The first rays of sun were peeking over the horizon as Murdoch Lancer rose to prepare for the day. His sleep had not been restful and he tried to stretch the tightness out of his back, even though he knew it would not relieve the strange weight that bore down on his chest.
His sons had returned to the ranch two weeks earlier, and had made the difference in defeating Pardee and his men. The big Scot’s pride and joy at seeing them, seeing the men they had become and having them both decide to stay at Lancer, that had been a near miracle to a man who had been alone for so many years. Sure, the days since had not been easy; there were tense and uncertain moments with both boys. But he’d begun to think, to believe, they might become a real family in time.
With Johnny wounded in the battle, Scott began to learn the ropes of ranching first. After a few days of adjusting to the manual labor, he quickly brought a strong mind to the work in addition to a strong back, and displayed a level of perseverance that none had expected from the city-bred son.
The younger boy had a leg up on Scott when it came to the work. It seemed Johnny had taken jobs on ranches several times in his young life, in addition to those where his gun was his calling card. Even with a delayed start caused by his injury, in a few days he’d caught up with the daily tasks and chores of ranching. So far he’d shown little interest in the business end but Murdoch remained hopeful that he and Scott would slowly bring him into that side too. And Scott and Johnny seemed to be forging a tentative brotherly bond. Last night, a week after Johnny had been cleared for a full workload by the local doctor, after a week in which the three of them had worked side by side, his sons had headed off for a well-deserved Saturday night in town. He’d seen them off, riding together as they should always have been, with unexpressed joy.
Murdoch sat on the side of his bed, one boot on, the other in his hands as a wave of fear rushed over him. He attempted to shake it off, pulled the second boot on and stood up, stifling a groan. Scott and Johnny had ridden off together, accompanied by several of the younger hands. The group had returned late and in varying states of inebriation. Sitting in his chair in the great room, he listened to their laughter and overheard Scott quietly suggest someone put a bucket next to Joaquin’s bunk as the youngest, newest member of the crew had apparently not known when to stop drinking. The other men laughed and Murdoch overheard a veteran hand named Hector reply, “Oh, we have much experience with this in the bunkhouse, Señor Scott. We do what we always do, put him to sleep in a clean stall in the barn!”
“I don’t know why I didn’t think of that first, Hector,” Scott chuckled. “Good night, gentlemen.”
Scott had removed his boots in the portico and slipped into the house, intending to go right upstairs but a low light in the great room captured his attention. “Sir?” he’d asked on noticing Murdoch. “Are you… is everything all right?”
“Yes, son,” Murdoch had replied. “I just couldn’t sleep and decided to come down for a drink…. I guess I dozed off.” He looked behind Scott and saw only the closed door. “Where is your brother?”
Scott hesitated. “Well… uh,” he started, then stopped and swallowed hard. “He… decided to stay in town tonight,” the older son slowly explained. “Um, he… met a girl in the saloon and…”
“Oh, I see,” Murdoch responded. He suspected all of the men, including his older son had probably “met” girls in the saloon tonight. But only Johnny had decided to stay the night. His mind raced to find a meaning that was good, or even less worrying but he couldn’t come up with one.
“Was that friend of his, Wes, with him?”
Scott didn’t seem surprised at the question. “Yes…. It’s clear they have a history together.”
Murdoch nodded. “That’s the only reason I hired him. Cipriano and I both have our doubts about how he’ll work out. But… it was important to show Johnny that..., well….”
“I understand, sir. Johnny said to tell you he’d be back in the morning.”
Murdoch nodded again but didn’t respond.
“He’s been used to more freedom… fewer constraints…,” Scott said. “Maybe this is his way of trying to reconcile his new life with….everything that’s changed.”
“Of course, of course, Scott,” Murdoch had replied, recognizing his older boy sensed his concern. He turned down the lamp, approached Scott and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not… worried. And it’s quite late, son. We better both get to bed. Don’t forget you promised to accompany Theresa and me to church in the morning.”
