Genre: family, brothers, angst, h/c
written: April 2008, 66,900 words, 19 chapters
A/N I wrote this, and the other Lancer stories I will add to this site, a few years ago. I haven't looked them over too carefully because I'm afraid I'll start re-writing them. I'd love to hear your comments!
Synopsis: Johnny returns home to find things changed, and his family, in return, tries to discover what he is hiding from them.
THESE FOUR WALLS by Geraldine
CHAPTER 1 - COMING HOME
Natural affection is a prejudice: for though we have cause to love our nearest and connections better than others, we have no reason to think them better than others.
~ William Hazlitt 1839
"Rider comin'," called out one of the hands.
Scott hesitated, one foot inside the front door of the Lancer hacienda, and watched the horseman approaching. He had a great deal to do before the sun set and he didn't want to be distracted by some neighbor come to visit. Long gone was the patience it required to make small talk, but something made Scott turn around to have another look at the man.
The rider was still beyond the gate, but approaching at a steady pace on a large black horse, almost obscured by the dusty cloud swirling around him. Scott could see the coattails of the man's pale overcoat flapping out behind him like wings, but didn't recognize the rider. He took another step forward and shielded his eyes from the late-day sun, his heart skipping a beat when he realized the rider was Johnny. He has come home, Scott thought. He said he would come and finally he has!
With a yell back in the direction of the house to alert Murdoch about the new arrival, Scott strode out to meet his brother.
Johnny reined in his rangy black gelding and jumped off almost before the animal came to a halt. Another second and he was hugging his blond brother in greeting, clapping him on the back, unwilling to let him go. "Scott!"
"Johnny, you came after all!"
"I said I would."
"How was the journey?"
After they finished greeting each other, Scott held his brother at arm's length to look him over. Despite being half covered with dirt from the road, Johnny's appearance spoke loudly of a man of means. Under his canvas duster, his dark suit was well tailored with perfectly fitted trousers. The top button of Johnny's long suit jacket was undone and a burgundy silk waistcoat could be seen. His white shirt was of fine white linen with a starched collar, and devoid of any embroidery as far as Scott could tell. A heavy silk cravat was secured with what appeared to be a diamond stickpin and he wore a heavy gold ring on his left hand - his wedding ring. The boots were hand-stitched by a skilled boot maker yet the spurs were subdued - for Johnny. And on his head was a new-looking Stetson, black.
There were two large valises tied to the back of the saddle and Scott wondered how long his brother intended to stay. After removing the luggage, one of the ranch hands took possession of the prancing horse and led him to the corral, having trouble keeping the lively animal under control.
Tapping Johnny on the stomach with the back of his hand, Scott feigned a dubious look. "Have you put on some weight, Johnny?" Despite his comment, Scott thought his brother looked healthy and tanned, and apparently fully recovered from the bout of influenza that had caused him to postpone his visit back at Christmastime.
Johnny retorted by slapping Scott hard on the stomach. "Well, you haven't changed much. You're still the same scrawny fellow I used to know," he said with a smile.
When Scott embraced his brother again, this time roughly, he noticed there was something concealed under the left side of Johnny's coat, over his ribs. "And what's this? Your wallet?"
Johnny elbowed him aside and grinned, crow's feet appearing at the corners of his eyes. "I'll show you later." He kidded, "You know, you're lookin' pretty good for an old man."
Even as he spoke, Johnny noted the things that had changed about Scott since he'd last seen him. His brother still wore the same kind of tan shirt and trousers he had favored ever since he'd shucked his citified Boston clothes some years back, but they were far from new and hung on his frame as if he'd recently lost weight. Scott's hair, overlong, had a few lighter streaks in it, and not entirely from the sun. His face was tanned and worn from years of exposure to the elements, with pronounced lines at the corners of his eyes and some new ones near his mouth and down his cheeks. Scott looked like what he was - a middle-aged rancher.
Scott saw his brother's inspection, so in return he pointed to his brother's upper lip. The biggest difference in Johnny's appearance, apart from his mode of dress, was the addition of a large mustache. "What on earth is that?"
Swatting the hand away, Johnny said defensively, "It's called a mustache. You don't like it? Then you should have seen the beard I had." He threw an arm around Scott's shoulder and said, "I just shaved it off a couple of days ago. Didn't want to be mistaken for a tramp and get shot." He looked towards the house and his face lit up. "Hey, Murdoch!"
When Murdoch stepped out onto the verandah with open arms, Johnny let go of his brother to rush over to him. He didn't hesitate to allow the old man's arms to enfold him in a welcoming hold. It was several moments before Murdoch released his younger son. "Good to see you, son."
Johnny had a hard time speaking, but got out, "Likewise." He gave an uneven laugh, then asked, "So do we stay out here in the sun or are you gonna let me in the house?"
With arms around each other, father and son ambled into the hacienda. Scott followed, only a few feet behind, and as he stepped over the threshold he suddenly realized with a shock that there was something missing from his brother's fancy outfit: Johnny was not wearing his gun belt.
