Word Count 52,951
3rd in the R Series
Author’s note: Corky (SF) and I often discussed how as the series progressed and in the better episodes, Murdoch and his sons had not only reached some accord, they had actually grown close. We decided for that to happen there must have been an occasion where they opened up to each other, shared – bad and good – some things from their pasts, and were then able to move on and build a relationship. We also determined that some of those memories would have been painful for all involved, but that there would be disclosures that would explain just how the fates had dealt with all three of them.
This is for SF. An attempt to explain and tie up all the loose ends the writers ignored; the unanswered questions that drove us crazy. Like what happened to the stallion Pardee took that was so important to the ranch, where did Frank – the African-American cowboy – come from, the question of who was really behind Pardee’s attempt to take the ranch, what was Johnny’s history with Pardee; or – one of the more vexing questions – how did Harlan Garrett know that Johnny’s mother was “a foreigner” and a “very beautiful woman”?
And special thanks to Reneé. If she hadn’t kicked me in the posterior, this would never have been finished. So, it is her story, too.
Murdoch pulled the big gelding to a walk, a bittersweet smile touching his lips as he guided the horse into the grove of ancient cottonwoods that clustered at the side of the creek. The rising sun filtered through the abundant spring leaves, shafts of concentrated sunbeams shimmering atop the rapidly running water and dancing across the white pebbles at the shallows. Light kaleidoscoped across the surface of the stream, diamond bright beneath the sun.
It was mesmerizing, the man mused; reminiscent of a large crystal pendant he had once seen being manipulated by a stage magician who had used the reflective gem to put a young woman into a trance. Hypnotism, the rogue had proclaimed, a method of controlling another person’s mind and body. The man had proved his point. At the charlatan’s bidding, the proper Victorian maiden had allowed a very improper and passionate kiss and then proceeded to disrobe.
Provocatively, the genteel young lady began peeling off a delicate kidskin glove (one finger at a time), prompting her enraged fiancé to charge the stage intent on throttling the magician. A near riot ensued as several men joined the melee, while their female companions succumbed to the vapors and collapsed to the floor.
Catherine, an acquaintance of the young woman who had so eagerly volunteered to be the center of attention, thought the girl to be a vacuous, silly twit. Reaching out to take Murdoch’s hand and pressing his fingertips against her lips in an attempt to stifle a sudden fit of giggles, she had dissolved into tear-producing laughter. The thought that the simple removal of a young woman’s glove could cause such uproar left Catherine gasping for air; her laughter increasing as she observed the mayhem.
Murdoch led Catherine from the theatre, her laughter contagious; stealing a bold kiss as they stood in the darkness of a small alcove at the entrance after they had finally composed themselves. Later, when they returned to the Garrett mansion, a breathless Catherine had regaled her father and mother with the details of what had occurred, brazenly re-enacting the young woman’s removal of the glove; and then feigning the same dramatic swoon as she dropped down onto the settee.
Catherine’s mother Elizabeth was highly amused and had succumbed to unrestrained laughter. But Harlan Garrett, pretending fatherly disdain for what he considered a serious breech of proper social decorum, attempted to scold his daughter; finally surrendering to her charm and effervescent humor until he, too – along with his future son-in-law – joined the merrymaking. It had been a wonderful end to a delightful evening.
“Oh, Catherine,” Murdoch chuckled, warmed by the remembrance. Going to the theatre had been her idea. It had been their first unchaperoned date as an engaged couple.
He dismounted and led his horse to the shattered remains of an old cottonwood toppled years ago by lightning, tying the animal off and then sitting atop the massive log. The huge trunk was almost devoid of bark now. Smoothed by time and the seasons, the ivory colored log rested atop the verdant spring-green grass, like the bones of a prehistoric animal thrust up from the beneath the earth. Here and there, like scrimshaw on whalebone, weathered graffiti decorated the surface of the log; a smile coming as Murdoch reached out and used his forefinger to gently trace a faded heart and delicately entwined initials. Catherine had carved the heart, the first night they had camped beside the stream.
Looking up, he saw his sons approaching. Murdoch smiled. Their style of riding was as unique as their different personalities, Scott militarily erect in the saddle, Johnny riding hell-for-leather, his hat secured to his neck by the storm strings and spiraling in the wind. The horses were galloping through the belly-high grass, heads high; ears pricked forward, their manes and tails fluttering like banners. It was a wonder to behold, something the man had thought he would never witness, and he was truly grateful.
Johnny was slightly in the lead. He dismounted before Barranca came to a complete stop, hitting the ground on the run and out of breath before he reached his father. “Hey, Murdoch,” he greeted.
“Hey, my son,” Murdoch answered, his lips twitching. He remained seated.
Scott pulled Cheval to a complete halt, dropping lightly to the ground beside the animal. “Sir,” he nodded.
Murdoch’s smile widened. “Son,” he acknowledged.
Johnny was eyeing the terrain. Like Scott, he hadn’t been this far afield on Lancer before, so close to the western foothills. The varied landscape of the large ranch constantly amazed him: the valleys, the flatlands, the foothills and mountains. Their holdings now encompassed slightly more than two hundred square miles, more distance than some men traveled in a lifetime. Hell, the majority of the peons he had known in Mexico had never been more than a day’s walk from the place where they had been born.
Scott, too, was exploring the landscape with his eyes. The diversity of the land, so unlike what he was familiar with on the East Coast, intrigued him. Here the mountains were newer, more rugged, their heights exceeding the more familiar Appalachians. Snow was a constant on the rugged Sierra Nevada’s; and like the Rocky Mountains he had traversed by train on his journey west remained snowcapped throughout the summer.
The mountain range to the west, Scott knew, was the source of the stream they were now standing beside. The rush of snowy water tumbling across the rock-strewn riverbed was run-off from the early spring thaw. Taking several steps forward, he led Cheval to the bank, smiling when the horse lowered its head to drink and then pawed at a clump of floating snow, snorting its surprise. “Beautiful place, Murdoch,” he ventured. “Tranquil.” It was true. The only sound was the gentle lowing of the herd of cattle that was moving across the valley, that and the rippling of the water.
Murdoch levered himself up from the log and joined his son at the water’s edge. “I brought your mother here through that pass, Scott,” he began. He was staring straight ahead. “We spent our first night on Lancer camped in this meadow,” he gestured with his right arm. “We were still more than a two day drive by wagon from the hacienda. She fell in love with this valley, called it her own piece of heaven on earth, and we often came back. To picnic, fish.” He was silent for a long moment. He had made love to Catherine beside this very stream the first night they camped, the two of them enjoying a boundless, wild passion; Adam and Eve in their own Garden of Eden.
Scott had been conceived in this very place.
Clearing his throat, Murdoch resumed speaking, the words coming softly. “Later, when the trouble started with Haney, I brought her back here. I wanted to remind her of what we would lose, and why it was necessary to fight to hold on.” He turned to look at his son. “The ranch was beginning to thrive,” he continued. “We were making a profit. But that profit was being put back into the land, into increasing the herds.” Again, he hesitated. “I – we – had other investments, but this…” another sweep with his right hand “… this was our dream, the legacy we were determined to build for our children.”
The tension was creeping into the older man’s words and it showed in his posture. “Harlan had made land fall on the coast,” he breathed. A wry smiled touched his lips. “He’d sent word he was coming to Lancer; claiming he wanted to discuss the new terms of the partnership agreement our attorneys had negotiated.” He shook his head. “His real reason was that he was hoping we had come to our senses, that Catherine and I would return to…” he smiled, wanly, “…civilization.”
Scott’s expression was impassive. He’d only recently learned that his Grandfather and father had been in business together: Murdoch in command of his own Clipper and equal shareowner with Harlan of two other vessels that carried hides and tallow to Boston, and manufactured items from the East Coast back to California. The trade had been extremely lucrative for both men, something his Grandfather had also neglected to mention. “And that’s when you decided you needed to send her away?” he asked.
Johnny sensed the strain in his brother’s tone, but remained silent, struggling with feelings of resentment that often plagued him when his father talked about his first wife. He led Barranca to where his brother was standing, judiciously avoiding Scott’s eyes but stealing covert glances at his father.
“It was too dangerous for her to stay,” Murdoch resumed. “I knew Haney was planning a move on the larger ranches,” he said, “properties the Americans now owned.
“There was a great deal of resentment among the Californios, the haciendados who considered the Anglos as unwanted interlopers, parasites encroaching on their holdings in what was once part of Mexico. They banded together, hired Haney and his mercenaries to drive us out.”
Scott’s head was tilted, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. “You’ve told us you purchased Lancer,” he said quietly, his tone cool, as if he was unsure of what he was saying. But history had taught him much about the arrogance of men who felt they were entitled by Divine Right to possess what belonged to others. The English, the French and the Spanish had invaded the New World in bold pursuit of Gold, God and Glory, with tragic consequences for the native populations. The Americans who had migrated west had caused a similar outcome for the original Spanish settlers.
“What you see here,” Murdoch said, his tone matching his son’s, “is only a part of the original land grant.” He took a breath. “Tomás Ignacio Ortiz de Velarde,” he continued in perfectly accented Spanish, “third generation to hold title to this land. He parceled the grant, sold off over a hundred thousand acres to settle his debts.” The disdain was evident in his voice. “He squandered a fortune and was on the verge of losing what was left. The house – which was in disrepair – the remaining acreage and what was left of the livestock. He needed money. I wanted the land and the cattle.”
“Haney,” Scott said, just the one word. He wanted – needed – to know the rest.
“The landowners – the Dons – sensed what was coming. The trouble in Texas had just been the beginning,” Murdoch continued. “They knew it was only a matter of time before more Americans followed their dream of Manifest Destiny. The Dons looked to Haney for salvation.” He went quiet again, remembering the turmoil.
Johnny snorted. “Well, that worked out for shit,” he muttered. He turned to look at his brother. “The fuc…” he took a deep breath, the rancor evident in his tone. “The Dons ended up suckin’ hind tit and Garrett…”
Scott cast a hard look at his brother that was more effective than a verbal rebuke. “And Grandfather?” he interrupted.
Murdoch shifted slightly, putting his weight on his good leg. “Haney’s army was sweeping down from the north,” he replied. “I knew it was only a question of time before he would begin raiding here in the valley.” He faced his eldest, his tone softening; almost apologetic. “I sent a dispatch rider to your Grandfather in San Diego, telling him to sail north to Morro Bay. He was there when I made the decision to send your mother away.”
Cheval, sensing Scott’s tension, began to dance in place, fighting the man’s restraint. Scott kept a firm hold on the reins. “And my mother agreed?”
Aware both of his sons were now watching him intently, Murdoch carefully considered his next words. “She wanted to stay,” he replied. The next was going to be more difficult. “Henry and Aggie Conway were already established here in the San Joaquin. Aggie had just given birth to a child, a little girl they had named after your mother.” His eyes reflected his sadness. “The baby was frail, and Aggie was ill. Sam advised Henry that Aggie’s condition, as well as the baby’s, precluded her leaving, which only intensified your Mother’s resolve to remain.”
Scott’s face reflected his father’s distress. He swallowed against the lump in his throat. “And Mother’s… condition?” he asked. He had long blamed himself for his mother’s death.
“It was early November, son,” Murdoch answered gently, realizing for the first time that he and his son shared a legacy of guilt. “You weren’t due until mid January. Sam felt it would be safe for her to travel and your Grandfather…” he stopped himself, inhaling sharply before continuing. His voice deepened. “The plan was to send your mother to the coast by covered wagon, get her on to the ship where she would be comfortable and safe.” He studied his son’s face, and knew he needed to say more. His voice lowered. “The Enchantress was my ship, Scott. I had her refitted before we left Boston, remodeling what had been my private quarters and turning the space into something more suitable for your mother and me. And my crew included an excellent physician.”
Scott was pondering his father’s words. “But she would have been traveling through country controlled by the same Dons who had hired Haney,” he reasoned.
Murdoch nodded. “Gaspar Hurtado,” he said, knowing his sons would recognize the name. “He was one of the first Californios your Grandfather and I contracted with to ship hides and tallow. He was aware of what was happening, and offered to provide vaqueros to assure your mother’s safe passage to the Coast. I sent Paul, Charlie Bellingham and two Lancer vaqueros with the wagon.”
“And Cartersville?” Scott asked.
“That was where Gaspar and his men were to meet the wagon,” Murdoch responded. “They were with your Mother and Grandfather when Catherine went into labor.” His jaws tensed. “Harlan sent Paul and Charlie back to Lancer to let me know what had happened. By the time I got to Cartersville…”
Johnny was fiddling with Barranca’s saddle, toying with the latigo straps. “…Scott’s Mama was dead, and Garrett had made off with her baby,” he interrupted. The distress was in his face as well as in his words. “Jesus Christ, Murdoch. If it was your boat waitin’ for ‘em at Morro Bay, how the fuck did Garrett get your boat to sail back to Boston?” Savagely, he kicked at a pile of dried cow dung. “And where the fuck was Cip?”
Murdoch recognized his son’s tone. Johnny was angry; and it was evident from the last question he wasn’t thinking clearly. Hoping to diffuse what was rapidly becoming a very tense situation he ignored the outburst – the curses – and kept his own temper in check. He took several steps forward and reached out to gently lay his hand on Johnny’s left shoulder and began tenderly massaging away the tension. “We’ve discussed this before, son, remember?” he began, the words calm and slightly above a whisper. “Cip and Elena didn’t come to Lancer until I brought your mother here.” He failed to stop the frown that came with the bitter remembrance.
Maria’s dowry had included not only the darkly ornate furnishings her mother had burdened her with – including the clock in the Great room Johnny so hated – but also an entourage of several offspring of Joaquín Emilio Orñate de León’s many mistresses. The man’s wife, the gentle but formidable La Doña, tired of her daughter’s scandalous behavior and her husband’s many indiscretions had succeeded in punishing them both.
“As for the ship. Harlan was still my partner,” Murdoch continued. He turned to glance at his elder son. “Your Grandfather had located a woman with a young child – a woman who was eager to leave California and return east – to care for you, to provide service as a wet nurse. Once she was on board the Enchantress, they set sail for Boston. The ship had left Morro Bay before I reached the coast.”
A long silence followed, father and sons lost in their own thoughts as they attempted to regain their composure. Murdoch was the first to break the silence. “I said goodbye to your mother here, Scott,” he murmured. “Stood here and watched as the wagon disappeared into the foothills.” The regret – the longing – was unmistakable in the man’s voice and eyes. “She loved this place,” he whispered, more to himself than his sons. “It was where we had begun, and where it ended. I never saw her again.”
Johnny’s expression was grim. “And Mama?” he ground out, unable to stop the words. “She love this place too, Old Man?”
Murdoch responded quickly, too quickly. “Your mother didn’t care about the land,” he replied bitterly. Then, sensing he had spoken too soon and with little regard for what his boy was feeling, he bit back the anger; his tone lightening. “You, on the other hand…”
“I what?” Johnny demanded, clearly stung over what he had just heard.
“Me go,” Murdoch answered. The smile was genuine.
Johnny cocked his head, his eyes narrowing. “¿Amigo?” he asked, not understanding his father’s words.
Murdoch shook his head. “Not ‘amigo’,” he corrected. He repeated his original words, carefully enunciating them. “Me…Go.” He smiled at his son. “That’s what the men, what everyone on the ranch called you,” he continued. When he saw Johnny still didn’t comprehend, he began again. “You learned to walk – run – when you were ten months old. I’d get ready to go to work, or I’d be in the courtyard getting ready to ride out, and you’d come running up to me yelling ‘me go, me go’.” He reached out, patting the pommel on Barranca’s saddle. “I’d put you up here, in front of me on the saddle, and we’d ride out together.”
Scott chuckled, welcoming the change in subject. “Ten months old?” he queried. “And already trying to call the tune?”
Murdoch nodded, turning to face his elder son. “Even then he didn’t like being told ‘no’,” he answered drolly, “Seemed to have a problem following orders, too.”
“But a baby, sir,” Scott teased, relieved at the opportunity to lighten the mood.
The older man bent down and picked up a stone. He examined it carefully, turning it over in his large hand. Then, to the amazement of both his sons, he turned to face the stream and made a side-armed toss, watching in satisfaction as the flat stone skipped daintily across the surface of the water. “He was still in dresses and diapers,” he announced, smiling when – out of the corner of his eye – he saw Johnny’s cheeks color. “Maria – Mamácita – would pack me this little sack for the day. Diapers, a change of clothes,” he bent down to pick up another pebble, “a small packet of corn starch.” He tossed the stone. “He used to get these God awful rashes,” he said, pretending to frown.
Scott was having trouble picturing Murdoch – the man’s big hands and all six foot five of pure brawn – diapering a toddler, let alone powdering the child’s behind. “Johnny?” he croaked. “Our Johnny?” He laughed.
Murdoch watched as his younger son retrieved his stetson from his back and jammed the hat down on his head, hiding his eyes. “Our Johnny,” he answered solemnly. “And he was still on the bottle.” His eyes crinkled as he remembered struggling with the glass bottle, the hard rubber nipple and his cranky toddler. Finding a willing cow among the beef cattle had been a much easier chore.
“And the dresses?” Scott asked, struggling to keep a straight face. Reminder to self, he thought. Never let Johnny see the daguerreotype Grandfather commissioned for my second birthday. The dress was bad enough, but the long curls… He shut his eyes against the memory.
Johnny kicked at a clump of dirt. “Didn’t wear no fuckin’ dresses,” he groused, not happy at being thrust into the center of attention.
“Oh, yes, you did,” Murdoch assured. “Well, at least until Elena took mercy on you and fashioned you a pair of leather britches.” He made a face, skewering his younger son with a strangely paternal version of the look. “Which presented unique problems of their own when you wet yourself.”
It was too much for the boy. “Jesus, Murdoch! Ain’t you never read that damned book Scott’s always shovin’ under my nose? The one with all them rules about how it ain’t polite to talk about a man’s private business?” He reached up, grabbing his hat and tossing it to the ground.
“Oh,” Scott interjected, shaking his finger at his sibling. “Now you’ve decided those rules are relevant, and they actually apply to you? And just where were those rules yesterday when you were relieving yourself and decided to decorate the toe of my boot?” he demanded.
Murdoch laughed, full out. “He was always doing that,” he chuckled.
Cavalierly, Johnny toed the brim of his Stetson with his right foot, intending to flip the hat upwards and catch it on his head; something he often did to impress the young ladies in Green River. He failed, miserably. Cursing, he bent over and picked up the hat, once again jamming it down on his head. “It was an accident,” he lied, pouting. “You scared the shit out of me, sneakin’ up like that, and it just happened.”
“Right,” Scott sneered. He turned to wink at his father. “So you’re telling me he actually…” he hesitated, considering his choice of words before discarding the more polite ‘urinated’ “…peed on your boots as well, sir?”
Straight-faced, Murdoch nodded. Johnny was standing just to his right with his fists knotted against his hips, his head lowered, and eyes hidden by the shadow cast by the brim of his hat. But not the pout. Murdoch resumed speaking.“He was pretty proud of himself when he finally learned how to take care of business,” he said. “But every five minutes,” he complained, “‘need to pee, Papí, now!’” The corners of his mouth twitched. “He was like a wolf cub, practicing to be the alpha male. I don’t think there was a rock, a tree trunk,” he frowned, “or a flower pot on Lancer he didn’t leave his mark on.” His brow furrowed. “And once, when we were at church in Green River…”
“You two about done?” Johnny butted in. While a part of him that secretly relished the talk about when he was a toddler and a time when his father had apparently cared for him, the revelations about his habit of pissing his pants and peeing on everything that wasn’t nailed down was getting pretty damned annoying.
Scott’s brow furrowed as he considered the question. Then, his blue eyes firing with pure brotherly mischief, he threw caution to the wind and struck a match to the fuse. “And just what did happen at the church in Green River, Murdoch?” he asked slyly.
The explosion was instantaneous. Johnny charged Scott, intent on beating the shit out of his wise-assed brother. Before Murdoch had a chance to answer or react, the boy tackled his sibling, low, his arms wrapping around the man’s legs just below the knees.
Scott was laughing. Pummeling his brother’s back, he managed to wiggle free. They began wrestling in earnest, Scott’s long legs and arms giving him the advantage. Johnny was undeterred. Then, in a stroke of genius, he latched on to his brother’s forearm with his teeth and clamped down.
“Damn it, boy!” Scott roared, letting go and scrambling to his knees. “You bit me!”
Murdoch suddenly laughed, full out. “He used to do that, too,” he chuffed. His eyes tearing, he watched as the combat resumed, both young men rolling around on the ground and unmindful of the direction their battle was taking. “Boys!” Murdoch shouted.
Too late. Gravity prevailed as the pair tumbled down the embankment and into the creek.
Johnny was the first to rise to his feet, the frigid run-off from the mountains, littered with chunks of melting snow chilling him to the bone. “¡Madre de Dios!” He was soaked from head to toe.
Scott rose up beside his brother. The dark blue shirt he was wearing was pasted to his slim torso, molded to the muscles of his arms and chest. The brown pants were clinging to his legs and compact buttocks, leaving little to the imagination. Exhaling, he raked his long fingers through his hair.
Seeking relief from the cold, Johnny pulled the red shirt away from his chest. “Jesus,” he muttered. Already, he was shivering. The leather pants were hanging dangerously low on his slim hips, weighted down by the water. He tugged at his britches; sure and certain the snow chilled stream had shrunk the family jewels to the size of early spring peas.
Murdoch quickly strode back to where Barranca was ground-hitched and grabbed Johnny’s bedroll from behind the saddle. He shook out the blanket and hurried down the small embankment to where his sons were standing.
In spite of the cold, Johnny tried to shake off the covering. “Scott’s soakin’ wet, too, Murdoch. He needs a blanket more’n me.”
Scott laughed and grabbed a corner of the blanket, helping his father to wrap it around his brother’s shoulders. “I’ll have you know, little brother, I’ve bathed in water much colder than this. And Boston in the throes of winter tends to be markedly more frigid than that Mexican desert you’re always talking about.” His tone became more serious. “I don’t suppose you brought a change of clothes.”
Murdoch was ushering his younger son out of the water and up the bank. He could feel the boy’s shivers beneath his fingers. “We’ll need a fire,” he said. Like Scott, he was painfully aware of Johnny’s propensity for catching colds, which all too often took a turn for the worse, something Sam Jenkins attributed to the boy’s lack of proper care during his early childhood.
Johnny knew exactly what his father and brother were thinking. He hated to be coddled, hated even more to be pitied for what he considered a weakness. Pulling away from his father, he shrugged off the blanket and headed for the split cottonwood, not even breaking stride as he dipped sideways and scooped up his hat.
“Damn it, Johnny,” Scott cursed. Picking up the brightly striped frazada (blanket) he shook his head and followed after his brother, swearing a second time as Johnny deftly sidestepped him and slipped from under his grasp.
Murdoch headed for his gelding. He dug into his saddlebags and withdrew a silver flask. Behind him, Scott – having given up on the battle of the blanket – was gathering fallen branches and twigs along with cakes of dried cow chips and a scattering of dead leaves.
Johnny, the blanket discarded and lying at his feet had pulled off his shirt. He spread it out across the fallen tree trunk, purposely standing with his back to his father and his brother as he rubbed furiously at the goosebumps on his upper arms and chest. “Don’t need a damned fire,” he groused. Tensing, he attempted to stop the shiver that coursed through his body, and failed.
“Here,” Murdoch said, unscrewing the stopper and shoving the flask into his son’s hands. He watched as Johnny took a long pull and grimaced at the sharp taste of the potent Scotch.
“Christ, Old Man,” the boy complained. His eyes were watering. “You ever consider totin’ a little tequila?”
Scott was now clearing a spot in the sand, scooping out a shallow pit and depositing the tinder at its center. “You’re going to have to get out of those pants, Johnny,” he called. He stifled a grin as he turned to look up at his father. “I don’t suppose Maria packed any diapers this trip?”
“No,” Murdoch scoffed. “Or corn starch for that matter.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he speared his brother with a frigid glare. “Keep it up, Boston, and we can go for another swim.”
“There will be no more swimming,” Murdoch chided, stooping to pick up the woolen blanket and shaking it out. He turned to face his youngest, using both hands to spread the striped frazada out like a curtain. “And you take off those wet pants.”
Scott was still hunkered down beside the fire pit. Clapping his hands together to dislodge the debris from his palms he reached into his right hand front pocket and withdrew a brass match box. Prying the lid open, he examined the contents, relieved the matches were still dry.
Striking a sulfur-tipped Lucifer stick against the heel of his boot, he cupped his hands to protect the flame and set fire to a small pile of dry leaves. Carefully, he added strips of dry bark, removing his hat and fanning the smoldering embers as he coaxed the glowing red embers to consume the tinder.
Johnny, still standing beside the downed tree, was stalling. “Jesus, old man, I been wetter…”
“Yes,” Murdoch interrupted brusquely. “Been wetter, had worse, not like it’s the first time. I’m quite familiar with the litany, son. Now take off those pants.” He paused, assuming the stern father frown as he thrust the blanket toward his son. The next words were perfectly enunciated. “I am not telling you again.”
Johnny’s head came up, a cocky smile firing his pale eyes. He nodded a single time. “Glad we got that settled,” he grinned. Touching the brim of his hat in dismissal, he made a quick half turn and headed for his brother and the now stoked fire. His leather pants, still wet, were clinging to his body and getting clammier as the spring breeze blew across the water. God, he was cold. Not that he was going to show it.
The noise of a sudden scuffle drew Scott’s immediate attention. Coffee pot in hand, he looked up just in time to see his father envelope Johnny completely in the blanket he was holding and wrestled him to the ground.
Murdoch had completely swaddled his son in the large blanket. Deftly, he turned the boy over on his back; pressing his left palm against the youth’s chest and pinning him to the ground. With his right hand, he quickly set about unbuttoning the conchos at the boy’s left hip. In less than a single heart beat, he pulled the wet leathers from his son’s lower body and threw them to Scott.
Scott made the catch; immediately folding the trousers across his forearm before clapping his hands together in a hearty applause. He winked at his father. “Nicely done,” he complimented.
Murdoch rose to his full height and gave a small bow. “Some things you never forget,” he boasted. He turned to smile down at his youngest child, and extended his hand. “And you. You get yourself over there,” he jerked his head in the direction of the downed cottonwood; now cloaked in the full light and warmth of the morning sun.
Johnny was still flat on his back, clutching the blanket at his neck and wondering just how the Hell his old man could move so damned fast. It was embarrassing as hell, being swaddled like a fuckin’ papoose. And the damned blanket was itchy.
“Johnny…” Murdoch waggled his fingers at the boy, the warning clear. “Get up and get over there in the sun.” His right eyebrow arched. “I can always pick you up and carry you…”
The boy’s mouth opened and just as quickly shut. There was, he knew, no point in issuing his usual challenge. He cut his eyes to look at his brother, who was grinning ear to ear. Grumbling, he rolled over on his side and levered himself to his feet. Staring straight ahead, he attempted to march stiff-backed toward the downed tree, barely managing a shuffle. The fucking blanket – long enough that it reached the ground – kept getting tangled in his feet.
Leather pants in hand, Scott followed after his brother. When they reached the cottonwood, he turned the satin-lined calzoneras inside out and spread them across the warm tree trunk. His lips were trembling with the effort of stopping the smile.
“You laugh, pendejo (asshole),” Johnny hissed, “and you’ll be wearin’ this fuckin’ blanket.”
Scott lost it. Murdoch arrived just in time to stop the impending brawl. “Settle down!” he ordered. The blanket was on the ground again, and he bent to pick it up; shaking his head when he realized his younger son was, except for his hat and boots, stark naked. “And how many times have I told you,” his right hand snaked out to smack the youth’s backside, “Maria intends for you to wear those undergarments she puts in your drawers; not hoard them!” He shoved the blanket into his son’s hands.
Johnny’s pout intensified. The leather pants he favored were lined with a smooth, silk-like material; and he loved the feel of the cloth against his skin. “Ain’t like those pants aren’t lined,” he groused.
“And now wet,” Murdoch shot back. “Sit.” He pointed to the tree.
Bunching the damned blanket around his hips, Johnny sat. Not that he was happy. He squirmed atop the coarse fibers. “Itches,” he complained.
Scott shook his head. He excused himself and headed for Cheval. When he returned he was holding a pair of starkly white cotton drawers. “And, no, I don’t want them back.” And then, as an afterthought, “You’re welcome.”
“Fuck you,” Johnny muttered under his breath. He grabbed the underwear.
Murdoch watched as Johnny shimmied into the bottom half of the pair of long johns, unable to stop the smile as Scott stooped in an attempt to roll up the cuffs. “Johnny…” he cautioned, canting his head as his younger boy made a fist. And then to his elder son, “I think we could use some of that coffee, son.”
Aware he had just been dismissed; Scott headed back toward the fire and resumed setting up camp.
There was an awkward silence as Johnny struggled to settle himself down. The anger – the embarrassment – was still there, and distant memories had begun niggling at his brain. The insidious thoughts had been a constant companion during his recovery from Pardee’s bullet, invading the disjointed dreams that turned inevitably into gut wrenching, drug induced nightmares.
The nightmares had been the worst. He would awaken, briefly, only to be plunged back into the abyss in a continuing montage of horror. In the beginning, Scott had been the one to pull him out of the night-time terrors; and then later…
Later it had been his father; bathing his fevered body and crooning to him in gentle Spanish.
It was his father’s tender mercies he had found the most confusing; the way they evoked brief snatches of gossamer dreams laced with laughter and warmth. He fought to escape the conflicting sweetness of those images even more than he had struggled against the terror and the rage.
Shifting slightly, Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest. God, he had hated the man; had wanted so desperately to keep hating the man. Sometimes, even now. He swallowed. “What you said about Mama,” he murmured. “About her not carin’ about the land…” The belligerence had returned.
Murdoch inhaled; sharply. He momentarily closed his eyes. When he opened them he was gazing out across the valley. “What do you see, Johnny?” he began. “When you look at all of this…” he gestured with his arm, “…what do you see?”
Johnny’s head came up slowly. The question was totally unexpected. “Lancer,” he said finally. A cold grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “For as far as the eye can see,” a hint of sarcasm in his voice. The most beautiful place in the whole, wide world, he thought, remembering Teresa’s words from that not so distant morning.
Murdoch chuckled, but there was more irony than humor in the sound. “One hundred thousand acres,” he said; “two hundred square miles.” He turned to face his son and reached out, placing his hand on the boy’s shoulder; keeping hold when he felt Johnny tense. “I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier, son,” he apologized.
Johnny’s frown was a clear indication of what he was feeling. In spite of the unexpected regret he was hearing in his father’s tone, his right shoulder hitched in a shrug; a further attempt to shake off Murdoch’s hand. It didn’t work. “Sorry for what?” he snapped. “Tellin’ the truth, or a lie?”
Again, the big man took a deep breath. He was mentally measuring his response, unsure of knowing how to proceed without upsetting his son even more. To hell with it, he thought. All he could do was tell it as it had been, and that meant telling the entire story from the beginning. Still he hesitated. His decision made, he began; his grip tightening on Johnny’s shoulder. “When I brought Catherine here…,” he felt the boy’s back stiffen, “…it was all so different for her.” He ploughed on. There was no way to tell the story without including Catherine. “She had grown up in Boston, had traveled abroad to the large cities in Europe with her parents. Her life had been lived in cities. Large houses, one after the other; close, on tree lined streets and boulevards. Front lawns, some of them. More often than not, little gardens in the back to give the illusion of space.” He gestured again with his free hand.
“Catherine saw something new here, something she grew to love.” He smiled, remembering the woman’s words. ‘A sea of grass’. He continued. “Acres of rich land as far as the eye could see. A hacienda (house) with thirty seven rooms and gardens. And she embraced it; loved it.”
