny storming out, the door slamming behind him. He was unpracticed being on this side of the situation and he didn't have a clue what to do next.

The following night, Johnny sat silently at the dinner table for the second time since Scott had departed the hacienda. Theresa placed a dish of meat on the table and took her own seat, holding back tears as she looked at the empty seat where Scott usually sat. The older son had apparently been working the last day and a half but he hadn't come home at all, simply meeting up with Cipriano or one of the hands during the day and letting them know where he was working, and what he was doing.

Murdoch had been a bear to live with, snapping at Johnny and Theresa, not to mention Maria, Cirpiano, Jelly and anyone else with whom he had come in contact. He was so irascible, Jelly had turned down an invitation to dinner tonight, the reason for yet another empty place at the table.

The older man helped himself to beef, then passed the dish to Theresa. She took a small slice and passed the dish to Johnny. The normally voracious younger son took a look at it then put it down without taking any.

Murdoch frowned at him. "This is a perfectly good meal," he said looking first at Johnny then at Theresa. "There's no reason to let it go to waste just because your brother's still off somewhere working off his mad."

Johnny had finally had enough. "No, no reason to waste it-- 'cept for I don't like all the comp'ny." He rose and tossed his napkin onto his empty plate. "Not you, T'resa."

He glowered at the older man at the head of the table, and then left the room in a huff.

Murdoch watched him go, then tossed his own napkin onto the table and stomped off into the study leaving the meal uneaten.

Scott Lancer heard a twig snap, sending all of his senses into alert. But a soft sound from beyond the tree line settled him back down. He'd recognize that reassuring whisper and the answering snort anywhere.

Johnny Lancer approached quietly and came to a stop at the edge of the clearing where Scott had made camp. Scott was lying on his bedroll, his hands linked behind his head, probably sleeping—

"Pull up a log, Johnny," the prone figure said, without moving.

"I thought ya might be asleep…." Johnny drawled as he came into view. He stood over his brother. "How'd ya know it was me?"

"It's been almost two years, little brother," Scott said with a smile. "Half a dozen different things told me it was you."

"Whatcha doin' out here anyway?" Johnny asked. As he spoke, he backed up to the tree closest to Scott and slid down into a seated position. "Ya missed a good dinner. For a change of pace it was… beef."

Scott laughed. "Well, for a change of pace, I had some fish I caught earlier, and a plate of beans."

Johnny smiled, and fiddled with the bead bracelet on his wrist, always a sign he was a little unsure of himself. "Seriously, why are ya still out here, 'steada home, Scott? The old man's calmed down some…. A little, anyway."

Scott nodded his head slightly. "Sorry for leaving you to take the brunt of it, Johnny," he said quietly. "I—never meant to do that. Something just snapped, I guess."

"Nothin' to 'pologize for. I did it to you a whole bunch of times in the beginnin', didn't I? Left you to calm Murdoch down 'bout something I did."

Scott didn't answer, and the silence between them stretched into a full minute. Johnny felt compelled to fill it with the question his heart kept nudging him to ask.. "Ya wanna come home with me now?"

"I was planning to come tomorrow morning," Scott said quietly. "I just needed some time… alone, I guess. To… think. I'll stick with that plan."

Johnny nodded slowly. "Mind if I stay with ya?" he asked tentatively.

Scott grinned at his younger brother. "Can't think of anything I'd like better."

Johnny got his saddlebags and settled Barranca for the night near where Scott's horse was tethered. In the meantime, Scott put up another pot of coffee and broke out a bottle of whiskey he carried in his saddlebags for emergencies. The two of them sat together talking about what each of them had done during the day, and Johnny's plan for breeding Barranca with a mare he'd caught and gentled recently. "They'll have beautiful babies," he enthused. "Little Barranca's and little Blanca's. A whole bunch of 'em"

"I have no doubt," Scott answered with a smile.

Another silence followed, a sign they were both winding down and ready for sleep. They doused the fire and each lay down beneath the canopy of stars. But Johnny had one more thing on his mind, and he needed an answer before he could sleep peacefully. It had been bothering him for two days now.


"Yes, Johnny."

"What ya said the other day… to Murdoch. 'Bout how he would only be upset if somethin' happened ta me. You don't really believe that, right?"

Scott hesitated a long moment. It shamed him that he'd let that slip out and he'd been worried him that it would make Johnny feel guilty. "Not exactly," he said finally. "I've been thinking a lot about that. I think the ranch is getting large enough he should think about hiring a manager, like an estate steward. Someone to keep the books for him, and handle the routine business deals. That's what he uses me for mostly, because it's getting harder for him to do it all himself and I was able to fill that void. But… I think he can hire someone to take my place. And that's not true of you. You're…." He hesitated, then his voice turned warm and soft, and Johnny could hear his smile. "You're the child of his heart, the long-lost son he missed every day for almost twenty years. I'm… just a stranger he happened to father a long time ago…."

Johnny's faced clouded with fear at where this was leading, and he sat up. "Scott—"

"I've thought about it a lot, Johnny. I know I'm right. You and Murdoch, you have a special relationship. And it makes me glad for you, brother. I know… I know in the beginning, you didn't think it would be possible. But everyone can see it now, not just me. You know what he told Benedict about that prisoner who was killed? Murdoch said he reminded him of you. That's why he was so upset…." The irony of it didn't escape Scott. Through the course of Johnny's turbulent life he'd spent a few days in jail here and there; but Scott that had spent an entire year in a prison camp, been subjected to the worst prison conditions and treatment imaginable. Still, he was certain none of those young men had reminded Murdoch of him.

"But that don't mean he don't feel the same way 'bout you, Scott."

Scott shook his head. "Johnny... You can't change the way it is no matter how much you want to. And I don't want you to feel bad about it, about being… the favorite child." He turned toward his brother and smiled reassuringly. "It's how it is, how I think it should be. You deserve it after… everything. I'm not saying it for any reason except I want you to understand why… why I'm leaving. That it's not anything you did. It's just… how it has to be."

Scott and Johnny rode slowly through the arch the next morning and were greeted with fervor by Theresa and Maria and the several hands who were working near the house. They entered through the front door and Scott strode purposefully into their father's study. Murdoch had heard them ride in, and he'd taken a seat at this desk and opened the ledger, trying to look busy.


