A Father's Job
By Cadillac Red
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Murdoch Lancer looked up from his book and studied the profile of his elder son. Scott sat in the chair opposite him, supposedly reading also, but the younger man hadn’t turned a page in half an hour. A while earlier he’d gotten up to refresh his whiskey and since then he’d been staring into the fire and sipping his drink, the unread book open on his lap.
Murdoch sighed. It had been this way for several weeks, since former comrades from the Cavalry had come seeking revenge for what they thought was Scott’s betrayal during the War. It was the first Murdoch knew about his son’s wartime incarceration. He and one of the strangers had been imprisoned together for a year when Scott was the only one of sixteen men to survive an ill-fated escape attempt. His former Lieutenant, Dan Cassidy and two others meant to kill him because they believed he had betrayed his comrades to secure his own freedom. Barely in time to save Scott’s life, Cassidy’s wife confessed that he himself had leaked the plan while out of his head with fever the night before it was to take place. At the time, Scott seemed to have taken it all in stride but… he hadn’t really been himself since.
Each evening at dinner he had an extra glass or two of wine. He’d make small talk with the family but without the genuine interest he usually brought to every conversation. It was one of the things that had surprised and pleased Murdoch when this son arrived from the East, his ability to relate to every one he met, regardless of their station in life.
But something had changed recently; a deep melancholy had taken hold of his son. Each night Scott would have a whiskey or brandy in the great room after dinner, sometimes two, there in body but separated from whatever was going on with his brother and Theresa. Then he’d excuse himself to turn in early. But when Murdoch passed Scott’s room on the way to his own bed each night, the spill of light from under the door said his son was not sleeping. Scott still rose at dawn each day, but there were shadows under his eyes and he would take the most solitary jobs, the ones that promised to keep him off on his own all day. The work always got done but the young man looked exhausted and haunted, and he kept to himself too much for Murdoch’s liking.
Today was Saturday and Scott had refused Johnny’s invitation to spend the evening in Morro Coyo playing poker and “visitin’ with the girls’ in the saloon. It had become their weekly ritual since the two boys came home but Scott hadn’t been recovered enough from his ordeal to go to town the first week after it happened. Last week and tonight, he simply begged off, saying he wanted to finish a book, the one he’d barely glanced at since dinner.
“I’m going to turn in, sir,” Scott said, rising as he swallowed the last of his whiskey. “I’ll see you in the morning.” He started to leave the room.
“No, Scott,” Murdoch said suddenly, not sure exactly what he was going to say next but certain he had to say something. “I’d like to speak with you.”
Scott’s expression turned wary and something shuttered behind his eyes, a signal that his defenses had gone up.
“Sit back down, son,” Murdoch said, nodding toward the chair he had just vacated.
He watched Scott force himself to relax, likely figuring it would be quicker to go along than to put up a fight. “Of course, sir,” he said, taking a moment to refill his glass. “This is the single malt you had shipped from Europe, isn’t it? It’s quite interesting. It has a strong, smoky quality….”
“Peat,” Murdoch replied with a half-smile. He recognized what his first-born was doing but it wouldn’t work. Not tonight. “It is distinctive, isn’t it?”
“Can I get you one?”
“No. And—actually, that’s one of the things I want to talk to you about. You’ve been… drinking a little hard the past few weeks, son. It’s not a cure for anything. Believe me, I know from experience.”
Scott paused, his back to Murdoch. “Well, no beating around the bush, is that right, sir?”
Murdoch didn’t respond and Scott finally turned around to face him. His refilled glass in hand, he belligerently took another sip, meeting his father’s eyes over the rim.
“Sit down, Scott,” Murdoch said again.
“I’d rather stand.”
“I asked you to sit down.”
There was another long pause, and then Scott dropped his eyes, again choosing not to go into battle over such a small thing. But his body language said he was poised for a fight should it be necessary. He sat down in the chair opposite the couch on which Murdoch was seated and took another sip of his scotch. Then he apparently decided to take the offensive.
“Have I been slacking, sir? Failing to carry my share of the load?”
