Forty Years Ago Today
By Cadillac Red
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
I’ve been seeing a lot of notes on the Lancer lists about this year being the fortieth anniversary of the show. It made me wonder what the characters might be up to on this anniversary.
It would have been hard to miss the two handsome men even if they hadn’t arrived in town in the motor car that had captured the attention of the local citizens on its arrival several months earlier. Automobiles were becoming common even in this ranching stronghold but this was far more. A Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, it had been a birthday present from the older of the two gentlemen to the younger on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday.
The family had been in these parts for sixty-five years, and in California that alone made them unusual. But this particular family had made an impact in countless ways. The father, the original settler, had been gone almost ten years now but he’d built an immense ranch that prospered and grew through hard work and a deep and abiding commitment to the land and the people of the San Joaquin Valley. He’d arrived before statehood and lived to see the beginning of the new century before dying peacefully at home, surrounded by his sons and daughter and their children.
The sons were older now than their father had been when the two arrived in this town as young men. That was a story the locals all knew and routinely shared with new arrivals and visitors, about the successful local rancher who was on the verge of losing it all during the wild and wooly days when land pirates still roamed the land. And how he’d finally found the two sons, one an Easterner he’d never met, the other a well-known gunfighter along the Mexican border who’d been taken from him as a baby. The two sons arrived on the same day as the story was told, so different from each other that the few witnesses still alive claimed no one thought it possible the two of them could live together. But they had, and the strength of their relationship over the years was the stuff of legends. In fact, the family’s story had been published in the big newspapers of San Francisco when the older son had begun his political career, a career that led to several terms in the Governor’s house. The story had made its way into the “penny dreadfuls,” mass-market paperback books that now cost a dime. That author had characterized the two young men as “storybook princes” separated by cruel fate and pursued in vain by their heartbroken father for many years, until finally they were each found and brought home, just in time to save the ranch and enjoy the fruits of their wealthy father’s empire. That had given the locals a laugh at the time, familiar as they were with the backbreaking labor of running and building that ranch, labor the father had expected his sons to share in fully.
And they had worked, together, and with their divergent backgrounds and experiences, they extended the original dream, bringing new ideas and individual strengths into the mix. The family businesses expanded over the years into other industries, railroads, lumber and wine-making to name three, and the family had invested conservatively but intelligently in the growing financial markets of the American economy. Two of the grandsons now managed that part of the family’s expanding interests although no one ever lost sight of the patriarch’s guiding principle that land was the best and safest investment of all.
Despite the family’s wealth, the two men waiting at the railroad station were dressed much the same as everyone else although if you looked closely, you’d see the quality and cut of their clothes was a little better. The older one was truly dapper, wearing a stylish jacket and tie but with a Western style hat while the younger was more casually dressed in a jacket with suede lapels and a shirt and string tie. He’d doffed his hat earlier and tossed it onto to the car seat. Now he was leaning against the open-topped car, both men reveling in the warm sun and light breeze of this day in late Spring.
“We couldn’t have asked for better weather, Johnny,” the older man said. “Kind of reminds me of that day we arrived.”
The younger one smiled. He’d been known as “John” to most people for many years now but his older brother still used the diminutive when they were alone. Johnny kind of liked that, the continuity of it and the way it spoke of their shared history. His hair was still thick but the black was shot with grey now, and the salt and pepper only enhanced the deep blue of his eyes. “Yeah,” he drawled lazily. “I was just thinkin’ that. The stage coach used to stop right about here, where they built the rail station. Did ya realize that, Scott?”
Scott nodded. “That’s ironic, don’t you think? You and I are meeting Theresa in almost exactly the same spot where she met us all those years ago.” He removed his hat as he spoke. Sixty-four now, he still had the straight back and military bearing of his youth. He sported a full head of hair too, perhaps a little thinner, but the increasing gray wasn’t as noticeable in his blonde locks as in Johnny’s dark ones.
His brother grinned. “That was a day, wasn’t it, Boston?” he asked, his sapphire eyes twinkling as he used an old nickname only the two of them even remembered. “You were a sight to behold, all fancied up, with ruffles and such.”
His brother shot him what he hoped looked like a withering glance but then he couldn’t maintain the charade and burst out laughing. “Well, I could say the same for you, little brother,” he laughed. “They could have knocked me down with a feather when Theresa explained who you were.”
“Not true, Scott. Took three of Day Pardee’s men to knock ya down later as I recall.”
“No thanks to you,” Scott retorted good humoredly, lightly punching his brother in the arm. The sound of the approaching train caught both their attention.
“I’m glad she could make it,” Johnny said quietly. “Wouldn’t have been the same, just the two of us.”
Scott nodded his agreement. The entire family had been together at Lancer over the previous Christmas, for the holiday as well as his brother’s milestone birthday. But that celebration had included their wives and Theresa’s husband, and numerous children and grandchildren. It had been fun to have everyone there at once but the crowds didn’t allow much time for the three of them to catch up. When Johnny had suggested this private reunion, it had struck him as exactly right.
“Yes, I agree. And did I tell you how impressed I was by the fact it was you who remembered the date? You, the brother who never had a watch or a calendar before you got here?”