It hadn't escaped Johnny's notice that his father was walking with a pronounced limp, nor that Scott was watching the old man like a hawk. Once Murdoch had carefully lowered his large frame into his favorite comfortable chair, Scott looked relieved. Johnny spotted a cane tucked just behind Murdoch's chair, and he knew that pride had made his father greet him without the support he apparently required.
Johnny looked around, seeing the great room with fresh eyes. Nothing much had changed. Every piece of furniture and knickknack was in exactly the same place as he remembered from his last trip. That had been about a year earlier, to his chagrin. But the drapes and carpets looked worn and in need of cleaning and there were holes in a couple of the arms on the upholstered chairs. In general the whole place seemed tired. He'd never really noticed how worn out the old homestead looked before.
Soon enough the three men were seated near the fire, each with a glass of scotch in hand. Johnny held up his tumbler and asked, "Is this from one of the bottles I sent to you to sample?"
"We've had the case stored away," Murdoch said, "and were waiting to see if you were following it, Johnny, before opening any of the bottles. Its flavor reminds me of Scotland."
"How's Barranca?" Johnny asked.
Scott replied, "He's in fine shape, though just now he's over in the north pasture because of a bruised hoof. You should be able to ride him in a day or two."
Murdoch reached over and patted Johnny on the knee, beaming with pleasure at having both of his sons together at Lancer again. "Are you tired from your trip? You'll be staying for a couple of weeks as you said?"
Johnny took a second to reply. "No, I'm not tired. I took the train in from San Francisco. Hey, I bought a horse at an auction over at Merced yesterday. Did you see him? I thought buying a horse made more sense than hiring some crowbait."
Scott asked, "You went to the auction over at Merced?" He turned to look at their father and said to him with mock disbelief, "It appears that Johnny has found himself a head for business. Finally."
Murdoch laughed and Johnny joined in. He agreed, "All right, you two were right to make me do that endless book-keeping. It sunk in, but I don't have to like it. I have a bookkeeper these days, and a secretary, Mr. French, who I left in charge of the office. I'm not afraid to admit I have my limits."
Murdoch's expression grew solemn. "We're sorry that Natalie couldn't come-."
"No, no," Johnny was quick to respond, cutting his father off. "She still hasn't overcome the influenza." He looked into his tumbler of scotch for a moment then took a deep drink.
Scott's face was set. "Like I wrote to you, we had a terrible outbreak of influenza down here. It seems we've had it run through every winter for the past several years. But you're well now, Johnny?"
"Yeah, I got over it faster than most. Took more out of me than some of those bullet wounds I've had, though." Without meaning to, his hand dropped to his right hip, and he saw Scott took notice. Johnny turned to his father. "But you, Murdoch, I heard that came down with it, too? You seem pretty hearty."
"Oh, I'm fine. A little influenza can't keep me down." Murdoch's face fell and he started to say something but halted and ran his hand over his jaw.
Scott looked at his father with concern. "We lost some good people," Scott said somberly. Murdoch merely nodded, so Scott looked at his younger brother and said simply, "Isidro. Manuel and two of his children. Maria's granddaughter. Jelly-." He swallowed and looked away, then stood abruptly. "Let me top off your drink, Johnny,"
Looking up at his brother in sympathy, Johnny handed him his half-empty tumbler. "I wish I'd been able to come to the funerals. But Natalie was ill, and I. . . I'm real sorry."
Murdoch answered for both of them. "Oh no, son. You couldn't be expected to travel at a time like that. Half the county took sick at the same time and it ran through here like wildfire. Sam near worked himself to death but he never failed his patients." Murdoch motioned over his shoulder towards Scott. "Your brother was instrumental in hiring nurses in the area several months ago, and I know their presence saved many lives that would have been lost otherwise." He beamed with pride in his elder son.
"Sam?" Johnny looked inquiringly in Scott's direction. "He survived it all, did he?"
Murdoch replied, "Nothing can keep Sam down."
From over at the drinks cabinet, Scott called, "He has two assistant doctors now and a company of nurses but he still tools around the county in that rickety buggy of his as if he's the only one who can save anyone-." Scott abruptly put the bottle he was holding down on the silver tray with a crash. "Excuse me for a moment," he mumbled, then left the room by the side door.
For several moments there was no noise except the ticking of the grandfather clock, then Murdoch said quietly, "I think Jelly's dying hit him the hardest. Everyone seemed to have recovered, then Jelly came down with it last of all, and within a couple of days he was gone. Just gone," he whispered in disbelief, his eyes looking off at something in the past.
Johnny swallowed hard. "We'll all miss him." He had felt a deep loss at hearing about the passing of the old wrangler who had become a family member. Johnny had endured his own version of grief when he'd heard the sad news and he didn't want to revisit it again.
Murdoch sighed and looked Johnny in the eye. "Scott hasn't been the same since Jenny died a year and a half ago. Oh, he covers it up well, but he works himself too hard. I think sometimes he doesn't want to come home at night." Then Murdoch added, "But he always does."
