A WHIB Legacy story in honor of Wayne Maunder’s Birthday
Amende honorable: Old French Law; A species of infamous punishment in which the offender, being led into court with a rope about his neck, and a lighted torch in his hand, begged pardon of his God, the court, etc. In popular language, the phrase now denotes a public apology or recantation, and reparation to an injured party, for improper language or treatment.
Blood – Scott’s blood.
Johnny tramped away from his father and Scott’s grandfather to pace out his worry at the far end of the Tabors’ front room. He walked between the rectangles formed by sunlight and shadow, step-step, dark-and-light, step-step, dark-and-light. Mariposas – tiny moths – fluttered in his belly. He closed his eyes but images from the past few hours crowded in – Scott, the blood dripping relentlessly out of his hair, confused but strong, frantic over the fate of his grandfather even as Barranca carried him and Johnny away from the ambush site and onto the safety of the nearby Tabor ranch. His brother, shot by those dirt-scratching Degans looking for more money from Harlan Garrett. Scott, his blue-gray eyes dark with worry, slipping from Johnny’s grasp but insisting that they go back to help; clutching at him even as Johnny put him onto Clara Tabor’s spare bed and Clara held a towel to his tossing, bleeding head. Johnny had worked loose from those strong fingers with promises he hoped he could keep. Murdoch had ridden ahead to find Harlan, and Johnny needed to return with Joel Tabor’s extra men to battle the Degans.
He was wiping at the sticky blood that had smeared his own shirt collar – Scott’s blood where his head rested against Johnny’s shoulder – when Joel appeared with several of his men. Johnny let the blood stain his fingers – bright and angry – symbolically taking Scott with him. Then he joined Joel’s group and rode out to save their father – and Scott’s grandfather – so Scott wouldn’t lose them both.
Scott – hurt…
Hurt because of Harlan Garrett’s lies about Murdoch, because of Garrett’s deal with the Degans and his scheme to get Scott back to Boston and away from California. Hurt because of one old man’s selfishness and desperation.
Johnny’s eyes slid over to Garrett and the mariposas fluttered harder. He didn’t like Scott’s grandfather, knew the old man didn’t like him, either and not because of his reputation. No, Garrett didn’t like the way Johnny looked, didn’t like the combination of a Mexican’s dark hair and a white man’s blue eyes, had barely masked his disgust for Johnny’s lineage with a thinly polite question about his mother. Foreigner, Garrett had called her. Mexican, Johnny had corrected, but knew what the old man was getting at – Maria Victoria Renaldo de Sanchez had created a half-breed son with Murdoch Lancer, and in Harlan Garrett’s world – the world that Scott had grown up in and that Garrett wanted Scott to return to – there was no room for half-breeds.
Sam’s buggy was already parked before the Tabor ranch house when they’d arrived; it had taken some time to capture the Degans and hustle them off to town and the sheriff. Harlan beat them through the door and hurried to the bedroom over Clara Tabor’s protests. Father and son had only exchanged a knowing glance, and before long Doctor Sam Jenkins was shepherding Garrett back out into the room, carefully assuring the old man of his medical credentials and experience, and refusing any arguments Garrett made.
“Keep him here,” Sam had ordered to Murdoch and then shut the bedroom door again.
Johnny had almost smiled at that – you didn’t rile Sam when he was in the middle of treating a patient, even one as precious as Harlan Garrett’s only grandson. And my brother, Johnny thought to himself, and Murdoch’s son.
He glanced now at his father. Murdoch’s shoulders were bunched with tension, his large hands clenched with one stuffed deep into a front pocket, his gaze intent on some part of his past. Keeping his worry within, Johnny noted. Murdoch was not one to talk about the past, though now he seemed to be reliving it deep inside as he waited for word on his son.
Johnny walked the length of the Tabors’ front room again, slapping his hat against his thigh as he paced in and out of those shadows. He felt better moving, and right now he had most of himself in motion, including his brain. And the rhythmic chink-chink of his spurs was soothing, even if it provided music for the little mariposas dancing inside him. He preferred the harsh metallic sound to the softer human breathing that filled the air; that was the sound of men, worried and guilty, a weak sound that lit little fires inside his veins. The weakness of men; he’d killed over it – he looked over to Harlan Garrett again…
The bedroom door rattled open and Sam emerged, a bowl of stained water in one hand and a small collection of bloody towels in the other. Blood – Scott’s blood, Johnny thought again, reaching up to finger his own stiff and rusty collar.
Murdoch twitched and stepped forward, his bootstep solid on the Tabors’ plank floor where the rug did not reach. “Sam?”
“Bullet grazed his skull, but if he has the Lancer hard head then he’ll be fine,” Sam returned wryly. He handed the bowl and towels to a waiting Clara Tabor, who took them to her kitchen. “Slight concussion,” he continued. “Had to take some stitches to close it, so it will need to be kept bandaged for a day or two. Other than that, he’s a little banged up – nothing broken.”
A few wrinkles eased from Murdoch’s brow. “Can we bring him back to Lancer?” he asked, and received a rumble of protest from Harlan.
Sam shot a look between the two, assessing their shared concern for Scott as well as their obvious animosity toward each other. “He could manage a wagon ride back to Lancer tomorrow,” he said. “No farther; he’ll certainly have a headache, and all that bouncing will likely make him sick. He’ll need to stay here until then, checked every hour to be certain there’s nothing more serious going on.”
“We’re happy to keep the boy,” Joel Tabor spoke up, appearing from the kitchen with his wife. He murmured something to Clara then added, “Glad we can help.”
Murdoch moved again. “I’ll go see him--”
Harlan overtook him. “Murdoch, I think I should--”
Sam blocked them. “Sorry, but I’ll have to refuse you both for the moment – Scott’s request.” He shifted his gaze. “He asked for you though, John.”
Johnny stopped pacing, spurs jingling to a halt, and looked up to their collective stare. Garrett’s lips were stiff and resentment darkened his cheeks. Murdoch’s jaw clenched – he clearly wanted access to his eldest son.
“I’ve got some whiskey, gents,” Joel suggested to the crisp silence. “Why don’t we sit a spell and enjoy it?”
“Just a few minutes, Johnny,” Sam reminded him.
Johnny nodded. “Thanks, Doc.”
They parted, Murdoch and Garrett following Joel to a far corner of the room, Johnny to the bedroom door. No one said anything. At the door Johnny glanced back and found Murdoch’s blue eyes asking him to go over every inch of Scott and truly determine if his son was all right.
Garrett was ignoring him.
Johnny slipped into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.
“Hey, Brother,” he greeted.
“Johnny…” his brother acknowledged around a sluggish tongue.
Scott wore an impressive white bandage about his head, and against that and Mrs. Tabor’s fresh linen pillowslip his face looked sickly gray. Lines framed his mouth and eyes. His fair hair was pushed askew from the bandaging. One sock-covered foot sprouted from the edge of the brightly designed crazy quilt that had been tucked around him.
Johnny edged his hat onto the dresser and crossed the room, watching as Scott squinted to track his movements. Johnny felt the demand issuing from Scott’s eyes. His brother would not accept mere reassurances – he needed someone to trust. Someone unafraid of the truth, as raw as it might be. Johnny slid his rear onto the embroidered seat of the chair placed by the bed, holding his brother’s gaze.
“Grandfather…” Scott began. “He’s…?”
