The Starting Point
By Cadillac Red
Disclaimer: The characters belong to someone else. I make no money, and mean no harm in using them.
Scott Lancer had always wanted a younger brother. “Perhaps I should have been more specific,” he sighed as he watched his recently-discovered one stomp away.
“Do you have something to say?” the father he’d finally met a few weeks earlier demanded.
Scott looked at the irate rancher at the head of the dinner table and thought about how many times he’d wished to meet his father over the years of his life. None of his childish fantasies matched up to the reality looming before him. “No, sir,” he answered crisply. “Nothing important.”
“Hmmph,” Murdoch said, picking up his wine goblet and taking a sip. He set the glass down and scowled. “The beef is dry. Waited too long to sit down to dinner. From now on, we eat at six, same as always. Anyone who’s not here can eat leftovers.”
Scott eyed his father’s young ward, Theresa, over the rim of his own wine glass, and sent her a sympathetic smile. She was biting her lip, more likely in concern about the contretemps that just occurred between Murdoch and Scott’s younger brother Johnny. From what Scott had seen so far, his father treated the young woman with a great deal of affection and respect. Unfortunately, he and new brother were sometimes another story.
Scott turned his attention back to his meal. He agreed with Murdoch, the meat was overdone. But with all the hard labor he’d been doing since arriving at Lancer, Scott decided he would probably eat boot leather if that’s all that was on offer. No one spoke, and Scott used the moment of silence to consider things once again.
Johnny Lancer, his previously unknown younger brother, had arrived back at the hacienda more than an hour later than expected, a full hour later than dinner was to be served. He’d sauntered in as though unaware of the time, and run directly into a mountain of irritation named Murdoch Lancer. The situation deteriorated from there, with first Murdoch, then Johnny exploding in anger and finally the younger man threw up his hands, yelling, “The hell with it!" I didn’t ask ya to wait dinner for me anyway, old man! I been feedin’ myself a long time and I haven’t starved to death yet!” Then he stormed off, spurs jangling, cussing in a combination of English and Spanish. Whereupon Murdoch testily ordered Theresa and the housekeeper Maria to “Serve the damn meal! And we eat at six, no exceptions…..”
“I meant to say, dinner is wonderful, Theresa,” Scott offered, breaking the uneasy silence that had fallen over the table. “These are the best biscuits I’ve ever had.”
“Yes, darlin’, it’s a good dinner,” Murdoch said, relenting slightly. “Except for the dry beef.”
Scott sent her a look of support and inwardly sighed again. He probably should have been a lot more specific about that father he wanted as well.
No one felt like eating dessert so Murdoch called for the housekeeper to clear the meal and headed to the Great Room’s sideboard. “Brandy?” he asked Scott as he poured one for himself.
“No, thank you, sir,” the younger man replied. “I’m rather tired. I think I’ll just head upstairs and read a little before retiring.”
Murdoch nodded, taking his drink to the desk and sitting down before the ever-present ledger. Scott wished him a good night and headed into the kitchen. He found the housekeeper, Maria, washing the dishes, and banging the pots and pans a little more loudly than usual.
“Buenas noches, Señora,” Scott said, pronouncing the words carefully, having only heard Spanish spoken for the last few weeks.
The Mexican woman looked at him, wiping her wet hands on the apron that covered her skirts. “Buenos noches, Señor Scott.”
He faltered, not knowing how to say what he wanted to tell her. “La cena… muy bueno, I mean buena.”
She smiled and nodded in appreciation for his effort. “Graciás.”
Scott glanced around the room and noticed leftover roast on a platter on the counter. “Por favor, Señora…. Could you … make a sandwich, perhaps?”
She looked at the roast, then back at him. “For you, Señor?”
Scott flushed a little. “No….”
Scott nodded self-consciously. “Sí.”
Maria sent him a satisfied smile and set about making something for the younger son. She laid sliced meat on two large crepes Scott had learned were called tortillas, then layered on some red sauce and cheese and cut up some small green peppers to put on top. Then she folded them up tight and placed them on a plate. Finally, she took out a glass and filled it with buttermilk.
