With the sun blazing down and Murdoch at his side Johnny steered the four seated buggy down the hustling, bustling main thoroughfare of the ever growing Morro Coyo and pulled to a halt in front of the stage depot on the edge of town.
The two men dismounted and Murdoch checked his pocket watch. “You made good time son. We’ve still got over twenty minutes before the stage arrives.”
Easing the kinks and cramps from his body as he stretched out his arms Johnny looked towards a saloon where the sound of raucous shrieking and laughter could be heard. He took off his hat and ran a hand through sweated hair. “How about a mid-afternoon beer to cool us down while we wait?”
Murdoch followed his gaze but for once shook his head. “Place sounds a little too lively for me but you go if you want. I’ll just sit out here and watch the world go by,” he said as he made his way to a bench seat which stood in the shade near the stage office door.
Johnny licked his lips, tempted, but instead after a moments thought eased down besides him. “Reckon I’ll give it a miss and have me some of that peace and quiet as well.”
Murdoch gave a soft sigh of contentment.
He liked this easiness now forged between himself and his youngest and could hardly believe he was sitting beside the same man who’d gazed at him murderously on their first meeting only nine or was it ten months ago? It was hard to keep track. So much had happened during that time; bridges rebuilt between father and sons, stability on the ranch and now the three of them living in peaceful harmony together, well most of the time. It was more than he’d ever hoped for…much more.
After sitting in a companionable silence for a short while, watching what was going on around them with vague interest, Johnny suddenly pushed up to his feet and slapped his hat hard on a timber support with a groan of impatience. “Hey Murdoch, how long did you say before the stage is due in?”
“About two minutes less than the last time you asked,” Murdoch told him with a gentle fatherly reprimand as though addressing a six year old. “I know you’ve missed your brother over the past ten days but will you please sit down and relax. He’ll be here soon enough.”
Like a petulant child Johnny sighed heavily and reluctantly did as requested, though as he distractedly stroked the brim of his hat he soon began to chuckle and felt his father’s questioning gaze on him. “I was just thinking back to the first time I met Scott. Wearing that bowler hat he stuck out like a sore thumb and along with those fancy clothes he was wearing my first thought was he’ll never survive the week out looking like that.”
Murdoch also gave a quiet laugh. “Well I’m glad he proved you wrong! And considering how much you teased your brother about his appearance I’m more than relieved he didn’t just pack up and head straight back east instead of deciding to stick around and start afresh on Lancer.”
“Yeah, I’ve got to admit for a greenhorn Boston sure has settled in to ranching well,” Johnny admitted with a hint of pride, and dropping his hat to the back of his head stared down at his clasped hands, seemingly deep in thought.
Murdoch eyed him closely. At times his youngest was a difficult man to read, and continually troubled by a notion that constantly gnawed at him when Murdoch spoke again his voice though quiet was laced with a faint unease.
“And what about you John, do you have any regrets about staying here at Lancer and leaving Johnny Madrid behind?”
There was no answer straightway as Johnny absently flexed his fingers for several seconds, intuitively knowing what his father was thinking. “You don’t need to worry Murdoch I’m not planning on going anywhere. And there’s no regret about leaving Madrid in the past. Reckon something Scott once told me still rings real true. Being here is the only good thing that ever happened to me in my whole life and I’d be more than a fool to walk away from it.”
Murdoch gave an inward sigh of relief. Trust his eldest to come up with the right words when they were needed. “Wise man that brother of yours.”
Johnny’s mouth curved very slightly in a half smile. “Yeah, he sure is.”
There was a slight pause. “Though there is one thing…”
Murdoch frowned. “Come on son, finish it.”
As he straightened in his seat Johnny met his father’s gaze. “I just regret it didn’t happen sooner, coming back to live on Lancer I mean.”
Murdoch nodded. “I agree but you weren’t the easiest boy to track down, and believe me those Pinkerton agents tried their hardest to find you.”
Understanding what he meant and agreeing with him Johnny offered no argument, keeping his eyes focused on his father. “Can I ask you something?”
By the tone of his voice, the look on his face, whatever he wanted to know Murdoch knew it had been on his mind a while. He gave a silent nod and Johnny continued. “All that time…I mean after my mother took me away, did you think about me much?”
Murdoch stared at his son for a long moment, his expression softening. “There was barely a day went by for over twenty years when I didn’t agonize if you’d got enough to eat, worry about where you were sleeping, despair at not knowing if you were dead or alive. Does that answer your question?”
Johnny nodded, believing his every word. “I haven’t made your life easy, have I old man,” he sighed apologetically.
“No one ever said fatherhood would be easy Johnny, but for the fortunate ones, like me, it’s turned out more than worthwhile in the end.”
A faint smile tilted the young man’s lips. “Well lucky for you there wasn’t a need to go through all that worrying about Scott as well. At least you knew where he was and that he wanted for nothing.”
At the memory Murdoch gave no outward sign of the turmoil that now churned his insides though his expression suddenly sobered. “Yes, I knew. But in a way that made it harder…”
As his voice trailed Johnny frowned and sensed a lot of hidden pain. He was about to question him further when there was a sudden shout from across the street.
