Warmth from the California sun reflected through the glass of the window. Scott Lancer pulled back the heavily-starched lace curtain in his hotel room and looked down the main street of Morro Coyo. Faded letters spelled out the town’s name above the bank, and a couple of wagons rolled into view at a leisurely pace.
Scott rubbed his brow. Why would anyone wish to live in such a primitive backwater? Clearly life here was far different from the bustling metropolis where he had grown up. The sooner he returned to civilization the better.
During the weeks since leaving Boston, Scott had often wondered at his sanity. Why had he ever considered making such an arduous journey with only one objective on his mind? What would be gained by confronting the father who had forsaken him without explanation since birth and making sure the man knew, in no uncertain terms, the full extent of his anger?
Not that Murdoch Lancer was fully to blame for having nothing to do with him these past five years. As far as the man was aware, his son, Lieutenant Scott Lancer, had succumbed to shrapnel wounds after his cavalry unit was cut down during a Confederate barrage in the January of '65.
Scott moved away from the window and lay down full length on the bed. He reflected on this blatant untruth. The lie about his demise had been written during a serious bout of depression following his release from a Confederate prison camp at the end of the war. His letter – short, precise and to the point – had been falsely signed using his grandfather’s name, for Scott had reasoned that he might as well make it official. After all for the first twenty years of his life, hadn't he been as good as dead to his estranged father?
More memories flooded Scott's mind. Recovery from the depths of despair at that time had been slow. It hadn't been easy to overcome the irrational shame he had felt for having survived the bloody conflict when good friends around him died. It wasn’t until some time later, when life seemed worth living again, that he had confessed to writing the lie.
Expecting a harsh reprimand for what he’d done, Scott had been surprised when his grandfather had been more than sympathetic. Harlan Garrett had insisted there was no need to feel any remorse or retract the falsehood. Judging by the lack of interest in him since birth, any news of Scott’s death would have most likely been greeted with little sign of sorrow by Murdoch Lancer.
At first it had been easy to go along with his grandfather's way of thinking. Over the passage of time, however, the invisible scar of rejection refused to heal. The desire to confront the man responsible stubbornly persisted, gnawing away at Scott's insides. Hence the trek West.
Scott forced his thoughts to return to the here and now. Inwardly he repeatedly rehearsed the scathing words he intended to say to the man who had ignored his existence all those years. Finally aware that the hour might be later than he thought, Scott opened his watch. It was just gone noon. He should still have time enough to ride to the Lancer Ranch, say his piece, and return to town before dark.
With a flick of his wrist, Scott snapped the lid of the watch shut and pushed up from the bed. It was time to lay this ghost to rest.
After stepping outside of the hotel, Scott stood straight-backed on the boardwalk as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight. He wore a ruffled dress shirt, silk necktie and waistcoat under his costly suit coat and already felt overdressed in the mid-day heat. Sweat built up and trickled down his back. This was not a good sign. He had no desire to appear nervous when arriving at the Lancer ranch.
As Scott looked up and down the dusty road, a fly buzzed around his face. He detested flies. They were a sickening reminder of bloated bodies on the battle field and the squalid conditions endured in the prison camp. With a shudder, he quickly brushed the insect away, only to have two more appear. It looked like they would be an irritation he would have to live with.
A number of townsfolk were going about their business. When passing him, some glanced at Scott with raised eyebrows. He had no way knowing whether this was in admiration or silent derision of his Eastern attire. Nor did he care as he tipped his bowler hat out of habit.
Raucous laughter drifted over from the opposite side of the street. A group of scruffily dressed men were lounging outside of the only saloon in town, a Mexican style cantina. Most were unshaven and Scott surmised they were probably unwashed as well. All had beer mugs in their hands, except for one man who sat in a rocking chair.
Three young women walked by. One of the men yelled a string of uncouth comments towards them from the saloon doorway. The women hurried away and more foul-mouthed remarks and guffaws of hilarity followed their departure.
Scott clenched his fists. He fought back the desire to rush over and wipe the lecherous look off each and every unsavory face. Such ill-mannered behavior and blatant harassment towards the female sex would never be tolerated in Boston.
The man in the chair rocked back and forth. His hat was worn so low it was hard to see his eyes as he cleaned out his fingernails with the point of a knife. He lifted his gaze and looked over at Scott. Jerking a thumb in his direction, he said something to those around him. All heads turned. Several loud whistles and more yells of derision about Scott’s style of dress were hurled at him.
Refusing to cower down, Scott ignored the insults. He fixed his eyes on the man in the rocker, returning his stare with a fearless one of his own.
The man stopped rocking and slipped the knife into a sheath fastened to his lower leg. He eased himself upright and opened his full length frock coat. In complete contrast to Scott’s more flamboyant style, he wore a plain waistcoat and open necked shirt underneath.
“Go on Suit, make the dude dance and eat dust,” someone yelled.
The man called Suit took a step forward into the street and flexed his fingers above the butt of his revolver in a provocative way.
Scott’s gaze skimmed over the man’s outfit and rested on the pearl handled gun strapped to his hip. However he stood his ground. Having never walked away from a fight in his life, he wasn’t about to start now.
A voice bellowed from within the saloon. With no sign of hesitation, the men went inside. The last to move was Suit. He gave Scott a final menacing glare before following the others into the gloom of the cantina.
Silently cursing his recklessness, Scott felt a rush of gratitude towards the unknown voice. It was time he headed out of town before he got himself into more trouble.
Having already been given directions to the livery stable, and in need of hiring a horse for the day, Scott made towards it. He had only walked a short distance when he came to the combination hardware and general store. As he passed the open doorway, he heard a scuffle.
A feminine voice cried out in obvious distress, and Scott swiftly went inside. He stopped for a moment and took in the scene. An elderly figure Scott presumed was the storekeeper, lay slumped in the corner, while a heavily built man stared into the face of a young woman he had pinned against the wall. As he leaned closer, the girl tried to shrug him off but without success.
“Ah, come on, just one little kiss,” the man slurred. “Stop playing hard to get. You know you want to.”
Scott rushed over, took hold of the man’s shoulder, and spun him round. “That’s enough! The lady isn’t interested so return to the rock you crawled out from, right now. Understand?”
With a grunt the man struck out. His fist connected with Scott’s chin.
Scott staggered back a step and wobbled. Quickly recovering his balance, he threw a left and a right punch, his knuckles smashing into flesh and bone
The other man went down, rolled heavily on the floor, and grabbed for his gun.
Anticipating the man’s action, Scott was already standing above him with a Smith and Wesson pocket revolver pointed directly at his head. “I wouldn’t advise it, my friend. Not if you wish to see another day.”
The tense stand-off lasted but a few seconds. The other man grabbed the edge of a table and hauled himself to his feet. “You’ll pay for this mister. Nobody crosses Coley McHugh and gets away with it.”
Scott’s voice remained strong as he answered. “Possibly . . . though I wouldn’t bet on it. Now get out of here before I forget I’m a gentleman.”
Blood oozed from McHugh’s split lip and nose. He wiped a sleeve across his mouth and glared back as Scott stared at him unwaveringly. Then he staggered out of the store, slamming the door behind him.
Scott cautiously waited a moment before returning the pistol to the pocket concealed inside his coat. He rubbed at his reddened knuckles while looking at the young woman. She was pretty, her brown hair tied back with a velvet bow. “He didn’t hurt you, did he, Miss?”
Despite the paleness of her face, the young woman shook her head and gave him a reassuring smile. “No, I’m fine.”
Confident she was all right, Scott turned to the storekeeper and assisted him up from the floor.
“Gracias Señor, but that man is muy dangerous. You will need to take care, now.”
Scott shrugged away his concerns. “I appreciate your warning, but he isn’t the first and won’t be the last drunk I’ll have an encounter with.”
The girl, who looked to be around seventeen or eighteen, straightened her disheveled clothing, color now having returned to her cheeks. “I don’t know how I can ever thank you Mr.?”
“Dennison. Samuel Dennison. I’m just glad I could be of some help.”
The assumed name rolled of Scott’s tongue with more ease than he expected. Upon arriving the previous day, he’d decided he didn’t wish his father forewarned of his presence before turning up at the Lancer ranch. He wanted to see the look of shock on Murdoch Lancer’s face when the unwanted son, thought long gone but now come to life like Lazarus arisen from the dead, appeared on his doorstep. Hence Scott had signed the name of his ex-fiancé’s brother in the hotel register. For Samuel Dennison had been as close and as good a friend to Scott as any man could ever be; the distressing circumstances surrounding his death were never far from his mind.
With an unashamed stare, the girl eyed Scott. “Well Mr. Dennison, by the sound of your accent and the look of your clothes, I’d say you’re from back East. Am I right?”
“Boston, Miss . . .”
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss O’Brien. And please, just call me Sam.” Scott bowed his head and smiled.
The girl beamed. “Thank you, Sam. I’m Teresa. Are you here on business?”
Scott scooped up his fallen bowler hat and began brushing away dust from the brim. “You could say that. Three thousand miles, just for one meeting.”
Teresa sighed deeply. “That’s a long way to travel.” Sadness filled her eyes as her expression changed to one of painful remembrance. “My father always promised he’d take me to visit Boston and New York one day. Only . . . well, he was murdered in an ambush last fall, right here in Morro Coyo.”
Scott quit brushing his hat. Feeling a rush of sympathy, he moved closer and touched her lightly on the arm. “My sincere condolences, Teresa. It must have been a devastating time for you and your mother.”
“My mother died when I was very small,” Teresa explained as her lips trembled. She then pulled herself together, a smile lighting her face. “But I have a guardian who is the kindest and most generous man you could wish to meet. He treats me just like a daughter. Without him I really don’t know what I would have done.”
“He sounds like a wonderful man.”
“Oh he is. You’d like him. I’m very lucky, in so many ways, to be his ward.”
The storekeeper pulled out a cloth and mopped his brow. “Señorita Teresa, those men always make mucho trouble. No comprendo why Señor Lancer let you come to town alone.”
Upon hearing the Lancer name, Scott stepped towards a cabinet and pretended interest in an assortment of oil-lamps and lanterns.
“It’s not Murdoch’s fault, Señor Baldemerro,” Teresa replied. “I was in need of a few supplies, and new material to make a dress, so I left without telling him. With Lancer being so shorthanded these days, I knew he wouldn’t have anyone spare to escort me here.”
The man made a tut-tut sound with his tongue. “Señor Lancer cares for you, Señorita Teresa. I expect he will be very cross when you get back.” He let out a deep sigh. “Excuse me, please, while I go finish your order.”
As the storekeeper went out through a door at the rear of the store, Scott digested what he’d just heard. It would seem his father and Teresa’s kindhearted guardian was one and the same. This fact was hard to believe.
Keen to find out more, Scott joined Teresa at a counter where fabrics, ribbons and sewing cotton were laid on top in a colorful display. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation Teresa, but I take it you live on a ranch?”
Teresa nodded as she glided her hand slowly across a roll of green satin. “I was born on Lancer. It’s the largest ranch in the San Joaquin valley, and my father was foreman there for many years until his death. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else, though the way things are, I don’t know how long we can carry on before . . .”
As she paused, Teresa gazed at Scott with a hopeful expression. “I don’t suppose you’d consider taking a job there, would you Sam? Mr. Lancer pays a fair wage.”
Scott wanted to laugh out loud at the idea of working for the man he’d grown to loathe. However he restrained himself, and flashed a smile. "Sorry, Teresa, I’m no cowboy. Besides, I intend leaving the area tomorrow.”
Teresa looked at him as if she were deeply disappointed. “That’s such a pity. You’re just the kind of man we need to help protect Lancer at the moment.”
Scott frowned with interest, in spite of the way he felt towards his father. “There’s a lot of trouble around here?”
“You have no idea.” Teresa sighed. She bit her lower lip worriedly. “The whole valley has been terrorized by Day Pardee’s gang for over a year. Fields have been burned; stock stolen; farms and ranches raided. Murdoch calls them land pirates. They just take what they want and don’t care who they hurt or kill. After they murdered my father, many of the hands working for Lancer were scared off.”
Appalled at the thought of such calculated brutality, Scott could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Hasn’t anyone been arrested and brought to trial?”
“This isn’t Boston, Sam. There’s no law around here. Those responsible are sitting in the saloon right now, and I’m so scared for Murdoch. He’s vowed he’d rather die defending the ranch than give in to those men . . . and he means it. Now can you see why we need all the help we can get?”
Movement in the street caught Scott’s attention and he stepped closer to the mercantile window and stared out. The men he’d encountered earlier were riding past. One dressed all in black led the way, and Scott wondered if this was Pardee. The rest of the group followed close behind, with Suit and Teresa’s unwelcomed admirer bringing up the rear.
Teresa moved to Scott’s side and gripped his arm. “That’s Pardee and his men. They’re probably making for the hills where they’ve set up a camp. Their tracks are so well covered though: no one has been able to work out where it is.”
As Teresa released her hold and turned away, Scott continued to gaze after the gang until they’d ridden out of sight. A verse he remembered from childhood came to mind. ‘. . . and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.’
A cold chill crept down the whole length of Scott’s spine. Maybe he should support his father in his fight? But damn it! He hadn’t come all this way just to risk dying for the ranch, which obviously meant more to Murdoch Lancer than he ever did! Even so, there was Teresa to consider. Scott already felt a strong sense of friendly concern for her welfare. Remembering the uncouth behavior by Pardee’s men towards the three women in the street, he was in no doubt to Teresa’s fate should she fall into their hands.
“Sam? I bet you haven’t heard a single word I’ve just said.”
Shaken from his reverie, Scott looked down at Teresa. With her affable smile, she seemed so trusting of him. A niggle of remorse nipped at his conscience for misleading her about his identity. “Sorry, I was miles away.”
Teresa’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I could see that. I was just saying, at least Johnny has finally been found. That’s the one piece of good news Murdoch has had in a very long time.”
Scott looked at her with raised eyebrows. “Johnny?”
“Mr. Lancer’s son.” Teresa’s face brightened. “He should be arriving from Mexico, any day now. Once he knows about the threat from Pardee, he’s bound to want to stay and help.”
For a second time Scott gazed out of the window, this time to hide his shock at Teresa’s disclosure. He had a brother? What kind of father would keep such a significant fact from a son? A cruel and coldhearted one, it would seem. Yet such a picture bore no resemblance to the caring guardian Teresa described. Just who was the real Murdoch Lancer?
Señor Baldemerro approached them carrying a large wicker basket and interrupted Scott’s thoughts.
Teresa pulled a small purse from her coat pocket. “How much do I owe you, Señor Baldemerro?”
The storekeeper handed over a receipt. Teresa quickly looked at it, and unaware of the effect her statement to Scott had made, she took out a number of coins and counted them out into the storekeeper’s outstretched hand.
While Teresa was paying for her supplies, a crazy thought popped into Scott’s head. What harm would there be in remaining incognito longer than he’d originally intended? It would give him the perfect opportunity to determine his father’s true character and to meet his brother. Then at the appropriate time he would reveal who he really was. After years of humdrum activity, even the thought of taking on Pardee sent an unexpected shudder of excitement through him.
Scott knew that his spur-of-the moment idea might just turn out to be the most reckless escapade of his life. Yet he could already imagine lively conversations around the card tables of Boston as he regaled tales of his exploits to his friends. What could possibly go wrong?
He gazed around the room and cleared his throat. “Señor Baldemerro. Do you think you could outfit me with clothes and a firearm more suited for around here?”
Señor Baldemerro nodded. “Si Señor, I sell everything you require.”
Teresa looked at Scott with a quizzical expression.
Scott smiled. “Having such a pretty lady ask for my help is something I can’t ignore. So I thought I’d postpone my plans to return east for the time being and take up that job you offered instead. That’s if you think I can be of some use?”
Teresa stared wide eyed and open mouthed. Her squeal of delight gave Scott his answer.
The die was now cast.
Back in his hotel room, Scott quickly changed into a newly-purchased work shirt and pants. Already feeling cooler, he folded the three piece suit he’d worn earlier and packed it away with the rest of his belongings. What had he been thinking, wearing such an unsuitable outfit in the heat of California?
Scott picked up his new gun belt and strapped it on. It had been a long time since he’d worn one on a daily basis. Hopefully he’d have time to get used to the feel again before having to put his shooting skills to use. He took out his gun. Compared to the lightweight revolver he’d carried with him from Boston, the Colt felt heavy in his hand. After making sure the firearm was properly loaded, he slipped it back into the holster on his right thigh.
He reached over for his new hat and settled the Stetson on his head. Catching sight of himself in the dresser mirror, Scott paused. It was as if a different man was looking back at him. He chuckled. The friends he’d left back in Boston would barely recognize him now, for he looked every inch a cowboy, albeit a pale skinned one.
His brow then furrowed as he reconsidered the wisdom of what he was about to do. Should he really take on the persona of another in such a calculated way? Maybe it would be best to just forget about the whole thing and make a hasty departure on the afternoon stage.
Scott moved to the window and pulled back the curtain. He looked down at the street below where Teresa waited patiently for him, seated in a one-horse buggy. In that instant, he knew he couldn’t walk away. There was more at stake now than leaving Murdoch Lancer to fulfill his own destiny.
After he dropped the curtain back into place, Scott glanced around the room. Satisfied everything had been packed in his travelling trunk, he pushed down the lid and turned the key in the lock.
Scott smiled as he placed the key into his shirt pocket. What wouldn’t he give to see his grandfather’s face at this minute? After all the heated arguments between them about such a meeting with Murdoch Lancer taking place, Scott could picture the man’s look of horror if he knew his grandson was about to fraternize with the enemy.
A frown replaced Scott’s smile. He’d often wondered why Harlan had been so set against him wanting to finally tackle Murdoch face to face. Could there be something from the past he didn’t wish to have revealed? If there was a skeleton in his grandfather’s closet, at least by extending his time on Lancer, he’d have a better chance of finding out the truth. With a fresh sense of purpose, Scott took another look in the mirror, tipped his hat slightly to one side then opened the bedroom door.
It didn’t take long for Scott to check out of the hotel and secure his luggage behind the buggy seat. He climbed aboard and settled back on the soft upholstery, content to be a passenger as Teresa flicked the reins and set off towards the ranch.
Within minutes they were bumping along a rut-filled dirt road which had obviously seen much use but little repair. It was a rougher ride than any Scott had experienced around Boston, and there was little conversation between them as Teresa drove carefully along, avoiding the worst of the ruts. Eventually, after travelling for several miles, she mentioned they were on Lancer land.
Lancer. The name was a constant reminder of the father who never wanted him. Realizing his hands had clenched painfully tight at the thought, Scott relaxed them. “Teresa, I think I should take this opportunity to find out more about the place I’ll be working. Just how big is the ranch?”
“From what I’ve been told, around one hundred thousand acres.” She smiled. “Murdoch is always saying he has a grey hair for every blade of grass on his land. He’s also built up a herd of twenty thousand head of cattle and the finest string of horses in the San Joaquin valley.”