Now it was morning and Murdoch knew Johnny had not yet returned. He’d slept fitfully, waking every time he heard a noise and listening to see if it was his younger son coming home. Despite his certainty that Johnny had not returned, he still knocked on the boy’s door after checking to be sure Scott was awake. Hearing no answer, he entered and looked around. The bed was undisturbed from the day before and the room was nearly devoid of personal items. Unlike Scott, Johnny had arrived with almost no personal effects, only what his saddle bags would hold. Murdoch shook his head and closed the door, wondering how they’d know if Johnny left for good. Wherever he went, he had with him the only things that mattered to him – his horse Barranca, his new saddle, and his gun.
Scott appeared for breakfast dressed in a white shirt and string tie, and then donned a brown jacket for the ride into town. They took the buggy and Theresa sat in back with Murdoch driving the team, and Scott beside him. The two men were quiet, lost in their own thoughts for most of the ride but Theresa chattered to them about things they barely heard. When they arrived in Morro Coyo, Murdoch drove the buggy to the small mission-style church on the other end of town, and the father couldn’t help noting the look of surprise on Scott’s face. He looked over at Murdoch questioningly and the big man smiled back at him.
“Yes, Catholic,” he replied, answering the unspoken question. “When your mother and I arrived, it was the only church in these parts. Well… it wasn’t being used as a church at the time. The Mexican army had taken it over and used it as their headquarters and the jail. A priest came by every few weeks and had to hold services in the saloon. Your mother… made it her own mission to change that. It took months—those were difficult times,” he said, shaking his head, “and the political landscape was shifting constantly. But she managed to convince them to give up the church, and then she talked the bishop into assigning a full-time priest. She raised money to restore the building and replace the stained glass window over the altar that had been shot out years before….”
Scott listened, staring at the building.
“She said God didn’t care about denominations, only that we honored the Sabbath and lived good Christian lives….” Murdoch chuckled. “So even after the church in Green River was founded years later, I kept coming here. The O’Briens were Catholic… and most of our vaqueros too. This became the family church. But if you’d prefer, the one in Green River is—“
“No! I-- I’d prefer the family church,” Scott answered immediately. “I don’t think God cares much about denominations either…”
Murdoch tied off the reins and then turned and slapped Scott on the leg.
Theresa leaned forward from the buggy’s back seat. “Oh, there’s Sally!” she said as she waved to another young girl. Scott swung himself out of the buggy and helped her down, and she hurried off to meet her friend while Murdoch eased himself out of the other side. Then he and Scott walked into the adobe church.
“No matter what, I think your mother is smiling today,” Murdoch said as he removed his hat. “She… didn’t live to see the church fully restored. But the people of Morro Coyo were grateful to her for getting it started. When the church finally reopened, they consecrated it to Santa Caterina in her memory….”
Scott swallowed a lump in his throat as the two men walked up the side aisle toward the front of the church. The sun shone through a stained glass window above the altar as they neared the baptismal font to the right of the altar. Murdoch smiled and touched the rim of the elaborately worked wrought iron stand, surrounding a smooth marble bowl. “Your mother ordered this from back East when she learned we were expecting you. She sold some of her jewelry to pay for it but it took a long time to actually arrive…, several years to be exact.” Murdoch sighed quietly. “Your brother was the first baby to be baptized after it got here.”
Scott drank in details as the two Lancers walked past the altar, trying to picture his mother, young and idealistic, working to restore the church to its rightful use. A plaque on the wall caught his eye. It said the stained glass window had been donated by Murdoch and Scott Lancer in memory of Catherine, beloved wife and loving mother. He was momentarily stunned and unable to move. The plaque looked to be years old. Scott had always imagined his father had forgotten him but… at some point, he had donated this beautiful window to the church on both of their behalf. His mind spun but he put it aside to ask about some future day, blinked back tears, and followed his father into the third pew. Theresa joined them a minute later. The service began with a procession and a hymn in Latin. Scott couldn’t help smiling at the first verse and his father cast him a curious glance.