“No, son. You and Johnny both do the work of two men each. I—“
“Then there’s no problem, is there? Arms, legs and guts. That’s what you asked for. That’s what you’re getting. A day’s work for a day’s pay—“
“And if you were just a hand, I’d agree. But you’re not. You’re my son.” Murdoch’s voice softened. “My… my child. If you’re in pain, I’ll do whatever it takes to—“
Scott interrupted him. “Then there’s nothing to worry about, sir. Dr. Jenkins said the wound healed completely—“
“And that’s not the kind of pain I’m talking about,” Murdoch cut him off, his voice insistent. “Something’s troubling you, Scott. I gave it time, to let you handle it yourself but that’s not working. So now I’m stepping in. As your father.”
Scott’s gaze snapped up and met Murdoch’s strong, direct and caring one. “I said I’m fine, sir,” he said quietly but firmly, his underlying message that it was too late for the other man to start trying to be a father. “Your concern is unnecessary--“
“And I disagree, son. You haven’t been yourself since Cassidy and the others were here. Their… visit must have resurrected some bad memories—“
“No. It all happened a long time ago. It’s best forgotten…. Thank you for asking though, sir.”
Murdoch sighed internally. Most people would have expected Johnny to be the more difficult son to deal with. But to his surprise, Murdoch generally understood his younger boy because they shared the same temper. It flared, then passed and in between Johnny lived in the moment, his heart open and accessible to those he loved.
Scott was more reserved and almost always kept his own counsel. He participated fully in the business of the ranch and he had put his life on the line for Lancer and his family without hesitation. He was developing a strong, affectionate relationship with his younger brother that made their father smile every time he saw them together. He’d lowered his personal barriers some but at times, like this, they went back up at a moment’s notice. Tonight, Murdoch realized, he was treating his father like a respected senior officer, a tactic meant to keep him at arm’s length.
“Son, that’s not how it looks from over here. I think you need to talk about what happened-“
“I was debriefed when I reached a Union outpost, sir. And again, in the hospital in Washington, DC.”
Murdoch nodded. “Of course. I’m sure you gave them the benefit of whatever intelligence you could provide about the prison, and the territory you covered during the escape. And you know damn well that’s not what I’m talking about, Scott!”
The younger man’s eyes widened at the sharp tone his father had taken with the last statement, recognizing right away that he had miscalculated Murdoch’s worry. Usually the older man would ask a question and then back away when Scott politely demurred. Something different was going on tonight and all his instincts told him to put an end to it now, before…. He swallowed hard. “I just don’t see any point in dredging up the past, Murdoch. As you once said, ‘bad or good, right or wrong, it’s past and gone.’ It’s best to just let it go.”
Murdoch winced, as though it was painful to hear his own words repeated. “I recall making several foolish statements that day. It was not… one of my finer moments.”
“It turned out all right,” Scott responded quickly. “And I share your sentiments about the past. It’s in the past. Best to leave it there.”
“Well, I was wrong when I said that. And it’s even more wrong now. We’re family but still strangers in many ways, son. I take responsibility for that, with you anyway. I could have… no, I should have found a way to bring you home. I owed you that but I failed to be a father to you then. But hear me, Scott. I won’t let that happen now. I need to know about the important things that happened to you, things that make you the man you are now. Since you’ve been here, you mentioned serving in the Cavalry but not a word about a year in that prison camp….
“Why would you care?” Scott answered angrily. “The ranch is safe. That’s what you wanted from us. And I’m still here. Working my ass off. That ought to be enough.”
“You can bite back at me all you want, son, but it won’t put me off. This is bothering you, far too much and for far too long. You need to talk with someone, and I’m the one. I may be new to this, but I know it’s a father job to be there for his children when they’re hurting down to the soul.
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I understand. I’m overruling that decision, son.”
“Because you call the tune?” his son retorted.
“No. Because I’m your father, and I love you,” Murdoch said firmly. “I won’t stand by while you’re hurting, even if you want me to….”
His words shook Scott. He bowed his head, suddenly too tired to keep fighting. “It’s not a… a pretty story,” he said quietly. “Not the kind of thing that would … make a father proud to hear.”
Murdoch leaned forward. “Scott, I’m proud of you no matter what you tell me about this or any other experience you’ve had. Every man faces hard times. Some times we make the right choices about how to get through those times. Some times we don’t. The true test of a man’s character is how he goes on even after a bad choice.” He laid a hand on Scott’s knee and gently squeezed it. “I… I know now that leaving you with your grandfather was not the right decision. I made a mistake. But I won’t let that mistake keep me from doing the right thing now. From the minute you and your brother walked through those doors the first time, I… I’ve been trying to be the father I should have been all those years. And nothing you say will change how I feel about you, son. Nothing.”