Scott gave a slow nod, his genial expression giving away nothing of what he was thinking. No wonder Murdoch Lancer had rejected him. A motherless son would only have been a burden around his neck as he focused his efforts on becoming a successful rancher. Scott’s thoughts shifted to Pardee. It was no surprise he was after Lancer. The gunman stood to be very wealthy if he took control.
“What’s Boston like, Sam?”
At the sound of Teresa’s voice, Scott’s mind refocused. “I expect it’s much like any other growing city. Street after street of houses, many over six stories high and always very busy. There’s the harbor, a fine newspaper, many churches and several theatres. I’ve seen some fine performances over the years . . .”
A distant memory returned. As a treat in May ‘62, Scott had been taken to see a play at the Boston Museum. To his eternal shame, he had wildly applauded the performance of the leading actor, John Wilkes Booth. Scott rarely swore, and most certainly never in the company of a lady. However he was tempted as the crystal-clear recollection came back to him. Why remember it now? Could it be because the last act had concentrated on a dying father trying to make peace with his estranged son?
Scott gathered his thoughts back to the present. “. . . and, of course, Boston Common and numerous other parks and public gardens are always open to stroll through on a warm summer’s day. Then in the winter, I’ve seen snow piled so high it was impossible to move out of the house for days. Lakes have frozen over and that’s when the foolhardy put on a pair of skates and take to the ice.”
“Have you skated?”
“Only once, but I ended up on my back most of the time. I gave up trying so as to retain what little dignity I had left.”
Teresa laughed. “From the drawings I’ve seen of them, I doubt if I’d be able to balance on narrow blades either.”
Scott smiled but didn’t expand on the full story as he travelled back in time within the privacy of his own mind.
It had all begun the day after he had celebrated his twelfth birthday. One gift had been his first pair of skates, and eager to try them out, he had hurried down to the frozen Jamaica Pond early in the morning. After an hour, he still hadn’t mastered the art of staying upright.
Struggling erect for the umpteenth time he remembered he had some stick candy in his coat pocket. His feet had slipped as he pulled the candy out and it had flown from his hand and landed on the ice some distance away. Never one to waste a tasty sweet, he’d made towards it when the ice had cracked. Before he had time to react, he had fallen into the freezing water.
Frantically he’d tried to pull himself out, but his gloved hands were already numb and he couldn’t get a firm grip on the edge of the broken ice. Thrashing his arms and legs about to keep afloat, he’d soon grown tired from being weighed down by skates, boots and thick winter coat.
As he’d sunken below the surface, he felt something grab hold of his collar. Strong hands had pulled upwards and hauled him onto thicker ice. While he’d gasped for breath, the man who’d risked his own life by crawling across the unstable surface had said something in a foreign tongue. He had given Scott a reassuring smile then picked him up and carried him to safety.
By the time he was back on solid ground - exhausted and with teeth chattering - a small crowd had gathered. One of his grandfather’s friends had recognized him and had taken him straight home.
Although surviving such a traumatic experience unscathed, Scott had refused to even think about going back on the ice from that day on. The fact he never had the chance to thank his rescuer or even saw him again had been a source of deep regret. Yet he acknowledged what happened helped to shape him into the man he had become - unable to turn his back on a stranger in need of help regardless of any risk to himself. Scott exhaled loudly. Even, it would seem, the father he’d never met.
Teresa gave him a sidelong glance. “Is something wrong, Sam?”
Scott flicked over a smile. “No, there’s nothing wrong Teresa. I was just remembering something from a long time ago.”
“Well I must say, from what you’ve told me, Boston sounds like a wonderful place to live, but I still wouldn’t swap Lancer for anywhere else in the world.”
Scott merely nodded. What if he had been brought up with his father? Would he have felt the same love for the ranch, which bore his name? Something told him he would have, especially if he’d had a brother at his side.
He then remembered Teresa saying Johnny didn’t know about the year long threat from Pardee. What could have kept him away from the ranch all this time? “Tell me, Teresa. You said earlier that Mr. Lancer’s son was in Mexico. What would he be doing there?”
Teresa shrugged her shoulders. “I’m not too sure, Sam. Though we did hear he’s hired out his gun for quite a while and goes by the name of Johnny Madrid.”
The name meant nothing to Scott, but that Johnny used his gun to make a living didn’t bode well. What if he was cast in the same mold as Day Pardee and his ilk? Scott was unable to hide a mix of disbelief and anger in his voice. “You’re telling me that Murdoch Lancer allowed him to become a gunfighter?”
Teresa looked over at Scott. “You can’t blame Mr. Lancer. He hasn’t been in contact with him since Johnny’s mother ran off with a gambler twenty years ago and took Johnny with her.” She pulled on the reins to slow the buggy down. “From what my father told me, Murdoch was heartbroken when he returned from a business trip to find his wife and son gone. He’s paid out many times over the years to have someone try to locate them both. It was only a couple of months ago that a Pinkerton agent finally found Johnny in Mexico and told him his father wanted him to return home.”
While Scott pondered this information, Teresa brought the horse to a halt on the edge of a ridge. She turned her gaze to the right. “There it is . . . as far as the eye can see. The most beautiful place in the whole wide world . . . Lancer.”
Scott slowly stood. Down below, nestled between rolling hills, was a wide, fertile, green grassed valley. A stream ran along the left edge and in the distance, a collection of buildings stood out; the largest of which Scott guessed must be the main house which dominated the immediate area with its elegance. It was everything he’d ever thought it would be. A stunning sight which should, by rights, have been his home.
Wondering, and not for the first time, how different his life would have been had he not been rejected since birth, Scott sat back down. He knew it was going to take every inch of self control to keep from lashing out both verbally and physically the moment he stared Murdoch Lancer in the face.
Teresa looked at him and fiddled with the reins. “Please, Sam, don’t mention that man in the store when you meet Mr. Lancer. As my guardian, Murdoch still thinks of me as a little girl and is very protective. It will only upset him unnecessarily, and he’s already got such a lot on his mind.”
A muscle in Scott’s cheek twitched. “Far be it from me to be the instigator of an argument in the Lancer household.”
Teresa didn’t seem to notice any irony in Scott’s answer. She just gave him a thankful smile and urged the horse on.
After making a slow descent along the winding road, they reached the valley floor. Teresa drove the buggy until they came to an arch built of stone which bore the Lancer name. They passed under it and the view opened out.
Scott stared hungrily at the ranch house a short distance away. He liked it on sight.
Built in a Spanish style, it was a large, impressive looking building with white-washed walls, red tiled roof and a prominent tower. On the road side, a staircase ran from the ground to a verandah and from there to a flat roof. A couple of men stood in the tower, rifles in their hands. It was clear to Scott the lookouts were in position as a precaution should there be an attack.
The horse came to a stop right before the house next to a covered porch. Scott stepped down and walked around the buggy. As he assisted Teresa to the ground, the front door burst open and a voice boomed out.
“Teresa! What on earth made you go to town on your own?”
A man walked towards them with the aid of a cane. His shoulders were broad and his hair grey and his weathered face showed obvious worry as he halted by Teresa’s side.
At a rough guess, Scott judged the man to be a few inches taller than his own six foot one. Could this imposing figure be his father?
“I’m sorry, Murdoch.” Teresa stretched up and pecked her guardian’s cheek. “I know now, it was a stupid thing to do. But I bought you some of your favorite pipe tobacco, so am I forgiven?”
Murdoch hugged her close. “Of course you are sweetheart. Just promise me you won’t do it again. If anything happened to you, I . . .” Murdoch’s gaze shifted to Scott. “And you are?”
Scott stiffened at the close scrutiny he was being given from the man he’d reviled most of his life. He felt a surge of anger rise and his first instinct was to throw a punch. It was only pure willpower that kept his hands pressed flat against his sides and his gaze and tone steady. “Samuel Dennison . . . sir,” he answered with forced politeness.
Teresa stepped away. “Sam’s new in town, Murdoch,” she said. “We met in the mercantile, and I offered him a job on Lancer. I hope you don’t mind?”
Murdoch frowned. “Teresa, I hardly think it wise for you to be offering a job to a stranger without checking with me first. As for then bringing him back here, alone . . . well, anything could have happened!”
Teresa looked up at him. “Please don’t be cross with me, Murdoch. I just wanted to help, and Sam has been the perfect gentleman. Really he has.”
Murdoch’s face softened. “I’m not cross, darling. I just fear for your safety. Why don’t you take your supplies inside while I talk to this young man?”
With a nod, Teresa turned to the buggy and took hold of her basket. She lifted it out and gave a broad smile towards Scott. “Hope to see you later, Sam.”
Scott removed his Stetson, gave a bow of his head, and watched her depart. As her slim figure disappeared through the doorway, he settled his hat back on and returned his gaze to Murdoch.
“Looks like you’ve got a bruise coming.” Murdoch gestured towards Scott’s chin. “Have you been in a fight?”
“Yes, sir,” Scott shot back in reply.
“What does the other man look like?”
“Worse than me.”
Murdoch’s mouth twitched. “Have you worked on a ranch before?”
Scott shook his head. “No Mr. Lancer. I was brought up in the city. Teresa explained about you being shorthanded and the trouble with Pardee. It seems to me, for the foreseeable future, you’re more in need of someone who is able to use a gun rather than herd cattle. The first I can already do more than adequately. The second I can learn.”
Still looking at him, Murdoch scratched the bridge of his nose and seemed to be weighing up what he’d been told. “I won’t lie to you Sam; with all that’s going on around here, I need every man I can get, regardless of experience. So if you’re prepared to follow orders and willing to work long hours, you’ve got yourself a job.”
Murdoch extended his arm.
For a brief moment Scott hesitated, and then shook the offered hand. Their shake was short and business like. Nothing more than Scott had expected from the man who had built up Lancer at the expense of his son’s happiness.
A deep frown creased Murdoch’s broad forehead as they drew apart. “We haven’t met before, have we? It’s just . . . you look vaguely familiar.”
Scott’s stomach tightened and he fought to keep his voice as neutral as possible. “No, sir, we’ve never met. I’m sure if we had, I would have remembered.”
Murdoch continued to frown as he gestured across the yard. “Anyway, no doubt you’ll want to get settled in and freshened up before supper. If you take the buggy over to the barn, my segundo, Cipriano, is in there. He’ll show you to your room and explain the routine around here.”
“Room? Not the bunkhouse?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Truth is there are more beds than men at the moment. I had several single rooms built years ago. One of them is empty, so you might as well make use of it.”
After giving Scott a nod of dismissal, Murdoch turned and took a step. But he was caught off balance, stumbled and dropped the cane.
Scott’s reaction was purely instinctive. He rushed forward to support Murdoch’s weight and stop him from falling onto the stone floor of the porch.
As he took a moment to catch his breath, Murdoch rubbed at his thigh. “Much obliged. Damn leg is forever letting me down.”
“What happened?” Scott picked up the walking stick and handed it over.
“Did Teresa tell you how her father died?”
“Yes. Ambushed and murdered, she said.”
Murdoch let out a deep sigh. “I took a bullet in the back at the same time. Still haven’t got the strength to ride a horse. Now do you understand what could happen if you come up against Pardee?”
Scott couldn’t help but smile. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to frighten me off.”
“No, Sam. I just think you should know what you’re letting yourself in for. If you want to change your mind about working here, there’d be no hard feelings.”
Scott took a moment to look around, taking in the scene as he imagined his mother once did. “I’m more than aware of the risks involved, Mr. Lancer. I’ll take my chances, if it’s all right with you.”
Murdoch nodded. “Very well. Thank you, son.”
Scott stood as though rooted to the spot as Murdoch walked slowly into the house and the door closed behind him.
Son. Scott guessed it would have been said in a friendly way towards any young man in Murdoch’s employ. Yet to finally hear that word directed at him from his father’s lips meant more than he had ever thought possible. He couldn’t stop an unexpected swell of intense emotion within his chest.
‘Don’t forget what the man has done – or not done for you,’ an inner voice reminded him.
Scott knew the voice well. “I haven’t forgotten, Grandfather,” he murmured back.
With Harlan’s words still echoing between his ears, Scott took hold of the reins and walked the horse across the yard towards the barn.
The soft glow from a full moon seeped through a chink between the curtains. Scott had been in bed for hours but was still wide awake. During his period of depression, similar bouts of insomnia had been cured with a bottle of his grandfather’s finest malt whiskey. This time there was no such remedial treatment available. His first night on Lancer was proving to be an exceedingly long and sober one.
However, Scott willingly conceded being unable to sleep had nothing to do with his modest surroundings. The small room was cozy and its sparse furnishings, comprising of a washstand, a chair, a bed and a chest of drawers were adequate. It was, though, a far cry from his spacious bedroom in Boston with its costly dark walnut furniture and luxurious carpet and curtains. Those furnishings had never been to his taste. Scott gave a snort. He’d no more had a say then in the way his room was decorated than he had in his current accommodation.
So much had happened since his arrival at Morro Coyo: Scott wasn’t surprised to still be awake. There were many things to think about, to ponder. He’d come to California with one objective on his mind. Confront Murdoch Lancer and then return to Boston. It seemed fate had decided differently. The chance meeting with Teresa and her astounding revelation that he had a brother had turned his well thought out plan on its head.
A brother. Scott’s lips curved into a smile. Having a brother was the one thing he’d always secretly craved.
This thought brought a swirl of questions. Would Johnny know he existed? Scott doubted it. Could it be their paths had already crossed? Scott quickly dismissed this possibility as well. He couldn’t see Johnny ever visiting Boston. Why on earth would he? So where could he have lived all these years? Had his home always been in Mexico? Why hadn’t he returned to Lancer when he’d grown older?
As Scott rested his hands behind his head, he tried to speculate on several viable explanations. He finally gave up. With any luck, the truth would come out soon enough.
Another more miserable thought struck Scott. There were no guarantees he and Johnny would get along. What was the likelihood they’d have anything in common except sharing the same father’s blood? Could that be enough to forge some sort of brotherly bond between them when the time came to tell Johnny who he really was? He could only hope that it would.
Scott turned on his side to face the wall. As he continued to try and wind down he even counted sheep. Sleep still eluded him. Several minutes later with a groan of exasperation Scott threw back the bed covers. He planted his feet on the cold stone floor, stood up and walked to the solitary window.
After drawing back the curtains, Scott rested his arms on the window ledge. He had a clear view towards the mountains where the first streaks of dawn were now visible in a cloudless sky. The screeching crow of a rooster immediately broke the silence of early morning. It vaguely reminded Scott of his time in the cavalry, only then there’d been a bugle call to ready him for another day. How was he going to stay alert and keep his eyes open for the next eighteen hours?
Much as he wished he could flop back down on the mattress, Scott turned to the washstand. He was now a working vaquero. There were animals to tend to, chores to be done, and a ranch to protect.
Light from the rising sun entered the room, so Scott didn’t need to make use of the oil lamp which hung from a hook in the ceiling. He poured water from a pitcher into a basin and quickly washed and shaved. Having unpacked the night before, Scott debated whether to wear one of the new work shirts he’d bought, but decided against it. The one he wore yesterday would have to do. This wasn’t his grandfather’s house where he had the luxury of a maid to do his laundry on a daily basis.
Once ready to face the world, Scott stepped outside and drew in a few deep breaths of the crisp, morning air. If nothing else it invigorated him as he walked a short distance to the communal kitchen by the side of the bunkhouse. The aroma of freshly baked bread assailed his nostrils as he entered.
Scott was greeted with welcoming smiles from several vaqueros he’d been introduced to the previous evening. Cipriano, who was seated at one end of a long table, waved him over to an empty chair by his side. Scott took the seat offered and sat down.
The other men at the table ranged in age from early twenties to fifties, and most had been born in the area when it was still under Mexican rule. Though a few words of Spanish filtered into their broken English, Scott noted they didn’t revert fully to their mother tongue. He could only conclude it was for his benefit.
Conversation over breakfast centered on where Pardee and his gang would strike next. Scott could sense an edgy nervousness as the conclusion was reached it wouldn’t be long before the ranch came under direct attack. “I’m curious to know why you all stay when your own lives could soon be at risk.”
“Señor Lancer is the reason we stay,” Cipriano answered. There was a murmur of agreement and nodding of heads around the table.
“He’s worth dying for?” Scott couldn’t stop the sound of skepticism in his tone of voice.
“The Patrón would do the same for any one of us.”
After drinking down the last dregs of his second cup of coffee, Scott excused himself and returned to his room with time to spare before starting work. He sat on the edge of the bed and thought on Cipriano’s response. It would appear his father was regarded as a decent, honorable, and well respected man. A boss who’d always put the health and safety of his men first and had never expected them to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
Scott grudgingly had to accept the truth of what he’d been told. Hadn’t Murdoch also shown genuine concern for Teresa’s welfare the day before? She obviously meant a lot to him and, as she had said herself, was treated like a daughter.
Though rarely prone to such a feeling, something akin to jealousy rose from deep inside Scott. As far as he was aware, Murdoch Lancer had never spared him a second thought in twenty-five years. If his father was capable of showing such compassion towards Teresa and resolutely sought out Johnny’s whereabouts, why had he heartlessly ignored his first born son?
Remembering he was now the elder of two, Scott looked over towards the newly acquired gun belt which hung over the back of the chair. His thoughts drifted to his brother. What kind of a life would Johnny have led since being taken from his place of birth? A hard one, judging by the career choice he appeared to have made.
The sound of a quiet cough halted Scott’s deliberations. He turned his head and was surprised to see Murdoch in the open doorway.
“Good morning, Sam. Cipriano said you’d returned to your room. May I come in?”
Scott forced out a smile that usually came so easily. “Please do.” He shoved up from the bed and stood with his back to the window.
Murdoch entered. Wearing a wide-brimmed Stetson, he seemed even taller and his presence more arresting. “Are you comfortable in here?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“You’ve had breakfast? Was there enough to eat?”
“More than enough. Maria is a good cook.”
Murdoch gave a nod then picked up a photograph which stood on top of the chest of drawers. “You were in the Union Army?”
Scott looked towards the image of himself and another officer standing side by side at attention. It was the bitter sweet memento of the best and worst days of his life. A treasured keepsake he took everywhere. “I served in a cavalry unit during the last two years of the war.”
“The cavalry?” Murdoch’s face took on a wistful expression. “You must have been very young when you volunteered. Didn’t your father try to stop you?”
The muscles in Scott’s jaw clenched. He swallowed back a lifetime of resentment. “I can assure you sir; my father had no say in the matter. Besides, there were many younger than me who answered the call, though some not as lucky to survive.”
Blissfully unaware of the dark look Scott sent his way, Murdoch placed the picture back down. He ran a finger slowly across the top of the frame. “Too many young men died, too . . . too many sons.”
A small frown creased Scott’s brow. Could his father have been thinking about him?