The father looked up and a mixture of relief and anger bubbled up inside him. He gave in to the anger first. "Nice of you to come home," he growled.

Scott didn't respond, he merely looked around the room as if seeing it for the first time. Or trying to fix it in his memory.

"Well? What do you have to say for yourself?" Murdoch asked, rising.

The younger man sighed and walked closer to the desk. "First… I'd like to apologize. For the way I spoke to you the other day, sir. I—I wasn't raised to speak to anyone like that."

Murdoch's eyes reflected the hit but he fought to hide his dismay that Scott was reminding him that he had not raised this son, had not spent more than a brief moment with him for the first twenty-four years of his life. He noticed Johnny come into the room behind his brother and wondered at the stricken look on his face.

"Second, I want to let you know I'll be leaving. Today. I—have a bit of personal business to attend to in town. Tomorrow, I'll catch the stagecoach to Stockton. From there, I think I'll probably go to St. Louis."

Murdoch blinked. "You're taking time off? Now? We have a cattle drive to prepare for—"

"No, sir. I'm leaving Lancer. For good. It was… kind of you to send for me but this just isn't working out. I think we both know that."

Murdoch's knees felt weak but he resisted the urge to collapse into his chair. Then his temper overrode his initial reaction. "Fine," he said coldly, taking the ledger in hand and turning to the front. "You're owed—"

"I don't want any money—"

"I don't care what you want! I pay anyone who works on this ranch!"

Scott looked behind him and cast a strange, almost triumphant glance at his brother, then he turned back toward his father. "Of course. You'd never let a man leave without paying him his wages, would you? Just leave it on the desk. I'll collect it when I've gotten my things together."

He left the room and Murdoch watched Johnny's eyes follow him until he was out of sight. Johnny turned back toward his father, their eyes locking for a moment, both filled with pain. But Johnny's reflected something else too, accusation.

Scott Lancer came down the stairs of Morro Coyo's one hotel the next morning to find the town doctor, Sam Jenkins, waiting at the bottom of the staircase.

"Sam!" he said, a smile coming to his lips. "I was planning to come by your office this morning."

"Were you? I thought you might leave without saying goodbye."

Scott's smile dimmed. "You've heard? I'm sorry about that. I—I had hoped to tell you myself."

"Johnny came by first thing this morning. Asked me if I could knock some sense into you, and your father."

Scott sighed. "Nothing you can do, Sam," he said quietly. Then he smiled graciously. "Except perhaps to join me for breakfast."

They ordered eggs and pancakes, and asked for a large pot of hot coffee to be brought to the table. Once they were alone, Sam spoke. "Scott, what brought this on? I—I always thought you and Murdoch got along great. From the beginning, you and he rubbed along well….."

"We do, most of the time. Murdoch's a good man, and a great employer, you know. He mostly listened to my opinions – didn't always agree, of course—and shared his thoughts about the ranch and things in the valley…. If I was his ranch manager, it would have been fine. But I'm not…." The younger man sighed again, obviously struggling to explain what was driving his decision. "It's not that he treated me badly, Sam. It's just that he never really treated me like a son. We rubbed along well from the first, as you said, but…" He shook his head.

"Scott, I know you and he argued the other day. Maybe you just need to let things settle—"

"Sam, this wasn't a spur of the moment decision. I've been thinking it through for quitea while. You know it's a bad time for the ranch, for all the ranches. This drought has taken a toll, land prices keep dropping, for most ranchers their mortgages are greater than the value of the land right now…. We—Lancer—is large enough to survive if there's not another major problem. But the ranch desperately needs some capital. I have funds in the market back East, Sam. I could easily turn some stock into cash and help—"

"You know your father, Scott. He's a proud man. He wouldn't take your money…."

"That's just it, Sam! Murdoch has everything he owns, every cent, invested in the ranch. Johnny too. But he can't take my money…. Because he doesn't see me the same as Johnny and him…. It's different with them…. They share a history that Murdoch and I just don't have."

Sam sat back in his chair. "You know him, he's… not good at showing what's in his heart, Scott. It doesn't come easy to the man…."

Scott smiled. "I know. He does it with Johnny though. You can see that. They've developed a connection that… well, it makes me glad. For Johnny and Murdoch. But…." He dropped his eyes, and lowered his voice, ashamed of his next words. "But it makes it all the more apparent that it's not the same with me…. Recently, I realized I was starting to resent Johnny. For being… Murdoch's favorite. For having a real father-son relationship with him. And I can't—I won't let that come between us. I—I love my brother, Sam. But the resentment will grow if I don't leave."

Sam shook his head, remembering incidents and small gestures that he'd noticed but just ignored. "Scott, I—I won't say I don't know what you mean. You're too intelligent for me to try to fool you. But, you're the main reason they found their way past the difficult times in the beginning. You were the peacemaker, the… bridge. You held them together so they could reach the place where they are now…"

"I know. And believe me, I don't regret it for one minute, Sam. Johnny—Johnny needed Murdoch. He needed Lancer…."

"He needs his older brother too—"

"He'll always have me," Scott said firmly. "I'll keep in touch with him. I—I may even visit after a while. I won't forget about Johnny. As I said, he's one reason I'm leaving. I don't want to compete with him for Murdoch's favor, and I don't want to resent him. I love my brother."

Sam grew silent and Scott used the pause to eat some of his breakfast and wash it down with some coffee.

"Scott? You've said you love Johnny. And I know it's true. Anyone who's seen the two of you together can see it. But let me ask you something. Do you love Murdoch?"

Scott's gaze snapped up over the rim of his coffee cup and he stopped and held the cup in mid-air for a moment before putting it back down. "I—of course," he said. "He is my father. I… care about him…" He realized how weak that sounded and felt the need to be fully truthful with Sam for some reason. "Yes, I love him. And I respect the man, a lot. What he's built and the way he kept searching for Johnny all those years. And finally brought us both home. I—I don't want you to think I hate Murdoch, Sam. Because I don't. But… he didn't move heaven and earth to get me all those years, not until he needed something from me. And that's how it feels to me, like I'm here serving a purpose, not because I'm his son. I served a purpose for my grandfather all those years, and now I'm doing the same thing here. Maybe… maybe I just want to find someplace… where people love me just for being, not what I do for them."

