Author's Note: This is a story written nearly 20 years ago. I used a program to translate it from an old file. It needed a lot of work to clean it up, so if you find a duplicated sentence or paragraph, that's the reason. Poohbear-29, this is for you.
A Western Mystery based on the TV series "Lancer"
Chapter 1: On the Range
Lancer Ranch, San Joaquin Valley, California, April 1871
Johnny Lancer ducked his head under the flow from the pump, reveling in the feel of the cold water washing away hours of grime and sweat. Eyes closed with the pleasure of it, he threw his head back and shook the water from his black hair like a shaggy dog. The liquid ran down his neck to soak the back of his soon-to-be-changed shirt.
But as the water cleared from his ears, he heard the frantic pounding of hoof beats.
Johnny snapped out of his reverie. His right hand dived instinctively to the holster tied snugly against his thigh. His left hand brought up a corner of the towel that hung over his shoulder.
He wiped the moisture from his eyes, then relaxed when he got a clear view of the breakneck rider.
Son of the telegraph operator in Spanish Wells, Adam Jeffers was often sent out to deliver those messages that his father judged too important to wait until someone happened to be heading in the right direction. Young Adam took his duties seriously, battling floods and blizzards, Indians and outlaws, and all other sorts of imaginary hazards to bring news to the outlying ranches.
As his pinto pony pounded toward the "safety" of the Lancer gate, Adam bent low over the animal's neck. He half-turned to fire his finger at his pursuers with what was undoubtedly uncanny accuracy, Johnny recognized.
Roaring through the gate, Adam pulled his pony to a dramatic, sliding halt. The spirited pinto tossed its head and danced, ready to run the imaginary race all over again.
"Better watch yourself, Adam. Looked like they almost got you that time," Johnny commented as he approached the messenger.
The tow-headed youngster grinned. Some adults berated him for his wild riding, but Johnny was making up for a stunted childhood by refusing to grow up entirely. He treated children's fantasies with the same respect as adult dreams, and was always willing to join in the exploitation of either.
"Hi, Johnny," Adam said, sliding off the pinto. "I've got a telegram for Scott. Is he around? Pa said it was important. Came all the way from Boston!"
Adam, who had never been farther east than Green River, was awed at the thought.
Johnny was intrigued. Since his brother had spent most of his life in Boston, it wasn't surprising for him to get a letter from there — but a telegram?
"Scott's in the barn with Murdoch, bedding down a sick calf. I'll see he gets it," the younger Lancer said, holding out his hand.
The boy pulled back the telegram protectively.
"No, sir! I'm bound to deliver this to Mr. Scott Lancer personally!"
"How come? You think I'm gonna steal it from my own brother?" Johnny asked in surprise.
"'Course not," the boy said scornfully. "But I intend to hand this to Scott with my own hands."
Adam spoke seriously, but Johnny thought he detected a twinkle in the boy's eye. Suspicious, feeling he was being set up for a fall, Johnny asked why.
"Because Scott tips better'n you," Adam replied, laughing.
"Why you little sidewinder," Johnny snarled in mock menace. "Nobody makes fun of Johnny Madrid and lives to tell about it."
Johnny began to stalk the youngster, uttering imaginative threats. Laughing aloud, Adam dodged and danced to stay out of Johnny's clutches.
"Help, oh, help!" the boy cried in mocking terror. "The big bad gunfighter is going to get me!"
The ruckus drew spectators from the ranch house.
"What in tarnation is going on out here?" a loud voice complained. "Can't a body get ready for supper without being pestered by a pack of loco coyotes?"
The square-cut beard on Jelly Hoskins' jutting beard quivered indignantly, enhancing his resemblance to a billy goat. The slender girl at his side wiped her hands on her apron and added her playful protests to Jelly's.
"What are you two up to?" Teresa asked.
"I'm going to teach this half-pint skunk a lesson in manners," Johnny declared without taking his eyes from his slippery prey. "He implied I'm not fit to be trusted with a telegram for Scott."
"That only proves the boy is a good judge of character, brother," said a new voice from the direction of the barn.