“He’s fine,” Johnny said, erasing any vindictive thoughts of the man from his voice. He worked one boot tip onto the rail holding the mattress. “Little shaken up, I guess. Don’t think he’s been shot at too many times in his life.”
Scott smiled faintly, and a trace of color warmed his cheeks. He took a breath, then another. Johnny waited patiently; it wasn’t going to come out or go down easily. “Who ambushed me?” Scott asked.
“Two brothers named Degan,” Johnny told him, keeping his gaze steady. At the flicker of recognition on his brother’s pale face he asked, “You know them?”
“Met them,” Scott said. “They told me--” He broke off, refused to say the rest. “Why?” he asked instead.
“Guess they wanted more than Harlan gave them already,” Johnny told him. “Must have figured he was an easy mark. Caught you instead.” He waited to offer more, wanting to give it to his brother in pieces, knowing how hard it was to make sense of anything when your mind had been so rattled by a blow.
“Gave them,” Scott repeated slowly. He frowned as though trying to bring it together. “Wait – I don’t… He gave --” Then his features quickly cleared. “Oh, no.”
His hand came up from where it had been lying on the quilt; trembling fingers pressed the space over one eye. Silently Johnny drew it away, put it back down onto the quilt and held it there.
“He paid them?” Scott got out. He closed his eyes for a second.
“He did,” Johnny affirmed.
“To testify against Murdoch.”
Scott swallowed. “Why?” he asked again.
Johnny took a breath, released it. Scott mirrored the action, steadying himself for the oncoming truth. Under Johnny’s palm his fingers were clammy.
Johnny’s voice softened. “Your grandfather didn’t exactly tell you everything about Murdoch’s murder charge. Oh, Murdoch killed the Degans’ father, but it was in self-defense. He reported it and was cleared of any charges.”
Scott flinched; it might have been a twinge of pain – or not. “He lied--” he choked, chest rising and falling, quick and harsh; his hand came away from Johnny’s grasp. He closed his eyes again.
“Yeah, Scott, he lied.” Johnny dropped his gaze to his lap and let silence take the room. When he looked up again Scott was staring hard at the bedroom door, his blue-gray eyes glittering.
Johnny heard the silent tirade going on inside his brother’s mind, felt the god awful need to comprehend the incomprehensible. And he understood the sadness of shattered beliefs, the humiliation of betrayal, of being misled by the one person you loved the most, trusted the most – admired the most.
“He coerced Julie,” Scott said hoarsely. The quilt bunched under his grip. “Forced her to come. She backed out, told me what she knew. He’s never…that I am aware…business, yes, but not – this…And Murdoch…”
What of their father, and his silences?
“Scott…” Johnny squeezed the shaking fingers, offering strength against the layered darkness snaking through him. The truth was out – this part, anyway.
The truth – Johnny held back a snort of derision. There was another damned truth to this – he hated to admit it to himself because it was a helluva lot easier to hate Harlan Garrett than it was to understand him. He didn’t like that old man and Garrett made it plain what he thought of Johnny. But damitall, Johnny did understand some of what that old man had done to his brother, and if Scott needed anything right now, it was this knowledge.
“I ain’t had much family,” Johnny began. “Hell, Brother, I’ve never had an old abuelo to love me – or a father really, till now.” He smiled, but it did not hold. “But I know what people can do when they’re in pain. Sometimes it’s all the wrong things, sometimes it’s the worst sort of things.” He swallowed, knowing he had to try and restore his brother’s broken faith, no matter how he felt about the old man. “No matter how bad he was, he did it because he loves you. And Murdoch, he cares, too; you know that.”
Scott still stared, willing a hole through that door, seeking the shame on the faces of those two men waiting out there, but he nodded tightly. His face had blanched, and his grip on the bright quilt was fierce. He didn’t speak, couldn’t, probably.
Someone knocked softly on the door; Sam entered and closed it behind him. “There’s two very worried men out there,” he said, concern filling his eyes as he settled his gaze on Scott. “I’m going to have to let them in here before they attack each other.” He approached the other side of the bed, took up Scott’s wrist and counted to himself. “Everything all right?” he asked, glancing between the two young men.
“No,” Johnny told him, rising. He squeezed Scott’s arm in comfort one last time and moved away. “But it will be soon enough.”
He was at the door, hand on the latch when he heard a soft sound. He turned, found Scott’s ravaged eyes lifting to his.
“Thanks, Brother,” Scott said. He was still rigid, but determination glimmered on his white face. Johnny gave him a small but encouraging smile and went out.
“How is he?” Garrett demanded, swiftly rising to his feet. Murdoch and Joel stood, too, quiet and waiting.
Johnny instantly hated their stares and their demands, hated the pain they’d caused his brother. “How do you think he is?” he snapped back.
“Johnny…” Murdoch warned, though without much enthusiasm.
“You lied to him.” Johnny rounded on Garrett, stepped in so close the old man pulled his head back. “You betrayed him. He loved you and you just trampled all over his heart. And you know what? He still loves you.”
The old man narrowed his gaze, tried to slide it down his nose.
“He’s hurt and he’s angry,” Johnny went on, “and he’s bleeding on the inside, but he still loves you. And you don’t deserve it – any of it – you selfish old bastard!”
“Johnny!” Murdoch’s voice bit into the air this time.
Johnny whirled to face him. “Does Scott know why you left him in Boston?”
Murdoch flinched, just as Scott had. The skin over his cheeks went scarlet as if slapped. Beside him Garrett shifted, his condescension fading into something that tautened the lines around his mouth.
“Did you tell him?” Johnny demanded of his father.
“He asked – the other day,” Murdoch replied faintly. His eyes slid to Garrett. “But I didn’t want to sway him. It’s complicated.”
“He needs to know, Murdoch,” Johnny said. “You need to tell him before you lose him to this old bastardo. Because he will go back unless you give him a reason not to.”
Murdoch shook his head and looked away.
Johnny glanced at Garrett. The old man had something new on his face –guilt? Murdoch’s head had dropped. What had the two of them agreed to all those years ago?
“You’re going to have to tell him, Murdoch,” Johnny said. Just like you told me about my mother, he added silently. He looked over at Garrett; the old man was frowning at the bedroom door. “Especially now.” He slipped into Spanish to prevent Garrett from responding. “Necesita saber donde debe estar.” Scott needed to know where he belonged. He still had two homes and two lives; he was still both son and grandson, was loved by both father and grandfather – and he was being torn in half by them, by Harlan’s deceit and by Murdoch’s silence.
Murdoch finally looked up at him. Johnny had never seen such remorse in those light blue eyes. Yes, his father understood, and despite the way Murdoch often choked over the past, he was going to have to face it. Or lose a son.
The room was too warm, too full of the unspoken truth and the sins of the past. Johnny tramped out, seeking the outside air and the quiet warmth of the sun, gifts of nature that were guided by a hand stronger and surer than those of any man.
He blinked; his vision wavered and his stomach sloshed. The old but familiar face, drawn tight with worry, swam before him, blocked some of the bright light that seemed to fill the air. Scott reached out, touched fabric, a sleeve, felt the warmth of skin underneath.
“Here, boy, how do you feel?”
His throat was dry, but the bile was hovering just below it. “Fine,” he lied. A palm, dry and cool, touched his cheek; it had been years since that hand had touched him so.
“Scott?” Sam Jenkins – he recognized the calm, instructive voice. “Can you tell me who this is?”
