The premise for this story was contributed by Pam for the Fic-A-Thon at LancerFanFiction.
Disclaimer: I’ve taken the liberty of using a real life person from the Lancer era and placed him into my story. I’ve tweaked history…actually stretched it quite a bit. If anyone is related to this man; no disrespect is intended.
This is an AR story
What if Murdoch was able to prevent Maria from taking Johnny when he was 2? What if Murdoch chose to let Maria leave…or more precisely what if he refused to let her come back?
What if Maria returned to Lancer when Johnny is a teen to reclaim her child? Would Johnny go with her? What has he been told about his mother?
What about Scott? Did Murdoch and Harlan share custody or did Murdoch have full custody? Johnny is 13 and Scott is 19
Murdoch ran his hands through his thick brown hair as he grimaced at himself in the oval beveled mirror. He frowned as he caught a glimpse of grey hairs shining as the sun reflected off the glass.
‘It’s a wonder I don’t have as many grey hairs as blades of grass here at Lancer,’ he mused. ‘That boy seems bound and determined to turn me into an old man before my time.’
His youngest son, Johnny, at just 13, continued his long record of jumping from one bit of mischief to another with only a pause while his sore behind recovered between escapades.
Murdoch shook his head as he reflected on his son’s latest transgression. He shifted in his leather covered chair and made a mental note to himself to find the oil can and fix the squeak he’d been putting up with for the last couple of weeks.
His thoughts returned to his conversation an hour ago. He’d returned from the range in the late afternoon to find a very irate school teacher waiting for him.
Mister Fellers was pacing a trail in front of his desk and Murdoch could swear there was steam coming from the man’s ears.
As he made his presence known, the man turned his anxious face in his direction, and quickly smoothed down his straight oil slicked hair.
“Mister Lancer. I’m so glad you’ve returned.” The man practically gushed and Murdoch felt his eyes narrow in distaste.
“Mister Fellers, I assume your visit isn’t a social one; so just tell me….what has Johnny done this time?” Murdoch’s voice was resigned as he went over to his liquor cabinet and poured himself a drink. Even knowing it was a futile gesture, as the teacher was a well know teetotaler, as well as on the local temperance committee, he raised the bottle in offering, and replaced it just as quickly with a thump as he forced himself not to smile at the prim tightening of the school teacher’s mouth in disapproval.
Murdoch moved over to his desk and thought to himself that he better be sitting down for this, as generally the teacher either sent a note home with Teresa asking for his presence at school for the more serious offences or he sent a note telling him of Johnny’s misbehavior for the more minor ones. The teacher’s presence meant his youngest had transgressed far beyond his usual hi-jinks.
The teacher settled himself in a chair in front of Murdoch’s desk and arranged the tails of his coat in what Murdoch couldn’t help but think was a fussy and unnecessary gesture. Murdoch took a sip of his good scotch malt and finally spoke, “Well? What brings you all the way out here?”
The man raised his dark brown eyes and Murdoch couldn’t help notice those unfriendly eyes framed and showcased his large hooked nose. That along with his prominent front teeth made him realize why he’d overheard Johnny and his friends calling the school teacher, ‘The Beaver.’
As the man began to speak, Murdoch had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling at the tale he heard.
When the teacher had finished, Murdoch asked, “How do you know it was my son who did it?”
“It was him, Mister Lancer. I know it. Mrs. Patterson came to my aid and all the children were giggling at my misfortune. All except one. Johnny looked me right in the eye and smirked!Smirked I tell you!” He slapped the arm of his chair as he let loose his frustration. “Now what are you going to do about it?”
The teacher’s voice rose to a falsetto tone and Murdoch bit down hard on his cheek. Murdoch ran his large forefinger across his top lip. “First I intend to get the full story from my son. If he did it, he’ll be punished, you can be assured of that….but only if he did it.”
“He’s the one and I’ll not have him back in my classroom after such disrespect.” The teacher rose and Murdoch followed suit.
“What are you getting at?” Murdoch towered over the man.
“I’ve talked to the school board this afternoon and they’ve agreed to his suspension. They agree with me that after today, John’s attendance would be disruptive and make it impossible for me to maintain order and the respect of the remaining students.”
“IF..he did it.” Murdoch stated loudly.
The teacher nodded in agreement, “Yes, IF he did it, the suspension stands.” The teacher started to walk towards the front door, before turning, “You know as well as I do, it is very likely it was no one else but Johnny….”
Murdoch raised his glass and kept silent as the teacher turned on his heel and left the house.
Murdoch’s thoughts returned to the present. The grandfather clock struck the hour four times, loud and clear. As Murdoch drained his glass, he wondered why his life couldn’t be like that clock. ‘Steady, true, beating out the time, on time, every time.’ As he stood to look out the large glass window, he thought, ‘No, my life in no way resembles that clock.’
He shrugged his shoulders and headed for the kitchen to inform Carlita that there would only be three for supper tonight as Johnny would not be joining them.
Johnny leaned back against the oak tree and idly ran his hands through the short dried grass. He let the loose dirt and pebbles flow freely to the ground. His nimble fingers sought out a small rock and he chucked it in frustration into the stock pond. He had furiously thrown as many rocks as he could find into the pond on his angry arrival, and now he’d settled down to just throwing the occasional stone.
He was stalling, he knew. He’d seen Teresa home as far as the overlook and stayed long enough to watch her make her way under the arch before turning his own mount, and with a firm dig of the heels, he sent the horse into a gallop; running away from his troubles until the roan gelding slowed on it’s own as it became winded. Johnny allowed the horse to pick his own way and was a little startled to look up and find himself at the pond he often visited when he had a lot on his mind.
‘Pa’s gonna kill me.’ Johnny thought as he worried his lower lip. He tossed another rock into the pond feeling no better than when he first arrived.
‘Bad enough I played that trick on the Beaver, but to get tossed out of school! That’ll make the old man really mad.’
He toyed with the idea of making up a story but dismissed it handily. His older brother, Scott told him he was a terrible liar and to give it up. Still… Johnny tried once in a while to get himself out of a tough spot, but he was always caught out which only made his father more angry.
With a groan he threw another rock before pushing himself to his feet. He wiped the dirty hands off on his pants, quickly saddled his horse, and was too soon on his way home.
‘It ain’t gonna be pretty.’ Johnny mused as he started down the long hill to the hacienda below. ‘specially when I tell him the Beaver won’t let me come back to school.’
Johnny absently rubbed his left ear which was still sore from when the teacher grabbed it to drag him to the cloak room. He’d made Johnny stand there in the dark until school was out. The five smacks he’d gotten with the paddle stung but that was nothing compared to what he’d get from his Pa. Johnny slowly rode under the arch as he shifted a bit in the saddle as his rear end made uncomfortable contact with the saddle leather.
Murdoch saw his son ride slowly under the arch. He opened the door and stepped out onto the veranda and watched as Johnny turned his gelding toward the barn.
“Johnny” he called. He couldn’t help but notice the stiff frame of his son as he heard his name. “Leave him for Carlos to take care of and get in here.”
He watched as Johnny reluctantly handed the reins over to the waiting hand and scuffed his feet kicking up dust as he walked to the house.
“Come in here son.” Murdoch’s voice was softer. He waited until is son came into the living room. Murdoch studied the boy who was standing with his head down, obviously unable to meet his father’s eyes.
“Well? I’m waiting. What the devil were you thinking?”
Johnny glanced at his father quickly shook his head and looked back down again. “Sorry…”
“Locking your teacher in the outhouse? Sometimes Johnny I wonder what’s going on in that head of yours. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” At Johnny’s shrug of his shoulders, Murdoch pointed toward the stairs, “I’m too angry with you to punish you right now. Go to your room and stay there.”
As Johnny started for the stairs, Murdoch’s voice stopped him, “I have to talk to the school board about getting you back in. For now young man, I’ll be your tutor and you will keep up on your school work. Until further notice you will not ride any horse, and you will not go any further than the barn to do your chores. Mark my words young man, if you disobey me, you won’t sit down for a week. Do I make myself clear?”
Johnny started to shake his head and then risked a glance at his angry father, “Uh…how long till I can ride again?”
“I’ll let you know and it will be dependant on your good behavior. Now get into your night shirt and go to bed.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open, “Pa! It’s only…. It ain’t even dark yet. I can’t go to bed now. I ain’t a little kid!” Johnny almost stamped his foot in frustration.
“Yes you will. I’ll be in to check on you later and you better be in bed asleep, or I’ll change my mind and you’ll be sleeping on your stomach. Understand?”
Johnny started unbuttoning his shirt and muttered, “Yes sir.”
Murdoch came through the French doors and was pleased to see Johnny with his head bent over his books doing the studying he’d assigned to him that morning.
He suspected the boy had heard him coming through the door, and had assumed his current position, but he’d take what he could from his spirited son.
Johnny glanced up at him with a hopeful look on his face. Murdoch walked over and glanced down at where Johnny’s finger was holding his place in the book.
“Finish that chapter and then start on your mathematics.” Johnny’s shoulders slumped but he didn’t complain.
“When you’ve finished your lessons, you’re free to go outside if there’s time before you need to start your chores.” Murdoch was rewarded with Johnny’s engaging smile and he couldn’t resist ruffling his son’s dark unruly hair in affection. “Now get back to work.” His words may have been a bit gruff but his tone was shot though with fondness.