“And Mama?” Johnny ground out. Fuck Catherine, he thought bitterly.
Recognizing the boy’s tone, Murdoch’s voice changed. “Your mother hated it,” he answered bluntly. When Johnny attempted to respond, he shook his head and raised a staying hand. “Lancer was a disappointment to her, son,” he continued, his brow furrowing.
“She came from money,” he resumed. “Old money. Her father’s estancia (estate) in Nuevo León was part of a vast land grant dating back to the 1600’s. “One million acres, he breathed, stressing each word. After all this time, the number still overwhelmed him. “Ten times the size of Lancer. Two thousand square miles opposed to two hundred.” He shrugged. “Your mother was not impressed.”
Johnny had turned to face his father. He’d only recently learned that his mother had been born rich, but it had never occurred to him what that had really meant because he sure in shit hadn’t seen any of it. What the hell, he thought. The fuckin’ hacienda was bigger than some of the flea-speck villages where he and his mother had lived. And Mexico. What he remembered of Mexico was more desert than pasture. Hell, he’d heard once that in Mexico it took twenty-seven acres to support one cow, the graze was so sparse. “So she hated it,” he chuffed. He was studying the ground. “And you hated her.” There. It was finally said.
Murdoch had turned aside to rearrange Johnny’s pants on the sun-warmed tree trunk, flipping them over to speed the drying. He winced at his son’s words. He turned back to the boy, his hand once again coming to rest on Johnny’s shoulder. “No, Johnny,” he said softly. “I loved your mother.” Nothing. He couldn’t bring himself to say the next, although he thought it. She didn’t love me.
Johnny had begun picking at the bits of bark from the sun-bleached cottonwood, as if he was peeling proud flesh from an unhealed wound. He lifted his head to look across the clearing to where his brother was still fussing with the fire and the coffee pot. He knew Scott was stalling. Somehow, it angered him; the way his brother had distanced himself. “Too bad Catherine,” there was something scathing in the way he said the word, loud enough to insure his brother heard, “died. You could’a filled them thirty seven rooms with a whole mess of blond haired, blue eyed kids, instead of havin’ to worry about givin’ your name to some mestizo bastard …”
“Johnny!” Murdoch’s reprimand was harsher than he intended, and he found himself swallowing back a like response. His right hand was fisted at his side, and he unconsciously flexed his fingers; all too aware of how skilled his younger son was at pushing him to the brink. “You are far from being a mestizo, and most certainly are not a bastard.” He took a long quavering breath, his voice lowering. “I will regret to my dying day that Catherine was taken from me so soon,” he declared. “But I will never regret having found your mother, or having been gifted with her…our…son.” The words were said with great conviction.
“Or I with a brother,” Scott said. He suddenly appeared in front of his sibling and father, the thumb and forefinger of his left hand firmly looped in the handles of three steaming tin cups of coffee. He shoved one into Johnny’s hands, passed the other off to his father. Smiling, he tempered his next words, keeping his tone light and directing them at his sibling. “You wouldn’t be you if we shared the same mother, Johnny.”
The younger man’s cheeks colored as he accepted the cup. “Yeah,” he agreed, forcing the smile. Sayin’ sorry was just not his style. “And one of you is sure in hell more than I’m willin’ to put up with…”
Murdoch blew into his mug then and took a long drink, grateful for the silence. He was even more grateful for his sons.
Scott peered at his father over the brim of his cup and saw the man’s expression; the easing of the tired lines at the corners of Murdoch’s eyes that were morphing into a contented smile. Now, he thought. “This has all been very enlightening, Murdoch,” he ventured. “You’ve told us some things about our mothers, and how they came to be at Lancer, but you haven’t really told us how you came to be in California.” He gazed directly into his father’s eyes, clearly issuing a challenge.
Murdoch returned his son’s scrutiny. At his left, he could feel Johnny growing restless. Delaying his response, he reached out and picked up Johnny’s pants; turned them right side out and handed them off. The shirt followed. The clothing was not completely dry, but they were bright sunshine warm. He felt the discarded blanket fall into his lap and smoothed it with his fingers.
Johnny was on his feet, fastening the conchos on his right hip. When he finished, he looked first at his brother, and then shifted his gaze to his father. He was about to speak when Murdoch rose up from his place and headed back to the fire pit.
Scott jerked his head in their father’s direction, a clear indication he wasn’t about to give up on his mission. Johnny fell in beside him and together they followed in their father’s wake.
Murdoch was refilling his cup. He had already doubled the blanket and spread it on the ground but made no sign that he was about to sit down.
Johnny settled down onto the blanket and drew his legs up to his chest; his arms folded across his knees. “So why’d you leave Scotland?” he asked, squinting into the sun as he looked up at his father. He rephrased the question. “How come you left home?” He scooted over a bit as Scott dropped down beside him.
Murdoch emptied his cup and threw the dregs into the fire. “Scotland was never my home, Johnny,” he said softly. Knowing he needed to explain the sentiment, he continued. “You aren’t the only Lancer to come into an unwelcoming world, born to parents of a diverse heritage and culture.”
The two young men exchanged a brief glance before swinging their gaze back to their father; their expressions solemn. Scott was the first to speak, anticipating the question he knew Johnny was hesitant to broach. “I don’t understand, sir,” he began. “Your father…”
“Was French; from a family that had sided with the Jacobites in support of the Stuarts,” Murdoch interrupted. “But no matter how long his family had been in Scotland, he was never considered a Scotsman, and never would be.
“And my mother…” he inhaled, “…my mother was a member of a clan who had sided with the English.” The next was more difficult. “Her family participated in the Highland clearances, when pastures for English sheep became more important than the people who had worked the land for generations. It was a combination that made life difficult, for all of us.”
Johnny was having trouble understanding what his father was saying. His own negative experiences with prejudice had always been based on the fact he was considered ill bred by the Mexicans as well as the Anglos, resented by the majority of both because he didn’t fit in either world. Too fawn complected to be considered a gringo, too light to be regarded as a Mexican. Sure in hell nothing like his father or brother who were both fair skinned. “Why?” he asked, his tone more sullen than he intended.
Scott turned back to his brother; answering the query. “It meant Murdoch would have been considered an outsider in the country of his birth,” he said. “His father would have been considered a foreigner, and his mother a traitor for having sided with the British.” He hesitated, and then looked up to address his father. “Is that why you left Scotland?”
Murdoch remained silent for a moment, debating his answer. “My father was a physician, a surgeon,” he began, “and a well respected professor at King’s College; which gave him some advantage in spite of his blood lines. And my mother,” he reminisced, “was an incredibly well educated woman with a talent for music and a love for the printed word.
“They were well into their thirties when they married, and resigned to the fact – after two stillborn babies – they would probably never have children.” He smiled wanly. “I heard my father refer to me once as their ‘surprise’ blessing.”
Johnny snickered. “Big surprise, I bet,” he guffawed. His cheeks colored. “I mean…”
“Twelve pounds, thirteen ounces,” Murdoch announced. “A very big surprise blessing.” He smiled down at his youngest. “More than twice as big as you, son, when you were born,” he teased.
“Figures,” Johnny snorted. His old man’s size still intimidated him.
Scott was beginning to realize his father was every bit as good at diversions as his brother. “So it was your parents who decided you should leave Scotland?”
Murdoch frowned. “No,” he replied, dragging the word out a bit. “When I was fifteen, it was decided I would go to University.” He turned to look at Scott. “I had been home schooled by my mother and father,” he continued, “rigorously. When they felt they couldn’t teach me anymore it was time for the doctor’s son to study medicine.”
Scott’s face betrayed his surprise. Medical school at fifteen. “What happened, Murdoch?”
There was a long silence between the two older men, both of them being closely watched by an intrigued Johnny. The quiet was so intense that when Murdoch finally resumed speaking, the boy flinched.
“I didn’t go to University,” Murdoch answered. He was studying his hands, which he raised slightly, displaying them for his sons. The same hands that worked so well at the forge and at ranching; but certainly not the hands of a surgeon. “I headed for the nearest seaport, lied about my age, and signed on as a seaman for a British merchant ship bound for the Continent and – eventually – America.”
Johnny didn’t realize he had been holding his breath. “Just like that?” he breathed. He’d struck out on his own at fifteen. Sort of.
“Just like that,” Murdoch answered. “I sent word to my parents, of course, arranged for someone to take a letter to them once the ship had sailed.” There was a trace of regret in his voice, shame over a boy’s cowardly deception. “I didn’t see them again until I had reached my majority, and by then I was already a ship’s master. The last time I saw them, they had moved from Aberdeen to what had been my maternal grandparents’ home in Inverness. I stayed three months and then told them I was going back to America to make my home there, and then I sailed for Boston. I never looked back,” his voice lowered; “and I’ve never had any desire to go back.”
Scott mulled the words over in his mind. Apparently, he mused, running away from a life planned by someone else was an inherited trait.
Murdoch was lounging beside the campfire, his back pressed against the sun-warm sandy embankment. He was watching his sons at play. They had wandered off, crossing the stream to the opposite bank shortly after he had told them about his departure from Scotland and his stubborn determination to make a better life in a new world; a decision he had never regretted. They were, he was certain, discussing what he had disclosed; dissecting and digesting his revelations.
A dragonfly landed on his right pant leg, and he stared in fascination at the creature’s intricate wings. The fragile, translucent film radiated bright miniature rainbows, iridescent colors that shifted with each flutter; the creature’s long body a vibrant blue-green stem beneath the gossamer. It was like looking through the isinglass window of a coal-burning stove, and he found himself drawn by the illusion.
The years peeled away, and he was transported to a place he often visited; the world of what if where his boys were still children and the Fates had not robbed him of their childhood. Suddenly chagrined by his journey into a world he could not change, a world over which he had no control, he shooed the dragonfly away.
He looked up, resolving to concentrate on the here and now; just in time to see Johnny creeping up behind his brother. The boy’s intentions were blatantly clear. He was going to shove his sibling into the water. Just as the youth was about to strike, he called out. “John!” he bellowed.
It was enough of a warning that Scott quickly spun sideways. Johnny had already launched his attack, and was propelled forward, losing his balance. Just in time, Scott reached out to catch his brother by his collar and belt. He held fast to him, preventing the boy from plunging face first into the fast running stream. Then, threatening to let go, he landed a swift boot to the youth’s compact rear-end.
“Scott!” The second bellow was louder than the first, and filled with the proper amount of paternal rebuke.
Both young men came to immediate attention. There was an awkward moment of shuffling feet, bowed heads and then the soft sound of embarrassed laughter.
Murdoch levered himself up from the ground. Hands on his hips, he stared across the creek at the two miscreants, his eyes narrowing. “You were supposed to be catching our lunch,” he chided. He nodded at the winnowing basket he had fashioned earlier that lay at their feet, trying hard to maintain the frown.
Scott leaned sideways and picked up the willow-branch fish trap, tipping it slightly to display a half dozen trout. One of them, the topmost, was frantically flapping and gasping for breath. Its body arced, sunlight reflecting off the silver scales as the fish convulsed and leapt skyward and free of its constraints. The trout appeared to take flight, gravity drawing it down to the water with a great splash. It skittered away from the shoals and disappeared into the deeper water.
“Hey! That was my fish,” Johnny shouted. He bolted forward only to be hauled back by his ever vigilant brother.
“That was the biggest fish in the basket,” Scott chuffed, “and it definitely was not yours!”
Murdoch was shaking his head. “It appears it’s nobody’s,” he groused, still fighting the smile. “Now stop fooling around and bring me my lunch!” He inhaled sharply, watching as his younger son once again headed for the water. “Not there,” he called out, jabbing a finger in the direction of the fast-running stream and then swinging his arm to the right to indicate the wider stretch of calmer water up stream. “Go back to the shallows and cross there!”
Johnny’s hands were fisted at his hips. “Jesus Christ, Old Man,” he snapped, one hip cocked as if he was about to take a step. “It’s a fuckin’ creek, not some damned ocean!”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “John…” In his mind’s eye, he was seeing Johnny as the toddler he remembered; the stubborn little boy who had constantly tested the boundaries. “Do as you’re told,” he finished.
It was clear the boy was debating. He studied the ground for a long moment before kicking out at a toad-sized rock. And then he started down the small embankment.
Scott grabbed his brother’s collar. “Cip’s right, you know,” he muttered. Basket of fish secured in one hand, Johnny firmly clasped in the other, he began the short trek down the sandy shore. “There actually are times when you don’t have the good sense to pour piss out of a boot.”
Murdoch was preparing the fish. Ignoring his younger son’s grumblings, he concentrated on cooking; overlooking the fact Scott’s shirt was spattered with something that appeared to be fish guts and sacs of yellow roe. A minor war had broken out between his boys when they were cleaning and filleting the trout, the words ‘sense’, ‘pour’, ‘piss’ and ‘boot’ peppering their hushed but intense conversation until he had finally ordered them to quiet down.
He noted the aroma of the frying fish seemed to have calmed their dispositions and decided some civil conversation was in order. “Modoc Charlie,” he began softly, keeping the words at a near whisper so his sons would have to focus. “He’s the one who taught me how to make the fish trap,” he nodded toward the basket sitting between his boys, “and the camp stove.” He tapped the folding grill with his fork; the one he had fashioned at his own forge under Charlie’s diligent supervision. “He also taught me how to cook what I trapped.” Looking up, he caught Johnny’s eye. “There’s a tin of canned milk in my saddlebags,” he said.
Johnny’s head came up. Somehow milk and fish didn’t seem like a very tasty combination. He shrugged, stood up, retrieved the tin, and returned to his place beside the fire. To his amazement, his father was now slicing wild scallions and adding them to the mix. His nose crinkled. Damned if the Old Man hadn’t punched open the can of milk and was pouring it into the skillet.
Murdoch noted his son’s expression and smiled. “Your turn, Scott,” he said. “There’s a packet of Maria’s flour mix in my saddlebags, and some of Cookie’s biscuits from last night.”
Scott was reluctant to leave the fire. The blended aroma of bacon grease, fish and scallions was somehow familiar. He pulled himself erect, brushed off his pants, and made his way over to where the horses were tethered. When he returned, he watched as his father stirred a measure of the flour blend into the broth and resumed stirring. The combination of milk and seasoned flour was bubbling into thick white gravy.
Murdoch adjusted the pan on the grate, pulling it away from the flames. And then, using his fork, he halved the biscuits. Carefully, he placed them just above the red coals at the outer edge of the fire. “Get your plates,” he grinned.
Scott watched as his brother mopped up the last of the gravy from his tin plate, smiling as the youth began licking his fingers. “So, what do you think, Johnny? Since Murdoch did the honors,” he tipped his head in the direction of the cook fire, “should we volunteer to do the clean up? Say toss for it?” He reached into his front pants pocket withdrawing a coin that he juggled in his palm.
Johnny was sucking on his middle finger, relishing the taste of the sauce. When he withdrew it from his mouth, he made a very impolite gesture.
Murdoch smacked the boy’s hand. “Johnny,” he scolded.
Johnny peered up at his father. “The bast…,” he cleared his throat. “He’s still got my peso.”
Murdoch chuckled. “Your two-headed peso?” he asked. He silently wondered why Scott had waited so long to confiscate the coin. “Have you asked for it back?”
The boy frowned. “He keeps sayin’ ‘no’,” he groused.
“You could always arm wrestle for it,” Murdoch suggested helpfully. He hid the grin with his hand, as if wiping away crumbs. Looking up, he winked at his eldest. “Perhaps the two of you could compromise. Clean up together, as a team.”
One thing about the Old Man, Johnny mused. He sure can come up with the dumbest ideas. Next thing he’ll be tellin’ me I can wash up and Scott can dry.
“You could wash up,” Murdoch proposed, “and Scott could dry.”
Johnny buried his face in his hands and then finger-combed his hair. “Or we could just pack ‘em up dirty, let Maria and T’resa sort it out when we get home.”
Scott laughed and pocketed the peso. “Only if you are the one who gives them to the ladies,” he chuffed. He knuckle-thumped his brother’s head, just behind his right ear. “I’ve been in the kitchen when Mamácita brings down your forgotten laundry. There is no way I’m going to be anywhere near her kitchen if you intend on presenting her with a sack of dirty trail tins.”
Johnny was rubbing his head. He shrugged. Taller, older, wiser brother, my ass. “Not if the stuff’s in the Old Man’s saddle bags,” he crowed.
This time, it was Murdoch that thumped his head. “Go,” he ordered, nodding toward the stream. “Both of you.”
Scott was picking up the dirty tin plates and the eating utensils. Johnny, he observed, was occupied swiping out the frying pan with his bent forefinger. “Will we be camping out here tonight, sir?” he asked, “Or catching up with the herd?”
Murdoch was on his feet. He looked up, shading his eyes against the sun. The ball of yellow-white light was high overhead; approaching the high noon position. “Neither, son,” he answered. “Cip has things well in hand and he’ll take it from here.” He turned to look to the southeast, in the direction of the hacienda. “There’s a shortcut, through the foothills. If we leave here soon, we’ll be home well before supper.”
At that, Johnny perked up. He swiped his hands against his thighs. “In time enough so’s Maria can whip up somethin’ special for dessert?” Caramel flan, he thought; already salivating.
“Not if you come in with an arm load of dirty dishes,” Murdoch answered back.
Johnny crossed the few feet to where his brother was standing, the frying pan in his left hand; the cloth Murdoch had used as a hot pad in his right. “C’mon, brother,” he said, tugging on Scott’s arm. “We’re burnin’ daylight here.”
They took their time with their chores, aware that behind them Murdoch had settled himself back on the trunk of the fallen cottonwood and was filling his pipe. Scott turned slightly to survey his father, and then back to his brother. “I think he’s still willing to talk, Johnny,” he observed, “to tell us more about how he ended up here on Lancer.”
Johnny was polishing one of the tin plates. “What’s left to tell?” he asked. “We know he bought the land; brought your Mama here.” He paused for a moment and then went on. “She died, he met my Mama…” The words drifted off.
Scott’s expression was thoughtful. “Do you remember any of it?” he asked suddenly. “Living here with Murdoch, your mother?” In his heart he knew Johnny did; just as he knew the boy would deny it. But Johnny’s torment during his recovery from Pardee’s bullet was clear evidence those memories existed. However tenuous and confused the dreams had been, they needed to be separated from the drug-induced delirium.
He had to try.
For a brief moment, Johnny’s face betrayed what he was feeling, a mixture of betrayal heightened by the clawing in his gut. Scott and his damned need to fix things, make them right; his version of right. And then the mask of indifference shrouded the youth’s countenance and his posture changed. “I don’t remember nothin’, Scott,” he growled. “Not one fuckin’ thing.” He reached out to take the pot Scott had just scrubbed, wiped its inside, and then picked up the rest of the gear. Without another word, he turned and strode away.
Looking up, Murdoch watched as his sons trudged back to the campsite. They were walking single file, Johnny slightly in the lead. It was obvious by Johnny’s stride and demeanor that the young man was upset.
Johnny dropped the clean utensils beside the fire pit and then headed straight for where the horses were picketed. Grabbing his saddle blanket from where it had been spread in the sun, he shook it out and placed it across Barranca’s back.
Scott was now beside his father. His expression was markedly different from his brother’s, filled with concern and not anger. Murdoch reached out to touch the young man’s shoulder. “What happened?” Not waiting for an answer, he turned his head and called out to his younger son. “Johnny! We’re not ready to leave, son. Not yet.”
Johnny answered back without turning around. “Well I am,” he snapped. He picked up his saddle, slung it across the palomino’s back and begun lacing the straps.
Scott’s voice cut into the sudden quiet. “Murdoch,” he started; his voice louder than necessary. “What’s the very first thing you remember; the first cognizant memory from when you were a child?”
Murdoch’s gaze immediately swung to his elder son, a puzzled look heightening the man’s frown. Then, sensing something not quite tangible but knowing it was important, he responded. “Fire,” he answered. “The smell of fire and burning flesh.” The carefully phrased remark was enough to draw the instant attention of his younger son.
Johnny’s hands stilled and he turned, facing his father and brother. Scott visibly relaxed.
Murdoch reached into his vest pocket and withdrew his pipe. There was a hollow tapping sound as he knocked the pipe against the dead tree trunk, dislodging the gray ash. Methodically, he began to refill the bowl, a slight but noticeable tremble in his hands. “We were living in Aberdeen,” he began, purposely speaking in a soft voice. It worked. Johnny, removing Barranca’s saddle, left the picket line and moved closer. “My parents had a small cottage well outside the city proper where we spent the summer and holidays. During one of our stays – I was perhaps three or four – a new family moved into the cottage across the way.” He hesitated, lighting the pipe and getting it working.
“They were English, new to the country,” he continued between puffs. “A man, his wife; two small children.” He couldn’t remember their last name; didn’t recall ever hearing it, even afterwards. He looked up to face his boys. “The old hatreds ran deep. Between the clans, even more so between the Scots and the English.
“One night, there was a fire.” He took another long draw on the pipe; a halo of blue smoke surrounding his head. “Our neighbor’s cottage, the outbuildings.” He snapped his fingers. “Gone.” There was a long moment of silence before he resumed speaking. “The husband survived. The children and his wife did not.” More quiet. “I remember my father treating the man’s burns, which were extensive. And I recall that the rabbits screamed.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he moved up closer until he was standing beside his father. “Rabbits?” he asked.
Murdoch nodded. “The family had pet rabbits, penned in the little back garden. When the shed burned, the rabbits screamed like terrified children.” His next words were deliberate, slow in coming. “The fire was set intentionally,” he said. “There was an investigation – I remember seeing the constables – but I don’t think anything ever came of it. What did happen,” he continued, “was that it affected my parents, made them afraid.
“We never went back to the cottage. My father continued to teach, Mother remained at home; all of us cloistered behind stout brick walls. Their fear became my fear.” He inhaled deeply. “It was something unspoken that dictated how we lived. Years later, I realized it was the reason I was home schooled, kept isolated. In the end, it was my justification for leaving. It was also the reason I’ve never had any desire to go back.”
Johnny’s right toe scuffed at the loose gravel. “Hell of a thing to remember,” he breathed, “bein’ afraid.” He spoke from bitter experience.
Murdoch removed the pipe from his mouth and studied the ivory mouth piece. “I have other memories,” he murmured. “Good as well as bad.” When Johnny started to interrupt, he pressed on. “When I was very small, my mother used to come into my room, before I went to sleep. During the day, she kept her hair up,” he made a motion with his hand; a circle around his head signifying the thick braids she favored. “But at night, she would wear it loose, around her shoulders, down her back. She would lean over to kiss me goodnight, and I would smell roses. English tea roses.” He smiled.
“Tea roses?” Johnny asked.
Scott was the one to respond. “Think of Mamácita’s honey spiced tea,” he suggested. “How it seems to fill the entire house when it’s brewing.”
Unable to help himself, Johnny chuckled. “Like that stuff T’resa’s always puttin’ behind her ears when Reese comes callin’?” he teased.
“Rose water,” Scott replied. He cast a quick look in his father’s direction. “And Teresa uses it daily, not just when Reese comes calling.”
Murdoch said something neither of his sons expected. “Reese Simmons would not be a bad match for your sister.” Seeing their surprised expressions, he moved on. “And you, Scott,” he resumed. “What do you remember from your childhood?” Somehow, it seemed important to continue this strange game his elder son had started.
Scott hesitated, considering his reply. He turned around, and was now leaning against the downed cottonwood, his buttocks snug within a natural curve in the great log. “I remember my Grandmother kissing away the soreness in my pinched fingers and the scrapes on my knees,” he answered honestly. “The evenings when Grandfather read to me.” He took a deep breath, his voice lowering. “And I remember meeting you when you came to Boston.”
A stunned silence followed. Murdoch cleared his throat. Once again, his pipe had gone dead. He knocked the ash free, debated building another bowl, and then changed his mind. He returned the pipe to the leather pouch he carried in the inside pocket of his vest. “But I thought…”
“What I wanted you to think,” Scott interrupted gently. The next was a rare confession. “That I had no reason or desire to remember you.” A tenuous smile played on his lips.
Johnny stared hard at his older brother. Sensing where all this was going and how it would in all likelihood end, he again considered mounting Barranca and taking off. But now… “Why?” he asked.
Scott met his brother’s harsh glare with a benign smile. “After Grandmother died, all I knew about Murdoch – about our father – was what Grandfather told me,” he replied. “That I owed my father nothing. Not courtesy, and certainly not respect.” His eyes narrowed. “Much like what you were obviously told by your mother.” Voice lowering even more, he continued. “You chose to be insolent; I chose to be distant.”
Score one for Scott, Murdoch thought wryly. He decided to pursue the issue. “And what exactly do you remember, son, about my visit?” he asked, turning to face his eldest.
“That you were a giant,” Scott answered. The smile he had given Johnny blossomed; warmed. “Something which was reaffirmed that first day in the Great Room when you got up from behind the desk.” He laughed, touched by another long-ago memory. “For my birthday that year,” he continued, “one of the other children gave me a book of bed time fairy tales. One of the stories was Jack…”
“…the Giant Slayer,” Murdoch finished. He reached out to grasp his son’s shoulder and give him a small shake. “And I suppose I became that Giant.”
Johnny was fidgeting. He was also curious. “Giant what?” he asked.
Scott’s smile widened. “It was the story of a young boy who trades a cow for some magic beans; which he plants to grow a beanstalk. When it grew,” he gestured with his right hand and then pointed skyward, “Jack climbed the beanstalk to confront the Giant.” He chuckled. “‘Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread…’” he quoted. “In the end – after Jack almost gets eaten by the monster – he steals a golden harp, a goose that lays golden eggs, and slays the giant. Oh. And he marries a Princess and lives happily ever after.”
Johnny snorted in disbelief. He hitched himself up on the log beside his father, straddling the tree trunk. “Hell of a bedtime story,” he mocked.
Scott leaned forward to peer around his father’s considerable bulk. “There were others,” he announced, his expression serious. His eyes, however, radiated humor and there was an undeniable warmth in his voice. “Red Riding Hood,” he continued, “where a young girl’s grandmother gets eaten by a wolf; Hansel and Gretel, where a cruel stepmother sends her children into the forest to be eaten by a witch…”
Another snort of disdain from Johnny. “Great way to send a kid off to sleep,” he observed. “Scarin’ the shit out of ‘em.” He was quiet a moment, thoughtful. “Must be a Boston thing,” he suggested; a teasing dig at his brother’s supposedly genteel upbringing. “Never heard no stories like that in Mexico.”
Murdoch was clearly enjoying the banter between his sons. Yet another thing he had been robbed of when they were small. He shook the thought away. “Oh, I remember a story or two from Mexico that weren’t much better,” he announced. “In particular, Cuento del Pajaro del Dulce Canto – The Bird of the Sweet Song – which ended with an old man sacrificing his youngest daughter to a great Sea Worm, so he could regain his sight.” He smiled when he saw Johnny’s reaction; the pout.
They were all silent for a time, each locked in their own thoughts. Scott was the first to speak. “Your turn, brother,” he said softly. “What do you remember?”
Johnny’s right hand was stroking the log he was straddling, much like he stroked Barranca’s neck when he was troubled. “Told you before, brother,” the word sounded obscene, “not one fuckin’ thing.”
Murdoch grimaced at the curse and the tone of voice. “Soledad,” he said softly. Just the one word. When there was no response other than Johnny’s sudden shifting of position, he spoke again. “When you were recovering,” he continued. “You called out. Soledad.” Nothing. He cleared his throat, his voice softening as he tried again. “Right after you were born, Modoc Charlie brought you a gift. A crossbreed pup he’d named Soledad; black as night on the outside, pure wolf inside. He was your first pet, Johnny.” He’d been angry with Charlie in the beginning; but the wolf mix had been a God-send for his small son. The cub had been the child’s constant companion and a great source of comfort when Maria withdrew and closeted herself away.
Johnny was listening intently to his father’s words, but stubbornly not believing. Soledad was the horse Val had bought him when they were together in San Luís, the black mare his mother had sold after they left; and the animal still haunted his dreams. Yet another thing he loved that had been stolen from him. “Told you,” he ground out. “I don’t fuckin’ remember nothin’!” He dismounted the log and took off across the clearing.
Murdoch was relieved to see his son heading toward the stream; not the horses. He turned to Scott. “What brought this on?” he asked abruptly. “All this talk of memories; of what you brother remembers?” His tone was gruff.
“Johnny,” Scott answered.
The flatness of Scott’s voice, the concern in his face, worried the older man. “Is he talking about leaving?” he asked.
Scott shook his head. “No,” he replied. “And that’s what has me concerned.” He inhaled. “The last time we went up to Charlie’s cabin, Johnny saw just how bad he looks.” He turned to look at his father. “He knows Charlie is sick, Murdoch. He’s just begun to know the man, to care for him, and he knows he is dying. And he won’t talk about it.” He tossed a strip of bark he had been shredding to the ground. “Just like he refuses to talk about what he remembers.”
Murdoch pushed himself up and stretched. “Charlie is in his eighties, Scott.” He swept at his pants with both hands, dislodging the bits of blown sand and gravel that had collected on the coarse fabric. “No one lives forever, son; no matter how much we wish otherwise. And as for what Johnny might remember…” He left the rest unsaid, the regret in his eyes as well as his voice.
Scott considered his father’s words. “I realize none of us are immortal, sir, and I accept that. But Johnny…” He turned his head to gaze at his brother, a sadness gripping him as he noted the boy’s posture. Johnny was standing with his back to them, head down, his arms wrapped about his upper torso in a tight self-hug; his fingers kneading the flesh of his biceps. “I think Johnny handles loss the same way he handles his memories. He buries them…”
“And you haven’t buried some memories of your own, son?” Murdoch interjected gently. He was studying the young man’s face, gut-wrenchingly aware that – in profile – Scott was the living image of his mother Catherine.
“After the War,” Scott began, “I made the mistake of trying to drown my memories. In drink and then in a series of purposely reckless liaisons I knew were doomed from the outset.” He was quiet for a moment. When he attempted to resume speaking, he was interrupted by his father.
“The woman you were with when the Pinkerton agent found you,” Murdoch announced. Secretly, he enjoyed seeing the faint traces of pink that suddenly brightened his son’s tanned cheeks.
“Yes,” Scott confessed, surprised to know that his father was aware of the details of his encounter with Welby. He laughed, softly. “Somehow, after Barbara, it seemed I needed to rethink my strategy for dealing with – avoiding – my own memories.” Once again, his eyes turned to his younger brother who was now pacing up and down beside the stream. “I wasted five years trying to escape from a prison of my own making, Murdoch. Johnny’s spent a lifetime trying to escape a prison created by others.” The determination was in his face, as well as in his words. “It needs to stop. Now.”
Murdoch swiped his hand across his face. “We can’t force him to remember, Scott.” He turned to face his eldest.
Stubbornly, Scott shook his head in disagreement. “Not force, Murdoch. Coax. Put names and faces to all those places and people he called out for when he was lost to us, when we thought he was going to die.” An involuntary shudder coursed through his long frame. “He needs to put the ghosts to rest.” The next words came with a degree of trepidation. “We all do.”
Both men looked up to see Johnny suddenly turn away from the water and begin a determined march in their direction. They didn’t have to wait long.
“The dog,” Johnny said, stopping directly in front of his father. “What happened to the dog?” He couldn’t call the animal by its name.
Murdoch looked up in surprise. “It was a long time ago, son,” he said. “He died.”
It was clear from Johnny’s face he wasn’t satisfied with the answer. “How?” Blunt, straight for the jugular.
For a long moment, Murdoch considered his answer. “The night you were taken,” he began. “Someone lured Soledad away.” He debated telling the next, painfully aware nothing less than the full truth would suffice. “Cip and I found him later in a corner of the courtyard. He’d been run through, his throat cut.”
