Murdoch Lancer couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His two sons stood by his desk in the great room: Scott wearing the Eastern suit he’d arrived in, the ridiculous bowler hat in his hand; Johnny with his saddlebags tossed over one shoulder. Through the open window, he could hear Scott’s luggage being loaded into the buckboard. He glimpsed Cipriano leading the palomino horse from the barn, saddled and ready.
“But—you said—I thought you were staying—”
“You thought wrong, old man,” Johnny returned.
“We’ve won! You helped me beat Day Pardee—”
“And that was all you really wanted, wasn’t it?” This was Scott, his voice crisp and cold as a New England fall morning. “You paid us your thousand dollars each for an hour of our time, plus—what was it? Arms, legs, guts if we had them. I’d say you got quite the bargain.”
“The ranch,” Murdoch reminded him. “One-third ownership in the ranch. My lawyer’s waiting in town for us to sign the partnership agreement.”
“Oh, yeah. The ranch,” Johnny sneered, and Scott echoed, “The ranch. ‘The ground you love more than anything God ever created’, I believe you described it. As though we didn’t already know that.”
“We saved your precious ranch for you, old man. That’s what you wanted, that’s what you got.”
“No! That’s not what I—I mean, that’s not all I wanted. I wanted you boys. You don’t know how much I wanted you!”
“That’s true. We didn’t,” Scott replied. “Because you didn’t want us, or me at any rate. My mother died when I was born, Grandfather took me home to Boston, and that was that.”
“Couldn’t find your way back to the house where you courted my mother?”
“I did! I went back when you were five. You don’t remember, you were too young. Your grandfather wouldn’t let me take you. He threatened legal action, threatened to ruin your childhood by dragging you through the courts!”
Scott lifted his brows and commented, “In case it had escaped your notice, sir, my childhood ended some years ago. Then again, you did have your replacement wife and son.”
“Not for long,” Johnny said. “Maybe you’re just not cut out for marryin’, old man. Coupla years of it was all you could stand before you booted us out.”
Trembling with rage, Murdoch forced himself to speak calmly. “That’s not true. I explained that. I woke up one morning and—”
“—and we were gone. You say. A woman takes off with a two-year-old boy and her man don’t even try to track her? How far could she get in part of one night? I ain’t buyin’ it.”
“Well, he did have other things to see to,” said Scott. “Getting water to this land.”
“That’s right,” Johnny answered, feigning surprise. “How’d you say it, old man? ‘A gray hair for every good blade of grass’.” He looked at his father the way a cattle-show judge looks at a prize bull. “You do have a lot of gray hairs.”
“As well as quite a few good blades of grass,” Scott added. “If you’d ever taken the time to know me, you’d know I’m not stupid. It’s obvious where your time and effort have gone for the last quarter-century.”
Murdoch clutched at straws. “I---I hired Pinkertons—”
“To find Boston?”
“To find me,” Johnny said. “Old man was so desperate to save his ranch, he even wanted me. Like I said, that’s what you wanted, that’s what you got. Oh, and I’m keepin’ the palomino.”
“Of course. Of course,” Murdoch stammered. “The horse is yours.”
Johnny slipped a hand into his saddlebag and pulled out a familiar-looking, thick envelope. “A thousand don’t seem like quite enough,” he said, “but I’ll let that go. It’ll buy me a little land, a few beeves. Start a little spread of my own.”
“But I’ve already offered you—”
Ignoring their father, Johnny turned to Scott and said, “You don’t need more money, Boston. Care to share some of your thousand? Like, all of it?”
Scott smiled, his grandfather’s smile. “Nice try—‘brother’—but I don’t think so. There are homes in Boston for fatherless boys. I’m sure I can find one that will appreciate a thousand-dollar donation.” He donned the bowler and began to put on his gloves. “There are also consortia that invest in Western cattle interests—and buy out Western cattle ranches. Who knows, sir? We may see one another in those Eastern courtrooms after all.” He turned to leave.
Johnny, grinning, said, “Just as greedy as you, old man. Must run in the family. You might want to keep an eye on your calf crop next spring.” And he, too, turned.
Murdoch barely saw it; his eyes had filled with tears, and the whole room was blurring, becoming indistinct. “No. No. Boys, wait—don’t go.”
He heard a distant voice say, “Sir?” Scott—that must be Scott—Murdoch blinked his eyes and raised his head.
“Sir?” Much closer now, just by his left ear. He was slumped in his favorite chair in the great room. Scott, clad in the blue shirt he’d changed into just before supper, leaned over the back of the chair.
“Murdoch? I realize the new issue of the Cattleman’s Quarterly is compelling reading—”
Johnny, scooping up the journal from the floor at his father’s feet, didn’t try to hide a grin. “—but this is a workin’ ranch, mister!”
Their father glanced from one son to the other. “Boys—you’re here. You’re both here.”
Scott, over Murdoch’s head, commented to Johnny, “Mind like a steel trap.”
“Gotta get up early to get anything past him,” Johnny agreed.
Murdoch got to his feet. “I—guess I fell asleep.”
“Sir, your grasp of the obvious is breathtaking. But permit me the liberty of reminding you, as you told me last night, that resting for tomorrow’s work is more important than literature.”
The patriarch felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Are you giving me back talk, boy?”
“Mur-doch! Scott ain’t settin’ me a good example like he’s s’posed to!”
“The two of you, up to bed. Now!”
“Race you!” called Scott, taking advantage of his longer legs and his proximity to the stairs.
Listening as his sons stampeded toward their rooms, Murdoch moved about, extinguishing lamps. As the great room dimmed, he felt his heart slow to a steady beat and the tension drain from his muscles. Just a nightmare. Only a dream. His boys had stayed, and given him another chance at fatherhood.
Someday, perhaps, the accusing voice in his head would be stilled. Voice—not voices, though this time it had spoken through his sons. Not their voices, but his own.
Soli Deo gloria