Murdoch walked over to his desk and started sorting though the pile of mail left by Paul on his return from picking up supplies in Moro Coyo.
As he sorted the mail he set aside the letter from Scott and frowned as the bold writing on another letter from his former father-in-law, Harlan Garrett. His uneasy truce with the man had never extended beyond a polite formality in concession to Scott’s welfare.
The older man had insisted on providing his only grandson with a first class education which could only be obtained in the east.
While Murdoch hated having his son so far away from him, he had to concede that Scott had benefited from the experience. Still….it was a long time between visits.
He and Johnny had made the trip east the last time, and even in good weather, it had taken close to five weeks each way. The short three weeks they’d spent visiting with Scott had been treasured, but way too short.
Now with the drums of war beating between the North and South, Murdoch couldn’t imagine a visit either way and was thankful his oldest son was safe at Harvard. He hoped the conflict could be resolved without war, and the country would return to peacetime. He shook his head, from what news he could glean from the Alta Californian, war was inevitable.
He slit open Harlan’s letter with his bone handled letter opener and removed the thin paper. One sheet written in black ink. Harlan’s precise handwriting reported the news that Murdoch’s son, Scott, the responsible, mature 19 year old, had done the unthinkable and enlisted in the army!
Harlan wrote that when he found out, he acted immediately. He pulled some strings and based on Scott being under age and without his guardian’s permission he was released from service. Harlan ended his letter by stating he was sending Scotty back to his father and he demanded that Murdoch handle the problem, while explaining that Scott would be arriving by ship in San Francisco on the 20th.
Murdoch reread that date and realized, that his son would be in California in a little less than a week!
Two days later…..
“Ah Pa, how come I can’t go with you?” Johnny’s voice rose just a bit as he pled his case for the fourth time since learning his brother was coming home this week.
“Son, we’ve been over and over this. The answer is still the same. No.” Murdoch turned to pick up his valise.
“I said No, and stop arguing with me. You have your studies to attend to and you are still being punished.”
“I could take my books and I’d be good. Honest.” Johnny’s blue eyes tore into Murdoch, but he dropped them as he saw no give in his father’s expression.
“That’s enough Johnny. If you push it again, then we’ll make a quick trip to the barn before I leave. Now is that what you want?”
Johnny dropped his eyes and muttered, “No sir.”
“Good. Now walk me out to the buckboard.” Murdoch handed Johnny his valise as he checked his inner coat pocket for his wallet. Assured all was in order, the tall rancher followed his youngest son out to the awaiting buckboard.
Teresa sat next to Paul on the front seat, dressed for school. Murdoch watched as Johnny secured the valise in the back of the wagon. As Johnny turned, Murdoch grabbed him in a bear hug and admonished him to be good and follow Paul’s orders while he was gone. Johnny’s muttered, “Yes Pa.” was muffled against the big man’s chest and Murdoch ruffled Johnny’s dark hair, before climbing up into the buckboard.
With a slap of the reins the team moved off briskly and Johnny watched his family until they rounded the bend and were specks as they climbed the hill leading toward town.
For a long moment, Johnny felt alone as he watched Cipriano giving the men their orders for the day and all too soon the yard was quiet as everyone went about their assigned tasks.
Johnny kicked the ground as he weighed his options. He could head to the barn and clean the stalls before it got too hot, or he could do his school work and get it over with. Then he’d have the rest of the day to himself. Paul was getting supplies today and he would pick Teresa up at school this afternoon. A rare day off was something he just couldn’t resist.
He turned at the sound of Maria and Juanita chattering in Spanish. He heard Scott’s name and could tell the two women were excited that their Patron’s hijo major was returning home. They hung rugs from Scott’s room on the line and began hitting them with the rug beaters pounding the accumulated dust that had settled in them during Scott’s absence. As dust clouds billowed from the side of the house, Johnny made up his mind.
He hurried to the barn and with unaccustomed fervor, attacked the stalls. He quickly pitched the soiled straw out the windows down into the wagon below thankful that the barn had been built on a slight slope so he wouldn’t have to haul the straw out to the compost pile. He glanced down and saw the wagon was about half filled so later that week, he’d have to hitch up a team and haul it down and pitch it all out of the wagon. That was the worst part, he thought as he threw a final forkful of straw. It’ll be full of maggots hatching and flies and …he turned his thoughts from the awful job that had been his since he was 12 .
He quickly spread fresh straw nice and thick in the stalls and then collected the water buckets. With three in each hand, he headed out side to the pump. As he pumped water into the buckets his excitement grew as he thought of what he planned to do today.
He carried a heavy bucket in each hand and hung them back into the stalls. Two more trips later, he hung the pitchfork in place on the wall and went back to the pump and drank a ladleful of water. Now that the chore was over, he told himself he didn’t really mind cleaning the stalls. It made him feel good to know the horses would have a nice bed when they returned from a hard days work.
He splashed some water on his face and wiped his face dry with his shirt sleeve. He cautiously checked to make sure there was no one around who might stop him, and casually climbed through the fence rails and sauntered around the back of the barn. Now out of sight of the house, he walked faster heading for the large stock pond. Only a twinge of guilt nudged at him. He wasn’t riding as his father had forbidden him to do, and he wasn’t leaving the yard…. much. He wasn’t really breaking any rules, just bending them a little bit. His father hadn’t said he couldn’t go swimming and besides after all that stall cleaning he needed a bath.
Since the women were vigorously cleaning the house, they needed all the hot water they could get so really he was doing them a favor by heading for the pond. His conscious clear, he straightened his shoulders and broke into a trot as he hurried to his hang out.
Johnny sighed with contentment as he stretched in his bed. Yesterday had been a rare day of carefree fun. He’d swam until he was exhausted and stretched out in the dappled shade under an oak tree, drifting off to sleep. His father had been watching him like a hawk all week and this time spent alone doing as he wished was just what he needed to feel more like himself.
He smiled at the memory of climbing up into the tree house Scott had built and looking out at the ranch that someday he and Scott would own. He knew his father had worked hard to build the ranch and keep it and Johnny was determined that he would do the same.
He’d opened up the cleverly hidden trap door that Scott had installed and took out a burlap sack. He pulled out a bundle wrapped in oil cloth and carefully unwrapped the gunbelt and gun he’d hidden there. He removed the gun and cleaned it with the loving care he’d seen his brother take and then after strapping on the gun belt, he practiced his draw for an hour before reluctantly returning the gun and belt to its secret hiding place. He really needed to spend some more time firing it, but he had to get away to the box canyon he used to practice without anyone knowing. ‘Short on bullets, too.’ He mused. He’d have to swipe some from the ammunition supply when no one was around.
“Johnny!” Teresa’s voice shrieked outside his door.
With a groan he yelled, “I’m getting’ up. I’ll be down soon.”
Dressing slowly he grimaced at himself in the mirror. He ran his fingers over his checks and across his jaw. ‘Nothin’ to shave yet, maybe in a few months.’ With a shrug of his shoulders, he carefully wiped the dust off his ‘go to town’ boots by rubbing them first on the back of one pants leg and then the other.
He pushed his thick raven hair out of his eyes and headed down the stairs to the kitchen where Maria scolded him for being late. He took his place and bowed his head while Teresa said grace and then he tucked in to his breakfast with his usual gusto.
He glanced up as Paul pushed back his chair. I’ll go hitch up the buggy. You two meet me outside in fifteen minutes.
Soon after, Paul, Teresa and Johnny were on their way into town for Sunday services
“You two stay together and don’t get your clothes dirty.” Paul instructed the two youngsters after a trying Sunday service. Normally, Murdoch would have coped with Johnny’s usual boredom, but today Paul found himself sitting between two bored and restless children wondering if the effort was worth it. “I need to see Mr. Miller about him seeing that crossbred bull he wants to borrow.” He started to walk away, when he turned suddenly to look at Johnny and Teresa. His eyes mostly fell on Johnny when he added, “And stay out of trouble!”
The two children were silent for a short while when finally Teresa spoke up, “What should we do?”
Johnny glanced at her and then toward the back of the church where he could see some of the younger boys wresting in the dirt. The older boys were talking to some of the teenage girls by the front porch of the church and there was no way he was going to hang out with Teresa’s giggling friends. His own friends, his age wouldn’t want Teresa tagging along so he shrugged his shoulders and made his way to the grassy lawn and settled down sitting cross legged in the grass. Teresa wrinkled her nose as she arranged her dress modestly around her skinny legs and sighed.
“What?” Johnny asked.
“Oh….nothing….” She sighed again and looked at several couples conversing across the church yard.
Johnny chewed on a piece of grass, content to let Teresa sort out her thoughts.
“Yes.” He waited as he knew she had something on her mind, and while they weren’t technically brother and sister, they had been raised as family. Teresa at 12 was a smart girl who could climb trees, throw dirt clods and when necessary could throw a punch like a boy. “I was just wondering….well….have you ever noticed, we don’t have mothers like most of the kids?”
Johnny looked at her and chewed on his grass for a moment, before lowering his eyes. “Yeah, I noticed.”
“Do you remember her? Don’t you miss her..sometimes?”
Johnny sighed, “Yeah….I remember my mama…just a little. If I think real hard, I can picture her.” He dug his heel into the grass. “Yeah. I miss her I guess.” His voice was quiet. He then turned to Teresa and saw she was pulling at a loose bit of fingernail, one of her nervous habits. He reached over and pulled her hand away and said gently, “Do you miss your ma?”