A brief flash of regret swept across the boy’s face; quickly hidden when he dipped his chin against his chest, his gaze dropping to the ground at his feet. Murdoch reached out, gently cupping Johnny’s chin in his palm and lifting the boy’s head. “You remembered something,” he prompted.
Johnny pulled away and took a small step backwards. “The smell of pine,” he said. “The sound of panting.” The words tumbled from his lips. “Like I was lost somewhere in the woods, tryin’ to find someplace warm…” My way home, he instantly thought.
Murdoch nodded. “Maria’s garden,” he said. He knew he needed to clarify. “The little garden behind the kitchen where Maria – Mamácita – grows herherbs. You used to nap there, with Soledad.”
Johnny was shaking his head in denial. “There ain’t one fuckin’ pine tree in that garden, Murdoch,” he argued. “Not one.”
“True enough,” Murdoch agreed. “But sometimes – in the fall – we’d get a sudden warm spell; and along with a change in the weather, an equally sudden infestation of vermin. Fleas, ticks…”
“Pine trees,” Johnny cut in, making a slashing movement with his right hand; his tone harsh
Murdoch inhaled. He was nearing his daily limit of paternal patience. “Don’t interrupt,” he chided, tempering the rebuke with a slight smile. “Charlie had this concoction; a pine-tar, chokeberry soap he swore by.” The smile grew as remembered. “I used to bathe you and Soledad in the big tub in the wash house. And then I’d bring you back to Maria’s garden to let you dry off in the sun. The two of you would curl up on blankets at my feet; and you would fall asleep sprawled across your dog.
“He’d lie as still as a stone, content to be your pillow,” he continued. “Not one move other than his breathing.”
“The panting,” Scott murmured, thinking aloud. He shoved himself away from the tree trunk and moved to stand beside his brother. “You said you remembered panting.” He gave Johnny’s arm a gentle nudge.
Johnny’s head dipped again, his eyes hidden by the brim of his stetson. His hands were busy, pressed against his thighs, slipping up and down on the leather. There was a foreign vulnerability in his stance and his demeanor, in his voice. “Sometimes…” he whispered; the rest fading into an uncertain quiet.
An awkward silence hung over the now somber group; each of them locked in their own thoughts. For Murdoch it was remembering a sleeping toddler in his arms and burying his face in the too-long curls that smelled of pine and wild berries. Johnny was trying hard to separate the kaleidoscopic bits and pieces of confusing images in his head that made no sense but were now undeniably familiar.
Scott’s memories were of the War. He could face them now for what they were: that part of his past which had molded him into the man he had become. “Once, after a skirmish with Confederate foot soldiers,” he began, “we went back to retrieve the dead.”
Two pairs of blue eyes shifted to gaze at the young man; alarm evident in the pale orbs. Scott rarely spoke of his time in the cavalry. Aware of the sudden scrutiny, the concern in their faces, he forced a smile. There was no trepidation in his expression or his stance. “It was night, and we had been ambushed in a swamp and nearly decimated by the Rebels. The firefight was brutal, and the hand-to-hand combat that followed, a blood bath. When it was finally over there was this sudden silence.” He paused in his narrative, inwardly surprised that the words were coming so easily. “There was a full moon,” he continued, “and the bog became this landscape of shades of grey. We could see heat rising from the clusters of wounded and dying, a thin vapor that seemed to lift toward the Heavens; as if the bodies were releasing their souls.” His head lowered slightly. “All but four of my men died.”
Murdoch swiped his face with his broad hand, his thumb and forefinger lingering at the bridge of his nose as he massaged his eyes. “You don’t have to do this, son,” he murmured. He reached out, his fingers closing around Scott’s upper arm; his touch gentle.
Scott smiled in appreciation, and then resumed speaking. “We collected our dead,” he said. “Not to perform the usual amenities, but because we knew if we left them behind, the Confederates would mutilate the corpses; cut off their hands and then hang their bodies as a warning to other foragers.” He was quiet again as he contemplated his next words. “We also didn’t want the enemy to know just how many of us had died.”
Johnny’s face was awash with a myriad of emotions. Pain, remorse; worry. “Jesus, brother,” he whispered. His own brief experience as a boy with the military – his forced conscription into the Mexican army – had been among masses of brightly uniformed soldiers marching into battle in the bright light of day. Wanting to reach out to touch his brother, he stopped himself and jammed his hands into his waistband. “Murdoch’s right, Scott. You don’t need to do this.” His thumbs were making slow circles on his belt buckle.
Scott’s arms were folded across his chest and he was completely relaxed; comfortable. He smiled up at his father and then turned his gaze to Johnny. “Humor me, brother,” he said. “I may be taking the long way around, but I really think you need to hear this.”
Murdoch watched the silent exchange between his sons, sensing the quiet communication. It continued to amaze him, the ability of both of his boys to convey so much with their eyes. Even on that first day in the Great Room, he had painfully been aware of what they were feeling. It’s true, he mused, the eyes really are the mirror to a man’s soul.
Johnny’s eyes, filled with concern, were now focused on his brother’s face. There was warmth there, and genuine affection. Scott’s eyes, paler than his brother’s, radiated the same warmth and something more. Conviction.
Scott resumed speaking. “You said, brother, you remembered panting.” He raised his hand when Johnny attempted to speak. “I remember panting, too. The scavengers in the shadows at the edge of the swamp. Coyotes, first; timid, always on the move.
“It was the stray wild dogs that were the most threatening, the bigger concern. They were more aggressive, more cunning. The sound of their constant panting seemed to be everywhere, all around us.” His expression sobered. “It became a race. To see if we could get to our dead and wounded before the dogs.” Surprisingly, he laughed; but there was no humor in the sound. “When we reached our last man, it became a tug of war. Two hounds from Hell against two wounded men trying to retrieve their comrade.”
He shook his head. “After the War, that sound haunted me. For years. So much so, I couldn’t stand to be in close proximity to a dog, any dog, for a very long time.” His expression eased and a broad smile touched his lips, his cheeks dimpling. Reaching out, he smacked his brother’s taut belly with the back of his hand. “Unlike you, little brother,” he shook his finger beneath the youth’s nose, “who thinks you need to corral every stray in the county and bring it home!”
Murdoch coughed, stifling a loud guffaw. Johnny’s penchant for collecting strays had begun before he could walk. His collection had run the gamut from bugs to birds, including his mother’s caged canaries that had left little tokens of their newfound freedom all over the Great Room’s rugs and draperies. Even after all these years, it was still a mystery how Johnny had managed to topple the cage and unlatch the ornate door.
Johnny’s eyes swung in Murdoch’s direction. The Old Man had a shit-eating grin plastered across his face, the same smirk Scott had smeared across his pie-hole. “Your point bein’,” he ground out, facing his brother.
Scott continued to smile. “My memories of a dog panting…bad. Your memories – the smell of pine and Soledad’s breathing – good.” The smile grew. Checkmate.
“Bullshit,” Johnny grumbled, knowing damned good and well what his brother was thinking. Eyes downcast, he studied the ground. Then, without another word, he turned and headed across the clearing. He began kicking at the stones Scott had so carefully aligned to form a fire ring; scattering the still smoldering ashes and then using his right foot to cover them with sand.
The two older men waited; the fact Johnny had not headed for Barranca bringing a degree of mutual contentment. To Murdoch’s surprise, Scott pulled a tin of ready-rolled smokes from his back pocket and lit up. He’d seen his elder son join Cipriano for an occasional cigarillo after a shared evening meal, but he’d never seen the young man with a quirly. He retrieved his pipe from his vest pocket. “I’ve never seen you smoke a cigarette before, Scott. Is that a newly acquired habit?”
Scott chuckled. “Just since I met Johnny,” he said. He cast a sideways glance at his father. “Better than the alternative. Grabbing him by the throat and shaking him until he comes to his senses.” Then, sobering, “I know he remembers more than he is willing to admit, Murdoch. I saw it that first day, when Teresa stopped the wagon on the ridge above the hacienda. When he stood up and looked down into the valley, I saw something in his face, his eyes. As if he had seen it before and remembered.”
Murdoch’s shoulders lifted in a deep sigh. “I saw it, too,” he murmured, “or thought I did,” the words faded. God, how he had wanted his boy to remember. And for one infinitesimal moment he believed he had seen the look of a little boy who had found his way home.
“When he was taking off his hat,” Scott surmised. He’d seen longing in his brother’s eyes, and the need.
“Yes,” Murdoch said, clearing his throat. “But it was gone,” he snapped his fingers, “just like that. And then came the insolence; the hate.”
“He doesn’t hate you now, Murdoch,” Scott stated. And then more quietly. “I don’t regret what I started today, sir. Not if it helps Johnny remember.”
Murdoch took a long draw on his pipe. “I don’t know where he gets his damned stubbornness,” he said, shaking his head.
Scott laughed, full out. “Same place Johnny tells me I get mine,” he teased. “From my Old Man.” Before his father had a chance to retaliate, he looked over to where Johnny had just finished burying the remnants of their campfire.
Johnny stood stock still for a long moment, one hip cocked as if he was debating his next move. His decision made, he turned and headed back to where his father and brother were still sitting. It was obvious he had something on his mind. Murdoch watched as his younger son approached.
The young man stopped just beyond the point where neither his brother nor his father could reach out to touch him. He hunkered down on his heels in front of his old man, not settling, poised to run. “How old was I?” The words came softly, and both Murdoch and Scott had to lean forward to hear him. “When she took me. How old was I?”
Murdoch had expected the question, although not at this particular moment. It was a raw wound that had been cruelly reopened during their initial meeting in the Great Room and it was still festering. He knew he had to be careful.
“It was December, and you were about to turn three,” he began. He clasped his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. “We’d done really well that fall, had culled the herds and sold at considerable profit. And Henry Conway and I…” he smiled at the memory. “We had grubstaked a German miner who struck gold that assayed at more than we ever thought possible.” The mine was still producing.
“Cipriano and I had traveled to the coast, planning on stocking up on supplies for the remainder of the winter. And to do some shopping for the Holidays,” he continued. He reached out to place a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “Christmas was going to be very good at Lancer that year and,” he sighed, “there was your birthday.” He had purchased Johnny a pair of custom made boots, complete with a set of silver spurs with small bells. When he resumed speaking, his voice was hoarse.
“We planned on being back the morning of the 22nd, the day before your birthday,” he continued. “But there had been a series of small quakes west of the ranch…” he smiled, remembering how he and his Segundo had joked that Johnny was probably throwing a temper tantrum back at the hacienda over his absence, “…and the detour through the pass delayed our arrival.” His breathing quickened as he attempted to quell an old anxiety. He felt Scott’s hand on his shoulder – a quick pat that morphed into a gentle back rub – and found comfort in the gesture.
“We arrived on Lancer later that night.” Another long pause. “We saw the signal fires as we came in from the west, knew at once that something was wrong, terribly wrong. When we got to the hacienda…” He was finding it difficult to deal with the memories.
Scott slipped from his place beside his father and joined his brother, assuming a similar position as he hunkered down, his buttocks resting scant inches above the heels of his boots and his spurs. Like his sibling, his gaze rested on his father’s face. There was pain evident in the man’s eyes, etched in the lines on his forehead. “What happened, sir?”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed as he composed himself. He was reliving it again, picturing it in his mind in vivid color, shades of red, blood red. “Paul and most of the men had been lured away when one of the men rode in and reported a grass fire in the upper pastures.”
It pained him to say the next. “The scarves Elena always wears,” he resumed, his voice betraying the distress. “They cover the scar on her neck,” he gestured to his throat and made a slashing movement. “She was attacked that night, after trying to help.
“Maria – Mamácita – didn’t live in the main house then. But something happened that alerted Elena, and she roused some of the older vaqueros. By the time they got to the house…” he swallowed, “you, your mother, and your nodriza (wet nurse) were gone.” What he didn’t share was the vision that had greeted him upon his arrival: one of the vaquero’s carrying a child’s blanket-wrapped body through the front door of the hacienda; a child he had assumed was his son. But it had been Tomás, the nodriza’s child. His feelings then and now were conflicted: the horror of thinking his son dead, and the guilt that had followed when he felt relieved that the deceased youngster was the wet nurse’s son.
“The gambler,” Johnny whispered, intruding on his father’s thoughts. There was a mixture of shame and remorse in his tone, as if his abduction had somehow been his fault.
Murdoch sensed his son’s anguish. “Yes,” he responded. “But he wasn’t alone. He’d come by carriage and there were at least a dozen riders with him.”
Johnny head snapped up. “Maybe he had to force her,” he said, hopeful. “Maybe she didn’t want to go.”
As before, the older man debated his response. “She had packed her things, son,” he said softly. “Clothing, several of her personal belongings.” He had been tempted to lie, but there had been too many lies, too many half-truths that had poisoned both his sons. “She also took a considerable amount of cash and some other items from the safe in my study.” He leaned forward, his long arm reaching out to touch Johnny’s shoulder and felt his son immediately tense before swiping his hand away.
“Figures,” Johnny muttered, rocking back on his heels. He was remembering the time after his Mama had run away from the ranch in San Luís, when he had secretly watched her open the cash box and steal from Val. He looked up at his father, his expression grim. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Old Man,” he spat. Then, sensing his brother’s closeness, he relented. He turned to look at his sibling. “Wasn’t talkin’ about your Mama, Scott,” he murmured.
Scott reached out to put his arm around Johnny’s shoulder. He gave the youth a sudden embrace that morphed into a quick pat on the back as he felt his brother stiffen, Johnny’s usual response to an intimate gesture. “I know,” he said. His gaze shifted to his father. “I assume you followed them.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes,” he said. “First, Paul and I. Cipriano had remained behind to be with Elena until Sam convinced him it was all right to leave. I sent Paul back to Lancer when Cip joined me, and we kept moving south.
“We found the gambler in Ciudad Juarez. Your mother was no longer with him. And there was no trace of you.” The sentences came out in short bursts; clipped.
Johnny was using a stick to draw a series of intricately detailed figures in the thick sand at his feet, his eyes fastened on the glyphs. “He got a name? The gambler?” he asked as he continued drawing. Three distinct figures, a very tall man, a woman and a small boy, separate yet somehow together. His voice was soft; too soft.
“His name isn’t important,” Murdoch answered; his tone cold. “He’s dead. He’s been dead a long time.” His only regret was that he had not been the one who had killed the man.
Suddenly, Johnny jabbed the stick deep into the chest of the solitary male figure. The spar penetrated several layers of coarse sand and remained upright like a well-placed dagger. Water – seepage from the earlier spring floods – began bubbling up from the ground to pool around the wound. “I asked for his name,” he breathed. When there was no response from his father, he looked up. “Had a lot of names when I was a kid, Old Man. Just because you didn’t find her with him, don’t mean she wasn’t usin’ it.”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. Johnny’s mercurial mood swings were once again becoming a source of increasing aggravation. In spite of the irritation he decided to favor his son with a civil answer. “Navarro,” he responded; the name leaving a rancid taste in his mouth. “Esteván Navarro.” He saw no sign of recognition in his son’s eyes, but knew Johnny was cataloging the apparently long list of possibilities. Anticipating the next question, he continued. “She met him in Morro Coyo, where she had gone to visit a friend.” He was unable to suppress the bitterness in his voice when he continued. “They had been seeing each other for over six months before she left.”
I was such a fool, he thought, remembering, so in love and so blind to all the deception. Dismissing the dark memories, he levered himself up from the tree trunk, stretched, and absently rubbed at the spot on his lower back where a fragment of Pardee’s bullet still remained. Teeth clenched against the stem of his pipe, he shaded his eyes and looked skyward, gauging the time from the sun’s position. There were still things he wanted to show his sons; that part of Lancer they hadn’t seen before.
He had, he thought, planned this out so well. Some time with his sons away from the hacienda, away from the women who fussed and fretted when tempers flared and the shouting started. What is it, he wondered, that makes a woman think she needs to act as a mediator, a peace-maker? He smiled, wryly. Or in his sons’ case, their defender or surrogate mother. Clearing his throat, he nodded to where the horses were tethered. “We need to be on our way,” he prompted.
Immediately, Scott rose to his feet. He extended a helping hand to his brother, his eyes narrowing when the offer was ignored and the boy remained as he was. “Johnny?”
Johnny was still hunkered down, his elbows resting on his knees; his hands clasped, thumbs working in slow circles one atop the other. Eyes hidden by his hat, he was studying the caricatures he had fashioned in the sand. “How long?” he said finally.
Murdoch’s head canted. He was unsure as to what the boy was asking. “How long what, son?” he asked. His gaze, like his son’s, was fastened on the ground; on the three figures Johnny had drawn in the dirt. The impaled man, the woman, the little boy; none of them touching. A family it appeared, but somehow fragmented, standing apart from each other in some self imposed and bitter isolation. He repeated his question. “How long what?”
“How long did you look for her?” Johnny responded without looking up. His tone was frosty, detached, as if he was engaging in pointless conversation with an unwelcome stranger.
It was the coldness in his son’s voice that ignited Murdoch’s temper, and he struggled to keep control. “Not her, Johnny,” he ground out. “Never just her. I was looking for you, son. You!”
With the grace and quickness of a panther, the boy leapt to his feet. Breathing hard, he began to pace, jerking his arm free when his father reached out in an attempt to stop him. “I asked you how long,” he demanded.
The intensity of his son’s words prompted a quick answer. “Months,” Murdoch retorted. “Years.” He took a deep breath as he collected himself, his thoughts. He realized he was heading into treacherous waters, but it was too late to stop now. “And this,” he said, gesturing with a broad sweep of his right hand, “is what paid for those searches. Lancer.”
Johnny was now standing shoulder to shoulder with his brother. “Sounds like we’re gonna hear another one of them ‘if the air needs clearing’ speeches, don’t it, brother?” he taunted.
Scott reached out to lay a hand on his sibling’s shoulder. “Don’t, Johnny,” he cautioned. He had the feeling that what his father was about to say was important and, he sensed, it was not going to be pleasant. “Go on, Murdoch,” he prompted.
“Fuck,” Johnny cursed. He kicked at a clump of dirt at his feet and then lifted his head to look up at his father. “You said it was time for us to be headin’ out,” he said. It was clearly a challenge.
Murdoch said nothing and then turned to head for the horses. His sons fell in behind, Scott pausing just long enough to pick up the camp gear.
They saddled up and mounted, Murdoch taking the lead as they moved out and crossed the stream at the shallows. Keeping his horse to a walk he waited as Scott positioned himself on his right, Johnny moving up stirrup to stirrup on his left. He resumed speaking. “Every fall, after the herds were culled and the money banked, I’d head south. Paul was managing affairs at the ranch, and Cip joined me on the hunt.” The next, he knew, was going to come as a surprise. “Allan Pinkerton – an old friend from Glasgow – had started his detective agency, and I reached out to him for help. The information his agents provided determined where Cip and I would begin our search.”
Johnny exhaled loudly in disgust. “Well, that worked out for shit.” He smiled, but there was no warmth in his expression. Reaching up, he adjusted his stetson and tightened the stampede strings.
Murdoch swung his eyes to his son. He knew the boy was getting ready to run. “You’re here, Johnny. Because a Pinkerton agent found you.” Reaching out, he took hold of the youth’s arm, smiling as he shifted in his saddle to lean more in his boy’s direction. “And if you are thinking of storming off in one of your wild rides to God only knows where, I want you to consider this. Not only can I still rope with the best of them, I also have the ability to insure your access to Maria’s kitchen and her magnificent desserts will become severely limited; in fact, non-existent.”
There was a soft chuffing sound as Scott failed to stop the laughter. He came forward in his saddle and peered across at his sibling. “Roped out of your saddle by Murdoch,” he intoned, “and life without chocolate cake or fruit pies. Sounds like a high price to me, brother, for being surly and pig-headed.”
Johnny felt his cheeks color and the urge to take off hell-for-leather pulled hard at him. He shifted in the saddle and then – out of the corner of his eye – saw the subtle movement of his father’s right hand as Murdoch fondled his lariat. Bastard, he thought, knowing damned good and well the man would make good on his threat to rope and hogtie him. And there was certainly no denying what he had seen when Murdoch was working the cattle during the drive. The Old Man had stayed right on top of everything; the first man to roll out in the morning, and the last one to tuck in at night. And when the cattle had stampeded…
Resigned to his fate, Johnny settled. Not that he was happy about it. He pulled up, coming to a stop, and then swung his horse around. Aware his father was closely watching him; he nudged the palomino into a trot and moved to pair up with his brother. When he was stirrup to stirrup with Scott, he reached out with his left hand and snagged the man’s arm. “You ain’t seen surly,” he whispered, “not yet.”
Scott favored his brother with a benign smile. “Temper, temper,” he chided. The smile faded as his demeanor changed and he became serious. He tugged at his mount’s reins, dropping back and signaling for his brother to do the same; careful to stay close to his sibling while falling back to follow in their father’s wake. “He planned this, you know,” he said softly, tipping his head toward Murdoch’s back.
Eyes focused on his father’s broad frame, Johnny was chewing on his storm strings. He spat them out. “Planned what?” he asked.
“The three of us being alone without the usual distractions,” Scott replied. He risked a smile. “No Mamácita or Teresa playing peacemaker, attempting to defend…”
Johnny guffawed. “Thought that peacemaker thing was your job, big brother,” he interrupted, grinning. Then, his expression changing to one of consternation, he spoke out again, the words coming in a harsh whisper. “And how the fuck do you figure someone whalin’ the tar out of my ass end with a damned wooden spoon is defendin’ me?”
Scott chuckled. The sudden image of his kid brother dancing away from Maria’s weapon of choice caused the man to lose his usual self control, and he laughed heartily. “It appears, little brother, you’ve confused the words defend and discipline.” When Johnny started to protest, the blond raised his hand. “On those occasions Maria goes after you, she is defending her kitchen; while disciplining you for pilfering all those things you keep snatching from the pots and the serving dishes.”
There was a soft creaking of leather as Johnny shifted position in his saddle. “It ain’t pilferin’,” he groused. He turned to look at his brother, the right hand corner of his mouth quirking up in a mischievous grin. “It’s foragin’,” he continued, remembering their early morning conversations. “You know, like you said you did durin’ the war. Liberatin’ food to feed the troops.” He thumped his own chest with a cocked thumb, his hand dropping to rub his belly.
Scott’s eyes widened as he noted the boy’s movements. “You can’t possibly be hungry,” he huffed. “Not after the meal Murdoch prepared for us back at the stream!”
Johnny speared his brother with ‘the look’, his eyes narrowing. “In case you don’t remember, that was just a couple small fish in gravy; he didn’t make no dessert, and there wasn’t near enough biscuits.”
Unable to stop himself, Scott removed his stetson and swiped at his sibling’s head and shoulders. “You…are…a…bottomless…pit, boy,” he chuffed. “Have you not heard ‘man does not live by bread alone’…”
“‘… ‘cause cake is better,” Johnny interrupted, laughing as he ducked away from his brother’s renewed assault. Without thinking, he turned Barranca sharply to the left and touched his spurs to the horse’s sides.
Scott struggled to keep Cheval from tearing off in pursuit of its stable mate. “Johnny!” he called. The only response he got was a pumping gesture his brother made with his extended right arm, the boy’s middle finger pointing toward the heavens.
He knew he’d made a mistake as soon as he heard the harsh whisper of the rope as it settled neatly over his shoulders without so much as disturbing his stetson. Instinctively, he grabbed the saddle horn, anticipating what he figured was coming: the sudden jerk that would yank him backwards for the short drop to the hard turf. Wouldn’t be the first time, he thought. He hoped to God this time he wouldn’t get dragged.
And then he felt the stiff hemp slacken; at the same time aware of the sound of shod hooves. He turned to his right, closed his eyes and shook his head; pulling Barranca to a complete stop. The Old Man was reeling in his rope and grinning from ear to ear.
Reaching out, Murdoch lifted the stiff hemp from around his younger son’s shoulders. “Going somewhere, son?” he smirked. Deftly, he recoiled the reata (lariat).
Johnny’s head was tilted forward, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. He was mumbling, in Spanish; a litany of swear words, stopping suddenly as he remembered his father was fluent in the language. Putting on his best little-boy-caught smile – the one where he actually appeared to be blushing and contrite – he lifted his head. “Thought you were jokin’ about the ropin’, Old Man… uh, Murdoch.”
Murdoch’s right eyebrow rose. “That wasn’t a joke, John. It was a promise,” he declared. Using the lariat, he gestured to the place where Scott was waiting. “Proceed,” he ordered, making no effort at all to hide the smug grin.
Bowed but not defeated, Johnny’s right shoulder lifted in a slight shrug; a soft sigh coming as he turned Barranca and moved out. Already, his agile mind was working. He couldn’t help himself. Even with his father herding him across the grass covered turf, even knowing the old man would use the rope again, there was still the undeniable desire to make a break.
He chuckled, softly. Right from their very first meeting, he had dug his spurs into his Old Man; drawing an invisible line in the sand between them and daring his father to cross. And damned if he hadn’t enjoyed the pissing contest. Still enjoyed it, he mused. What he didn’t understand was the why of it. He shifted slightly in the saddle and reached up with his right hand to nonchalantly adjust his stetson; his knees pressing gently against Barranca’s ribs.
Murdoch’s deep voice cut into the quiet as he jigged his horse to move abreast of the palomino. “Don’t even think about it, son,” he cautioned. Knowing Johnny was covertly watching him, he fingered the lariat.
“That an order?” Johnny shot back, his head lifting as he glared across at his father.
Murdoch had no intention of playing their usual game. “It was a suggestion,” he announced, smiling; “one I recommend you consider fully, along with the consequences.” He was staring straight ahead, the words coming softly; and he was smiling.
What the fuck? Johnny fumed. Who the Hell changed the fuckin’ rules? He shook his head, contemplating what had just occurred. Sure in Hell didn’t take no Harvard education to figure out where Scott got his fuckin’ pain-in-the-ass habit of usin’ words to play with a man’s head! Shutting his eyes, he took a deep breath, allowing himself to be lulled by the sound of Barranca’s hooves as the animal moved through the deep grass. It was a temporary respite.
“Welcome back, brother,” Scott saluted.
If looks could have killed, Scott Lancer would have been cold, stiff and laid out in a pine box in the Great Room. It didn’t help Johnny’s mood that Barranca was making nice with Cheval, the two horses rubbing noses in greeting. “Fuck you,” he mumbled.
Murdoch had moved forward, taking the lead again as he gestured for his sons to follow him, the young men falling in behind and riding side-by-side.
“And just what the hell is so damned funny?” Johnny groused, careful to keep the words private.
Scott was studying the terrain, his eyes lifting to note the position of the sun. “I was just thinking how fortunate you are…”
“Fortunate!?” Johnny cut in. “How the hell do you figure that?” He reached across the gap, punching his brother’s upper arm.
Scott ignored the rude interruption. “…that no one else was here when Murdoch chased after you and made the toss,” he finished.
Johnny’s face colored, his eyes widening. That’s all he needed; the whole fuckin’ crew laughin’ their asses off over Murdoch ropin’ him like some maverick calf! Sure as hell, there’d be some pendejo makin’ a joke about how the Old Man should hogtie him and finish the job; cut off his balls. “You say one word about what the old man did, Boston, one fuckin’ word…” The words came through clenched teeth.
“Oh, I have no intention of sharing, Johnny,” Scott smiled. “I plan to file that little gem away, store it with all your other little peccadilloes.” His voice lowered. “Until the next time you so much as whisper that favorite word of yours you keep tossing out to annoy Murdoch.”
It was clear from the expression on Johnny’s face he was feeling puckish. “And what word would that be, brother?” he asked.
Scott leaned towards his sibling and grabbed his sleeve. “You know damned good and well which word I’m talking about,” he ground out.
Johnny peeled Scott’s fingers from his sleeve. “F…” he dragged out the f, baiting his brother, “… ortunate?” Amused by the look on his brother’s face, he laughed. “Jesus, Scott. Always usin’ them ten dollar words instead of just spittin’ it out so us common folks know what you’re talkin’ about.” His eyes were dancing with boyish mischief. “You couldn’t just say lucky? And what the hell is a peckerdillo?” he drawled, grinning.
Knowing the game had begun, Scott struggled to maintain his stern elder brother façade. Johnny had an entire repertoire of personas other than Madrid and he used them to suit his circumstance without one mote of shame. “Don’t even attempt that simple country boy routine on me, brother,” he warned. “Your penchant for using some nefarious ploy to accomplish what you want may work with Teresa and other gullible souls, but it isn’t going to work with me.” He smiled. “And Murdoch isn’t buying it anymore, either.” He nodded to where their father was riding ahead of them; Murdoch’s posture and pace that of a man who didn’t have a care in the world.
Johnny’s gaze followed his brother’s. The Old Man seemed to be in no hurry; in fact, seemed to be enjoying himself. Somehow, that worried the boy. He turned to his brother. “Still didn’t tell me what a peckerdillo is,” he grumbled, not willing to surrender.
Scott appeared to not be paying attention; at least not to his brother. His focus was on the compass he now held in his right palm. It was enough to pique Johnny’s interest. The good-old-country-boy veneer slipped and he reached out to tap Scott’s arm. “What’s up?” he asked.
“We’ve started to head west again,” Scott answered, indicating the direction with a single bob of his head. “Away from the hacienda.”
Johnny cursed. “Shit!” And then, “He said this was a short cut.” The old suspicions were back. “What the fuck is he tryin’ to pull?”
Scott shook his head. “Nothing,” he answered. “I’m assuming he has something else he wants to show us. And,” he took a breath, “I think he wants to talk some more.”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest, his eyes hidden by the brim of his stetson. “I ain’t doin’ it,” he muttered. “I ain’t playin’ no more of his games.”
The pair rode for a time in complete silence, each locked in their own thoughts. Scott was the first to speak. “An hour of our time,” he began, careful to keep his tone neutral. “That was the offer the Pinkerton made when he found me in Boston. A thousand dollars for an hour of my time.” When there was no response from his brother, he continued. “You called it ‘listening money’, Johnny.
“In all fairness, considering everything that happened right after we arrived, he didn’t get that hour,” he finished.
Johnny’s head snapped up and he was frowning. “Bullshit! He got his f… hour, along with our arms, legs and guts,” he snorted.
“And we each got a one-third share of Lancer,” Scott countered. He didn’t give his brother a chance to respond. “What are you afraid of, brother?” Nothing like pouring kerosene on a smoldering fire.
“I ain’t afraid of nothin’!” Johnny snarled, staring hard at his brother. “Not one fuckin’ thing.”
“Except talking with Murdoch,” Scott said calmly. He knew when Johnny broke eye contact he was right. It was all the encouragement he needed to keep speaking. “This is the first time we’ve ever been together and truly alone with Murdoch,” he continued. A slight smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Except when you were recovering from Pardee’s bullet, which doesn’t count since you were unconscious or pretending to sleep.”
Johnny swiped his nose in an attempt to hide the grin. Scott had gotten wise pretty quick to his game, but big brother had never let on to the Old Man. Which was a good thing because he still played ‘possum when Murdoch was on the prowl after one of their head butting sessions and wanting to talk.
It hit him then, what Scott had said about his being afraid to talk to their father. Hell, maybe that was the reason he’d gone on the prod with the Old Man from the get-go, digging in with his spurs and drawing blood. Shot his mouth off; using words the same way he used his Colt when he was really pissed. No killing shots, just hits meant to cause pain; a lot of pain.
He’d done it, too; caused the man pain. Still did when Murdoch said something that set him off, got under his skin. Cutting the Old Man off before he could get it said, pushing him hard and then slamming out of the house and riding away; playing deaf when Murdoch would call out to him to come back.