The doctor's eyes misted as he listened to the younger man's emotionless recitation of the facts, the way he experienced them. "Johnny loves you, just for being his brother, you know."

Scott nodded. "Yes. Yes, he does." He smiled again. "That's how I know it can happen, Sam. That's how Murdoch loves Johnny, don't you think?"

Sam sighed. "I still don't get why you have to leave, Scott. Why don't you… think about something else. Like buying another ranch in the area. You know Ed Winfield has his spread up for sale—"

"I thought about that. I just… I think it would be too close and… Maybe I'm more like Murdoch… and need to find a place of my own, build something out of nothing, the way he did."

"Where do you think that will be?"

Scott shook his head. "I don't know. I'm probably going to go to St. Louis first. I have an old school friend there." He gave the doctor a cheeky grin. "And he has a younger sister I've always wanted to get to know a little better…."

Sam saw him off on the stagecoach an hour later, standing in the street and watching until long after it disappeared from sight. He thought about going to see Murdoch but something told him it wouldn't do any good. That man was as hard-headed and mulish as his elder son could be at times like this.

The next morning, Murdoch Lancer came out of the lawyer's office, slipping a document into his billfold as he walked. He was preoccupied and passed Sam Jenkins on the boardwalk without noticing him.

"So… no one at the ranch needs a sawbones today so I'm invisible?

Murdoch stopped, looking momentarily confused that someone had spoken to him. For the last three days everyone on Lancer had spoken only when he addressed them, which was infrequently. He'd been living in a silent cocoon of shock and anger at Scott's sudden departure. "Sam! I didn't see you there. How are you?"

"I could use a drink—"

"Let's go to the saloon then. I'm buying," Murdoch said. "It's the least I can do for all the times you've come out to Lancer in the middle of the night, in the worst kinds of weather…."

"I've got that bottle of scotch you gave me for Christmas in my office," the doctor said. "Let's break it open…."

They settled into his sitting room with two tumblers and the bottle between them. Sam poured them three fingers each and raised his glass in a silent salute. But Murdoch smiled sadly and looked down into the golden liquid.

"I guess you've heard," he said.

"Yes. I saw him before he left."

Murdoch nodded. "I don't know what happened, Sam. I—I was angry about something but Scott always seemed able to deal with my temper. Better than Johnny. All this time, I thought he was happy here, settling in well. I—I just don't know what caused….." He raised his head and looked at his friend. "Did he tell you anything? I think Johnny knows something but he's not saying…."

Sam was staring out the window, trying to decide whether to share Scott's confession. The younger man hadn't told him he couldn't but…. He guessed that Scott would have told Murdoch himself if he wanted him to know.

"Well, I guess this isn't the first time I'm going to override a patient's preference," he said quietly.


"Murdoch, your son did tell me some things and I think you need to hear them." He went on to share both what Scott said and some things he'd observed on his own

"Are you daft? Is he… out of his mind?" Murdoch roared a few minutes later, getting up and pacing angrily across the doctor's parlor. "How could he possibly think I feel any different about him than about Johnny? I—for the love of God, I love both of them the same—"

"No, no you don't, Murdoch," Sam interrupted. "And how could you? They're different men. Scott's right that it's different with him. You and Johnny bonded when he was a baby, for almost two years. And, miraculously, despite living the way he did for eighteen years, he grew up to be someone who can freely give love, and accept love. God only knows how he kept that capacity but he did. And you respond in kind to Johnny. But with Scott--"

"Don't tell me how I feel, Sam! I—I love Scott too—"

"And I believe that, Murdoch. But he doesn't. And… and I've been thinking about this for the past day, ever since he told me. It's not your fault. And it's not his fault. It's both of your faults."

Murdoch glared at the shorter man but Sam Jenkins had never backed down from a battle with his good friend before and he wasn't about to start now. Not when it was so important.

"Scott was raised differently. To keep things inside, to be… gracious and temperate at all times. You told me that story about meeting him when he was five years old so many times over the years, Murdoch. About how he was a perfect little gentleman, even at that age. That's what Harlan Garrett expected from him and that's what is ingrained in that boy. And you, you were raised much the same. It's why…." He softened his voice. "It's why Maria and you couldn't make it. You were just so different in temperament….."

Murdoch swallowed hard and turned to the window, staring blindly out onto the doctor's small garden. "This has nothing to do with Maria, Sam."

"No, it doesn't. But you made assumptions about Scott, just like you did with her. That he'd just… know how you felt. You somehow sensed that Johnny needed more, more proof, more affection. Maybe because he's Maria's boy. But you never did that with Scott. You worked to build a relationship with Johnny, and you have reaped the benefit of it. Johnny obviously feels secure and confident about being Lancer now. But …, Scott feels like a valued hand, not a dearly loved son."

Murdoch turned and glared at his friend. "That's not true."

"It is. Murdoch, a while back, I saw the three of you in town. It was around the time Zee arrived, when that gang of hers tried to rob the store. Scott was loading barrels of feed from the livery and you were sitting up on the seat of the buckboard. Johnny and you were just talking, and you and Johnny shared a quiet chuckle about something. It was just a nice, father-son moment. And I smiled, 'til I realized that Scott was doing all the work while you and Johnny were talking together. And the most he got from either of you was a reminder there was another barrel to load….."

Murdoch remembered but he hadn't though of it that way. "He—he and Johnny had a bet, Sam. And Scott lost….."

Sam nodded slowly. "That explains it I guess. Except that even if Johnny had lost the bet, Scott would have helped. You know that about him. And had it been Johnny loading those barrels, I think you would have engaged him in the discussion. I've seen this kind of scene enough times to know I'm right….."

Murdoch reacted with anger again. "Well, as a man without any sons, I guess you can't understand it then. But you can't know how I feel, Sam. I love both of my sons—"

"I'm not telling you how you feel, Murdoch. Just what you show….."

"You're wrong. Scott's an intelligent, level-headed young man. He'd never let a couple of little incidents like that drive him away," Murdoch responded firmly, his anger underscoring each word. "I thank you for telling me your side of it. But I know my son better than you….."

A few minutes later, Murdoch was walking toward the saloon, ready to head for home. Johnny had come into town with him to fill an order for Theresa at the general store. He planned to have a beer after gathering the supplies and the two of them would ride home together. It was a habit they'd formed almost from the beginning and the rides back and forth to Lancer with Johnny were some of Murdoch's favorite times. They talked more on those rides than at any other time, and he learned so much about his younger son's life and thoughts and dreams…..

