A/N: This is it. The big finale.
Chapter 16: Home Sweet Home
"Don't you see, Murdoch," Johnny said loudly, drawing Caroline's attention away from Scott. "You ought to recognize it best of all. It's that same Garrett pride, that same damned Garrett stubbornness that took Scott away from you for twenty years! Now she wants to take him away for good! Oh, she's a Garrett all right — prideful, stubborn and crazy as bedbugs, the whole lot of them!"
"That's a lie!" Caroline shrieked, bunching her fists in anger and squeezing the pistol she held. The hammer locked back with a click that seemed to shake the room.
Caroline started, her dead man's advantage gone, and fumbled for the trigger. Johnny dove for his gun, half-rolled to clear Scott's body, and blew the pistol out of Caroline's hand just as she fired.
The window shattered, raining glass on the street where the constables' sturdy driver stood guard over an unresisting Fraser.
A horrible gobbling sound broke the silence that followed. Caroline cradled the bloody wreck of her hand and blubbered to herself, her mind as broken as her fingers.
MacGregor turned from assuring himself that Scott's reopened wound had stopped bleeding by itself, and bundled Caroline away to the operating room.
Wes and Murdoch gently lifted Scott to his ravaged bed, but Scott didn't have any attention for them.
"Johnny," he croaked, gesturing to catch Murdoch's attention.
The youngest Lancer lay where he had dropped, face buried on his outstretched arms, hands still clenched around his gun.
Fear gripped Murdoch for a moment, but he knew Caroline's bullet had gone out the window. He took Johnny's gun away and guided his son to a chair.
Johnny's frozen emotions had thawed with a vengeance. Suppressed fear sought an outlet. It had been very, very close. Only Johnny understood just how desperate a shot it had been.
The youngest Lancer trembled all over, but gave Murdoch a triumphant smile.
"I guess I'm not sorry I didn't go to school after all," he told his baffled father.
But Scott understood.
"Amen, brother. A-men," he said.
Lancer Ranch, California, April 1872 (One year later)
The leaves on the big oaks were beginning to bud in the heat that betokened a short spring and a long, dry summer in the San Joaquin Valley.
Montana chased a stray back to the growing herd and paused to wipe the sweat from his forehead. Judging by what the long-time Lancer hands had told him, they had rounded up most of the strays in this sector. Another couple of days and they'd be moving the cattle to the summer pasture near the river.
Montana turned his horse back to the hills, when a flash of red caught his eye. A rider had paused a long-legged chestnut on the crest of the hill where the road topped it.
The cowhand stared, standing in his stirrups for a better view.
"What the devil is that?" he asked his companion, Frank, a veteran Lancer hand.
The black man studied the strange rider's scarlet jacket, white breeches and black cap. The rider studied the view, his gaze wandering over the Lancer ranch, which, from that spot, stretched as far as the eye could see.
"I never saw anything like it," Frank admitted judiciously. "Nice horse, though.
The rider started down the hill, ignoring the road. He picked his way at first, gradually urging the horse to greater speed, heading cross-country.
The two vaqueros noted the stranger's method of riding was as odd as his outfit. He stood in the stirrups, instead of sitting properly on the horse. And, though he was heading toward the ranch house, you couldn't say he was going directly there. There was nothing direct about his progress. He rode a zigzag course, purposely aiming the horse at obstacles over which the animal flew with hardly a break in stride.
A creek, a bush, a clump of rocks, a wire fence, and the rider was as close to the vaqueros as he was going to get. He doffed his hat and waved it.
"He's heading toward the house," Montana observed. "Should we stop him and see what he wants?"
"Nope," Frank replied. "He's got more right there than we do."
Montana turned in surprise and was more surprised to see the usually dour black man returning the rider's wave with a broad grin on his face.
"Who is it?" the new hand asked.
"You've been here what, three months?" Frank asked by way of reply. At Montana's nod, he continued. "Then you wouldn't know, but that's Mr. Lancer's other son, the one who's been back East."
"That's Scott Lancer?" Montana exclaimed incredulously, watching the dandified rider. "That's one of our bosses? That's a rancher?"