“Él está ahí, en el patio.”
Scott looked at her, perplexed. The woman nodded her head toward the back door, the one that led out to the courtyard.
“Oh! Thank you—err, gracias, Señora.”
The door was ajar and Scott used his shoulder to push it open. He walked out into the dark courtyard and let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. There was a half moon rising and a few stars could already be seen but they shed little light this evening. Looking around, he spotted his errant younger brother lounging on a bench on the far wall. Johnny was holding his gun and seemed to be checking the sighting.
“Are you planning to shoot me?” Scott asked.
Johnny looked up as though he hadn’t already noticed the older brother’s arrival. “Nah,” he drawled, his voice low and even. “Not planning to shoot nothin’ at the moment.” He paused for effect. “Just makin’ sure I can if I need to.”
Scott guessed the voice was meant to be menacing but somehow he didn’t find this young man threatening. Perhaps it was true, that old saw about blood being thicker than water. He walked over and sat down on the end of the bench and watched as Johnny smoothly slid his gun into its holster.
“I brought you a sandwich,” Scott said, not sure if what he was holding really qualified as a sandwich. “Well actually, two.”
Johnny’s eyes widened with surprise and his stomach growled involuntarily. Even in the dark, Scott swore he could feel the boy blush at the sound but then Johnny tried to hide it behind a snort. “Be careful, Boston. You gonna get in mucho trouble with that old man if he finds ya feedin’ me.”
Now it was Scott’s turn to laugh. “I seriously doubt he meant to send you to bed without supper, Johnny.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t be the first time I went hungry.”
“I’m sure it wouldn’t,” Scott said smoothly. “If you’re not interested…”
“I didn’t say that,” the younger brother responded, reaching out and taking the plate. “Maria made ‘em?” he asked, taking a large bite.
“Yes. She… seems to have a soft spot for you,” Scott smiled. “I don’t know exactly what’s in there but I did see some of those little green peppers go in…”
Johnny grinned. “Jalapeños. You should try ‘em some time.”
Scott had already been introduced to the spicier cuisine that was regular fare in this part of California. “Hmm. I’ll… take that under advisement, brother.”
Johnny cast him a curious glance but he didn’t say anything as he finished off the first tortilla. Scott raised the glass in his other hand and Johnny nodded, smiling. He took the glass and downed about half of the buttermilk then handed the glass back to his brother and started to work on the second sandwich.
“I don’t know about you but I’ve never had an appetite like I’m working up out here,” Scott said conversationally.
Johnny swallowed. “Yeah. Hard work’ll do that to ya. ‘Course, the old man don’t seem ta think I’m working hard enough.”
“He certainly has… high expectations,” Scott agreed, “for both of us.”
Johnny’s eyes turned wary. “He givin’ you a hard time too?”
Scott shrugged. “Well… Let’s say he’s not impressed with my knowledge of cattle-ranching, or my skills as a cowboy….”
Johnny snorted again. “How the hell could he expect you to know ‘bout either of those things, comin’ from back east?”
Scott shrugged again, this time using the action to stretch out the tense muscles in his neck. “Yes, that is a good question. But you do know something about those things so with you, it’s your lack of attention to deadlines and schedules that irritates him…. And…,” his voice trailed off at the end.
Scott turned to his brother and looked him directly in the eye. “And the constant show of disrespect, I suppose.”
“What’d that old man ever do to earn respect from either of us? He been a good daddy to you? He certainly ain’t been to me.”
Scott exhaled slowly. “No, he hasn’t, not to either of us.”
“See, that’s what I don’t get about you, Boston. Why do you keep tryin’ to make nice with him, like he done something to deserve your—I don’t know, respect, I guess you’d call it.”
Scott looked up into the dark sky, trying to decide how to answer. But Johnny continued before he had a chance to respond..
“A man’s gotta earn respect,” he said. “It don’t come for free.”