“Teresa tells me you’re from Boston.” Murdoch’s gaze returned to Scott. “Daresay the place has changed a lot since I was last there twenty years ago.”
Scott gave a silent nod of agreement and quickly absorbed this fact. Twenty years? He would have been around five years old, but he had no recollection of meeting Murdoch at that time. Nevertheless, what if his father had gone all that way to see him? Would Grandfather have turned him away at the door? It was a possibility. Harlan Garrett had never hidden his dislike for the man who’d married his only daughter and taken her away from the family home.
After flexing his back with a grimace, Murdoch leaned forward and placed both hands on top of his cane. “I’ve already told most of the men to concentrate on the branding over the next few days,” he said. “Since you’re new to the area and no one will associate you with Lancer, I need you to take a wagon to Morro Coyo and wait for my son. He should be arriving any time, although I’m not too sure when or how he’s going to get here.”
On an impulse, Scott feigned ignorance. He wanted to see his father’s reaction. “I wasn’t aware that you had a son, Mr. Lancer. Has he been away on a business trip?”
Murdoch didn’t answer straight away. When he did, his voice was unusually quiet. “No. I . . . I haven’t seen Johnny for a very long time.”
The sadness in Murdoch’s tone added fuel to Scott’s confusion. He hadn’t expected him to show such emotion. This was no uncaring father with a heart of stone.
Murdoch cleared his throat and took out a pocket watch from his waistcoat. He flipped open the lid and appeared to check the time. “It’s just past seven. There’s a stage due in at nine and another this afternoon. I realize it could be a long day of doing nothing, but feel free to order food at the hotel and bill it to the ranch.” He paused. “Any questions?”
“What if Johnny doesn’t turn up today?”
“Then you go again tomorrow and the next day and the next until he does. I can’t risk him running into any of Pardee’s men. If they found out he’s my son, he could be as good as dead.”
And so could I. Scott managed to somehow keep his face impassive. “I’ll make sure Johnny is brought straight back to the ranch, Mr. Lancer. You can count on it.”
Murdoch regarded him steadily. “You watch yourself as well, Sam,” he instructed. “I don’t want to lose another good man to Pardee’s gang.”
Scott smiled without mirth. “Don’t concern yourself about me, sir. I have no intention of giving any of those killers the satisfaction.”
For a brief moment Scott thought Murdoch was going to say something in response as he continued to look at him; his brow furrowed bemusedly. However he just gave a quick nod then disappeared from view through the doorway.
As he buckled on his gun belt, Scott’s mind whirled with uncertainty. From what he’d just gleaned, it was possible his abandonment wasn’t as cut and dried as he’d always been led to believe. He may well have misjudged his father all these years. The thought was a worrying one.
There was only one thing he could do. Give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt, at least until he had the chance to tell his own version of events. It seemed the fairest way, though Scott could well imagine his grandfather’s unfavorable reaction. Harlan had often told him he was too considerate and forgiving for his own good. Why had he always made it sound like a weakness?
Scott was reminded of the day he proposed to Julie. A few weeks later, she returned his ring, explaining though she was very fond of him she could never love him as he deserved to be loved. It was their shared sense of loss for her brother and Scott’s closest friend which had brought them together.
Though devastated by her rejection, Scott had thoughtfully accepted back the token of his commitment to her without an argument, and they’d parted on friendly terms. His grandfather, however, had been incredulous when he heard the news. Harlan told him he was a fool to give up the daughter of their fiercest business rival without a fight. He would never make anything of himself if he constantly let his heart rule his head.
Scott picked up his hat. If that’s a flaw in my character, it’s one I can live with. He tugged the Stetson down into position and went out into the morning sunshine. As he closed the door behind him only one thing was on Scott’s mind; he had a brother to bring home.
The following Friday, Scott backed the two-horse team into an alleyway between the stage depot and livery stable. Having the buckboard hidden from prying eyes seemed the sensible thing to do while he waited, yet again, for his brother to show up. He took a moment to gather his thoughts. According to Murdoch, Johnny was now several days overdue. What could be keeping him? Scott had no answer and sighed tiredly as he flexed his aching fingers.
He dropped down to the ground and walked past the team. Standing at the end of the alleyway he had a clear line of vision along the main street of Morro Coyo. An obstinate mule loudly brayed while being led along the road. A small gathering of townsfolk were chatting on the boardwalk, and the driver of a heavily-laden freight wagon handed Señor Baldamerro a large wooden crate. The storekeeper staggered under its weight as he took it into the mercantile.
Scott focused his gaze on the saloon. The veranda in front was empty and no horses were tethered outside. It would seem his luck was holding. Since his first sighting of them, there was still no sign of Pardee and his men.
After he’d brushed the trail dust from his clothes, Scott pulled out his watch. He opened the case, checked the time and returned it to his pocket. There was still ten minutes to wait until the stage was due in.
A wooden awning shaded two well-used but sturdy wheel-back chairs placed in front of the stage depot. Not for the first time, Scott walked over and sank down on one of the hard seats.
As he stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles, Scott noticed the state of his boots. He hadn’t worn a pair so scuffed and dulled from lack of polish since his time in the prison camp. The sleeve of his shirt had a small rip, and the palms of his hands were sore and blistered, unused to the friction of leather being pulled through them during his daily drive to town.
Hardly the look of a Bostonian dandy, Scott mused with a wry smile. Not that he cared. His appearance was the least of his concerns, but he made a mental note to buy a suitable pair of work-gloves at the first opportunity.
Prepared for yet another long day, Scott pondered on the possibility waiting for his brother was a waste of time. Johnny might well have decided to permanently cancel his homecoming. If so, how long before Murdoch gave up all hope of ever seeing his younger son again?
Scott recalled on each occasion he’d returned to the ranch and driven into the yard alone, Murdoch had greeted him with a face etched with sadness and disappointment. It had reminded Scott of his own childhood anguish. As a small boy he’d suffered similar heartache as he’d gazed through the window to view the carriages as they stopped at his grandfather’s house. He’d hope against hope his father would alight from one of them, but his six-year old wishes failed to come true. The man he’d naively idolized from afar never arrived to claim him.
That recollection used to leave Scott angry and resentful, and at one time he would have taken great pleasure to witness Murdoch’s present distress. However all he now felt was sympathy for what his father must be going through. For over the past few days he’d noticed how Murdoch’s features seemed more haggard each time he’d seen him. It was obvious the anxious wait for Johnny and the threat of attack from Pardee was at the forefront of his mind. Scott couldn’t help but worry about his father’s health, and new emotions had stirred within. He hadn’t wished for it, nor expected it to happen, but regardless of their past history, Murdoch Lancer now meant a great deal to him.
Scott looked over towards the depot clerk who was staring at him from the office doorway. Since the answer seemed obvious, he allowed it to pass without comment.
The thin-faced bald-headed man squinted at Scott through his wire-rimmed spectacles. “Ain’t whoever you’re waiting for turned up yet?”
“It would appear not.” Scott’s reply was edged with sarcasm. What a foolish question to ask.
“Whoever it is must be pretty important to keep you waiting for the stage every day this past week.” The man adjusted his glasses on his long nose while his inquisitive gaze remained on Scott. “Who did you say you worked for?”
“I don’t believe I did.”
“Well, I reckon—”
The man’s voice was lost to the sound of thundering hooves and rumble of wheels as the fast moving stage came into view from around a bend. The carriage rocked and swayed as the driver applied the brake and brought the six-horse team to an unsteady halt a few feet away from where Scott was sitting.
As the billowing dust settled, the depot clerk stepped forward. A canvas bag was handed down to his outstretched hands by the man riding shotgun. The clerk clutched the bag to his chest and straightaway disappeared into his office.
Two elderly couples disembarked. Scott watched as they collected their luggage and headed down the street together at an unhurried pace. The squeak of oiled springs shifted his gaze back to the coach.
A dark-haired young man, wearing black silver-trimmed pants and jacket on top of a bright red shirt, climbed out of the carriage. The driver tossed down a revolver. The man caught it and quickly slipped the firearm into a low-slung holster. “Gracias,” he said in a soft drawl, and reached up and took hold of the saddle and attached saddlebag the driver was holding over the edge of the stage roof.
Could this be Johnny? Though showing an outwardly calm exterior, in truth Scott felt a quiver of excited anticipation inside. He rose to his feet and stepped forward. “Mr. Lancer?”
The young man slowly turned towards Scott. A few days growth of stubble darkened his jaw and his gaze narrowed warily. “Yeah, I’m Lancer. Who wants to know?”
For a moment Scott was left speechless. He’d never considered the likelihood his brother’s eyes would be as blue as his own. At least that was something else they shared in common. He also noted Johnny’s expression was guarded. It was to be expected and was no surprise to Scott. If a man hired out his gun, he would be distrustful of strangers.
Though he wanted to embrace Johnny as only a brother could, Scott just tilted his head forward in formal greeting. “Sam Dennison. Your father instructed me to meet you and take you straight back to the ranch. He’s looking forward to your arrival.”
“Is that right?” Johnny dropped his gear to the ground. “Well Sam, reckon old man Lancer can wait, till I’m good and ready. My horse broke a leg and left me walking for two days. I’ve built up a raging thirst, so I ain’t goin’ nowhere till I’ve spend some time in the saloon.”
Scott inwardly smiled at his brother’s defiance and warmed to him straightaway. “I’m sorry to spoil your plans Mr. Lancer, but I have my orders from your father, which I intend to follow through to the letter. Shall we make a start?” He picked up the saddle and carried it over to the buckboard and laid it down in the back.
Although Johnny followed Scott into the alleyway, he made no attempt to climb aboard the wagon. “Cut out the Mister Lancer crap, Sam. Plain Johnny will do. As for your orders, stuff ‘em. Being cooped up in that stage with the company I had to keep was enough to drive a saint to drink. So like I just said I’m aimin’ to have a few beers first whether old man Lancer likes it or not. You wanna join me?”
Without waiting for an answer, Johnny turned to go.
A cloud of dust drew Scott’s attention past Johnny to the cantina where a group of riders were dismounting. Pardee’s men! Scott silently cursed. Why did they have to show up now! He grabbed his brother’s wrist and held him back. “Johnny, you can’t—”
Before he could explain further, Johnny’s eyes took on a cold glint and he yanked his hand from Scott’s grasp. “Don’t know who you think you are, Dennison, but nobody ever tells me what I can or can’t do unless they’re willin’ to suffer the consequences.”
Scott inwardly flinched at his brother’s quiet and threatening tone. He guessed he was now looking into the face of the gunfighter, Johnny Madrid. That made no difference. Whether he answered to Madrid or to Lancer, Johnny was his brother.
Feeling a natural protectiveness towards his new found sibling, Scott acted on the first thing that came to mind. He smashed a fist into his brother’s chin. Taken unawares, Johnny’s head snapped sideways and his knees buckled. Scott caught him under the arms before he collapsed to the ground, hauled him to the back of the wagon then placed him next to the saddle.
After he’d picked up Johnny’s hat from where it had landed by his feet, Scott dropped it over his dazed brother’s face. This was not how he’d expected their initial meeting to go. It wasn’t the best of starts to creating a possible friendly relationship between them in the future.
Hearing voices coming from the depot office, Scott glanced to his left and right. No one seemed to have noticed what he’d just done. He was more than relieved. It wouldn’t have been easy to explain his action without drawing unwanted attention. Johnny shifted slightly and let out a faint groan. Knowing he’d soon be coming round, Scott climbed up onto the bench seat, slapped off the brake, and headed quickly out of town.
Several minutes later after making sure he wasn’t being followed Scott turned off the road and halted the team in a small clearing. He took a few deep breaths to calm his pounding heart. A metallic click broke the silence. Scott stiffened. He knew it to be the hammer of a gun being cocked. Careful to keep his hand away from his own firearm, he slowly twisted around.
Anger glinted in Johnny’s eyes as he pointed a Colt.45 at Scott. “Mister, I hope you’ve got good cause for doing what you did. Otherwise I just might have to blow your head off.”
Scott remained motionless. Did Johnny expect him to be quaking in his boots at this point? If so, he was to be disappointed. From first meeting him, Scott could see his eyes did not reflect the cold look of a killer. He could only hope his gut feeling was right. “I can assure you, Johnny, you’ll understand why if you’re willing to listen.”
Without moving position, Johnny indicated with his gun for Scott to climb down. “I’ll listen, and this better be good.”
With a compliant nod of the head, Scott did as requested. He then rested against the side of the wagon with a faint smile. “I was always led to believe a gentleman never points a gun unless he has a good reason to use it.”
The corner of one side of Johnny’s mouth also curled. “Well, unlucky for you, I’m no gentleman. Now get on with your explainin’. I sure would hate my finger to get twitchy.”
“As you wish.” Scott gestured towards the land around them. “For over a year this whole valley has been terrorized by gunmen intent on taking over every ranch, including Lancer. While you were inviting me to join you for a drink, I noticed several members of the gang heading into the saloon.”
If the news startled Johnny, he didn’t show it. He ran a thumb over his chin, wincing slightly. “So what’s that gotta do with you punching me in the face?”
“I couldn’t risk you going into the saloon and unwittingly introducing yourself as a Lancer. If those men had any inkling you were Murdoch Lancer’s son, they’d have thought nothing of shooting you dead, there and then. Is that reason enough for knocking you out?”
Johnny’s posture relaxed and to Scott’s relief he sheathed his gun. “This gang you talked about. Their leader got a name?”
Scott nodded. “You know him?”
As if he were amused by a private joke, Johnny gave a deep throated chuckle. “Oh yeah, I know him. Reckon I owe you one, Sam.” He put on his hat and swung his legs over the tailgate. “How long you worked for old man Lancer?”
“Not long. I only arrived from Boston at the beginning of the month.”
“Boston?” Johnny let out a low whistle and eased himself to the ground. “You’re a long way from home, cowboy. Just take my advice and head back there as soon as you can. If Day Pardee’s intent on takin’ Lancer, he’ll stop at nothing to get it. I’m amazed the place has lasted this long.”
Scott set his chin stubbornly. “Thanks for the warning, but I’m not planning on going anywhere. From what I’ve been told, there’s an unwritten law in the west. If you work for the brand, you fight for the brand. Isn’t that right?”
Johnny laughed as he stretched out his arms and rolled his shoulders. “Code or no code, you’ll most likely end up dyin’ for the brand if you stay.”
“Hopefully that won’t happen now Madrid has returned.”
Johnny froze and looked sharply at Scott. “What d’ya know about Madrid?”
Scott shrugged. “Not much . . . other than that I’d want him on my side when coming up against Pardee.”
Johnny’s gaze never wavered from Scott’s face. “Well, I reckon you’ll have to find yourself another sucker to watch ya back. I only came to collect my listenin’ money. Then I’m out of here.”
“Listening money? I don’t understand.”
Johnny bent down, picked up a pebble, and rolled it between his fingers. “One thousand dollars for an hour of my time. That’s what the Pinkerton said old man Lancer would pay, and that’s all he’s getting from me: sixty minutes, not a second more.”
Scott could hardly believe what he was hearing. His brother had to be bribed to return to Lancer? Why? He wanted to ask, but it was secondary to his main concern. “Don’t you owe some sort of loyalty towards your father now you know about the threat to the ranch?”
“Owe him?” Johnny snorted a laugh of derision. He dropped the stone and kicked it away before it hit the ground. “I’ve owed him nothin’ since the day he showed me and my mama the keys to the road and wiped his hands of us.”
Scott frowned. According to Teresa’s version of events, that was not the way it had happened. “Strange. I heard a different story.”
Johnny took a step closer and jabbed a forefinger repeatedly into Scott’s chest.“Well you heard wrong cowboy, and I’d appreciate you keeping your nose out of business that ain’t your concern!”
With fists balled at his sides, Johnny then strode towards a nearby slow meandering stream, knelt at the edge and scooped up water into his cupped hands.
Scott watched him drink. It would be clear to a blind man he’d struck a nerve though could understand all too well the reason behind his brother’s outburst. If Johnny had been brought up to think he’d been rejected by the man who’d fathered him, then it was no wonder he felt such bitterness. This time it was a link Scott wished they didn’t share.
After several seconds, Johnny turned his head towards Scott. His voice was husky with regret. “Sorry for shouting at ya, Sam. I was out of line.”
Scott removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. “Apology accepted, although under the circumstances, not required.”
Johnny looked at him for a few moments then turned his gaze back towards the flowing water. “You said you heard different.” The words came out quiet in tone. “What’d my old man tell you about my mother leaving Lancer?”
“Your father didn’t tell me anything,” Scott returned. “I was told by another reliable source your mother left of her own free will . . . with a gambler she’d recently met.”
Not sure of the reaction he’d get but determined to put his brother straight, Scott continued. “It was also made clear to me Mr. Lancer was left brokenhearted when your mother deserted him and took you away. He’s never stopped looking for you both over the years, and having you back is all he’s ever wanted. Believe that if nothing else.”
Johnny stood up without comment. He looked towards the distant hills that encompassed the Lancer ranch, with both thumbs hooked into the back of his gun belt.
Scott was puzzled by his lack of response. Could it be an indication Johnny refused to accept what he’d been told as the truth? He settled his Stetson back on his head and let out a soft sigh of frustration. “We’d better go. The rest of Pardee’s men might happen to come this way.”
Making no move to comply, Johnny stroked the bridge of his nose.
His mannerism reminded Scott of Murdoch.
“You know something, Sam. From what you’ve told me, I reckon there’s a chance I’ve had the old man pegged wrong all these years.” Johnny turned his head. His face now showed a boyish grin. “Seein’ as I’ve come all this way, I’ll give him more than an hour. Ain’t that what any gentleman would do?”
Scott gave a nod of assent. “Indeed.” He smiled back. At least if Johnny willingly sat down and talked to their father, there was a chance of reconciliation between the pair.
Now seated together on the bench seat, the two men continued on towards the ranch house. There was much Scott ached to ask, brother to brother. However his questions were not appropriate to be aired by a hired hand to his boss’ son. They would have to wait for a later date.
Johnny seemed to have no interest in conversation. He even stared in silence when shown the hacienda from the same viewpoint Teresa had shown it to Scott days before.
Stealing a look at him, Scott wondered if his brother had any recollection of his place of birth. Was he feeling nervous about the soon to come meeting with their father? Johnny’s unreadable expression made it impossible to judge what was going through his head.
The quiet between them stretched for the rest of the journey until they arrived at the house. Like Scott had done when he’d first arrived, Johnny took a moment to gaze around at his surroundings. Apart from a couple of vaqueros who were repairing a broken fence, there was no other sign of activity.
“Mighty quiet around here,” Johnny remarked as he jumped down.
“There are less than twenty men left working on Lancer and most of them are with the herd at the branding corrals.”
Johnny flicked a hand towards the armed lookouts on the roof. “Reckon you weren’t jokin’ about the threat from Pardee.”