Scott frowned, unsure if he should feel insulted or not. He gritted his teeth, moved his head to try and find the doctor’s voice. “Sam – what…?” he got out, seeing a second blurry form nearby.
“Checking the extent of the concussion, Scott.”
Funny that he couldn’t actually see Sam’s lips move, though the voice had been clear enough. His brains really had been rattled.
“Can you answer the question?” Sam prompted with a tinge of worry in his tone.
Scott blinked, tried to settle his gaze, wished the light were not so white and brittle, threatening to break over him like shattered glass. “Grandfather,” he mumbled in Sam’s general direction. “Okay?”
There was a smile in Sam’s voice. “Yes, that’s good.”
“You rest now, Scotty,” Harlan told him. The hand left him; the presence that was his grandfather pulled back, too, and distance settled between them, unfortunate distance. “We’ll deal with all this tomorrow, when you’re better.”
Yes, we’ll deal with it, Scott thought hazily as the covers were readjusted over him. I want to see your eyes when you tell me why you did it. Why you did this to me, to us…?
This voice, low and rumbling, also familiar. He hated to open his eyes but knew he had to, knew they were expecting him to. The unwelcome brightness broke through his eyelids. Scott turned his head toward the voice that had spoken and some cooler shadows greeted him. Dark then, late – how long had he lain here, half in and half out of this world?
“Murdoch,” he murmured so they wouldn’t have to ask him.
“Yes.” Another touch, a squeeze to his shoulder this time, warm, encouraging, soothing.
The nausea was gone; the fireworks before his eyes were fading. “Thirsty,” Scott got out. “Water?”
Murdoch held a glass for him, the rim smooth and cool to his dry lips. Scott opened his mouth, waited for the liquid, wanted it, wanted so much more. His father’s large hand, so very like his own in size and shape, slipped behind his neck, lifted just a little.
The water wet his tongue, soft and cold; Scott swallowed it hungrily, finished all of it, sighed his satisfaction. Murdoch’s hand slipped out from under his head but re-appeared on his arm.
“Better?” Murdoch asked him.
“Yes.” Don’t let go…
“How are you feeling?”
“Tired.” Tell me what I want to know – what I need to know…
“I shouldn’t wonder.” Still the hand held, warm and comforting.
“We need to talk.”
“Yes, we will, as soon as you’re better.”
But some earnestness had already dropped from his father’s voice. And now Murdoch’s hand was easing away. He was still afraid, Scott guessed as he closed his eyes. Afraid of the past and the truth that went with it. <<You have some explaining to do, too, >> he thought. <<Just as soon as I can see straight…>>
“Scott? Hey, Brother, wake up, okay? Drink this for me?”
Again – why wouldn’t they leave him alone?
Scott struggled to open his eyes. “Johnny?” he asked, reaching.
“Yeah, it’s me.” His brother’s weight settled comfortably beside him on the mattress; Scott’s hand came into contact with a leather-clad part – a knee.
Scott squinted. Yes, the shadows were still there. The light was there, too, but not as bright. “What – what time…?”
Johnny poured water from a pitcher into a glass. “Not too late.”
Scott shifted, grunted; stiffened limbs protested, and his left knee throbbed. His whole left side ached, come to think of it. He didn’t remember falling from the buckboard, only waking up on the hard ground, ears ringing, head swirling, and then his brother and father were beside him, talking to him, holding him. And his grandfather was missing.
Murdoch and Harlan--
“Did they go?” Scott asked his brother.
Johnny grinned down at him. “Yeah, hadda push them out the door. Mrs. Tabor told ‘em to either sleep out in the barn or go home. Murdoch would have settled for the barn, but your abuelo, he looked like someone had asked him to slop some pigs. So Murdoch took him on back to Lancer. Here, drink this – it’s only water.”
Scott drank, grateful for Johnny’s assisting hands. “I don’t know what to say – to them…” he said when he’d finished the cup of water. He closed his eyes; it was cooler in the space behind his eyelids, despite the constant flickering going on inside his mind.
“Say what you feel, Scott,” Johnny told him. “Tell ‘em what it feels like, in here.” He tapped Scott’s breastbone and let his hand linger. Scott felt the reverberation of his own heart under his brother’s palm, slow but steady. “And get the damned truth out of both of them, once and for all.”
Yes, the truth. The damned truth…once and for all.
The only good thing about the bandage wrapped about his head, Scott thought to himself, was that it held in his rattling brains. Over that, the stitched wound throbbed with every jounce of the wagon. And he ached, worse than yesterday.
“They’re all waiting.” Johnny cast a look down at him, and then slowed the team to walk through an upcoming rut in the path; they’d passed the Lancer arch a few moments ago. “You ready?”
“Nope.” Scott clutched the side of the wagon for support. They’d stopped already to allow him to relieve himself of Mrs. Tabor’s fine breakfast. “We should have left earlier.”
“Hated to wake you, Brother.” Johnny’s sympathy-laden voice floated back over one blue-flowered shoulder.
“That’s right. Like you didn’t wake me up all night,” Scott snorted, then regretted the vibration that clattered up past his eye sockets and into his clamoring head. His gut lurched but he was empty so he coughed and breathed and groped again for the side of the wagon.
Johnny turned his head again. “Sam’s orders, not mine. You okay?”
Scott waved a hand and closed his eyes. It really wasn’t all that better in the space under his eyelids, but at least he couldn’t see the green-gold earth trying to separate itself from the sky. He sighed. He wanted to get home. Well, he’d come to think of it as home, but now uncertainties had arisen with Harlan and Julie’s visit to the ranch. There were unanswered questions about his past, questions that he’d suppressed for more than a year. Questions that Murdoch had avoided answering. And now there were questions that Harlan also needed to answer.
Like why home was in Boston and not in California until only one year ago? Why the silence of his father for all that time? And why had his grandfather lied to him? Both men knew the truth, had kept it from him for more than twenty years. Some sort of compact, a business deal of sorts to make sure young Scotty would be well cared for.
Get the damned truth out of them, Johnny had said.
You were born, she died, and I left you in their care. Period.
I raised you, Scott. Not Murdoch. I took care of you for twenty-four years while he was carving out his little empire.
I wanted to take you with me…there just wasn’t any way.
Murdoch had to force himself to make the trade.
The voices repeated themselves inside him, over and over, whirling and whining. The truth was in enclosed within those words – somewhere, if he could only get to it. But now as Johnny eased the team to a halt a new voice rose up in him. His own, asking, Who makes me happy?
As Johnny had said, they were all there to greet him – Murdoch and Harlan, Teresa and Jelly; Cipriano and Maria also hovered to one side. Their faces were anxious. They were worried, and not just over his health. Irritation erupted in Scott. He was sick and hurt; he’d been lied to, avoided, and humiliated. He wanted answers immediately, right there in the yard, in front of the others. He wanted witnesses for it, wanted the supreme satisfaction of seeing their discomfort. Now, right now, and to hell with any decorum.
Johnny’s hands gripped his arms as he brought himself slowly upright. “Okay?”
“Fine.” Scott eased himself to the ground. The nausea rose, fierce and hard, vilifying his resolve. He’d just need a few moments, then, just to get his feet steady…
“Sure.” Still Johnny hung on, his grasp secure. “Don’t let that old man start in on you.”
Scott couldn’t resist some levity, even though his knees were wobbling – he needed its lopsided strength to face them. “Which old man are you referring to?”
“Your abuelo,” Johnny growled through a smile.