“Well, I learned a few things from being around you all these years, brother,” Johnny laughed.
Scott was touched by the acknowledgement and he put an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. The younger brother was the one who had stayed at Lancer throughout the years. Theresa had married Nicolo Mancini, an Italian winemaker who’d come to the region thirty-five years earlier having heard there was a perfect climate for grape-growing. Murdoch has given them land he owned in a valley called Napa as a wedding gift after Nic told him it was perfect grape-growing soil. With an initial investment from the family, Nic and Theresa had moved north and begun growing their grapes. It took a few years but the wine they now produced had a growing reputation throughout the country. The Lancers were silent partners in the vineyard but one of Johnny’s sons had shown an interest and learned the business from his Uncle Nic. He’d taken his proceeds from the Lancer family trust when he turned twenty-five and started another vineyard that was now prospering too, making white wine to complement the reds of the Mancini Vineyards.
Scott had gone off to Sacramento after a decade of working on the ranch, first as the representative of the San Joaquin Valley in the state legislature, and then serving two terms as Governor of the state of California. The ranch was always his home but he had spent a number of years focusing his energy and attention on other things that were important to the family, and the booming state they called home. He’d married a young woman from St. Louis, a society girl with a common touch who had loved the ranch but taken to being a political wife with gusto. One of their sons was now the junior U.S. Senator from California so she was reveling in being a political mother now, to her husband’s amusement.
So it had fallen to Johnny to be the constant, an irony in itself. The former drifter had settled in at Lancer after a rough start, working alongside his father, and never leaving again except for the occasional business or personal trip. He had married a local girl and raised his children at the ranch, and now two of his and one of Scott’s sons ran various aspects of the ranch business that had expanded from raising cattle to include a renowned horse-breeding program that produced a Kentucky Derby winner several years earlier. Johnny’s rough edges had been honed by his increasing responsibility for the ranch, and the unconditional love and support of his father and brother during the early years.
Johnny Madrid Lancer, a diamond in the rough at first, was a shining jewel now, Scott mused. The older brother had received many honors in his life but he’d never had a prouder moment than when Johnny was named California’s “Cattleman of the Year” a few years before Murdoch died. Their father, who’d received the honor twenty-five years earlier, had broken down in tears when John Lancer’s name was announced and Scott had clouded up himself when Johnny’s short speech ended with the words “Most of you know I wouldn’t be here, or anywhere, if it wasn’t for my father, Murdoch, and my brother, Scott. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in me.”
The train rolled to a stop, steam issuing from its sides, and then a woman appeared at the top of the steps of the first-class car. Theresa O’Brien Mancini had aged well. Her hair was now a lustrous silver but instead of aging her, it highlighted her still unlined and youthful face and sparkling brown eyes. Her still-trim figure was fashionably attired in a deep violet traveling suit. A wide smile lit her face when she spied her two adopted brothers waiting at the station.
“Scott! Johnny!” she called, waving as they approached. Johnny reached up and helped her down and a trainman handed down her bag. “Oh, it’s wonderful to see you both!”
After hugs and kisses, Scott took up her suitcase and Johnny gave her his arm to escort her to the motor car. “I’m so glad you brought it,” she enthused to Johnny as he helped her into the back seat. “Nic will be jealous. He hasn’t stopped talking about this since it was rolled out on your birthday!”
“Well, I haven’t stopped bein’ excited by driving it yet,” Johnny laughed. “For the first twenty years of my life, I can’t recall ever getting a birthday present. Since then, they just keep getting better and better.”
“Well, it would be hard to top this,” Theresa said, smiling at Scott. Johnny always had a love for horses that was second to none. When motorcars first appeared, Scott had bought one and Johnny had laughed himself silly when his brother drove it up to the ranch one afternoon. But as the cars got faster and more sporty, and Johnny reached the age when long rides on horseback were not so appealing any more, he started to invest some of his enthusiasm in the direction of motorized carriages and the rest was history. He was now a certifiable motorcar enthusiast and Scott’s gift on his sixtieth birthday, a present from the entire family really, had left the younger brother over the moon. Scott joked that Johnny polished that automobile like he used to curry Barranca, “his first great love,” as Scott often told it.
“I know,” Johnny agreed. “I can’t wait to turn a hundred to see what big brother thinks up for that momentous occasion!”
Scott chuckled. “Well, since I’d be a hundred and four by then, you better not get your hopes up.”
“The old man made it to eighty-two and he worked hard all his life, not like the cushy work you been doin,’” Johnny reminded him. “You better start thinking’ about a good hundredth birthday present, brother!”
They drove out to the ranch along the now paved road that traced the route they’d driven forty years earlier and Johnny stopped on the ridge overlooking the houses, just as they had done that first day. There were two houses now, the original hacienda and another, similar structure that had grown on the other side of the expanded horse corrals. Scott and Melinda had moved into a small house that was constructed for them when they married and gradually over the years they added rooms, much the way Murdoch had built the original house. Then several years later, Johnny and Theresa had each married within months of each other. Theresa and Nic moved north, and Johnny and his new wife, Cassie just stayed with Murdoch. The older man had often talked about building a small house of his own so as not to be in the way but Johnny always assured him he wasn’t ever in the way, and having missed the chance to have a father for so many years, he didn’t want to miss another minute of it. Not to mention, having Scott around only part of the time meant at least two of the partners needed to focus full attention on the ranching business. Despite his protests, Murdoch stayed and all the grandchildren, both Johnny’s kids and Scott’s, had loved and respected the man they called “Grandpa.”