Unsure of how to reply, Johnny said, "He looks a bit tired, but you have plenty of hired hands. Let them take on some of the workload." On his previous visit, and when Scott had come up to spend a couple of weeks with him in San Francisco, Johnny had seen some melancholy in his brother, but he put it down to Scott being recently widowed. He'd have thought that Scott would have come out of his mourning by now. "I guess I haven't seen him much in the past couple of years," Johnny admitted. In his own defense, he added, "My business keeps me busy, and I travel some."
Murdoch smiled at him fondly. "You've become quite a success."
Scott reappeared as if he hadn't rushed out so hastily, and brought over Johnny's refreshed drink. "You said in your last letter that you're going down to Louisiana?"
"I'm opening an office down in New Orleans. It's a good hub for importing," Johnny explained.
"I find it hard to believe," said Scott as he took his seat next to his brother on the couch, "that there is so much money to be made over alcohol and tobacco, especially after the import taxes."
"Well, Scott, my imported Scotch whiskey and cigars are the finest a gentleman can buy. It seems that a select few will pay an awful lot for the right cigar." Johnny pulled a couple of cigars out of his breast pocket and handed one to each of the men.
Scott looked at the paper label and immediately laughed. "Corona de Madrid, is it? Are these the cigars you have wrapped yourself?"
"Yup. Next batch I'll name after you, Scott. Maybe call it the Boston Corona?" Johnny launched into a description of the cigar-making process and how his company had started producing a special blend of tobacco. "We wrap the island tobacco in Connecticut leaves and avoid a lot of the taxation."
All the time Johnny spoke, Murdoch watched his younger son and enjoyed seeing his open enthusiasm. He never would have expected Johnny to go into such a business, nor to thrive along with it, but it was obvious he had done well for himself in the five years since he'd left Lancer.
Murdoch only wished Johnny and his wife, Natalie, could come back to Lancer more often. He had made the trip up to Frisco to see the couple's home a couple of times, but travel was becoming harder for him with each passing year. That Johnny had pursued the daughter of Warburton had not pleased Murdoch at the time, but when the couple announced their plans to marry, he found he liked the girl and could honestly wish them joy. They were married five years ago, around the same time that Scott and Jenny were wed. Right after the ceremony Johnny and his new wife had left Lancer to live near San Francisco. Murdoch was aware that it was through Natalie's encouragement that his son had tried and succeeded at being a businessman. He smiled at the change she had wrought in Johnny, but felt a twinge of sorrow that the couple had never had any children. There was still time, he thought.
Murdoch and Scott had initially promised to visit Johnny and his wife often, despite the difficulty they had in finding time away from ranching duties. But even so, events seemed to have conspired against them. The influenza outbreak had prevented travel the past winter, it was true, but Johnny's trips back home to Lancer had become more infrequent with every passing year.
Johnny and Scott were busy talking, but eventually Murdoch rose and suggested they rustle up some supper. "I'll check and see if it's ready, but Maria's pace has slowed considerably, so the meal may be a bit late."
Scott said he would settle Johnny in, so they retrieved his valises and climbed the big front staircase, usually reserved for guests, up to his room. "We didn't know when you were coming, or for how long exactly, but it's all yours, brother." He held the door to Johnny's old bedroom open and waited for him to pass by. "Nothing has changed," Scott said.
Johnny slowly walked around what had been his room, touching some of the items on the bureau: a book, a bronze figurine of a horse, a cut glass decanter of liquor and two matching glasses. A sniff of a decanter's stopper revealed an inferior whiskey. Johnny opened a drawer of the bureau and found some folded clothes, new ones he'd never worn for some reason. His favorites were long gone, too old and faded to take with him into his married life. There were a couple of colorful shirts that, when he picked them up for assessment, appeared to be too small for his mature frame. The pants, in dark canvas, might fit, he thought as he held them out. "The only thing that's changed around here is the size of my waist," he said ruefully. "You know, Scott, I was thinking that maybe the old man should put some money into improving the house, like getting indoor plumbing." When Scott didn't reply, he turned and was faced with an angry look from his brother. Johnny asked, "What's the matter?"
"What do you think's the matter, Johnny?" Scott closed the door behind himself. His words were terse but quiet, apparently concerned that Murdoch would hear. "Your father is getting older by the day and you can't even come out here once a year for a visit. And the few times you've graced us with your presence, you always cut your visit short-."
Bristling at the attack, Johnny retorted in the same low, heated tone, "I told you why I couldn't come! You wanted me to bring more sickness down on this ranch, is that it?"
Scott snapped, "I'm not talking about your absence at Christmas. Look, I know you don't want to come back here, Johnny, but have you ever stopped to think that Murdoch needs to see you sometimes, and that you should remember where you came from? If he hadn't given you the initial investment money, you'd never have even been able to get your business off the ground. You just took his offering and ran."
Johnny stared at his brother and wondered where this was all coming from. Of course he was grateful to his father for the seed money, but he'd already repaid the loan, even though Murdoch had called it a wedding gift. "I could have made it on my own. It just might have taken a little longer." Suddenly he lost temper and raised his voice. "Where the hell do you get off lecturing me or even knowing what I think?"
"I have every right to lecture you, Johnny, because I'm the one who was left with the job of holding this ranch together!"