Murdoch suddenly stopped in his tracks, struck to the heart by the realization that Sam was right. He almost always accompanied Johnny to town. In the beginning, the younger boy had no real business experience and Murdoch had worried every time he left the ranch that he might meet someone from his past and get into a gunfight, or…. Or to be honest, that he might just choose to leave when an old friend or two turned up to tempt him back into his former life. Murdoch had started out this way with Johnny for a good reason, to ensure he learned how to handle the business end of the ranch, but it had grown to be a pleasant tradition he truly loved, and one he thought Johnny loved also.

But Scott was capable of taking care of the business things on his own, he could deal with bankers and lawyers and handle government and state authorities from the first. Murdoch trusted him to conduct business on his own and so he rarely accompanied Scott. Their times alone together were usually quiet moments when they were both reading in the great room, each of them solitary in their appreciation of whatever they were reading. Sometimes they spoke, shared their thoughts about a particular book, or a certain passage. But these were impersonal, almost academic discussions. Even when they played chess together, they both had a quiet, contemplative approach to the game. Not like Johnny who could bring a smile to both of their faces with his spontaneous moves and non-stop narrative about what he was planning and what he thought the other man was going to do next. Scott had commented once that it was an entirely different game when you played it with Johnny….

With crystal clarity, Murdoch realized he had taken his older son for granted, expecting him to simply settle in and be like his father. He hadn't looked to see how Scott was different than him because…. Well, frankly, because they were alike in so many ways. He did try more with Johnny because Johnny was so different from the two of them, and so unpredictable at first, he didn't dare take anything for granted when it came to his youngest. He broke into a near-run and headed for the saloon.

"Johnny!" he shouted as he opened the swinging doors and looked into the near dark interior. Across the room Johnny's chair, which he had been balancing on the back two legs, slammed into the floor and the younger man sprang from the seat.

"What's wrong?" he asked anxiously, grabbing his hat and rushing to meet Murdoch at the door. They stepped out on to the boardwalk.

"Nothing. Well, something's wrong obviously but not….. " Murdoch stopped, realizing he needed to collect his thoughts. "I'm going to Stockton. Now. I wanted to let you know. I'll send word once I get there—"

"You goin' after Scott?"

"Yes. I shouldn't have let him leave, not without….. Well, let's just say I need to say some things to your brother before he goes any further."

"He took the stagecoach yesterday, Murdoch. The next one don't leave 'til this afternoon. You can't catch him—"

"I can on horseback. I'll change horses along the way, and take a shorter route. The stagecoach doesn't go directly to Stockton because of its scheduled stops. I may be able to catch him. I—I have to try. You just let Theresa know I'll be gone a few days—"

Johnny shook his head, then headed for the livery. "Write a note and get Baldemaro's delivery boy to bring it to the ranch with the supplies. I'll get the horses. I'm goin' with ya…."

In Stockton the next morning, Scott Lancer was preparing to check out of the Majestic Hotel. He heard his name being called from across the lobby and turned, scanning the open area and wondering who it might be. This was usually a quiet time in the town to which ranches from throughout the region would drive their herds to reach the railhead later in the season. He saw Joe Calder, a local beef seller's agent who'd worked with Murdoch Lancer for many years, making his way across the big, open space.

"Hello, Joe," Scott said, putting out a hand to shake the other man's. "How are you?"

"Good, Scott. But am I damn glad to see ya. Ya got here fast!"

"Got here…? Were you expecting me?" He was confused by the comment. Scott could see the other man was agitated and wondered what was driving such a reaction from the normally unflappable agent.

"I thought you was here to try to negotiate new contracts for stockyard space—"

"What? Joe, you know better than anyone Lancer's had its contracts in place since just after last year's drive."

"That's what I'm tellin' ya! The stockyards have almost all been bought up by an outfit outa Nevada. Call themselves "Pinnacle Enterprises." They ain't honorin' those contracts, and plan to charge more. I just sent out wires last night to all my clients. I cain't believe you got here so fast—"

"I didn't come for that, Joe. I'm here….on other business. Tell me though, how can Pinnacle get away with that?

"Don't know but they got fancy lawyers that say they can."

"Well, where can I find these people….?"

He checked out of the hotel, but passed up the early train he had planned to take. Instead, he spent hours with Joe, first arguing with the Pinnacle company manager about not honoring signed contracts, then giving up on that tack when it clearly didn't move the man and trying to negotiate a fair price. The manager didn't seem to be very smart but he had a party line. Pinnacle didn't have to heed the prior owners' contracts and they planned to use the stockyards themselves. He was sorry but there was nothing he could do. Unless Lancer was prepared to pay triple the going price in which case he might be willing to find some space for their herd. Scott knew that price would drive Lancer under this year when things were already so bad. It was legal robbery in his opinion. He finally gave up and left the Pinnacle office.

"Joe, what do they need all the stockyard space for? Do you know how many ranches they've swallowed up so far?"

"Don't rightly know. Everyone's come to negotiate so far has had to sell 'em their places. Most of the other ranchers are arriving in town now, soon's they get word from me and the other agents."

Scott nodded, struck by the futility some of these men must have felt. Lifetimes spent building ranches gone with a single drought and the predatory practices of what amounted to legal land pirates.

"What other stockyards have space available?" he asked as they made their way back toward the other man's office.

Joe shook his head. "They bought just about everything. Anything left belongs to local ranches and none of 'em's big enough for the Lancer herd."

Scott took off his hat and began worrying the crease as he tried to come up with an option. He could feel a trickle of sweat run down his back and knew it wasn't from the heat of the day. It was fear, fear that this would mean the end of the ranch his father and brother loved…, that he loved, truth be told. He had no idea who these Pinnacle people were but they were boxing the territory's ranchers into a corner.

"Who are they? Pinnacle Enterprises? Where did they come from?"

"No idea, Scott," Joe said. "But so far everyone they've contacted has folded. Sold 'em their land and cattle, cheap."

Pieces began to come together in Scott's head but he didn't quite have the entire picture yet. "Are they related to the Acme Company? They've bought up a few ranches in the San Joaquin."

"Don't know. Weird names though. Maybe they're connected."

