Spoilers: Could be considered AU or AR
Warnings: Major Character Death
Notes: Many thanks to S. for her indispensable help.
He could hear a calf bawling somewhere off to the left, away from the rest of the herd. Leaving behind the haze of dust kicked up by the cattle, Scott Lancer reentered the world of color and made his way toward the shallow gully.
The cloudless sky should have been a welcome sight; at one time, it had been. But not anymore. Now, all it meant was another day without rain, another day of the sun blasting down on the already scorched earth. Scott wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve and resettled his hat on his head as he approached the struggling animal.
“Take it easy, little guy, I’ll have you out of there in a minute.”
The gully was only a few feet deep so retrieving the calf would be no problem; what little strength it had it had used up in its fight to get free. Scott got down on one knee, wrapped his arms around the calf and lifted as he rose to his feet. The animal lay docilely in his arms as he carried it back to the rest of the herd.
He could just see Johnny up ahead, a dirty silhouette against a backdrop of blue. His brother was covered in dust after a day of moving the cattle through the grassless pastures.
“Where you takin’ him?” Johnny motioned toward the animal. “Chances are, his mother’s dead or can’t feed him.”
Scott frowned. His brother was right. The calf had been left behind because either it couldn’t keep up or because there was no longer a mother to follow. Scott balked at leaving the poor thing out here to die, though. “I don’t know. I can’t leave him out here.”
Johnny shook his head and chuckled. “After all these years, you still ain’t learned, have you? You can’t be thinking of them as anything but a meal on hooves.”
“If I took him to the house you think someone there could look after him? He could be bottle fed.”
“Scott, there’s a hundred like him out here. We can’t save them all.”
The two men stared at each other for a minute; finally, Johnny sighed. “All right, give him here.” He leaned over and took the animal out of his brother’s arms and settled him across his saddle. “I’ve got to ride in to let Murdoch know we’re probably not going to get the whole herd to water, find out what he wants us to do.”
“I thought the stream was less than a mile away.”
“I thought so, too, but I sent one of the men ahead and the stream’s dried out. The next one’s another three miles. I don’t know how many of these animals have the strength to make it that far.”
“We need this herd, Johnny. Murdoch said if we lose this bunch we might not have enough to build on when the drought’s over.” Scott remembered how unnerved he had been by the look on their father’s face when he’d said it. Like the man was starting to lose hope.
“We’ll be okay. I’ve seen it worse than this.” Johnny pulled on the reins to turn his horse around and toward home. “Just keep ‘em moving. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Scott watched his brother ride off, the small animal nestled placidly against him. He hoped Johnny was right. In the seven years since he’d first called this home, Scott had come to love this land. Perhaps not with the passion of his father but certainly with the appreciation of one whose life now revolved around its open spaces. He looked up at the sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.
They came in hot, dirty and tired, their clothes stiff with a mixture of dirt, sweat and grime. It took everything Scott had to get off his horse and make his legs take up the weight of his body again. Sixteen hours, from sunup to well past sunset, they’d worked to get as many animals to water as they could. They’d lost twenty head.
As they left their horses to be tended, Scott noticed the small calf sleeping in one of the stalls. He walked over and gazed at the animal. “Who’s taking care of him?”
“Who’d you think?” Johnny stood next to him and rested his arms on the stall gate. “Maria said she’d try feeding him as often as she could. Looks like she got him to eat.”
The calf’s belly was slightly rounded and he looked somehow stronger than he had that morning. “I wish we could save them all. Dying of thirst is an ugly way to die.”
“There ain’t no good way to die, brother. Come on.” Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm and pulled him away from the stall. “I’m ready for a bath, a beer and a bed...in that order.”
Scott laughed. “I don’t know about you but I could do with a meal, too.”
“Yeah, that, too. It’s just that the other three are more important,” Johnny agreed with a grin.
They walked to the house in silence. After awhile, Scott reached out and laid his arm across Johnny’s shoulders. It was still warm but he needed the sense of his brother only touch could bring.
“What’s the matter, Scott?”
“That’s a mighty wide choice to pick from.”
Scott shrugged. “I suppose it’s the same thing everyone else around here is worried about. Drought’s gone on for three years now.”
“This isn’t anything; told you, I’ve seen worse. Ten year droughts aren’t unknown. You hunker down and ride ‘em out. That’s all you can do.”
“So how come Murdoch looks so worried all the time?”
“The old man always looks like that,” Johnny responded with a chuckle. “Has since the day we met him.”