Scott found himself nodding, not out of agreement but out of understanding. “I hear you, brother,” he said. “And I understand that feeling. But… well, I guess I’ve always started at the opposite point. Every man deserves my respect… until he proves that he doesn’t.”
Johnny began to snort again but something made him stop and consider what the other man was saying, what his… older brother was trying to tell him. In a flash, he realized he himself had gotten the benefit of Scott’s natural willingness to treat strangers respectfully. From the moment they’d met on that stagecoach, through the first moments and days of knowing each other, Scott had met him with openness and respect. And it suddenly shamed Johnny that he had not always shown the same to Scott.
“It don’t always work out good, that approach, does it?” Johnny asked softly.
“No. I’ve been burned a few times. But I think on the whole, it’s served me well. How about you?” Scott turned to his brother once again. “You ever find out you should have handled an encounter with a stranger differently? Maybe realized you should have given someone the benefit of the doubt to begin with?”
Johnny thought about it for a moment, then he lowered his eyes and began fingering the beads that surrounded his wrist. “Yeah… I think one time,” he answered quietly.
Scott chuckled. “Well, maybe your luck will turn and it’ll happen more often in the future,” he said.
“Maybe. Still, that don’t seem to apply to the old man. He’s not exactly showin’ me any respect. Or you when it comes to the ranchin’ and that stuff about callin’ the tune. It’s hard to see how you can keep from blowin’ up now and then…”
Scott’s lips quirked into a half-smile. “Well… I’m a few years older than you, little brother,” he said, “and I imagine I’ve lived through a few more situations that I was… unprepared for. One thing I learned is that no one’s opinion of me counts more than my own. All I can do every day is the best I can do. And when I fail, well, tomorrow I’ll get up and try again.”
“Hmm. Sounds good. Cept if I fail… I get dead,” Johnny said. “That’s the difference between you and me I guess.”
Scott’s gaze flickered, then he stared off into space. “Oh, we’ve probably both had our share of those situations,” he said.
“Yeah? What kind of life and death situations you get into back there in Boston, Boston?”
Scott smiled sadly. “Someday, I’ll tell you about them, Johnny,” he said. “But in the meantime, let me tell you one thing. Murdoch knows you’re making your… lack of respect known when you call him ‘old man,’ you know. And… I know that’s what you’re doing when you call me ‘Boston.’ Maybe one of these days you could try my name instead.”
Johnny blinked at the direct hit. He hadn’t expected it from this well-bred Easterner and it threw him off his guard for a moment.
“I—It’s not…” he began, the stopped. At the very least this new brother deserved honesty. “I’m sorry ‘bout that, Bo—. Bad habit, I guess.”
“One I’ll be glad to help you quit, little brother,” Scott said nudging Johnny’s shoulder with his own. “I’m pretty sure that’s in the ‘Big Brother’ field manual.”
“There’s a manual?” Johnny asked, laughing. “Maybe I better get me a copy of that ‘big brother book.’”
Scott raised his eyebrows. “No, no, no,” he responded in mock seriousness. “That’s highly-classified information. It’s to help us keep you little brothers on your toes.”
“I always stay on my toes, Bost- I mean, that’s a habit I had a long time.”
Scott nodded, recognizing it had probably saved the boy’s life more than once. “Well, I guess I’ll turn in,” he said. “Do you want me to take the dishes into the kitchen?”
Johnny hesitated at first, then he held them out. “Maybe ya better. With my luck I’d run right into the old man—“
They were both startled by the kitchen door opening at that moment, then the man in question came out. Neither of the sons could help the look of guilt that ran across their faces, however unnecessary.
Murdoch’s keen eyes found them on the bench immediately, and his gaze swept over them and the dishes that lay between them. “I’m glad you got something to eat, Johnny,” he said. “I just wanted to remind you you’ll need to get an early start tomorrow. I’ve got you scheduled to check out the northernmost line shacks with Cipriano.”
Johnny nodded once, surprised that the tempest seemed to have passed so quickly.