Scott swallowed down a lump of emotion that rose in his throat. He wasn’t ready to hear this from Murdoch. He silently thought that he might never be ready to share this story with the big man. He hadn’t told anyone more than the barest details except to report to his superiors when he finally made it back. But something inside was pushing him to tell it to this man, his father, to unburden himself to someone who would love him anyway. His fears were speaking to him also, though, arguing that no one would respect some of the decisions he made at that time.
“Scott….” Murdoch’s voice was insistent.
The younger man nodded almost imperceptibly and slowly exhaled. “It was hell on earth, the prison. Freezing cold in the winter, sweltering hot in the summer. Not enough room for the number of prisoners, not enough blankets, not enough food. Hardly any that hadn’t already gone bad. And the guards were brutal. They… they set up situations that would cause dissension in our ranks and they got it. Sometimes they bet on the outcomes. As things got more and more desperate, some of the men started turning on each other over stupid things like who got to sleep near a window, or how large a piece of bread someone got. The weaker, sicker men’s food often got stolen by someone bigger and stronger.”
Murdoch shook his head as he listened. Scott was one of the most fundamentally decent people he’d ever met. It was hard to imagine how he would deal with such a situation.
“Dan Cassidy thought we needed to do something, to give a sense of purpose to our men, and maybe some hope. We didn’t get much news about the war in the prison and what we got was censored by the Confederate warden. It didn’t sound like the Union was winning and we all felt so helpless being out of the fight. So Dan cooked up this idea of an escape plan. We worked on it together. It was a good plan but… risky.”
Scott was staring into the fire again. “Timing was critical. We needed a moonless night so we’d have to wait another month if we missed the date. And winter was coming, which would make it harder for the men to survive in the elements if they managed to make it out. When Dan fell sick, he said we had to go anyway. He ordered me—no he begged me—to take the lead in his absence.”
Murdoch tapped his son’s leg, to capture his attention back. “Scott, I’ve been wondering something since I heard the bare details from Cassidy’s wife. There must have been more senior officers there than you. Why didn’t one of them take over?”
Scott nodded. “I thought the same at the time. I—I prayed someone would step forward. But they all thought it was too risky. So then it was up to me. A couple of the original group dropped out but fifteen of them put their trust in me and—“
“You didn’t know Cassidy had betrayed the plan, son.”
“No,” he agreed sadly. “I didn’t know. So we followed the plan to the letter and walked right into a trap. It was dark and deathly silent, and chilly that night. I was the first out and they waited for almost everyone to get outside the wall before they started firing. I—I couldn’t understand why… I mean, they could have rounded us all up, marched us back inside and punished us. But they—they just opened fire on unarmed men. I saw an opening in some bushes and tried to pull the next man with me. He was young, a kid of maybe sixteen or seventeen, bigger than me but paralyzed with fear. I grabbed his shirt and tried to pull him but he ran back toward the prison instead. Then a couple of shots hit him and he dropped to the ground. I ran for the cover and no one saw me go in all the confusion. So I just kept running. I left them all behind…” His voice broke and he stopped speaking, to try to regain control.
Murdoch laid a hand on his knee. “Scott, what was the alternative? Walk into a hale of bullets? And die too? You said yourself you were unarmed. No sane man, no soldier, would have made that choice.”
Scott’s head was bowed but the older man could see him blinking back tears. Finally, he was able to continue. “I made it to the other end of the camp where the supplies came in. Almost all of the guards had gone to see what the shooting was about. I saw an empty supply wagon and found a way to hide myself in the undercarriage. I knew they’d do a headcount and find out someone was missing. Then they’d be looking for a man on foot. I figured if I could hang on until the wagon left again, I’d get away from the camp.”
“That was good thinking, son.” It struck Murdoch that this boy of his was a constant surprise. Johnny had once remarked that Scott was different than any other Eastern dandy he’d ever met. It had made Murdoch smile at the time but tonight he realized the full truth of it. There was a backbone of steel in him, even at a young age.