Scott nodded thoughtfully, a couple of ideas coming to him. He quickly formed them into a plan, and decided to act.

"Joe, who owns the land beyond the last stockyard going east?"

The night before, Murdoch and Johnny had stopped to change horses and eat something in Modesto, after riding hard for as long as their horses could go without risking damage to the animals. They'd left their own mounts in Visalia, and rented fresh horses in the early afternoon. Now they changed horses again, had a quick meal, and prepared to go on.

"Murdoch, you okay?" Johnny asked as he swallowed down the last of some really bad coffee.

"Yes," the father said, smiling briefly. "I'm not used to spending so long in the saddle any more but…. I've done it plenty of times in my life. I'll be fine."

"I was wonderin'…. What are ya gonna say to Scott? If we even get there before his train leaves?"

Murdoch looked up into the night sky. "It'll be close, if he's taking the morning train."

Johnny privately thought it was a real long shot but he wouldn't have stayed behind no matter what. "Ya know he thinks… he thinks ya can hire someone to take his place."

Murdoch sighed. When Sam had said the same thing, he'd reacted in anger. Now, after letting the idea settle on him, it just made him sad. "I realize that now. He's wrong, Johnny."

"I know that. Leastways, I think I do. But Scott, he's the smartest person I know. How could he be so wrong 'bout something so important?"

Murdoch smiled sadly. "I think I'm responsible for that, son. I—I just always thought he was more like me. Not comfortable with showing his feelings. He keeps a lot to himself….."

"Boy howdy, ya both do," Johnny agreed. "Sometimes the two of ya get so lost in them books ya read, I think about mountin' a posse to come after ya."

Murdoch chuckled despite himself. Johnny had a way of bringing them both back to the moment. His youngest son was a natural force of nature. It was impossible not to grow to love him. But now he worried that Johnny had been the only thing holding him and Scott together. And that meant he had failed his older son, failed to make him see how special and valuable he was just for being himself.

"Your brother…. Well, he never said anything to me about how he was feeling, until the other day. Had he told you before?"

"No," Johnny answered, looking down as he spoke. "I was as surprised as you. I started thinkin' bout it though, since then. And… and I guess I can see what he means. Ya spent so much time on me, Murdoch, tryin' to make sure I stayed on that straight path, teachin' me 'bout bein' Lancer 'stead of Madrid. I think maybe Scott got… left out."

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny's shoulder and squeezed it. "Now don't you go feeling guilty about that. The fault is entirely mine. I took Scott for granted, I can see that now. And I plan to fix it. Let's get back in the saddle….."

Late the following afternoon, Scott exchanged handshakes with the men with whom he'd been talking for the past hour and half, then watched them leave Joe Calder's office. It had been a day of ups and downs but he sighed with relief that his plan had come together finally.

"I cain't believe you did it," Calder crowed. "When you told me what you was planning this mornin', I didn't think you had a prayer of pullin' it off."

Scott smiled tiredly. "To be totally honest… neither did I. But I figured we didn't have anything to lose."

"Well, I never seen so much done in a day before, no sirree."

Scott pushed down the sleeves he had rolled up earlier in the day during the heat of the marathon negotiating session he'd just completed. Then he put on his jacket and told the other man he would see him that evening to work through the final elements of the deal on which they'd spent the day. Heading back to his hotel, he started composing the letter he would send to Murdoch before taking the afternoon train tomorrow, the one in which he'd explain what he'd done. He wasn't sure how his father would take it but then again, he couldn't see another option that would have worked. He took a leisurely stroll back to the Majestic hotel, stretching the kinks out of his back and running through the details that still had to be handled before he left on the train the next day. He would check back into his hotel for another night, write his letter and draft a set of instructions for the two former ranchers he'd hired that day to manage the newest Lancer enterprise.

"We're looking for Scott Lancer," Johnny told the desk clerk. He and Murdoch had arrived in town and come straight to the Majestic Hotel. It was the one Scott and Murdoch both favored in Stockton and they knew it was where Scott would choose to stay. "He still here?"

The desk clerk gave the trail-dusty young man a shocked once over but was interrupted before issuing a scathing reply he was crafting in his head by Murdoch's timely arrival. "Good afternoon, Wilson," he said. "We are looking for my son Scott. Is he checked in?"

"Mr. Lancer!" the clerk said, surprised. "We weren't expecting you!"

"It was a spur of the moment trip, Wilson. This is my younger son, Johnny. We've been riding for nearly two days and I fervently hope you have a room for us."

"Of course! We'll find one right away—"

"But first, is Scott here?" Johnny asked again, his natural impatience surfacing.

The clerk shook his head. "He checked out this morning, I'm afraid. Said he was taking the 10:30 train. He didn't leave a message for you….."

Johnny closed his eyes and turned around, his shoulder slumping with disappointment. And Murdoch dropped his head momentarily and leaned heavily on the counter. Finally he recovered his voice. "He wasn't expecting us," he said quietly. "We… we hoped to catch him before he left…." He sighed deeply, then spoke again. "Well, we'll need a room for the night, Wilson. Whatever you've got will be fine….."

Johnny looked at his father and caught his eye. "Maybe… maybe we oughta set out after the train."

Murdoch shook his head. "No, Johnny. The train left almost six hours ago. We couldn't possibly catch up with it."

"What if we just take the next train then? Follow him to St. Louis?"

"St. Louis is a big city, son. We wouldn't have any idea where to look for him there….:"

Johnny shook his head, disbelief and frustration clouding his eyes. "There must be something else we can do."

Murdoch finished signing the register the clerk had put before him and laid a hand over his younger son's shoulder to steer him toward the stairs. "I wish there was. But I'm afraid … I'm afraid there's not much we can do except have dinner and get a night's rest, and then head home. We'll have to wait until we hear from your brother. I'm… I'm sure he'll get in touch with you once he's settled somewhere."

Johnny's stomach felt sick at the idea of Scott settling anywhere but Lancer but he reluctantly let himself be led toward their room, following Wilson who kept up a monologue about how happy he was to have Mr. Lancer back in the hotel and how business was so unexpectedly good. Neither Murdoch nor Johnny listened as they individually dealt with a combination of physical exhaustion and a deep sense of failure at not reaching Scott before it was too late.