“Mr. Lancer! I was told you were in town and I’m so glad to have found you.”
Father and son looked over towards the familiar stoutly built figure of Elias Donnelly who was walking quickly towards them with a flustered look on his face.
Mentally clearing his head Murdoch forced out a pleasant expression to the man who’d been the Postmaster of Morro Coyo for several years. “Good day Elias. Is something wrong?”
Elias nodded, clearly upset. “There most certainly is Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch gave a quizzical look as Elias coughed nervously. “As you are aware the post-room is being renovated and cleared of all that rotten flooring. This morning we found several letters had somehow slipped underneath the floor boards and I’m sorry to say Mr. Lancer one of them was addressed to you.”
A slightly soiled envelope was placed in his hand and Murdoch shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t understand the problem Elias. Having a letter delivered a few days late is hardly a hanging offence.”
“But it’s not a few days Mr. Lancer,” Elias told him. “I checked the date stamp and it was posted to you fifteen years ago and must have been lying there since it first arrived. And as delivery of the mail is my responsibility, on behalf of the United States Postal Service I can only offer you my most sincere apologies for any inconvenience.”
Murdoch gave the man a forgiving smile. “Don’t worry Elias these things happen. And after all this time I shouldn’t think it’s anything important so let’s say no more about it.”
Clearly relived no further action was to be taken against him Elias took a deep calming breath. “That’s very generous of you Mr. Lancer. Thank you,” he said and giving both men a farewell nod turned and retraced his steps the way he’d come.
Johnny peered over to look at the slightly faded address printed out in a clear yet childlike hand. “Recognize the writing?”
Murdoch shook his head.
“Wonder who it’s from then?” Johnny questioned, his curiosity aroused.
“Well there’s one way to find out,” Murdoch said and slitting the envelope open with his thumb nail took out a single sheet of paper and unfolded it.
Within a second Johnny straightaway noticed his father’s expression change to one of disbelief and after a short while Murdoch handed the letter over with a trembling hand without saying a word, his eyes suspiciously moist as he stared straight ahead, blinking hard.
With a feeling of puzzled trepidation Johnny began to read…
My Grandfather has always told me you abandoned me when I was born because you thought I would only be a nuisance and of no use to you in your new life in the west. But now that I am nearly a man (I will be ten years old next month) I was hoping you would change your mind and come and claim me.
I ride pretty good already, can recite all my times tables and I promise to be no trouble to you at all and would work really hard for my keep.
I am not unhappy with Grandfather but I just know I would be a lot happier with you. As my best friend Henry-Jack says, and he’s already twelve and a whole lot smarter than me, no son worth his salt wouldn’t want to live with their father if given the chance. And though I don’t expect you to love me seeing as we’ve never been introduced, as Henry-Jack also said, once you get to know me you couldn’t help but like me.
Scott Garrett Lancer
P.S. I only found where you live by sneaking into my Grandfather’s office without permission. Please don’t tell him as he doesn’t know about me writing to you.
P.P.S. Henry-Jack helped with the spelling.
P.P.P.S I love apple pie, ice cream and ginger ale. Do they have that in California?
Once he’d finished Johnny swallowed hard. Though not a man to show his emotions often the hopeful words from a nine year old boy who was to become the brother he now knew left him for a moment too choked to speak. “Those reasons for abandoning Scott, it wasn’t like that, was it?” he asked with nervous hesitation as he handed the letter back.
Murdoch shook his head emphatically, his face suddenly dark with anger. “I knew Harlan Garrett never forgave me for marrying his daughter but I didn’t think he’d stoop so low with such a blatant spiteful lie. Yet thinking back considering what happened at our last meeting it really doesn’t surprise me.”
“When was that?”
Murdoch took a deep breath. “I’ve never told Scott this but about a year after your mother disappeared with you I travelled to Boston. There were words said between Garrett and me, threats by him of legal proceedings and I had to make one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he admitted though not elaborating further.
He leaned forward, his brow deeply furrowed. “But I still can’t understand why Scott wanted to give up the life of luxury he had in Boston to come live in this comparative wilderness with a stranger he thought didn’t love him.”
Johnny gave a sigh of exasperation. “What’s not to understand Murdoch? You were his father, a father Scott wanted to be with, and that’s all that counted as far as he was concerned.”
“A father who also failed him.” Murdoch said the words in a low, almost ashamed voice filled with the sound of heartfelt pain. “I wonder how long he waited for a reply before giving up all hope of me coming to fetch him. How he must have hated me because of it. Maybe he still does, deep inside.”
“Oh Murdoch, you’re so wrong,” Johnny told him with certainty. “Scott isn’t capable of hating anyone, least of all you. If nothing else I’ve figured that out about him, especially since that fiasco with Dan Cassidy. And before you say anything he wouldn’t bear a grudge against you either. Since the first day he arrived he’s put his life on the line for the pair of us several times and that’s hardly the action of a man wanting to get even.”
Murdoch sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he agreed and there was a few moments contemplative quiet between them.
“I wonder why he’s never mentioned writing this,” Murdoch then asked, more to himself than Johnny as his eyes stared blankly at the sheet of paper; still trying to come to terms with what he’d just read.