Johnny drove the car further on to a shady hilltop overlooking the original house and pulled the car to a stop. Several large oak trees kept the spot cool all year round, and an array of flowering bushes made it a lovely, peaceful spot. A wooden bench under one of the trees provided a place to sit and enjoy the view. Scott alighted from the front passenger door, and helped Theresa out of the back seat while Johnny gathered several bouquets of fresh flowers that had been sitting on the back seat.
“Melinda and Cassie and the girls picked them earlier today,” Scott said by way of explanation. The three of them moved quietly to the first headstone off to the right of the largest tree. “Paul O’Brien, loving father, 1829 - 1870” it read. Theresa knelt down next to the grave and reached out to touch the headstone. “I still miss you, Daddy,” she whispered as Johnny placed a bunch of the spring flowers on the grass in front of the stone.
Theresa stayed there a moment, then Scott held out a hand to help her when she made to rise. “I wish you had known him,” she said quietly. “He would have loved to know both of you.”
They moved together to a second headstone. “Jellifer B. Hoskins, a great friend to man and beast, died July 5, 1885.” Johnny bent low and laid another bouquet on the grave. “You never did tell us how old you were, amigo,” he said softly. “Didn’t matter. You always seemed old as the hills to me.”
“We always did have an odd array of animals, thanks to you,” Scott said warmly. “That’s a tradition we’ve kept up, Jelly. Our kids must have gotten it from you.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Johnny laughed. “You musta seen the pet chimp, I guess. Sarah and Jenny rescued it from a traveling circus. I keep expecting the carnival folks to show up and ask for it but… the girls musta given them such an earful about mistreatin’ that animal, they just picked up and left the county.”
“I guess we should just be glad no one was mistreating an elephant!” Scott replied.
A breeze rustled the leaves above them, and the scent of flowers filled the air as the three walked up to the largest headstone, the one situated at the very top of the hill under a wide canopy of green. The bench had been positioned closest to this grave and both sons had a habit of coming up here to talk things out when they were confused or uncertain. Over the years since he’d been gone, they’d come together and alone, many times each.
Scott and Johnny knelt on either side of the grave, while Theresa stood next to Johnny in a configuration that mirrored their places at the Lancer dinner table so many years earlier.
“Murdoch Lancer, beloved father and grandfather, respected friend, November 30, 1818 to October 14, 1900.”
“Forty years ago today, Murdoch,” Scott said as he laid the largest bouquet on the grass near the stone. “Seems like yesterday you sent us both that message to come here.”
“Unlike your older son, seems like I can’t remember much before I got here, Pa,” Johnny drawled. “But I remember that first day crystal clear. You scared me half to death.”
“Well, you hid it well,” Scott replied, chuckling. “Went right into battle with him as I recall.”
Johnny nodded. “I was young, and stupid, wasn’t I, Scott? I’m surprised the old man didn’t toss me out on my ear!”
Scott laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Even before he really knew either of us, I don’t think that would have occurred to him. He was… always a father to us, whether we knew it or not.”
“I’m glad you both know that,” Theresa said softly. “He fretted so about you coming. Nearly drove Maria and I crazy making sure your rooms were just so. Leaving those ten dollar gold pieces. I know he didn’t do a good job of showing it that first day….”
“He did a good job of showing it for thirty years after that day,” Scott said firmly. “Longer than either of us was without him, before…. That’s something.”
“I never thought of it that way,” Johnny said. “I guess, on balance, it was a darn good life you gave us. Thanks, Pa.”
“Yes, it was, Pa,” Scott said, touching the headstone one more time. “We miss you….”
“Yeah. I miss ya every day,” Johnny said, raising a hand to wipe away a single tear that threatened to escape and run down his cheek. “Specially when big brother’s not holding up his end of the partnership!”
“I was in Washington, D.C., watching Jack get sworn in as a United States Senator!” his older brother responded immediately, taking up an ongoing but good-natured argument they’d been having. “I told you I’d be gone three weeks and I was back in two and a half. And now you and Cassie should take some time for yourselves. Go to San Francisco. Or New Orleans, maybe. I’ll keep things on track here for a few weeks.”
The two men rose and Johnny laid an arm across his brothers shoulders. “I’m just kiddin’ ya, Scott,” he said with a smile. “Truth is, there’s no place I’d want to go. You’re home. Theresa’s visitin’ To me, it doesn’t get more perfect than this.”
Theresa smiled at the two of them, half-hugging, half-pushing each other. She stepped between them and turned around, linking her arms with her adopted brothers. The three of them stood at the top of the hill and looked out at the lush green valley below them. “You know, don’t tell Nic because I love the vineyard but… Lancer truly is the most beautiful place in the world.”