Truth be told, he wasn’t any better at listenin’ than he was at talkin’.
Scott’s voice cut into the silence. “You’re being very quiet, brother.” He sounded concerned.
Johnny wound the reins around his saddle horn and used both hands to remove his hat, fussed with it, and then raked the fingers of his left hand through his hair. He let the stetson fall back between his shoulders to hang by the storm strings and stared straight ahead. “He’ll start askin’ questions,” he murmured. “We let him start talkin’; he’ll start askin’ more questions.”
“Perhaps,” Scott responded. “But it’s a chance I’m willing to take.” He reached across and tapped his brother’s shoulder with the back of his hand. “If he starts asking questions, we’ll ask questions, too.” He smiled, a hint of mischief warming his eyes.
Unable to help it, Johnny laughed. “That’s your plan?”
Scott pulled himself more erect in the saddle. “And a damned fine one,” he boasted, grinning.
“Your plans are for shit, Boston.” Johnny took off his hat and took a swipe at his brother’s head.
Raising his arms to fend off the blows, Scott leaned sideways in the saddle, away from his sibling. “At least you won’t be getting shot,” he responded.
“Don’t bet on it.” Johnny stopped the assault, finger-combing his hair once more before settling the stetson back in place. He was staring hard at his father’s back. “The day ain’t over yet.”
Murdoch smiled to himself as he heard the horses trotting across the turf at his back. Without turning his head, he watched as his sons came up beside him, a wry smile touching his lips as he saw them shift position. Johnny hung back to allow Scott to take a brief lead, and instead of flanking him on either side, the young men geed to the right. Scott was now riding abreast of him on his right; Johnny taking the place as the outrider beside his brother.
The positions his sons took did not escape Murdoch’s notice, and his lips quirked up in a wry smile. Scott had taken his usual place in the current family pecking order; the buffer between his father and his younger brother. It was something that happened far too often, and needed to stop.
There had, Murdoch knew, already been some unforeseen detours in the path he had chosen to set things right; their time alone on the ride back to Lancer. But he remained determined. Somehow, he was going to put to rest the discord that simmered between himself and his sons that had begun with their arrival at Lancer. It was imperative they build some mutual trust. And respect, he mused. He could only hope that they would also form some bond of affection, a true sense of family.
And if that meant bringing up the past and dealing with the pain, then so be it.
Scott was the first to speak. “Is there a reason, sir, we’re heading west again, away from the hacienda?”
Murdoch struggled against the smile. Scott’s question was, as always, direct and to the point; delivered with his usual calm and precise enunciation. “Up ahead,” he began, nodding at the stand of conifers looming in the distance ahead of them. “There’s something I want you boys to see.”
Johnny followed his father’s gaze to the large stand of pines at the base of the mountains. Having spent much of his life in the Sonoran Desert on both sides of the border, the landscape he was familiar with was starkly devoid of such verdant green. The desert had been shades of tan with brief spates of dull green, the only time there was much color coming in the short spring when the flowers bloomed and covered the landscape like spilt paint.
He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. The forested foothills evoked a bad memory from his not so distant past; when Val had signed on to ramrod the men who had been hired to stop the independent timber men who were stripping the forests bare.
Val’s plan was going well. He’d managed to establish a base camp without arousing any interest from the rogue loggers. His next step was to bring in a select crew of men he had worked with in the past; former Texas Rangers he’d known as well as other men who had served under him during the War.
He swallowed back the bile when he remembered how it had gone; how pissed Val had been when he and a new friend had screwed it all up with some stupid, hare-brained prank.
They’d argued when it was over, when Val was cleaning up the mess, and his own reaction was what it always had been when Val called him to task and pulled him up short. He’d run away; from Val, from the harsh lecture and all the rules. Right into a life leading straight to Hell.
Murdoch’s voice cut into Johnny’s dark musings, bringing the boy back to the here and now. They were just entering a copse water birch, a moist coolness in the air as they moved into the shade of the taller pines. His father’s tone was soft; a tinge of bemusement in the single word. It surprised him. “Sorry,” he murmured, embarrassed. “Ain’t used to this much green.”
Murdoch laughed. “Well, get used to it, Johnny.” He ducked as they passed under a young water birch, pushing the lower branches aside. His sons had returned home during late winter to leafless trees and a sea of brown grass. “Spring is here, and you’ll be seeing a great deal of green.”
Scott chuckled. “And most of it grass.”
Johnny’s head came up and he shot his brother an amused smile. “That mean the Old Man is gonna sprout some more grey hair?”
The question caused Scott to laugh full out. “As in for ‘every blade of grass’?” he chuffed. The brothers dissolved into a fit of unrestrained mirth.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. So that’s how it’s going to be, he mused. Two against one. Well, I’ll be nipping that in bud. He reined his horse to a halt and feigning concern he dismounted. Disappearing from his sons view, he bent over to pick up the animal’s left rear leg and began examining the hoof.
The laughter stopped. “Something wrong, Murdoch?” Scott asked, pulling to a stop. Johnny reined in as well and prepared to dismount.
“He seemed off-stride,” Murdoch answered. He was probing the frog with his thumb. “I think he might have picked up a stone.” He let go of the horse’s leg and straightened. But not before picking up a marble-sized pebble. “Got it,” he announced, facing his boys and displaying the small rock.
Johnny settled back into his saddle. He was having problems of his own. Barranca was dancing in place and mouthing the bit, a good indication the palomino was on high alert. The horse’s ears were at attention and pricked forward as it stared into dense stand of ancient pines just ahead.
Scott’s horse, responding to Barranca’s edginess, began its own dance; bringing a sharp rebuke before it settled. Keeping a firm hand on the reins, Scott turned to face his brother. “Are you having trouble keeping your horse still, boy?” He was smiling when he asked the question.
“Fuck you,” Johnny responded hotly. Aware his Old Man was close and not as deaf as he’d assumed when he first came home, he kept the words private
“I’m going to let that pass, brother,” Scott said, grinning, “since it’s quite apparent you really don’t like how my plan is progressing.”
Johnny snorted. He was still dealing with Barranca. The horse was rolling the bit with its tongue; mouthing the piece of smooth metal in an attempt to dislodge it. “It’s ‘progressing’ for shit,” he grumbled, his voice rising. “We’re burnin’ daylight here,” he announced, looking in his father’s direction.
A small smile tugged at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth and he dipped his head in an effort to hide the grin. The subtle creak of leather came as he put the toe of his boot in the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle. He nodded to Barranca. “He hears the water,” he said.
It wasn’t the response Johnny expected. Canting his head in an attempt to listen, he reached out to stroke the palomino’s neck. “What water?” he asked.
Murdoch nudged his horse forward, bulling his way between Barranca and Cheval. Divide and conquer, he thought smugly. It had been the same strategy he had used to woo both his wives away from their other suitors. He cleared his throat. “There’s a waterfall up ahead, just beyond those pines.”
Both young men turned to stare into the semi-darkness of the small forest; the dense growth seeming to compete for the sun. A canopy of intertwined tree branches formed a domed archway; something Scott likened to the massive cathedrals he’d visited during his time on the Continent. As if their high, vaulted ceilings were supporting the very Heavens. He’d found solace in those places, serenity; a sense of inner peace much the same as what he was feeling now.
It was different for Johnny. He felt a clawing in his gut, his jaws clenching as he visibly tensed. Barranca’s unrest became his own as his gaze was drawn to the trees, to the black shadows. Once again, he was reminded of his time with Val in northern California, and the place deep in the forest where Val had established the crew’s camp. The woodlands there were so thick they had seemed impenetrable, the ground beneath the trees littered with layers of pine needles untouched by the sun. The smell was the same, too; pungent with the odor of rotting vegetation and heavy with the stench of stagnant water. Truth be told, the forest frightened him. Too many places for other people to hide, to watch him without his knowing; a death trap. A place that reminded him of past mistakes. He shivered.
“Johnny.” Murdoch reached out to gently grasp his son’s forearm; concern evident in his voice and face. “What’s wrong, son?”
Tensing, the youth avoided his father’s eyes, but did not pull away from his touch. He needed the comfort, something to ward away the anxiety the wooded forest ahead of them continued to evoke: images of the final confrontation with Val, the older man’s frustration at his behavior and the bitter words that had been exchanged.
His response had been what it always was when Val was in no mood to put up with his bullshit; he ran. Out of spite, he left the one man who had been a constant in his life to purposely forge an alliance with a man he knew Val hated; Day Pardee. And to gain what? he thought darkly, reaching up with his trembling right hand to wipe at the sweat that was growing cold on the back of his neck. A made up name he’d stolen from a fading poster, a reputation that still haunted him and the hard lesson he’d learned: that when you bed down with dogs, you get up with fleas?
Concerned, Murdoch tried again. “Johnny?”
The boy shrugged. Eyes hidden, he forced a smile. “Fantasmas (ghosts),” he said in a hoarse whisper, the next words coming with more force. “Kid stuff.” He hoped his father believed him; because there was no way in Hell he could tell him the whole story. That before he and Val had gone north to fight the rogue loggers, the two of them had spent a tense half hour on the overlook above Lancer; and how, finally, he had spilled his guts about the man who lived in the great hacienda, just who Murdoch Lancer was and what he planned on doing to him.
There was a soft creaking of leather as Murdoch shifted in the saddle. He said nothing, hoping his son would continue speaking, and when it didn’t happen nudged his mount’s ribs with his heels. “No ghosts here,” he said, pointing ahead into the darkness. “We’ll have to ride single file, until we get clear of the trees.”
Scott kept a firm hand on the reins, dropping back a bit and calling out to his sibling. “After you, brother,” he teased, nodding at their father’s back. “You know, Folly before Wisdom.”
Johnny lifted his hand in a one-fingered salute. Reluctantly, he nudged Barranca forward and followed in his father’s wake.
Murdoch led the way through the small grove of water birch, forging the way beneath the tangle of low-hanging limbs. Every so often he would raise his right arm, pushing the branches aside; the caterpillar-like catkins breaking loose and drifting to the ground. The trees were self-pollinating, with dark green leaves contrasting sharply against the mahogany colored bark; succulent sucker growth sprouting from the trunks. Fresh scarring on the surface bark where the small branches had been torn away by beaver and young deer had left bright near-white indentations in the trunks that looked like wide, open eyes. It felt, Murdoch mused, as though he were Gulliver traveling through a Lilliputian zoo, with miniature Cyclops watching as he passed; silent and only partially hidden.
The rush of falling water was growing louder as the three riders continued their trek. They had passed beyond the stand of water birch, the trail widening as they approached a grove of sugar pines. The landscape began to change, more sunlight filtering through the thinning forest as a mist filled cloud roiled up from some unseen abyss.
As they broke through the last stand of birch, a double rainbow appeared ahead of them. One end of the arc disappeared behind the tops of the western mountains, the other spilled into the unseen chasm; the colors more vibrant against the white foam that boiled up from its depth. Murdoch put out a staying arm and called out above the roar of water. “We’ll have to lead the horses,” he shouted. Dismounting, he signaled for his sons to do the same.
Johnny threw his right leg over the saddle horn and slid to the ground, losing his balance as the soles of his boots slid across the wet slick grass. Instinctively, he grabbed hold of the left stirrup, saving himself the embarrassment of landing on his ass; only to know the humiliation of having his elder brother grab his free arm and hoist him to his feet.
Scott made no attempt to hide the smile. He was holding fast to his brother’s right arm, his long fingers curled around the boy’s bicep. “Just testing the muscle,” he grinned. “Considering all the times since our first meeting you have used that arm to indicate your displeasure at something I’ve said or done…” he lifted the appendage, “…it should be quite well developed.” He gave in to the sudden need to laugh.
The laughter turned into a soft “oooff” as Johnny jerked free and elbowed his brother in the belly. They began to scuffle.
Shaking his head, Murdoch watched from his place at the edge of escarpment as his boys played at fighting. From the beginning his sons had demonstrated a curious need to touch each other, to make physical contact. He likened it to yearling colts, the frolicking that occurred when the young animals staged mock battles to assert their dominance, their place in the herd. More often than not, their horseplay amused him; but the trepidation was still there. Johnny had a tendency to push, sometimes losing his temper when it appeared Scott was going to prevail, and the play fighting turned serious.
Like now, he realized. Johnny and Scott were rolling across the slick grass; the afternoon quiet suddenly punctuated by the noise of fists pounding against flesh. Murdoch watched in horror as his younger son tried to gain purchase against the wet turf; to rise up above his brother. It wasn’t happening. The boy stumbled, losing his balance as Scott grabbed his legs just at the knees and pulled him to the ground.
The scuffling resumed, and Murdoch quickly sidestepped as his sons plummeted in his direction. Like downed timber, they rolled and tumbled down the slight incline; picking up speed as they careened towards the edge of the cliff. Looping his arm in the coiled lariat that was secured to his saddle, Murdoch braced himself for the inevitable collision, reaching down with his free hand to grab his younger son at the waist and dropping to his knees to block Scott’s path. He lunged forward, shoving his sons with him as he covered both young men with his upper torso; his heart pounding in his ears as he fought to rein in his fear.
He was breathing normally when he finally stood up. Hands on his hips he watched as both his sons flopped over onto their backs and attempted to regain their composure. They were mere feet from the edge of the precipice.
Scott was the first to speak. “Thank you,” he murmured, staring up at the sky; well aware of just how close he and his brother had come to dropping into the abyss.
“You talkin’ to God or to the Old Man?” Johnny asked with forced humor; his voice shaky. He, too, was humbled by what had just occurred.
Scott rose up on his elbows. “Both,” he said, managing a tenuous smile as he shaded his eyes and stared up at his father. “Sorry, Murdoch,” he apologized. “Things just got…”
“…out of hand,” the older man growled. “Again.” His right eyebrow arched as he watched Johnny suddenly stand up, brush himself off and extend his hand to his elder brother. It was clear from the expression on his younger son’s face he was clearly up to no good. “Johnny,” he ground out, the warning clear.
“What?” The cockiness was back; along with the lop-sided grin.
Scott had risen to his feet without his brother’s assistance. “Don’t push,” he joshed.
Murdoch harrumphed. Neither one of his idiot sons seemed to realize just how close they had come to disaster. Turning, he headed back to where his gelding was ground-hitched. “If it wasn’t for the fact I would be forced to explain to Maria and Teresa why I failed to bring the two of you home in one piece, I should have just let you continue playing,” he groused.
Johnny was now standing at the very edge of the cliff, staring down into the chasm at the cloud of mist above the churning waters. “Like you would have ever found the bodies,” he murmured. Clutching his belly as he felt a wave of bile producing vertigo, he attempted to step away from the ledge, only to slip on the moisture laden grass.
Scott grabbed his brother’s arm, yanking him away from the abyss. He was shaking his head. “Piss out of a boot,” he muttered, recalling again Cipriano’s remarks about his sibling’s propensity for making questionable decisions in what should be the most simple of circumstances. Johnny, he knew, had a genuine aversion to extreme heights and yet here he was teetering on the brink of a near catastrophe. He yanked his brother in the direction their father was now heading.
Confident his sons were behind him, Murdoch resumed the lead, making his way on foot down the narrow trail.
The brothers had tethered their mounts in tandem, one behind the other with Scott’s horse, Cheval, in the lead. Part thoroughbred, the big gelding was calmer and less temperamental than Johnny’s palomino Barranca, a mustang cross that had only recently been broken to saddle and bridle. The arrangement made it possible for the brothers to walk shoulder-to-shoulder down the slender causeway.
Murdoch could hear his boys talking, the high walls of the canyon magnifying their voices, a contented smile coming as he heard Scott explaining the geology of the terrain, and he could picture him pointing out the fissures in the rock caused by the violent upheaval of past earthquakes. The conversation was two-sided, both young men sharing what they observed; Scott the more serious of the two, Johnny making jokes about mountain goats and feigning amazement when his brother began to dispute the theory the earth had been created in six days.
“You tellin’ me that preacher that was here holdin’ that revival in Spanish Wells was lyin’, brother?” Johnny asked. “That when he was goin’ on about how God made everything in just six days, he was just spinnin’ fairytales?”
Scott’s answer came softly. “I’m saying the miracle of creation isn’t that it was supposedly accomplished in days as we measure them, but that God’s clock is different from ours.”
Johnny guffawed. “Like how?” And then, feigning concern. “Don’t think it’s a good idea to go around sayin’ the Bible is just a bunch of lies, brother; it bein’ the word of God and all.” He sighed. “Sure hate to see you go to Hell for that one.” But there was laughter in his voice. The memory of the tent revival – just how drunk he and Scott were when they stumbled into the meeting – was still far too fresh in his mind.
Knowing exactly what his brother was thinking, Scott continued. “I’m saying that while I believe the Bible may be divinely inspired, Johnny, I don’t believe it was divinely transcribed. And I certainly don’t accept as true – contrary to what the good preacher proclaimed – the earth is only six thousand years old.”
Johnny’s response was a long drawn out “Ohhhh,” followed by yet another gem of Johnny Lancer wisdom. “So you’re tellin’ me it was the…” he hesitated, looking for the right word, “… scribes that was lyin’?”
Still eavesdropping, Murdoch shook his head. When his sons weren’t sparring physically, they were dueling with words. He continued to listen.
Scott laughed. “I’m saying they were exaggerating,” he answered. “Writing what was prudent for the time and in full consideration of the politics of the day. Putting forth their own agendas.”
The ensuing silence was a clear indication Johnny was thinking. But not for long. “You mean like that history book you’ve been readin’,” he observed drolly. “The one tellin’ the story from the side that won, instead of what it was like for the losers.”
Soft laughter. “Touché, brother,” Scott said. There had been some lively three-sided discussions over a self-published book a door-to-door peddler had convinced Scott to buy. It had been a one-sided account of the man’s alleged service during the Mexican-American War, no doubt highly exaggerated, and interspersed with suggestions that the defeat of Mexico was God ordained. “And I bought that book because I felt sorry for the man.”
Johnny snorted. “Didn’t mean you had to read it and spend all your time writin’ all over the pages.” His voice raised just a bit, his intention clear. “I make one damned little mark in that other damned book of yours and I hear about it for a f… a week. You…”
Murdoch swung around to scowl half-heartedly at his younger son. “Scott was making relevant annotations with a pencil,” he pointed out. “You, on the other hand, had the audacity to write ‘so many words, so much bullshit’ across the fly leaf of Thoreau’s Paradise to be Regained in red ink!” The memory of Scott’s reaction to Johnny’s impromptu and uninvited written review caused him to stifle a chuckle. It didn’t help that Johnny had enhanced the words with an obscene caricature of a squatting man devouring a dictionary and defecating pages of prose.
“C’mon, Murdoch,” Johnny grinned. “You fell asleep twice tryin’ to read that thing before you finally gave up and handed it off to Scott.”
Scott’s exasperated sigh could be heard the length of the canyon. He had neatly excised the offending artwork from the slim volume, using a fine blade to cut the vellum page from the bindings, but it left the book somehow imperfect. He doubted he would ever read it again and decided it would be a good idea to forget about it. But deep inside, he had forgiven his brother; in fact had found Johnny’s cartoon to be as fine as any similar caricature drawn by some of his more ribald classmates at Harvard, and he had saved it. Not that he’d tell Mr. Look at What I Did; the boy’s head was already big enough. Clearing his throat, Scott addressed his father. He had judged the direction they were traveling by the position of the sun, which was now at their back. “How much longer, sir?”
Like his sons, Murdoch was still afoot but in the lead. The trail had begun to widen and soon, he knew, would open into a large valley atop the broad escarpment. “We’ll be home by dark,” he called. He was anxious for his sons – especially Johnny – to see the place where they were going; to know its history and significance to the ranch. Stopping to mount his horse, he watched as his sons did the same and then waited for them to join him.
Johnny moved up on his father’s left, Scott moving to his usual position on Murdoch’s right. Ahead of them, after a slight rise in elevation, was a tree-ringed dip in the terrain; as if a large shallow bowl had been pressed into the earth. The wind had diminished, as had the sound of the water from the falls that were now far behind them; but still there was enough breeze to make wave-like billows across the long sheaves of pale green grass.
“This is where I found him,” Murdoch said, something wistful in his tone.
Johnny’s head came up and he quit chewing on the bead on the storm strings on his hat. “Found who?” he asked.
Murdoch was staring straight ahead at something neither of his sons could perceive. But in his memory – his heart – he was seeing the buckskin again; as he had first seen him ten years before when he and Cipriano had tracked the animal to this very spot. Clearing his throat, he continued to stare at the horizon. “The stallion,” he replied. “The horse Pardee took the night he made his first raid on Lancer.”
Scott was studying his father’s profile. It was a rare thing when Murdoch allowed his emotions to show so plainly, but they were clearly there, firmly etched in the man’s features. Pain, sorrow; even despair. As if the man had hoped the stallion would be there; that what was lost had been found.
Johnny was also cognizant of what was showing in his father’s face. He’d seen the same expression on Murdoch’s countenance that first day in the Great Room, in the brief moment when they were first reunited; before the words turned it all sour and the lines were drawn. He swallowed, hard; and quickly looked away, gathering his thoughts.
They were quiet for a time, the only sound the restless pawing of the three horses and the soft creak of saddle leather. Murdoch took a deep breath and began again. “Cipriano and I had been tracking him for more than a month,” he said. “He’d gathered quite a harem from the neighboring ranches, from the herds that had been abandoned when the larger spreads were being divided and parceled off by the hacendados who were giving up and selling out to the Americans.
“We spotted him first up at Black Horse Mesa, after he’d taken three blooded mares I’d shipped in from Texas.” He smiled at the memory; the excitement of the chase. “He was a wily one,” he continued. “He came in at night, mingling with the remuda; herding them toward the barns and crowding the fences of the main paddock until they broke through. And then he was gone,” he snapped his fingers, “with the three mares and a half dozen more from the riding stock.” He laughed.
Johnny was thoroughly sucked in. “You’re laughin’ about a horse that stole from you?”
“It wasn’t funny at the time,” Murdoch admitted. “I paid two thousand dollars for those mares, and the riding stock was some of the best as well.” He turned to grin at his younger son. “My first instinct was to find him, and put a bullet in his head. And then…”
Jesus, Old Man, Johnny thought, don’t stop now. But he knew better than to push; not that he wasn’t tempted. Instead, he removed his hat and smoothed his hair.
Scott immediately picked up on his brother’s distress. “And then what, sir?”
Murdoch shifted his gaze to his eldest. “By the time Cip and I had finally tracked the stallion, we knew a little more about his history; his origins. The rumor was he’d been abandoned by his original owners when they sold out, in spite of the fact the animal was as well bred as the mares I had purchased. When I heard that, I changed my mind about shooting him.”
At that, Johnny snorted disdainfully.
“Something wrong, John?” Murdoch asked, frowning.
“Johnny,” Scott cautioned. During a recent talk with his younger brother, Johnny had argued that their Old Man never changed his mind about anything once he had decided how something was going to be, or what he was determined to do. He shut his eyes, hoping against hope his brother wouldn’t voice the same opinion he had expressed when they were having their discussion. He may as well have prayed for a miracle.
“You changed your mind because of some rumor?” Johnny asked, shifting slightly in his saddle. “I mean, short of stickin’ a piece of dynamite up your ass, and someone lightin’ the fuse…” He stopped midsentence, his mouth hanging open then quickly shutting. Dropping his head, he squared his shoulders and waited for the explosion.
Murdoch inhaled, deeply. “I am not averse to changing my mind when there is a good reason to do so,” he announced. Mentally, he counted to ten; in two languages. “When we found the stallion here, we also found his herd,” he said; gesturing towards the sea of belly-deep grass. “Thirty or so mares, a half dozen yearlings and a crop of spring foals. The majority of them were palominos.” He let the words sink in.
“The mejor rebaño de palominos you were telling us about when we first came home?” Scott asked, carefully enunciating each word.
“Yes,” Murdoch answered. “The stallion and his mares were our foundation herd. He bred truer than any stallion in the valley. A rare buckskin now and then, some sorrels and an occasional chestnut. But for the most part, palominos.” He stood up in the stirrups, taking the pressure off his right hip. Then, the pain evident in his voice, “I had hoped…” The words drifted off into a shallow whisper.
Johnny was staring out across the landscape and felt a need to change the subject. Sort of. “Barranca one of his colts?”
The question roused Murdoch from his silence. “Yes,” he replied. “Mateo found him after the first raid. The stallion had driven off some of the mature colts long before Pardee came, and Barranca was one of them.”
As if aware he was part of the discussion, Barranca pawed at the earth again; restless. Johnny patted the horse’s neck to soothe the animal. “And the rest of the herd?” he asked.
“The majority of them are still missing,” Murdoch answered. He removed his steston; using his handkerchief to wipe the sweat from the hat’s interior leather band. “We used this as spring and summer pasture,” for the second time he gestured toward the lush grassland. “I had hoped the homing instinct would bring the herd back; that the stallion had found them and driven them here to familiar pasture.” Immediately, he regretted voicing such a foolish thought, and felt a need to redeem himself. “No one saw the stallion after Pardee took him,” he stated.
Johnny was strangely quiet, working the thing over in his mind. His first thought was why hadn’t the work crews gone in search of more horses after the trouble was over, but he already knew the answer. Cattle were the mainstay for Lancer, his father had lectured on more than once occasion, the animals more sustainable and with a faster turn around in the market. Horses took time; lots of time. “Pardee didn’t want the stallion,” he said finally. “Any more than he wanted Lancer.”
“You sound pretty certain of that, brother,” Scott said. They’d had this discussion many times before, but rarely brought it up to their father.
“Takin’ the stallion was just…” Johnny paused, searching for the right words. “He took the stallion just to show you he could do it. That was Day’s style, thumbin’ his nose at the big dog and pissin’ on his turf.” He shook his head. “No, Day didn’t want the buckskin.”
Murdoch studied his son’s face, wondering what was going on behind those blue eyes which seemed to change color when Johnny was warring within himself. He wanted to ask his son a question that had troubled him for a long time: just how well had the boy known Pardee, but decided that now was not the time. Shoving the thought aside, he said, “I can accept that was probably what was on his mind, Johnny, proving a point. What I don’t understand is why you think he didn’t want Lancer.”
Johnny’s right shoulder lifted in a small shrug. “Day wasn’t no rancher, Murdoch. It wasn’t his kind of work. He didn’t give a shit about Lancer, anymore than he gave a shit about the stud.” He looked up to meet his father’s scrutiny, and then averted his eyes; growing quiet. When he resumed speaking, the words came in a near whisper. “I worked for Day,” he confessed, stealing a quick glance at his father’s face to gauge the man’s reaction, surprised when there was none; “when I first started hirin’ out as Madrid.” It was apparent from his tone he wasn’t proud of their association. “Day was all about fast money, and he didn’t care what he had to do to get it; as long as he didn’t have to work up a sweat.”
Murdoch simply nodded his head. There was an awkward silence until the big man cleared his throat. “Is that why you quit working for him, Johnny?” he asked, careful to keep the censure out of his voice; “Because he didn’t care?”
Barranca was getting restless, had begun mouthing the bit to test its rider’s grip on the reins; sensing the young man’s unease. Johnny began stroking the palomino’s neck. “I quit him ‘cause I didn’t like the bad habit he had of shootin’ dogs for sport, and havin’ us run cattle and horses over cliffs when we could’ve just turned ‘em loose,” he answered softly; wishing there was an easier way of telling Murdoch what he was likely going to find if he continued hoping for the stallion to return. He looked up to face his father full on. “And I sure in Hell didn’t like what he let those pendejos do to that farmer and his wife.”
Scott had dismounted and was checking Cheval’s saddle. He unlaced the leathers, made some adjustments and then rewove them, tightening the cinch. “What he let them do?” he asked, unhappy with Johnny’s comment about ‘havin’ us run cattle and horses over cliffs’ as he described his time riding for Pardee. “What makes you so certain Pardee didn’t participate in the slaughter; that he didn’t join them in what they did to the woman?”
Johnny’s jaws tightened. Scott had positioned Cheval so the horse was between himself and the others; and Johnny could not see his brother’s face. It made him angry. “Why don’t you ask what’s really on your mind, brother?” he challenged. “If I ever…”
There was a sharp slap of a gloved hand against leather as Scott finished his chore and lowered the stirrup back into place. “I was asking about Pardee,” he interrupted, ignoring the dark look his father cast in his direction; “not you.” He swung back into the saddle.
A tense silence followed; disturbed only by the agitated movement of the three horses. Johnny fidgeted in his saddle and then spoke up. “Pardee liked to watch,” he declared. “He’d get his crew all fired up, drunk. And then he’d turn ‘em loose like a pack of hungry dogs and watch the show. It was a game to him, Scott, every damned time. Hell, he didn’t even care if he won or lost. He’d get the big money up front from whoever hired him, play one side against the other, and then move on to the next sucker.” His voice lowered. “That’s how I knew he didn’t give a fuck about Lancer.”
Murdoch frowned. “Johnny,” he cautioned. It was never a good sign when his younger son began using the more vulgar obscenities. He turned to his elder son, the displeasure clear in his voice and demeanor. “Are you done now?” Sometimes, Scott was like a dog worrying a bone; never letting go even after the marrow was gone.
Scott was quiet for a time, digesting his brother’s words. Ignoring his father’s question, he asked one of his own. “If Pardee didn’t want Lancer, Johnny, or the other ranches he raided north of here, why all that effort if not for his own gain?”
The question immediately aroused Murdoch’s interest. It was something he had wondered about after Pardee had been defeated and the trouble stopped, but had ultimately dismissed it as inconsequential. His focus after the final battle had been the ranch and recovering the cattle; of making the repairs and moving on to forge a common bond with his sons. Expectant, he turned to look at his younger son. “Are you suggesting, son, that Pardee…”
“… I’m not suggestin’ anything, Murdoch,” Johnny interrupted sharply, forgetting his manners. “I’m tellin’ you someone was payin’ him to hit you hard, and that the other places he raided were just the smoke before the fire.” Taking a deep breath, he resumed speaking. “And I’m bettin’ that someone ain’t done tryin’.”
Scott nudged Cheval’s ribs with his heels and moved forward to position himself in front of his brother. Meeting Johnny’s gaze full on, he smiled. “Then we’ll take care of that someone, brother, if he’s fool enough to try again. Just like we did the last time,” he decreed.
Johnny laughed. It was a soft laughter filled with self-deprecating humor. “More arms, legs and guts?” he huffed. “Jesus, Scott, I’m about wore out just tryin’ to keep up with the day to day grunt work!”
Murdoch carefully eyed both of his sons. “You fought the first time for your chance at a share of Lancer,” he reminded. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t fight just as hard to hold on to what you earned?”
Both young men considered the question as they again exchanged glances, slow grins coming as they shared a common thought. They started to speak at the same time, the words colliding; Scott yielding in order to hear what his brother was about to say.
“Nobody’s takin’ what I spilled blood to get, Old Man,” Johnny declared, a slight edge in his tone. What was is his voice – his demeanor – was a considerable amount of pride and stubborn determination.
Once again, Murdoch’s face betrayed his feelings and he faked a cough to hide the smile that softened the deep lines in his face and warmed his eyes. Nudging his horse forward, he again took the lead, his sons soon following in his wake before catching up to flank him; one on each side. “We’ve a way to go yet,” he announced. “There’s still more you haven’t seen.”
Johnny was startled as he came up even with Murdoch and suddenly felt the man’s hand on his upper right arm. He turned to look across and up at his father’s face, bracing himself for what he assumed was going to be the usual ass-chewing for having broken yet another of his Old Man’s thousand and one rules. To his surprise, his father was actually smiling.