Johnny looked up. In his moment of inattention, Adam dodged around him and headed toward the younger of the two grinning men who approached the porch.
The older man was bigger than either of his sons, tall and broad-shouldered. His craggy, rough-hewn face was the kind that weathers rather than wrinkles with age. Murdoch Lancer moved with a youthful stride. Only his white hair and a hint of excess flesh around his waist told the true number of his years.
The fair-haired young man beside him was nearly a match for his father in height, but not in breadth. He was as slender as a willow, with all that tree's grace of movement and elastic strength. Scott inherited his fine features and his build from his Boston-bred mother, but the square cut of his jaw and the calm strength in his gray eyes was pure Lancer.
Johnny straightened up as Adam flashed past.
Johnny was the odd Lancer out. His oval face and nearly black hair were the legacies of his Mexican mother, but his fair skin and ice blue eyes told the tale of his half-blood. A head shorter than his father and brother, his modest stature came in part from a poorly nourished childhood. But size is no measure of deadliness. Ask any rattlesnake.
Laughing at the boy's quickness, Johnny looked far from dangerous at that moment.
The young messenger halted in front of Scott and drew himself up in a sharp military salute.
"Sir! I have an important message for you!" he said briskly, reverting to his earlier game. "Despite enemy spies, road agents …" He threw a scornful glance at Johnny, "… and all manner of bandits, I am delivering this message directly to your hand, sir!"
Scott returned the salute crisply, old habit bringing his heels together and cocking the arm at just the right angle.
"You've done well, Mr. Jeffers," he said gravely. "I commend your dedication and devotion to duty. I would like to present you with the Medal of Honor with four oak leaf clusters, but unfortunately the quartermaster gave away the last one yesterday. I hope you will accept this small token of my appreciation."
Scott pressed a coin into the boy's hand, took the telegram, then saluted again. The boy mimicked the gesture.
"Thank you, sir," Adam said smartly, as Scott moved toward the porch. Then the boy looked at what he held and the game deserted him. "Gosh, Scott!"
The fair-haired Lancer just smiled and opened his telegram.
Johnny peeked over Adam's shoulder and saw the two bits the boy held — a quarter of a man's daily wage. The younger Lancer raised his eyebrows.
"You're right," he said softly. "He does tip better'n me."
The concern in Teresa's voice brought Johnny around quick as a cat.
Scott's face had turned as pale as his hair. He groped behind him, found the porch bench and sat down heavily without taking his eyes from the telegram.
With a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, Adam realized he'd brought bad news.
Johnny hunkered on the porch at Scott's feet, trying to see up into his brother's face. Teresa moved to Scott's side and laid a light hand on his shoulder.
"Scott?" she said softly.
It was another long moment before Scott spoke in a husky voice.
"It's from my cousin Caroline in Boston. She says my grandfather has been taken seriously ill. His heart. The doctor doesn't …" Scott swallowed. " … doesn't expect him to recover."
His friends and family were silent. Scott stared at the paper for a long time, then he looked up to meet his father's worried eyes.
"I have to go home," Scott said. "I have to go back to Boston."
Murdoch's concerned expression didn't change, but Jelly's sharp eyes spotted the sudden spasm that clenched the man's fist. His voice, however, was matter of fact when he answered Scott's plea.
"Of course you do. Adam …" The boy started as being called back into the conversation. "… when's the next train east."
Such information was a telegrapher's stock in trade. Adam and his father both had the local time tables memorized.
"Not 'til tomorrow — four o'clock in the afternoon from Cross Creek," the boy recited after a moment's thought. "You're lucky. It's the Hotel Express, top of the line, direct from Sacramento with Pullman cars and …" His voice took on a note of awe. "… a real restaurant car."
Scott was too preoccupied and too widely traveled to be impressed with the West's latest luxury.
"Then I'll leave in the morning," he decided. He looked a question at Murdoch who nodded agreement.
Scott excused himself and went slowly to his room. None of his family took his eyes off Scott until he vanished into the house. Even then, it was another moment before the silent, motionless spell was broken.
Adam shuffled his feet, cleared his throat and said, "Well, I guess I'd better be getting home."
The others stirred, remembering their manners.