“All those years of studying Latin won’t be for naught,” the son whispered. Murdoch smiled, and then joined in the singing. Not knowing the words or having a songbook, Scott used the moment to continue looking around the old adobe church. He glanced around at the dark interior, noting painted pictures of Jesus’ passion on the side walls, and then toward the back where he spotted a solitary figure entering the church once the procession had moved to the altar. Head down, the young man quickly genuflected, made the sign of the cross before rising again and stepped into the last pew. The priest had begun speaking in Latin and the congregation replied in unison, the young man in the back pew mouthing obviously familiar words.
Scott Lancer wrestled down his surprise, and then he realized someone else needed to see what he’d seen. He leaned his head close to Murdoch. “Sir?”
Murdoch turned toward him.
“Take a look at the back row….”
His father looked puzzled, but he turned his head to where Scott had directed. He sighed in relief. “Thank you, “ he whispered as he turned back toward the altar.
Scott wasn’t sure whether Murdoch was thanking him or God but the corners of his mouth turned up as he also turned to face forward.
But a little while later his curiosity returned and he glanced back once again. This time he caught Johnny scanning the crowd too. Their eyes locked, and the younger brother fairly jumped in surprise, and looked decidedly embarrassed at being discovered in Church. Scott cast him his best “big brother” warning look, hoping the younger man would understand he could not slip out undiscovered now. But just in case, when the Mass ended, Scott immediately strode toward the back row.
Johnny had picked up his hat and was turning to leave when the older brother appeared next to him.
“Good morning, brother, “ Scott said. “Pretty church, isn’t it?”
Johnny’s discomfort at being discovered was palpable. “Yeah,” he murmured, looking down at the hat in his hands. “Pretty.” He cleared his throat and looked up. “What.. why aren’t you and Murdoch at the church in Green River?”
Scott grinned. “I thought the same thing when we arrived but apparently… this is the family church. It was the only church when he arrived – well, the building was being used by the Mexican Army but—“
Johnny snorted. “Yeah. They’re big on takin’ advantage o’ the Church. All that ‘turn the other cheek’ stuff makes ‘em less likely to fight back.”
Scott eyed the younger brother thoughtfully. “Yes, that’s probably true. Luckily, someone decided to fight back…” He noted the flush that spread over Johnny’s tanned face and thought there was a lot to learn about him. “The building was reconsecrated and… apparently you were the first baby baptized here after that.”
Johnny looked up, surprise reflected in his blue eyes, and then he began to look around the interior of the old church with new interest. It occurred to Scott that there were probably few places to which Johnny was connected in this way, at least from what he’d learned about the younger brother thus far.
“John,” Murdoch said, arriving to interrupt his sons’ separate contemplations. “Good to see you—“
“I was just gettin’ ready to ride back to the ranch,” Johnny blurted, making to leave. “I tole Scott ta tell ya I’d be back this mornin’—
“He told me,” Murdoch cut him off. “But I don’t want you to go. We… the family traditionally stays for a social hour after the service. Maria and Theresa baked, and… well, I’d like you to stay with us.”
Johnny suddenly looked sick, or that’s how it appeared to Scott. The older son realized his brother had not expected to see anyone he knew here and was uncomfortable with the idea of meeting other church members. The priest who had conducted the Mass came to stand next to Murdoch.
“Lovely service, Father,” the big man said. “I’d like you to meet my sons. Boys, this is Father Malone. Father, I’d like you to meet Scott—“
Scott held out a hand and the two men shook. “I’m happy to meet you, Father.”
“And I you,” the priest answered with a slight Irish brogue. “We’re so happy to have Mr. Lancer’s sons among us finally.”
“And this is my younger son Johnny,” Murdoch said.
By now Johnny looked green but he quickly thrust out his hand. “Nice to meet ya, Padre.”