Determination slipped past the nausea. “I need to talk to them.”
“You need to lie down.” Johnny let go of Scott’s arms to grip an elbow and Scott felt drawn into his brother’s protective shelter – no one was going to penetrate that shield, father and grandfather included. The security muscled his frustration aside and he allowed it for the moment. At the least it would help get him through the front door.
Teresa approached him. “You’re going straight to bed, Scott Lancer, and no arguing,” she told him in a brisk voice, attaching herself to his other side. “Maria and I are going to take care of you – you’ll be fine.”
He wanted to tell her not to get so close – he’d barely managed a wash and that was with his brother’s help. He’d forgone a shave because of the effort required. Joel Tabor had offered a fresh shirt, which he did accept, but it was too short in the sleeves and length. But he just didn’t have the power to tell her. He was fading; his stomach was rebelling and his head joining in. He needed to stop moving, collect himself and get to the truth. It couldn’t wait; he needed to hear it and they needed to say it. But Teresa and Johnny worked him through the door, past his father and grandfather. Neither of the old men said a word to him, only followed him up the stairs.
Murdoch hung back as Harlan bustled into Scott’s room, assaulted it, owned it, brushed Johnny and Teresa aside to get to his grandson. Teresa’s face went pink with resentment but she slipped out the door, muttering about broth warming in the kitchen. Murdoch wanted to help but sensed Scott’s resistance, and Johnny’s. He recognized Johnny’s look, Madrid-dark and threatening. His own parental defensiveness snapped its jaws but he silently tugged it down. Scott was back, he was home. It was enough.
“Déjalo – let it go,” he counseled to Johnny in a low voice, trying Spanish to gain his son’s attention. “Necesitan tiempo juntos.” Much as he didn’t want it, grandfather and grandson did need time together.
“Ahora no es la hora,” Johnny answered loud enough for Harlan to swing his head about with eyebrows raised at the shift of language. From the bed Scott also looked, his eyes tired and questioning but understanding the response – now is not the time.
“Es demasiado enfermo razonar con ese viejo,” Johnny continued with growing defiance, gesturing toward his brother. “Todo de esto es la culpa de Garrett – todo de esto.”
Murdoch glanced at Scott; his eldest understood Johnny’s declaration that his brother was too sick to argue with Garrett, that all this was Garrett’s fault. “Eso no es importante ahora,” Murdoch said. “That’s not important now.”
“Sí, lo es,” Johnny argued back.
“Not here, John,” Murdoch warned, straightening.
“Gracias, hermano,” Scott spoke from the bed, managing a tiny exhausted smile at the two of them. “Pero estaré bien. Créeme.”
I’ll be all right. Trust me. Murdoch smiled; Scott had picked up fast in the past year.
“Your rudeness is nothing short of astounding,” Harlan growled to them. “Using that barbaric language to exclude me. What a cowardly way to express yourselves.”
Johnny moved. “You don’t like it, old man--” he started.
Murdoch’s long arm snagged his elbow and halted him. “Sorry to offend you, Harlan,” he offered, his sincerity thin. “We’re all just concerned for Scott.”
“As am I.”
Murdoch nodded. “Please don’t stay too long, then.”
“He’s my grandson,” Harlan declared, rising from the bed and stepping up to Murdoch. “You can’t tell me--”
“I just did. My house, my rules – if you don’t mind.”
Garrett looked from him to Johnny. “You kept him from me all night!”
“For his own good--” Murdoch began.
“What would you know about that? What would you know about any of his needs?”
Murdoch’s control snapped, skittered away in a thousand different directions. “And who made sure of that? Twenty-four years, Harlan,” he said, stepping up to the bed. The urge to ram a fist into that face curled his fingers inward. “You kept him from me for twenty-four years!”
“Sending a Pinkerton to find him,” Harlan sneered back. “What sort of insult was that? You knew right where he was.”
“I knew where I left him. There were no guarantees he was still in Boston, no guarantees that you--”
“Stop it!” Johnny stepped between the two of them, jammed a hand on either chest and shoved. “Stop it, the both of you.”
Harlan batted the hand away. “This isn’t your affair!”
“No.” Scott’s glare skewered them into silence. “Why have them stop now?” he asked Johnny. “I’d like to hear what they have to say about this little ‘arrangement’ they made for me all those years ago.”
“Scott…” Johnny said softly, but Scott held up a hand.
“Well?” he prompted the other two men. “What happened? Why did you keep me, Grandfather?”
Harlan looked away. “Not now, Scotty,” he said stiffly.
Scott turned an ice-blue gaze on his father. “What did he do, Murdoch?” he asked. “Pay you to stay away?”
Red-hot anger blew through Murdoch; that the boy could even suggest--
He doesn’t know, a tender voice cut through his blistering haze, and Catherine’s image filtered into his mind. You must explain.
Not here, he told her, suddenly afraid. Not now.
Soon then, darling, you must do it soon. He needs it so.
“Murdoch, I asked you a question,” Scott said. He started to rise from the bed but only made it halfway before he blanched, eyes shut, hands fisted.
Harlan eased him back into place and held him until he relaxed. “Enough,” he declared. “I may not agree with Johnny about much, but he’s right; this is not the time for such discussion, not while you are so ill.”
“But I need to know…”
“And you will, I promise you,” Harlan said, then turned to Murdoch, an odd smile on his face. “And you?”
He doesn’t think I’ll tell Scott, Murdoch thought. I’ve admitted to him that I’ve never said anything…
Scott was watching him, his expression still tight, his eyes still asking, Did he pay you to stay away? He wouldn’t dignify that question with an answer of any kind, not here, not now. They were all being irrational. Scott deserved a civil discussion of the past, not a shouting match over his bed between two old men.
Murdoch stuffed his feelings back down under his heart and closed the lid on the whole stewing mess. Straightening, he cleared his throat of the emotional residue. “When you’re better,” he said gruffly to Scott, his tongue sticking to the back of his teeth. “We’ll discuss it all then.”
The deep blue eyes staring at him cooled, and Scott turned away.
Murdoch felt Harlan’s smile widen. What had he said only yesterday to his father-in-law about not having any troubles?
Johnny swept by him. “You just couldn’t say anything, could you?” he snarled softly. “Some little thing…” He switched back to Spanish. “Saldrá si no se lo dices,” he warned and left. He’ll leave if you don’t tell him.
Teresa bustled back through the doorway with a bowl of broth in her hands. She glanced at the men and said nothing, but her eyes told Murdoch that she’d heard the whole thing, and that she was dismayed.
“If you don’t mind?” she said politely to Harlan, nodding to the broth.
Harlan hovered but let Teresa slip onto the mattress so she could feed the broth to Scott. Murdoch eased back to the doorway and lingered a few moments more, sensing an old familiarity between grandson and grandfather, saw it in their physical closeness and Scott’s instinctive response. Envy bubbled up and shame followed.
By the time Teresa finished Scott was dozing off. At Murdoch’s gesture she silently left the room. Harlan had wandered to Scott’s dresser and was now examining the items placed there. Murdoch saw him pick up the horse figurine standing sentry on one corner. The small statue had been a gift from father to son; given on the day Murdoch had arrived to claim him. The day his whole life had given way.
Harlan glanced at Murdoch with the thing in his hand, smiling that odd smile again.