"Won't you stay for supper?" Teresa asked.
"I'd best not, Miss Teresa. Ma'll be expecting me," the boy said as he swung into the saddle. He started to ride out, then hesitated. "I'm really sorry, Mr. Lancer," he burst out. "Pa didn't tell me the telegram was bad news or I wouldn't have been horsing around with it,"
Murdoch was drawn out of his preoccupation with Scott. He patted the boy's knee kindly. "Of course. We knew that, Adam. Don't give it another thought. You didn't do anything wrong," he said gently, but somewhat absently. His eyes returning to the door where his elder son vanished.
Adam thought he ought to say something else, but he didn't know what. He turned his horse and rode away at a subdued canter, out of deference to the sad occasion.
Murdoch watched the boy for a moment, then went into the house followed by Jelly. Teresa picked up her bucket and went to draw water from the pump, her original reason for coming out of the house.
Johnny remained squatting by the porch steps. He turned a small stone over and over in the dust, concentrating on that small task as if it had earth-shaking importance. Finally he stood up, bringing the stone with him. His eyes on the far horizon, he tossed the stone from hand to hand and spoke to his father's ward.
"Teresa, do you think I'm a bad person?"
Teresa O'Brien gave a small laugh. "Well, the church doesn't collapse when you walk inside."
"No, I'm serious," Johnny said. ""Do you think my past has made me … hard?"
Teresa could tell Johnny was serious because he wouldn't meet her eyes. She sat on the edge of the water trough and thought carefully about her answer.
There had been a time when she would have called Johnny Lancer, then Johnny Madrid, a bad person. She hadn't much cared for Johnny or Scott when they'd first met.
Teresa was fiercely loyal to Murdoch Lancer. She had grown up on Lancer and Murdoch had virtually adopted her after her father, his Segundo and best friend, was killed in an ambush.
The slow-healing wound he'd received in the same ambush and the sudden death of most of his allies had left the aging rancher unable to cope with raiders trying to grab his land. So he put his pride aside — perhaps remembering that pride was the fatal sin in those Greek classics he loved to read — and he sent for the sons he'd never known.
Teresa knew Murdoch had swallowed his pride to ask for help. At first she hadn't thought they were worth it — one stuck up, Boston dandy and one surly, half-breed gunfighter. She was angered by their hostility toward Murdoch. But she'd soon learned Scott's reserve and Johnny's bitterness were just the shells they'd built during their fatherless childhoods. Once those shells were cracked, Teresa found her loyalties divided as surely as the Lancer Ranch had been — into three equal parts.
"Do you have to think about it so long?" Johnny asked plaintively, breaking the flow of her memories.
Teresa smiled fondly at the ex-gunfighter. "You know I don't think you're a bad person, Johnny. Why would you even think such a thing?"
Johnny fidgeted restlessly and replied, "When Scott said his grandfather might be dying, my first thought was, 'good riddance'."
"He gave her a sorry-looking smile of apology.
"I knew you'd think that was bad. I guess I think it's pretty bad myself. But after what he's done, I just can't feel sorry that he'll be out of our hair forever."
"Don't you let Scott hear you say that," Teresa warned.
"I wouldn't do that," Johnny protested. "I know Scott loves that old buzzard, though I'm blamed if I know why. Maybe old Harlan did raise Scott, but he almost got him killed that time he came out here. He tried to blackmail Scott into going back to Boston, making him think he could send Murdoch up on a murder charge. Then his accomplices turn around try to hold Harlan up, shooting Scott in the process. And that doesn't even count what happened 25 years ago, stealing Scott when he was a baby and using his money and his fancy Eastern lawyers to keep Murdoch from getting him back!"
Exasperated, Teresa said, "I know all that, Johnny Lancer! But that's all in the past. I don't like what he did either, but it isn't our place to sit in judgment on him. Everything Harlan Garrett did, he did to Murdoch or Scott. He never did anything to me or you. If they can forgive him, why can't you?"
"Maybe that's why, Teresa. Maybe that's why."
Johnny sat on the opposite corner of the watering trough. He gazed at the setting sun while Teresa watched him, troubled by his bitterness. Then a thought caused the corner of her mouth to quirk up.