“Good to see you again, son,” the priest replied. “I remember you.…”
“Ya do?” Johnny blurted.
“Of course, John. I came to this church after you were born but… I could hardly forget you.”
Both Johnny and Scott looked at him with open curiosity, and even Murdoch seemed slightly puzzled. When Johnny failed to inquire why he was remembered so vividly, Scott stepped into the breach. “May I ask why, Father?”
“Well, one Sunday, when your brother was about a year and a half, I think….” He smiled at Johnny. “You had only just begun walking, and had quickly moved right on to running—“
Murdoch chuckled. “Yes, that is the truth. From crawling to running, in one fell swoop.“
“This Sunday I was on the altar in the middle of preparing for Communion and your mother apparently put you down for a moment. You took off out of the pew like a bat out of….” The priest stopped himself, and looked a little embarrassed. “Well, let’s just say fast.”
Now Scott was smiling broadly too but Johnny’s face remained expressionless except for the way his eyes had widened and he seemed to be leaning slightly forward, waiting for more information.
“You headed right up the aisle, onto the altar as fast as your little legs would carry you. Your father was still trying to get out of the pew to come after you when you skidded to a halt next to me… and handed me your milk bottle. I guess as an offering,” he said, breaking into a deep laugh. “The entire congregation got a kick out of it as your father grabbed you and slunk off. I tried to give you the bottle back but you wouldn’t have it.”
“I think that was actually the day he stopped taking a bottle, if I recall correctly,” Murdoch said, casting a fond glance the way of his younger son.
“I still have the bottle in the sacristy,” Father Gonzales. “I don’t believe your Papa ever let you out of his arms in church again….”
Johnny swallowed hard, and smiled slightly but he was clearly flustered by the story. “Well…. I don’t remember any of that, Padre. But… well….” His voice trailed off and he looked to Scott for rescue.
The older brother immediately recognized his discomfort. “I heard there is a social following the service,” he broke in smoothly, and Murdoch and Father Malone simultaneously remembered the rest of the congregation was waiting. They moved out of the church to an area under a tree where several tables had been set up, and people were clustered, talking and eating but really waiting to meet the newly-arrived Lancer sons.
Murdoch moved easily through the crowd, introducing Scott and Johnny to one and all. Scott shook hands and exchanged small talk with many people, promising to join several families for supper or tea in the near future. But Johnny merely nodded at each new person and seemed to grow more uncomfortable with each introduction. Finally, Scott took pity on him, partly out of sympathy but mostly because the younger man looked like he might bolt at any moment. He pulled his father aside.
“Sir? I—I think I’ll take Johnny over to the saloon. He looks like he could use a beer—“
Murdoch looked a little perturbed by the suggestion until he took a look at the boy. “Yes,” he murmured to Scott. “I recognize that ‘getting ready to run’ look. Go ahead. I’ll cover for you both here….”
A moment later, Scott threw an arm around Johnny and politely made their apologies to the small group that had cornered him near the food table. “Our father has a small errand for us,” he told them, ushering Johnny away and back toward the heart of the town.
“What’s he want us to do?” Johnny asked.
“Nothing. That was….well, a little white lie.”
“On Sunday, Boston? You just keep s’prisin’ me.”
Scott smiled. “I thought you might prefer a beer to the…. libation of choice offered by the church ladies.”
Johnny offered the first genuine smile of the day. “I didn’t see any of that libation stuff but… I could definitely go for a beer.”
They entered the saloon, and took a seat at the table nearest the door, and Johnny began to visibly relax. It was a quiet time of day, and a little small talk passed between them but no subject of import. Scott thought it would be unwise to press his skittish new brother, and Johnny appeared relieved not to be pressed.
“Ho, Johnny!” a shout came from the stairs. “I didn’t ‘spect to see you back here today!” A new Lancer hand continued down the stairs and approached their table, a bottle of tequila in one hand, and a half-full glass in the other.