Murdoch was staring directly into his son’s eyes, and his voice was soft; almost a whisper. “Someday, son – someday soon – this meadow will be filled with mares again.” He gave the boy’s shoulder a gentle shake. “We’re going to find the buckskin,” he pledged solemnly. “Come fall, after the round up when we’ve sold the beef – you and I and your brother –” he turned slightly to nod in Scott’s direction, “will find that stallion and put him to work.” He let go after a final pat, and turned to stare straight ahead.
Stunned, Johnny’s entire body was swept with an incredible flood of warmth he had experienced only one other time that he could remember: the night Val had found him in the Arizona desert and had reclaimed him as his own. His skin prickled with a heightened sense of self and for once he was at a loss of words. Then, giving in to the rush of raw emotion, he touched his spurs to Barranca’s sides and let out a wild whoop of pure joy.
Scott watched in amazement as his brother’s horse spread out in a full run, the animal’s white tail and mane unfurling like banners in the wind. Johnny’s hat, blown off by the wind, was spiraling behind his back like some child’s pinwheel. “Murdoch…”
“It’s all right, son,” Murdoch said. “He’s heading in the right direction, and we’ll catch up with him,” he nodded toward the eastern horizon; toward home. Aware that Scott’s horse was dancing in place and fighting the bit, he made a shooing motion with his hand. “Go,” he ordered.
It was all the urging Scott needed. Reaching up with one hand to secure his stetson, he gently kneed Cheval in the sides and felt the gelding bunch beneath him. The horse bolted forward, dropping into a full ground-eating run as it waded into the thick, green grass to catch up with its stable mate.
Hands clasped across the pommel of his saddle, Murdoch watched as his sons raced across the broad expanse of grass. For the first time in the long years of waiting and wanting, he felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders, a feeling of contentment filling his heart and his mind. He could not change the past; any of it. But he could feel the hope that came with knowing the future was an open book with pages to be filled and cherished.
Johnny had reached the far end of the valley, and pulled Barranca to a jolting halt. He slipped to the ground, immediately aware of the softness of the turf beneath his feet. For some reason he was winded, and he sucked in a great breath, relishing the smells that surrounded him. The aroma of purple clover, just coming to bud, filled the air; along with other pleasant scents that mingled with the sweetness of a spring bouquet. He shook his head; fully understanding the reverence he had heard in his father’s voice when the man was describing the valley and sharing his memories of the first time he had seen it. It’s true, he mused. You can feel the pull, feel the grip of the land as it sucks you in.
It was a good feeling.
Leading Barranca, he began a slow walk around the rim of the valley, struck by the way the terrain varied. Below him, a well-traveled animal path led to the lower elevations, chiseled out of the gentler slope of the mountain, but still precarious. A steep drop at the outer edge of the trail bore testimony to the existence of a narrow, crescent shaped canyon; like a pocket carved out of the earth. He wondered about that, remembering Scott’s talk about fissures and plates; about how earthquakes caused the earth to open up, to rip apart and expose its raw underbelly.
He was moving more carefully now, keeping a tight hold on Barranca’s reins and the horse close. And then he ventured out to the very edge of the escarpment.
It was as if Satan himself reached up from the depths of Hell to sucker punch him in the gut, and he fell to his knees. “Madre de Dios”, he cursed. Behind him he heard the approach of a single horse and hoped to God it was not his father.
Scott pulled up and immediately dismounted, moving quickly to his brother’s side. “Johnny?” The concern was in his voice; his face.
Johnny waved him away. “Where’s Murdoch?” he asked. His mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton.
“Right behind us,” Scott answered, “but taking his time.”
Johnny struggled to his feet. He was still looking down into the canyon. “We gotta stop him,” he said. “He can’t see this…”
Scott ground hitched his horse and moved forward. “Can’t see what?” he asked.
Johnny didn’t answer but gestured with his right hand. He felt Scott move up to stand beside him; heard the man’s sudden intake of breath as Scott reached out to lay his arm across his shoulders.
Below them, littering the walls and floor of the canyon was a scattering of bones and tatters of hide. The remains were only months old, the bones just beginning to bleach white from the sun. Adult horses; a handful of what appeared to yearlings. Worse were the tiny bits of bones strewn within the rib cages of some of the downed animals; unborn foals that had perished along with their mothers.
Johnny swallowed, his voice hoarse as he spoke. “Over there,” he said, pointing.
Scott followed the line his brother was indicating and felt his heart convulse deep inside his chest. The remains of a larger horse lay shattered just to the side of the others, remnants of its hide still clinging to the rear hindquarters; the black tail stark against the yellow rock. The tail appeared to move, a solitary black bird picking at the remains.
Johnny drew his pistol. He fired six shots in rapid succession, no satisfaction in him as the final shot blew apart the raven in mid-flight and the pistol rotated to an empty chamber. He kept cocking the hammer and pulling the trigger. “God damn him!” he swore, fighting the tears. “God damn the mother fucking son-of-a-bitch!!” He fervently hoped the damned bird had been Day Pardee in his new incarnation.
Murdoch had responded immediately at the sound of the first shot, kicking his horse into a run. Arriving at the site, he dismounted as quickly as his game leg allowed, and in a three great strides shouldered his sons apart to stand between them. “Johnny?”
Surprised, the young man swung around to face his father, his gun hand dropping to his side as he fumbled to holster his pistol. “Murdoch…” The single word faded away to a whisper.
It was too late. Murdoch stared down into the canyon, his legs buckling as he realized what he was seeing. Scott’s strong arm kept him from going to his knees; Johnny’s grip as tight as his brother’s.
Johnny was the first to speak. “I’m sorry, Murdoch,” he breathed. He couldn’t look at his father; couldn’t look anywhere except at the carnage that spread below them.
Murdoch pulled himself erect, his back ramrod straight. There was no emotion showing in his face now, his profile stern and as somber as if carved in granite; but there was great sadness in his eyes. He was quiet for a time, pulling himself together, and then he took a deep breath. “We’ll find another stallion,” he declared with great resolve. “And more mares.”
Stunned, Johnny had difficulty believing what he was hearing. “Just like that?” he asked.
Murdoch had turned and was walking away. “Just like that,” he answered. He strode through the knee high grass, gathered the reins of his waiting horse, and made his way towards the single, large boulder sticking up from the meadow’s broad floor. Using his hat to brush the surface, he eased himself down into a wide groove and settled in.
Scott and Johnny joined their father. They remained silent, Murdoch nodding his acceptance as Scott offered him a cigarillo from the tin case he carried in his back pocket. Johnny helped himself to a quirly, accepting a light from his brother. “Is that how you do it, old man?” he asked, thin tendrils of blue smoke accompanying the words. “Take the loss, and just walk away like nothin’ happened?”
Murdoch exhaled a stream of smoke. “What else can I do, son?” he replied softly. “Besides mourn the loss and then move on.”
Johnny’s feelings were raw; like a festering wound, and he was still angry at what he had seen on the valley floor. He kicked savagely at a ant hill, watching the insects scatter. “That how it was with me’n Scott,” he asked, the rage spilling out on his father. He moved away. “Mourn the fuckin’ loss and just move on? I know lookin’ for me was hard, but you knew all along where Scott was…”
Scott’s head came up, his expression grim. “Johnny,” he interrupted. “Now is not the time.” There was an element of warning in his voice.
“And why the fuck not?” Johnny shot back. “We been out here damned near a full day talkin’ everything from dogs I don’t remember to horses I never seen ‘til they were dead…” Hands fisted at his sides, he began to pace. The atmosphere was so intense it was as if lightning had struck the earth beneath his feet and the air was filled with static electricity that prickled the hair on his arms and at the back of his neck.
Murdoch’s soft, deep voice shattered the afternoon quiet more effectively than if he had shouted, the words barely audible; whisper soft as he intended: “I traveled to Boston three times….”
The brief declaration intensified the sudden stunned silence as Johnny quit moving and Scott seemed to cease breathing. Neither of the young men had expected their father to speak, at least not in such a calm and quiet manner, and certainly not about any trips to Boston. Not sure of what they had heard, they moved closer to where their father sat.
Scott pulled to a halt directly in front of the older man. “Murdoch…”
Murdoch said nothing for a time, concentrating on the grey ash at the tip of his small cigar; which had gone out. He searched in his vest pocket for a match, relighting the smoke. “I made the first trip,” he began, “when you were five.” He looked up at his sons. “I made the second trip when you were ten, and the third the year you turned fifteen.” He paused to take a long drag on the cigarillo.
Scott was the one now having trouble staying still, his hands flexing at his thighs; but he was rooted to the spot where he was standing. He closed his eyes briefly, organizing his thoughts and then speaking. “I told you I remembered you from that first trip, Murdoch. But I don’t have a single memory of the other visits. Not one.” His voice carried a hint of uncertainty, as if he doubted what he was hearing.
Murdoch sensed the mistrust. “I have no reason to lie to you, son,” he said. Squaring his shoulders, he stretched against the stiffness, but remained seated. He took some time choosing the next words and then resumed speaking.
“Right from the beginning, even on our voyage home to Lancer, Catherine and I corresponded with your Grandparents. Long letters we both contributed to…” he smiled at the memory, “… some including sketches your Mother made while we were at sea. As we made ports of call down the Eastern coast, we’d pass those letters to ships heading for Boston; something we did the entire three months we were at sea.” He felt a rush of pride in that; the knowledge his Clippers had established maritime records, some which still remained unbroken.
“Later, after we were settled in at Lancer, we continued the correspondence. That first year Catherine and I would spend our evening’s together, writing long letters sent by ship around the Horn, and occasionally by transport across the Isthmus.” He hesitated, dislodging a flake of tobacco from his tongue, his voice lowering. “After your Mother died, Scott, I continued to write to your Grandmother, to Elizabeth. About everything; and she wrote back, faithfully.” He was quiet again; and cleared his throat before he resumed speaking, his voice hoarse. “Her letters were full of firsts,” he continued. “Your first tooth, your first words. The first steps you took on your own.” The words drifted off into a wistful silence.
Scott’s mind was working furiously; snatches of memories appearing and disappearing like wisps of gossamer on the winter wind. He knew that the one visit he remembered – the giant he had greeted when he was five – had occurred at the same time his maternal Uncle had died and his Grandmother was away in New York. And the year he turned ten…
His Grandmother had died when he was ten; shortly before his birthday. Had been, in fact, buried on the day he turned ten. Another reason his birthdays, even now, remained bittersweet.
Murdoch saw the look of pain on his son’s face and leaned forward, reaching out to touch Scott’s arm. “I arrived in Boston the day of Elizabeth’s funeral,” he said, the words coming softly and filled with sadness. “It was a planned visit Scott, one Elizabeth had suggested, and when I reached the city…” His jaws tensed as he recalled his feelings of that day; when it seemed, once again, God and the fates had cruelly intervened to not only take someone he had loved and admired, but in his attempt to regain custody of his son. The fact it had been Scott’s birthday had compounded the feeling of injustice. Clearing his throat, he began again, “When I reached the city…”
Scott raised his right hand, effectively damming his father’s narrative. “Did you come to the house?” he asked curtly. Even Johnny was alarmed by the brusqueness of his words.
Recognizing the sharpness in his son’s tone, Murdoch’s voice hardened. “John Pierpont, my attorney, met me when my ship docked,” he said, his eyes narrowing as he saw the brief flash of recognition in Scott’s eyes at the mention of Pierpont’s name. “We went directly to the cemetery, arriving just in time to watch the entombment.” He looked away, unable to continue, the memory coming back with a startling clarity that chilled him to the bone. It was as if it was the dead of winter and he was back in Boston again; everything shades of gray and black blurred and made indistinguishable by the falling snow. He stood up suddenly, moving into the grass and the sun. Scott was on the move too, but in the opposite direction. The gap between the two men widened at an alarming rate.
Johnny’s gaze turned toward his father, and then swung aside to track his brother. It was clear from the boy’s expression he was torn between which of the two men he would follow. He took a single step in Scott’s direction; turned, and then – throwing his hands up in exasperation – stopped dead in his tracks. Pulling his revolver from its holster, he ejected the spent shells and deftly fed cartridges into three of the six chambers; adjusted the cylinder and then thumbed back the hammer. Angry, frustrated, he fired three shots into the air in rapid succession; not giving a damn when Barranca and the two other horses spooked and bolted across the clearing.
He had anticipated a reaction, but not the one that occurred. Murdoch’s panicked “JOHN!” was not surprising; in fact he had expected his Old Man to bellow. It was Scott’s response – the sudden turn his brother executed and the deer-like dash – that caused him to rethink the wisdom of firing his weapon.
Unmindful of the long thin grass, Scott sprinted toward his brother, his long legs plowing through the sheaves as he cut a path through the dense turf. Without breaking stride, he hurtled his body forward, his left shoulder colliding with his brother’s legs and knocking him to the ground. Angry at his sibling’s foolishness, he swept his arm in the direction the horses had taken. “Damn it, boy!” he swore. “What the hell were you thinking!?”
In spite of the fact his brother was now straddling his prone body, Johnny laughed. “Got your attention, didn’t I?” he snorted. He sobered as a large, dark shadow loomed above him and blotted out the sun.
Scott rolled off his brother’s body, levering himself upright and stepping aside as Murdoch reached down and lifted Johnny bodily from the ground. Brushing dirt from his hands, he watched in awe as his father lifted his brother by his upper arms until father and son were nose to nose. Aware Murdoch’s lips were moving; he leaned in closer to listen.
“You had better hope, young man,” Murdoch murmured, “that Barranca is still close enough to respond to that ear-splitting whistle you’re so fond of; because if he isn’t…” He left the rest unsaid.
Johnny was treading air and seriously beginning to regret he had not fully loaded his pistol. Not that it would have done him any good, what with the way his fingers and arms were beginning to go numb. And as for the whistle…Hell, he didn’t have enough spit to summon up a decent pucker. He risked a tenuous smile. “I’ll get the horses,” he said.
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, you will,” he said as he lowered his son to the ground. It sounded like a threat.
Scott struggled not to laugh aloud as his brother passed in front of him and headed out into the valley. For all his bravado and swagger, Scott mused, Johnny was still enough of a kid that there was a measure of something akin to fear in him when it came to their father; although it never seemed to stop him from testing their old man’s patience.
It took a little time for Murdoch to regain his composure, his memory of Pardee’s ambush, Paul’s death and the final raids still far too fresh. It didn’t help that the sound of gunfire in this hidden valley was amplified by the surrounding mountains, making it difficult to pinpoint the source. “What was he thinking,” Murdoch asked, shaking his head.
“That he was going to get our attention,” Scott immediately answered.
Scott was watching Johnny, who was now several yards away and heading, hand outstretched, straight for the palomino. He had no doubt that in Johnny’s palm was a piece of hard candy from Murdoch’s “secret” stash, and he smiled. “I asked Johnny the same question, sir, and that was his answer: that he did it to get my…” he corrected himself, “…our attention.
“He couldn’t have just called out to us?” Murdoch groused. He was getting impatient and shaded his eyes, focusing on his younger son who seemed to be involved in a game of tag with the palomino. “Johnny!”
Cringing, Johnny Lancer cursed, softly; “Aw, shit!” He edged forward. “C’mon, Barranca,” he begged, opening his hand to display the buttery colored sweet that was sticking to his palm. Uncertain as to how Scott’s horse and Murdoch’s gelding would react to the whistle he normally used to summon his horse, he had refrained from cutting loose; but he hadn’t figured on Barranca playing games. “Dammit, cabrón (bastard),” he swore; moving a bit to put the wind at his back. He spit into his palm, hoping the moisture would intensify the smell of the candy and offered his hand again.
Barranca stopped dancing and planted his feet solidly on the ground. Nostrils flaring, he stretched his neck; ears coming forward as the sweet scent of Mamácita’s special barley-molasses candy wafted on the air. Lips fluttering, the horse took a single step forward and then another; following the scent as Johnny began to slowly withdraw his right hand. He kept up the ruse until the palomino was close enough to grab the cheek strap of its bridle. “Gotcha,” he crowed. He surrendered the candy and swung aboard.
It took little effort to collect the other two horses, who seemed content to fall in behind as Johnny made one circle around them and pointed Barranca’s nose toward the place where Scott and Murdoch stood waiting. He urged the palomino into a gentle canter, bypassing his father and brother and returning to the large boulder where they had all been previously resting.
Scott caught the reins of both horses as they trotted behind Barranca; gathering the leathers in one hand and following in Johnny’s wake. Murdoch joined him and they made the trek in silence.
Johnny was standing beside his horse when the others arrived. His expression was pensive, but it was clear there was a lot going on behind the blue eyes; which seemed to change color as a myriad of emotions swept the boy’s countenance. Without looking up, he spoke. “I wanna hear more about them letters,” he announced, the words coming in a near whisper. He was ejecting the spent cartridges from the Colt; and stooped down to pick up the casings, which he put in his shirt pocket. And then, still avoiding looking at his companions, he reloaded the pistol.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged a quick glance, their faces clearly showing their shared surprise. Murdoch spoke up. “We continued to correspond,” he began. “As often as we were able. I wrote her about the ranch, about what I was doing; she wrote about our mutual friends in Boston, and – of course – about Scott.”
Johnny had holstered his pistol, but his stance had not changed. He was fiddling with Barranca’s reins, cording the leather between his fingers. “You tell her about my Mama?” he asked. There was an edge to the words and they sounded more like an accusation than a question.
Murdoch’s mind was racing as he attempted to gauge what his younger son was thinking. It was still hard to read Johnny’s moods, and there was also Scott to consider. How would his elder son handle knowing that his Grandmother – and most assuredly his Grandfather – had known not only about his second wife, but that there was also a child; something they had obviously kept from their grandson? He steeled himself for an anticipated explosion and decided to tell the truth. “I told her everything, son. About meeting and marrying your Mother, and later, after you were born, about you.”
Johnny laughed; the sound devoid of any real humor. “Well, that explains it,” he said. “How that fuckin’ old bastard knew my Mama was a ‘foreigner’.”
“Johnny!” Scott’s response was instant, and angry. “You’ve got no right…”
“The hell I don’t,” Johnny interrupted. He took a deep breath. “When he showed up here with Julie,” he continued, “and I was carryin’ his bags out to the buggy. That’s what he said to me. That my mother was a ‘foreigner’.” He smiled, coldly. “‘Course he tried to make nice, addin’ that he heard she was a ‘very lovely woman’, but he still made it sound like she was dirt!”
Scott’s expression mirrored his father’s; surprise and shock. Johnny had never told them what had occurred when Harlan had made his visit; just as Murdoch had never told either of his sons about Harlan’s outburst regarding Johnny and his presumed heritage. A sudden stab of pain struck at Murdoch’s core, the regret and shame overwhelming. He should have called Harlan out for his remarks instead of overlooking the tirade in the hope they could move beyond the anger of the past and reach some accord. He shook the thought away. Harlan had been a changed man when he left Lancer; had even expressed regret over all the things that had occurred in the past. He had also accepted that Scott had made the decision to stay at Lancer on his own, and that his grandson was happy with that decision.
Murdoch cleared his throat, shaking his head when it appeared Scott was going to speak a second time. “I kept all of Elizabeth’s letters,” he announced, addressing Johnny. “I intended to give them to your brother when I felt the time was right.” When Johnny started to interrupt, he raised his right hand, effectively damming the words. “I think that time has arrived. I also think that it should be Scott’s decision if he chooses to share them.”
End of discussion, Johnny thought angrily. He turned to face his brother. “She never told you about the letters?” he ground out. “She never said a fuckin’ thing…?”
“No!” Scott cut in, his tone harsh. He was having his own problems controlling a growing rage he did not fully understand. He didn’t know where to direct his anger. At his father? His grandparents? It was as if the three adults who were central to his life had engaged in some grand conspiracy; some sinister plot where secrets and half-truths muddied the truth of his origins and robbed him of his true identity. He took a deep breath. “She never said anything to me,” he breathed. Disappointment and remorse were evident in the words; which came at slightly more than a whisper.
Murdoch reached out and laid a comforting hand on his elder son’s shoulder. He chose his next words with great care. “Your mother told me – and I witnessed the same in the time I knew them – that your grandmother and grandfather never quarreled.” He stressed the next word. “Never.
“I also know that they didn’t always agree with each other, just as I know Elizabeth never capitulated when she felt she was right. I think she continued to correspond with me in spite of anything Harlan might have told her to the contrary, and I think they avoided arguing about the matter by simply not discussing it. I also think, ultimately, Harlan read my letters.” He turned to gaze at his younger son. “So, yes, Johnny. He would have known about your mother; just as he would have known about you.”
The brothers stood quietly, each locked in their own thoughts; both of them deeply distressed by what they had just heard. Scott was the first to speak, his voice deceptively soft. “What happened during the visit when I was ten?” he asked. “Why didn’t I see you?”
Murdoch had expected the question and was determined to address it honestly although there was no simple answer. “Your Grandmother had suggested I visit, and I was certain she had finally convinced Harlan – considering their ages – it was the right thing to do. The original plan was for me to spend time with you and give you the opportunity to know me as your father. Elizabeth’s intentions were that Harlan and I would reach some accord regarding a shared custody, and that you would return with me to Lancer. I had already agreed that you would come back to Boston when you were sixteen to further your education; provided that was what you wanted to do.” He hesitated briefly and then continued. “Your Grandmother’s death changed everything. Harlan’s attorney approached me at the cemetery and hand delivered a court document barring me from any attempt to see you, or to personally contact his client. He had two of Boston’s finest,” he grimaced at the words “with him to make sure I understood his intent.”
Scott’s expression was remote; pained. “And?” he prodded; just the one word.
Murdoch’s answer was immediate. “I spent the next ten days in court with my attorney John Pierpont, facing your Grandfather’s battery of lawyers in a very bitter contest trying to convince the judge that you belonged with me, that you belonged at Lancer. I might as well have been Don Quixote tilting with windmills, for all the good it did me,” he finished.
“You’re my father,” Scott retorted. “How could you not prevail?”
Johnny snorted. Having lived in Mexico, he was well acquainted with courts and a legal system that could be bought and sold. Hell, it was Murdoch’s money that had bought him out of the mess in Mexico and more than one or two little scrapes since he’d been home. “Boston court,” he tossed out. “And a judge that was probably in that old bast…Garrett’s back pocket.”
Scott shook his head. He was well aware that his Grandfather’s influence carried a great deal of weight in Boston and beyond, but until the debacle with the Deegan brothers and the covert threat to Julie’s father (which was not implemented), the man’s dealings had always been without reproach. Harlan Garrett was a highly successful businessman recognized by his peers for his integrity, and yet… “That is not the man I knew,” Scott murmured. He looked up at his father. “I want to know what happened,” he stated. “All of it.”
Murdoch had been on his feet longer than he had intended. He made his way over to the large boulder, settling in again in the wide groove and nestling his back against the sun-warmed rock. “Frank,” he said.
The brothers exchanged a puzzled look, both shaking their heads at the absurdity of what they had just heard. It was Johnny who asked the question. “You talkin’ about the Frank that works for us, Old Man? ‘Cause I don’t see what the hell one Lancer cowhand could have to do with Scott, and how you ended up leavin’ him in Boston.” Again, he thought bitterly.
There was a soft chuffing sound as Murdoch chuckled; as if he were enjoying a private joke. In his mind, he was remembering the long ordeal in the Boston courtroom and the final two days when Harlan’s attorneys produced the damning evidence that convinced the judge – an avowed abolitionist – that he was an unfit father who was totally undeserving of the courts judicial mercies. He lowered his head and scrubbed at his face with both hands.
Scott called out to his father. “Murdoch?”
Collecting himself, Murdoch raised his head; his eyes locked on his son’s face. “It was on my voyage back from Boston,” he began, “after that first trip. I was carrying cargo on consignment, manufactured goods from the northern factories and mills that were being shipped to the cities along the coast. One of those cities was Charleston, South Carolina.”
Johnny was getting impatient and had begun pacing, Barranca in tow, as if he were cooling the animal off after a hard run. “Frank,” he clipped.
Murdoch’s gaze shifted to his younger son; his expression mirroring his impatience at being interrupted. “Are you going to settle down and listen,” he chided, “or are you going to keep interrupting?”
Johnny recognized what he and Scott referred to as ‘the tune-caller’s tone’, but he chose to ignore it. “We been out here almost the whole damned day, Murdoch,” he groused. “Just spit it out. What the hell did Frank have to do with you not gettin’ Scott?”
Scott was puzzling the thing over in his mind, and found himself almost relieved by Johnny’s directness. Frank and he were fairly close in age and often worked together as a team out on the range, and yet he knew very little about the soft-spoken Negro. Like the other workers on Lancer, the man exhibited a great deal of loyalty to the Patrón, but Scott had determined that was because Murdoch Lancer was a fair and generous employer. And now…
Murdoch’s deep voice suddenly cut into the silence. “I bought Frank at a slave market in Charleston during that return trip. Harlan’s lawyers somehow found out about the transaction and used it in court against me.”
Stunned, both young men stared hard at their father. Scott was the first to find his voice. “Murdoch…” He hesitated, trying hard to digest what his father had just revealed, and failing. He shook his head. “I don’t understand. I know from what my Grandmother told me about my mother she was very active in the abolitionist movement, in Boston and beyond. I’ve seen and read the articles she wrote. She was passionate about the cause…”
Murdoch raised his hand. “I’m well aware of what Catherine thought about slavery. In fact, I accompanied your mother and grandmother to Nantucket to hear Frederick Douglass speak not only about slavery, but also his belief in and support of women’s suffrage.” His voice lowered. “I also know Catherine would have understood exactly what transpired in Charleston, and would have supported what I felt compelled to do.”
Scott was shaking his head. “How on God’s green earth can you sit there and tell me my mother would have supported your decision to buy a slave? A child slave?”
Johnny was finding it difficult to remain silent. He was convinced now that what Scott suspected about Murdoch arranging this outing was dead on; that their old man had conned them into a long ride through an area of Lancer where they had never been in order to keep them under his control. “That must have been a hell of a boat ride, Old Man,” he muttered. “No Scott. You buy yourself a kid; end up meetin’ my Mama…” He shook his head in disgust.
Once again, Murdoch chuckled; the sound laced with bitter, self-effacing irony. And then he was quiet. The silence hung like a dark shroud; more stifling than the heat of the high-noon sun. Suddenly, he stood up and headed for where his horse was tethered, digging into his saddlebag and pulling out the silver flask. He took a long drink, dried his lips on his sleeve, and then resumed speaking, the words coming in short bursts. It was plain from his tone he was not going to tolerate any intrusions. “Frank’s mother was white. She came to this country as an indentured servant from Scotland when she was just a child; her passage paid for in exchange for seven years of servitude. When she was barely sixteen, she was courted by the overseer on the plantation where she was living. She married the young man, unaware he was the illegitimate son of the owner, and not knowing he was a quadroon and a slave. And then she gave birth to Frank.” He turned to face his elder son, his expression stern. “I assume, Scott, you know what that meant; and that you are also familiar with the miscegenation laws that still exist?”
Scott nodded his head. “The marriage would be invalid,” he murmured.
“And the child?” Murdoch pushed.
There was a soft whoosh as Scott inhaled. “The child would have been considered a bastard,” he grimaced, “and because he was the offspring of a quadroon, he would have been considered to be a Negro.”
Murdoch was not about to let up. “And?” he demanded again.
Scott’s head came up and he met his father’s harsh glare full on. “As the son of a slave, he would have also been considered a slave.”
Satisfied, Murdoch nodded. “Rebecca – Frank’s mother – was originally indentured for seven years. When her contract ended, she assumed she would be able to take Frank with her and they could leave. When her employer told her that wasn’t going to happen, she agreed to serve him another seven years in exchange for Frank’s freedom. The plantation owner died before she finished her second indenture, his widow and son nullified what had been a verbal agreement, and Frank was put on the block as one more piece of property to settle the estate.”
Johnny moved closer to where his father was standing. Like Scott, he had listened to every word Murdoch had spoken and he still had questions. “This Rebecca,” he began. “You know her from the old country?”
Murdoch shook his head. If the explanation had only been that easy; if his life at the time had been even a bit less complicated. “I met her at the slave auction. This little bit of thing standing in a corner crying, with a purse filled with every cent she possessed; which wasn’t very much. She’d hoped, since Frank was just a boy, she would have a chance to purchase…”
Johnny exploded. “She was lookin’ to buy her own kid!? What the fuck kind of people…” He stopped suddenly, a bad memory from his own past escaping from the dark corners of his mind and assaulting his brain with such intensity he saw flashes of bright light that brought an incredible amount of pain. Clutching his head, he dropped to his knees in the long grass.
Scott and Murdoch moved quickly to the young man’s side, only to have their hands swatted away as Johnny struggled to regain his feet. “So you bid on her kid?” he asked.
“There was a lawman at the auction. A man named Joe Barker who had come to Charleston to take custody of some slaves who were being returned to Texas as runaways.” Murdoch hesitated. “It was the law then. Slaves were considered property; valuable property. There was no more African slave trade, but there was an active trade between…” he paused again, unable to find an easy way to explain a system that was so morally wrong, yet so prevalent. “There were some plantations, son, which bred slaves the same way they bred livestock or raised cotton and tobacco.”
Scott was listening intently. “This Barker. How was he returning those slaves to Texas?”
It was a question Murdoch had hoped to avoid. “By ship,” he answered.
“Your ship?” Scott pressed.
Murdoch nodded. There was no point in lying. “My ship,” he answered.
“Jesus fucking H. Christ,” Johnny cursed. He looked up into his father’s face. “And Frank?”
While Scott didn’t welcome the change in the subject, Murdoch was visibly relieved. “Barker knew Rebecca’s story and shared it with me. My intention was to purchase Frank, find an attorney, and give Rebecca manumission papers attesting to his status as a freed slave. Joe told me I was a naive fool.”
Scott’s brow furrowed as he considered his father’s words. “Why?”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “I assumed I could provide her with the papers, and be on my way. Joe told me that if I left her in Charleston, she’d be vulnerable to someone who would end up taking advantage of her; worse, that she would be targeted as a white woman with a Negro child. Her choice to support herself would be limited to…”
“…to sellin’ herself to feed her kid?” Johnny interjected. “To keep her kid?”
Grim-faced, Murdoch nodded. “My next thought was to book her passage on a ship going north, but Joe said that was just as foolish as leaving her in South Carolina.”
Scott spoke up. “But why?” he asked. “Surely you could have sent her to Boston, where she would find sanctuary and some support from the abolitionists?”
It was clear Murdoch was becoming uncomfortable with the conversation, but he refused to be deterred. “Are you familiar with the term paddyroller, Scott?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Barker told me that Boston wasn’t the safe haven people presumed. The six men he was taking back to Texas had been brought back to South Carolina by individuals who had recaptured them in Boston. The Boston police had collaborated with the paddyrollers and a considerable amount of money had changed hands. Barker said it happened all the time; that there was a network of slave catchers who were just as active and as dedicated as those who supported the Underground Railroad.” He shook his head. “I had no idea,” he finished. “No idea at all that so much corruption existed on so many levels.”
Scott’s head was bowed. Stories about the vice within the Boston police department weren’t foreign to him, but he had never imagined it had been so far-reaching and so disgustingly inhumane. He wondered silently if his Grandfather, who was an active supporter of the Underground Railroad and who maintained properties that were designated as ‘stations’, had been aware of the fraud. He took a deep breath. “And Frank and his mother?” he asked.
Murdoch had moved to stand beside his horse and was checking the cinch. “Rebecca, it turns out, was a gifted seamstress,” he answered. “After a long discussion with Barker as to what the best options were for her and her boy – Texas not being one of them – I offered her a job at Lancer.” Hoisting himself into the saddle, he settled in.
Johnny’s head lifted and he stared up at his father. “Matamoras,” he said. He had other questions he wanted to ask, but he was now more curious about his own mother than Frank’s.
