It had taken them nearly a week to get the grain harvested—with more than enough left over to sell. A wry grin tightened his lips, there'd been so little last year. Murdoch straightened, grinding his knuckles into the small of his back. The squeaking of the pump handle dragged his attention from the burlap bags neatly lined up against the back wall of the barn.
Outside, Paul was filling a tin cup at the pump. The ranch dog ambled over from the corral with a stick in his mouth, but the foreman wasn't in a throwing mood.
"Morning, Paul. It'll be good to get rid of that grain to make more room."
"Murdoch. You look like you got some sleep last night."
"Did I look all that done in?"
Paul smiled. "You were moving on sheer determination and not much else for the last week."
The work was necessary as expenses piled up. Trips down south and the one back east had taken a bite out of his bank account. He looked around: the hills were dry, the color of old gold, ruffled with lines of grape here and there. The thought occurred to him that he could take another ride to San Diego where the lead on Maria had gone cold, before winter actually set in.
A wagon drew up in the yard.
It was Santee, coming to collect his grain. The dog stood off a few paces, yapping and making quick runs at the horses' hind hooves.
"Enough of that! Get away!" Murdoch grabbed the stick and let it fly over the corral gate. The dog scrambled after it, the strange wagon and its occupant momentarily forgotten.
Santee set the brake and slipped down from the seat. He suddenly yelled out, "Peter stay in the wagon!"
Murdoch wheeled around and grabbed the elbow of a thin young boy, all of six or seven, before it could clip him in the stomach. Blond hair had grown out from a short cut, his freckles stark brown against paler skin. Murdoch's heart gave a little bump.
"What do you say, Peter?" Santee prodded.
"Sorry, Sir." His voice dropped a little with disappointment. "I thought we could play with your dog."
Santee trotted over, "Boy hasn't grown into his arms or legs yet, Mr. Lancer."
"No damage done."
A second child tumbled out of the wagon bed, running full tilt in that lopsided way only children or drunks could manage. This one was younger by a few years, darker of hair. Murdoch bent down and scooped him up, smelling the sweet-sourness of sweaty, laughing boy.
Peter's smile faded, hands fisted at his sides. "Let him go."
Murdoch put the child down. "No, it's all right. I should have asked first. Didn't mean to cause a problem."
Santee tucked an arm around the eldest boy's shoulders. "Take your brother and sit in the wagon."
"I don't mind if they play with dog. The fact is, he's partial to stick throwing and can't get enough of it."
The idea seemed to delight Peter. His eyes shone in the sunlight. "Can we?"
His voice was so full of childish excitement and wonder that Murdoch smiled for the first time in he didn't know how long. There was nothing forced about it, nothing feigned. It felt good, and wrong, and guilty. But it was a smile, and Peter looked at him like playing with a dog might just be the greatest thing that had ever happened.
"Wait a minute." Santee dropped to one knee, doing up the buttons on the dark-haired boy. Murdoch remembered there were a lot of doing them up and getting them undone with little boys. Every time he turned around, Johnny would have another one loose. He used to think the boy was doing it on purpose.
Santee waited until the children were with Paul and the dog.
"My wife died late last year, and Peter has taken to protecting his brother. I found him making toast on a kitchen stove he can't see the top of yet. Davy started crying the other night, and by the time I got there, Peter was already out of bed, rocking him like a twenty year old little man."
Santee shook his head. "I don't understand them half the time, but I don't know what I'd do without them, either."
Murdoch could only see Catherine's death as it had been replayed for him, staring at her grave marker, horrified, knowing how it ended. Scott was the memory of a five year old: blonde hair and laughing grin, shiny shoes and starched collar, the images diffused through remorse and guilt. Given Harlan's machinations, he thought he did the right thing at the time. But now it wasn't so clear.
He tried to imagine his life before Maria took their little boy. The smell of her perfume wasn't something he could easily conjure, but that didn't stop Murdoch from wondering if the gambler she left with liked it, too. Johnny was an easier memory, but one centered on promises and failure.
He missed both of his sons with a fierce ache.
His mind balked. He closed his eyes to hold back everything, and it stopped nothing. Cautiously, he opened them again, realized his heart was hammering too hard.
"I'm sorry Santee, but the grain isn't ready."
He could see Paul's head jerk up in confusion.
"You said you'd have ten bags ready for me to pick-up today."
"Ten," the younger boy repeated, holding up both hands and not enough fingers.
"We just couldn't get it done in time."
Lines of irritation formed on Santee's brow. "When will it be ready?"
"Wednesday. We can have it done by Wednesday. With an extra two bags for your trouble."
Santee huffed out a sigh. "Then I'll bring payment on Wednesday, too, not a day before. Come along boys, we're leaving."
Murdoch nodded and watched Peter herd his brother into Santee's waiting arms, how all three sat close together on the box seat when their horses picked up speed going out of the yard.
He felt Paul beside him. "Those sacks of grain are stacked right there in the barn. Why'd you tell him we didn't have them?"
It was ridiculously immature, Murdoch knew, but he was feeling stung. Santee would bring the money on Wednesday, but those children were too young to leave alone at the house—he would have to bring them, too.
- In Absentia: Latin for 'in the absence' or 'while absent'