Johnny grinned. “Scott, ya remember Wes, don’t ya? Murdoch hired him on a couple days ago,” he said as he pushed a chair out with a booted foot for his friend.
“Yes,” Scott answered politely. “We met briefly the other day before Murdoch sent the two of you off to ride the northern fence line.”
Wes snorted. “Yeah. That was an exciting job…. One that just had to be finished that day, too.” He yawned dramatically.
“He does seem to think every chore is urgent,” Scott answered affably, then he looked at Johnny. “What’s that old Scottish proverb Murdoch quotes so often? “What may be done at any time…”
“Will be done at no time,” Johnny and he finished in unison. The two young men laughed.
“Actually he’s taken to breaking’ it down even more for me,” Johnny continued with a smile. “Get it done today, Johnny. Tomorrow there’ll be another emergency!”
Wes laughed. “Yeah, year ole man is something’, all right. The work never stops on Murdoch Lancer’s spread. Still I never thought I’d see the day Johnny Madrid was broke to the saddle.”
Johnny nearly flinched, but he covered it with another small smile and shrugged as he dropped his gaze to the beer in his hands.
Scott took another sip of his own beer, wondering if it was the image, or the use of Madrid that shook him. “I guess it’s a matter of perspective,” he responded quietly. “Johnny Lancer owns a third of one of the largest spreads in California. That comes with… responsibilities.”
Wes smiled but Scott noticed it did not seem reach his eyes. “Yeah, so year ole man says. So… what exactly where you doing’ while me and Johnny was sweating’ our asses off in the hot sun fixing’ a fence line that never ends? I hear tell you and the patron were in some meeting’ at the bank—“
Scott merely stared at Wes, who quickly looked down and started to pour himself another, surreptitiously eying Johnny from under half-closed lids. “They serve cold lemonade and cakes at that meeting’? Not that it’s any of my business….”
Johnny saw the tension building between his friend and his brother. “Well, to be honest, sitting’ through a bank meeting’ would be worse than running’ that fence line as far as I’m concerned,” Johnny broke in. “How ‘bout a beer, Wes? Maybe you should knock off the tequila after last night anyway….”
“Yeah, you’re right, Johnny,” Wes replied. “I could use a cold one.” He got up and headed toward the bar, but a step from the table, he turned around again. “Didn’t mean ta be unsociable or anything’. It’s just… Johnny ‘n me been watching’ each others’ backs a long time.” He winked at Scott, turned and strode off to get his beer.
Johnny watched him go, and then turned back to Scott. “He… takes a little time to grow on ya but… in a fight, he’s a good ‘un to have around.”
Scott privately wondered if that was really the case. He knew it was true of Johnny but something told him that most of the “back-watching” in their relationship was one-sided. He smiled as he picked up his hat and resettled it on his head. “I better be getting back to the social anyway,” he said. “I rode out with Murdoch and Theresa in the buggy so that’s my ride home. And one of us has to be there to accept all those invitations to tea… See you later, brother.”
Johnny chuckled and called after him. “See, that’s the thing. How many of those people ya think would be inviting’ me to tea anyway? See ya later, Boston.”
Scott left through the swinging doors and Wes immediately took the seat next to Johnny, handing the younger man another beer.
The older man watched Scott through the window until he disappeared down the street, and then he reached out and punched Johnny’s shoulder. “I still can’t believe that guy’s yer brother, compadre,” he laughed. “Talk ‘bout two fells with nothing’ in common. Hard to believe ya got the same ole man. You and him are like diamonds and dirt, huh, Johnny?”
Johnny Lancer stared into the beer he held in his lap, a half-hearted smile his only answer to Wes, and he wondered if that was how his new brother saw it too. A tiny part of his heart tugged at him, telling him he ought to let the older brother, and even the old man, prove it one way or the other. Johnny Madrid always made up his own mind about things and maybe Johnny Lancer ought to follow that same policy. He lifted his glass, drank down the remaining beer, and stood up. “Time to get back to work, Wes,” he said. “Ya coming’?”