“Actually, my first landfall in Texas on the way home to Lancer was Brownsville; where Joe Barker delivered his prisoners.” Murdoch shifted his gaze to his elder son, who was now attending to Cheval’s tack. “Up until that time, my ships never transported slaves; never. I was as committed to abolition as Catherine was, but the laws were complicated and when I met up with Barker in Charleston it was to take on a consignment of what I thought was property. I had no idea until I made port that I would be taking runaways back to their owners.” He hoped the explanation would suffice.
Scott mounted his horse. He was experiencing a myriad of conflicting emotions that tore at his soul; and there was a burning deep in his gut. “And Grandfather found out about what had occurred, and used that as his weapon to keep me in Boston after my Grandmother died?”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “His attorneys managed to persuade the court that my actions – the transport of the captured runaways, the purchase of a slave and the insinuation of a liaison with his mother – were more than sufficient proof I was morally unfit as a parent; at least by Boston standards.”
Johnny swung aboard Barranca. He started to speak only to have Scott cut him off.
“You said there was a third trip,” Scott pressed.
Again, Murdoch nodded. “The year you turned fifteen,” he answered. “My attorney, John Pierpont encouraged me to make the trip, thinking that you would be old enough for me to approach you and to tell you my side of the story. To lay it all out and to allow you to make your own decision.” He paused, his voice lowering. “I arrived in Boston two days after you and your tutor set sail for the Continent.” The bitterness was in his tone; his expression.
This time Johnny was not going to go unheard. “Pretty slick how fuckin’ Garrett always seemed to know every damned thing that was goin’ on in your life, Old Man.” He snorted, the contempt clear. His face hardened as another thought occurred to him; the fact Scott’s grandfather had known about his mother, just as the old bastard had known of his existence. It niggled at him; the sudden grim thought that Harlan Garrett might have somehow been involved in his mother’s departure from Lancer. He screwed his eyes shut, pushing the thought away, but not the anger; which was threatening to extend to Scott. He moved out, kneeing Barranca forward and purposely bulling his way between his father and brother’s horses.
Murdoch gigged his gelding forward, quickly catching up with his son. He leaned sideways, reaching out to snag the boy’s arm. “You asked about Matamoras,” he said; grateful that Scott was lagging behind them.
Johnny shook off his father’s hand. He was staring straight ahead. “Frank’s mama,” he said, not quite ready now to hear anything about his own mother. “What happened to her?”
Murdoch was surprised by the question, but quickly realized what was happening. He chose his words carefully, fully intending to bring the pending conversation full circle. “Rebecca is buried in the old cemetery, behind the hacienda’s chapel. She died in 1863, after Frank had gone East to enlist in the Union Army. When he came back after the War, he told me he wanted to stay. I told him he was more than welcome; that Lancer would be his home for as long as he wanted.” He was quiet a moment, watching Johnny’s face and thought he detected a softening. His next words were filled with tenderness. “She charmed your mother, you know. Rebecca.”
Johnny’s brow furrowed. He was still gazing off into the horizon. “She knew Mama?”
Relieved there was no trace of anger or animosity in his son’s voice, Murdoch resumed speaking. “Rebecca’s training as a seamstress was in the home of the plantation’s owner, where she was indentured,” he began. “She was accustomed to working with the finest fabrics. Silks, satins. Her stitch work, according to your mother, was superb – delicate – and she was skilled in embroidery.” He was quiet a moment, and when he began speaking again, his voice remained soft; wistful. “She made your mother’s wedding dress in less than a week, an ‘exquisite creation with the most intricate beading’,” he continued, recalling his wife’s words. “And later, at Lancer, she made your christening gown.”
Johnny’s head suddenly swung in his father’s direction, his eyes narrowing. “This ain’t gonna be another one of them ‘Johnny wore a dress’ stories, is it? ‘Cause if it is, I sure don’t want Scott hearin’ about it.”
“Too late, little brother,” Scott called, moving up on his brother’s right. He was calmer now, but in definite need of some distraction after all the things his father had disclosed. “So about this christening gown, Murdoch…”
Peripherally, Murdoch could see Johnny’s cheeks coloring. “You do know, Scott,” he addressed his elder son, “in addition to the letters Elizabeth wrote to me, she also occasionally sent me other remembrances.” He swatted at a bot fly that had suddenly begun to buzz around his head. “One of the things she sent was a daguerreotype taken when you were about two.”
Scott closed his eyes; the subtle threat of paternal blackmail quite clear. Using two fingers, he rubbed at the space between his eyes; the place where the headache would begin if Johnny ever laid eyes on the picture and the teasing began. The dress was bad enough, but the long blond curls would prove his undoing. He decided to create a distraction. “Johnny asked you about Matamoras, sir. You’ve answered most of my questions. Now – in all fairness – I think its Johnny’s turn.”
Murdoch smiled; a smug satisfaction filling him as the conversation turned again in the direction he had wanted it to go. He shifted in the saddle to face his younger son. “After we had concluded our business in Brownsville, Joe Barker invited me to accompany him to dinner across the river, in Matamoras.” He smiled at the memory. “Joe was an interesting man,” he continued. “A great story-teller right up there with Davy Crockett.” He laughed. “Not exactly a liar, but someone prone to embellishing the stories he was telling about himself and his adventures; sometimes even forgetting who had actually been with him, and what had occurred. It made him an entertaining dinner companion, he knew the city and was welcomed with open arms everywhere we went.”
His voice lowered. “That included some of the most exclusive establishments in Matamoras, where gentlemen could congregate to enjoy fine food and a more genteel entertainment than was standard on the American side of the Rio Grande.” Brownsville was a newer settlement; full of tough men with even rougher appetites. Murdoch was studying Johnny’s face now, carefully watching him and keeping his tone even; wanting to share the story of how he and Maria had met. “It was Joe who arranged the invitation to the private salón de baile where I first saw your mother perform.” He let the words sink in.
Johnny laughed. It was a cold sound. “Salón de baile,” he mocked. “Fancy name for a whorehouse.” He took a breath and smiled, his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. “Yeah. She was a hell of a dancer.” Purposely avoiding his father’s scrutiny, he looked straight ahead. He was a quiet for a time; the next words coming softly. “So how much?” he asked.
Murdoch’s brow furrowed; not sure he had heard what he thought. He kneed his horse gently and moved closer to his boy. “I’m sorry, son. What did you say?”
Johnny continued to stare at the horizon. “So how much she charge you for a …dance?”
Stunned, Murdoch pulled his gelding to an abrupt halt. “Johnny!” The mere thought of what his son was implying sickened the man to his very soul. His frustration, which was rapidly morphing into anger, put an edge to his voice when he called out again. “John!!” The younger man paid no mind and continued to ride on. His voice rose. “Damn it, John. Stop! NOW!!” He reached for his reata.
As if he sensed his father’s move, Johnny reined Barranca sharply to the right and turned the animal around. The palomino protested and began fighting the bit; dropping its head and kicking out with its hind feet in a spine-punishing buck. Johnny grabbed the saddle horn and gripped the horse’s sides with his legs, pulling hard on the reins and forcing the palomino into a tight circle until it settled. “You think I don’t know what she did? What she was?” His tone was hostile and the words laced with sarcasm; the angry turmoil of his love/hate relationship with his mother suddenly coming again to the fore.
Murdoch was in no mood for sass, or for the pendulum mood swings from dark to light that occurred far too often and continued to taint their still fragile relationship. He wondered, not for the first time, if the seeds of madness he had – in hindsight – dismissed in Maria during her pregnancy and after the difficult birth had somehow contaminated their son. Shaking the thought aside, he nudged his horse forward until he was side by side with his son, his right hand darting out to close vise-like around the boy’s wrist. “She was a dancer,” he growled. “A woman of quality who had been instructed in the traditions of the Spanish,” he stressed the word, “culture she had been born into; newly widowed, without any inheritance. She used that training – that wonderful talent – to support herself in the same way any celebrated performer would make a living. And she did not fraternize with her audience!”
Johnny’s laughter was coarse; suggestive. He couldn’t believe his old man could be so goddamned naïve. “No,” he shot back. “She just fucked them!” The next thing he knew, Murdoch had dismounted, pulled him from the saddle and shoved him hard against Barranca’s right hindquarter. The horse spooked and bolted away.
Scott immediately dropped to the ground and strode quickly across the thick turf to join the others. Fearful of what might occur, he bulled his way between his father and brother, Johnny’s breath blistering against his left shoulder; Murdoch’s breath hot against his face. “Murdoch,” he said, purposely keeping his tone neutral; the words coming softly. “Please. Let him go.” It was an uncomfortable feeling; being wedged in between two people who were so obviously in danger of losing control.
Murdoch still held fast to Johnny’s right arm; his long fingers an iron band around the youth’s wrist. “No,” he said. He stepped to the side, pulling his younger son with him. Then, in a move that surprised both of his sons, he reached out to unfasten the youth’s gunbelt and pull it free. “Put this in my saddle bags,” he ordered, handing it off to Scott.
“Murdoch, he is not going to shoot you,” Scott chided; although there was a small hint of trepidation in his response. Already, he was winding the gun belt around the worn holster.
“No, he is not,” Murdoch snapped back. “But he isn’t going to pull that damned pistol and fire three shots into the air just to get my attention, either. The last time he did that took ten years off my life I can ill afford to lose.” His eyes locked on his younger son’s face. “What he is going to do is listen.”
Johnny was trying to break away; was attempting to peel his father’s fingers from his wrist. “Let me go, you son-of-a-bitch!” The curse only made Murdoch more determined and the scuffle increased in its intensity; finally ending when he wrapped his long arms around his son’s torso and held him until the struggling stopped.
“Are you ready to listen?” Murdoch breathed, relaxing his hold, his hands moving to Johnny’s shoulders.
Johnny looked up into his father’s eyes. “Hell, Old Man, I’ve been listenin’ to you from the get-go; from the first time in the Great Room when you told me I had my Mama’s temper.” He smiled, but it was more of a grimace than an expression of happiness. “What else was it you said?” He didn’t wait for an answer; the sarcasm raw. “‘A couple of years later, I met your mother. She… We got married.’”
Oh, shit, Scott thought, stealing a covert sidewise look at his father. Don’t go there, Murdoch. Just don’t go there. Not today. He was relieved when Murdoch didn’t respond. The relief was short lived when Johnny continued his tirade. It was enough to convince him to do as Murdoch had asked, and he tucked his brother’s pistol and holster into the man’s saddlebag.
“Been listenin’ to you today, too.” Johnny snarled, pulling away from Murdoch. “About Frank’s Mama and how she would have had to sell herself to take care of her kid.” When Murdoch attempted to speak, he plowed on. “What about my Mama? What makes you think it wasn’t any different for her?” he demanded. And why the fuck weren’t you there for her? “You met her in a dance hall,” he accused. “Where the hell do you think she made the money to feed me!?”
Murdoch lifted his right hand, and for a seemingly long moment, Scott thought he was going to strike his brother. He moved forward, intending to reach out to stop the anticipated blow, changing his mind when his father instead scrubbed a weary hand across his own face. The agony he saw in his father’s eyes tore at his heart. “Johnny,” he murmured. “Don’t.”
“Fuck you, Boston!” Johnny was shaking; clenching and unclenching his fists. “I listened real good,” he breathed. “And I can sure in hell can do the arithmetic.” He shot a dark look at his sibling. “Doesn’t take no Harvard graduate to make that count.” His eyes cut to his father. “You fucked her! Got her knocked up…”
Murdoch’s reaction to the words was a total surprise to both young men. Instead of interrupting and harshly calling his son to task, he remounted his horse and issued a curt order. “Follow me.” He kneed the gelding in the sides and set off at a brisk canter.
Dumbfounded, both young man stood as if hobbled. Johnny was the first break the tense silence. “What the fuck? ‘Follow me’?” He turned to look at his brother. “Thought you were the only Lancer who could give orders like some damned tin soldier.” He made no move to mount up.
Scott shook his head. Putting boot to stirrup, he pulled himself into the saddle. “How big is Lancer?” he asked, settling in; the emotional fatigue clear in his tone.
Johnny glared up at his sibling. “Who the hell cares?” he groused. And then, “A hundred thousand acres plus what we got when the Old Man bought out the Petersons.”
The blond nodded. He took off his hat, wiping the sweat from the interior headband with his elbow before putting it back on. “Two hundred ten square miles,” he said. Shading his eyes, he looked up at the sun, which was just now beginning its slow descent towards the western mountains. “The hacienda is somewhere in that direction,” he announced, gesturing toward the Eastern horizon. “And,” he swung his arm until he was pointing at their father’s fast disappearing horse, “may I remind you that right now Murdoch is the only one of us to know precisely where.” He nudged Cheval’s sides with his heels, moving out. As he passed his sibling, he spoke again; a smile ghosting across his lips as he failed to hide the humor in his voice. “You are still planning to get home in time to charm Maria into making you some of her caramel flan for dessert tonight, aren’t you, brother?”
His stomach rumbling at the mention of food, Johnny swore. “¡Chingado!” Vaulting into the saddle, he pushed Barranca into a quick trot and followed after his brother.
Content his sons were behind him, Murdoch kept his gelding at a ground-eating canter. The terrain was changing again as they left the escarpment; the landscape giving way to a broader expanse of shorter grass and occasional scrub as they made their gradual descent into the foothills. Pale spring green spread before him, dotted with patches of lavender thistle sage just coming to bloom. Here and there, the green and lavender was broken by a scattering of small ponds; bright blue beneath a near cloudless sky.
The path they were now traversing was old, a remnant of the common trail followed by the migratory wild animals that had once flourished in the area, made wider later by the domesticated Mexican longhorns and imported Marino sheep that had grazed the mountain slopes in the early days of the estancia.
Murdoch slowed his horse to a walk, keeping a tight rein as his sons flanked him; one on either side. “Up ahead, to the right,” he said, nodding in the direction where the trail forked to disappear behind a large slab of obsidian; a remnant of a long ago earthquake caused by the ancient eruption of a volcano far to the north.
They entered the clearing three abreast; both young men failing to hide their surprise when the small, fortress-like adobe building appeared before them. Like the main hacienda, the structure was thick-walled, the sun-baked bricks coated with mica-flecked white plaster, and in excellent repair. Red clay tiles dominated the pyramid-shaped roof, deep gutters channeling the rim to collect rainwater that drained into a ground-level cistern that fronted the house.
Twenty feet away, sheltered by a small grove of young Ponderosa pines, stood a pole corral with a three-sided lean-to; tarp covered, twine tied bales of alfalfa stacked against the back wall. At the far end of the enclosure, a shallow concrete watering trough with moss-covered sides was doubling as a birdbath for a pair of goldfinches, their chirping competing with the chatter of the tree dwelling chickarees. The chattering of the squirrels became more agitated as the afternoon breeze intensified and the wood framed windmill began its slow spin; the main shaft moving up and down as it pumped spurts of fresh water into the trough.
Drawn by the scent of water, Murdoch’s gelding headed directly for the gate.
Scott and Johnny exchanged a quick glance; shrugged and then nudged their horses forward. Murdoch had dismounted to slide the gate poles aside and was following his mount inside. Much to Johnny’s disgust, his father began unsaddling the bay. “What the fuck,” he muttered.
“Caramel flan,” Scott whispered, grinning. Johnny was not amused. Still, he followed his brother and headed for the small corral. He caught up just as Scott was beginning to strip the saddle and blanket from Cheval’s back.
Muttering, Johnny dismounted and stood beside Barranca, toying with the reins as he debated his next move. The palomino pawed at the earth, extending its neck and nickering as Cheval trotted past him to join Murdoch’s horse at the trough. And then, petulantly, the horse turned to head-butt his owner.
“Dammit, Barranca!” Johnny cursed. He smacked the animal’s nose, dropping the reins and ground-hitching the palomino. Barranca tossed his head and snorted his displeasure.
Scott was carrying his saddle and blanket, and moved forward to hoist them onto the top railing of the corral fence. “Just go with the flow, brother,” he said. “Remember, Murdoch’s the only one who knows the way back to hacienda, and I for one would really like to get home in time for a hot bath and supper.”
Johnny let go with an extremely colorful string of expletives, in two languages. “You ever think, Boston, I could just give Barranca his head, and let him take us back to the barn?” he sniped.
Scott laughed; loudly. He was standing beside his brother now. “And that worked soooo well the night you decided to try that in Spanish Wells,” he retorted, his voice lowering but the sarcasm evident. “You ended up in Green River, in front of the Silver Dollar, and Barranca wouldn’t budge until you sobered up enough to get off and get him a beer! And then he took you over to Val’s office and deposited you right at the front door.”
As if finding it extremely funny, Barranca stretched his neck and nickered, displaying a row of fine, white teeth.
Jesus, Johnny fumed, even his fuckin’ horse was laughin’ at him.
“Boys!” Murdoch thundered, nodding toward the adobe house as he strode across the corral and went through the gate.
Shoulder to shoulder, Johnny and Scott slowly followed in their father’s wake; pausing at the corral gate to watch as Murdoch retrieved a key from beneath a large maceta on the small portico and unlocked the front door. He stepped across the threshold and disappeared into the dark interior.
Johnny shot his brother a quick glance and then rolled his eyes. “How much you wanna bet he’s got an extra key for the hacienda under one of Maria’s damned flower pots on the front porch,” he grouched.
Scott judiciously kept his comment neutral when he responded. “We’ll just have to check that out the next time we fail to get home before the doors are locked,” he grinned, refraining from using the words ‘Murdoch’s curfew’. He’d made that mistake once before, and wasn’t about to deal with another temper tantrum about ‘the old man’s fuckin’ rules’.
Johnny returned the smile, his eyes lighting. “Like tonight?” he suggested; feigning pain when his brother immediately knuckle punched his upper arm.
“Why, John,” Scott retorted, “are you suggesting we sneak out and frolic on the very eve of the Sabbath?”
“Why not?” Johnny asked, shrugging. After ten days of chasing cantankerous cows and newborn calves from the ass crack of dawn to sundown, he was in dire need of some serious ‘frolic’. “Heard the padre at the mission in Green River takes confession before Sunday mornin’ mass,” he teased. “Sets out the poor box right next to the confesional, and then opens up for business.
“Hell, I hear collections are up almost twenty percent.”
Scott’s lips were twitching, and he swiped a gloved hand beneath his nose in a failed attempt to hide the smirk. “Nice of you to be so generous with the Padre,” he observed drolly. “God does love a cheerful giver!”
Johnny guffawed. “C’mon, Boston, I ain’t even seen a mission in Green River.” He flashed his brother his most angelic, little boy smile. “Besides, confession is for all them sinners out there,” he made an ambiguous sweep with his right arm, “not me.”
Assuming his recently acquired role as the elder brother – a task he was secretly beginning to relish – Scott reached out to grasp Johnny by both shoulders, and turned him in the direction of the corral gate. He pushed him forward. “No more stalling, little brother,” he admonished. He nodded toward the open front door of the small house. “Time to face the music.”
Or the dance, Johnny thought, grinning. And then he remembered his rig was still in Murdoch’s saddlebags.
Prodded forward by his brother, Johnny stumbled through the front door. It took him a little time for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior, and when things came into focus, he failed to hide his surprise. “Holy shit,” he muttered.
The inside of the small house was as well maintained as the exterior. There were four rooms; the main one consisting of a combination living room/kitchen that stretched the length of the structure, dominated by a natural rock fireplace with a broad hearth. The interior of the fireplace was designed not only to generate heat, but was fitted with a variety of hooks and adjustable grates; and off to one side a small, built-in oven.
Against the outer wall, a zinc-lined sink with a pump was positioned beneath a shuttered window; aligned with the J. Woodruff & Sons cast iron cook stove, and obviously not part of the original household accoutrements. The entire interior of the small house, it was evident, had not only been well maintained in the past, but had recently and efficiently been updated.
Curious, Johnny began to explore. He opened the first door off the living area to find a comfortably furnished bedroom dominated by a double bed and a matching, mirrored chest of drawers. A wide-silled window with interior shutters was above the bed, light filtering through narrow slits in the wood, and giving the room a mystical glow.
Backing out of the room, he closed the door and moved on to the next, finding the door open, and Scott checking out the contents. It was a large pantry, well stocked with glass jars of canned fruits and vegetables. Small barrels of flour and cornmeal sat on narrow pallets, well up off the floor, and near a screened, barred window – suspended from meat hooks – a supply of gauze wrapped cheese. There were also covered crocks of salted meats, both beef and pork.
“You could winter here and not want for anything,” Scott observed, hefting a pint jar of what appeared to be Maria’s brandied peaches.
“Or hold off a fuckin’ army,” Johnny responded.
“That too,” Scott agreed, returning the peaches to the shelf. He nodded in the direction beyond the room’s threshold. “Still one more room,” he announced.
Johnny’s brow furrowed. They had both been so intense on exploring the house, they had missed something that should have been obvious; their absent father. “With our luck, it’s another bedroom and the Old Man is takin’ a fuckin’ nap,” he complained. “Or maybe he just took off…”
The voice boomed at them from beyond the door. “The ‘old man’ was taking advantage of the amenities,” Murdoch said, gesturing with his left arm. “There is a fully functional privy just beyond the back door,” he announced. “And I, for one, prefer using it as opposed to taking a walk in the woods.
“You’ll find some ground coffee in one of those canisters, Scott.” His gaze shifted to his younger son. “And you’ll find some kindling in the box beside the stove.”
It was, Johnny knew, an order. And he was feeling testy. “And if I don’t want any coffee?”
Scott rolled his eyes. Reaching out, he retrieved the jar of peaches he had just put back on the shelf. “Just think how well it will go with the peaches,” he cajoled.
Leave it to big brother to fight dirty, Johnny thought, grabbing the green-tinted jar. He stomped out of the room and headed for the kitchen table.
Murdoch winked at his elder son before turned away and crossed the room to the sink. He began filling the coffee pot, the pump squealing in protest as he worked the handle. Just to his left, Johnny had begun loading kindling into the firebox. It didn’t take long for the dried tinder to ignite, or for Johnny to return to his seat at the table.
“There used to be several estaciones like this, the larger ones marking the four points of the compass on the original land grant,” Murdoch began, turning to look at his sons. “Supply bases for the two hundred vaqueros who maintained the herds; the cattle and horses.” He watched as both young men’s’ eyes widened. “Then de Velarde imported Moreno sheep for the wool, and this…” he gestured with one arm, “…became the home base for the Basque herders.” He paused, as if cataloging the images in his head; the shepherds, their colorful wagons and well trained dogs. A slow smile came. “Charlie Bellingham was the first yanqui to occupy this house, hired to keep the wolf population under control.”
He turned to the cupboards above the sink just long enough to retrieve three tin mugs – and from a curtained upper shelf – a tin of condensed milk. “You’ve read Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast,” he said, setting the cups and container of milk on the table; his words directed at Scott. He didn’t wait for a response. “The Pilgrim wasn’t the first American ship to arrive in California. It began with the Otter, in 1796, and a man named Ebenezer Dorr who dropped anchor in Monterey Bay to replenish his supply of fresh water and stores for his voyage to China. His passengers included fugitives from a penal colony in Australia whose intentions were to remain in California.
“Dorr’s request to put the Australians ashore – he had identified them as English seamen – was denied by the commandante.” Murdoch paused long enough to grab a towel and remove the now boiling coffee pot from the stove. He filled the mugs. “The refusal meant nothing to Dorr; and the ‘seamen’ had no intention of sailing to China, so…” he put down the pot on the tiled tabletop and used his jackknife to puncture the lid of the tinned milk, “… Dorr waited until dark, and rowed them ashore.”
Scott’s chin dipped against his chest as he attempted to hide a sly smile. He was tempted to continue the charade, to continue playing dumb. And then he reconsidered. “Murdoch, I know where this is going,” he said, lifting his head and smiling broadly. “And I not only read Dana’s book, I made notes.” He had, in fact, memorized some of the prose. “I am aware of the term ‘Boston’ and its meaning. I also know – if there was a hierarchy for such expressions – it ranks slightly above the word gringo as the derogatory term the Spanish used when expressing their disdain for the Americans who had trespassed into their territory.” He reached out to cuff his brother’s right ear.
Murdoch had just taken a sip of his milk-doctored coffee. Peripherally, he saw Johnny sink deeper into his chair and bury his face against his forearms, which were folded atop the table. “And?”
“And I knew Johnny was using it the same way,” Scott answered, shrugging. He had risen to stand behind his brother’s chair. He began massaging the younger man’s shoulders; none too gentle in his ministrations, and his fingers were now inching their way around his sibling’s neck. “The way he still uses it when he’s irritated with me.” He gave his brother’s head a firm shake. “And all this while, he said it was his own special nickname for me…” he said, feigning shock and disappointment.
Johnny reached back, his fingers closing around Scott’s wrists. “Jesus, Bo…brother,” he complained. “Can’t take a joke?”
“Joke,” Scott snorted. “You insult me, and you think it’s a joke?” He looked up at his father and winked.
The youth was squirming in his chair. He truly hated it when someone got wise to his cons. He swatted his brother’s hands away. “I looked up that word, ‘moron’ in Murdoch’s dictionary, ya know.” Scowling, he turned to look up at his sibling. “Ain’t exactly a compliment, but you still keep tossin’ it around.”
Scott leaned in closer to his brother. “Only when it’s justified,” he laughed, “like when you come up with one of your moronic grand plans and end up getting shot.” He reached out, tousling his brother’s hair. He finished with a finger thump to the boy’s head.
“Your coffee is getting cold,” Murdoch scolded; the corners of his mouth twitching as he fought the smile. He had finished his own and placed the cup at the center of the table.
Johnny was getting antsy. He had almost finished the entire jar of brandied peaches and was well on his way to a sugar high. “So when are we headin’ home?” His tone was petulant.
Murdoch was refilling his mug. “After we’ve talked,” Murdoch answered, “and sorted things out.”
It was clearly not the answer Johnny wanted to hear. His posture changed as he came on full alert. Scott watched the transformation, certain he could feel the temperature changing in the room; the air seeming to chill, yet charged with some strange kind of electricity. “Perhaps another time, sir,” he suggested, the words coming softly.
Murdoch shook his head. “I should have fully cleared the air that first day,” he said, shaking his head. “I was wrong. The past may be gone, but it’s obviously still haunting us.” When Scott attempted to speak a second time, Murdoch silenced him with a single wave of his hand. “There are things your brother needs to know,” he continued. “And to accept the truth for what it is.” Scott, he felt, had been more accepting of his earlier explanations; or had, at least, not challenged them so vehemently.
Johnny suddenly shoved back his chair, knocking it to the floor as he stood up. “Oh, I know the truth, Old Man,” he seethed. “You met Mama, you knocked her up, you brought her back to a place she didn’t want to be, and you were too fuckin’ busy building your fuckin’ ranch to see she wasn’t happy!” The words, filled with unbridled rage, poured from his mouth in rapid succession. His entire body was shaking, his face flushed and his eyes radiating something more than anger; the feral hatred of a cornered animal.
Remarkably, Murdoch did not yield to his temper. His face betrayed nothing but a look of melancholy, and the sadness was in his voice when he finally spoke. “I’ve never knowingly lied to you, John,” he began. “But I came close today, when I told you your mother hated Lancer.” He swallowed. “She loved this place,” he continued, the words coming softly as he raised an arm to gesture at their surroundings. His gaze shifted to Scott. “As did you mother.
“You were both winter babies,” he said before he could be interrupted. “Your mothers were not far into their pregnancies but they were both suffering, and – both times – the summers in the valley were unbearably hot.” He moved to the table and sat down, grateful when Scott joined him. Johnny was still hesitating.
“But not here?” Scott queried gently.
“No,” Murdoch answered. “Not here.” He looked up at his younger son. “I brought your mother here at the end of July, Johnny,” he said, smiling. “She wasn’t really showing yet, but she had been noticing changes in her body, subtle changes I wasn’t aware of or just didn’t recognize.” His smile grew, and when he resumed speaking, his eyes shown with genuine affection. “She was afraid she’d never be able to dance again,” he mused. “That she would grow old, fat and worn like some of the women she had seen in Spanish Wells and Green River; all of them old before their time.”
Transfixed by what he was seeing in his father’s face, Johnny righted his chair and sat down. “She could still dance,” he said, his tone reverent. He shared a quick glance with his father before lowering his eyes. “She could always dance.”
Murdoch’s instincts told him he needed to change the subject. “We stayed here until the first week in September,” he volunteered. “She was feeling better by then, and the weather had improved. But while we were here…” the words drifted off.
Scott was the one to break the ensuing silence. “You left the ranch for more than a month?” he asked, his tone incredulous but filled with humor.
Murdoch was grateful for the distraction. “When I was here with your mother, Paul saw to the day-to-day operations. He was a good manager, just as he’d been a good first mate when we were at sea.” His attention turned to Johnny. “And when I brought your mother, Cip took care of things.” He was quiet a moment. “I taught your mother to swim here, Johnny. And you, when you were a toddler.” He nodded toward the door. “There’s a small, shallow pond just west of this house, fed by a small waterfall; runoff from the larger falls you saw earlier.” Using his right hand, he made a series of stair-step gestures. “It’s the source of Cedar Lake and the Ribbon,” he finished.
Scott was toying with the tin coffee mug he had used earlier. “And my mother, sir?” he asked. “Did you teach her to swim, too?”
Murdoch’s laughter exploded into the quiet. “Your mother swam like a fish, Scott! She and your Uncle Prescott were, in your Grandmother’s no-so-humble opinion, true children of Poseidon. They swam, boated, had absolutely no fear of the water, or the sea!” He sobered then. “Which made it all the harder when Prescott was lost in the boating accident.” Reaching out, he laid his hand on Scott’s forearm. “Any other woman would have let that tragedy instill fear in her. But not Catherine, not your mother. If anything, it made her more determined; more fearless. Three months we were at sea on our voyage from Boston to California, and she was at my side the entire time.” Another smile graced his features; smoothing the lines and making him appear younger. “She wore pants, just like the crew. She was even tempted to cut her hair!”
Scott’s eyebrows rose. He’d grown up with a portrait of his mother in his bedroom; and her long, ash blond tresses had been constantly pointed out to him as ‘her crowning glory’. “Grandfather would have been appalled,” he murmured.
“We fought about it,” Murdoch confessed. “In the end, she allowed me to win. Aggie and Henry were with us on that voyage, and Aggie pacified your mother by putting her hair up in braids.”
Johnny cleared his throat. “Did Mama have long hair, too?” he asked, fishing.
The question surprised Murdoch and it showed. He hesitated before answering. “Your mother’s hair was dark,” he began. “Like yours. She wore it up, sometimes in braids,” he made a circle around his head with his hand, “like a crown.
“But not when she danced,” he continued. He reached across the table, stroking his son’s head and cupping his hand around the nape of the boy’s neck. “When she danced, she wore it loose. It was waist length, thick and with a bit of a curl. And when she danced in the sunlight…”
“New copper pennies,” Johnny breathed. “Sometimes there were streaks of red when she was out in the sun. Like new copper pennies.”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied, his voice lowering. “She was a beautiful woman, John. Incredibly beautiful.” He sucked in a breath, his tone suddenly apologetic. “And I have no idea why she left, or why she felt she needed to find another man; or why she took you away.”
Johnny tensed and attempted to pull away from his father’s grasp, but found himself held tight. “Let go,” he ordered.
“No,” Murdoch answered. “I’m never going to let you go again, son.” He loosened his grip but did not release his hold. “Everything I told you about your mother, about her family, about where she came from and how I met her is the truth, Johnny. But as to the why of any of the rest? I can’t answer those questions.” His voice lowered. “The only one who can answer them is your mother, and she’s dead.”
“Never said she was dead.” Johnny shot back without thinking, immediately regretting the words. This time he did manage to pull away. He stood up and shoved his chair into place beneath the table; his fingers clutching the curved back.