Scott glanced in the direction he was pointing and shook his head. “It’s no joke.”
With a nod, Johnny went to the back of the wagon. He untied the saddlebag and slung it over his shoulder. “Can you store my saddle somewhere, Sam?”
“Thanks.” Johnny then seemed to take a deep breath, spun around on his heel, and took a couple of steps towards the front door. It opened before he had a chance to knock.
Murdoch’s tall frame filled the doorway. Scott was unable to hear his father’s faintly spoken words but did see him place a hand on Johnny’s arm. It was immediately shrugged off and Johnny brushed past and disappeared inside. Murdoch stared after him, his hand in mid air, before he brought it back down and closed the door.
With both father and brother only a stone’s throw away, Scott could only wonder at the tension-edged homecoming going on inside the house. Sorely tempted, he forced back the urge to join them there and then. His charade would need to be kept up for some time yet. If Murdoch and Johnny were to iron out any misunderstandings between them, they deserved some time together without the distraction of a third party, whether welcomed or not.
Convinced he’d made the right decision, Scott drove over to the barn. He unloaded the saddle and placed it across an empty stall rail, then began to unhitch the team.
Cipriano appeared from out of a small room where the tack was stored. “You’ve returned early, Sam. Johnny is back?”
Knowing all the men were more than aware of who he’d been waiting for in town, Scott nodded. “Cipriano, as you’ve worked here a long time, do you remember him as a child?”
Cipriano’s expression turned thoughtful. “Oh yes, I remember. He was a cheerful little boy, always laughing. When his mama took him away, the ranch became a sad, quiet place and was never the same. The Patrón will be very happy now his son has returned home at last.”
The impact of Cipriano’s words caused Scott’s fingers to momentarily tighten on the leather strapping. Johnny may have come home, but there was still a risk he’d decide not to stay.
Once again Scott’s intuition kicked in. His brother was no fool or coward. Johnny would soon realize the Lancer ranch was worth fighting for and a place to put down roots. Surely he would see that was better than returning to his previous, nomadic way of life, with no friends he could trust, no sense of security, no future. Holding that optimistic thought, Scott continued to unbuckle the harness.
A short while later at Cipriano’s insistence, Scott joined him in the kitchen. A hastily prepared lunch was dished up by an uncomplaining and ever smiling Maria. Once he’d finished his meal, Scott was given his next work assignment by the ranch foreman. He was to join the rest of the men and help with the branding.
Allowed to choose a saddle-broke horse for his use, Scott went over to a stable where several were housed in separate stalls. He vetted them all before picking out a rangy bay with a strong back which caught his eye. It reminded Scott of one which served him well during the war. That is until it was shot from under him. Even now Scott could hear the terrified screams of the dying animal just before he’d put it out of its misery.
Though he tried to push the recollection away, in a flash of memory Scott returned there yet again to that spring day in ‘64. The battle had been raging for hours. Cut off from the rest of his unit without a horse and trapped near Confederate lines, Scott was left with no way to escape the constant barrage of shells as they rained down. A familiar voice yelled out his name. Through the haze of gunfire came the flash of union blue as a fellow officer raced his blaze-faced chestnut hard towards him. The rider slowed. Rifles barked and he fell at Scott’s feet. Moments later, wrapped in Scott’s arms, Lieutenant Samuel Dennison breathed his last.
Grateful to be alone, Scott buried his face in the bay’s neck. He’d heard it said time heals all wounds, so how come the pain of losing his best friend that day had never lessened? Still haunted by the horrific event, Scott knew it wouldn’t take much to return to the dark tunnel of melancholy again. But what good would that do? He couldn’t bring Sam back to life, no matter how much he wished it. With tears not far away, Scott wiped a hand across his eyes, slowly collected himself together and began to saddle up his mount.
While living in Boston, Scott had grown used to taking a hansom cab and hadn’t put a leg over a horse for years. Nevertheless he soon realized how much he’d missed the freedom of being in the saddle as he followed Cipriano’s directions to the branding camp. He could well understand why his father was so determined to keep Lancer, for the scenery was stunning and the air clear as his horse ate up the miles in a relaxed lope.
The ride helped to lift Scott’s spirits, but all too soon he reined to a halt on the crest of a hill. Down below several hundred bawling cows and their calves were being held together in holding pens while smoke curled up from a fire inside a large corral. Scott nudged his mount with his heels and walked slowly towards the hectic scene. Having never been involved with a branding operation before, he was more than aware this was going to be a testing few hours.
Darkness had already settled around them when the branding crew returned to their living quarters on the ranch. Scott painfully dismounted. Underused muscles in his arms and legs had tightened up, and most of his body felt bruised by the flailing hooves of irate calves. All he wanted to do was take a long hot soak. But this wasn’t Boston where he’d enjoyed a pampered lifestyle. There was no one he could order to fill him a bath. Nor could he expect anyone else to see to his horse’s needs. The bay was his responsibility now.
After unsaddling his mount and making sure it was watered and fed, Scott went outside and leaned weary against the stable wall. He looked over towards the house where a downstairs room was ablaze with light. This made him wonder how the reunion between his father and brother had gone. With no way of knowing, he could only hope it went well.
Keeping that optimistic thought firmly in mind, Scott reflected on his afternoon’s work.
Following a couple of failed attempts, he’d soon got the hang of wrestling a wild-eyed calf off its feet. With another vaquero’s help he’d then drag it to the fire where the red-hot branding iron was pressed into its young hide. Castrating male calves had been a more challenging task, which left the taste of rising nausea in Scott’s mouth. Not because of what he had to do, but the sight of blood had sent an echo of the past reaching out to him yet again.
It happened so long ago but still felt like yesterday. Sam’s blood on his hands; so much blood, it stained his own uniform red. Scott’s resolve hardened. He’d lost a brother-in-arms through enemy fire. Should a similar situation arise against Pardee, he’d do whatever he could to keep his brother-by-blood from suffering the same fate. Scott was even prepared to die for Johnny if necessary. After all, hadn’t he been living on borrowed time ever since Sam had been killed instead of him?
A shudder ran through Scott as he felt a morbid certainty about what he’d just pledged himself to do. He pushed himself away from the wall, returned to his room and quickly washed and changed out of his blood splattered clothes.
Laughter floated over from the direction of the kitchen as Scott made towards it. Even after their backbreaking day’s work, it would seem his fellow vaqueros were in good humor. Scott stood in the open doorway and cast his gaze around. The men knew Johnny had returned, so should he also tell them Pardee was back in town? Scott decided against it. He was sure his brother would have mentioned it to their father. It would then be up to Murdoch to relay the information to his hired hands, if and when he saw fit.
A thought came to Scott. There was no doubt in his mind the gang’s presence would soon be felt on the ranch, and this was probably the calm before the storm. Some of those sat around the table could well be having their final supper. It might even be his last evening meal. With that sobering reflection, Scott stepped inside.
When dawn broke the next day, Scott awoke feeling unusually downcast and as drained as when he’d retired to bed the night before. Not only that, every inch of his body seemed to ache. Inadvertently Scott’s fingers touched a tender spot on his lower rib cage. It was one of many reminders left behind by those wild-eyed calves the previous day. He grimaced and pushed himself upright.
A small mirror hung from a nail on the wall. Scott stared at his reflection. Dark circles shadowed his eyes. Hardly surprising as he’d spent most of the night tossing and turning, unable to stop thinking about Johnny, Murdoch and the inevitable attack from Pardee. Would his brother be staying to fight by his side? Not knowing added to Scott’s already miserable frame of mind.
He filled the bowl with water and splashed some onto his face. The cooling effect on his skin helped revive him. A sharp razor against his chin also went some small way to brighten his mood. Scott then slipped on the shirt he’d worn the previous evening. It wouldn’t be long before it too would be stained with blood over at the branding pens. A wry smile crossed his face. Better animal’s blood than my own.
The smell of fried bacon and black coffee wafted from the kitchen when Scott opened the door to his room. Yet his attention was drawn to the sound of loud whistling and shouts in the opposite direction. Scott’s curiosity got the better of him. Though hungry, breakfast could wait a few minutes and he made towards the noise.
Teresa O’Brien sat astride the top rail of the corral on the far side of the yard. Along with several of the hands, she was cheering enthusiastically towards someone attempting to break in a horse within the enclosure.
Scott rested his arms along the top of the fence. A high spirited palomino repeatedly kicked out its back legs in an attempt to throw the unfamiliar weight of a man off its back. As he recognized the bare-headed rider, Scott smiled in admiration of his brother’s horsemanship. It would appear Johnny’s dexterity with a gun was not his only skill.
The horse continued to lunge and whirl, slued sideways, reared. Yet Johnny remained fixed in the saddle. Gradually the animal seemed to tire. After one last half-hearted buck, it settled into a smooth gait with its head bowed and its will now broken.
Johnny guided his gentled mount over to a smiling Teresa. They chatted and laughed as Johnny swung a leg over his horse’s neck and dropped to the ground. He took hold of a gun belt which hung from the rail and strapped it around his waist. Teresa then handed over his hat.
Too far away to hear their conversation, Scott could see they seemed at ease in each other’s company. Considering they’d only met the day before, it was a pleasing sight. Effortlessly Johnny swung back into the saddle, opened the gate and walked his horse out of the corral. Teresa jumped down and headed towards the house.
Johnny’s gaze rested on Scott. Moments later he reined to a halt in front of him.
“Fine looking animal.” Scott stroked the palomino’s neck.
Johnny was now clean shaven and he wore a fancy fronted white shirt under his jacket. He nodded with a relaxed smile. “Cipriano cut him out for me. Best of the herd, I reckon.”
Scott gave the horse a final pat then stepped back a pace. The question at the forefront of his thoughts for many hours formed on his lips. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, Johnny, but how did the reunion with your father go?”
Johnny thumbed back his hat and leaned a forearm on the saddle horn. “Well I tell ya Sam, I’ve had cheerier get-togethers with a rattle snake. But the pair of us didn’t come to blows, even though the old man reckons I’ve got my mother’s temper. In the end we sort of made a deal, so looks like I’ll be sticking around here after all.”
A quiet sigh of relief slipped though Scott’s lips. “I’m glad to hear it. Did you tell Mr. Lancer, Pardee had returned to town?”
Johnny’s expression sobered. “Yeah, I told him.” He then cast Scott a wink. “If ya’re worried the old man is gonna fire you for knocking me out, don’t be. I ain’t aiming to tell him what went on between us.”
Scott chuckled. “It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t behave like a gentleman in such a situation.”
“Ya reckon?” Johnny laughed. “I wouldn’t have put a bet on it, that’s for sure.”
He fished a coin out of his jacket pocket and stared at it like a small boy who’d just been given his first stick of candy. “See this? It’s a twenty dollar gold piece. Found it in my room. It’s like guest money, ya know . . . saves ya asking for a loan.”
Johnny returned the coin to his pocket. “Now I’ve got me some decent horseflesh, reckon I’ll go into town and break this up on those beers I promised myself.”
Scott felt a stab of brotherly concern. “But what if you come across Pardee?”
A little sideways twitch appeared at the corner of Johnny’s mouth. “That’s just what I’m countin’ on.”
Scott frowned. Johnny’s clear blue eyes held no fear regarding the meeting with his old acquaintance. Had his brother really thought through what he might be letting himself in for?
Johnny seemed to notice his unease. “Sam, I know what I’m doin’, so there’s no need to knock me out again. I could tolerate it once, but twice? Well, let’s say things might get a little heated around here.” He then looked confused. “What’s goin’ on with you, Boston? Ever since we met, you’ve seemed awful anxious about my welfare.”
Scott felt no way slighted at the nickname given him. Boston. There was a nice friendly ring to the way Johnny said it.
Frantically, Scott’s mind raced for a plausible excuse. “Didn’t you know looking out for the boss’ son is one of the conditions for holding down a job around here? To keep you alive is the only way to earn a bonus.”
Johnny’s face split into a broad grin. “Reckon there must be easier ways to make a living.” He settled his hat down firmly on his head and flicked one finger on the brim in farewell. “See ya later, Boston.”
Scott could see Johnny tap his heels on the sides of his mount and the palomino immediately responded. With horse and rider seemingly moving as one, they headed off at a gallop towards Morro Coyo.
Still feeling apprehensive, Scott stared after his brother. One man up against Pardee’s gang was madness. Maybe he should have gone with Johnny? Made up an excuse to tag along?
“I take it that was my son heading into town?”
At the sound of the gravelly voice, Scott turned. Murdoch was seated on a buckboard a few feet away. “Yes sir. Do you want me to follow and keep an eye on him?”
Murdoch pursed his lips thoughtfully for a few moments. Despite his worried expression he finally shook his head. “No, Sam. You carry on with your work. Johnny has already made it clear to me he intends to do things his way when it comes to Pardee. He wouldn’t thank either of us for interfering.”
As Murdoch turned the team around and headed across the yard, Scott drew in a deep breath of disappointment at his father’s decision. He made his way back towards the kitchen, though by now his appetite had all but gone.
Throughout his returning ride to the branding camp, Scott was unable to shake off troubled thoughts. Had he done the right thing by not arguing against Murdoch? Should he have insisted he follow Johnny to town? Yet what viable reason could he have given without admitting it was his brother’s safety that was his main concern?
It was a question Scott couldn’t answer. The burden of living under another’s name weighed heavy on his aching shoulders.
Delegated the tasks he’d learned the previous day, Scott dragged down the lassoed calves to the branding fire and wielded the knife over the next few hours as the animals were run through the corral in a steady procession. This time he hardly noticed the blood. Anxious thoughts remained at the forefront of Scott’s mind. If anything happened to Johnny . . .
At long last the final bawling calf was sent on its way. From hoots of delight and friendly claps on the back, Scott soon grasped the yearly branding had not only been completed but was also ahead of schedule. He was impressed at the achievement. Though his contribution had been minimal, it was not a mean feat with Lancer being so shorthanded.
As the evening shadows lengthened, the well satisfied branding crew remained elated as they rode back home. Fears Scott silently harbored continued however. It wasn’t until he dismounted and entered the barn did he release a broken sigh of relief. In the end stall a distinctive golden colored head turned towards him. It was Johnny’s horse. The hours of worry had been for naught.
While Scott stabled his own mount he wondered what had gone on between his brother and Pardee in town. Johnny had never revealed the full extent of his association with the notorious gunman. Could they have ridden together in the past? Scott refused to believe it. Johnny would never join forces with such a vicious killer. Of that he was more than certain.
With his muscles aching, as soon as Scott set foot in his room he was tempted to just lie down on the bed until the following dawn. The growl of an empty stomach changed his mind. He lit the lamp and stripped off his soiled clothes.
After blood, grime and sweat had been washed from his body, Scott changed into his last clean shirt and pants. The ever growing pile of dirty washing pushed into a corner would need to be dealt with and soon. It was a petty crisis but a welcomed distraction. Pondering on how to remedy the situation, Scott made towards the kitchen, but the moment he opened the door, all thoughts of laundry disappeared from his mind.
Gloomy expressions now replaced smiles on the faces of the vaqueros as they listened to the ranch segundo. Cipriano had been given a message from Murdoch to relay to all the men. Pardee was back.
This information was no surprise to Scott. However the news came as a bitter blow to those sitting around the table. Many had expressed a hopeful belief the gunmen’s absence over several days might well mean the gang had left the area for good. It was hardly surprising after such an unwelcomed revelation supper was, for the most part, a muted affair.
Scott had just finished his meal and shoved the plate away when everyone’s attention was drawn to the sound of galloping hooves and frantic yelling. Convinced he’d heard his father’s name shouted out Scott pushed back his chair, and along with the rest of the vaqueros, he rushed outside.
Illuminated by a lamp which hung from the porch wall, a horse had been brought to a halt. As the men formed a loose half-circle around it, the front door opened. More light spilled out from the house.
Using his walking stick for support, Murdoch stepped stiffly towards them. A second figure came into view.
From where he stood, Scott could see Johnny lean against one of the porch’s supporting columns. However it was difficult to gauge what he made of the commotion as his face remained cast in shadow.
The elderly rider all but collapsed out of the saddle. Scott failed to recognize him though his identity was known to Murdoch who laid a hand on his arm.
“Miguel? What’s going on?”
Clearly in a distressed state and out of breath, Miguel could only answer in short bursts. “Señor Murdoch. I see smoke . . . at Caspar’s place. I ride over . . . Caspar’s place . . . burnt down. Maria and Caspar . . . tortured then . . . then murdered.”
Several men made a Sign of the Cross. Heads bowed in respect. Though Scott had never met the ill-fated couple, he did the same.
“Pardee’s never hit this close to the ranch before,” Murdoch commented after a brief period of silence. “Any indication which direction they went Miguel?”
“Si, Señor Murdoch. This time the trail is clear towards the San Benitos.”
Murdoch rubbed fingers back and forth across his chin in a thoughtful way. “Desidro.”
A heavily mustached man answered. “Si Patrón."
“Go back to Caspar’s place with Miguel – take care of the burying.”
“Muy bien, Patrón.”
Murdoch appeared to struggle briefly with an inner dilemma before he spoke again. “The rest of you are going after Pardee.”
No one challenged the order or showed any sign of dissent. It was just as Scott expected from the loyal vaqueros.
However before anyone made a move, Johnny stepped forward. “Don’t you think we ought’a talk about this first?”
Scott noted though Murdoch towered above his brother, Johnny showed no sign of being intimidated by their father’s tall frame as he faced him full on.
Murdoch shook his head by way of reply. “You can talk on the way. That trail could lead straight to Pardee’s camp.”
“And what if that’s just what Pardee figures you’ll do? He could double back through Morro Coyo and hit the ranch house at first light while we’re miles away chasing tracks!”
Scott felt tension in the air, and sensed friction building between the two. However he conceded Johnny had made a valid point. An idea came to him. “May I put forward a suggestion, Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch appeared mildly surprised by the offer. He raised an eyebrow. “By all means, Sam. You have the floor.”
Johnny whirled around. He opened his mouth as if to say something then closed it.
Ignoring his brother’s narrow-eyed stare, Scott focused his gaze on Murdoch. “Although I agree with Johnny that Lancer would be left vulnerable, I still propose we follow the gang’s trail. However not to confront them but to make sure we’re seen heading away from the ranch.”
“And how’s that gonna help?”
Scott shot Johnny a quick look but didn’t reply. Instead he turned to the man on his left. “Cipriano, didn’t you tell me about a narrow pass you discovered in the mountains which cuts hours off the return journey to Lancer?”
Cipriano nodded. “Si. I find it many years ago.”
“And you could locate it in the dark?”
“Of course. I know it like the back of my hand.”
Satisfied by his answer, Scott continued. “If Pardee thinks Lancer is all but deserted he wouldn’t be able to resist attacking at dawn. Yet we could make use of the pass and be back here well before then. That would give us the advantage of surprise. Not a bad thing to have when engaging an enemy with superior numbers. It was a strategy I soon learned during my time in the military.”