Teresa looked at him with tears in her eyes. Her lower lip trembled just a little as she spoke, “I miss having a ma, but I don’t remember her. Not at all.”
“You were too little.”
“Do you remember her Johnny? Tell me about her.” Teresa’s voice implored him, and Johnny was loath to disappoint her.
“Teresa, I was pretty little too when she left. I just remember her hair was kind of fiery and bright and she had a big smile. She was tall too…” He thought hard trying to remember what Teresa’s mother looked like. He thought back, he’d been four when his mother left and Teresa’s mother left about a year later. “She has real blue eyes too and she loved to sing.” Johnny smiled as he remembered Teresa’s mother rocking her baby girl in her cradle and singing her to sleep.
She’d taught him some songs too and he’d followed Paul’s wife around after his mother left, sometimes refusing let go of her skirt, and crying when she left him. He’d cried too when she suddenly departed amid breaking glass, slamming doors and loud voices reminding him of his parents last days together.
Gathering his thoughts, he turned back to Teresa as she asked, “We’re we bad? Is that why they left?”
Johnny started to immediately say No, but his own doubts crept upon him and he tempered his words, “No Teresa. It was what they wanted. They couldn’t take us with them and have us leave our home and our Pa’s.” He shook his head in frustration, “Hell, Teresa, I don’t know nuthin’ I don’t know why they left.”
Teresa covered her mouth at hearing the swear word, and Johnny muttered, “Sorry.”
Johnny handed Teresa a crumpled handkerchief and said, “Wipe your nose.” He stood up as Paul gestured for them to join him.”
Murdoch stood on the uneven wooden dock as he watched the sailors throw a thick rope over the side of the rocking ship as it settled next to the dock. He listened to the once familiar sound of chain as it played out until the anchor settled softly to the bottom of the San Francisco bay.
The wind blew another chilly gust and he wrapped his jacket more closely around himself, holding it tightly with one hand. With the other hand, he shaded his eyes as he squinted into the setting sun, watching anxiously for a glimpse of his fair haired oldest son.
The crowd of passengers lined the rail as the whistle from the smoke stack let off steam. The sound seemed to signal the dock workers to get the gang planks in place and the eager passengers began disembarking while aft the cargo doors opened and workers scurried on board to begin unloading the cargo.
Murdoch watched as more and more colorful strangers disembarked to the waiting crowd below. As the gang plank cleared, Murdoch’s eyes lit up when he saw his son working his way down to the dock. He raised his hand and waved, but Scott didn’t seem to see him, so he moved through the now departing crowd and yelled, “Scott.”
That got the boy’s attention and his son raised a hand in greeting. As Scott reached the dock, Murdoch met him and brushed away Scott’s offered hand and wrapped his arms around his boy in a bear hug. “Welcome back son.”
“It’s good to see you, Sir.” Scott’s voice was strained as he was released from the embrace.
‘Sir’ Murdoch groaned to himself. ‘He’s addressing me as sir again.’ Shrugging he smiled, “Let’s get your baggage arranged and then we can get out of here.”
The dark suited man who had been standing a discrete distance away, cleared his throat. “Tell me where you’re staying and I’ll make arrangements to have your luggage delivered.”
“Thank you, Hawkins.” Scott responded.
The man tipped his bowler had, “I’ll take my leave then.”
“Give my regards to my Grandfather.” Scott’s voice was very strained and Murdoch suddenly realized that Harlan had sent the man along as Scott’s ‘keeper’ to ensure his arrival back into his father’s care.
As he walked along next to his son he could see the stormy look on Scott’s face and knew there was going to be an explosion sooner or later.
‘Better sooner.’ Murdoch mused as they hailed a coach. “Palace Hotel” he told the driver as he stepped into the coach.
Scott settled into his seat and immediately began adjusting the window covering so he could fix his gaze out on the landscape.
Murdoch crossed his arms and bit down on his irritation at Scott’s behavior. ‘If I wanted to deal with temper tantrums, I could just stay home with Johnny.’ This behavior was atypical from what he had come to expect from his eldest. ‘Well, I won’t put up with it much longer, but maybe he’ll pull himself out of it once he’s had a good meal.’ Murdoch’s thoughts ran toward being hopeful, but he was determined that he would not put up with Scott’s attitude all the way back to the ranch!
Dinner had been a repeat of the coach ride. Scott, overly polite, answered direct questions with single word answers whenever possible. Grunts and long silences were the responses Murdoch received whenever he tried to engage the young man in conversation.
Now they were back in the sitting room of their suite, Scott made a move toward his bedroom. “Goodnight sir.”
“Scott. Come sit by the fire son. We need to talk.”
Scott’s mouth formed a straight line and Murdoch couldn’t remember ever seeing his son’s eyes more grey than blue as he complied with his father’s request.
Murdoch poured both of them a shot of whisky and waited until Scott was settled on the edge of the chair. He sat in the chair across from Scott and watched a moment as Scott swished the liquor around his glass. “Son, let’s clear the air.”
Scott took a sip and flatly stated, “There’s nothing to discuss…..or so I’ve been told.”
“Scott, your grandfather has your best interests at heart. I can’t fault him for wanting to protect you.”
“Protect me or control me?” Scott’s voice rose as his stormy eyes met his father’s. He stood and drank his whisky in one swallow. “In fact, I’ll be catching the next ship back east the day after tomorrow.”
“Oh no. No you will not.” Murdoch’s voice was firm and rang with authority. “Like it or not, Scott. You are still under age, and you have no idea what you’re getting into by joining the army.”
“That’s my decision!”
“No it isn’t. Not until you’re 21 it isn’t.” Murdoch struggled to contain his temper, “You’ll come back to the ranch with me and forget this nonsense of joining the army.”
Scott set his jaw and crossed his arms. “Fine. But when I’m of age, I’ll make my own decisions and you or Grandfather can’t stop me.” Scott turned and went to his room as Murdoch raised his eyes to the ceiling and prayed for strength to get through this.
The next day rose sunny with a hint of breeze as Johnny jogged away from the house, glancing over his shoulder fearing that he would be called up short by Paul’s voice any second. He took another gulp of air and with a burst of speed, ran the rest of the way to the pond. With a sigh of relief he climbed his tree and settled cross legged on the floor of the tree house.
He reached into the secret storage space and pulled out the burlap sack that held his prize pistol. He carefully wiped the gun until it was shining and placed it into the holster.
He fumbled in the sack until he found the wooden box of bullets. He poured several bullets into his hand and stuffed them into his trouser pocket, before replacing his dwindling supply. He grabbed the leather bridle off the hook and tossed it to the ground.
He quickly began climbing back down the rope ladder when he changed his mind and climbed back into the tree house. He opened the ammo box and poured out several dozen more. Those joined the others in his pocket and he climbed back down the rope, jumping the final feet to the ground.
With a quick look around, he gathered up the bridle and headed out into the pasture to catch his horse.
Johnny set the last can in place before squaring his shoulders and pacing off his distance. With the sound of gunfire still ringing in his ears, he took a deep breath as he turned and drew his gun. Steadying his arm with his left hand he squeezed off a shot, then another and another as he watched the cans topple.
With a delighted grin, he holstered the gun and drew it a couple of times without firing. Satisfied he was ready, he drew and fired. “Missed! Dammit!” he swore as he drew, fired and missed a second time. He tried again, and his final shot went wild. He heard the ping of rock and felt a sheering, burning fire race along his ribs.
He gasped as he dropped his gun and sank to the ground. He felt a hot rush of blood and he twisted around trying to find the source of his pain. Pulling up his shirt he saw a bloody furrow along his side. He hissed through his teeth as he pressed his shirt firmly to the wound until the blood slowed to a steady drip.
He flopped onto his back and groaned as he thought of his father’s reaction to his current predicament. He panted as he tried to get his racing heart under control. As the shock of his injury began to wane, his mind began working on a plausible story to tell his father to explain his injury. As his thoughts formed and rejected one story after another, he sat up and checked his wound. He experimentally pulled at the cloth which was firmly stuck to the wound.
Deciding to leave it alone, he pushed himself to his feet and swayed as he sucked in his breath and chewed on his lower lip and waited for his stomach to settle and his world tipped one way then the other before slowly settling down.
Looking at the gun at his feet, he cursed himself, ‘Stupido! Ya coulda picked it up while you was down there!’ With a groan he bent slowly and hooked the gun with two fingers while supporting his sore side.
He felt his world sway and he swallowed twice to keep his stomach where it belonged. Once the rainbow of colors cleared from his vision, he twisted around and checked his wound. ‘Startin’ to stop.’ His shirt was stuck to the graze and he decided to leave it alone until he got home. With a sigh, he slowly headed in the direction of his horse.
He held the stirrup with one hand while gripping the reins and mane in the other. He couldn’t help but groan as he tried to raise his leg high enough to reach the stirrup. He tried his usual little jump for the stirrup and was rewarded by a blaze of pain. Realizing he couldn’t get on without some help, he looked around for a stump or rock he could use to mount. Shaking his head at his luck he began leading his horse while he searched for a suitable place to mount.
“Ow!” Johnny bit his lip as he climbed up on a log. He cursed as his horse took a side step away from him. “Get over here you sorry excuse for a horse!” He pulled on the reins until the gelding took a step back. Taking a deep breath, he lifted his leg and hooked the stirrup with his toe. Pulling back on the reins, he gripped the saddle and pulled himself upright and swung his leg over as his horse spooked sideways.