Murdoch and Scott both were in shock and it was evident in their expressions. “But…”
“But, nothing!” Johnny snapped, desperately needing to change the subject. Something was niggling at him, something Murdoch had said about the meeting in Matamoras. Mentally, he was working hard to remember everything his father had said during the long day and the many conversations. And then it hit him. ‘…newly widowed, without any inheritance’. “You said Mama was ‘newly widowed’,” he whispered.
Murdoch nodded. “She had been married when she was only fifteen,” he said. “To a much older man of great wealth and position.” He scrubbed his jaw with his right hand. “It was a marriage arranged on the premise your mother would provide a child to carry on the man’s family name and assure…”
“She had another kid?” Johnny interrupted.
Murdoch shook his head. “After ten years, there was no child. And the only inheritance your mother received – a stipend to cover her basic living expenses – was controlled by her father.” His voice lowered. “Maria was fleeing yet another arranged marriage when I met her.” His next words were tinged with a dawning irony. “Perhaps that was the attraction,” he murmured, “the urgency.” He was quiet for a long moment. “She knew her father would never approve of a gringo suitor, and certainly no upstart from California. The fact she was pregnant with my child became her ace in the hole.” He wondered now, for the first time, if that had been her plan all along; if she had given herself to him right from the beginning in order to escape her father’s control.
Johnny laughed. It was a chilling sound. It was as if he could read his father’s mind. “Wonderin’ something, Murdoch?” he drawled. “Maybe wonderin’ if I’m even your kid?”
“Johnny!” Scott’s sudden, single word response was filled with a myriad of emotion. Shock. Anger. Disbelief.
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. When he spoke his words came with great conviction. “Not one solitary doubt, John,” he replied. He knew from his son’s expression he needed more convincing. “There were no other possibilities,” he declared, not one bit of shame in his voice as he said the words, and there was no point now in lying. His whirlwind romance with Maria had been one of the most exhilarating times of his life, and the final release from the long years of mourning Catherine’s loss. He had felt reborn. “After our first encounter, there was no reason for her to perform anymore. We spent every waking moment together, right up until we went to her father’s estancia in Nuevo León, when I asked for her hand in marriage.
“You are my son.” He hesitated, and then risked asking the question that was eating at his soul. “Is she alive, Johnny?” he pressed, the words coming softly. When there was no response, he tried again. “Is your mother still alive?”
Scott held his breath, waiting for the answer. It finally came.
“I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue,” Johnny muttered. He was staring hard at the floor, hands now fisted at his sides, unsure of how far to go but feeling he owed both his father and his brother some kind of answer. “She dumped me,” he said, raising his head to look first at his brother, and then at his father. “Took me to some town we’d never been in before, left me in a hotel,” he continued, not going into details or mentioning the drugged milk or the people his mother had met with, “and when I woke up the next mornin’, she was gone.” He raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed and he felt a burning deep in his throat and the bitter taste of bile. “When?” he managed to ask.
Johnny’s right shoulder lifted in a small shrug. “Long time ago,” he answered.
Scott wasn’t satisfied with the response; and wise enough not to ask ‘how long?’ He took a more direct route. “How old were you, Johnny?”
Tilting his head to one side, Johnny returned his brother’s gaze and debated his answer. “Eight,” he answered, guessing. He laughed, coldly. “Hell, I was weaned. Wasn’t like I couldn’t take care of myself.”
“My God,” Murdoch exclaimed, stunned by the disclosure. His voice was whisper soft, the words filled with pain and self-recrimination. “You were a boy; just a little boy!”
“Maybe in years, Murdoch. But not in what I seen, or how I lived.” Johnny murmured. The anguish he was seeing in his father’s face tore at his heart, and he couldn’t continue. What point would there be in telling all of it? Of telling his father about his early life of constant drifting, or the diminishing quality of the cantinas where his mother had danced and entertained; or the dirt-floored chozas (hovels) where the many now-faceless men had paid for an hour of her time?
And then there was Val. How could he ever tell his father that Val Crawford had been his mother’s lover and the one constant in his life that was still there; and the friend he still needed?
“I don’t understand any of it,” Murdoch said quietly. “Why did she take you away, only to abandon you? She could have sent you home, or taken you to her father…” His jaws tightened. He shoved back his chair, and stood up. “That was not the woman I knew, son. I swear to God that was not the Maria I fell in love with; or the woman I married.”
Scott was watching Johnny’s face, watching his reaction to Murdoch’s words. There was obvious distress, as if Johnny doubted what Murdoch was saying. And then his expression changed. It was, Scott thought, the same look he had observed on his brother’s face that morning in the Great Room, when the Madrid mask dropped to be replaced by a poignant look of longing and a lost boy’s need to be found.
Murdoch was looking directly at his younger son. There was a single tear in Johnny’s right eye and it was clear he was struggling to maintain his composure. The yearning in his expression was undeniable and heartbreaking, and the look of pleading in his eyes spoke far more eloquently than words.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore, Murdoch,” Johnny whispered, meeting his father’s gaze head on.
Murdoch reached out, cupping the boy’s cheek in his palm. “See to the horses,” he said gently. “Your brother and I will clean up in here, and then we’ll head home.”
Scott watched as Johnny headed out the door. Gathering up the tin coffee mugs and the empty glass jar, he headed for the sink and began pumping water. Murdoch joined him. Neither of them spoke as they went about their simple chores; Scott cold washing the cups and jar and handing them off to Murdoch to dry. He smiled as his father placed the tin mugs back in their proper place on the curtained shelf, the smile growing as Murdoch aligned each one perfectly.
Peripherally, Murdoch saw the smile. “Something funny, son?”
Scott laughed. “Just imagining what it would be like to watch you and Grandfather doing the dishes,” he chuckled. “‘A place for everything, and everything in its place,’” he teased.
Murdoch was drying his hands, his face displaying feigned consternation. “I’m going to assume that was meant as a compliment,” he said, recalling how, as business partners, he and Harlan Garrett had been meticulous in their dealings. “There’s nothing wrong with maintaining a proper sense of order,” he groused. “And you forgot the coffee pot.” He nodded toward the stove.
Scott retrieved the enameled pot. He shook it gently, aware of the subtle sloshing; unsure of what to do with the dregs.
There was the sound of metal dragging against metal as Murdoch lifted the round grate atop the cast iron stove. “Just pour it in here,” he instructed. “We’ll add a bit more water and spread the ash, kill the fire.” He opened the fire door and began raking the ashes with the small scuttle.
Scott followed his father’s directions. Brow furrowing, he decided to – before Johnny returned – ask the question that had been troubling him. “Sir, about what Johnny said regarding his mother…”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. He had expected the question, but not this soon. “That she may still be alive?” he replied, keeping his tone neutral. Finished with his chore, he shut the firebox door and returned the scuttle to it place in the bucket. He chose his next words very carefully. “After your mother died, Scott, I didn’t think I would ever find that kind of love or happiness again. I had given up even attempting to find some way to fill the void of losing her…” his voice lowered. “Of losing you.
“The emptiness was intolerable. And it was much worse after I left Boston with no hope of bringing you home.” When Scott attempted to interrupt, he raised his hand and silenced him. “And then I met Maria.” He took a deep breath, his brow furrowing. Then, shaking his head, he continued. “It was a whirlwind courtship. I was besotted with her.” He faced his son fully. “She had Johnny’s laugh,” he continued. “His same energy and yes, even his grace in the way he moves.” His eyes misted, and he cleared his throat. “The woman Johnny described is not the woman I married,” he finished.
Scott considered his father’s words. “You would have taken her back,” he said, a hint of accusation in his voice.
Murdoch said nothing for a time. “Not if she had become the woman Johnny described,” he finally responded. He took another deep breath, composing himself; and amended his statement. “You know how often he cried out for her while he was recovering from the wounds he received when Pardee shot him,” he murmured. “God only knows why, and in spite of what he’s told us, he still loves his mother. If she were to return, he would welcome her back. And I…we… would have to deal with that.”
Scott was shaking his head. “She betrayed you, Murdoch. And she abandoned Johnny, leaving him to fend for himself when he was just a child. What could she possibly say that would justify any of her actions, even to Johnny?” There was a sharp intake of breath as another thought occurred to the young man. “Murdoch, if she is still alive, that means she is still your wife, with all the legal rights she’s entitled to as your spouse, and as Johnny’s mother.” His voice lowered. “And Johnny hasn’t reached his majority.”
Murdoch considered his son’s words; filed them away. “There’s no point in worrying about this now,” he said. “For all we know, considering the life she chose, Maria could be dead.” He reached out, laying his hand on Scott’s shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze. “Son, I want you to know I never stopped loving your mother.” He touched his chest with his forefinger, just above his heart. “I still carry her here,” his hand moved up as he tapped his temple, “and here. And I always will.”
Surprised at the unexpected change in subject, Scott simply nodded.
A sudden, ear-splitting whistle from beyond the open front door jolted both men out of their melancholy. “I take it,” Scott announced, smiling, “Johnny has our horses saddled, and he’s anxious to get started for home.”
Murdoch shook his head. “He couldn’t just come to the door and tell us he’s ready?”
Scott’s smile grew. What fun would there be in that? he mused, remembering Johnny’s oft-asked question. “Be grateful he didn’t pilfer his pistol from your saddlebags,” he joshed, “and deprive you of ten more years you can ‘ill afford’.” Murdoch was not amused.
The road leading from the small house veered southeast, widening as the three riders cantered down a gradual incline. The landscape changed yet again as they approached the foothills, the large pines behind them giving way to scattered groves of Mexican elderberry just coming into bloom. Honeybees swarmed among the budding white flowers, the constant buzz causing annoyance to the horses, requiring a firm hand.
Johnny, on Murdoch’s left, was closest to the copse of elderberries. Barranca – only recently broken to saddle – was the most fractious of the three mounts. The palomino was mouthing the bit, attempting to dislodge the metal mouthpiece, and tossing his head. Johnny pulled up hard on the reins, forcing the horse into a tight circle to keep him under control as they veered off the trail into the grass.
And then the unexpected happened. Rebelling against the tight rein, Barranca tossed his head and dropped to his haunches. Cursing, Johnny kicked free of his stirrups; just as the palomino backed into a low growing bush. A swarm of bees erupted from the pale blooms, swirling around the horse and rider; the agitated insects going on the defensive.
Barranca squealed in pain. Unmindful of its rider, the horse lowered its head and began crow-hopping across the knee-high spring grass. The series of spine punishing bucks increased in intensity as the animal jack-knifed across the terrain.
Giving up, Johnny let go. He hit the ground and tucked and rolled, ending up flat on his stomach with a mouth full of grass. Spitting, he laid still, cursing loudly in two languages as he regained his wind.
Scott pulled up beside his brother and quickly dismounted. Ground-hitching Cheval, he approached his sibling, and then stopped dead still. “Don’t move, brother,” he cautioned.
Johnny ignored the command, and started to drag himself to his knees. “I got a horse to catch,” he fumed.
“Murdoch’s gone after Barranca,” Scott said, his voice whisper soft. “You need to stay still.” His gaze was focused on a small cluster of rocks to Johnny’s right. It was a den; a small burrow hollowed out of the dirt beneath the pile of stones, and something was stirring. Carefully, Scott reached for his pistol.
Johnny’s expression morphed from one of anger over his horse to a look of puzzled consternation. “You figure on shootin’ them damned bees, Boston, you’re about a day late and a dollar short,” he griped. He pulled himself to his feet.
“Dammit, Johnny, just – for once – do what you’re told!” Scott gestured with his pistol. “There’s a den of some sort, just to your right, and something’s moving.”
Johnny snorted. He turned slightly and laughed, moving in for a closer look. “Jesus,” he scoffed. “It’s a fuckin’ gopher hole!” Bending down, he grabbed a handful of large pebbles at the den’s opening.
Scott’s eyes widened. “Don’t you dare…”
Too late. Johnny began peppering the small hollow with his handful of stones.
It was a small skunk. Even Scott, as he hurriedly backed away, had to admit he’d seen larger ones lurking about the Boston Commons. But, as he knew, (and his brother was about to discover), size did not matter.
The stench was pungent and overwhelming. Johnny’s eyes immediately watered, and he was gasping for breath. Coughing, he stumbled forward, heading in his brother’s direction. “Shoot the damned thing!” he ordered.
Scott complied. It was a perfect head shot. He holstered his pistol and – his left arm extended – backed away as Johnny came closer. Behind him, Barranca in tow, Murdoch pulled to complete stop. He closed his eyes, lifting his right hand to drag his palm across his face. “Lord, give me strength,” he mumbled. He looked down at his elder son, who was now standing next to his left knee. “He’s going to need a change of clothes,” he muttered.
“He needs a bath,” Scott countered.
“I’m standin’ right here!” Johnny shouted, jabbing a finger toward the ground. He started to take a step forward. “I need Barranca,” he said, frowning when his brother and father backed away. “T’resa packed me that damned green shirt,” he fumed. He tugged at the red shirt he was wearing, grimacing at the dampness beneath his fingers. Fuckin’ zorrilla, he swore. The smell was giving him a headache.
Scott moved to stand beside Barranca. He dug into the saddlebag, pulling out the shirt and – to his surprise – a second rolled up pair of trousers that had been stuffed beneath his brother’s belongings. It was the bottom half of a suit Murdoch had tailored for his younger son shortly after they arrived. Scott was certain his brother had brought them along to dispose of them.
Murdoch had dismounted. He was digging into his own saddlebags. Withdrawing a large silver flask, he hesitated, uncorked it, and took a short draw. He handed it off to Scott. “Take a drink, and then toss that to your brother.”
‘Your brother’, Scott thought. How is it Johnny is my brother when he’s in trouble, but your son when he’s charming the entire female population in Green River? He shook the thought away, and took the drink.
“Cap it,” Murdoch ordered. He raised his voice, addressing Johnny. “You take off those pants and that shirt,” he called. “This won’t completely take the smell away, but if you sponge yourself off with the whiskey…” inwardly, he groaned, “… Barranca may at least allow you to ride home.”
Dumbfounded, Johnny stared at his father. His gaze shifted to Scott, the pout forming when he saw the black wool pants and the puke-green shirt. The color reminded him of the droppings of a calf with a bad case of the scours. “It’s Barranca’s damned fault I got skunk sprayed,” he declared. “And he’ll damned well carry me home,” he swept his right hand across the front of his shirt, “and it won’t be wearin’ them damned pants!”
Murdoch laughed. “Barranca won’t let you within a foot of him smelling like that.” Johnny was downwind from them now and the stench was still overwhelming. He cocked his head. “Of course, Scott and I could just ride on ahead and you could follow us.” He made a vague gesture toward the eastern horizon. “It’s not that much further beyond those hills. Eight, maybe ten miles,” he reckoned. He smiled. “I’m sure you’ve walked farther…”
“All uphill, in the rain, in the middle of the desert, carrying his saddle,” Scott laughed.
“You forgot ‘barefoot,” Murdoch said, the corners of his mouth twitching.
Johnny’s cheeks flamed a bright red. “You think this is fuckin’ funny?”
Murdoch pulled himself fully erect. “John.”
The one word was enough to stop a major temper tantrum. Scott stepped forward and made an underhanded toss to his brother; watching as Johnny’s hand shot out to catch the flask.
Johnny stripped. He paused to take a long drag on the whiskey; coughed and spit. And then he dumped the remainder of the alcohol on his head, allowing it to trickle down his face and neck. He did a quick palm wash of his face, arms, and chest.
Scott started to throw the clothing, only to have his father grab his arm. “Throw him this first,” he said, removing the large red bandana from his back pocket.
Grumbling, Johnny did a quick wipe down with the kerchief and then gestured for his brother to toss the clothes. He stepped away from the pants and shirt that were lying in a pile at his feet. The green shirt was the first thing he put on; and then the dark pants. Without underwear, he immediately began to feel the itch. It did not improve his mood. Bending down, he started to pick up the red shirt and his calzoneras.
“Leave them there, son. You can come back for them tomorrow,” Murdoch called.
“No ‘buts’, John,” Murdoch said. “There’s no point in carrying that smell back to the ranch. Trust me, no one – or anything – is going to carry them away.”
Although he wasn’t happy about it, Johnny realized his old man was right; but that didn’t stop him from wanting to argue. And then he saw his dark silhouette on the ground, and realized the sun was beginning its slow decline on the western horizon. “Whatever,” he muttered.
Murdoch pulled back on the reins, a soft ‘damn’ coming as his gelding bunched beneath him, fighting the bit and ready to run. Once again, Johnny had managed to break the etched in stone rule about giving his palomino its head and allowing the animal to run full bore into the barn courtyard. Keeping a tight rein, the older man shook his head. “It’s not been a half hour since I cautioned that boy we were getting close and he needed to take that horse in hand,” he muttered.
Scott was having his own problems with Cheval; the high-spirited thoroughbred-cross dancing beneath him and rearing up a series of short bucks before its rider assumed complete control. They were approaching the ranch from the west, on the road leading into the horse pens just behind the barn. “He’ll just argue he thought that rule only applies when he is coming under the arch,” he laughed. “Perhaps we should just consider it a good thing he’s happy to be coming home.”
Murdoch snorted. “He’s happy to be gaining access to Maria’s kitchen,” he chuffed, nudging his horse forward at a brisk trot. Scott fell in beside.
Johnny had dismounted at a run, allowing one of the hands to take charge of a determined Barranca, already heading for the barn. Johnny had veered in the opposite direction, and was dogtrotting toward the front patio. He stopped dead in his tracks when Teresa bolted through the opening, arms outstretched as she greeted her adopted brother.
“Johnny!” she squealed. “You’re home!”
The girl’s enthusiasm caused the youth to back up; and he held up both hands in an attempt to keep her at bay. She swept across the patio and down into the courtyard, suddenly putting on the brakes and skidding to a stop before carefully backing away. Her brother was in total disarray, wearing clothes she knew he hated, and there was the not-so-subtle odor of something…dead. “Oh, Johnny,” she murmured, momentarily covering her nose and mouth. “Maria is never going to let you into the house…”
Undeterred, Johnny shook his head and took a bold step forward. He could already smell the sweet aroma of caramel flan; somehow even more overwhelming than the savory bouquet of roasting chicken. “Aw, c’mon, T’resa,” he grinned. “It’s been damned near two weeks. She’ll know how hungry I am; how much I missed her cookin’.” Filled with confidence and cocksure of his ability to charm the housekeeper, he kept moving forward.
Teresa’s eyes widened, and then – realizing it would do her no good to interfere – she stepped aside. She was visibly relieved when Murdoch and Scott trotted into the courtyard, and turned her attention to the new arrivals. She greeted Scott first as he dismounted, looping her arm around his elbow as Manuel came forward to fetch the horses; and then rose up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on Murdoch’s cheek. “You’re going to have to save Johnny,” she laughed; giving a backwards nod toward the hacienda’s front porch. Her smile disappeared briefly as her nose crinkled. “That smell…”
Murdoch slipped his arm around Teresa’s waist, laughing softly as the three of them headed towards the house. “Barranca took exception to a swarm of bees, and Johnny ended up flat on his stomach right next to a skunk’s den,” he laughed. “It did not end well.”
Suddenly, an ear-splitting cry of pain erupted from the main hallway of the house, followed by a “¡Jesús joder H Cristo, Mamácita, esa mierda duele! ¿Qué demonios te pasa?” Johnny appeared at the threshold, both hands raised as he backed out of the doorway.
Scott pulled up short. “Oh, that’s going to cost,” he sighed. Maria had absolutely no tolerance for Johnny or anyone else taking the Lord’s name in vain. He watched in awe as the diminutive housekeeper, wooden spoon in hand, pursued his brother into the courtyard.
Murdoch shook his head. “John!”
The boy needed no encouragement. He sprinted across the yard, seeking refuge behind his father’s considerable bulk and begged for mercy. “Tell her the smell ain’t all that bad and it ain’t my fault!” he pleaded. “And that I’m starvin’.”
Murdoch reached behind and pulled his son forward, his hands on Johnny’s shoulders as he turned him around. “Bath house,” he instructed, fully aware his son’s rear end was fully exposed, and Maria was quickly closing the gap. “Now.”
Stubbornly, Johnny stood his ground, intent on arguing. He changed his mind when Maria landed another solid whack. “¡Maldita sea!”
“I’ll bring you a change of clothes,” Teresa called, unable to stop the laughter as she watched her sibling take off at a full run, Maria poised to continue her pursuit.
Scott managed to block Maria’s way, deftly stepping forward and giving the woman a quick hug and a kiss on her forehead before gently taking her arm and turning her back towards the house. “It’s so good to be home,” he cajoled. “I’ve missed you.”
Maria lifted her hand to brush a stray strand of hair from her forehead. “You missed my cooking,” she scolded. She waved the spoon beneath the young man’s nose. “You are no different than your brother, chico.” Her lips quivered as she attempted to hide the smile.
“But I smell so much better,” he teased. His flippancy was rewarded with a quick smack across his own compact posterior.
Teresa raced up the stairs and flung open the door to Johnny’s bedroom. Quickly, she gathered up the extra ‘good’ pair of calzoneras and the white shirt with red embroidery. Then, exiting the room, she made a quick detour to the bathroom; laughing as she grabbed a bottle of heavily scented bath salts.
Bounding down the stairs, she burst through the front door, turning sideways and mouthing a quick ‘excuse me’ to Maria as the woman crossed the threshold. Murdoch and Scott sidestepped, avoiding a collision, and then – puzzled – followed the girl back out into the courtyard.
Scott’s eyes widened as he saw the direction his sister was going. “Oh, no,” he said, quickly following in her wake.
Hands fisted at his hips, Murdoch stood in the courtyard, shaking his head as Scott caught up with Teresa and grabbed her around the waist. He watched as his son spun the girl in a quick circle, smiling when Scott put the girl down and shook a finger at her.
The conversation between the siblings was animated, and there was a great deal of laughter, something conspiratory in their actions. Finally, Teresa surrendered the pile of clothes, and backed away from the door of the bathhouse.
Scott disappeared inside. There was the sound of loud splashing, Johnny’s voice rising above the clamor; and then Scott’s deep laughter as he burst through the door. A large sponge smacked his right shoulder, and he grabbed it before it fell to the ground; turning around and heaving it back into the darkness. There was a loud ‘splat’ as the missile hit its intended mark. The door slammed amid a string of assorted swear words, most of them extremely vile.
Arm in arm, Scott and Teresa crossed the courtyard together. They ambled in Murdoch’s direction, both of them looking extremely pleased.
Murdoch assumed his austere patriarchal stance. “I don’t suppose you’d care to share what just happened?” he asked sternly.
Teresa bit her lip and looked up into Scott’s face as she struggled to contain her giggles. “Just taking Johnny his change of clothes, Murdoch,” she said sweetly. “And Scott was so kind to have delivered them.”
Scott choked back the laughter. “Anything to help out a sister – or brother – in need,” he grinned.
Murdoch harrumphed. “I’m sure we’ll hear your brother’s side of the story at dinner,” he said. “And then I’ll determine what to do about your mutual…sibling kindness.”
Scott was waiting at the front door when a freshly scrubbed and clothed Johnny crossed the threshold. He was smiling, one hand behind his back. “Did you remember to wash behind your ears?” he joshed, reaching out with his free hand to ruffle his sibling’s still damp hair. The scent of Teresa’s lilac bath salts permeated the air. “You know Maria will check.”
Johnny batted his brother’s hand away. His eyes were filled with mischief. “Nope,” he answered, “but I polished the family jewels. Maybe I’ll let her check them out.”
Murdoch has just stepped into the hallway. “For your sake, my son, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” he groused. He nodded toward the kitchen. “Since it’s early, we’re going to be eating in there.”
“Closer to the food!” Johnny laughed, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
“Closer to Maria’s vast collection of wooden spoons,” Scott countered. “I have a feeling you’ll be needing this.” With a flourish, he produced the plump down pillow from behind his back. “Those chairs aren’t upholstered,” he reminded.
“Go,” Murdoch ordered, pointing the way. When his sons moved too slowly for his liking, he placed a firm hand on each shoulder and pushed them forward. “Proceed.”
Scott scurried ahead of his brother to place the thick cushion on Johnny’s chair, winking at Teresa as she stifled a laugh. He pulled the chair out and executed a theatric bow. “Be my guest, brother.”
Johnny’s eyes were on the table; on the abundance of food that was laid out. Two large roasting hens, stuffed with sage dressing and still radiating heat, were at the center; surrounded by bowls of vegetables. The splashes of color were brilliant against the white linen tablecloth, prettier – Johnny thought – than any picture he had ever seen, made more appealing by the blended aroma of the bounty. He flashed Maria a broad smile. “You expectin’ an army?”
“Just you, niño,” she answered, her gaze shifting to Scott, “and your hermano.” She gestured with her spoon. “Sit,” she ordered.
It was all the invitation Johnny needed. Obediently, he slid into his seat, snuggling his butt into the pillow. “Let’s eat!”
Murdoch took his usual place at the head of the table. “I think grace is in order,” he announced, effectively stopping Johnny’s immediate grab for the breadbasket. Then, suddenly inspired, he turned to his elder son. “I’d like you to do the honors, Scott.”
Johnny leaned forward and shot a quick look at his brother, something beseeching in his expression. “Keep it short, brother. I’m dyin’ here,” he whispered.
Clearly surprised by his father’s request (and amused by his brother’s), Scott was tempted to recite a long, tedious blessing he remembered from his days at Harvard, but quickly changed his mind. Rising up from his chair, he went to the shelves above the sink and collected a place setting, and then retrieved the necessary utensils from a drawer. When he returned to the table, he arranged the china and the silverware at the empty place next to Teresa, and pulled out the chair. He called out to Maria. “¿Puedes venir con nosotros, señora?”
Surprised by the request, the woman hesitated.
Intrigued by what was happening, Murdoch addressed the housekeeper. “Please, Maria.” He gestured to the woman, smiling when she accepted the invitation and sat down.
Satisfied, Scott returned to his own seat and bowed his head, his hands clasped just above his plate. “Father, we thank you for the gifts you have laid before us, and are grateful for the hands that labored to make this blessing possible. Bless us all and the home we dwell in. Amen.”
Murdoch swallowed. His son had just repeated the prayer Catherine had recited at this very table the last time they had eaten together. Maria had been with them for that meal, also, and he knew from the expression on her face now, she was remembering, too.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R
The table had been cleared and Murdoch was lingering over his final cup of coffee. He was watching the housekeeper, a smile coming as she took the last batch of oatmeal and raisin cookies from the oven. “Maria, you do know that once Johnny gets a whiff of those cookies, he’ll be in here badgering you for a sample.” He moved slightly as she topped off his cup.
“Not if you take some to them in the Great Room,” she countered. She left the coffee on the table and presented the man with two of the still-warm cookies.
Murdoch added some cream to his coffee and then dunked one of the cookies into the brew. “Perhaps I don’t want to share,” he teased. Then, his tone changing, he looked up at the woman. “You were right, you know. You and Cip. I really did need some time alone with my sons.”
Maria had poured herself a cup of coffee. She sat down. “It went well?”
“Better than I anticipated,” Murdoch answered truthfully. He had been angry when Cipriano and Maria had suggested the time had come to talk to his sons; and had vehemently opposed the idea. He was silent for a long moment, considering his next words. “It was difficult,” he continued. “Telling them things I had kept buried here for so long,” he tapped his chest, “and then wondering if they would believe what I was saying. So much anger,” he sighed.
“Juanito?” Maria asked.
Murdoch nodded. “His mother told him I had thrown them out, that I never wanted him. That I was ashamed of my ‘half-breed’ son and considered him an embarrassment.” He paused to take another drink of coffee, wishing he had dosed it with a healthy shot of whiskey. “Amongst other things.” It was impossible to keep the rancor out of his voice. For the life of him, he couldn’t understand how his wife had called their child a half-breed, or allowed him to think he was unwanted because of tainted blood.
Maria cursed under her breath, and then quickly crossed herself. She had tried very hard to like the woman when the Patrón brought his new wife to the estancia, and had been supportive in spite of the woman’s thinly veiled contempt for the existing household staff. Fully aware of the circumstances of the marriage, she had silently endured the drastic changes that had occurred; accepting the strange and cumbersome dowry that included not only household items but a surprising number of servants, among them Cipriano, Elena, and their family.
The fact her new mistress was carrying the Patrón’s much wanted child had encouraged her to try even harder to make the woman welcome. Even when it became clear La Doña appeared to care nothing for her son, and even less for her doting husband. She dismissed the bitter memories. “How could she tell him those lies,” she murmured.
Murdoch took a deep breath. “God help me, I don’t know; just like I don’t know why she never took him back to her home, to a place where he would have been safe…” The words drifted off.
Hesitantly, Maria reached out and patted the man’s arm. She could feel the tension, could sense unspoken frustration, and debated pursuing the issue. Discretion prevailed. “The important thing is he is here now,” she said. “That he is safe and where he belongs.”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed. He had few secrets from this woman. They had shared their sorrows during the long years he had searched for one son and struggled to reclaim the other; she mourning the death of her own children and the abandonment by her husband. Their mutual despair had brought them together, and – for a time – they had shared a bed and found comfort in each other’s arms. “She threw him away, Maria. She left an eight-year-old boy to fend for himself in a place he didn’t know, and among strangers. What the hell kind of woman did I marry?” Hand trembling, he raked his fingers through his hair.
Maria’s voice was whisper soft. “A woman you loved,” she said. “Just like you loved the child she gave you. You can question the past, learn from it and face its consequences, but you cannot change it. All you can do, with God’s help, is live for today and hope for a better tomorrow.” She stood up, and began piling the cooled cookies onto a plate. “Beginning now.”
What was it about women, Murdoch pondered, that they think the answer for everything is food. And then he smiled. Johnny’s favorite treat when he was a toddler were Maria’s oatmeal raisin cookies. “He’ll be expecting milk,” he said, taking the plate. He fingered the cookies, mentally counting them to make sure there was an even amount, because he knew Johnny would count them, too. “That boy is a bottomless pit,” he breathed.
She returned his smile. “I’ll get the pitcher from the cooler,” she announced. “And the glasses.”
Murdoch entered the Great Room quietly, carrying the tray with the plate of cookies, empty glasses and a pitcher of cold milk. His children – and they were all his children now – were engaged in a spirited game of Rummy.
Teresa had just smacked Johnny’s hand. “You drew two cards, Johnny,” she scolded. “That’s cheating!”
“Only if you’re caught,” Johnny laughed. He pretended to put one of the cards back, deftly palming another.
This time Scott did the smacking. “Nice try, brother,” he grinned. “And don’t forget to make your discard.”
“Jesus,” Johnny sighed. “Didn’t realize I’d been suckered into playin’ with two card sharks,” he accused. He studied his cards, faked a choice, picked another; and laid it down on the pile.
A delighted Teresa swept up the two of spades. She laid out a 2, 3, 4 straight, three sixes – and to add insult to injury – played her ace of hearts on the three aces at Johnny’s right elbow. “I win!” she crowed. “Again!”
Johnny groaned. He was holding two unmatched face cards and a joker. They had been playing for a penny a point, and Teresa now had thirty-five more of his cents to add to her tally. God, he hated to lose; at cards or anything. A petulant pout was forming; as well as a plan for some form of revenge. “How about we …”
“…have some milk and cookies,” Murdoch interrupted, grinning as he stepped forward and presented the tray. “Maria seems to think the feast she prepared wasn’t enough,” he gestured for Teresa to move the cards, and placed the treats at the center of the table, “so she felt a second dessert was in order.”