Scott released a long, shaky breath. “It seemed like a good idea at the time…. Until they drove the wagon back to the yard where they ambushed us. I thought… I thought they had figured out where I was and were just toying with me. Instead, they used the wagon to load up the bodies of the men they’d shot. I could tell at least one was still alive when they threw him on the wagon because someone fired another shot and then he stopped making any more noise. Their blood…,” he swallowed hard again, “it dripped through the wagon bed onto me.”
Murdoch’s gut clenched at the image, and the sad resignation in his son’s voice as he recounted the scene.
“I guess you can see why I don’t talk about it, sir,” Scott said firmly, reestablishing a tenuous control. “It’s not something anyone wants to hear.”
“You’re right. Except that I’m not anyone. I want to know because it happened to you, and you’re my son.”
Scott shook his head. “I’m sure you’ve heard enough, sir,” he said, beginning to rise again. “I made it out. That’s what counts, right?”
“Sit yourself back down,” Murdoch said, investing his words with every ounce of paternal authority he could muster. “I’ll tell you when I’ve heard enough.”
“I may need another drink then.”
The father recognized he was being tested and bit back a smile. “I’d rather you didn’t. I’ll get coffee if you want. And you didn’t have any of the cake earlier. I know Theresa saved you some.” His normally lean son had lost a few pounds in recent weeks, another troubling sign that had been weighing on Murdoch’s mind.
Scott shook his head. “No. Thanks.” He glanced at his empty glass, and then put it down.
Murdoch took that as a good sign. “Tell me what happened next, son.”
Scott sighed and sat back in his chair. He laid his head against the seatback and closed his eyes. “A while later they moved the wagon again. There was a field nearby where they buried the dead from the prison. We got there eventually and when they were removing the bodies, I slipped off in the dark. There was a creek nearby and I waded downstream so there wouldn’t be a trail to follow. It was chilly but I stayed in the water as long as I could. About an hour, I think. When I finally crawled out, I was colder than I’ve ever been. It was almost dawn. I holed up in a cave but I didn’t want to chance building a fire so I just lay down and slept.”
“You made good decisions, son.”
Scott nodded. “Yes, that’s what the officer who debriefed me said. I don’t even remember making a decision, I just went on instinct. The next night, after dark, I started walking again. There were enough stars for me to figure out which way was north and I headed northeast, or as close as I could get anyway. I had no weapon and I was in enemy territory so I just tried to avoid seeing anyone. I walked all night, and found a place to hide the next day.”
“The next night, I hid out not far from a Confederate camp. They had their horses watering at the creek while they slept. I… I waited until the soldier on guard duty dozed off and I stole a horse.” He laughed humorlessly. “I stole a horse, Murdoch. They hang men for that out here.”
“Different time, different circumstances, son.”
“That young soldier probably got busted down to stall mucker. But I needed a horse. I couldn’t walk any further. I rode all night till close to daybreak. I was… I was starving. They didn’t feed us much in the prison and I hadn’t eaten in two full days. I saw a farmhouse in the distance with smoke coming out of the chimney. And a barn. I—I decided to try my luck again, see if I could steal some food. I let the horse go because I was afraid someone would see it tethered and wonder how it got there. Then I broke into the kitchen and started rummaging for food. About a minute later, I heard horses and voices…..” He laughed again, but it was a hollow sound. “Seems that I had picked the house where the local Confederate force was residing, at least the officers were.”
Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat with fear.
“I heard people approaching the house so I hid in the pantry just before the officers and the lady of the house came in. She was going to fix them breakfast. I was scared, Murdoch. Really….scared. I started thinking about how I would just make a run for it, let them shoot me. I was so… so tired and hungry and… and I just couldn’t go back to that prison.”
Murdoch’s eyes misted at the forlorn tone in his son’s voice.
“I never thought I was a coward before that day. But I was so … ,” he paused for a moment, shaking his head. “I was ready to take a coward’s way out.”
Murdoch swallowed hard. “Scott, being afraid is not cowardice. Being afraid, and going on, that’s the very definition of courage in my book. You didn’t do anything to be ashamed of. And thoughts – are just thoughts.”
Scott looked up in surprise, and his gaze met Murdoch’s. The older man’s eyes reflected nothing but concern and love. He felt his own eyes brim eyes brim with long unshed tears.