The Negro spurred his horse after Scott. Whooping and firing gunshots in the air, he attracted the attention of Johnny who was searching for strays farther along. The youngest Lancer wiped the sweat from his eyes and peered in the direction of the noise, which grew as the older hands paid tribute to Scott's return.
Johnny stood open-mouthed as his brother swept by with a jaunty salute and without stopping. With a yell of delight, the former gunfighter spurred Barranca after the cocky rider in red.
The sturdy cowpony made up ground for a bit, but couldn't keep up with the thoroughbred's deceptively easy stride over the long run. Johnny eased the palomino back from his breakneck pace, but continued on as rapidly as he could.
Jelly Hoskins wandered into the living room and found Murdoch at his desk, submerged in the ranch books.
"Checkin' up on Johnny, boss?" the old wrangler asked.
"What?" Murdoch said, coming up for air slowly.
With an exaggerated sigh of patience, Jelly repeated his question and added, "I saw him sittin' up 'til all hours last night, chewin' on his lip and pressin' so hard with that pen you'd a thought he was drivin' railroad spikes instead'a dottin' I's."
Murdoch smiled as he glanced at the last figures in the ledger.
"Johnny asked me to check over his work. I'm afraid he's not as confident with numbers as he is with cattle. But I don't think he should worry so much," he added with a smile, as he closed the book. "As far as I can tell, his figures are perfect."
The Lancer patriarch rubbed his tired eyes.
"It'll get better when Scott gets back, boss," Jelly said stoutly. "You won't have to shoulder so much of the book work then."
"I'm not sure he's coming back, Jelly," Murdoch said quietly. "It's been three weeks since we heard from him."
Jelly yanked off his old railroad cap and slapped it against his knee in disgust.
"There's nothin' more pitiful that a man who don't know his own son better'n that!" he began. It was the prelude to a longer speech, but a fusillade of far-off shots interrupted him.
"What the devil is that?" Murdoch growled, grabbing his gun belt.
The two men rushed out to the veranda where they saw a distant but familiar palomino pursuing a bounding chestnut. They tensed, then relaxed when it became obvious that Johnny wasn't shooting at the intruder, but into the air in high spirits. The sound of his whooping was carried on the wind.
"What in tarnation …?" Jelly began, but the look on Murdoch's face stopped him.
"It's Scott," Murdoch said. He ran back to the door. "Teresa! It's Scott!" he shouted. He ran back to the railing, where he looked at the rider as if trying to memorize every line.
Finally, he jumped down the steps into the yard to greet his eldest son.
Scott heard his brother's shouts behind him, saw the rest of his family gathered in front of the house, and laughed.
The sight of Lancer, the smell of the spring foliage, the feel of a flying horse had raised a joyous exhilaration in him. He was free again at last.
In the last few months, he'd been pampered and coddled and fussed over until he was plain sick of it. He'd spend his days content if he never again heard anyone ask, "How are you feeling today?" in that particular worried tone of voice.
Scott wasn't about to let his California family get started. He was bound and determined to distract their minds — by playing the fool if necessary — and to demonstrate that he was fully fit again. He wanted, most fervently, for things to get back to normal.
So he left Johnny in the dust and urged his hunter toward the highest gate of the corral in front of the ranch house.
"He'll never make it," Jelly predicted gloomily. "No cow pony can jump that gate."
"I'll take that bet, Jelly," Murdoch replied in high good humor, without taking his eyes off his son. "In case you hadn't noticed, that's no cow pony."
The chestnut soared a good foot over the high gate, put in two short strides and leaped over the lower corral fence, before easing to a halt in the yard.
Scott sprang from the English saddle and thumped the thoroughbred filly on the neck before turning to Murdoch, Jelly and Teresa. The girl ran forward, then turned suddenly shy. Scott looked so strange.
Scott tucked his cap under his arm and grinned at them.
"Isn't anyone going to say hello?" he asked finally.
So, of course, everyone started to talk at once. Jelly and Teresa fell silent, to let the boss get the first word in.
"Welcome home, son," he said, enfolding Scott's hand in a warm embrace that said more than Murdoch could ever say aloud. Scott wouldn't settle for that, though. He flung an arm around the big man's neck and slapped his back.
Then Scott turned to Teresa, who hovered close, as if she wanted to hug Scott but was afraid he'd break. Scott would allow none of that. He picked her up and swept her around in a giddy circle. She hugged him then, without reservations.