"'Judge not lest ye be judged,' Johnny Madrid," she said lightly, so that what could have been a reprimand was more of a joke.
Johnny snorted. He weighed the stone in his hand, then gave it a hard look, before he finally turned to meet her smiling eyes.
"I guess I shouldn't be the one to cast the first stone, huh?"
"You've lived down your past, Johnny. Can't Harlan live down his?"
He looked back at the sunset. She watched in silence as unhappy thoughts twisted his features again. She waited patiently, knowing Johnny hadn't gotten to the real point yet. Like a cat, Johnny had to walk clear around a problem before he'd tackle it. The silence went on so long Teresa started when Johnny jumped to his feet and threw away the stone violently.
"Damn it, Teresa. I don't trust that man!" he burst out. "What if this is another trick to get Scott to go back to Boston?"
"But he promised no more tricks."
"He's broken promises before."
Teresa shook her head.
"I don't think he would break this one, Johnny."
"But what if he did?"
"What if! OK, if you can't trust Harlan, then trust Scott," Teresa said. "If he goes to Boston and finds his grandfather isn't sick, then he'll be angry and he'll come home."
"Yeah, he'll be angry, and hurt again. And if Harlan is really dying, he'll still be hurt … and he'll be alone. I've been alone, Teresa. I was alone when my mother died. I was alone most of my life. No one should have to go through that alone."
"Then ask Murdoch if you can go with him. That's what you really want, isn't it?" Teresa said perceptively.
"I can't!" Johnny almost shouted. "It's calving time. Murdoch needs every hand he can get. And he's got those men coming from Sacramento to discuss water rights. I can't ask him to let me go, too. It wouldn't be fair."
Teresa had no answer for the family loyalties that tore Johnny in two frustrating directions. After searching futilely for some comforting words, she finally patted the dark-haired man on his shoulder and went inside to finish fixing a dinner she knew no one would want.
But before she went to the kitchen she told Murdoch about Johnny's fears. She had known Murdoch Lancer longer than both his sons combined. She trusted him to find the safest path out of the desert.
Dinner was as dismal as Teresa expected. She and Jelly tried to include the others in the conversation, but the Lancers were preoccupied. Scott kept his eyes on his plate and toyed with his food. Johnny ate without tasting, worried eyes on his brother. Murdoch stared off into the distance without touching his food at all.
Finally Jelly gave up and wolfed down his food, before asking to be excused.
"A fella can't hardly find his food for all the gloom in here," he commented tartly as he left.
He didn't go far. He lingered in the shadows of Murdoch's study until the others thanked Teresa politely and left the table.
Johnny trailed Scott to his room while Murdoch crossed the living room to the darkened corner that served as his study. The lamps still unlit, he sat behind the desk and rubbed his eyes tiredly.
"What's eatin' you, boss?" Jelly asked from the shadows, making Murdoch jump. The Lancer patriarch grimaced.
"What are you hiding there for?" he complained.
"I'm not hiding," Jelly lied with dignity. "I'm fetchin' wood for the fireplace. Now I answered your question. You gonna answer mine? You're not still frettin' about what Scott said, about 'goin' home' to Boston, are you? Why that was just a slip of the tongue."
It was plain from the expression on Murdoch's face that Jelly had read him correctly. Murdoch had thought Scott considered Lancer his home.
When Murdoch didn't reply, Jelly continued his rough comforting.
"Well, I reckon a body can consider two places home, don't you?" he huffed.
"Yes, you're right, Jelly, of course," Murdoch said a little impatiently. "That's not what's bothering me."
"Then what? From the way you're actin', you'd think it was your grandfather dyin', 'stead of a fella you've been feudin' with for near thirty years."
Murdoch could see he wasn't going to get any peace until he satisfied this hand who was virtually a member of the family.
"Jelly, what if Harlan is really sick. Who's going to take care of him?"
"Oh!" Jelly looked startled and sat down suddenly to ponder this unexpected notion.
"Well, I suppose he's got servants and such," he said uncertainly.
"Yes, but would that satisfy Scott?"