“Whoa!” He waited while colors danced before his eyes and then turned his horse for home.
Murdoch glanced at Scott who hadn’t said one word for the past two hours. The morning had passed slowly as the train chugged its way out of San Francisco heading south for the long ride over to the valley. They had stopped for an hour in San Jose and were now on the last leg to Cross Creek. By the time they arrived it would be too late to catch the stage to Morro Coyo, so they planned to spend the night and catch the morning stage.
Murdoch shifted once more and noticed that Scott never took his gaze from the view outside the window. Murdoch had long tired of it himself, but at this point there was nothing more to be said between father and son.
Their conversation had been strained the day before but as they talked both felt more at ease with each other. Murdoch smiled as he recalled the chuckle he got out of Scott when he recalled Johnny’s recent escapade with the teacher.
His thought turned to his youngest son and he hoped he wasn’t giving Paul too much trouble. Paul thought of himself as the boy’s Uncle and he could be counted on to treat Murdoch’s sons as his own.
Scott turned around as a bell rang and a porter began wheeling a cart down the aisle. He stopped at the Lancer’s seats and Murdoch bought two box lunches. Handing one to Scott, he was pleasantly surprised to pull out a thick roast beef sandwich on slabs of wheat bread, an apple and a flakey apple turnover.
“Looks good” Scott commented as he took a big bite of his sandwich.
Murdoch nodded as chewed his own mouthful, “Yes, much better than what they offered on the way out.”
Murdoch saw that his son had stopped eating and his eyes dropped to his lap. “What’s wrong Son?”
With a sigh, Scott turned his blue eyes to his father and hesitated. His mouth tightened and he made his decision, “It’s just….” Clearing his throat he started again, “Well I gave up my place at Harvard to join the Army and now that I’m not going to fight, I was just wondering what I could do now?”
“What do you mean? Do? You’ll work the ranch with me. If you’re worried about your studies, we could look into the University of California.” Before Murdoch could say another word, he raised his hands at Scott’s obvious dismissal, “I know…I know. It’s not Harvard. But they are doing some good work up in Davis. They have a veterinary program going up there as well as a stock breeding program. You could at least look into it.”
Scott looked at him for a moment and nodded, “Alright. I will.” He turned back to his sandwich and didn’t seem inclined to say another word.
With a sigh, Murdoch took another bite of his sandwich and gazed out the window.
Johnny cautiously looked around the side of the blacksmith’s shop and was relieved to see the corral and yard by the barn empty. With a casualness not matched by his churning stomach, he nudged his horse into a walk heading for the large barn. He sat straight in the saddle and hoped no one noticed his white knuckled grip of the saddle horn.
Another quick glance assured him his arrival was unnoticed. He closed his eyes for a moment before standing slightly and swung his leg to the ground. “Dios!” he whispered when pain shot through his side as he landed a little harder than he should have. He leaned into the horse for a moment before leading the gelding into the barn.
It seemed like it took hours to care for the horse and hauling the saddle to the tack room had almost not been worth it. Johnny’s active mind had figured out a way to avoid anyone knowing he’d hurt himself, but making sure everything looked normal was the key.
If he’d left his horse uncared for or his tack lying around, that would have brought an angry rebuke from Paul or Cipriano…..or both.
Now that his horse was taken care of, he needed to get to his room without being noticed. He headed for the back stairs only to stop short when Juanita stepped out the back door with a load of wash. He melted into the wisteria vines climbing the column of the portico until she walked by.
Taking a deep breath he headed for the front door. Opening it with only soft squeak, he edged inside and closed it as quietly as he could. Just as he turned back around, he almost jumped out of his skin when a soft voice said, “Buenos Tardes, Hijo.”
His eyes grew large and his mouth dropped open as a slight women in a dark green traveling suit stepped forward. A smile graced her lips. “You have grown so big, Johnny. So handsome too.” She stepped forward and took hold of Johnny’s unresisting right hand and began leading him into the great room.
Johnny shuffled along feeling totally confused by this woman who looked vaguely familiar, but a stranger never the less.
Finding his voice, he tugged his hand out of her grasp, “Uh Ma’am? Who are you and who are you here to see?”
The woman turned around to look at him from her perch near the sofa. “You, I am here to see you. I am your Mama. I know you probably don’t remember me but I remember you very well.”
“My mother? No you can’t be. My mama left a long time ago.” He took a step closer and he realized this woman did look a lot like the image he seen a few times when his father had left the picture of his mother out on his desk.
“It’s true, mijo. I am your mother. I’ve wanted to come see you for a very long time, but until now…..” She stopped as Johnny swayed and reached a hand out to steady himself on the blue wingback chair.
She rushed over to him and gasped as she notice his blood caked shirt. “You are hurt! Come sit down.”
Seeing his well thought out plan falling to pieces, Johnny tried to turn away, but she had his arm gripped firmly. She led him to the couch and pushed him down into the soft cushions.
“Where is your father?” She asked as she began unbuttoning his shirt. He tried to push her away only to be rewarded by a soft slap to his hands. “Be still, and let me look.” Maria commanded.
Johnny sank back into the cushions and bit his lip as he tried to get his mind to focus on the fact that his mother….his own mother was here with him now and he was going to be in big trouble when his father found out he’d been shooting a pistol which he’d forbidden threatening the most dire of punishments.
Johnny bit his lip as his mother pulled his shirt away from his body. “It’s stuck” she said softly and he chanced a look at her face. She looked pale and kinda mad. “Where’s your father?” she asked for a second time.
“Not here. He went to San Francisco a couple a days ago.” Johnny managed to get out between winces as his mother tried to left the cloth off his wound.
He heard her sigh, “Let’s get you into the kitchen. I need water and bandages.. I’m going to have to soak your shirt off.” She helped him to his feet and together they walked slowly into the kitchen.
Johnny vaguely noted the shocked expression on Juanita’s face as his mother maneuvered him to a straight back chair at the kitchen table.
“It’s okay Juanita, It ain’t that bad.” He reassured the housekeeper.
“I need hot water and bandages.” Maria ‘s tone left no doubt she meant to be obeyed instantly.
In just a few minutes, Maria was soaking Johnny’s shirt in warm water as he laid his head on his arm on the kitchen table.
“Almost done, hijo. You are very brave. There….” Maria pulled the rest of the shirt away and let if fall to the floor.
Johnny felt her dabbing at rivlets of blood that started up when the shirt was removed.
“It’s not deep, thank God. It’s long, but shallow. I think if I get it cleaned up well, and bandaged it should heal quickly.” Maria looked at Juanita, “Is there a doctor nearby?”
“No Senora. The nearest Doctor is in Cross Creek. A one day ride.”
“I don’t need a doctor” Johnny put in firmly. “It ain’t that bad and I don’t need any women makin’ a fuss. Just wrap it up and leave it.”
Maria drew herself up to her full hight of 5 feet. She had one hand on her hip and shook her finger at him. Her Spanish was quick and right to the point. “You will mind your tongue Johnny and if I think you need a doctor, I will make that decision. You are but a boy and you will do as I say. You do not want to borrow trouble with me young man as you will regret it. Do you understand?”
Johnny didn’t respond or look at her, but her next words got his attention, “I said do…you…understand?” Her heard the unmistakable tapping of his mothers foot on the tile floor and the tisk tisk sound coming from Juanita and knew he was outnumbered.
He slowly sat up and met his angry mother’s eyes. “Yes Ma’am. I understand.”
“Bueno. Now let’s get this wrapped up and get you upstairs to your bedroom.”
Johnny’s eyes felt heavy as he watched his mother rock in the chair next to his bed. She had an embroidery hoop and was threading her needle with red thread. His senses swam along in a feeling of well being. His wound didn’t hurt much as long as he stayed still and his stomach was full of the savory stew Juanita brought up with a hunk of bread still hot from the oven.
He listened to the steady rock of the chair as it gently kissed the oak floor and he felt himself being pulled down into sleep. Just as he surrendered to the rest his body was craving, his eyes snapped open as a new thought entered his mind.
“What’re ya doin’ here?”
His mother looked up and her expression showed her exasperation that he was awake. “I came to see you. Now go to sleep.”
Johnny snuggled under the covers and another thought came to mind. “Where ya been?”
Maria sighed and put down her embroidery. “I planned to talk to you about this in the morning. Can it wait?”
“Why wait? I’m askin’ now.”
“Very well. Your father and I divorced when you were five. You knew that. Si?”
Johnny nodded, “Si”
“It has taken me a long time to get settled, but I married a few months ago and my new husband and I live in San Jose.”
“So you’re livin’ in San Jose?”
“Si, my husband…your stepfather has a number of interests, but he recently bought a ranch where he intends to raise horses.”
“I like horses….” Johnny’s voice was quiet as his heavy eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep.
Maria arranged the blankets over his shoulders and pushed an unruly lock of dark hair out of his yes, “I know you do mijo.” She spoke softly and kissed his cheek before taking up her rocking again as she sat with her son.
Scott and Murdoch started out early on the stage for Morro Coyo. They’d both had a restless night and it showed in their red eyes and grouchy demeanor. They were thankfully the only ones on the coach that morning so they could spread out.
Scott was leaning into the corner and seemed to be either asleep or playing opossum in order to avoid talking. Neither man had said much during breakfast, though they managed to be civil once they had finished their first cup of strong coffee.