<<I’ve got no troubles, Harlan.>> The memory of those words jeered him as he silently left Scott’s room. They followed him all the way down the stairs and out the front door, taunting him, pecking at him, eating his flesh, his blood, his marrow—
Scott was holding Catherine’s image between his palms, staring into that composed, quiet face, seeing—
What? Murdoch wondered, pausing halfway through the near set of double doors that led to the great room. Did Scott see his own image in hers; recognize the features he had inherited, the same eyes, the highlights from her fair hair, her mouth? Was he wishing he could have memories of her? How did it feel not to know your own mother, to see only a flat, gray image and nothing more?
Inwardly Murdoch cursed Judd Haney for his long-ago raids on the ranch, and then Harlan Garrett for insisting on too many miles of travel for his wife and their unborn son. He cursed them and damned them, and then condemned himself, too, for not being able to protect her.
She’d died. Catherine had died; laid her eyes and her heart upon her son and then gave up her life for his.
Murdoch shook off the rattling memories and approached his still and silent son. “I thought you were resting,” he said.
Scott’s lean frame was awash in a beam of golden sunlight that slanted in from the far set of double doors; it burnished his hands and hair, and gave his face some color. He’d washed and shaved, Murdoch noted, donned a fresh shirt and pair of pants. Looked somewhat better, more familiar in that reserved manner of his. But not entirely calm…
He didn’t respond to Murdoch, just held the glinting silver frame in his hands. Murdoch waited, but flight was already on his own mind. Just one step back and he’d be outside – it would take seconds to return to the barn and pick out another horse, a minute more to saddle and mount and then find another trail to explore, another fence line to inspect, another herd to tally. But he waited, held to the threshold by Scott’s immobile presence, and continued to watch the still form of his son.
Gently Scott placed the frame back into its place on the nearby table, and then straightened from the back of the sofa where he had been leaning. His head was the last to come up, and when it did he stared directly at his father. His eyes crackled with cold blue fire. Everything was reflected in them, everything – anger, frustration, exhaustion, confusion…
And clear determination.
Panic seized Murdoch’s heart, grabbed his lungs and sucked out the air. He thrust his trembling hands into his pockets and had to force himself not to step back and run from his twenty-five year, abject failure.
“Tell me why I should stay here,” Scott said to him, his voice as cold as his glare.
Murdoch didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. “Son, if you want…” he tried.
“What I want, Murdoch, is the truth.” For a moment emotion flooded Scott’s face, gave it some ruddiness. Then he sucked in a breath and his features settled. “Tell me why you didn’t come to Boston to claim me.”
Murdoch’s jaws clenched of their own accord but he willed them apart. “It’s complicated…”
Murdoch stepped up to the blackened fireplace. He felt Scott’s eyes follow, felt his son shift slightly as if to block any attempt he might make to escape.
“It was supposed to be temporary.” His big hands knotted as he forced himself to explain. “Your mother would stay in Boston with Harlan until I sent for her. But then she – well, she grew sick and – and you came. Word didn’t reach me right away – I left as soon as I knew.” He took a breath. “Harlan took you with him, continued to Boston.” Dammit, his voice would not steady. Catherine, he pleaded to the frame opposite, please, I don’t know if I can…
“I received a letter from Harlan – he told me his plans, offered to keep you until I could find a means to care for you.” Sighing, Murdoch lowered his head. Dios, he wanted to run. “I knew nothing about raising a child. I couldn’t just…take a wife, ask a woman to marry me for my son, not so soon after your mother…” He shifted, straightened and turned. Move, he had to move. He headed back to his desk, to the window behind, his backbone tight with spasms. Talk, he told his thickened tongue, talk, talk.
“She was gone and you were alive, and now safe. It would just be a matter of time. I’d establish myself, run cattle, work on profits.” He spoke to the land outside, to the blue sky and the green-gold grasses, to the cattle, these profits waiting to be reaped. How could he have once believed that this was all that mattered?
He shifted. “Harlan sent me letters, updates – nothing long, just a few words to say you were well and strong. Told me not to worry, that he’d keep you as long as necessary. I believed in his charity.” Murdoch glanced left; his tongue was looser but whiskey would certainly help. Anything to prop up his fast dimming courage. “And I was grateful; California was no place to raise a family, not back then – Haney’s raids had proved the lawlessness of the territory.” He glanced away.
Scott spoke into the hesitation. “But you could have given that up, returned to Boston…”
Murdoch half-turned, and tried to keep the sadness from showing on his face. “I had no money son, no way to provision myself for the trip, or to pay for sail passage around the Horn or through Panama, no one to ask for that sort of loan...”
Murdoch shook his head. “No, he wouldn’t pay. He never approved…well, we didn’t get along.” His gaze went back to the window, his view of refuge and comfort. “So I stayed here and worked. I met Johnny’s mother a couple years after that, in Matamoros. By then I had managed to purchase this property, work on this house. It was all in order, a home, a wife, a mother for you…but then she was pregnant and I couldn’t leave her – I was terrified of leaving her because of what had happened before…”
Dios, he wanted that drink, wanted something – anything – to help hide his guilt. He suddenly wished for darkness. It would be so much easier to talk without those blue eyes focused on him, looking deep into him, through him. Catherine’s eyes. His gaze went back to the frame. “Maria had a hard time with the birth, with the baby – Johnny,” he said, redirecting his stare to his son. “It was months before she recovered.” Again he hesitated, and again Scott filled it.
“Did she,” Scott began then frowned. “Did she…?”
“Know about Catherine – and you?” Murdoch guessed, then nodded. “I told her.” He strayed back to his desk, picked up a small elk figurine placed there, hefted it, wanted to hurl it at the window. But he forced himself to speak again. “Disease swept the herd that summer and wiped me out, taking the profits I was going to use to travel east. Took another year…”
Another year of arguments, of door slamming, of embarrassed looks from his vaqueros, of her damned wantonness – her rash tries for attention.
“Maria wasn’t happy here,” Murdoch said. “She…lacked judgment on occasion. I thought I would take her and Johnny with me to Boston, to give her something new to see. I’d written to Harlan, told him my plans. But Maria – she--” He broke off; his hand tightened around the figurine, hating the next words. It was so hard to say them. All these years and it still twisted inside him. Dios, it hurt and hurt.
He heaved a breath, closed his eyes, felt his heart slump. “She asked me why I was pushing out her son – our son –Johnny – by bringing you here. I – I didn’t know she was so jealous…” So insecure, so afraid of her place in my world, in a white world with a half-white son.
Carefully he put the figurine back on the desktop, pushed it into place with two fingertips. “We argued about it.” His shoulders sagged and the rest of him drooped. “Three days later she was gone, took Johnny and left with some gambling scoundrel that Paul O’Brien and I had hired – the bastard could ride but he sure didn’t know anything about cattle.” Then, mortified at his own words, he clamped his lips shut and went silent.
The pendulum of the grandfather clock ticked off the seconds, six, ten – twenty…thirty and more…
Murdoch took a shaky breath, and his quavering voice followed. “For months I searched for them, sent vaqueros out to look for them. Cipriano and Isidro went all the way to Mexico for me, but nothing – nothing, dammitall. Dios, the selfishness of her…well, God rest her now…” His mouth was so parched. Bad enough admitting that dirty piece, but there was more. His chest constricted and he had to wheeze for a breath. “I made it to Boston that fall, came to claim you.”
Scott’s head rose. Confusion marked his face. “You came…?”