Johnny snorted a breath. “Sounds like your training weren’t up to much if you think it’s a good idea to stumble around up there in the dark and maybe end up in a shootout.”
Scott ignored the veiled sarcasm and smiled, even though Johnny looked at him as though he were a fool. “The way I see it, Pardee won’t risk a fire fight. He’ll want to take the ranch and hold it with a full complement of men.”
Johnny turned back to face Murdoch. “You ain’t gonna listen to this Boston greenhorn, are ya? I’ve already said I’ll take care of Pardee.”
Scott jaw clenched and he inwardly smarted at the unwarranted slur. It would appear Johnny had already forgotten the morning’s good natured banter between them. However he held back his temper. This wasn’t the time for argument. “It’s your call, sir.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Murdoch nodded. “I say we do it your way Sam.”
With his lips drawn into a thin line, Johnny slapped his hand hard against his thigh. He pointedly glared between Murdoch and Scott then strode back into the house without looking back.
The sudden departure of the Patrón’s son caused the men to exchange glances as though not sure what to do next.
Scott was left confused. If Johnny had his own thoughts on how to defeat Pardee, why didn’t he share them?
As he stared after his younger son, Murdoch shifted weight on his cane as though to go after him. However he immediately seemed to change his mind and turned his gaze on Scott. “If it wasn’t for this damn leg I’d ride out myself tonight.” His tone was wistfully sincere.
Scott nodded his understanding.
Murdoch continued to keep his eyes firmly locked on him as he continued. “The knowledge and skill you gained during the war may well prove invaluable Sam. For that reason I’d like you to take charge of the men from now on until we’re dealt with Pardee.”
Scott was left at a loss for words. He had to swallow hard before he could speak. “But surely as foreman, it’s Cipriano who –”
“No Sam,” Cipriano butted in. “Señor Lancer is right. You have the experience and should be the one to lead us.”
Scott felt an uncontrollable panic forming. It had been a long time since he’d had the mantle of responsibility over so many thrust on him. Not since leading sixteen Union prisoners in a break out of the Confederate prison camp. Only inexplicably the guards had been pre-warned of the escape attempt. To have been the only one to survive when all those around him were shot to pieces was still an irrational guilt Scott carried deep inside.
What if history repeated itself within the next few hours? There were no guarantees his plan would work. It could all go horribly wrong. Pardee might just pick them off in the darkness, or head straight to Lancer and hit the ranch while it was undefended.
Scott wiped a hand across his mouth. Now was not the time for self doubt or second guessing. He pushed the negative thoughts out of his mind and turned towards the vaqueros who stared at him expectantly. “You better get yourselves ready for a long night. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”
With no exception, everyone dispersed to make preparations for their departure. Scott lingered behind. “Just so you know sir, Lancer now means a lot to me. I’ll do everything I can to stop Pardee taking it.”
“I know you will, Sam. I never thought otherwise.” Murdoch held out his hand.
Scott willingly shook it.
“Good luck, son.”
Son. Once again Scott silently repeated the word. Should he seize this moment and admit who he really was? Would that be of some consolation to his father if he knew who he’d assigned to take his place? But it was too late. Murdoch had already disappeared back into the house.
With the opportunity passed, Scott reasoned it was probably a good thing. Though sick and tired of continuing with his deception, there were more important concerns to concentrate both their minds on for the time being.
In his room, Scott quickly strapped on his gun belt and picked up his hat. Ready to leave he hesitated a moment then dragged out his travelling truck from underneath the bed. Rummaging through the contents Scott pulled out a jacket he’d bought at the mercantile. So far there’d been no need to wear it, but knowing how much colder it would be up in the mountains, he put it on.
Back in the barn, Scott saddled his mount and led it out into the yard. There was no sign of Johnny joining them and Scott couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of disappointment to not have his company. He could only assume his brother had decided to stay and help guard the house with the few ranch hands to be left behind.
Scott swung himself onto the bay. He twisted around in the saddle and looked behind him. A figure stood alone in the porch, watching them. Determined not to fail his father at the first time of asking, Scott moved his horse forward. With Cipriano at his side and the band of vaqueros following, he rode out of the yard at a steady pace towards the mountainous terrain of the San Benitos.
Dawn had already broken as Scott led the weary and saddle sore party back to the ranch house. Any fears he’d silently harbored the night before had been unfounded. Everything went just as he’d hoped and without a hitch. A tremor passed through him. Whether from relief or tiredness, Scott couldn’t tell.
The horses were quickly tethered safely out of sight within a stand of trees. There was no time for rest or to take food as Scott then delegated each man a position around the hacienda. Under strict instructions to remain completely hidden from view, Scott reminded them for his plan to fully succeed Pardee must remain oblivious to their presence before being irreversibly drawn into the trap.
After he’d double-checked every angle of the house was well covered, Scott headed for the front door with a rifle in his hand. He knew the Winchester would prove invaluable against a fast moving target and had pulled it from its saddle boot as soon as he’d dismounted.
Murdoch stood gaunt faced in the doorway. “Well? How’d it go?” he barked without so much as a word of welcome.
Scott came to a halt at the gruffly offered question. It reminded him of his days in uniform, but somehow he refrained from saluting as he dutifully reported back. “We followed the gang’s trail and made sure their lookout saw us heading north. Then once out of sight, we turned back through Cipriano’s pass.”
“You think Pardee fell for it?”
“He’d better otherwise I’ve lost a night’s sleep for nothing.”
A brief, feeble smile flickered across Murdoch’s face. “That makes two of us,” he admitted in a more genial tone.
As he fought hard to suppress a yawn, Scott raked a hand roughly through his hair. He’d lost his Stetson when failing to notice a low overhang of rock on the narrow, twisting trail, and there hadn’t been time to retrieve his hat from the steep ravine it had fallen into.
Teresa emerged from the house. After handing Murdoch a rifle, she hugged her guardian’s arm - lines of strain visible around her eyes and mouth.
Scott felt sorry for her. It would have made more sense to have her sent to somewhere safe while the threat from Pardee continued. At least there was less chance of anything happening to her with Johnny around . . .
It suddenly occurred to Scott there was no sign of his brother. About to ask where he was, the sound of a warning bell rang out from the lookouts on the roof. It was closely followed by the sound of rapid gunfire in the distance. Pardee! Scott felt the rush of pure adrenaline he’d always experienced when an encounter with Confederate forces had drawn near.
With Murdoch leading the way, the three of them quickly sought protection on the outside staircase. A group of horsemen came into view, galloping down a slope towards the house with guns blazing.
Scott yelled to the men in position. “Here they come but hold your fire. They’re still out of range.” Seconds passed and Scott raised his rifle to his shoulder. “Here comes the first one.”
An all too familiar palomino sailed over a fence. Hardly able to believe what he was seeing, Scott lowered his firearm as it became apparent who those following were shooting at.
“Wait . . . its Johnny!”
The words had barely left Murdoch’s mouth when Johnny fell sideways from the saddle and hit the ground hard. He failed to rise.
Scott’s heart skipped a beat. Nausea welled up within him. Had he witnessed his brother shot dead, just as Sam had once been?
Murdoch let out a loud gasp. “I don’t understand what that boy was trying to do.”
“He was coming back to us,” Teresa answered tearfully.
Back to us? Scott had no time to dwell on what had gone on during his absence. Pardee and his gang were now within range.
The memory of the battlefield surfaced in Scott’s mind when, with a tremendous roar, Lancer’s guns opened up in an eruption of smoke and flame. Rifle and small arms fire crackled and popped towards the attackers, bullets slammed back into the walls of the house; horses squealed in terror, men slid dead and dying from their mounts.
In the ensuing chaos a slight movement caught Scott’s eye. Johnny - wounded and still lying on the ground – managed to find enough strength to shoot two members of the gang as they ran by. Shells then kicked up earth around his feet.
Realizing his brother was now a vulnerable target, Scott broke cover. He raced over and dragged his injured sibling behind the comparative protection of a tree. Johnny gave a warning shout. A couple of figures stood in a large clump of bushes several feet away and both had their guns pointed towards them.
Instinctively, Scott fired off his rifle in rapid succession. He hit one gunman square in the chest. The outlaw jerked and toppled backwards. The second man staggered forward, his gun held loose in his fingers as he aimlessly clutched at a branch before sliding slowly down to the ground.
Moments later there was a loud demented cry. “They’ve got Pardee!”
With their leader gone, the surviving members of the gang started to flee. Some doubled up with their mounted comrades, while others clutched bloodied arms or legs and hauled themselves onto any stray horse they could find.
Scott followed the retreat on foot; his rifle spurting fire until the last rider was out of sight. The sound of gunfire faded away and it became eerily quiet. The battle was over – the war won. Scott blew out a deep breath. He took no pleasure from all the killing. Just satisfaction he’d played his part well in the hard fought victory.
Moments later when he returned to his brother, Johnny had already heaved up into a sitting position. Through a pain filled smile, he gave a nod of thanks. “Good shootin’ Boston. Looks like I owe you again.”
Scott gazed down at him and managed a grin of his own. “I’m guessing you figured you could take out Pardee before he hit the ranch. Am I right?”
“Yeah . . . well I had my plan . . . you had yours.”
Stubbornly refusing the offer of Scott’s help, Johnny struggled erect and began to stagger slowly forwards.
“Take your time,” Scott instructed.
However within a few steps Johnny collapsed. Half expecting it to happen, Scott caught him over his shoulder as he fell and carried him towards an anxious looking Murdoch. Teresa led the way into the house and up the stairs to a bedroom, where Scott laid his brother down on the bed.
Murdoch began to strip away Johnny’s blood soaked clothing. “I need hot water and towels.”
Teresa hurried away.
After carefully inspecting the wound, Murdoch gave an audible sigh of relief. “It’s not as bad as it looks. The bullet passed straight through flesh and well wide of any internal organs.”
He looked over towards Scott. “I can take care of him from here on. I’ve treated gunshot injuries over the years and haven’t lost a patient yet. You go check on the rest of the men and see what has to be done out there.”
Although not wishing to leave his brother’s side, Scott nodded obediently.
“I saw what you did for Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice was strained with emotion. “I’m forever in you debt for saving his life.”
“Only did what any—” Scott wanted to say brother but held the word back. This wasn’t an appropriate time for such a revelation. “Only did what had to be done.” He gave the unconscious figure a final glance then made his way downstairs.
Outside in the yard, the adrenaline rush which sustained Scott during the attack had worn off. He now felt like he no doubt looked - exhausted. However there was no time to dwell on his fatigue as he quickly assessed the situation.
With the stink of cordite lingering in the air, a horse struggled to rise up, blood streaming out of its nose and a foreleg hanging at a strange angle. Its stricken plight had gone unnoticed. Scott’s stomach took a sickening plunge as he took out his revolver and fired a single bullet to the animal’s head. The memory of another he’d dispatched to end its pain flashed into his mind before he turned his attention to the human casualties.
Four vaqueros had been wounded, but it appeared not seriously. As they were being carried to their own beds, Scott instructed one of the uninjured hands to ride to town and fetch the doctor and also contact the local priest and undertaker. For it soon became clear there were two Lancer dead.
Not far from the ranch house was a well maintained burial plot surrounded by a wrought iron fence. Set aside for Lancer employees, Scott had visited it once and read the touching inscriptions on several headstones, including those belonging to Teresa’s father and mother. The vaqueros who’d been killed were single with no known family, so Scott ordered a small detail to dig two graves together in one corner in readiness for the men being laid to rest.
It was more than apparent the ranch got off lightly when Scott next organized the disposal of Pardee’s body along with several members of the gang. He hardly glanced at the nameless faces with unseeing eyes as he helped carry them onto the back of a wagon. It was only when Scott noticed a gaping hole in the middle of one man’s full-length frock coat, did he purposely stare down. A sardonic grin curved his mouth momentarily. Suit wouldn’t be making use of the rocking chair in front of the cantina any more.
When the wagon was finally loaded, spades were collected from the tool shed and placed on top of the grisly cargo. Time was then taken for a much needed meal. However it was eaten in shocked silence around the kitchen table; most men playing with their food and hardly taking a bite. Scott understood all too well the reasons why. Hardly surprising after the vaqueros had just repelled a gang of hardened killers and at the same time lost two old friends.
It wasn’t long before everyone filed back outside. Scott picked up a discarded Stetson he noticed lying on the ground. The hat appeared to be fairly new and he put it on. It fitted well. Hardly the spoils of war as described in books he’d read, but it would do until he had time to buy himself another.
Having been told by Cipriano of a small desolate area of land which lay on the edge of the Lancer property line, Scott climbed onto the wagon. He took charge of the reins and with a handful of able-bodied men following on horseback, headed in its direction.
After barely traveling a mile, they came across three more motionless bodies. A myriad of flies were already feasting on the blood which had congealed around fatal gunshot wounds. Scott swallowed back the nausea formed in his throat at the sight. Johnny must have shot the men during his flight back to the house when Pardee’s gang was hard on his heels.
What could have made his brother take on such overwhelming odds? Scott couldn’t make up his mind whether to think him brave or foolhardy. Probably a mix of both. He swung down from the wagon and with the help of another, added the trio of dead to the already stiffening pile.
Another hour passed before they reached their destination. It was just as Cipriano described; a flat area of dry, barren earth, devoid of trees or foliage of any kind.
Following a lengthy period of hard digging, the corpses were placed in the deeply dug mass grave. Once it was refilled with dirt, rocks were heaped on top to discourage any foraging animal from feeding on rotting flesh and bone. To Scott it seemed the decent thing to do. However not even a plain wooden cross was erected to serve as a marker. In Scott’s mind, the disturbed earth would be ample to indicate where those who’d tried to take over Lancer had been left together for eternity.
As they prepared to return to the ranch house, Scott watched those around him from beneath the shade of his hat-brim. It was clear all were physically and emotionally spent. The sooner they were able to get some well earned rest, the better. To stay with the wagon would slow them down, so with no risk of attack from Pardee anymore, Scott instructed the men ride ahead while he’d follow behind. His offer was met with tired but thankful smiles.
Soon tracking dust, Scott travelled back at an unhurried pace. With the reins held loose in his hands, he allowed his mind to wander. He’d managed to accomplish what he’d originally set out to achieve. Helped save the ranch, had gotten to know his father and brother, and now knew both were men he’d been willing to die for. There was only one thing left to do which he’d put off for far too long. Then he could pack up his bags and go home.
Scott silently corrected himself. He could return to Boston but he didn’t think of it as home any more. Home meant Lancer with Murdoch and Johnny, and the last thing he wanted to do was leave.
So stay! Scott couldn’t believe he’d even considered the idea. Where had such a notion come from? But it persisted and grew. For he’d never truly enjoyed or felt comfortable living the privileged lifestyle thrust upon him in the East. The risks and hard work involved when running a ranch was strangely appealing.
Then what’s to stop you? Not what, but whom. Scott let out a guilt driven sigh as his thoughts turned to his grandfather. Harlan Garrett had been a huge part of his life since the day he’d been born. How could he turn his back on the man who’d brought him up, never let him want for anything? Didn’t he owe him some sort of loyalty? The same sort of loyalty he’d expected from Johnny towards Murdoch on the day they’d first met?
Scott’s inner turmoil continued. Yet though his conscience pricked him, he knew the answer already. He could only hope he’d be eventually forgiven for the decision made.
The sun had long disappeared from the sky when Scott eventually pulled the team to a halt in the deserted yard. He climbed down and stretched the tension out of an aching back.
A man carrying a lantern came out of the barn. He made towards Scott. “You look as though you’re fit to drop, my friend.”
“Never a truer word was said, Cipriano,” Scott answered. “I think I dozed off a few times but luckily the horses seemed to know which direction to head. How are the injured men?”
“They’re all doing well. The doctor fixed them up and he’ll be back in a couple of days to check on them again.”
“That’s good to know.” Scott hesitated for a moment. “And . . . and what about Johnny? Have you heard how he is?”
“I speak with the Patrón a short while ago. He tells me Johnny is in no danger and sleeping like a baby.”
It was just the news Scott had wished for. He gave a brief nod then began to unhitch the team.
Cipriano placed a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “You go get some sleep Sam. I’ll finish off here.”
“I appreciate the offer Cipriano, but I’m sure you need your rest as much as I do.”
Light from the lantern reflected a friendly look on the face of the older man. “I take short siesta earlier. Also with Pardee gone, I am segundo again, so you do as I say now. Si?”
Rightly relieved of the burden of command, Scott hadn’t the energy to argue. He smiled gratefully. “Si and gracias.”
As soon as he entered his own room, Scott threw down his hat and lit the lamp. He shook off the jacket and noticed a dark stain across one shoulder. It was dried blood; Johnny’s blood. How close had he come to losing his brother? Scott shuddered. Too close for comfort.
He threw the coat in the corner and slumped down on the bed. A painful throbbing had formed behind his eyes so he decided to lie quietly for a few minutes till the headache eased. Then he’d go over to the house, finally confess to his charade, and tell Murdoch he wanted to make Lancer his home.
This time however Scott’s plan miserably failed. He sank back onto the mattress and was sound asleep within a second of his head touching the pillow.
Something gripped Scott’s arm and shook it. He tried to shrug the irritation away. It persisted, only stronger.
“Time for you to get up, Sam. The sun is way past eight.” The impatient voice was familiar as it drifted over from somewhere near.
Scott forced his eyes to open. Completely disoriented, he was laid on top of the bed, not in it, fully clothed and still wearing gun belt and boots. Daylight filled the room, and from the overhead oil lamp, a low flame flickered. Not quite awake, he blinked a few times then focused on the figure staring down at him. “My sincere apologies, Cipriano. It wasn’t my intention to sleep in this late.”
“It’s no problem, Sam. I bring message from Señor Lancer. He wishes to speak with you straight away.”
A faint groan escaped Scott’s lips. So much for seeking out his father as he’d intended to do last night. Fleetingly curious as to what Murdoch wanted, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and scrubbed unsteady hands down his face. “I’ll go over as soon as I’ve freshened up.”
Cipriano made no move to leave. “Looks like you have mucho washing.”
Scott followed his gaze which had wandered towards the pile of dirty garments in the corner. “I just don’t seem to have had the time.”
“Maria will do it.”
“Thank you, but no Cipriano. I can’t expect Maria to—”
“She does laundry for many on the ranch, Sam,” Cipriano insisted, and scooped up every item of clothing off the floor. He gave a knowing wink “Maria also has a soft spot for Lancer’s blond haired vaquero. It will make her very happy to do this for you.”
It was obvious there was no point protesting further. Scott pushed himself to his feet and watched through the doorway as Cipriano walked quickly towards the wash-house. At least the problem of having clean clothes to wear was now resolved. The mystery of why his supper plate always seemed to have a larger portion than most had also been explained. Scott chuckled and gave his head a little shake. Maria was old enough to be his grandmother. Still smiling, he closed the door and blew out the dying flame in the lamp.