Murdoch mulled over a plan in his mind that he hoped would help his son settle back into the ranch as he was not at all sure, Scott would not just lite out to join the Army the first chance he got.
Murdoch pulled his hat low over his eyes and leaned back into the corner of the coach . He crossed his arms and braced his foot on the opposite seat and managed to drift off to sleep.
Scott woke with a start as he felt the stage make a sharp right and then a sharp left as the driver began yelling at the horses to slow down. Seeing his father jerk awake, he smiled and stated the obvious. “We’re here.”
Murdoch settled his hat on his head and smiled, “It’s always good to come back home.” He didn’t miss the tightening of Scott’s mouth but said nothing as the stage rocked to a halt outside the stage depot.
Once on firm ground, they were soon standing in a mound of Scott’s trunks. I’ll go rent a buggy and we’ll be on our way in no time.
“Alright sir. I’ll wait right here.”
While Scott leaned against the building, his eyes critical scanned the tiny town of Morro Coyo. ‘Nothing’s changed in two years.’ He thought as he watched the dust settle after the stage drove off.
His attention was soon diverted by a man calling his name, “Scott!”
Scott stepped forward to sake hands, “Mr. Wilson. It’s good to see you, Sir.”
“How long has it been?”
“Two years next month.” Scott replied to one of their neighbors who owned the Flying W, a few miles to the north of town.
“Are you here for a visit or have you graduated from Harvard?”
Not wanting to share his business with the man, he replied simply, “I’m back for a visit, and here’s my father. It’s good to see you Mr. Wilson.” Scott turned to load his trunk and bags into the back of the buggy while his father talked to their neighbor.
Ben Wilson slapped Murdoch on the back, “Bring the boys by for supper on Sunday. Millie will love to feed you all up.”
“That’s an invitation we can’t refuse Ben. We’ll see you Sunday after church. Give Millie my regards.”
Murdoch kept the horses to a brisk trot, saying he was anxious to get home. Scott was not surprised when Murdoch pulled the buggy to a stop at the overlook as no matter how often they saw it, they stopped there every time.
Scott looked at the valley below and the hacienda shimmering in the sun at the bottom. He felt a lump in his throat as a surge of home sickness came over him. ‘I love this place.’ He thought as he glanced at his father. “Nothing’s missing I take it?” Scott said dryly.
Murdoch gave him a tight smile but made no move to start down the hill. “Son there’s something I wanted to talk to you about before we go home.”
Scott could feel his shoulders tense and he nodded as he consciously tried to relax. “Go right ahead.”
“Son, I know you’re disappointed in not being able to join the war effort.” Murdoch raised his hand at seeing the protest on his son’s face. “Hear me out. I still think you’re too young, but I’m proud of you for wanting to join up and fight. There are ways you can support the war effort; if you’d care to try.”
That got Scott’s attention, “How… I mean what do you have in mind?”
The Army needs remounts and cattle. I heard they will be taking bids from the western ranches. You could help me out a lot by taking charge of securing those contracts for us.”
The look on Scott’s face made Murdoch’s heart lift, “You’d trust me with the Army contracts, Sir?”
“Of course son. You have a good head on your shoulders and you’ve certainly been around Paul and I when we’ve been working on bids in the past. I’ll give you the information and when you have your bid ready, all I ask is you let me look it over. Deal?” He stuck his hand out.
Scott’s smile was slow. It started at one corner of his mouth and slowly spread across to the other side. He cocked his head and grasped his father’s hand. “Deal.”
Maria froze and looked toward the door when she heard the sound of heavy footsteps coming down the hall. She pushed her needle through the muslin and put her embroidery on the end table. With a quick glance at Johnny to make sure he was still asleep, she uttered a brief prayer as the door opened.
“What the devil are you doing here?” Paul’s gruff voice caused Maria to jump. She felt light headed with relief at the realization she was spared more time before having to face her former husband.
“Silencio.” She whispered. “Johnny needs to rest.” She stood and took Paul by the arm and maneuvered him back to the hallway.
Paul’s hands were at his hips and he rocked back on his heels. “You didn’t answer my question, Maria. What are you doing here?”
“I came to see my son.” She replied just as firmly. “And from the looks of him, it’s a good thing I did.”
Paul looked over her shoulder at the sleeping boy in bed and realized that nothing short of something very wrong would get the boy in bed at this time of the afternoon. “What’s wrong with him?” Paul suddenly felt somewhat foolish as he asked questions of his old friend’s wife; getting nowhere with answers.
“I am the one who should be asking you. Did Murdoch not leave you in charge of his son? What kind of a protector are you to allow a boy to go off on this own and get shot?”
Paul tried to step around Maria, only to find himself blocked as she placed a small, but firm hand on his chest. “Shot? What are you talking about?” Mentally he kicked himself for asking another question when he knew Maria was skilled at answering questions with more questions of her own. “Well?” He swore to himself that he’d never met a more infuriating woman as this one. Just as he thought she was going to provide him with an answer, he saw her eyes widen as he heard Murdoch’s firm voice.
“I’d like to hear that answer right now!” Murdoch easily pushed past Paul and firmly moved Maria aside as he hurried to Johnny’s bed. Johnny was trying to sit up and was rubbing his eyes.
Murdoch knelt next to the bed. “Son, what’s wrong? What happened?” He glanced at Maria and Paul. Paul shrugged his shoulders and moved aside as Scott came into the room.
Scott brushed a lock of his brother’s unruly hair out of his eyes, and frowned at Maria before turning back to Johnny. “Well…..what trouble have you gotten yourself into this time?”
Johnny put on his best smile, “Hi Scott.” He glanced quickly at his frowning father and his worried mother. “No trouble. Just a scratch that’s all. Mama wrapped it up real good and I’ll be good as new tomorrow. Honest.” Johnny’s blue eyes bored into first his brother then his father’s eyes.
Both Scott and Murdoch mirrored each other by crossing their arms and looked with disfavor at the youngest member of the family.
Maria came forward and felt Johnny’s forehead. “He has a slight fever. All these questions can wait until he feels better. Can they not?”
Murdoch turned his attention to the woman he’d loved with such passion many years ago, but now all he felt for her was distain and irritation that she had the nerve to come back here.
“Johnny, we will talk about this later. For now, try to go back to sleep. Maria, we need to talk.” He turned on his heel and left the room.
Johnny let go of his held breath. “That was close. I thought he was gonna yell for a while there.”
Scott took Maria’s place in the rocking chair and glanced at the two adults. “Ma’am, our father is waiting and if you know anything about him, you know he doesn’t take kindly to being kept waiting.”
After a nonplussed Maria left the room, Paul came in and took Scott’s hand in a firm handshake. “Good to have you back son. It takes a full crew to ride herd on this brother of yours. Now that you’re home, you can pull some of that duty. Might even get a straight story from him on how he got hurt.”
Murdoch took another sip of whisky as he watched Maria walk slowly toward him. “Sit.” Clearly not an offer, but an order.
Both were surprised when she complied. Murdoch sat across from her and tried to order his thoughts. His main concern was Johnny and he had no intention of waiting another second for an explanation. “What happened to Johnny?”
Maria took a deep breath and she seemed to gain a sort of calmness if not confidence. “I only know what he told me. He was target shooting and was grazed by a ricochet.”
“Shooting!” Murdoch stood up. “He wasn’t supposed to leave the yard. He’s in big trouble!” Murdoch took two steps back toward the doorway leading to the stairs, before turning back toward his former wife. “How bad is it?”
Maria stood up to face him. “It’s not bad. A graze. I cleaned it out and it looks pretty good.”
“Did you send someone for the doctor?”
“No. I don’t think he needs to be seen by a doctor.”
“You don’t do you? Well he’s my son and I’m sending for the doctor to make sure he’s alright.” Murdoch walked with long strides across the room heading for the front door.
Maria reached out and grabbed hold of a handful of Murdoch’s shirtsleeve. “He is my son too. Do you not think I would have sent for a doctor if he needed one? Do you think that little of me?”
“I don’t know what to think of you Maria. I gave up trying to figure you out a long time ago.” He turned to leave the room intent on sending a hand to Green River for the doctor.
He stopped as something hard hit him between the shoulder blades. He turned and looked at the shattered horse figurine that once stood on the end table.
“Think what you like.” She snapped. Her flushed cheeks and flashing eyes sure signs her temper was spiraling out of control. “You always do and always have.”
“Now what is that supposed to mean?” Murdoch was close to losing his own temper. He kicked the broken pieces of ceramic out of the way under an end table. His boots crunched on the remaining shards as he walked back to Maria. “I asked you a question. You have something to say? Say it!”
Maria stood, hands on her hips looking up the tall giant of a man she had once loved and finally left. Her eyes shined with tears as she fought to control her emotions. “Such a big man.” Her words laced with contempt. “You own everything.” She swept her arm in an arc, “Your land, your house, your sons and your wife. I felt like your possession. The powerful Murdoch Lancer. No one dared cross him or stand up to him! Nothing’s changed has it? Still the Lord Ruler and everyone here must do your biding or they will be banished from your kingdom!” Her fury had taken over.
Murdoch reached her in two strides. He took her by the shoulders, shaking her until her hair came free from its combs. “That is not true! You are the one Maria. You were a rotten wife and a worse mother!” He stepped back letting the trembling woman go. He raked one hand through his hair as he tried to gain hold of his temper.