“I guess so. Still, it makes me wonder.”
They reached the house and Johnny pushed open the door that brought them into the kitchen. “Well, don’t. Besides, I thought it was my job to read more into what Murdoch says or does than is really there.”
It was a running joke between Scott and his brother; it had taken Johnny years to finally accept that Murdoch had a habit of seeing the worse in a situation, even while at the same time hoping for the best. Especially those first few years when it was Johnny Murdoch was hoping for the best from.
“Go on,” he gave his brother a playful shove, “I’m commandeering the bath. Just leave me some food.”
Johnny turned and waggled his eyebrows at him before strolling over to the stove where Maria, their housekeeper and cook, aggressively rolled out the dough in front of her. He grabbed the tortilla from the top of the stack, rolled it up and dunked the end into the pot of chilé simmering on the stove.
Maria slapped his hand. When Teresa, their father’s ward, had married and left Lancer three years before, the older woman had taken on all the household responsibilities that once they’d shared between them. Somehow, she’d taken on the care of its two younger owners at the same time and come to rule their hearts as well as the house. “Wait, wait, I will serve you some. Go, sit.” She shooed him away and wiped her hands on her apron. “Some for you, too, Senór Scott?”
“Not right now, Maria, but is there hot water in the bath house?”
“Si, I knew you’d be getting here soon, so I got it ready.” She ladled out a serving of food and handed it to Johnny, who had taken a seat at the kitchen table.
“You didn’t haul that water in here by yourself, did you?” Johnny took a tortilla from the napkin Maria had placed in front of him and began eating.
“No, of course not. I had Eduárdo fill all the tinas for me. Lazy cabrón isn’t good for much else.”
Scott looked down, trying not to smile.
“I put some clean clothes in there for you, too. The green shirt. I like you in that one.”
God, the woman was even dressing them, now. “I hate that shirt. By the way, what happened to my beige one?”
“That thing? I’m using it as a trapo to polish the furniture.”
He heard a snort of laughter from Johnny.
“Maria, that was my favorite shirt!”
“Senór Scott, that shirt was old. I’ll make you another one, one you can wear to church. Your papa would like that. He told me you haven’t been going.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a lot of things Murdoch wants me to do,” Scott responded as he started down the small hallway which led to the bathhouse. He should have known he wouldn’t get the last word.
“Your papa also said you need to quit taking so many baths!”
Scott lowered his aching body into the steaming hot water with a sigh and let his head fall back against the folded towel he’d placed along the rim of the tub. He closed his eyes.
The room was warm and humid; the fires under the large tin pots were banked so that the water stayed hot but didn’t overflow, yet they still gave off enough heat to turn the small enclosure almost tropical. He grimaced slightly, remembering the one time he’d spent any amount of time in that sort of climate. The War had changed him in a lot of ways; his fixation with cleanliness was one of the more benign.
So long ago, now. Years and years. He’d shuffled off a lot of the baggage he’d brought back. Lancer had helped. Scott had never felt his grandfather’s house was home, not once he was an adult. Maybe because Harlan Garrett had been forever pushing him on: a career, a place of his own, a wife. Those were the things that signaled a man’s success.
Not here. Murdoch may have longed for grandchildren but he’d never once pushed Scott or Johnny into taking a wife. Perhaps because of his own history with wives and sons. It had taken Murdoch Lancer twenty years to get his sons back, the whys and wherefores of it never told, but it still might influence his actions toward those sons.
Whatever the reason, both he and Johnny were made to feel that their home was their home; they need do nothing more than live and work here. So, as women came and went from Scott’s life, there was always the knowledge that, if it was a problem, it was his alone.
His eyes drifted open only enough so he could find the wash cloth and soap. With lazy swipes, he cleaned his arms and legs, enjoying the roughness of the cloth against his naked body. He swept it lightly across his chest and abdomen, teasing his flesh. He was a sensualist and he knew it.
And that was part of the problem, wasn’t it? He’d recognized the pattern of his desires early. He didn’t want a tame woman, a woman who would walk demurely at his side and cater to his every whim. He wanted a woman whose appetites rivaled his own, who saw what she wanted and went after it. Unfortunately, that kind of woman rarely made for a good wife and mother.
Scooting slightly forward, he dunked his head back just far enough for the water to cover his hair. He sat up, the water running down his head and shoulders as he groped for the bottle of hair wash he knew was on the table next to the tub.