"If that damn bridge wasn't burned out, we'd have gotten here five, maybe six hours ago. Just in time—"

"We did our best, son," Murdoch said, feeling the same frustration at the various circumstances that had kept them from making the steady progress he'd envisioned when they set out. "Let's just pray we hear from him soon…."

Scott walked through the Majestic Hotel's lobby a minute later. He went straight to the front desk. A clerk he'd never seen before was manning the desk.

"Where's Mr. Wilson?" Scott asked him.

"He just stepped away. Perhaps I can help you, sir?" When Scott explained he'd checked out that morning and now needed to check back in. The clerk said the hotel was nearly full that night but there was one room remaining, on the fourth floor.

"That'll be fine," Scott said. "I have a trunk coming back from the rail station. It should be delivered in a little while. Would you have them bring it up please?" He asked the clerk to reserve a table for two in the dining room and went upstairs to have a bath before dining with Joe.

About an hour later, Murdoch Lancer came down the main staircase. He and Johnny planned to have a quiet dinner together, then call it a night. They were both exhausted and, having missed Scott, neither of them had any interest in staying away from home. The shock of having the family come apart was just giving way to new emotions, self-recrimination that they hadn't done enough to show him how they felt, and a growing sense of anger that Scott hadn't talked to either of them before just deciding to leave.

They planned to take the early stagecoach in the morning. Johnny had gone over to the stagecoach office to book their passage and would be back any moment.

Murdoch strolled into the dining room, surprised to see it was nearly full even at this, Stockton's traditional slow season.

"Mr. Lancer!" the maitre d' greeted him. "It's good to see you again, sir!"

"Hello, Pierre. Good to see you also." He scanned the room, hoping to spot an open table. "Do you have a table for two tonight?"

"Well, of course, Mr. Lancer," the Frenchman enthused. "We have your reservation right here! And your table is ready. Please… follow me!"

Murdoch smiled to himself. He would never have figured Johnny would think of reserving a table. It was more something Scott would do. Scott was the planner. Johnny lived in the moment…. The instinctive comparison his head went through brought back the pain of knowing his older son was gone. He sat down tiredly and ordered a double shot of scotch. He was sitting alone when Johnny entered the dining room.

"All set for tomorrow," he said quietly. "The stage leaves at 7:40." Johnny pulled out the other chair and looked around the room. "It's busy. But you got a good table….."

"It was the reservation you made. If we'd just walked in, I'm not sure they would have been able to take us."

"Reservation?" Johnny asked.

"It wasn't you? That's odd. Maybe Wilson made it for us. He probably overheard me say we'd eat here tonight….."

They both ordered and the food came quickly. They were most of the way through the meal when Joe Calder entered the room and looked around. "Murdoch!" he called, then started over.

Murdoch stood and shook his hand. "Joe! What a nice surprise to see you!"

"I guess you got the telegram. You made good time but—"

"Telegram? You sent me a telegram?"

"You didn't get it? I sent it two days ago—"

"If ya sent it two days ago, that's not enough time for us to get a telegram at Lancer and get here," Johnny said, taking a last swallow from his glass of milk. He shot Murdoch a sidelong glance. "'Least not traveling the usual way."

Calder looked confused. "Well… I guess it don't matter none now. But I sent you a telegram to let you know the stockyards have mostly all been bought by a new outfit. Comp'ny outa Nevada. And they ain't honorin' the contracts you put in place last year—"

"What?" Murdoch cut him off. "How can they get away with that? Those are valid contracts—"

"It don't matter now though, that's what I'm tryin' to tell ya," Joe said quickly.

"What do you mean? The Lancer herd will be driven into Stockton in eight weeks! We need stockyards—"

A man at the table next to him stood up and came over. "We been sayin' the same thing over here. We all got word 'bout the stockyards and come inta town. But them Pinnacle folks say they don't hafta honor those contracts."

"But it's okay—" Joe interrupted.

The stranger turned on him. "How can you say that? We're all on the edge of goin' under already. The prices they want, they'll drive us all out! I got no choice but to sell 'em my spread at whatever they're offerin'."

A chorus of voices echoed this sentiment. Joe Calder tried to get their attention but the anger of the men, and the liquor they'd been drinking, fueled the situation that quickly began to get out of hand. Another man, a rancher who'd had to sell out to Pinnacle earlier in the week came to stand behind Joe but even the two of them shouting couldn't get the attention of the rest of the room. The mood was turning ugly and the hotel manager appeared in the doorway, obviously trying to decide whether to call the authorities.

"Joe!" Murdoch yelled. "We need to talk, now! I want to know exactly what the heck is going on. And then we need a plan—"

"I'm tryin' ta tell ya there's no need ta—"

"How can you keep sayin' that—" Murdoch bellowed.

Johnny was watching the scene deteriorate with a combination of amusement and bewilderment. He wished Scott was here to see it too-- The thought quickly dissipated his earlier feeling as he realized he might never have the chance to share in that way with his older brother again. He sat back in his chair and picked up Murdoch's whiskey glass, swallowing down the last of the golden liquid as the controversy swirled around him.

The shouting grew louder and Joe Calder was about to give up on trying to get a word in when he felt a hand on his upper arm. He turned to see Scott Lancer standing behind him.

"What the hell is going on here?" Scott shouted.

"Scott!" Murdoch and Johnny both yelled, in unison. The older son turned to them, his shock at seeing them visible on his face.

"What are you doing here?" he asked. "The telegram could only have gotten to you yesterday—"

Joe Calder inserted himself into the conversation. "Scott! We need to tell these men 'bout your plan. 'Fore this gets worse…."

Scott dragged his attention away from his father and brother and looked at Joe. As the man's message sank in, he nodded quickly and started trying to get the attention of the room. Failing to do it by just shouting, he pulled a chair away from one of the tables and stood up on it. "Quiet down! Quiet down, and let me tell you what we're doing to fight back against Pinnacle….!"

The room grew quiet in about thirty seconds as people noticed Scott trying to get their attention. "I looked into this Pinnacle company and I'm expecting more information on them soon. They can't just have come out of nowhere. In the meantime though, we need stockyards. Lancer—" he stopped and looked at his father quickly, realizing all of this would be news to him, and he probably wouldn't agree with what Scott had done. He swallowed hard and barreled on, a little more quietly now that the room had grown silent. "…we bought the land past the end of the stockyards, all the way down to the river. Joe Calder's come on board as our in-house agent, and Deke Reynolds here—" he gestured to a man standing behind Joe, "and Walt Coleman both had to sell out to Pinnacle so they've taken on the job of building the stockyards we need. We've got the lumber contracts in place already and we'll have those yards ready for your herds when you get them here."