“And Scott, I’d like you to—“
“Sir, I have a suggestion,” Scott cut him off.
Johnny gaped but noted it was done with respect and that Murdoch didn’t seem to resent the interruption.
“I was thinking that maybe Johnny and I could work together. You’ve been sending us both in opposite directions since we arrived.”
“That’s because I need both of you to learn the ropes, Scott. That’s why I’ve been pairing you up with experienced hands.” Murdoch seemed to think that put an end to the discussion and started to continue his earlier thought.
“I understand, sir, Scott continued smoothly. “But… we both have to begin to do things without that support eventually,” Scott said. “And if we do it together, well, there’d be a little less likelihood that we’d go wrong, wouldn’t there? Maybe we can handle the line shacks.”
“Winter’s coming and you don’t know what to check for—“
“I’ll get Cipriano to tell us tomorrow. I’ll write it down, develop a checklist. So that way whoever does the job in the future will have the benefit of his knowledge even if he’s not available.”
Murdoch thought about it as Johnny looked from one man to the other, then back again. His respect for this new older brother grew by the moment.
“All right,” Murdoch said, nodding. “It sounds reasonable. You’ll both need to get an early start then. You’d better turn in….” He started to close the door.
“Good night, Murdoch,” Scott called. Then he nudged Johnny’s boot with his own.
“Uh, good night… Murdoch,” the younger man echoed.
“Good night, boys,” their father said, giving them a fledgling smile. “See you in the morning.” He nodded at them, and then he disappeared inside and the door closed quietly behind him.
“Well, that went well,” Scott said.
“Yeah….” Johnny replied, rising from the bench. “Maybe you could show me how you do that sometime.”
Scott chuckled as he picked up the now empty plate and glass. “I think that could be arranged.” He started toward the kitchen door.
The use of his first name was a nice surprise and the older brother smiled, but he hid it before he turned back. “Yes, Johnny?”
“Any more of that pie left?”
“Actually, we never had any of the pie. Maybe we could convince Maria to give us both a piece…. Apple pie with a slice of cheddar cheese is one of my favorite desserts.” He turned and headed into the kitchen, with Johnny right on his heels.
“Pie with cheese? You people back east loco or somethin’?”
“I supposed you’d want some of those peppers on there,” Scott laughed. “You seem to like them with everything else--”
The two young men stopped in their tracks as they spotted Murdoch sitting at the kitchen table with a slice of pie and a cup of coffee in front of him. There were two more plates and cups sitting in the center of the table.
“Boys,” he said with an uncertain smile. “I was just having some dessert before retiring.”
Scott recovered his voice first. “We—we thought to do the same thing, sir.”
“Sit down, then. You too, Johnny,” Murdoch said, pouring a cup of coffee for each of his sons. “One thing for certain. You both seem to have inherited my sweet tooth.”
Johnny blinked back his surprise at the older man’s comment, then took a seat at the table, working hard to make his actions appear casual. “Well, I don’t know what exactly B--, I mean Scott inherited. He wants cheese with his apple pie.”
“Oh, there’s a nice hunk of cheddar cheese in the pantry. I haven’t had pie with cheese in a long time,” Murdoch responded. “Cut me a slice too, son.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Okay, I guess that means big brother inherited crazy from you too,” he said, eliciting a laugh from his father as well as his brother. The sound startled Johnny at first, then he began to laugh too.
“Cut me a big hunk o’ that pie…,” Johnny said, grinning. Then he caught the speaking glance his older brother sent across the table. “… please,” he added.
Scott smiled. And Murdoch cut a piece for each of his boys, and they all laughed again when Johnny asked for a second helping before he’d even finished his first piece.
In the garden, Cipriano met up with his wife Maria as she stood listening to the sounds coming through the kitchen window. The couple guessed it was the first moment of easy camaraderie the three Lancer men had experienced since the hijos had arrived. It wasn’t much but Cipriano and Maria each silently prayed it was the starting point.