Murdoch nodded. “It was your fifth birthday,” he said softly, hopefully. “You don’t remember?” The first sight of his boy had moved him to tears. He knew his son, readily recognized Catherine’s image in that small face, those eyes and that fair hair, loved him already, even though the boy clearly did not know his own father, had never been told about him.
He saw his son go inside himself, dig deep, deeper. “There were so many people that day,” Scott murmured with remembrance. “Parents of friends – some were Grandfather’s business associates – I – I don’t recall – not specifically…” He looked up. Dejection had replaced the frustration he’d worn on his face, but there was also a glint in his eyes, now, too. “Why didn’t I come home with you?”
Murdoch took a huge breath, and held it, let it burn inside him. He slid his gaze away and let it out. When he looked back at his son he saw wariness in Scott’s tired face, but there was a hint of eagerness, too, and it made Murdoch cringe.
He shoved it out, hard and flat, didn’t know how else to say it. “Harlan threatened legal action against me.”
He saw the shift of Scott’s features – the semi-drawn brows, the clench of his jaw, the disillusionment that sapped the color from his cheeks, and hated himself. But he uttered the rest; it had to be told.
“Apparently he had established himself as your legal guardian in the courts.” Murdoch tried a neutral tone, almost succeeded. “He had the power and the money to make sure I would not be able to take you with me. He promised me that he would do whatever it took, even if it meant putting you at risk…shuffling you from one court hearing to the next…” His eyes went moist, and he had to blink fast to keep the wetness from spilling; it slid back and burned his throat instead. “I couldn’t hurt you like that. I couldn’t…” Shame and guilt forced him to break eye contact.
“So you gave up.” Scott’s words broke hollow in the air.
Murdoch nodded mutely, closed his eyes. “I knew from that day that Harlan would never let you go. He’d do what he could to keep me from you, and you from me. So I--” He swallowed hard. “I came back home.”
“And looked for Johnny instead.”
He’d expected those words but still they stung. “Off and on,” he got out, but it sounded too nonchalant and he struggled to find the right way to say it. “When I could afford to send someone. You were safe, well cared for; your future was secure…” Dios, that was horrible; he was an idiot, couldn’t even speak. He groped for the chair beside him and sat heavily, propped his arms on the desktop, leaned on them. The rest seemed like an afterthought now, but he’d said this much so the rest might as well be spoken. “I tried to contact you. I sent a letter soon after you turned twenty-one. I wasn’t sure you were still in Boston, if you’d respond after so many years.”
He shut up; he was barely making any sense. His own words were broken, messy, incomplete, weighed by so many years of silence that perpetuated Harlan’s version of the truth: that Murdoch Lancer had turned his back on his son, that he craved profit over family, that he was a no-account bastard that had no right to even touch Catherine Garrett and sully her reputation...
“I was in St. Louis,” Scott offered softly to the sunlight now withdrawing from the big room. His sculpted profile was white. “Finishing my enlistment. I didn’t receive anything--” A muscle flickered in his rigid jaw. “Then or after. If I had…”
Murdoch managed a nod. “I instructed the Pinkertons that if they found you still in Boston to contact you away from home if at all possible, to be sure my message got delivered to you. At least then I knew I would get a response, whether accepted or denied.”
“Yes, they managed that very well,” Scott said with a slight smile. Too quickly it was replaced with a frown. “The other day when you refused to tell me this…you were trying to protect me.”
“I didn’t want to open the ugly past, son,” Murdoch said and some of the terror let go of his heart. “I didn’t want to put you in the middle, have you turn on Harlan because of it.” He hated the next words but he would not deny his father-in-law credit. “Harlan’s done so much for you, given you things I couldn’t, not back then. I should have told you sooner, months and months ago. Back when Polly and Martha were here, I knew that you wanted to know, but I…” Murdoch shook his head, fiercely this time. “I was too much of a coward to admit the truth. That I failed you…”
The clock once more filled the air with its steady, objective tick.
Scott’s head began to throb in time to the sound. His fingers slipped up to his temple, massaged it through the bandage. So many words to absorb, assess and judge, understand. And still so much more to know…
Not abandoned; not traded like a piece of property. Given up in love but still loved. It seeped into him, soaked into some of the old gaping wounds he’d carried for so long. Financially and emotionally defeated so, Murdoch had been forced to bow under the power and wealth of his own father-in-law. Nothing left for him but time and silence, to await the passage of years in order to try again, to continue living and hoping on a single glimpse at a birthday party. All that emotion to reconcile and then bury. Nothing left but a good patch of ground to develop. No one to share it with, to leave it to, and then even that was threatened.
Scott regarded his father slumped across from him now. He saw the exposed interior of the man, the long held grief and guilt, the self-imposed shame, the years of loneliness that had toughened the outside of his soul, erected a barrier to protect his heart.
This was it, then – this was Murdoch’s truth.
Scott slowly moved. He was stiff and aching; his knee throbbed painfully and his headache beat dully under the bandages. But something within him was knitting together and it was easier to breathe, to think, to believe—
He reached around him, past his mother’s photograph to the decanter of Scotch, scooped up two glasses, brought them over to the desk. The gurgle of liquid as it was poured flowed over the air in the room, gentled it.
Scott placed one of the filled glasses in front of his father and set the decanter aside. “I don’t see that you failed, sir,” he said quietly.
Murdoch looked up. He shook his head, bowed it against the offered forgiveness. “Son…” he mumbled.
“Murdoch,” Scott urged. “Look at me.”
Murdoch lifted his face; it was freshly lined, weary, bruised by his admissions.
“A good commander knows when to retreat,” Scott told him in a lighter tone. He dipped his head, looked down at the glass in his hand, rotated it slightly so that the liquor tilted from edge to edge. “I hated you for a long time,” he said. “For your silence.” He looked up, allowed a quiet smile. “But now I know what happened. And it’s nice to know that I wasn’t completely abandoned – makes up for a lot time spent wondering about you.” He reached down, touched his glass to Murdoch’s. The resultant clink was a pleasant one, celebratory in its sound. “Thank you, sir.”
Murdoch was watching him with a slight frown on his face. He looked like he wanted to say something, to protest maybe. Scott didn’t say anything more, just waited. After another minute Murdoch smiled slightly; some of the lines left his face. He picked up his glass, considered it, and then held it aloft. Scott did the same. Together they toasted the truth.
“So he’s told you then?”
Scott raised his aching head to face his grandfather in the gathering darkness of the garden, his solace now wretchedly spoiled. “Yes, he’s told me.”
Maria stepped out from behind Harlan, her face distressed. Scott rose and nodded to acknowledge her. Lo siento, Señor, she told Scott even as her eyes flashed at Harlan. “He demanded to know where you were.” She dropped her gaze deferentially. “Estaba asustado rechazarlo,” she said in a subdued tone.
I was afraid to refuse him, Scott translated to himself. Yes, Harlan had that type of presence.
“Está bien – it’s all right,” Scott told her, knowing that she had struggled between her motherly instinct and her duty to maintain her place.
“La comida will be soon, Señores,” she told them, and inclined her head at their attention to her. “Shall I wait to serve?”
“Not necessary,” Harlan said tersely.
She hesitated, cast a worried look at Scott. When he nodded she made a semblance of a bow. “Gracias,” she said and slipped back to the kitchen.
Harlan turned to Scott, a cold smile on his lips. “You’ve always had a way with the household staff, Scotty,” he said. “I daresay that woman loves you like a son.”