There was a small amount of water left in bowl, so after he’d washed his face, Scott looked in the mirror. He studied the growth of stubble on his jaw. Should he have a shave? For once, Scott decided against it. He’d seen enough blood over the past days and couldn’t trust himself to use a razor. For the thought of finally telling Murdoch who he really was had brought on a sudden attack of nervous anticipation. Scott’s stomach churned for the same reason. Breakfast would also be prudently skipped for the time being.
While he brushed his disheveled hair into place, Scott acknowledged he also needed a haircut. The last time he’d visited a barber had been in Boston, so it was hardly surprising he was in dire need of a tidying trim. Maybe he should follow Johnny’s example and allow it to stay curled over his ears and rest on his collar? Now he’d decided to stay, it might well make him fit in with what seemed the style of the west. It was worth considering.
With no fresh shirt yet available to change into, Scott re-tucked the one he was wearing into his pants. Although he’d worn a jacket on top the previous day, it was still marked by dried stains of various kinds. Scott smoothed down the creases. Keeping up a smart appearance had always been expected of him since childhood. He’d have never dared leave the house in Boston looking the way he did – Grandfather would have a fit if he could see him now.
A gloomy thought came into Scott’s head. It wasn’t going to be easy, writing to tell Harlan he wouldn’t be returning. In fact it would be one of the most difficult things he’d ever had to do. Though Scott acknowledged it was a letter which had to be written, only not today.
As his mind snapped back to matters more immediate, Scott drew in a deep breath and picked up his hat. The time had come to end his masquerade as Samuel Dennison. Taking on Pardee almost seemed easy in comparison to what he was about to face.
The events of yesterday seemed far away as Scott stood for a moment in the yard and looked about him. With the stench of death no longer in the air, a peaceful calm had settled around the place. It was hard to imagine this was the bloody battleground of twenty four hours ago.
There was no sign of the horse he’d shot, and as the carcass would have soon attracted flies, Scott was more than thankful it had been removed from sight.
Cipriano and a couple of men chatted together in front of the barn. Scott raised a hand in friendly greeting. They responded back in the same way.
A golden head looked over the top rail of the corral. Scott smiled. It was good to see Johnny’s palomino safe after the previous day’s blood-bath.
As he walked towards the house, Scott noticed glass was missing from several windows. Hit by stray bullets, no doubt. Something else then caught his eye. He stopped mid stride and tapped a finger on his holstered Colt reflectively. For the first time since his arrival on the ranch, he could see the tower was deserted. With no further need for a look-out, he could only hope it would never be used for the same reason again.
Continuing on, Scott reached the front porch. He was just about to let himself into the house, when he stopped his fingers making contact with the handle. This was not yet officially his home, so more than happy to observe the proper protocol, Scott knocked hard on the door instead.
After a few moments wait it creaked open. Teresa came into view, her cheeks and hair speckled white. Before Scott had a chance to say a word she threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, Sam. I don’t know what we’d have done without you here.”
Although taken aback by Teresa’s lack of reserve, Scott still held her in a friendly embrace of his own. “It was worth the trouble when shown appreciation in this way, even though the pretty lady is covered in flour,” he playfully joked.
Teresa released her hold and wiped her hands on her apron. “I was just kneading some dough.” She grinned, the lines of stress from the day before now visibly missing from her face.
Scott removed his hat and smiled back. “If it’s convenient I’d like a word with Mr. Lancer. There’s something I need to tell him.”
“That’s a coincidence Sam, because Murdoch wants a word with you.”
“Yes, I know. Cipriano told me.”
Teresa stood aside. “Please come in.”
Scott entered and immediately looked up the stairs. “How’s Johnny?”
Teresa closed the door and laughed. “Ornery. Does that answer your question? I’ve never known anyone moan so much just because they have to stay in bed a few days.” She indicated towards a room to the right of the hall. “Why don’t you go and sit down while I find Murdoch.”
With fears for his brother’s health now well and truly dispelled, Scott managed to relax - a little. Left alone he took the opportunity to take a good look around the large beamed living room for the first time.
The fine décor brought a raised eyebrow of appreciation as he took in every piece of furniture, picture and ornament on display. Shelves which covered an entire wall were filled with hundreds of well bound books. Reading had always been one of Scott’s passions and the collection rivaled any he’d seen in Boston. It even put his grandfather’s library to shame.
Two silver framed photographs stood on a desk. Scott moved towards them.
One showed a beautiful dark haired woman. Scott presumed she must be Johnny’s mother. He didn’t need to guess the identity in the second frame. There’d been a similar posed photograph in his grandfather’s study for as long as he could remember. Scott picked it up. Not for the first time over the years he traced a finger lovingly around the smiling face of his mother, Catherine Garrett Lancer.
Heavy footsteps sounded on the wooden floor. Scott hastily returned the photograph and stepped away from the desk.
Still using his cane for support, Murdoch appeared from around the corner. He greeted Scott with a nod of the head and eased down into an armchair at one side of a large stone fireplace.
Murdoch’s eyes looked tired and red-rimmed. Scott wondered if he’d been sitting by Johnny’s bedside all night. It wouldn’t surprise him if this had been the case.
As he placed the cane on the floor, Murdoch gestured for him to take a seat opposite.
Say it now. Tell him who you are, Scott silently ordered as he dropped down into a deep-backed chair.
However Murdoch was already speaking. “I want to thank you for everything you did yesterday, including the burying of Pardee’s men. It can’t have been a pleasant thing to do.”
“I know, you only did what had to be done,” Murdoch agreed, and rubbed at his brow as if to soothe it. “Father Ramirez sent word he’ll be over at noon to conduct the service for Felipe and Rodrigo.” He paused and let out a sigh. “They were good, loyal men who shouldn’t have had to die.”
Sensitive to the feeling of culpability reflected in his voice, Scott tried to find words to help him. “Both knew the danger involved, sir. We all knew. But with Pardee gone at least there’ll be no more senseless killing. If nothing else that means their deaths weren’t in vain.”
Murdoch made a steeple with his fingers and rested them under his chin. He looked at him thoughtfully. “You know Sam; you’ve got a wise head on those young shoulders. Makes me more certain I’ve made the right choice.”
Scott frowned. Where was this conversation going? “Sir?”
“Did you know Cipriano has wanted to return to his old village in Mexico for quite a while now?”
“He did mention it when we first met, but said he won’t consider moving until you find a suitable replacement for him.”
Murdoch nodded and sat back in his chair. “I’ll come straight to the point Sam,” he said. “Over the past couple of days you’ve proved yourself more than capable when it mattered. It’s obvious to me you’re just the man I’m looking for to take Cipriano’s place.”
For a moment Scott thought he’d heard wrong. Had he just been offered the job of Lancer’s segundo? “But sir, I can’t possibly,” he answered, stifling a chuckle of amusement at the thought. “You see, there’s something I need to tell you. I’m--”
Murdoch raised a hand to silence him. “You needn’t worry about your lack of experience on the day to day running of a ranch. It’s obvious you’re an intelligent man and I’m sure you’ll soon get the hang of how I like things done around here.”
Barely taking a breath, Murdoch continued, his expression earnest. “You know I’ve always prided myself on being able to judge a person’s character soon after meeting them. If there’s one thing I can’t abide its dishonesty, but it’s more than evident to me you’re truthful and reliable and someone who can be trusted. Just the qualities I’m looking for in a foreman. So, what do you say, Sam?”
Too taken aback to say anything, Scott fixed his gaze on his Stetson and absently ran a thumb and forefinger along the brim. He mulled over the significance of his father’s words. It would seem Murdoch thought Sam Dennison a man of integrity. What would he think of Scott Lancer?
Up till that moment, Scott hadn’t given much thought to the consequences when he began his pretence using another’s name. Now it hit him with the force of a hard smack to the jaw. What a fool he’d been! A one hundred percent, self-obsessed stupid fool! For his actions had hardly been those of an honorable man or son! He felt a sharp rush of self-contempt. More like a liar and a charlatan!
Oh what a tangled web we weave. Only this was a tangled web of his own making, beginning five years before when in a whiskey soaked state of melancholy he’d written that damned letter of fabrication. At that time he wouldn’t have cared less what his father thought of him. Not any more.
If he stayed his presence would be a constant reminder to Murdoch of his deliberately thought out deception towards him. Yet the only alternative was to leave. Whatever he did, Scott knew he was in a no win situation.
“I realize the ranch isn’t in the best of shape after what we’ve gone through over the past year,” Murdoch went on to admit in an almost apologetic tone. “But now Johnny’s here to stay, I’m convinced Lancer will soon grow and flourish better than before.”
There was genuine affection in Murdoch’s voice towards his younger son. Scott didn’t expect to receive the same sort of regard towards him if the truth was known.
Hit by a new sense of shame for writing the letter and staying under a false name, Scott’s mind was instantly made up. If his decision meant the terrible pain of never living on Lancer, then that’s what he must suffer. For he’d rather be remembered as a son amongst thousands of sons who’d died fighting for a cause they believed in. Better that than have his father suffer the humiliation of knowing his own son capable of such calculated dishonesty.
“You’re looking very pensive Sam. I don’t want to rush you so take a couple of days to think it over.”
Scott raised his head and straightened in his seat, answering with such conviction, he almost believed it himself. “No need sir. I appreciate the offer but it’s only fair you know I don’t see any future for myself on Lancer. In fact, I’ve already made plans to move on.”
A frown furrowed Murdoch’s brow. “I’m sorry to hear it. I recall you saying the ranch meant a lot to you and I was sure you’d . . . anyway, as it’s clear your mind’s made up, I won’t try and dissuaded you. So where are you heading?”
“I’ll be returning home to Boston. I’m expected back.” At least that was no work of fiction. Scott could well imagine his grandfather’s delight at seeing him again.
“Of course, I should have realized you’d have family there.” Murdoch cleared his throat. “I erm . . . I’ve been meaning to ask.” He gripped the arms on his chair so tight his knuckles showed white. “I don’t suppose you ever came across someone by the name of Lancer while you were growing up in Boston? Scott Lancer? He’d have been around your age.”
Scott was caught completely off-guard. Stunned and shaken, it took him a moment before the implication took hold. After a lifetime of uncertainty, it was now confirmed. He hadn’t been forgotten by his father, after all.
It was a heartening revelation. However now, strangely, it just added to Scott’s misery. The bridges had been burnt regarding his stay on Lancer. Stubbornly determined to do the right thing and salvage what little pride he had left, meant there was no going back now. Any chance of reconciliation between them had gone forever.
As Murdoch stared at him – waiting for an answer – Scott tried to think clearly. He had no wish to blatantly lie again. But what could he say? Choosing his words carefully, he willed his voice to remain calm and steady. “Boston was and still is a very large city, Mr. Lancer. With such a sizeable population, the chances of me knowing. . .” He shrugged, casting his eyes down to the empty hearth for a few moments before raising his gaze back.
Murdoch nodded. “I understand, Sam. It was just a thought.” He relaxed his hands and exhaled wearily. “Anyway, I’d appreciate it if you could work a week’s notice. Until the injured men are back on their feet, we’re going to be shorthanded for a while yet.”
“It’s the least I can do.” Scott pushed up from his chair, eager to leave before his emotions got the better of him and he gave himself away.
“You know Sam, if it weren’t for you, it might well have been Johnny we’d be burying today. There’ll be extra added on when you come to sign for your final pay.”
Scott felt a jolt of indignation. He didn’t want anything for saving his brother’s life! However it was clear Murdoch only made the offer out of a genuine desire to show his gratitude in the only way he knew how. “That’s very generous of you, Mr. Lancer. Thank you.”
Murdoch gave a short nod then frowned questioningly. “Didn’t Teresa say you wanted to see me about something?”
Scott clenched his jaw. “It was nothing, sir. Nothing important at all.” Excusing himself, he quickly made towards the front door. When he reached it, Scott looked back into the room.
Murdoch was lighting up his pipe, oblivious to the fact it was his eldest son who’d just walked away. Struggling to hold back the burning in his eyes, the faintest shadow of a resigned smile flickered across Scott’s mouth. It was as it should be.
Attended by all Lancer employees able to walk, the funeral service conducted by Father Ramirez was a short and solemnly conducted affair. The two coffins were lowered into the ground, prayers were said and Murdoch gave a touching eulogy, his voice filled with genuine sorrow for his fallen men.
Once the ceremony was concluded, Murdoch placed his arm around Teresa’s shoulders and Cipriano comforted Maria as they walked away. Those who remained took hold of spades and began to shovel soil into the graves of their comrades.
Scott also helped, reflecting as he did so, if he’d been killed, Samuel Dennison would have been carved on his headstone. Would the truth of who he was have ever been revealed? Probably not, unless Harlan travelled to Lancer in order to seek out his grandson’s whereabouts. No doubt he’d have soon put two and two together once told the name of the vaquero from Boston who’d fought against Pardee.
How would Murdoch have reacted when told the identity of the man who’d not only worked and died for him, but had also purposely lied to him? Scott couldn’t begin to guess. There were some things even a Harvard education couldn’t teach you.
Over the next few days, as well as their usual chores, Scott and his fellow vaqueros went about repairing all evidence of the assault on the ranch. With windows to fix and walls to re-plaster, Scott managed to convey an air of false excitement about his impending return to Boston to those around him. Only in the solitude of his room did he allow the mask of cheerful eagerness to disappear from his face.
Murdoch occasionally inspected the work done, but for the most part he stayed indoors. From what Scott was told by Cipriano, he spent his time keeping Johnny company. Such news convinced Scott even more he’d done the right thing by choosing to leave. He didn’t wish to be the fly in the ointment as his father forged a close relationship with his younger son.
All too soon it was Scott’s final day on the ranch. Assigned the task of replacing a stretch of fence on the north ridge, he loaded up the wagon with tools required. His gaze then centered on a roll of barbed wire stacked up against the wall. It wasn’t something Scott had dealt with before. He studied it carefully, more than aware the hundreds of dagger sharp barbs were ready to snag and dig indiscriminately into cloth and flesh of any unsuspecting man or beast.
“You’ll need to watch yourself if ya’re workin’ with that stuff.”
The quiet drawl was unmistakable. Scott spun round.
Johnny was clearly in good spirits as he grinned down at him from his horse.
It was the first time Scott had seen his brother since carrying him into the house unconscious. He managed to crack his first genuine smile of the week at the welcomed sight. “I appreciate the advice, though I had already worked that out for myself.”
“You’re gonna need gloves. Got any?”
Scott gave his head a shake. With all that had gone on, he hadn’t had chance to go into town and buy his own.
Johnny pulled out a pair from his saddle bag and passed them over. “Here, use these. Wouldn’t want those delicate Bostonian hands of yours to get all scarred up now, would we.”
Without taking offence, Scott tucked the leather gloves into his belt. He nodded his thanks. “Much obliged for the loan.”
Johnny’s brow was now furrowed. “Heard tell you’re leaving tomorrow, Boston. Hasty decision, ain’t it?”
Never tiring of hearing the nickname from his brother’s lips, Scott shrugged and answered as nonchalantly as he could. “I only decided to work here on a whim. It wasn’t my intention to remain for long.”
“So there’s no way you’ll change your mind and stay?”
Scott swallowed back his heartache and forced out a smile. “Not a chance.”
“That’s a real shame.” Johnny’s voice rang with genuine regret. “I tell you Sam, Day had me in his sights before you finished him off. With you goin’, I’ll never be able to repay the favor now.”
“Your father has already told me there’ll be extra in my pay for what I did against Pardee. So consider the debt paid in full.”
Johnny gave a slow, reflective nod. “Good for Murdoch. I should have known he’d do right by you. Though the way I see it, that don’t change a thing. I like to pay my own dues in my own way.”
Scott was in no doubt he did and tried to lighten his mood. “Well it’s said there’s a silver lining to every cloud. As I managed to earn me a bonus saving your sorry hide, I’m not going to complain.”
Johnny let out a short, amused chuckle. “Don’t suppose you would.”
Scott then noticed Johnny’s face looked pale. Unable to hide his concern he eyed him critically. “As it’s only been a few days since you were shot, shouldn’t you be resting instead of heading out for a ride?”
“Still lookin’ out for the boss’s son, eh Boston?” Johnny beamed over a good-natured smile.
“It’s a hard habit to break. So how are you feeling?”
There was no immediate reply as Johnny gingerly massaged his lower back. “Not bad. Murdoch did some fine doctorin’.” He grinned again. “Teresa’s been fillin’ me up with enough food to feed an army, and ain’t stopped clucking round like a mother hen all week. She’s of the same mind as you and weren’t too approving when I told her I aimed to get back on my horse today. Sure is a feisty one when riled. She even argued against Murdoch for allowin’ it.”
“It would appear Teresa really cares about your wellbeing.”
“Yeah, I guess she does.” Johnny’s mouth curved gently upwards. “She said I was to think of her like a sister, but I ain’t used to being fussed over so by a female. You got a sister?”
The question stilled Scott for a moment but he kept his gaze steady as he answered. “No sister . . . just a younger brother.”
Johnny nodded and gave a little grunt. “Me and the old man were talkin’ about family one night and he showed me this letter he got way back. Seems I had a brother once, but the damn fool got himself killed in the war.”
“Sorry for your loss.” Scott’s words of condolence came out automatically.
With his pokerfaced expression and flat tone, Johnny gave nothing away as to his feelings on the matter.
At such an indifferent response, Scott fought hard to ignore the sting of hurt as it tore painfully at his insides. Yet how else was Johnny supposed to react? He was hardly going to show an outpouring of grief for someone he never knew existed until days before – even a brother.
Scott inwardly sighed. Knowing he would never get the chance to bond in a brotherly way with Johnny as he’d once hoped was a bitter pill to digest. But he willingly conceded there was no one to blame but himself. He forced the guilt driven thought away for the time being and changed the subject. “So where are you heading? Morro Coyo?”
The saddle leather creaked as Johnny shifted weight on his horse’s back. “Not this time. I talked Murdoch into lettin’ me ride south for a couple of days to check out some sweet meadowland he’s bin tellin’ me about. Seeing as I’m stayin’ seems only right I get to know my way around the ranch.”
To have Johnny confirm he intended to make Lancer his future and consign Madrid to the past was music to Scott’s ears. Though knowing he’d be long gone on the road to Boston before his brother returned caused Scott’s muted elation to quickly fade. “That’s good thinking on your part, though I still believe it’s far too soon for you to be riding out anywhere.”
Johnny laughed. “Will you quit worryin’ about me, Boston? I’d hate you to end up as grey haired as my old man.”
Our old man, Scott silently corrected. “Like I said, looking out for you is proving to be a hard habit to break.”