"No. No, that boy of yours has got a powerful sense of duty."
"That's what I'm afraid of. Scott is Harlan's heir, his only immediate relative. Johnny and I at least have each other, and you and Teresa; but Harlan doesn't have anyone but Scott. If Harlan's really sick, where would Scott's duty lie?"
Jelly looked sick himself. "Then you think he might stay in Boston?"
"It was duty that brought him out here in the first place. It might be duty that takes him away. And if it did, how could I object?" Murdoch asked.
Jelly didn't have an answer.
The fair-haired Lancer blinked and turned from where he had been desultorily packing a small valise. Johnny leaned against the jamb of the open door. He smiled tentatively, fidgeting with a book he held.
"Uh, need any help?" he asked, indicating the valise on the bed.
Scott looked back at the bed as if he didn't know what Johnny was talking about. Then he ran his fingers through his hair and smiled at himself. When he shared that smile with Johnny, the dark-haired Lancer was glad to see a return to the present in his brother's eyes.
"No, there isn't much to pack," Scott said. "I can't carry much on horseback and I won't need much in Boston anyway."
"I suppose you've got a whole wardrobe of clothes in Boston, hmm?" Johnny said, flopping on Scott's bed.
"I don't suppose grandfather threw anything out, if that's what you mean," Scott said, sorting through clothes with more decision than he'd shown for hours.
"No, I don't suppose he did," Johnny agreed.
Scott held up a suit and studied it.
"I'm afraid most of these clothes would look …" He discarded a dozen adjectives before he chose "… out of place in Boston."
"I suppose," Johnny said. He lounged on the bed, comfortable as a cat, watching Scott pack. "You sure you've got everything you need? How about money?"
"Murdoch gave me a third of what was in the safe, and a little extra, or my mathematics are off."
Johnny shrugged away Murdoch's largess as being exactly what he would have expected.
"It's more than enough for the train ticket, and I shouldn't need much spending money in Boston." He grinned playfully. "Even if I have to stay for awhile, there shouldn't be much problem about money. I'll have free lodging at grandfather's house, and I could dine out for months by telling stories about cattle drives and outlaws …" He gave Johnny a quick, playful grin. "… and gunfighters I have known."
Johnny hid his grin with his hand.
"Maybe you could hire a hall," he suggested with light sarcasm. "Charge admission?"
"Maybe," Scott said.
While Scott rummaged for some things in a bureau drawer, Johnny lay back and stared at the ceiling.
"Scott, do you think you're going to have to be gone 'awhile'."
Scott leaned on the bureau for along time without answering. Finally he met his brother's questioning eyes in the mirror.
"I don't know, Johnny. It depends on how sick grandfather is," he said honestly.
He jammed the last items into the valise and strapped it up savagely; then he leaned on the bed, head hanging.
"He always said he was never sick a day in his life. I never knew he had a heart problem. But of course he wouldn't have told me."
"It might be something that developed as he got older, like Jelly's rheumatiz'," Johnny said judiciously.
Scott managed a faint smile in recognition of the family joke, but his attitude remained serious.
"I'm scared, Johnny," he said quietly. "If grandfather dies …"
Johnny sprang up, full of energy, and slapped Scott on the back.
"Shoot! Old Harlan isn't going to die. He's too tough. He raised you, didn't he? Put up with you for 24 years? If he can survive that, he can survive anything."
"Thanks a lot," Scott said sarcastically. But he was smiling again, faintly but definitely.
"It's getting late. I ought to let you get to bed," Johnny said.
He suddenly thrust at Scott the book he'd been fiddling with since he entered the room.
"Here, I took this off Murdoch's shelves. Something to keep you occupied on the long train ride."
Scott looked at the book — Homer's "Odyssey."
"Murdoch says it's about a fella coming home from a war, even though all kinds of troubles try to keep him from getting there."
Scott, whose years at Harvard included a complete course in the classics, nodded gravely. "I believe I've heard of it," he said.
"I thought …" Johnny let it trail off. He stood uncomfortably in the doorway, then blurted, "Just don't take twenty years to get back home, brother.
To Be Continued