Finally Scott turned to Jelly, who'd taken the reins of Scott's horse. The wrangler studied the horse with exaggerated care, but had to clear his throat twice before he could ask, "What's this critter, a horse or a bird?"
"Both, Jelly," Scott laughed, slapping the grizzled hand on the shoulder. "She's a thoroughbred hunter. Her name is Peregrine."
"Pair a what?"
"Peregrine, Jelly. It's a falcon, a kind of hawk," Scott said. "Take good care of her. She's a gift from grandfather."
Jelly humphed. "Come on you lop-eared, good-for-nothin', flea-bitten, bag'a'bones," he told the animal whose pedigree went back further than his own.
The horse blew contentedly down the man's neck, then turned her head to eye the palomino that thundered through the main gate.
Johnny flew from his horse, carrying Barranca's momentum with him as he threw himself at his brother. He filled the air with excited questions, which ended with a yelp as Scott dodged Johnny's charge, caught his arm and twisted it behind his brother's back.
The pressure of the armlock forced Johnny up on his toes where he surrendered, laughing.
"Oh, not so fast, brother," Scott said through teeth that were gritted in a grin. "First you've got to apologize for attacking me like a wild Indian."
Johnny apologized quickly.
"And then you're going to give me a chance to wash off the trail dust and relax over one of Teresa's dinners, before you start barraging me with questions. Do I have your word?"
Johnny felt the strength in Scott's grip and remembered the sureness of his whirlwind attack. He realized Scott had answered, in his brotherly fashion, the only question Johnny had really worried about.
The younger brother felt his shoulder creak as Scott tightened his grip.
"I promise. I promise," Johnny said hastily.
Scott released him.
Johnny regarded his brother thoughtfully, then sighed with pleasure.
"Brother, you're a sight for sore eyes — among other things," he said, rubbing his shoulder.
Scott laughed and tousled Johnny's hair. They walked into the ranch house, arms wrapped around each other's shoulders.
Scrubbed clean and dressed more appropriately, pleasantly replete Teresa's finest, short-notice meal, and comfortably tired from his long trip, Scott leaned back in his chair and fingered his brandy snifter.
Scattered around the living room, the others eyed him expectantly.
"I think we've been more than patient, son," Murdoch hinted.
"Yeah, come on, brother, talk," Johnny urged with less subtlety.
Scott laughed. "Where should I start? You already know the beginning."
"Start with the trial," Murdoch ordered. "We haven't heard from you since it started."
"No," Scott admitted. "I was busy then and when it was over, I left town as soon as I decently could."
Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa nodded understanding. Jelly snorted.
"It was pretty bad, but mercifully short," Scott said slowly. "You know Caroline's hand became infected and they had to amputate. It was touch and go for a while, but she finally recovered — physically. It might have been better if she'd died, because her mind just seemed to deteriorate. The constables never did find any evidence to prove she killed Justin, you know. It was a rainy day, few people were out and those that were had their heads down. No one saw her trip Justin in front of the beer wagon. But the lack of evidence didn't matter. Caroline confessed the whole thing as happily as if she was talking about picking daisies on a summer afternoon. She talked about poisoning grandfather, drugging Gerald, shooting me and framing Johnny with the same casual pleasure."
Scott took a healthy swallow of brandy to dull the memory.
"It was …" He paused, then continued softly. "There are no words to describe how awful it was, seeing her tell the judge about her murderous plans like a schoolgirl discussing a class assignment."
He raised his glass again.
"Simile!" Johnny announced, to break the somber mood.
Scott almost choked on the brandy. When he finished coughing and laughing, he continued with his story, but he didn't look quite so depressed.
"Caroline was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to an asylum. Fraser lost his license, of course, and was convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They couldn't prove he knew anything about Justin, but he'll spend the next few years behind bars.
The trial was hardest on Gerald. He loved Caroline so much. But his father was there and Mary stood by him as if he was her brother instead of her former brother-in-law. Frederick was actually grateful enough to invite Mary and her husband to dinner. It made Jim and Hal so happy, I don't think Frederick will be able to revert to his old ways. Besides, he found, somewhat to his surprise, that he likes Mary's new husband."