Maria trembled as she clutched her shawl around her. Her dark silky hair clung to her tear stained cheeks. Her voice was shaky as she answered him, “I want nothing from you. I only came to see my son. I have a right to see him.” She started to walk past him, but he grabbed her arm pulling her around close to him.
“You have no rights Maria. Noooo…..you gave up your rights nine years ago. When I kicked you out of here, I paid you off. If its money you want you came to the wrong place. Now get out and don’t come back!”
Quicker than Murdoch could see, Maria’s right arm came up and slapped him hard across the cheek. She started past him, but Murdoch pulled her to him and kissed her hard. She tried to struggle but gave in a little, melting into his demanding lips.
Murdoch pushed her away and said gruffly. “Get your things together and I’ll have Paul drive you to town.”
Maria gathered up her shawl and ran to the guest room quietly sobbing.
Murdoch poured himself a double shot of whisky and was disgusted with himself to see his hand shaking. ‘How could he have done that? Kissed her after everything that had happened?’ He shook his head and drained his glass in two swallows.
He never saw the dark haired boy, stumbling his way out of the room and up the stairs to the safety of his bedroom.
Scott shook his head when he caught a glimpse of his brother as he ducked back into his bedroom. ‘What’s that scamp been up to?’ he asked himself as he headed for Johnny’s room. ‘I can’t leave him alone for a second.’ He muttered to himself in exasperation.
He stopped a moment outside Johnny’s door preparing to blast his brother for getting out of bed as soon as his back was turned. He shook his head ruefully and realized everything his father said was true. Johnny was a handful!
He squared his shoulders and pushed open the door with every intent of finding out the truth of how Johnny got hurt, only to stop dead at seeing the dejected form of his brother on the bed.
He walked quickly to the bed and dropped to his knees. “Hey Johnny.” Johnny glanced at him and turned his head away.
“Leave me alone Scott.”
“Are you okay?” Teasing aside this was not the younger brother he knew so well.
“Yeah….I’m okay. I just need…..some time …..alone.”
Scott sat back on his heels and considered. Johnny had his back against the headboard with his head resting on his drawn-up knees and turned away from him.
His younger brother’s words in no way matched his actions, so Scott decided to ignore the words. He climbed up next to Johnny and put his arms around the boy’s shoulders. He smoothed down Johnny’s unruly hair and spoke quietly. “I know something’s bothering you Johnny. Maybe you’ll feel better if we talked about it?” He felt Johnny’s head shake, No.
“Come on, brother. Talk to me.” Scott coaxed.
He waited until he felt some of the tension leave his brother’s shoulders and then a large sigh. “What happened?”
Johnny looked at him and then stared straight ahead at the closed door, “Pa made my Mama leave.”
“Oh…” Scott was caught unprepared for that response. He thought his brother was going to confess about his injury, and how he had disobeyed their father, so this took him by surprise. Three years at Harvard and I can’t think of anything to say but ‘Oh’. He mentally kicked himself.
Luckily Johnny didn’t seem to notice as he continued. “They….I….they….were yellin’ at each other and I went down to find out what was goin’ on. He….He…said he paid her to leave, Scott”
Those blue eyes bored into him and Scott was struggling once again for words, “I’m sure there’s more to it than what you heard Johnny. Maybe he gave her some money when she wanted to leave so she would have money to live on while she got settled.” He waited for Johnny to digest this new thought. As Johnny nodded his acceptance of an alternative explanation, Scott nudged Johnny’s shoulder with his own, “Come on Johnny. You know Pa. He doesn’t have it in him to do something like that.”
Instead of reassuring his brother, he saw doubt cloud those expressive blue eyes once again. “What?”
“You didn’t seem ‘em, Scott. Mama got real mad at Pa and slapped him. I thought Pa was gonna slap her back but instead, he grabbed her and kissed her. Then he ordered her to leave!”
Once again Scott was at a loss to explain the unexplainable to his thirteen year old brother, so he just hugged the boy to himself and offered support the best he could, thinking he and his father needed to have a talk.
When he felt Johnny pull away, he let him go and shifted to the chair beside the bed. He sat back and appraised his brother. The changes in the last year were apparent now that he took the time to see. His brother was no longer the boy he’d seen last year. He was showing all the signs of his young teenage years. Scott recalled his own body’s changes at thirteen, and how he’d put up with pimples and changing voice, along with a body that seemed to be growing in so many directions, and could never seem to coordinate all at the same time.
Johnny’s face was thinner, legs longer and he seemed to be growing before his brother’s eyes. Still he was a boy when it came to his emotions concerning his parents. He knew his father refused to talk about his second wife so over the years, as Johnny had questions, he’d turn to his older brother. Now it seemed the older brother needed to take the first step.
“Johnny, look at me.’ Scott’s voice was gentle. He waited until his brother’s eyes met his. “Look….I wouldn’t worry too much about the yelling. If I remember correctly, they yelled a lot at each other most of the time….and when she was in a temper, she threw dishes. It doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other. They just …..” He stopped, feeling for the words to explain his father and volatile step mother’s relationship. “They just were so different. I think your mother had a really hard time adjusting to living on a ranch so far from everything.”
“What’s wrong with living here? It’s the most beautiful place in the whole world!”
Scott smiled and bit his lip. His brother had been to Boston, but other than coming into port several times along the way, most of the journey had endless vistas of water. Obviously his brother hadn’t been impressed with Boston if he thought the ranch was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. While he tended to agree with his brother, he wasn’t going to allow the conversation to be diverted.
“Maybe for your mother, it was kind of how you see Boston. Okay to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there very long. Maybe that’s how it was for her.”
Johnny stared at his brother for a minute while he digested this new information before finally nodding, “You might be right about that. She said she’s happy with her life now and she just wants to see me. Pa wouldn’t object to that would he?”
Now it was Scott’s turn to stare at his brother. “I’m not sure about that. He only has your best interests at heart. You know Pa as well as I do Johnny. I’m sure he’ll be up to talk to you soon.” He reached over to ruffle his brother’s hair just as Johnny jerked his head away from him. He grinned, “Good thing you’re already in this bed hurt brother, as I’m pretty sure Pa would be hurting your rear end right now instead.”
Johnny flashed him a grin and Scott took that opportunity to ask his most burning question. “Where is my gun?”
That got Johnny’s attention, “What? What are you talking about? What gun?”
Scott crossed his arms, “Give it up brother. My Colt is missing along with my gunbelt. Where is it?”
Johnny’s mouth was set in a frown as he straightened the blankets, obviously stalling for time as he thought up a suitable answer. Scott noticed a sudden brightening of expression on his brother’s face, and he waited for the story, suspecting it was going to be a whopper.
“Well you see…. I knew you were coming home so I thought you’d like me to clean it for you Scott. That’s all, just took it to clean it.” Johnny looked relieved he’d come up with a plausible excuse.
“Where is it?”
“You heard me. Where is it?”
“Ah….it’s in the barn.”
“Now, if all you were going to do was clean it, why is it in the barn?”
Scott schooled his features as he watched Johnny’s agile mind hunt for another plausible excuse. His brother was a terrible liar, and he couldn’t figure out why he still tried when he always got caught. He knew the consequences would be only that much worse when he lied, but the boy still tried it.
Johnny’s features brightened as he practically shouted out, “Saddle soap! I took it to the barn to get some saddle soap so I could do up your belt real nice for ya.”
Scott shook his head. He had to hand it to him. Not bad…..for an amateur. “Okay Johnny, that’s enough. Tell me how you shot yourself with my gun.”
The silence grew longer as Scott waited him out. Finally Johnny blew a puff of air out through his lips and shrugged his shoulders. “I was shootin’ at cans in the box canyon.” He glanced up as Scott nodded, knowing exactly where he meant.
“How on earth did you manage to shoot yourself?”
“I didn’t. I missed one of the cans and a bullet ricocheted off a boulder and took me down.” Johnny grimaced slightly at the memory.
“Oh Johnny. You were so lucky. Don’t you know how much worse it could have been?
“I’m alright. Really.”
Murdoch had been leaning against the wall outside his youngest son’s door listening in on Johnny’s explanation of how he was injured. It was just about as he suspected and he felt a wave of relief it wasn’t much worse.
Now that he heard the whole thing, he figured it would be a good time to turn his wayward son up at the toes. He pushed open the door, “Boy’s” Murdoch bit his cheek as he say Johnny jump and the guilty look settle across his face.
He motioned with his head for Scott to leave and waited until he heard the door close softly.
He settled into the chair next to the bed and gave the boy a hard glare. “Now let me get this straight.” He held up one finger, “You disobeyed me by leaving the yard.” Second finger, “You rode your horse.” Third finger, “You took your brother’s gun without his permission and against my orders.” Fourth finger, “You accidentally shot yourself. Anything else?”
Johnny couldn’t meet his father’s piercing angry eyes, so he concentrated on twisting the blanket while biting his lip, “Yeah. I didn’t do my school work and went swimmin’ in the pond.”
Murdoch counted to three as he felt his anger raise up a notch, “Johnny, do you understand how dangerous it is to go swimming by yourself? To leave the yard without telling someone where you were going, not to mention shooting a gun? What has gotten into you? Do I have to watch you every minute as though you were two years old?” Murdoch’s anger was fast reaching a boiling point. “It you weren’t hurt already, I’d tan your behind until you couldn’t sit down for a month of Sundays.”