"Those yards'll be a distance from the railhead!" someone shouted from the area near the bar. "Ain't gonna be easy to get them beeves loaded—"

Scott raised both hands to try to quell the noise that was growing again. "I already talked with a friend at the railroad. They'll put in a short spur and move the cars down by our corrals--"

The mood in the room had shifted from one of anger to curiosity and even a bit of relief now.

"And one more thing. We'll honor all of your contracts that are already in place, at the price you negotiated—"

A cheer went up in the room and Scott had to wait for it to end before he could continue. "All of you, see Joe tomorrow and bring your contracts. And no one else sell out to Pinnacle. We have to stand together if this plan is going to work….."

Johnny had been standing to the side watching Scott handle the crowd. His sense of pride in his brother grew with each word the older man spoke. He wasn't sure if this all meant that Scott was staying in Stockton but… he had a growing sense of hope. Stockton wasn't Lancer but it was a whole lot closer than St. Louis and they'd be able to see each other now and then. The younger brother didn't particularly like Stockton but…. If his brother was there, he'd make a point of visiting often.

Beside him, Murdoch Lancer was also impressed by the way Scott had handled the crowd and the plan he'd put in place. But he had a growing sense of concern. Lancer had no extra capital right now, the drought had left them as close to the edge of disaster as he'd been in many years. So he knew there was only one place the funds for this new business could have come from."

"We'll set the business up as a cooperative—" Scott continued.

"A what?" "What the heck's that mean?" Several others in the room shouted similar questions.

"It means we'll jointly hold shares in the yards. Everyone who uses the stockyards will be a partner. Joe will explain it all tomorrow. In the meantime, everyone stand fast. Those of you who came to Stockton thinking you need to sell to Pinnacle, don't do anything until you speak with Joe. And any of you who've already sold, you can invest in the new stockyards now if you choose. If we play our cards right, Pinnacle may be looking to sell you back your spreads, at a better price than you sold to them…."

The cheering went on for some time, with people he didn't even know coming up to pump Scott's hand, or slap him on the back. He cast a few sidelong glances at his father but couldn't read Murdoch's mood. He resigned himself once again to not knowing how the man felt. But he could see the grin on Johnny's face and that warmed his heart. As soon as he could worm his way in, Johnny came up and threw an arm around Scott's shoulders."

"Boy, big brother! You sure know how ta s'prise a body! We thought ya left on the mornin' train."

"I planned to but…. Things came up. I… I'm taking the train tomorrow instead."

Murdoch had been standing to the side just listening but now he stepped in, putting a hand on Scott's other shoulder. "I- we can't stop you if that's what you want to do, son. But I'm not letting you go without us talking—"

"Murdoch, there's really nothing to say—" Scott felt his father's hand tighten around his upper arm, and the older man used the leverage of his height to turn his son toward the exit.

"Oh, I disagree," he said firmly. "And I am your father. I'm putting my foot down, once and for all….."

As they reached the door to their hotel room, Murdoch turned to Johnny. "I think your brother and I need some time alone—"

"No! There's nothing you can say to me that Johnny can't hear," Scott interrupted. "He's half owner of the ranch now—"

"No, he's not," Murdoch responded testily. "I didn't accept your resignation from the partnership—"

"You have no choice," Scott answered, growing angry. He'd worked it out with the family lawyer before he left Morro Coyo—"

"Ya just gave back your share?" Johnny interrupted.

"I gave half of it to you, half to Murdoch—"

"Boys, let's take this inside. Johnny… stay. If Scott's okay with it, so am I," Murdoch said firmly, using his key to open the door. "But there's no need for everyone in the hotel to overhear our family business."

He stepped aside and gestured for Scott to enter before him, then watched as Johnny followed behind him.

Scott came to a stop in the middle of the parlor, and bowed his head. He'd been raised better than this, and Murdoch knew it. Lately, his manners and reserve had slipped too often. He wasn't sure what was happening to him but it was part of what drove his decision to leave. He wasn't sure he recognized himself any more at times.

Murdoch closed the door quietly, then turned to his older son. "Scott, I know you must have used your own funds to make all of this happen today—"

The older son's temper rose. "Yes. My funds. I was able to get a short-term loan from the bank while some of my stocks are being liquidated. It's all on the up and up." A part of him shuddered to hear the challenging tone of his own words but something inside was driving him to wave that red flag in front of Murdoch.

"Whoa! Whoa, Scott," Johnny interrupted. "No need to get riled, brother. Murdoch's just askin' a question."

"No? Well, sorry if I disagree, Johnny. But everything you own's invested in Lancer. Everything Murdoch's got is tied up in that land and those cattle. I may have been an equal partner but somehow my money's not good enough—"

"That's not true!" Murdoch exploded. "That's not the reason I won't take your money. It's—it's just that…."

Johnny turned toward his father. "I never heard this before. Why won't ya let Scott help if he's got some money? We could use the extra now, with everything goin' on…."

Murdoch shook his head, not wanting to have this discussion now, or ever.

Scott sighed. "It's not important, Johnny," he said quietly. "It's – just the way it is."

"No, that's not good enough. Not if it makes ya think ya gotta leave, Scott!"

"All right!" Murdoch said angrily. "I don't want it because I swore a long time ago that not a single dollar of Harlan Garrett's money would ever be used to build Lancer! When he—he refused to give you back, he tried to buy me off. Enough money to establish the ranch quickly and permanently. I threw his money back in his face and told him it would be a cold day in hell before I took a cent from him for the ranch."

Scott's mouth opened in surprise, then he pressed his lips together. Yet again his grandfather had interfered in his life. He shook his head, and fisted his hands on his lean hips. "Well. I guess that explains it. But the joke's on both of us then because you should have asked me about the money. It's not from my grandfather. I inherited everything from my grandmother's family as the only grandchild. They didn't like Grandfather very much either. It was kept in trust for me until I turned twenty-one. I got control a few years back and invested well so it's worth a good deal more now."

Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his own head. "I—I should have asked, son," he said. "But… this isn't really about the money, is it? And it's not about the incident with the experimental prison either. That was just the last straw for you, son. Sam… told me some of what you said."

Scott felt himself flush with embarrassment. He'd regretted telling Sam about what he was feeling almost immediately after unburdening himself the other day. The doctor was a long-time friend of Murdoch's and he'd placed Sam in a difficult position. He should have known the doctor's loyalty to Murdoch would cause him to tell the other man what he'd said. It was yet another incident in which he'd let negative feelings slip out.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said, not able to look Murdoch in the eye. "That was… inappropriate on my part, telling him. Please just forget it—"

"No, Scott, I won't forget it. I can't—"

Scott glanced up in surprise, looking almost as if Murdoch had slapped him. He blinked several times, then lowered his head again. "Well… I'm leaving in the morning so…"

"Scott! I'm fed up with this tiptoeing around something that should have been said a long time ago," Murdoch responded forcefully. He saw Johnny step away from the wall as he prepared to intervene if this got ugly and he held up his hand to halt his progress. "Sam told me this situation between us wasn't your fault, or my fault. That it was both our faults. But… he's wrong. I'm the parent here and I have the greater responsibility. Son, I…." He paced toward the window and stared out for a minute as though collecting his thoughts. He had never found it easy to talk about his feelings and years of living alone had only ingrained that further. But this was perhaps the most important conversation he might ever have.

The only sound in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner. Finally Murdoch turned around and his eyes briefly landed on Johnny, then he turned his full attention to Scott.

"I loved both of your mothers. But as Johnny knows, his mother and I were probably never meant to be together. He—he was the only good thing to come out of that relationship and… eventually it burned itself out. I didn't expect her to leave but looking back, I know how she came to that decision. I—can't forgive her for having taken your brother – and exposing him to a life he should never have known – but I can look back and admit that our love had died." His eyes flickered to his younger son who was staring at him, a mixture of sadness and sympathy on his face.

Murdoch looked back at his older son. "Scott, your mother was the love of my life. If she hadn't died, I would never have looked at another woman the rest of my life. She was… my wife, my best friend and my partner….."

Scott swallowed down a ball of emotion that had suddenly lodged in his throat. He closed his eyes briefly and struggled to reestablish his control. "I understand. I'm the reason she died…."

"No! No, that's not what I'm saying at all, son! I don't question God's plan, no matter how hard it is to understand sometimes. If she had lived, I think we would have had a houseful of children but… but there'd be no Johnny." He glanced at his younger boy whose head had snapped up after the last words, his eyes brimming with tears. "No, Scott, things happen as they should even when we don't fully understand why. What I'm saying is that…. I loved you, son, even before you were born. Before you were even conceived, when your mother and I were talking about the children we hoped God would give us, I already loved you. Losing her and you, well, I very nearly didn't survive that."

Scott stared at him in open surprise.

"I made assumptions about you, Scott. You're reserved and so well-mannered, you were even as a small boy. It was easy to think you'd somehow just know how I felt. That I love you. That I love you and your brother more than life…."

Scott drew in a ragged breath but he didn't trust himself to speak. He stared at the floor in front of him, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Son, I can't make you stay but… I'm asking you to give it another try. I know you love Johnny, and Theresa. After hearing what you accomplished here in Stockton this last day, I know you love Lancer. I'd like to think that you might feel the same about me some day…."

Scott swallowed hard and slowly raised his eyes to see his father was staring directly at him, his eyes filled with emotion. "I—I already do, Father," he whispered. "I think that's why I was—why I thought I couldn't stay. It's hard… to love someone who doesn't love you back."

Murdoch blinked back tears as he came forward and gathered his firstborn child in his massive arms. "Son, if you do nothing else, you have to forgive me for letting you think, for even one moment, that I didn't love you." He felt Scott's head come to rest on his shoulder and he pulled the younger man tighter into his embrace. He rested his cheek on the top of Scott's golden head and saw Johnny was still standing in place, tears of relief and happiness running down his own cheeks. Murdoch smiled at the boy then raised one arm and silently beckoned him. "I've got two shoulders, son," he said as Johnny came into his embrace also. He held them both for a minute before they each pulled back, a little embarrassed by the uncharacteristic show of emotion on all of their parts. Scott ran a hand over his face and Johnny used his sleeve to wipe away an errant tear or two.

Murdoch placed a hand on one of Scott's shoulders. "About that train tomorrow…."

Scott smiled tiredly. "I—I guess I'll turn in my ticket in the morning—"

"Where is it?" Johnny asked. "I'll run over to the station and get your money back now. No need to wait 'til mornin'…."

Two hours later, Murdoch Lancer turned down the lamp in the main room of their hotel suite. He'd asked the manager for another room next door but the hotel was full and they couldn't provide one. Still Murdoch hadn't wanted to let Scott go back to his room on the fourth floor alone. There were two beds in the bedroom of their suite and he suggested his sons could use the larger one while he took the smaller. At first Scott had demurred, seeming to want to go off and be by himself but the father knew that wasn't the right thing to let him do tonight. He mentioned that the hotel was turning away other guests, ranchers who had come to town after receiving their telegrams about Pinnacle and that was all it took to get his older boy to give up his room.

He'd asked the hotel to send up a plate of sandwiches so Scott could eat and between bites, Scott had filled Murdoch and Johnny in on his stockyard plan when Johnny returned from the train station. Murdoch smiled to himself remembering how the younger son had wheedled and pestered his brother to give him the ticket instead of waiting until morning to get his refund from the railroad. Johnny was obviously taking no chances that Scott would change his mind.

He opened the bedroom door, and the low light from the parlor spilled into the bedroom where his sons slept peacefully in the large bed. Scott was turned on his side, facing Johnny, one arm extended toward the younger boy. Johnny lay sprawled on his stomach, his head turned toward Scott. Murdoch had heard them talking together quietly for a few minutes before emotional and physical exhaustion overtook the both of them. He stood there for a moment, watching them, these sons of his, and thought how young they both looked in sleep. "God, here they are," he silently prayed. "You blessed me with these boys, and you brought them home. Now show me how to make sure they stay – safe, happy, together. I'm leaving it in your hands—but feel free kick me in the butt if I screw it up again. You know there's nothing more important in my life…."