“What happened next, son?”
“The lady came into the pantry for something and she saw me right away, cowering in the corner. I must have looked a fright. Skinny, dirty…. I put my finger to my lips and silently pleaded with her not to say anything. All she would have had to do was say one word but… she didn’t. After the officers had their breakfast and left, she brought me eggs and hot biscuits. It was… the best meal I ever had, no disrespect to Theresa and Maria.”
Murdoch smiled. It was good to hear Scott’s normal politeness emerge for a moment.
“Her name was Annalee Albright. She hid me out in her root cellar for a few days, feeding me and letting me build up my strength. She’d lost a husband and two sons to the war, and her youngest was in a Union prison camp. She said I reminded her of him. And that she hoped, in a similar circumstance, some northern lady would help him.”
Murdoch sent a silent prayer of thanks to the lady, wherever she was.
“I think I slept for twenty-four hours straight in that cellar once I knew I could trust her. It was the first decent sleep I’d had in…. in a long time.”
“How did you get back to Union territory from there, son? Sounds like the location was a Confederate stronghold.”
Scott nodded. “I stayed with Mrs. Albright for three days, just getting my strength back. I was trying to figure out how to get out when she came to me with a plan.” He smiled. “She was… quite a lady. Said she didn’t like either side very much. The war had split her family, two of her sons had fought for the North and her husband and youngest boy with the South.”
“That had to be heartbreaking for a parent, to have your sons fighting on opposite sides in a war.” Murdoch shook his head, contemplating the pain of such a situation.
“On the fourth day, she was planning to go for supplies. She said they never looked in her buckboard as she left so I hid in the back of the wagon. She covered me with some old blankets and baskets and flour sacks. And drove me right past the Confederate guards and through their camp.”
Murdoch swallowed hard. “She… was a very brave lady.”
“Yes, she was,” Scott said. “She is, actually. When the war ended, I looked her up and found she wasn’t able to keep the farm going on her own. Her youngest son died of fever in the prison camp and she just couldn’t rebuild alone. She moved to a local town and was working as a seamstress. I… introduced her to the grandmother of an old school friend who needed a traveling companion. They’ve been touring the world ever since. South America, last I heard.”
Murdoch smiled. Leave it to Scott to go back and return the favor this fine lady had done for him.
“How much longer did it take for you to get back to a Union camp?”
Scott’s smile faded and he swallowed hard. “Mrs. Albright left me outside the town and I started walking north again. I stopped and hid after a while because there was much more activity in that part of Virginia. I started walking again at dusk. A little while later, I stumbled into a clearing where two Confederate soldiers were setting up their camp. I… I didn’t hear them and just walked right in on them. They were couriers and one turned out to be a young soldier who had worked at the prison camp for a while. He and I got to be a little friendly, talked about where we both came from, things like that. He was only 16 when I met him the year before. He… recognized me right away and reacted. The older soldier pulled his gun on me and said they were going to take me back. He asked the younger one, Will was his name, to tie my hands. I… I took advantage of his lack of experience and knocked him down, then I managed to get the gun from the older soldier. He pulled his saber and I—I shot him. Then Will got his gun out and--- well, let’s just say I couldn’t talk him out of shooting me. He wasn’t a very good shot, and his hands were shaking so he just nicked my shoulder with his first try. But then he was preparing to fire again and I-- I… I killed him. I didn’t want to but….. He was just a kid, Murdoch. Maybe seventeen….”
Murdoch remained silent as Scott told this part of the story. He could see the younger man was underestimating what it took to prevail against two armed men with nothing but his wits and fists. He leaned forward and rested his hand on his son’s leg once more. Scott was startled by the touch and Murdoch saw his eyes were clouded with pain and regret.
“And how old were you, son? Nineteen?”
Scott shrugged, rejecting the attempt at comforting him.
“It was a war, Scott,” Murdoch said gently. “You did what you had to do, you did your job.”
Scott took a deep breath and released it slowly. “I—I stole one of their horses. And I took the uniform off the older soldier and both of their courier packs. It—it made it easier to pass through the Confederate held territory between there and northern Virginia. I finally made it to a Union camp a day and a half later. They didn’t know I was on their side at first but luckily an old neighbor from Boston was in the officer contingent. He recognized me. It turned out there was correspondence in the courier packs that helped turn the tide on a major battle the next week. They gave me a medal…,” he whispered, shaking his head, and his voice trailed off as he choked back a sob.