Johnny flinched when his father stood up, towering over him. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his father so angry. ‘No that’s not true,’ he corrected. He was this angry earlier when he was shouting at his mother. He’d just never had the anger directed at him.
“Sorry Pa. What are you going to do to punish me?”
“I don’t know yet. Just know you won’t be going out of the yard for the foreseeable future and you can count on the fact that I’m taking away your rifle until I see some improvement in your behavior! Don’t plan on riding any horse either until I give you my permission.”
“But Pa….” Johnny was cut off by a knock on the door and the doctor poking his head around the door, “I understand my patient is in here?”
“Come on in Doc. I think he’s alright, but I wanted you to make sure.”
Maria reached her hotel room and threw herself on the bed sobbing. She was relived her husband hadn’t joined her yet as she didn’t want him to see her so upset. She knew he would grow angry and that was a complication she couldn’t face at the moment.
As she got her emotions under control, her mind replayed the events of the day. She’d been humiliated when her body responded to Murdoch’s kiss and all she could do was try to get as far away from him as she could.
What was wrong with her? She’d been apart from Murdoch for so many years. There should be nothing left of her passion for her first love. She deeply loved her husband and she didn’t need this complication.
She thought back over the last few years as the pain of leaving Johnny and Murdoch sometimes brought her to her knees. She hated the ranch. While she loved her husband, she hated the isolation and the loneliness. Murdoch worked himself to the bone, coming home exhausted every night. He just couldn’t seem to see why she would be discontent. Many times she’d second guessed her decision to leave her husband and son. She even thought about returning, but she knew Murdoch was not bluffing when he told her not to come back if she walked out the door.
Still, she longed for her son. Now that she had a chance at a new life, she wanted her son to be part of it. If Murdoch couldn’t see to reason, she would have to take steps so that he would have no say in the matter.
Suddenly a weight lifted and she sat up and glanced in the mirror, frowning at her red eyed, puffy appearance.
She seated herself in front of the mirror and began wiping the tears from her cheeks in anticipation of her husband arriving on the last stage.
Bernard Harris stood outside Murdoch Lancer’s front door and brushed the dust off his trademark three piece gray suit. His hair and suit practically matched, and when wearing the suit, everyone knew he was on business.
He pulled his gold watch out of his vest pocket and with practiced ease, snapped it open. Noting he’d arrived exactly as calculated, he raised his hand to knock on the solid oak door. Hesitating, he realized his palms were sweaty. Snorting with disgust, he pulled out his linen handkerchief and wiped his hands dry.
Straightening his shoulders, he rapped the door briskly. In just a moment, he heard footsteps coming from the other side of the door. The door was pulled open, and the man almost swallowed his tongue in relief when Scott answered the door.
“Mr. Harris. It’s good to see you sir.” Scott shook the man’s hand.
“Welcome home, Scott. It’s good to see you too. Is your father home?”
“Yes he is. Right this way.” Scott led the man into his father’s domain.
“Bernard. What do I owe this pleasure?” Murdoch exclaimed as his attorney slowly walked into the room.
“I’ve come on business, Murdoch.” He glanced quickly at Scott and then back at his old friend and client.
Scott noticed the look the older men exchanged and made his excuses, “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I’ll go check on Johnny and see if he’s done his arithmetic.”
Murdoch walked over to his liquor cabinet and poured two shots of scotch. Handing one to his lawyer as he passed by on his way to his desk, he motioned toward a chair in invitation for Bernard to sit down.
Once the man was seated, Murdoch settled into his comfortable leather chair and waited.
“Spit it out Bernard. What is it?”
The lawyer pulled a sheaf of papers from his brief case and slowly unfolded them. “I received these yesterday. Maria is suing you for custody of Johnny.” His bluntly spoken words fell on silence as the lawyer waited for the explosion. He braced himself as he saw it coming as he’d expected.
Murdoch shot to his feet. “What is she thinking? She abandoned him and our marriage! After all this time she thinks she can take him from me? No! He’s mine!” With that final word Murdoch slapped his desk with such force that it sounded like a shot.
“Sit down Murdoch. We need to talk about this calmly. Maria’s lawyer came to see me in person. Arthur Bridgeport. Have you heard of him? He works for the Central Pacific Railroad and is based out of San Francisco.”
Murdoch was still visibly agitated but he sat back down, and began pushing his ink blotter over the highly polished surface of his desk.
“Mr. Davis implied that Maria may be amicable to settlement….”
“Money?” Murdoch cut him off.
Bernard shook his head, “No. Money wasn’t mentioned, though I thought that might be what he was after. He said she wants contact with her son. She wants him to stay with her. She wants to negotiate some kind of a visitation arrangement.”
“No. Absolutely not! I will not negotiate anything with that woman.”
“Murdoch, settle down. Be reasonable. As your attorney, I have a duty to advise you that you could lose custody of Johnny if you don’t at least consider negotiating some sort of an agreement whereby the boy could have contact with his mother.”
Murdoch stared at the man as his words sunk in, “What do you mean, ‘Lose Custody’?”
“Maria is married to a very powerful man. Leland Stanford. One of the Big Four? Just named President of the Central Pacific Railroad.”
Murdoch scowled. “I know of him. He’s the best of that lot, but still not much above a robber baron. So Maria got her claws into Leland….He’ll soon regret that. Didn’t I hear he was thinking of running for Governor?”
“I’ve heard that too.”
Murdoch took a sip of his whisky, calmer now that he was planning his next move. “I thought the man was married. With a son?”
“He was. His wife and son died of diphtheria in France a few years ago. The important thing is he’s got money, power and political connections to get what he wants, and what he wants is his wife’s happiness.”
“I have money and connections too. Don’t underestimate me Bernard.” Murdoch drained his glass. “What grounds is she claiming for this action?”
Bernard shifted in his chair as he glanced at the papers in his hands, “She’s claiming that you are an unfit father.”
“What! That’s not true! Let me see that.” He snatched the papers from the other man’s hands.
“It says here that I’m unfit on the grounds that I left my son without adequate supervision. Allowed him access to a gun from which he wounded himself with. It says I’m not providing Johnny with an acceptable education.” Murdoch scanned through the legalese, “Oh this is just not true. She’s claiming I’m not providing him with a proper spiritual education as well.”
“Well… their contention is you are not raising him Catholic as you promised in your wedding vows.”
Murdoch threw the documents on his desk. What can I do? How do I fight this?”
“I take it negotiation is out of the question?”
“Yes….and I don’t intend to say this again. Under NO circumstances will I allow that woman to take my son from me. So what do we do?”
“I’ll file a motion for dismissal on the grounds that Maria abandoned the marriage and her child thus losing all rights. I will point out that you are the innocent party and by law you are entitled to custody of Johnny.
“Will the judge dismiss?”
“No, but it will buy us some time. We’ll counter sue on the grounds that she is an unfit mother. She committed adultery and abandoned the marriage as well as her child.”
“That sounds more like it.”
Bernard stood and gathered his papers in preparation to leave. “Don’t think this won’t be hard Murdoch. Johnny could be dragged into court and pulled apart by this.” He waited as he saw the big man visibly deflate. “I’ll show myself out.”
Johnny sat on the floor in the hallway outside his father’s study. He’d come down stairs after showing his brother his finished arithmetic when he heard a loud sound. His father’s raised voice drew him forward and soon he made out the words that explained not only his mother’s absence in his life, but his father’s cold refusal to ever discuss Johnny’s mother with him.
After the lawyer left, Johnny stood up and waited, unsure if he should go in and talk to his father or head back to his room. He’d been walking on eggshells around the man for the last couple of weeks since he’d shot himself. He was healing but still sore and confined to the house.
He knew part of it was due to his injury and part of it was punishment for disobeying his father. He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. “Pa?”
He stood just inside the door and waited until Murdoch beckoned him over. “Hi Johnny.”
Johnny felt his father’s eyes searching over him, and as he approached the man’s large lands rested gently on his slim shoulders. “How much did you hear?”
Johnny couldn’t look up at his father just then and he struggled with just how much to say, “Some….Pa is it true? Did she do those things? She didn’t want me?”
Murdoch quickly steered his son to the couch and pulled the boy against his side as they both sat down. He ran his had over Johnny’s silky black hair and could feel his son’s heart beating in rhythm with his own. Johnny gave him a look of hope as Murdoch sought to explain the unexplainable and silently cursed Maria for putting him in this position.
“Son, your mother was never really happy here. I don’t know if she really thought through what she was giving up, but she made her decision. I’m only thankful she left you here to grow up with me and your brother.” He waited and was relieved when Johnny nodded.
“I want to stay here with you Pa. I don’t want to live anywhere else.”
Murdoch stroked Johnny’s hair and murmured into the thick curls, “I know son. I know. I’ll do everything in my power to keep you here with me.”
“Maria. Relax. Everything will be all right.” Leland Stanford walked behind his wife and wrapped his arms around her shoulders effectively halting her nervous pacing. He rubbed his beard against her cheek as she learned back into him. Growling in his best imitation of a grizzly bear, until he felt Maria’s slim shoulders beneath his large hands begin to shake, as she giggled. He turned her to face him and planted a kiss on his beautiful wife’s lips.
“Te amo Le, Te amo. You make me feel so safe and loved.”