If he expected a reaction he wasn’t going to get one, not over this, anyhow. He’d have to draw first blood another way. “Maria is special to us,” Scott said to him.
Disappointment crossed Harlan’s face but then he smiled benignly. “Yes, I imagine she is,” he said, clasping his hands behind his back and starting to stroll the cobbled path that wound around the abundant greenery growing in this back garden.
Waiting for me to explain, Scott thought to himself, taking a breath of the cool twilight air. Even though he desperately wants to know. He’s jealous that I didn’t go to him first.
A night bird flitted through the bushes at Scott’s shoulder. Tiny wings fluttered in the encroaching gloom, releasing the scent of Teresa’s roses, sweet and feminine, and Scott thought of his mother, wondered if she’d liked flowers. These roses, perhaps, or maybe she preferred the lilies in her portrait that hung in Harlan’s drawing room. But that was another time and place, though it still existed and would likely never change. Just like the past could not change.
Scott looked west, to the soft ribbons of red and purple that decorated the sky, to the deepening shadows of the shouldered hills that already dozed in the dusk. Their hush swept over him, into him, stirred his continued need for solitude and contemplation. Sighing, he turned his back to it. The truth he had gained this afternoon from Murdoch had been intensely satisfying, but there was another side of his life story waiting to be told. And apparently it wasn’t going to wait for the accompanying warmth of the evening fire and an after dinner brandy as he’d planned.
“I did what I had to, Scotty,” Harlan said over his shoulder. “You must believe that. I had your interests at heart – always.” He turned quickly and faced Scott, his features impassive, hands still behind his back.
“Yes, Grandfather,” Scott nodded, “I believe you did – for a long time.” He let his gaze slip but only for a fraction of a moment. It was hard to not be respectful to the man. “So what changed?”
Harlan scowled, but Scott had seen that expression too many times to be intimidated. “I missed you, my boy,” Harlan said to the space just beyond Scott’s left ear. “It’s as simple as that.”
Scott stepped toward him; he backed up. “So simple that you had to concoct a whole plan of deception?” he asked. “Julie…” The name stuck on his tongue; it had been such a delight to see her— “No, that was blackmail, Grandfather – pure--” He broke off, took another step closer, “-- and simple – blackmail.”
“You loved each other once, Scott. Don’t deny that.”
“Yes, we did, very much. In fact, I’d written to her numerous times, asking her to reconsider. But she never replied.” Scott paused, then delivered his own mental blow. “How long was she indebted to you? Months?”
“Her father was throwing money away,” Harlan protested. “She came to me for help, knew that I’d be fair. She listened to my propositions--”
“It was a matter of business, then,” Scott interrupted harshly. “Always business.” His hand brushed the leafy tree protecting the path with its arch of overhead branches. The slubby, rough bark scraped his palm, hard and real.
Harlan took a breath, lowered his gaze. “No, not always,” he returned in a softer tone.
“And what about the false murder charge against Murdoch?” Scott continued and the old man flinched. “A contingency plan just in case romance wasn’t enough?”
Harlan had enough decency to color a little in the face, though it was barely discernible in the quickening darkness. “I wanted to convince you…”
The blood sang loudly in Scott’s ears. The bandage was a tight band around his head and the stitched wound took up the pounding, pulsing hard. He wanted to throw something, hit something – someone. Do it, lisped a voice through the gloom, and he remembered the icy, cruel strength it had once given him, the fortification he’d needed to survive and then endure. He stepped closer to Harlan, curled his hand into a fist, nails penetrating flesh --
But he kept his hand at his side. Restrained, his rage burst and died. This was not that time, he reminded himself with a calming breath, though the cruelty was just as real. “You lied to me, sir,” he got out in an oddly calm tone. “Deceived me, betrayed me…blackmailed me. I always trusted you, Grandfather, relied on your judgment, valued your opinions despite any disagreements…”
His grandfather nodded, closed his eyes. “It was selfish. I was afraid of losing you to – to…”
“To my father, to Murdoch,” Scott finished for him.
Harlan cringed. “Yes, to him.” He smiled tightly. “And it seems I have lost you, my boy. By the merest notice from that Pinkerton agent. All lost – twenty-four years…”
Scott shook his head sadly. He uncurled his hand, wiped its clamminess on his thigh. “You don’t understand, do you? Murdoch could never be the father you were to me when I was growing up. You were my father in every manner possible. I can’t forget that, sir, I won’t forget it.” His voice dropped with the heaviness filling him. “Why did you try to make me?”
Harlan threw up a hand and cast his gaze to the deepening sky. “I’m an old man,” he said. “That house is empty now. I had hoped, since you knew the business – we got along so well. And then he--” He broke off. “Scotty, how can I explain my needs?”
“How could you not consider mine?” Scott countered in reply. He turned away then; something new was squeezing his chest. “I love you, Grandfather,” he said softly. “Did you think I’d just walk away from the years you’ve given me?”
Scott stiffened, awaiting a touch that he did not want.
But Harlan did not reach out. “I was afraid,” he admitted again.
You were jealous, Scott thought in return. Offended and insulted…and threatened by the truth.
“You’ve been mine for so long--” Harlan said.
“You don’t own me, sir.” Scott spoke fast to quell his resurgent wrath. “I am not a piece of property to be handled at will.”
“Yes, I know. I know that, I just – Scotty…”
“You knew about Johnny, didn’t you?” Scott asked, pressing on.
Harlan drew himself up. “Yes, I knew about Murdoch’s second marriage – and his son, your half-brother.”
“And your legal guardianship of me--”
“Long established before that, I can assure you,” Harlan interrupted.
It was a lie – the response had been too quick, too smoothly voiced. Murdoch had informed Harlan that he was coming to Boston to finally claim his son – and bringing his new family with him. A new family that was certainly improper for the grandson of wealthy, blue-blooded Harlan Garrett.
Selfishness and lies. This, finally, was Harlan Garrett’s truth, all of it.
A light breeze entered the garden, bringing ranch sounds with it – the lowing of the cattle stirring in the meadows beyond, vaqueros calling to each other as they headed for the bunkhouse and their dinner, Jelly’s complaints to an ornery horse that refused to stall. Behind him he heard Maria’s work in the kitchen, the fuss of pans, the sizzle of meat, the clink of china. And her voice, singing a song in Spanish. Above, the sky had swallowed the sunset colors and left behind a rising purple that ushered in the night. A necklace of stars was already suspended in the swelling color, small and white, inviting endless contemplation of their existence. This place, rich, vast, bearing his name – his family name…
“You really like it here, don’t you?” Harlan’s voice stepped into his reverie.
Here – California, this land, this ranch, this hacienda, the people that worked it and lived it. Murdoch and Johnny, Teresa, Jelly, Cip and Maria, Isidro and all the others – his family.
Scott gathered it in, asked it, felt a nod of response. He met his grandfather’s eyes. “Yes, sir, I do.”
“This isn’t some sort of experiment that you are flirting with?”
Scott allowed a small smile. “Murdoch needs me, sir. This is my home, with him and Johnny.”
Dismay flickered across Harlan’s face, but it quickly disappeared. “Yes, I suppose it is your…rightful family.”
His grandfather had aged, Scott realized. The old man’s hair was whiter, and his skin was thin, mottled with spots. His hands were wrinkled. He no longer stood straight but stooped slightly at the shoulders. Desperate, Scott thought to himself, though he’d never appeared that way before.