For a few moments Johnny considered Scott through a narrowed eyed stare. “You’re a strange one, Sam. There’s something about you I just can’t figure out.” He paused and a faint smile formed on his lips. “Anyway, I better head out before Teresa tries to haul me back indoors. It’s sure been good knowin’ you, Mr. Dennison.”
As Johnny extended his right arm, without hesitation Scott reached out and shook the offered hand. “You too, Mr. Lancer. I just wish we’d met under more pleasant circumstances.”
“You and me both, Boston.” Johnny straightened and gathered up the reins. “Keep the gloves. Somethin’ to remind you of Lancer when ya’re back east, that’s if you want remindin’.” He pulled the brim of his hat low over his eyes and gave a final nod of farewell. “Adiós amigo.”
Although he wanted to reply, Scott couldn’t get his lips to move. He bowed his head slightly then pretended interest in the barbed wire again to hide the misery of their parting on his face. When he finally looked back, he stood alone; his brother just a distant speck on the southern horizon.
Scott quickly wiped a hand across his eyes and let out a shuddery breath. If ever he needed solace from a large whiskey, it was now. And not only one stiff drink . . . more like several large shots.
While he replaced the fence line’s broken and rusted barbed wire with freshly cut strands, Scott was more than indebted to Johnny for the protection offered by the gloves. It was repetitive, energy sapping work in the blistering heat, and with no hint of a breeze, perspiration soon beaded on his brow. His hair became thick with sweat, and prepared to suffer the consequences of the sun on his fair skin for once Scott took off his hat and tossed it into the back of the wagon.
Something Johnny said came to mind as he continued. “Me and the old man were talkin’ about family one night and he showed me this letter he got way back.”
Scott had always imagined the letter he’d written about his demise would have been thrown away once read. Why would Murdoch keep it all these years? Scott gave himself a mental shake. What did it matter? By this time tomorrow he’d be gone from Lancer, never to see his father and brother again.
Conversation around the card tables of Boston didn’t seem such an appealing prospect any more. Even the thought of living there again left Scott cold. If nothing else, the last few weeks had shown there was more to life than the endless rounds of tedious dinner parties within Boston’s high society.
He had money invested. Why not find some decent land in Wyoming, Montana or Texas and start a cattle ranch of his own? It was a tempting idea. Scott chuckled without mirth, for he could already hear the raised voice of his grandfather as he opposed his grandson’s plan.
In need of a cooling drink, Scott slipped the wire cutters into his back pocket and threw down the gloves. He moved over to the wagon and from underneath the bench seat pulled out a canteen and unscrewed the lid. He’d just taken a long swallow of water and poured a little over his head, when he heard the high pitched whinny of a horse.
Shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun with his hand, Scott’s gaze focused on a rocky outcrop. A figure dropped down out of sight. Sensing trouble, Scott put down the canteen and reached over to where he’d left his holster next to the wagon’s foot rest. His fingers never touched leather. The crack of a rifle shot sounded an instant before he was flung backwards and landed on the ground with a hard, bone-jarring thud.
Fighting for breath, and with an agonizing throbbing in his chest, Scott felt the warmth of blood as it oozed out of his body. The drumming of hoof beats on the dry earth alerted him to an approaching horse. It came to a halt a short distance away.
With his vision blurred through pain, Scott could just make out a soiled piece of cloth strapped around the rider’s left thigh as he dismounted. Moment’s later the man squatted down by his side. A disgusting odor of unwashed body, congealed blood, and stale whiskey breath filled the air. Scott nearly gagged from the stench. Too weak to resist he felt fingers tighten around his throat and the muzzle of a gun ground into his skull.
“Well this sure is my lucky day,” the man crowed. “Came looking to kill that double-crosser Madrid for putting a bullet in my leg, but even without your fancy clothes I recognized you straight off. Told you no one crosses Coley McHugh and gets away with it.”
Scott remembered the name and struggled to focus on the unshaven face of Pardee’s henchman. The double click of a cocked hammer sounded loud in his ear and a fresh wave of pain flooded through his body. Scott closed his eyes, and reconciled to his fate, allowed himself to slip away into a black abyss of merciful oblivion.
The next thing Scott became aware of was the comfort of a mattress beneath him and the warmth of blankets above. A bandage had been bound around his chest and he vaguely remembered being shot, though by whom he couldn’t recall. Sleep beckoned Scott back, when a soft snoring close at hand grabbed his attention. He opened heavy eyelids.
In the flickering light from an oil lamp, Murdoch dozed in a chair next to the bed. His head was lolled to the side and a book balanced precariously across one knee. Scott was confused by his presence. Shadows also played along the wall opposite where a window should be. This wasn’t the room he’d been using since arriving at Lancer.
A short distance away a pitcher stood invitingly on a wash stand. With his mouth bone-dry, Scott ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. Not wishing to disturb his sleeping companion, he pushed away the covers and attempted to haul himself upright. The world began to rapidly spin. Unable to summon the strength to continue, he collapsed back heavily on the pillow and let out a groan. The bedsprings squeaked from the sudden movement.
Chair legs scraped on the wooden floor and Murdoch’s face appeared above him. “Good to have you back with us, Sam.” He straightened the blankets into place. “Are you in any pain? I have laudanum if you need it.”
Still groggy, Scott focused blurrily on the wrinkled-edged eyes which locked on his own. “No pain, sir. I just . . . I just need water,” he croaked hoarsely.
Within seconds a glass was placed at Scott’s parched mouth.
As he enjoyed the support of his father’s strong arm around his bare shoulders, Scott welcomed the refreshing liquid in several greedy gulps. Once he’d finished, Murdoch gently lowered him down, and then returned the glass to the wash stand.
With his thirst now satisfied, the fog which had dulled Scott’s mind gradually cleared. Memory flooded in. “From what I remember, McHugh was just about to put a bullet in my brain. Unless this is all a dream, I’d be interested to know how I survived to tell the tale.”
“I can assure you this is no dream, Sam. Johnny saw what the man was about to do and shot him dead.”
Scott’s brow furrowed. “Johnny? But when I last saw him, he told me he was heading south.”
Murdoch settled back into his chair. “Johnny can’t explain why, but after a few miles he had the sudden urge to turn north. As he passed close to where you were working, he heard a gunshot and went over to investigate. If he’d turned up a few seconds later though--”
“I wouldn’t be here now.” Scott finished the sentence for him and pondered his close call with death. Was it some sort of brotherly intuition which made Johnny change direction and head his way? Scott liked to think it the case, but whatever the reason he was more than grateful for it. “Do I have you to thank for taking the bullet out?”
Murdoch nodded affirmatively. “By the time you were brought back to the ranch, you’d lost too much blood to hang around waiting for the doctor. Consider yourself lucky though. If Johnny hadn’t got you back here as quickly as he did, no-one could have saved you.”
Hadn’t McHugh bragged it was his lucky day? Scott gave a wry smile. The man certainly got that wrong. As for Johnny, they were now even. He’d truly paid the dues he felt he owed him in full.
“I’m afraid any travel plans will need to be put on hold for the time being, Sam,” Murdoch went on to tell him. “There’s no way you’ll be strong enough to start the return journey to Boston for at least a month.”
Struggling to keep his eyes open, Scott gave a slight nod. The sound of a clock chiming twice could be heard from somewhere outside the room. “May I ask why you’re sitting here with me instead of being in your own bed?”
Murdoch gave him a kindly smile. “I didn’t want you waking up alone in case there was something you needed. Johnny sat with you last night for the same reason.”
It was an emotional revelation. Scott’s throat tightened to think both his father and brother had kept vigil over him. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but believe me, the only thing I do need now is sleep. So please, don’t let me keep you up any longer. I’m just sorry to put you and Johnny to so much trouble.”
“You’re no trouble.” Murdoch pulled the feather-filled bedcover up to Scott’s chin. “Are you sure there’s nothing else I can get you?”
“No thank you, sir. There’s nothing at all.”
Murdoch rose to his feet. “In that case, I’ll leave you in peace. Good night Sam. Sweet dreams.” He turned down the lamp and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Alone in the darkness, and despite his troubles, Scott couldn’t stop smiling. No matter it had taken twenty-five years, he’d just realized a childhood dream. His father had finally tucked him up in bed. If he lived to be a hundred, it would be a memory he’d treasure always as he quickly drifted off into deep and restful slumber.
Scott next awoke to the painful glare of sunlight as it streamed through an open window. He was sure the curtains had been closed during the night. As his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he eased up cautiously to a sitting position and rested his back against the headboard. There was a twinge from his wound. He grimaced and felt lightheaded again.
A glass of water stood within easy reach on a bedside table. Scott could only surmise it must have been left by the same person who’d opened the curtains while he slept. More than appreciative for the kindness shown, he reached over and drained the glass without a pause. The dizzy sensation soon passed.
After he’d placed the glass back down, Scott brushed a knuckle across his stubbly chin. In dire need of a wash and shave, he could only hope he’d manage both some time soon. If not, there was a chance he might well end up looking and stinking like McHugh. Not an appealing prospect. Should he try to make it to the washstand unaided?
Still weakened from the loss of blood, Scott decided his ablutions would have to wait a while yet. Having been stripped of his clothing - except for his cotton undergarments - he didn’t wish to risk fainting to the floor. It would be too much of an embarrassment if Teresa found him in such a state of undress.
Chuckling at the thought, Scott glanced around the unfamiliar bedroom. The furnishings were as expensive looking as those he had grown up with in Boston, though the style of the well-made furniture was more to his liking. He smiled to himself and released a contented sigh. His unplanned recuperation on Lancer was going to be a most agreeable and comfortable one.
Scott then muttered a rarely used profanity under his breath, and dragged a hand roughly down his unshaven face. Had he completely lost his mind? What had he been thinking? He had no right to accept the hospitality and care offered to him from the man he’d unashamedly deceived. It was morally wrong and he didn’t deserve such consideration. Yet how could he refuse it without causing offence, or more importantly, without raising suspicion? The quandary was one Scott hadn’t time to consider.
Without warning the bedroom door opened. Murdoch held Scott’s gaze for a few moments before speaking. “So you’ve woken up at last. I take it you slept well? How are you feeling?”
The words seemed to come out in a rush, and there was an edge to Murdoch’s voice which Scott hadn’t noticed before. He put it down to lack of sleep on his father’s part and felt a pang of guilt to have been the cause. “Much improved, sir. Is it late?”
“Not far off midday.” For once the cane was missing from Murdoch’s hand. He looked at the empty glass as he stepped closer to the bed. “I see you’ve had a drink. Do you think you could manage to eat something as well?”
Up to that point Scott hadn’t realized just how hungry he was. “I’m sure I’d chew leather if you put it on my plate.”
The hint of a smile flittered across Murdoch’s mouth. “I think we can do better than that. There’s stew simmering on the stove. It should be ready within the hour.”
“I look forward to it. Thank you.”
Murdoch crossed over to the window. He leaned against the frame and a puzzled expression settled on his face. “I’m curious. Last night you mentioned your attacker as McHugh. Johnny only recognized him from when they’d had a shootout after admitting he was a Lancer to Pardee, so how did you know the man’s name?”
Remembering the promise he’d made to Teresa, Scott skirted around the facts regarding what had taken place in the mercantile. “Mr. McHugh and I had, what you might call, a slight altercation when I first arrived in town. He introduced himself then. It would seem he was also a bad loser. When he saw me on the north ridge, he decided to get even.”
“And he very nearly did,” Murdoch added. “I could so easily have been saying a eulogy at your funeral today.”
Scott thought he heard a slight catch in his voice. “As you said last night sir, luck was on my side.”
“It certainly was.” Murdoch quickly turned his head and stared out of the window.
Scott could see a glassy brightness reflected in his father’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. It was a sure indication the loss of any man working for Murdoch Lancer affected him deeply.
As he continued to concentrate his gaze outside, Murdoch rubbed a hand along the back of his neck in a thoughtful way. “I can’t think why McHugh was stupid enough to stay around the ranch. He must have known Pardee and most of the gang were either dead or had high-tailed it out of the area.”
There seemed no good reason to admit McHugh’s intention was to find and kill Johnny, so Scott kept it to himself. Ever mindful of just being an employee, his thoughts returned to the other injured vaqueros in their beds across the yard. “I don’t wish to sound ungrateful Mr. Lancer, but why am I lying here and not in my own room?”
Murdoch’s gaze shifted back on him. “Johnny insisted you stay in the house until you’re fully fit. He blames himself for what happened to you.”
“Why would he think it was his fault?”
“I’m sure that’s something he’d rather explain.” Murdoch flicked a hand towards a tall chest of drawers on the other side of the window. “Knowing you’ll be here for a good while, most of your belongings have been packed away in there. What’s left has been stored in your travelling trunk and left in a cupboard down the hall.”
Scott looked over at the dresser. He hadn’t taken much notice of it before. On top along with his time-piece and leather-covered shaving case, the treasured war time photograph stood on prominent display. Scott allowed himself a faint smile – it almost felt like home. But this would never be home so it was pointless thinking of it as such. “Is Johnny around, sir? I’d like to ask him why he feels responsible for me being shot.”
With a shake of his head, Murdoch stared out of the window again. “As we’re still shorthanded, I sent him into town with Teresa to collect the supplies and do several errands. I had intended to go myself this morning but something unexpected came up.” Murdoch seemed a little distracted all of a sudden as he absently tapped fingers on the window ledge.
Scott studied him. There was no doubt in his mind Murdoch had more important things to do than make polite conversation. It gave him the perfect excuse to take his leave. “I truly appreciate all you’ve done for me Mr. Lancer. But I think it only right I stay at the hotel in Morro Coyo until fit enough to travel on to Boston. I’ve taken up far too much of your valuable time already, and don’t wish you to feel obligated to take care of me.”
The finger tapping abruptly stopped. “I see.” There was a long pause. “Well, obligated or not, I don’t think I can allow that.”
There was no threat in Murdoch’s tone yet an uneasy feeling settled in the pit of Scott’s stomach. “I don’t follow, sir. What can’t you allow?”
Murdoch slowly turned and stared Scott squarely in the eye. “I can’t allow you to leave. At least not until you’ve explained yourself to my satisfaction. And there is much to explain, don’t you agree Sam?” Murdoch paused again, his expression giving nothing away. “First and foremost, why you seem reluctant to answer to the name your mother and I chose for you before you were born.”
Stunned into momentary silence, Scott somehow managed to hold his father’s gaze without blinking. It was obvious Murdoch knew who he really was. There was no point denying it. But how did he find out? When did he realize?
Expecting outrage to be flung at him, Scott steeled himself for what was to come. “How long have you known, sir?”
Murdoch showed no sign of anger. “Not long.” He pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. “On my way to breakfast I came in here to pick up the book I’d left on the dresser last night. I opened the curtains and noticed lettering engraved on the lid of your shaving case. It was small and intricately done, but readable all the same. Then a few things which have puzzled me about you fell into place.”
Scott inwardly cursed his stupidity. He’d forgotten the present given to him had been personalized with his full name. How ironic it was his grandfather’s gift which had given the game away. “Have you told Johnny?”
Murdoch shook his head. “By the time it had sunk in that my eldest son was still alive, he’d already left for town. Though I’ve had a couple of hours thinking time to reflect it’s probably something he should hear from you.”
Scott silently agreed. He owed his brother that much.
“All these years I thought you killed in the war.” Murdoch’s voice was now sharp with resentment. “I know we’d had our differences, but what kind of a cruel joke was Garrett playing to write me such a wicked lie? What did he expect to gain by it?”
It was clear Murdoch held Harlan in little regard. Scott immediately spoke up; keen to put the record straight. “I wrote the letter, sir. It was only weeks later Grandfather found out what I’d done. So any blame and anger you feel should be directed solely at me, not him.”
Murdoch’s expression changed to one of puzzled confusion. “But why would you do such a thing?”
“Having been brought up to believe I had a father who never wanted me, it seemed to provide the perfect way to sever any little connection between us forever. Though in my defense, I wasn’t thinking too clearly at the time.” Scott didn’t elaborate further. He wasn’t prepared to openly admit to his period of depression. Some things were better left unsaid.
“Not wanting you?” The look that crossed Murdoch’s face was part anguish, part disbelief. “All I ever wanted was to have you here on Lancer; to see you grow from boy to man. Surely Garrett explained about our arrangement regarding your upbringing?”
Scott frowned in bewilderment. This was news to him. “Grandfather said nothing. I wasn’t even aware of Johnny’s existence until the day I first spoke to Teresa.”
“But Garrett knew I’d remarried and had another son. And though I never expected a reply, I wrote to you many times through the years, explaining how my search for your brother was going, as well as news about the ranch.”
“Letters it would appear I was never allowed to read.” A tense silence fell. So this was the skeleton in the closet. Scott took a shaky breath, hardly able to believe his grandfather capable of such a spiteful deed. How could he have denied him his rightful correspondence, especially when its absence went in no small way to causing the pain of rejection he’d carried all his life?
Scott fought hard to control his temper at the thought. Then before he could stop himself, he asked the one question that had burned inside him for as long as he could remember. “Why did you never claim me?”
Murdoch stared blankly at him; his gaze seeming distant, as if he’d been transported back to unhappy memories from the past. He stayed silent for so long, Scott didn’t think he was going to respond. Finally, with shoulders hunched, he rested his forearms on his thighs and clasped his hands in front of him.
“For the first five years I couldn’t guarantee your safety on Lancer, what with the war against Mexico and local marauders. It was only when things quieted down I headed east with the intention of bringing you back. I happened to arrive during your birthday party. Garrett graciously allowed me to watch my own son for the very first time from the comfort of a doorway.”
Sarcasm was clear in Murdoch’s tone and reflected the deep-seated resentment he still felt.
“Your grandfather knew why I’d come, and wasn’t willing to let you go without a fight. Veiled threats were made. I won’t go into detail – no point going over old ground now. Enough to say, it was also pointed out I was a stranger in your eyes, and how cruel I’d be to drag you away from the only home you’d ever known. As I watched you play, it was clear Garrett was right.”
Murdoch paused and sat back in his chair, his gaze never leaving Scott’s face.
“So I agreed to what he then suggested. In order for you to have a stable upbringing, I was to sever all physical contact with you until your 21st birthday. On that day I could return and give you the option to start a new life for yourself on Lancer, if that’s what you wished. We shook hands on the arrangement. I kept my side of the bargain, and in the autumn of ’65 was just about to start out for Boston when I received your letter.”
“Informing you of my death.” Scott felt emotionally exhausted by what he’d heard. It was hard to accept that the course of his life had been determined in much the same way as any business deal - on a hand shake. The only consolation his welfare must have been at the forefront of both his grandfather and father’s mind.
He let out a weary sigh and tried to ease himself further up on his pillow. A stab of pain shot out from his chest and he winced with discomfort.
“Here, son, let me help you.” Murdoch rose from his chair and by hooking his arm around Scott’s back and under his armpit, lifted him gently upwards.