In an aside to Johnny, Scott added that Frederick and Mort sent their apologies for seeming to try to railroad Johnny. They had been so frightened that the killer was a member of their family, that they had convinced themselves Johnny must be guilty. Scott didn't have to add that the Desmonds sent no apology. Their only regret was that Johnny hadn't had the decency to be guilty and spare them the public embarrassment of Caroline's trial.
"How's the rest of the family?" Johnny asked. "How are Annabell and the kids?"
"I persuaded grandfather that some of his money should stay in the Garrett family, so we set up trust funds for each of the six children. Laura is ready to start finishing school, and the boys will be able to attend college whenever they're ready. And Annabell," Scott added with a wide grin, "is considering matrimony."
Johnny exclaimed over the news.
"She's being courted by Mark Powers," Scott confirmed. "She says she's too old to get married, but the chief constable is a persistent man. I'm betting on next June myself."
"How's Harlan?" Murdoch asked politely.
"He was up and around before I was," Scott said. "The ordeal didn't seem to have changed him much. He tried to convince me to stay in Boston," Scott added with a sly glance at his father.
Murdoch tensed, then forced himself to relax, annoyed with his knee-jerk reaction.
Scott continued, "Grandfather reminded me that I would have died from that wound if I'd been in California. I reminded him I wouldn't have been shot if I'd been in California. We left it at that."
"Well, I, for one, an angry with you, Scott Lancer," Teresa teased. "You go off to Boston for a whole year and the only present you bring back is for yourself!"
"Teresa, I've got two trunks full of presents and heirlooms at the station, waiting for us to send a wagon. I was in too much of a hurry to bring them with me today. Somewhere in there is a party dress made by the top dressmaker in Boston, and I hope to heaven it fits!"
"I'll make it fit," the girl promised, eyes shining.
"What else did you bring?" Jelly asked, curiosity getting the best of him.
"I don't want to give away all the surprises, but there's something for everyone, Jelly. There's even a music box." Scott looked directly at his father when he spoke.
When Murdoch found his voice, he said, "I never thought Harlan would let that box out of his sight."
"Neither did I," Scott confessed. "But it's not half so surprising as grandfather changing his will."
"Cut you out, huh?" Jelly grinned.
"No, that part stayed the same," Scott grinned back. "But he finally added a section about what to do in case I die before he does."
"Which isn't too unlikely the way you ride," Jelly added tartly.
"What'd he do, leave it to the kids?" Johnny asked, as he raised his glass to his lips.
"No." Scott waited until Johnny took a swallow. "He left it to you."
The reaction was satisfactory. Johnny sprayed brandy halfway across the room.
"If I predecease him, the bulk of grandfather's estate will go to my heirs, which at the moment are you and Murdoch," Scott explained precisely.
He turned to his father. "And he said to tell you, no arguing," Scott added firmly. "'Katherine would have wanted it that way,' he said."
Murdoch was speechless. It seemed the great Lancer-Garrett feud was officially over.
"Of course, there's a price to pay for grandfather's generosity," Scott added wickedly.
Murdoch's face took on an "of course there's a catch" expression, but he was floored when Scott finished, "He expects us to put him up for Christmas."
Murdoch was doubly speechless. Not so, Johnny.
"Good," he exclaimed. "Tell him to bring the Hodges and Mrs. Hodges can teach Teresa to make those crinkle cookies."
During the laughter, Jelly raised himself to his feet.
"Well, I'd better be goin'," he said. "Some of us are just poor workin' folk. Got chores to do before they can bed down."
"While you're out there, Jelly, tell the boys that Saturday has been declared an official Lancer holiday," Murdoch said with energy. "We'll hold a barbecue in the afternoon and a dance that night. We'll invite the whole valley!"
"The fatted calf, Murdoch?" Scott said with a touch of shyness.
"'For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,'" Murdoch quoted softly.
"Welcome home, brother," Johnny said. He raised his glass in a toast that everyone joined. "Welcome home."
A/N: There you are. Twenty years in the making. Handwritten, typed on a typewriter, retyped on a computer, translated from an outdated word processing file and, finally, posted online for all to see. Bless you readers, particularly you few who reviewed. Adios.