“It is hard to let go,” Harlan said. He clasped his hands behind his back once more, steadied himself with a few paces along the little path. “I’m sorry, Scotty,” he said without turning around, “for what I have done to you – to us.”
“I’m sorry, too, sir,” Scott replied, but offered no more. It was out – it was done.
Harlan raised his head, looked off to the hills now black and rounded against the sky. East, Scott reflected. East towards the past.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow,” Harlan said, turning to him. He stepped closer, extended his hand. “Despite the adversities raised, it’s been good to see you, my dear boy.”
Scott took the proffered hand, shook it firmly. “And you, sir. I hope you stay well.”
“Thank you, Scotty.” The old man inhaled; for a second something shone in one eye, then he blinked and it faded. “Good night to you then.”
“Good night, Grandfather.”
The stillness swept back into the garden, cool and soothing, waggling the slim and pointed leaves of the tree in tiny fists of satisfaction. Scott made his way back to the bench and sat. He dropped his head into his hands and pressed his fingers against his burning eyes. The wetness somehow leaked though and slipped down his cheeks. It left his skin and pattered softly, one drop at a time, to the dirt between his boots.
The dust wafted forward as he stopped the buckboard at the top of the ridge road. It caught the sunlight and turned the specks into sparkling, golden powder. Scott watched as it shimmered across the twin rumps of the horses and skipped away into nothingness. The breeze continued to blow, clean now, cool against his face, sturdy in its force. The short gold grass on the slope below trembled in the wind but sprang defiantly back into place. It was blessedly quiet up here, and calm. Scott breathed it in, pushed it down into his chest, waiting while it threaded through his limbs and eased the tightness that had gnawed at him for days.
He’d seen the stage off, ever the obedient grandson. Bags had been handed over, good-byes exchanged, safe travel wished. Hands had been firmly shaken, all in the proper manner. Then there was nothing more to do or say, so Scott had stepped back and Harlan had climbed aboard the coach. And then he was gone.
It had been dusty in town, too. The stage wheels and horses’ hooves had flung clods into the air and the dust had followed, chasing the coach as it headed north toward Sacramento and the eastbound train. But that dust had been different.
Scott nearly laughed at this musing, that dust could be different. Credit the Degans for indeed scrambling his brains, or perhaps just giving his thoughts a little more whimsy than he was used to. But the dust from the stage had remained before him like a gauzy apparition, hovering and breathing, whispering to him of dismay and disappointment, of relief, and of the past.
This dust held no secrets or sadness, Scott thought, transferring the reins to one hand and brushing a floury coating of it from his jacket sleeve. It didn’t evaporate but settled on him and in him – it belonged to him and he belonged to it. It was a part of him, born of this land, this very ground that he was sitting atop – his land. It didn’t have to speak to him – it just was.
Zanzibar shook his head and blew; the bit clinked as he rolled it over his tongue. Beside him Kashmir shifted his feet, scratching the dirt. They were restless, eager for home. Scott again took in the view of the valley and the white hacienda below. From here all the way to the mountains, he’d proudly told his grandfather and Julie. So much land, so much of everything.
The bandage Teresa had insisted upon itched. Scott wrapped the reins around the brake, reached up, found the knots and worked them free. His head felt lighter as the breeze lifted his hair away from his scalp. He ran a careful hand though the loosened strands, over the long, stitched gouge behind his ear, then dropped the bandages to the floor under his feet. His jacket came next, folded onto the seat beside him. He unbuttoned his cuffs, turned the sleeves back, reached for the reins and waited.
The horses lifted their heads, ears pricked. Scott glanced back with a knowing smile, saw the graceful palomino approach at a trot.
“Waiting for me?” Johnny asked with mock innocence, pulling to a halt and adjusting his hat.
“Why didn’t you just stop me in town?”
His brother shrugged. “Thought maybe you needed some time alone.” He pointed to Scott’s head and grinned. “Teresa ain’t gonna like you undoing her bandaging.”
“Teresa got a little overzealous,” Scott returned, reaching down with a boot tip to poke at the discarded dressing beneath his feet.
Johnny chuckled. “Yeah, well, she cares.”
“I know she does, ” Scott nodded, keeping his gaze to the buckboard floor, recalling how the young woman had fretted over him, how they all cared for him…
They shared the ensuing quiet as the breeze continued to blow up the slope to them. “You were right,” Scott finally said, looking down at the white hacienda below.
“About what?” Johnny’s blue eyes turned onto him.
“About my grandfather.” Scott swallowed the unsteadiness in his voice. “And why he lied.”
Johnny gave him a quiet look. “You think you’ll ever go back there – to Boston?”
Scott frowned. “I don’t know.” But then he did. “Maybe for a visit. Not to stay.”
Johnny nodded slowly. “Murdoch, he ain’t what he seems sometimes.”
Scott looked over at him, wondering what he’d say next.
“Remember him telling us how he loved this land more than anything else?” Johnny asked. “Wonder if he’d say that now?”
“At least he can’t blame us for all that gray hair of his.”
A quick grin crossed Johnny’s face. He gestured to the vista before them. “He earned it – making all this.”
Scott followed his gaze. “Yes, he did.”
“Big old heart in that man,” Johnny said, more softly now. “Lotta pride, too.”
“And a lot of stubbornness.”
This time Johnny laughed. “Guess that’s where we get it, Brother. Us Lancers, we don’t go down easy.”
No, we don’t, Scott silently agreed. We’ve all had our share of trouble – any of it would fell a good man – and somehow we’ve endured.
“Murdoch told me…” Scott began and felt encouragement in his brother’s blue gaze. “He told me what happened between them.”
“Did it help, knowing it?”
“Yes.” Scott sighed. “I hated him for a lot of years – and I didn’t have to.”
“Yeah, me too.” Johnny shifted, saddle leather squeaking. Barranca took a step; Zanzibar and Kashmir pulled at the traces and shook their heads.
Scott swallowed and looked at him, knowing his own face hid nothing and that he didn’t want it to. “Thank you – for...”
Johnny leaned over and punched him lightly on the arm. “Didn’t think I’d let you leave that easy, did you?” he grinned. “I like having you around. ‘Sides, who else is crazy enough to watch my back when trouble comes calling?”
“You saved me from making a mistake.”
“Yeah, well, you’ve saved me from making a lot of ‘em in the past year.” Johnny lifted the reins but lowered them again. “Seems kind of funny, you having so much – you know, a big house and a fancy education – a man to call a pa…Things I didn’t have. But you being a Lancer in a house of Garretts and me – well, me being a mestizo kid on the border…Some of that was the same, I think.”
Scott nodded. “Not quite part of a family – until now.”
Johnny’s gaze met his. “Yeah.”
Courtesy of Murdoch Lancer, Scott thought to himself, his perseverance, his patience, his determination and his compassion.
The past had finally been confronted, discussed, and closed. And that made the present and the future much more bearable, much more certain.
Scott straightened. “So what do you think of all this?” he asked his brother, gesturing to the view below him.
“Looks like home to me,” Johnny replied.
“Yes,” Scott agreed. “It does.”
Dust, Scott thought again as he slapped the reins and they started down the hill. There just hadn’t been enough of it back in Boston. Not enough of it to settle over him, and in him. Not enough to say for certain that he could belong to it and the way of life it represented.
That’s what he’d chased all those years, an elusive and temporary bit of earth – and all those secrets within – that had driven him ever farther from the place he’d called home to the place that was home.
And now that he’d stopped the chase it was his to claim.