Scott looked up into Murdoch’s eyes, searching for the judgment he expected to see in them. But all he saw was his father’s pride, and his love. Surprised, he let down his guard without conscious thought. Hot tears spilled out of his eyes and began to run down his cheeks. Embarrassed, he tried to wipe them away but then Murdoch’s large hand cupped the back of his head and he was pulled into a hug. He stiffened momentarily, then some primal instinct took over and he relaxed into the big man’s arms and let the tears come. They stayed together, silently, for several minutes, locked in an embrace that had taken twenty-four years to happen.
When Scott regained control, Murdoch rubbed his back gently for a moment, and then patted his shoulder. “I’ve been proud of you every moment since you walked through that door, Scott,” he said gently. But never more than today.” He stood up and laid a hand on his son’s golden head. “I’ll go get us some coffee, son.”
Murdoch walked into the kitchen, stopping for a moment to regain his own composure. His hands shook as he gathered cups and the coffee pot and put them on a tray. He’d imagined some terrible things had happened to his younger son over the years that they’d been apart. But he’d always thought that his older boy had lived a charmed life, safe in the protective arms of his grandfather, enjoying the fruits of that gentleman’s success and prosperity. He’d never considered… no, never dreamed that Scott had experienced things so horrific most men would not have survived.
In the living room, Scott took several deep breaths and decided to head for bed before Murdoch returned, hoping his father would understand why he needed to be alone. But a sound from the entry way startled him before he even rose.
“Hey, Scott,” his brother drawled lazily as he hung his hat on the rack near the door. Then he unbuckled his gun belt and did the same with it. He sauntered into the room and threw himself onto the couch in apparent disgust.
Scott hoped fervently there was no evidence in his face of his earlier emotional storm. “What—what brings you home so early?”
“Yes, Johnny,” Murdoch boomed from the doorway to the kitchen, drawing the younger son’s attention. He held a silver tray in his hands. “Did you forget the way to town?”
“Nah, there’s nothing much goin’ on in Morro Coyo tonight,” Johnny said. “There weren’t many people around.”
Murdoch placed the tray on the table, biting back a smile. He’d lived here since before these boys were born, and there never had been a Saturday night when the hands from the local ranches weren’t in town. He suspected there was only one person missing and for Johnny, that made all the difference.
“I thought the Bar T hands and some of our men were having a big poker game,” Scott said, his curiosity piqued. “That should’ve interested you. And brought a lot of fellows into town to watch!”
Johnny squirmed uncomfortably, but then he noticed what was on the tray. “Is that the chocolate cake left from dinner?”
“Yes, it is, Johnny,” Murdoch chuckled. He lifted a tall glass of milk and handed it to his younger son who looked up in surprise.
“I heard you ride in,” Murdoch answered his unspoken question. He handed Scott a plate with the biggest slice of cake, gave the next to Johnny and then helped himself to one also. Then he sat down on the couch next to his younger son. “Scott and I were just reading.”
“Readin’, on Saturday night? Well then, you must be ready for some fun then.” Johnny looked at Scott hopefully. “How ‘bout a game of checkers, Boston?”
Scott smiled at his brother, the first genuine smile Murdoch had seen from the younger man in weeks. “I’ve been thinking it’s time to teach you to play chess, little brother.”
“Chess, huh? Like you and Murdoch? It don’t look too hard,” Johnny said around a big bite of chocolate cake. “I’ve been watchin’ and I think I figured it out-- mostly.”
“Great. Then you set up the board and let’s get started.”
“Oh. Well, I’m not exactly sure where all those different pieces go…..”
Scott chuckled. “I’ll show you. It’s about time I started teaching you some things. From what I hear, that’s a big brother’s job.” He caught Murdoch’s eye with a quick glance that communicated volumes. “You get the board while I finish my cake.”
Johnny rose immediately and went to the shelf where the chessboard and pieces were kept. “You want to play too, Murdoch?”
“No, son,” the older man said, settling back onto the couch after pouring a cup of coffee for Scott and one for himself. He took a sip and smiled at his younger son. “I’ll just keep an eye on you two. From what I hear, that’s a father’s job.”