“He was just a kid Murdoch. He’s probably forgotten.” Then another thought struck Johnny. “If it had been delivered fifteen years ago what would you have done?”
The question shook Murdoch out of his self-imposed daze. Pulling his shoulders back he seemed to gather himself together once more as his lips tightened with grim determination. “There wouldn’t have been a man on earth, including Harlan Garrett and his multitude of lawyers, who’d have stopped me taking my son and bringing him home to Lancer.”
“Figured as much,” Johnny responded then he shook his head reflectively. “It seems to me because of a lost boy and a lost letter there’ve been a load of wasted years around here. It’s almost as if fate decided against the three of us meeting up earlier than we did on purpose.”
He paused for a moment. “Though I’ve got to wonder if fate hasn’t done us a big favor after all.”
Murdoch stared at him with a questioning look. “How so?”
Johnny felt his father’s eyes boring into him as he replied. “If we’d all found each other years ago I’d have never needed to become as handy with a gun and Scott probably wouldn’t have joined the Army and learned all those military skills. So how’d you reckon we’d have faired against Day Pardee when he tried to take Lancer over? Don’t imagine the odds would have been stacked so much in our favor then.”
As his words sank in Murdoch could only nod reluctantly. “You may well be right though it’s something we’ll never know for sure. But if truth be told, I’d have rather taken those extra years with the pair of you and chanced the rest if I’d had the choice.”
“Reckon I would too,” Johnny admitted softly then took a deep breath and blew out his cheeks. “So, you intend telling Scott about this letter turning up?”
“You think I should or just let sleeping dogs lie?”
With a shrug Johnny replied. “Can’t speak for Boston, but I’d want to know.”
Murdoch nodded. “In that case I will but it’s going to be hard choosing the right moment.”
“You’ll think of something old man,” Johnny assured confidently.
All further conversation then stopped as a predictable cloud of dust and the sound of hoof beats grew louder. Murdoch quickly folded the letter back into the envelope and placed it in his pocket as the long awaited stage appeared and the driver pulled the team to a halt in front of them.
Taking the few steps needed to reach the coach Murdoch opened the door and took a moment to assist a couple of elderly passengers as they disembarked. Then taking a step back and inwardly sighing happily he watched as a tall familiar figure dropped down to the sidewalk and placed a small travelling case on the floor by his feet.
“It’s good to have you back son,” Murdoch said with a welcoming smile as he outstretched his hand and Scott formally shook it, though the younger man’s face expressed genuine warmth and fondness towards him. “Thank you sir. It’s good to be back.”
Scott then turned and threw an arm around Johnny’s neck and drew him to his chest in an affectionate brotherly embrace. “Well now brother, I hope you’ve been behaving yourself while I’ve been gone.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Johnny answered, feigning hurt feelings. “Anyone would think I can’t stay out of trouble without you around to hold my hand.”
Scott smiled. “Never a truer word was said brother,” he replied, flicking Johnny’s hat back and ruffling his hair.
Before Johnny had a chance to react Murdoch moved between them. “So how did the meeting go?” he asked, pointedly staring his eldest in the eye.
Scott beamed a grin. “Gentlemen you are in the presence of a genius,” he announced jokily towards them both. “I knew those figures I worked out would sway that contract with the railroad our way, and because of my excellent negotiating skills I am happy to report Lancer’s bank balance is going to show a healthy shade of black for a considerable length of time.”
Murdoch gave him a congratulatory slap on the back. “That’s great news son. I knew I could count on you.”
Johnny however wasn’t so forthcoming with praise. “Careful Boston, if you don’t watch it you’re going to have trouble getting that head of yours through the door some time soon,” he commented wryly, ducking the playful half swing suddenly aimed towards him.
The genuine closeness between the two was more than evident and Murdoch couldn’t help but smile at them both. “Scott, what do you say to a beer to celebrate your success before we head back to the ranch?”
To Johnny’s dismay Scott shook his head. “Seeing as I haven’t had anything since dawn I’d rather have something to eat if it’s all right with you.”
Murdoch nodded, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. “Well no doubt Theresa has a big dinner planned for your return. But I’m sure at that newly opened eatery we could share a freshly made apple-pie with a spoonful of ice cream on top and wash it down with some cold ginger-ale without spoiling our appetites too much. How does that sound?”
Stunned for a moment Scott’s face suddenly filled with a look of astounded shock at a distant memory. “Sounds like you’ve just described my childhood dream of a perfect heaven.”
Murdoch smiled warmly towards him. “I know.”
“You do? But how?” Scott’s expression continued to show confusion as he picked up his bag.
Murdoch exchanged a meaningful glance with his youngest. “It’ll all become clear very soon.”
Not sure if he should be privy to the conversation he now realized was to come Johnny gestured towards the saloon. “Maybe I should go have that beer and leave you two alone.”
Without a hesitation Murdoch shook his head. “No Johnny. We’re family. We share Lancer and now we’ll share an apple pie,” he firmly ordered, placing an arm around both of their shoulders and giving each a loving squeeze; determined and inwardly pledging never to waste another day while in the company of his sons as the three men set off together down the street.