“Thank you, sir.” Scott waited a few moments for the dull ache to fade away. He then gathered his thoughts together again. “I daresay you’d like to know why I came to Lancer and then kept my identity a secret from you.”
Murdoch eased himself down on his chair. “There’s a lot I’d like to know about you Scott, but that will do for a start.”
Scott managed a nervous half smile. This wasn’t going to be easy to say, but he was determined to be totally honest. “It had been my intention to tackle you for deserting me since birth. I didn’t expect to achieve anything by it – just wanted to show you how much I hated you for it.”
Murdoch noticeably flinched but said nothing.
Scott felt a tug of regret, and continued on. “Then I met Teresa. It soon became clear she wasn’t talking about the same man I’d traveled three thousand miles to confront. So I decided to use another’s name in order to find out for myself what you were really like. It seemed a good idea at the time. But I now readily admit I was wrong and not a little foolish to come up with such an underhanded plan.”
Murdoch studied him with a contemplative expression. “Thank you for being so candid,” he eventually said. “Just answer me this. You once told me you saw no future for yourself on Lancer. Was that also the truth?”
“No sir,” Scott admitted. “I can’t think of anywhere on earth I’d rather be.”
“So that begs the question, do you still wish to leave?”
“Isn’t it obvious I have no other choice, Mr. Lancer?” The name slipped out before Scott knew what he was saying. “I’m sorry, sir. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure what to call you. After all these years, father doesn’t--”
“I understand all too well what you mean, Scott,” Murdoch interrupted. “I haven’t yet earned the right to be called father by you or your brother.” He then unexpectedly chuckled. “I dread to think what Johnny already calls me behind my back. However he has taken to calling me Murdoch to my face. Would you be happy to do the same?”
“It seems a fair compromise . . . Murdoch.”
“Good. So, I’ll ask again. Why do you feel you have to return to Boston?”
Unable to hold it back, for the first time Scott’s self-control cracked under the pressure of what he’d done. He clenched his fists and brought them both down hard on the mattress. “I purposely wrote you a letter of shameless fiction. Even my first words to you were a deliberate lie! I can’t and don’t expect forgiveness for my inexcusable behavior, so returning to Boston is for the best!”
Murdoch seemed unruffled by the sudden tirade. “Best for whom?” he asked quietly. “Me? You . . . Johnny?”
Scott had no answer and briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them again, Murdoch was still staring at him, lips pursed in thought.
“You know, Scott, I realize in so many ways we’re still strangers to each other. But you’re my own flesh and blood; a son who isn’t dead to me anymore. A son who has proved his worth ten fold in such a short while. If you think by leaving you’re doing the honorable thing, then you’re wrong. I can assure you, to go now will cause more heartache than your staying could ever create. So please, I’m begging you, don’t allow stubborn pride to take you away; not if Lancer is where you want to call home.”
Scott went over his words. Was it really possible Murdoch meant everything he said? There was nothing in his expression to suggest otherwise. He wiped a hand across his lips, frowned, still unable to accept he’d been forgiven. “Are you saying you really want me here?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.” Murdoch drew in a deep breath. “Over the years I’ve made some bad decisions, not least giving you up without a fight. I can’t go back and fix my mistake. But now that I’ve got a second chance, I don’t want to lose you again. Lancer is your birthright to share with Johnny. It’s where you belong . . . where you both belong . . . with me.”
A shaky smile tilted Scot’s lips. Not wishing to destroy his father’s dream, the time had come to swallow his pride. “I’m not so much of a fool that I’d reject such a generous offer. Though after acting so disgracefully, I still can’t work out why you’d want me to stay.”
Murdoch leaned forwards and covered Scott’s hands with his own. He gently squeezed them. “If you’re ever blessed to be a father yourself one day, you’ll understand why.”
Hot tears pricked at Scott’s eyes. For once he felt no embarrassment to show such weakness in the presence of another. Why should he when his father’s eyes reflected back towards him equally moist? Slowly, and Scott sensed almost reluctantly, Murdoch released his hold. He pulled out a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and blew his nose.
Scott’s head was reeling – but in a good way. There was too much to take in. Details from the past he’d never been aware of before had been revealed. One thing came straight to his mind, but it took a few moments before he could trust himself to speak. “You said earlier you chose my name. Was I called Scott for a reason?”
Having seemingly regained control of his own emotions, Murdoch nodded decisively. “Catherine and I decided if we had a son to name him after my late father. Harlan knew of our decision and to his credit didn’t change our choice.”
After being fed the Garrett history since childhood, Scott felt an inner sense of loss. He knew nothing of his father’s background or anything about his own Lancer roots. “It would seem I have a lot of catching up to do regarding my other grandfather.”
“There’s a lot to tell. He was the kindest, most honest and hardworking man you could wish to meet.”
A ghost of a smile hovered around Scott’s lips. It must run in the family, for it was now clear to him he had a father with similar qualities. “There’s something else I was wondering about. You kept the letter I wrote. Why?”
Murdoch cocked an eyebrow. “How do you know I still have it?”
“Johnny told me in conversation, on the day I got shot. He said you’d shown it to him.”
Murdoch gave a slow nod. “When I first read it, I felt like throwing it into the fire. But I couldn’t bring myself to destroy the only tangible proof I had that you’d ever existed, even though it said you were dead.” He paused for a moment and moistened his lips. “For months after I kept hoping I’d receive word there’d been some sort of mistake and . . . and you were still alive. Of course, nothing came.”
As he heard a tremble in Murdoch’s voice, Scott inwardly cursed for being the cause of his pain. “Due to Grandfather, I’ve been filled with unwarranted resentment towards you most of my life. Now I know you were judged unfairly, and I’m sorry, sir. Truly sorry for the anguish I must have put you through by writing the letter.”
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve both suffered because of Garrett’s actions. But what’s done is done. The past is in the past, so no point dwelling on it.”
Although Scott agreed, he was now in a far less charitable mood. He felt cheated by what his grandfather had done; robbed of a lifetime’s knowledge Murdoch always wanted him. It was now obvious why Harlan had been adamant he not retract the lie in his letter. For with Murdoch thinking him lost in the war, Harlan would never have to fear his grandson being enticed away again.
Had Grandfather’s love for him been so deep he couldn’t bear the thought of him leaving his side? Or had he been used as a pawn in his plan to get his own back on his much reviled son-in-law? A bitter taste filled Scott’s mouth. He couldn’t help but think the second conclusion the more likely. Any loyalty felt towards his grandfather then disappeared as a new iron emerged from deep within.
What was it he kept telling me? Scott inwardly questioned. You’re too forgiving and considerate for your own good? Well, not this time Grandfather. Not where you’re concerned. The correspondence about his future plans was now one Scott looked forward to writing. The news would not be to Harlan Garrett’s liking. It might even break the man’s heart . . . if he had one.
Scott’s cynical musings were interrupted when a hand was laid gently on his arm.
“Remember when we first met I said you looked vaguely familiar?” Murdoch asked, though didn’t wait for a response. “I should have realized then. You have your mother’s eyes.”
It was a touching revelation Scott hadn’t been made aware of before. “Thank you for telling me. There’s much about my mother I’d like to know, when you have the time.”
“I can think of many things about her that I can share with you,” Murdoch answered. “And at least time is something we now have. More than enough time for you and your brother to finally . . .”
The sentence went unfinished as a door suddenly slammed shut downstairs.
“Hey Murdoch! Where you hidin’?” The voice which boomed out was unmistakable.
“I’m up here Johnny.”
The tread of rapid footsteps and jingling spurs sounded coming up the stairs. Moments later with his hat hung down his back, Johnny grinned over from the doorway. “Well Boston, I seen prettier things lying half naked on a bed. But good to see you’re lookin’ more alive than dead at last.”
“As I haven’t checked a mirror for days, I’ll take your word for it.” Scott smiled as he skimmed a finger across the bandage on his chest. “Truly appreciate all you did for me. You must have managed some fancy shooting yourself when you came across Pardee’s man.”
“Don’t deserve your gratitude, Sam. You wouldn’t be laid up now if I’d finished that no good killer when I first had the chance.”
In that instant Scott understood why Johnny held himself responsible for him being shot. Though for once he was more than thankful his brother’s aim hadn’t been true. If Johnny had killed McHugh on the morning of the attack, he’d be travelling back to Boston now, never to know his father’s feelings towards him. Fate and lady luck had certainly been on his side in more ways than one.
“How you feeling Murdoch?” Johnny inquired. “Me and Teresa wondered if you were sickenin’ for somethin’ when you came down to breakfast looking as white as a sheet. You okay now?”
“Never felt better, son.” Murdoch pushed himself up to his feet then gestured towards the chair. “Why don’t you sit down and keep . . . keep our patient company while I plate him up some stew? Reckon it must be ready by now.”
Johnny entered the room. He fished out several papers from his jacket pocket and offered them over. “Sure, but don’t ya want to check out all that business I had to do in town, first?”
Murdoch shook his head and rested a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “There’s no rush. It can wait till later . . . much later.” There was firmness in his tone but his eyes were gentle.
Scott noted how his brother didn’t flinch or attempt to shrug away from his father’s touch. He hid a smile at the reassuring sight. Such a different reaction from when the two had first met, and an obvious sign both were developing a closer rapport towards each other.
After Murdoch had taken a pace towards the door, he stopped and glanced back down at Scott. “Don’t forget what you have to tell Johnny. And I’m sure he’ll be more than interested to hear all what you’ve just told me.”
Scott knew exactly to what he referred and nodded.
Murdoch smiled. His gaze bounced between them both for a few moments then he disappeared from view down the hall.
Johnny threw the wad of papers onto the dresser. “I tell you Sam, my old man sure is a hard one to figure at times. He just about pushed me out the house this morning sayin’ those errands I had to do were real important. Yet now he ain’t showing any interest in how I got on.”
“Could be there’s something else on his mind.”
“Yeah, well, maybe.” Johnny sank down onto the chair, stretched out his legs and laced his fingers on his stomach. “So what you gotta tell me?”
For a moment Scott couldn’t bring himself to answer. It struck him how much he wanted his brother to play a continuing role in his life. Yet there was the possibility Johnny might not be as forgiving or accepting as Murdoch. Scott inwardly groaned. What then? “Do you remember when I met you off the stage?”
With a snort of mock indignation, Johnny made a point of rubbing his chin. “Remember? How could I forget? Still got jaw ache from that punch you gave me.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, Scott chuckled at the gesture. All too soon, however, apprehension edged out his amusement. “I wasn’t exactly truthful when I introduced myself. Sam Dennison is not my real name.”
Although his eyes widened slightly, Johnny showed no great concern. “You’ve bin staying here under an alias? Don’t tell me you’ve got a reward on your head? Or are ya one of them Pinkerton agents workin’ under cover?”
“No. I’m not on any wanted poster. Nor am I a detective.” Scott paused then forced the words out. “I . . . I’m that damn fool who got himself killed in the war.”
“Boston, you ain’t talkin’ sense and I’m too damn tired to figure out a riddle. So just give it to me plain. Who the hell are you?”
Refusing to be rushed, Scott held the blue eyed gaze towards him with a steady one of his own. “My name,” he answered in as calm a voice as he could muster. ”is Scott Lancer. Whether you like it or not Johnny, I’m your elder brother.”
Scott had expected an immediate verbal response. Instead, to his surprise, a chilling silence filled the room.
Johnny just studied him through narrowed eyes while rubbing a thumb back and forth across his lips in a thoughtful, unhurried motion. After several long seconds he spoke. “That’s some crazy claim, cowboy. I take it Murdoch bought the cock-and-bull story you gave him?” His voice though barely audible was threatening in tone. He shoved up from his chair and pinned Scott with a cold look associated more with Madrid.
Then slowly the corners of his mouth curled upwards into an impish grin, and he thrust out a hand. “Well if the old man says we’re kin, reckon it’s only right and proper we reintroduce ourselves as gentlemen would be sure to do. It’s a real pleasure to finally make your acquaintance Mr. Lancer . . . brother.”
Relief flooded through Scott and he matched Johnny’s warm and affable smile. They shook hands, exchanging a look of genuine camaraderie, and Scott’s own voice now raw with emotion. “Likewise . . . brother.”
In contrast to his last visit, the morning sun shone down with pleasant and tolerable warmth as Scott eased his horse to a gentle stop on the north ridge. He surveyed the length of barbed wire fence he’d been working on. It was now fully repaired. During his month long recuperation, someone else had clearly completed the job he’d been unable to finish.
Scott remembered back to the day he was shot. His mouth went dry as dust and an inner trembling gathered within. He drew in a shuddery breath and forced himself to look around.
During the war and against Pardee, he’d been prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for a worthwhile cause. Yet without Johnny’s timely intervention, he’d have died a pointless death in this isolated spot. No doubt the flies would have soon been swarming around en masse as they gorged on his blood soaked body and splattered brain. Scott swiped a hand across his mouth and swallowed back the breakfast in his stomach. It wasn’t the first time this nauseating image had filled his head.
Something wedged fast beneath a tangle of undergrowth a few paces away caught his attention. Grateful for the welcomed distraction, Scott dismounted and scooped up the leather gloves Johnny had generously gifted him. Thinking they’d been lost forever, he shook each one then tugged them onto his hands. Although they were clearly far from new, it made no difference. More out of sentimentality than thriftiness, he didn’t intend buying another pair for a long time yet.
The bay snorted and pricked its ears. A rider had appeared in the distance, heading at a steady pace towards them. Scott felt no unease at the sight, for he knew who’d been following him since leaving the house. He rested against his horse’s broad shoulder, gave its neck a pat, and as his gloved fingers twisted around the coarse black mane, allowed his mind to wander.
To say he’d been overwhelmed with relief when Cipriano and the rest of the men had accepted him as the Patron’s son without any show of condemnation, was putting it mildly. He’d been deeply touched, and his immediate response had been to eat crow and apologize to each and every one for keeping them in the dark.
Even Teresa had welcomed the news of who he really was with a cry of delight and tears of sisterly joy. Scott smiled to himself. Along with Murdoch and Johnny, the four of them were steadily coming together as a family. He tried to imagine what life would be like without them – and found he couldn’t. His thoughts then drifted to another he’d once held in the same regard.
Harlan could well have received the scathing letter he’d written to him by now. Yet Scott couldn’t find it in him to hate or wish the old man harm. After spending his first twenty five years plagued by bitterness, he didn’t wish to spend the rest of his life feeling the same way. He’d had a few weeks to reflect life was too short, too precious, to bear a grudge - especially against ones own kin. Maybe for the sake of his mother’s memory, there’d be a chance of reconciliation with his grandfather some day.
Further deliberations on the matter were put on hold as Johnny reined to a halt by his side. A frown creased his brow. “First day Murdoch lets you out of his sight and you head here for a ride? What’s the attraction, Boston? Thought this would be the last place you’d wanna revisit.”
Scott pushed his hat back and gave a half hearted smile. “I’ve had a few sleepless nights thinking about what happened here,” he admitted, though in truth it was the nightmares which had jolted him awake. “It was my hope by returning I might manage to put it all well and truly behind me.”
Johnny’s expression softened sympathetically. “Has it?”
Scott shrugged. “I suspect only time will tell.” He glanced towards the outcrop of rocks where his attacker had been hiding. “What happened to McHugh’s body?”
“Cipriano sent a couple of men to take it over to where you’d buried Pardee.” Johnny hooked a leg over the saddle horn and scratched behind his ear. “Still can’t figure McHugh out. He could have been half way to Mexico within a few days, so why’d he stick around Lancer just to get even with you over losin’ a fist fight? Makes no sense.”
Scott turned his head and met Johnny’s puzzled gaze squarely.
The question of why he’d been singled out by McHugh had come up during one of the many conversations they’d enjoyed over the past weeks. Though he’d explained it was because of the brawl they’d had in the mercantile, his promise to Teresa was kept and he hadn’t mention the reason for the fight taking place.
However, if the newly forged brotherly bond with Johnny was to endure, in this instance Scott was convinced he should set the record straight and be forthcoming with all the facts. “According to McHugh, I wasn’t his original target. He had unfinished business with Madrid and was looking to seek him out. It was just by chance he saw me first and decided to settle another old score as well.”
Johnny turned his gaze beyond Scott to some point on the horizon. He heaved a deep sigh. “Bet the old man weren’t well pleased when he heard you took a bullet because of me.” His voice was low and resigned.
Scott couldn’t help but empathize with him. Despite the closer relationship between father and younger son, there’d often been a tense atmosphere whenever Johnny’s gunslinger’s past was mentioned. “I didn’t tell Murdoch, and I don’t intend to. I think in this instance, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
For a moment neither of them spoke. Johnny looked back down at Scott and gave a brief nod of thanks. “You aim on keepin’ many secrets from our old man?”
“I daresay there may be times when I decide it prudent to keep our father and maybe even you, in the dark . . . should I deem it necessary.”
Johnny’s mouth hitched into a smile. “Appreciate the warning, brother.” He straightened in the saddle and wiped a hand across his lips. “Anyways, I’ve bin thinking. How about we head on into town? The pair of us ain’t had a chance to visit the saloon together, and reckon after all what’s gone on since meeting up, we deserve a few beers.”
Scott agreed. It was an appealing thought and he didn’t wish to pass up the chance of a drink – maybe even several – in Johnny’s company. There was, however, one stumbling block in the way. He cleared his throat. “What about Murdoch?”
“What about Murdoch?”
“You know how he thinks I should still be taking it easy. As I recall he made it quite clear I was to return to the house within a couple of hours. Isn’t that why he sent you to tag along after me? To make sure I did as he ordered?”
Johnny rubbed a thumb across his chin in a thoughtful way. The hint of a mischievous glint soon appeared in his eye. “Well the way I see it, as we’re not signin’ that three ways partnership contract till tomorrow, our old man ain’t in any position to call the tune. You get my drift?”
Scott chuckled and nodded. “Murdoch’s going to be rather annoyed with us when he finds out where we’ve gone; you know that, don’t you?”
“Annoyed?” Johnny grinned. “Murdoch’s gonna be more than annoyed. He’s gonna be mad as hell . . . but don’t reckon that should stop us.”
Scott raised his eyes to the sky and laughed. “Let me ask you something, Johnny. As it would seem both our futures on Lancer are close to being legally secured, is it your intention to make a habit of leading me astray from now on?”
“Could be Boston . . . should I deem it necessary.”
Smiling broadly at the parroting of his own words, Scott readjusted his hat firmly on his head. He wasn’t so naïve as to think their life together on Lancer would always run smooth. No doubt like other siblings, there’d be arguments, differences of opinion, tempers lost between them. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Very well, little brother. Though I have a feeling I may live to regret this, lead on.”
Still grinning, Johnny gave a loud whoop, turned his palomino in the direction of Morro Coyo, and set off at a gallop.
Scott smiled after him and took one last look around. Never feeling more thankful to be alive he remounted, kicked his heels into the bay’s sides, and letting out a yell of his own, more than happily followed.