There was a bemused smile on Scott’s face as he looked up into his father’s countenance. It was clear from the man’s expression he was feeling more than a tad awkward. He toyed with the idea of teasing him, but reconsidered. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Johnny help himself to two cookies with one hand while pouring milk with the other. “She just recognizes someone has a hollow leg, and he gets very cranky at bedtime if his stomach isn’t full,” he laughed. He quickly snagged two cookies of his own, giving his brother a harsh glare when Johnny attempted to move the plate closer to his own place; and a small game of tug of war ensued.
“Stop it,” Teresa said, giggling; worried that the contest would turn into one of her brothers more boisterous competitions. When they ignored her and continued the tug of war, she sighed and rose up from her chair. “Well, I have some things I really need to do before I go to bed. I think I’ll go up to my room and get a head start.” Her eyes narrowed as she held out her hand in Johnny’s direction and wiggled her fingers. “I’ve been keeping score, Johnny. You owe me two dollars and seventy-five cents, and I want it now.” She leaned in to whisper in his ear. “I know you and Scott are planning on going into town tonight, Johnny. I have no intention of waiting another week until I get my money.” She straightened and smoothed her skirt.
“If you’re goin’ upstairs, does that mean I can have your cookies?” Johnny forced a smile, his fingers inching again toward the plate of sweets in the hopes she would forget about the money. Two bucks and seventy-five cents could buy a lot of beer at the cantina in Green River. Amongst other things.
Teresa’s eyes narrowed and she reached out to smack her brother’s hand. “No,” she responded. “I’m going to take my cookies and my glass of milk with me, and when I finish what needs to be done, I’ll enjoy them while I do a little reading before I go to sleep.” Collecting her booty in one hand, she shot a final look at her brother. “And you still owe me two dollars and seventy-five cents.” She held out her free hand.
Murdoch had retreated to his usual place in the large leather chair flanking the fireplace, content to watch his children. He knew from Johnny’s expression that the boy was plotting something. His suspicions were confirmed when the youth addressed his sister.
“How about we toss for it?” Johnny suggested. “Two to one.” He turned to his brother, his voice lowering. “I need my dollar back,” he said, extending his hand.
Scott feigned innocence. “And what dollar would that be?” he asked.
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “My dollar,” he snapped, knowing damned good and well his smart-assed brother was fully aware of what he was asking.
Before Scott had a chance to respond, Teresa spoke up. “Don’t tease, Scott,” she chided, laughing. “You know exactly what he wants. That two headed silver dollar he uses when he’s trying to wiggle his way out of something he doesn’t want to do, or he’s trying to get someone to pay for a beer.” Assuming a pose very similar to Johnny when he was playing the game, she did a soft but credible imitation of his drawl. “‘C’mon, brother, let’s toss for it. You toss, I call. Heads!’”
Murdoch had just taken a sip of scotch and faked a cough to cover up the laughter. “Teresa,” he scolded half-heartedly.
Johnny knuckle punched his brother’s shoulder. “You told her!” he accused.
Before Scott had a chance to reply, Teresa spoke up. “It wasn’t Scott,” she announced. “Tim and Ned told me.
“You aren’t the only one who will do anything for one of my chocolate cakes,” she bragged. Her voice lowered to the point where she was almost whispering. “You’d be surprised what the twins have told me over a piece of cake, and if you don’t pay me right now, I’m going to share all that I’ve learned with everybody.” She dragged out the final word.
Johnny’s ‘get-even’ list was growing. Scott was right at the top for his stupid decision to encourage Murdoch’s desire to ‘talk’, Maria for her constant beating on his ass with her damned spoon, the damned Simmons twins for their big mouths, and now Teresa for her threatened black mail. “Grumpy as you are, you oughta go straight to bed,” he groused. He looked up at the girl. “You go right now, you might get rid of them frown lines with some extra beauty sleep.”
Murdoch’s voice called out from the shadows beside the fireplace. “John, give you sister the money she won. And, Teresa, I don’t want you baking any more chocolate…” his voice deepened, “…any kind of cakes for the Simmons’ twins.” Johnny, he knew, had already engaged in some rather wild misadventures with the two boys, and he certainly didn’t want Teresa plying them for any details.
Momentarily piqued at being scolded by Murdoch, Teresa squared her shoulders and held out her free hand. Johnny made a big deal out of doling out the money – all in small coins – and then added another dig. “Keep frownin’, sour puss, your face will get stuck like that and you’ll be an old maid for sure,” he whispered.
Eyes blazing, Teresa stuck her tongue out at her brother. Milk and cookies in hand, she did a quick about face and headed for the stairs. She paused just long enough to give Murdoch a quick goodnight peck on the cheek and then flounced out of the room.
“That was mean, brother,” Scott murmured, his lips twitching as he fought the smile.
“Yeah, well if the old man wasn’t sittin’ there,” he bobbed his head single time in the direction of their father, “I’d’a popped her under her chin when she stuck her tongue out and made her think twice about bein’ such a smartass.”
Scott reached out to help himself to another cookie. “And we would have been sending for Sam to treat the blisters on your posterior after Maria got finished with you,” he teased.
Johnny was staring at the three cookies that remained on the plate. His appetite had diminished, and his thirst wasn’t being helped any by the milk, which was now lukewarm.
Outside, beyond the open French doors, he heard the good-natured banter of the ranch hands getting ready for their Saturday night in town, and he began to fidget. It was only seven o’clock, and still light enough outside that he could see the crew’s reflection in the leaded glass of the multi-paned doors. “So when you gonna ask him?” Johnny murmured, leaning in toward his brother.
Scott’s cheeks dimpled. He leaned back in his chair, his thumb rippling through the stacked deck of cards. “Who died and made me chief negotiator?” he asked, keeping the words private.
Johnny snickered. “Thought that was your job, you bein’ the oldest and all.” The smile came then. “Ain’t that what big brothers are for?”
“I have no idea,” Scott responded, “since I never had one.” He sighed. Sometimes, Johnny could be so damned annoying. Levering himself up from his chair he reached out grab his brother’s arm. “I do, however, recall reading something about how big brothers are supposed lead by example, teach their little…” he stressed the word, “…brothers what to do.” He smiled. “You’re coming with me.”
Scott looped a long arm around his brother’s shoulder, holding on tight as he pulled him the direction of the fireplace. When they arrived in front of Murdoch’s chair, he was still holding on. “Sir,” he began. “Johnny and I were thinking of joining the crew and riding with them into Green River.” He pulled Johnny even closer. “If, of course, you have no objection to our leaving.”
Johnny was staring up at his brother, a look of incredulity on his face. ‘No objection,’ he fumed. ‘What the fuck?’
Murdoch looked up from his reading. He folded the paper and laid it across his knees, his gaze shifting from one son to the other. It never failed to amaze him, how quickly his sons were bonding.
Well, at least when it came to dealing with him, he mused. They were becoming quite expert at presenting a united front when it suited them. Well, three could play that game. “I thought – after you were finished with your card game – perhaps we could take some time this evening to go over the ranch accounts,” he announced with a straight face. His head canted. “We are coming on the end of the month, and there is the payroll to prepare. Oh, and this is the month for quarterly taxes.” The list was growing. “And we certainly can’t forget…” he levered himself up from his chair and headed for the drink table, pouring himself a measure of Glenlivet “…as treasurer for the Cattle Growers Association, there are the letters that need to go out reminding the members of the yearly dues.” His eyes narrowed as he took a sip of the scotch. “I anticipate with your help,” he saluted his sons with his glass, “we could get those letters out in a third of the time.” He bit the inside of his lower lip to stop the smile that was playing at the corners of his mouth.
Scott felt Johnny tense beneath his fingers, and he kept his arm firmly around his brother’s shoulder. Oh, you are a clever one, Murdoch Lancer, he mused. His father was playing them like a trout at the end of a fly line. “Well, Murdoch, there is tomorrow afternoon,” he cajoled. “From what I’ve observed lately, it’s pretty quiet around here on Sunday evenings and…” he pulled Johnny closer, patting his shoulder, “…I know Johnny and I would be more than happy to help you then.” Wincing, his jaws tensed when Johnny sneakily cow-kicked him.
Murdoch had seen the covert kick. He took another drink. “Is that right, Johnny?” he asked, his tone solicitous. “You would be more than happy to help your brother and me?”
The question was unexpected. Even more unexpected was the sudden tightening of his brother’s grip on his shoulder that set his funny bone tingling. “Ah…sure, Murdoch,” he stuttered. “We could get on it right after lunch.”
Murdoch emptied his glass, a smug grin on his face. Then, feeling generous, he dug into his pocket and withdrew two ten dollar gold pieces. Palm open, he held them out to his sons. “This is the customary bonus I pay the men when we do the spring cull and the branding. Spend it wisely.” As the coins were plucked from his fingers, he spoke again. “Now that Pardee and the trouble he caused are behind us, it’s time we get back to the lives we’ve enjoyed here on Lancer. That means resuming the things we’ve always done, which includes our support of our neighbors, the towns where we trade,” he took a breath, “and the churches in Green River.
“Teresa and I will be attending church in Green River tomorrow. Services begin at 10 AM, and I expect you both to be there.” A stunned silence followed his announcement.
Johnny, for once, was speechless; but there was plenty going on in his head. The last place he intended on being after a night of drinking and whoring was sitting in some damned church. He turned to look at his brother, his eyes speaking volumes. Help me here, brother!
Scott remained silent for a moment as he formulated a plan that would placate both his father and brother. He hoped. “If I could make a proposal, sir,” he began.
“You have the floor,” Murdoch said, closely watching both sons’ reactions to his choice of words.
“What if Johnny and I take a change of clothes with us to town, spend the night…” he tactfully avoided saying where, “…and then join you and Teresa at the church in the morning?”
Harlan certainly taught you well, my son, Murdoch thought. He pretended to be thinking it over. “All right,” he said finally. “Anything to get back to our normal routine.”
Johnny stared up at his father, surprised he had agreed. As for a ‘normal routine…’ well, whatever the hell ‘normal’ was, only time would tell.
Val Crawford was seated at a table in the rear of the Silver Dollar, his back to the wall. He had just finished his usual walk-through at the other two drinking establishments within the village limits, and was now having a well-deserved beer.
For a Saturday night, things were pretty quiet. The outlying ranches were in the throes of spring roundup, the majority of the working cowboys still out on the range. Tonight’s crowd consisted mostly of older hands and field workers, and the green kids just beginning to learn their chosen trades. A scattering of drummers hawking their assorted wares stood at the bar swapping stories, while at the tables the resident gamblers were working their usual cons.
All in all, it was, Val mused, a pretty quite night. And then he spied the Lancer boys coming through the door. “Oh, shit,” he muttered. The last time Scott and Johnny had been in town, they had both drunk themselves stupid trying to test each other’s mettle; like two hounds trying to see which one could piss highest on the barn wall. He’d tossed them both in the holding cell, and sent for Murdoch to sort it out. He laughed. Murdoch Lancer could be a formidable man when on the prod.
“So,” he drawled as Johnny approached the table, “you two take off on the sly, or did your old man fire your asses?”
Johnny pulled out the chair on the lawman’s right. “Nah,” he answered, grinning.
Scott placed the carpetbag on the table and sat down. “Actually, we did such an outstanding job,” he took the ten dollar gold piece out of his shirt pocket, holding it aloft and catching the light of the overhead lantern, “he gave us a bonus and time off for good behavior.” He patted the small valise.
“And pigs fly,” Val snorted. A girl in a pale green dress sauntered over to the table to stand between where the two brothers were sitting; sizing them up. Val snapped his fingers. “Two more beers, Sal,” he said. “The Lancer boys are buyin’.”
“That ‘Lancer boy’ is buying,” Scott laughed. “He owes me one.” He watched as the girl flounced away.
“Like hell,” Johnny swore. “How you figure I owe you one?”
Scott was lounging back in the chair. “You’re here, aren’t you?” He nodded at the carpetbag. “And we are going to be spending the night.”
Val’s right eyebrow rose. There was a story here, and he was pretty sure it was a good one.
“Yeah,” Johnny growled. “‘Cause you told him we’d be meetin’ him and T’resa at church in the mornin’.”
It just keeps getting better, Val thought. “You’re goin’ to church?” he grinned.
“Maybe,” Johnny shot back.
Scott shook his head. “We are going,” he declared. “It’s called ‘compromise’, brother. Murdoch gives a little, and we give a little back.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. He was about to argue when Val butted in.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Val said, eyeballing the youth. “Sure beats the hell out of you and Murdoch buttin’ heads and you doin’ something stupid.”
Sal had returned with the beers. She set the glasses in front of the two young men, waiting to be paid. When Johnny presented his coin, she took her time taking it from his hand; giving his palm a massage with her middle finger before departing. Without touching his beer, Johnny got up from his chair and followed the girl back to the bar.
Val reached out and claimed the full glass as his own. “Hope he knows what he’s gettin’ into,” he sighed. When he saw the question forming on Scott’s lips, he continued, the words coming softly. “She’s new. Word is, she and that yahoo at the Faro table got booted out of one of the tent camps followin’ the railroad, for stiffin’ the gandy dancers. So far, they’re keepin’ their noses clean here, but she likes a lot of attention, and she likes to play.”
“All of which I’m sure Johnny can handle,” Scott said. “At least if I believe half of what he’s told me.” Johnny’s stories of his romantic escapades – shared when he was well on the road to recovery – had been a source of great amusement, and told with great gusto. From his seduction of a sheriff’s daughter to get a jail key, to the highly entertaining story of a farmer’s daughter and a threatened shotgun wedding.
Val snorted. “The kid isn’t thinkin’ with his brains right now, Scott.” He grimaced. “I’ll keep an eye on him, but if he gets out of line or starts actin’ like a smart ass, I’ll throw his sorry ass in jail. And then you can explain it to your Old Man in the mornin’.”
“He’ll be fine once he gets his itch scratched,” Scott smiled. He patted the carpetbag sitting at his elbow. “So where do you suggest I bed him down for the night?”
Val was rising from his chair. “Sarah Townsend’s place,” he said. “She’s rentin’ rooms above the restaurant, and she lays a good breakfast in the mornin’.”
Scott saluted the man with his glass. Sarah Townsend was new in town, and there were already rumors that Val Crawford was paying her special attention. Not that Scott was going to bring that up.
“I’ll drop that off at Sarah’s,” Val offered, pointing to the small valise. He grinned down at the younger man. “In case you’ve got an itch that needs to be scratched, too.”
Scott’s grin matched the lawman’s. “Well, it has been a fortnight since our last trip to town. And as Johnny is always pointing out, a man does have needs.”
Val laughed. “You mean a man has ‘wants’,” he joshed. Picking up the bag, he headed for the door.
Scott had just finished shaving. He was wiping the remainder of the soap from his cheeks, watching in the mirror as Johnny finished dressing. “So what happened after her husband showed up at the door?” he asked.
Johnny was tucking in his shirttails. “Son-of-a-bitch wanted to watch!” His brow furrowed. “Pulled up a chair next to the bed, started tellin’ me what he thought I should be doin’.” He flashed a cocky grin. “Like I need someone tellin’ me how to take care of business.”
Reaching into the valise, Scott pulled out his shirt and slipped his arms into the sleeves. “And that was when Val showed up?”
Johnny pegged his brother with a particularly harsh glare. “No,” he replied. “That’s when the bitch started screamin’ I took advantage of her and hadn’t even paid her. And then her dumb ass husband got pissed and took a potshot at me with his damned derringer.
“And that’s when Val showed up.” His eyes narrowed. “Like he was expectin’ me to get into trouble.”
Scott averted his eyes as he struggled to stop the smile. “Actually, brother, I think he was keeping an eye on the couple. He said they’d been run out of a railroad camp east of here for running a con. And you know how he is about keeping riff raff out of his town.”
“You sayin’ he set me up?” Johnny asked, more than a tad piqued.
“No,” Scott replied. “I think he was doing his job. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.” Reaching out, he brushed a piece of lint from his brother’s jacket. “Maria really did a nice job crafting that coat.” It was true. The dark suede caballero jacket, tailored to Johnny’s slim build, although a more sedate copy of the silver trimmed coat Johnny had worn on his arrival, was perfect. And there were matching trousers. “You look quite elegant, John.”
Johnny was now standing in front of the cheval mirror in the corner, admiring himself. The fact his fancy-dan brother had complimented him made it even better. “Elegant,” he grinned. “Yep. That’s me.” He smiled at his brother’s reflection in the mirror. “You don’t look so bad yourself,” he said. His eyes began to dance. “What did you do with them plaid pants?”
Feigning annoyance, Scott shook a finger at his sibling. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “The rumor at Lancer is you cut them up and added them to Teresa’s store of quilting pieces.”
Johnny laughed. “Well, you know how T’resa is always lookin’ for scraps for her stitchin’.” He sauntered over to where his brother was standing. “You know, anything to help out a sister – or brother – in need.”
Scott finished tying his tie. “How come you can remember every flip remark I’ve ever made, but you can’t remember when I tell you it’s time to go home? Or, in the case of last night, that we really needed to get checked into our room at a decent hour?”
“Well, your idea of a ‘decent hour’ is about two hours shy of when I plan on callin’ it a night,” Johnny retorted.
“I was thinking of Mrs. Townsend, and how it would be extremely inappropriate to come knocking on her door at midnight,” Scott admonished.
Johnny’s face clouded. “Ain’t like I haven’t heard she’s had a caller or two a hell of a lot later than that.”
Val, Scott thought immediately. “You need to quit listening to the local gossip, brother.” He tapped his brother’s right cheek with his flat palm. “People get too much enjoyment stirring the proverbial pot, and usually without good reason.” He tempered the rebuke with his next words. “And speaking of a pot stirring,” he said, “I have it on good authority that Mrs. Townsend lays out a great breakfast for her guests. So why don’t we see for ourselves if that bit of gossip actually has some merit?”
The mention of food brought the usual response from the younger man. He took a deep breath and patted his stomach, producing a hollow sound. “Guess it’d be hopin’ for too much to think she might have some salsa,” he griped.
Scott shook his head and pointed to the door. “Go,” he ordered. “And remember your manners.”
Bareheaded, the brothers were standing at the foot of the stairs leading to the narthex of the small church, awaiting the arrival of their father and Teresa. Although they hadn’t been waiting long, Johnny was getting restless. Scott knew the reason. As the parishioners began to arrive, a number of members failed to hide their surprise on seeing the Lancer brothers standing together and apparently waiting for someone. Keeping his words private, Scott addressed his sibling. “I take it our neighbors haven’t quite adjusted to the fact we’re still here,” he murmured, smiling.
“More like they think we don’t belong here,” Johnny replied bitterly. “Ten to one they all think the old man was loco to sign that piece of paper givin’ us each one third of Lancer. As if it’s any of their fuckin’ business.”
“It’s a small town, Johnny,” Scott responded. “Lancer spends a lot of money here, and there’s bound to be speculation that might change.” He smiled. “I guess they didn’t hear about the part where Murdoch specified that he was the one who was still calling the tune.”
Johnny’s smile lacked any real warmth. “Maybe they figure I ain’t gonna dance to that tune,” he shrugged. Then, in the full throes of pure mischief, he made an exaggerated yet graceful bow as an older woman with two comely daughters passed them by. “Ladies,” he said, gesturing with one arm toward the open church door. He winked at the two girls, laughing as their mother grabbed their arms and quickly hustled them up the stairs.
“You, brother, are incorrigible,” Scott laughed. He sobered quickly as he spied Murdoch’s carriage. “Be good, Johnny. The tune caller has just arrived.”
Johnny looked up, watching as Murdoch expertly guided the small buggy up to the gravel walkway. Scott was already on the move, and he followed him, grinning as his brother lifted Teresa down from her seat.
Murdoch remained in the buggy. He called out to his younger son. “Johnny.”
Wary, Johnny hesitated. He wondered what he had done that his father might be calling him to task for, and unconsciously scrubbed at his pants as if he was worried about being scolded for his appearance. Jesus, he thought. What was it about his Old Man that always made him feel like he was still a green kid who didn’t even have the sense to wipe his own ass. “Yeah?”
“I’d like you to come with me, son,” Murdoch said, careful to keep his tone neutral. He turned to address Scott. “You and Teresa go ahead, Scott. Johnny and I will catch up with you after services.”
Scott’s face betrayed nothing. He turned back to his brother, shrugged, and then stepped away from the carriage; a clear indication he had no clue as to what was going on.
Johnny’s mouth suddenly felt like it was full of cotton balls. Sucking in a deep breath, he stepped up into the buggy and settled in.
Murdoch clucked to the team, turning the carriage slightly to head down the main street. He remained silent, his expression betraying nothing. The only sound was the steady clop-clop of shod hooves against the packed roadway, the cadence increasing as Murdoch urged the horses into a steady trot.
The buildings on both sides of the street began to take on a new appearance; the structures older, some of them resting on the stone foundations from another era. Adobe walls fronted a row of small casas, the yards neatly tended, splashes of color radiating from large flowerpots suspended from the portico roofs.
Johnny had never been this far east of Green River proper. His sorties into town after his recovery had been confined to the shops, saloons and Val’s office; sometimes on ranch business, more often with Scott or the crew when they were let off the leash. He turned to look at his father, started to speak and then changed his mind. The team was slowing to a walk.
A larger building loomed at the end of the roadway, surrounded by higher adobe walls than the ones that had enclosed the small houses. A large wooden gate, wide open, was centered in the wall; and beyond that a fountained garden. At the center of the compound stood a small, twin towered church. Three bells hung in the left hand tower; and in the right, a large wooden cross.
Murdoch pulled up in front of the gate. He stepped down from the buggy, the springs creaking and causing the carriage to rock. “Johnny.”
It was, the boy knew, a summons, not an invitation. Sighing, he scooted over to the side closest to his father and dropped down to the ground.
Murdoch headed for the gate and entered the garden. He waited until Johnny was beside him before her spoke. “This is where Green River started,” he said. “Back in the days when it was first settled and was called Río Verde. The church was the first permanent structure built here,” he pointed to the fountain, “where the first settlers tapped into the underground water source.” He gestured with a sweep of one arm. “All of this was part of a land grant that was later subdivided into four smaller parcels, including the land I purchased from de Velarde.”
Johnny was in no mood for a history lesson. His gut was on fire and it had nothing to do with the tequila he had drunk the night before. “And we’re here why?” he asked.
“There’s someone here I want you to meet,” Murdoch replied. “Father Sebastian.”
Johnny’s posture had changed, and he was kneading the flesh above his left elbow with his right hand. “I’m not all that partial to priests,” he said, his gaze lowering.
“Your mother and I attended this church, Johnny,” Murdoch announced. “You were baptized here when you were six months old.”
The boy’s head snapped up. “Yeah? Well, I don’t remember that, Murdoch. And they could sprinkle me with holy water from now ‘til Hell freezes over, and it ain’t gonna change where I’m goin’ when I die.”
Murdoch’s eyes closed. This was not going as well as he hoped. “Humor me, son. Please.”
The ‘please’ was a surprise and it showed. “Whatever,” Johnny muttered. Reluctantly, he fell in behind as Murdoch made his way around the fountain and headed for the open front door.
They entered the church, hesitating as their eyes adjusted to the dim, candle lit interior. Several people were at prayer in the pews, old women with lace mantillas, two small children and an old man who appeared to be asleep. Kneeling in a small alcove to the right of the altar was a robed cleric, head bowed as he offered prayers before a life-sized image of Nuestra Dama de Guadalupe, the words spoken in Latin.
Instinctively, Johnny’s hand went to the gold medallion he wore around his neck; and just as quickly dropped when he sensed his father was looking at him. Surprised, he watched as Murdoch dipped his fingers in the Holy Water from the vessel beside the door and crossed himself.
They waited until the priest was finished. The man rose up from his knees and turned around.
The first thing Johnny noticed was the man’s red hair and the carefully groomed beard. The next thing he became aware of was the man’s size. The priest was perhaps an inch shorter than Murdoch, with the same broad shouldered frame and bulk.
“Murdoch,” the cleric greeted, extending his hand. “And John. It’s good to see you, lad.” The hint of an Irish brogue was evident in the words.
The voice was strangely familiar, something niggling at the back of Johnny’s mind that caused him to shudder. And yet it was not threatening. He offered his hand. “Padre.”
Father Sebastian accepted the gesture, grasping the young man’s hand in a firm, two-handed shake. “It appears God does listen to my prayers,” he said, smiling.
Johnny’s brow furrowed, and he turned to look at his father.
Murdoch cleared his throat. The next words were difficult. “When you were recovering, Johnny, you began running an extremely high fever. Sam was at a loss of what to do, and no matter what we tried, nothing seemed to help.” He was silent for a moment, not sure how to proceed. “You were slipping away, and you called out…” He swallowed at the memory. “I sent for Sebastian. He gave you last rites. And then he, Maria and Cipriano – all of the Lancer families who attend mass here – held a prayer vigil. Twenty-four hours in, the fever broke.”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest. Often, at night, the memories of that time came back to haunt him; that feeling that his soul had left his body. He remembered that he seemed to float above the bed in some netherworld between Heaven and Hell, watching everything that was done to him. The constant sponging. The desperate attempts to pack his writhing body in ice; buckets and buckets of ice. His room had been filled with people; some real, some phantoms from a past better forgotten.
His mother had come to him. He wondered if that meant she was dead, and then dismissed the thought. She had haunted his dreams even when they were still living together; mostly after she had been cross with him or turned him away.
The priest reached out to him. “Come with me, Johnny,” he said. He exchanged a look with Murdoch, who nodded, and then took the youth’s arm. He led him to the small chapel to the right of the altar. Sitting down on a wide bench, he signaled for the young man to join him.
“I baptized you in this church,” he began, “after your parents decided to not attend the church in Morro Coyo.” He looked around the chapel, savoring its simplicity. “You screamed your head off,” he laughed, “until Murdoch swept you up in his arms and held you.” He leaned into as if sharing a secret. “You promptly…decorated…his shirt. And then you settled down, and stared up at me with those big blue eyes, as if you considered it all foolishness and you wanted it all to be over.” He laughed. “Aye,” he said. “You had quite a temper.”
Johnny averted his gaze. “Murdoch said I had my Mama’s temper.”
Sebastian leaned back against the wall. “She was a beautiful woman, John. But she had her demons, and she often exposed them in ways that would be considered extreme. No, she was no ordinary woman.”
“She ever come to you and make her confessions?” Johnny knew the question was out of line, but he didn’t care.
The priest’s expression hardened. “Your mother never felt she had any need for confession, at least not here,” he answered truthfully. “Perhaps if she had, I could have helped her…” He left the rest unsaid.
Johnny smiled, coldly; and wondered what this holy man would think if he told him he remembered a couple of priests who had offered to ‘help’ his Mama, and it wasn’t to hear her confessions. He winced as he felt the man’s hand on his shoulder.
“You have to forgive her, Johnny.” He nodded in Murdoch’s direction. “For his sake as well as your own.” His tone changed. “God gave you back your life. Don’t throw that gift away, boy.” He pointed a long finger at the sunshine beyond the open door. “That’s where your life is now, in a world of your own making if you choose the right path.” He chuckled. “And with the proper guidance,” he amended.
“I ain’t much for churches, Padre. Not for a long, long time. But thanks for the offer.” His smile was less than sincere.
Sebastian laughed, heartily. “I wasn’t talking about me, boyo!” He turned his gaze on Murdoch, who was talking with Señora Baldemero. “I was talking about your father.”
Johnny turned sideways in his seat and eyed his old man. Much as he hated to think it, the church might be a better option. “So when’s mass?” he asked.
Sebastian stood up. “The door is always open, Johnny,” he smiled. “But I’m a priest, and he,” he pointed to Murdoch, “he is your father.” He reached out and patted the youth’s cheek. “Ve con Dios, niño.”
Johnny knew he had been dismissed. He watched as the padre began to mingle among the parishioners. And then Murdoch gestured for him to join him. Sighing, he stood up.
“So what do you think of Father Sebastian?” Murdoch asked. He took Johnny’s arm and gently guided him in the direction of the stand holding the votive candles. There was a donation box on a lower shelf, and Murdoch took out three twenty dollar gold pieces and inserted them in the slot. He picked up three candles, juggling them in his right palm.
“That’s a lot of money for three candles, Murdoch,” he whispered.
Murdoch simply smiled. “It will be put to good use, son. This isn’t a wealthy parish, but Father Sebastian has managed to keep it afloat for more than twenty years. With our help, he’ll continue to do so. And you didn’t answer my question about Father Sebastian.”
Johnny shrugged. “Didn’t expect to see a gringo priest,” he answered honestly. “He’s okay.” He risked a smile. “Seems to have some pull with the Man up there,” he said, pointing at the ceiling. He stood for a moment, studying his father’s profile. “So how come you and Mama quit attendin’ the church in Morro Coyo?”
Murdoch’s jaws tensed, and he took in a deep breath. “Back then, most of the members of the parish were the old Dons and their families. They competed with each other as to who could make the larger donations, find the most elaborate tapestries, chalices and icons, while ignoring the needs of peons who worked for them.” He turned to face his son. “I wasn’t going to play that game.
“It wasn’t an issue of money – the ranch was doing well and I had other investments – but it was an issue when the priest made it plain our Lancer families were not welcome in the cathedral.” His voice lowered. “There was also some resentment against your mother.” He held up his hand when Johnny started to interrupt. “They felt she had married beneath her social standing, that she had chosen a gringo over a man of her own class. We made the mutual decision to sever our ties with that church, and began attending mass in Río Verde.”
The answer seemed to satisfy the boy. Johnny reached out, placing a single finger on one of the votive candles his father was still holding. “So who are the candles for?”
Murdoch placed the first one in an empty cup. “This one is for Paul,” he replied. He reached up, taking a long taper from a small basket and lighting from the larger candle just to his left. It took a little time for the flame to catch. Then, placing the second one in its proper place, he touched the taper to the wick. “And this one is for the woman I married in Nuevo León and brought back to Lancer.” The flame flickered for a moment, and then suddenly flamed a bright yellow.
He placed the third candle in the votive holder, and handed the still burning taper to his son. “And this one, Johnny, is for you to light for your mother.”
Johnny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Murdoch…”
Murdoch reached out, placing two fingers gently on his son’s mouth. “I’ve realized, son, that I don’t hate your mother. I hate the decisions she made, just like I hate all the bad things that happened to you. But I can’t hate her, Johnny.” He paused. “What kind of man would I be if I hated the woman who gave birth to my son? You were a gift, Johnny, and I will always be grateful for that gift.” He took his fingers away from the boy’s mouth. “Wherever she is, whatever has become of her, I wish her peace.” He nodded at the second candle. “And now it’s time to say goodbye.”
Johnny’s eyelids fluttered against the unexpected tears. His ears ached with the effort of holding them back, but he refused to let them fall. His father’s words echoed in his head. What kind of man would I be if I hated the woman who gave me my son… He closed his eyes for a long moment, another question nagging at his soul. What kind of man, he thought, will I become if I hate the woman who gave birth to me?
Reaching out, he touched the taper to the third candle. The wax close to the bottom of the wick sizzled, and the paraffin soaked cord began to burn. A blue tinged flame at first, flickering as if someone was attempting to blow it out, and Johnny was sure he felt someone’s breath warm against his cheek.
And then the fire burned brighter, pale orange turning to a brilliant gold as the flame grew higher. “Time to let go, Mama,”he whispered prayerfully, hoping that wherever she was, alive or in that netherworld between Heaven and Hell the priests had warned him would be his home for eternity; Purgatorio. “Time for me to let go.” He swallowed against the ache deep in his heart, hoping that she would quit haunting his dreams and they could both finally be at peace. “Ve con Dios”
Murdoch slipped his arm around his son’s shoulder and pulled him into a quick embrace. “Time to fetch your brother and sister,” he said softly, cradling the boy’s head against his shoulder. “And then, son, we’re going home.”
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Kit directly.