He gave her another kiss and turned her toward the bedroom suite giving her a slap on her behind. “Go get ready, Maria.” He waited until she turned around admiring her lithe form and flowing wavy hair. “I love you too quirida.”
Murdoch nervously straightened his tie as Paul sat in the arm chair. “Relax Murdoch. Everything will turn out all right.”
Murdoch poured himself a small shot of whisky and silently offered to pour one for Paul who declined with a slight shake of his head. Murdoch knocked the whisky back with one swallow and put the heavy glass down with a thump.
“I wish I had your confidence, Paul. Bernard gave me a run down on what to expect. I just hope they don’t make Johnny take the stand.” Murdoch shook his head as he shrugged into his tailored suit jacket. “I wish I could trust her not to sink that low.”
“How’s Johnny holding up?” Paul asked as he rose and put on his own suit jacket.
Murdoch stopped, his hand grasping the cut glass door knob. “He’s scared, but he’s trying to hide it so he doesn’t upset me. It should be the other way, but ever since he heard about this; he’s been acting like it isn’t happening.”
Murdoch closed the door behind them, and as he was locking it, he muttered, “I wish I could pretend it isn’t happening too.” He looked up in surprise with a slight smile as he felt Paul squeeze his shoulder in support.
“Come on Murdoch, let’s go make it legal.”
Murdoch straightened his shoulders and drew strength from his oldest friend, and followed him out of the hotel into the bright Sacramento sunshine.
Murdoch settled into his seat to the left of Bernard Harris and stared straight ahead. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Maria walk in escorted by a man with a full gray beard. He didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of looking at her, so he tipped his head enough so he could see them as they settled at the opposite table with their attorney.
‘Caught herself an old man.’ Murdoch thought uncharitably as he estimated Leland’s age to be early fifties. He quickly did the math and figured Maria’s husband was at least twenty years older than she was.
The bailiff stood as the black robed judge came through the side door. “All rise.”
Murdoch’s mind was wandering before he realized he was seated once more and the judge had finished reading both parties complaints.
As the voices droned on, Murdoch found himself studying his large work worn hands. He noticed for the first time the little nicks and scars he had worn as kind of a badge of honor; a testament to the hard work he put in every day in building and keeping Lancer.
With a start he realized that Maria’s attorney, Arthur Bridgeport, was well into his argument as to why Maria should have custody of her son. He listened as the man painted her as a young mother who made an error in judgment. He went on to explain that she felt intimidated by her husband. A man molding the land to his will, and equally determined to mold his young wife. His words painted a picture of a lonely girl with a driven husband who ignored his wife.
The skilled attorney made an impassioned plea to sway the judge to allow a mother and son to reform a bond that should never have been broken.
Murdoch had to loosen his white knuckled grip on the chair arms, which was the only thing keeping him anchored in his chair, as he heard himself described as a cold hearted unfeeling man.
His anger was threatening to overwhelm him, but he managed to control it and he relaxed a bit, when his attorney gave his arm a squeeze.
The high priced attorney continued, “Your honor. This young boy has been raised in the mold of his father, without benefit of a mother’s love and nurturing. All my client is asking for is a chance. A chance the boy’s father will not allow for his own selfish purposes. For what? To punish his ex wife? Yes, one may dare say that. However I see it differently. The one he is really punishing is his son…..”
That lit Murdoch’s fuse and he stood shrugging off Bernard’s hand. “That’s not true!” He shouted. “I don’t want that whore near my son! She ran out on us and I don’t trust her not to hurt him!”
The judge began banging his gavel and calling for order as the burley bailiff stepped up to the angry red faced father.
The judge banged his gavel once more, “Mister Lancer. Sit down! Councilor control your client or he will be spending the rest of this hearing behind bars.”
Bernard managed to get Murdoch into his seat while the judge brought the court room to order.
Murdoch felt despair as his anger wore off and he knew he’d just played right into Maria’s hands. He glanced across to where she was sitting expecting to see a smirk of triumph on her face, and was rewarded by the sight of her crying into her husband’s arms.
Scott walked side by side with his brother. Lunch had only taken Johnny’s mind off the court proceedings for a short while.
This whole week Johnny had been on edge and his anxiety had only gotten worse now that they were in Sacramento.
As they walked along the boardwalk, Scott glanced at his brother. His shoulders were slumped, his head down, and his hands stuffed in his trouser pockets.
“In here, Johnny.” Scott opened the door and escorted his brother into a candy shop. This was usually a favorite stop for both of them whenever they visited the city, however today the barrels of penny candy failed to draw his brother’s interest.
Johnny followed along behind his brother as Scott added a handful of some of their favorites to a basket.
“Anything else you want?”
Johnny shook his head no and Scott sighed as he took the candy to the counter to pay. If candy didn’t cheer up his brother, he figured a trip to the stables might be the only thing that might help.
Horses seemed to be Johnny’s salvation when he was depressed or scared. Scott figured this was one of those rare times when his brother was both. As he walked along, keeping one eye on the boy, he waited while a wagon lumbered down the street before crossing. “Come on.”
Parked out in front of a mercantile, was a cart loaded with vegetables. A dirt farmer in town to sell his produce. Some swift negotiating left the brother’s with a handful of carrots. “Here, make yourself useful.” Scott handed the carrots to his brother.
He was rewarded with a questioning look that Scott chalked up as much better than the sullen countenance he’d been coping with all day. As Johnny realized what their next stop was going to be, he gave his brother a small smile and followed him toward the stable.
Scott sighed as he watched Johnny feed carrots to the horses. The day was dragging on and while he was trying to take his brother’s mind off what was going on in the courtroom, his own mind was never far from the pillared building down the street.
He checked his pocket watch and noted that he had just a couple more hours to keep his brother busy before meeting their father back at the hotel. Hopefully by then this would all be over and everything would get back to normal.
Bernard Harris stood in front of the judge and had to bite down his irritation with his client for putting him in this position. He was a man who didn’t like to lose and a win against Leland Stanford’s high priced attorney would give him standing he didn’t currently possess.
“Your honor, my client wishes to withdraw his comments and apologizes most sincerely to Mrs. Stanford and to this court.”
“And well he should Mr. Harris. Well he should.”
The judge looked at Murdoch and spoke directly to him, “Mr. Lancer, you are not helping your cause with such an outburst. If it happens again, I will hold you in contempt of court and send you to the city jail along with a fine large enough to make you never want to set foot in my court again. Do I make myself clear sir?”
The judge nodded as the big rancher flushed and responded, “Yes sir your honor. I understand.”
“Good. Now Mister Harris, please continue.”
Bernard, breathed a sigh of relief that Murdoch had gotten off with a warning and sent a silent prayer that his client would control himself throughout the proceedings.
“Your honor, my client, Murdoch Lancer is the innocent party in all of this. He only wants what he has always wanted. His son’s happiness. To keep him safe and allow him to grow into a fine young man. My client’s ex wife, however had different ideas. She didn’t want to take on the hard task of raising a family, or building a fine ranch. She didn’t want to put in the work so why should she reap the rewards now? She wanted to take the easy road and by running out on her husband and son, forfeited the right to have any say in the way the boy was raised.”
Bernard walked closer to Maria, drawing the judge’s eye toward the woman. “What guarantee does my client have that she won’t get bored with the responsibilities of being a parent and neglect their son? What proof do we have that she has changed? None!”
Bernard nodded to himself when he thought he saw a glimmer of agreement in the judge’s eyes. “Your honor I ask you to consider the happiness of this young boy and rule in favor of my client to retain sole custody of his son.”
The minutes ticked by as the participants waited for the judge to reappear. He hadn’t dismissed court for the day though the afternoon was wearing on. Murdoch felt the sweat trickle down his back as his nerves thrummed in time with his heartbeat.
He almost gasped with relief when the bailiff appeared barking out his order to rise. The judge returned to his dais and called the court to order.
“I have taken Mrs. Stanford’s request into consideration to have one, John Lancer to appear before this court and I am over ruling that request.”
Before he could say another word, Maria’s attorney interrupted,” Your honor, may I approach the bench?”
“No you may not. Sit down sir and be quiet.”
I have listened to both attorneys make heart felt pleas for the boy’s custody, and while I am satisfied with the sincerity of both parties desire to parent the boy, ultimately in this instance, there can only be one parent for the child.”
“Mr. Lancer has provided a safe and stable home for his son his entire life and the Stanford’s have the means to raise the child in the finest of society as well as provide a first class education for the boy. Advantages even his father is unable to provide. Earlier Mr. Harris stated the innocent one in this case was his client. I beg to differ. The true innocent is John Lancer. His welfare is what is most important.”
Murdoch felt hope soaring and he wished the judge would just get on with it.
“I believe denying a boy contact with a mother who is able and willing to parent him would be unfair and a gross injustice. I am ruling in favor of his father, Murdoch Lancer to retain custody of John Lancer until he reaches his twenty-first birthday, however I am also giving his mother, Maria Stanford visiting privileges as well as two months custody during the summer.”
Murdoch slumped in his chair. He was going to have Maria in his life for years and while he was grateful to have retained his son, he did not look forward to having to grit his teeth every time he saw his ex wife.
“You will all be receiving my written instructions with terms of this custody agreement spelled out. I do not wish to see either of you in my court again for this matter so I am counting on you Mr. Harris, and you, Mr. Bridgeport to ensure your client’s understand the terms of this hearing.” With a bang of his gavel, the judge announced, “Court is dismissed.”