Once his hair was clean and rinsed, he got out of the tub and, using one of the oven mitts kept in the room, added the remaining water from one of the pots. It would give him another five or ten minutes.
He stepped back into the tub and sat down. Stretching out again, he let the heat of the water permeate through his skin to warm and relax his muscles. Tomorrow was Sunday. He could sleep in. No rush to bed.
Sunday. Sunday service. He hoped Maria had been teasing about church. He’d never really been a churchgoer. His grandfather wasn’t, so he’d never picked up the habit. He’d gone when he had first arrived at Lancer, mainly because Murdoch and Teresa did. It seemed the thing to do. Gradually, he’d started making excuses, missing once a month or so. Then every other week. By the time anyone had noticed, he hadn’t gone in over two months. He could pray for rain here just as easily as he could in church.
They all prayed for rain. It was going on three years since they’d had a normal rainfall. The first year hadn’t been too bad. The second, they’d lost quite a few head but had managed to have a decent-sized herd make it to market. But each year there was less water and less cattle. This year, this year didn’t look too good.
The water was starting to get cold by the time he pulled himself up and stepped out of the tub. He briskly toweled himself off and dressed in the clothes laid out by Maria. On the chair next to his was a clean set for Johnny.
When Scott walked out into the kitchen, his brother was asleep. Johnny’s head lay on his folded arms, the empty bowl pushed to one side. Scott stared at him for a long moment and then with a gentle shake, woke him up.
Johnny squinted against the morning sunlight that poured through the chink in the curtains. With a silent curse he pulled his pillow over his head and turned to face away from the window. It didn’t do any good. He’d learned long ago that, once awake, there was no sense trying to get back to sleep. He shoved his blankets away and sat up.
He took his time getting dressed. Murdoch wouldn’t have left for church yet and the less time spent around the old man, the better. He felt sort of guilty about that; it hadn’t always been that way between them. He had once enjoyed the time spent with his father. He missed it. Still, once he had his pants on, Johnny pulled open the drapes and watched from his window to pass the time, putting off going downstairs. He put on his shirt, rolling up the sleeves and buttoning it up with half his attention on the scene below.
Maria was out in the courtyard, cleaning off the area with last night’s bath water. Funny how the habits she’d learned as a girl were coming in so handy now. When you came from a place with little rain, you learned to improvise. On one of the benches was a small basket with a couple of makeshift baby bottles. *Must be on her way to take care of Scott’s stray.* He wondered if that meant she’d already made breakfast.
He sat down on the ladder-back chair against the wall and started putting on his socks and boots. He thought about the other conversation he’d had with his brother the night before. Johnny had brushed aside Scott’s concern over their father’s constant worrying but that didn’t change the fact that the man was a real bear when he did. And it seemed to get worse the older their father got.
It had been years since it had really bothered him, back when he and his father were practically strangers and willing to think the worst of each other. A lot had happened since then. Johnny’s gaze slid over to the small oval frame on his bureau. Lúpe had come in and out of his life. He had a lot in common with his father now.
He stood up and started for the bedroom door, tucking in his shirt as he made his way out of his room and down the stairs. He didn’t hear any voices; maybe luck was on his side and he’d have the place to himself for awhile. He was surprised and a bit disappointed to see Teresa sitting on the couch reading a book when he entered the great room.
“Don’t take this wrong, Teresa, but what are you doing here?”
Teresa looked up and put the book aside. “Jesse had some supplies he promised to deliver to the Hanson’s today so he dropped me off. I thought it would be nice to ride in with Murdoch. It’s been awhile since he and I have had some time alone together.”
“Shouldn’t you be halfway to church by now?” He poured himself a cup of coffee from the service someone had set up on the side table and joined Teresa in the sitting area.
“Normally, yes, but Murdoch was gone when I got here.” She toyed with her coffee, stirring it slowly but not drinking. “Maria said he headed out before the sun was up.”
“Did he tell her where he was going?”
“That’s the strange part about it; he didn’t.”
Johnny chuckled. “And knowing Maria, it’s not like she didn’t ask.”
Teresa took the spoon out of her coffee and took a sip of the cooling liquid before responding. “Johnny, I’m really worried about him.”
“Not you, too. Scott’s been like an old lady about it.”
“And you’re not worried?”
He took a sip of coffee, using the time to order his thoughts. “Not about Murdoch. I guess I’m of the mind that he’s a grown man. If there’s something bothering him, it’s up to him to figure it out.” He made a frustrated noise. “I’m not saying this right. I know he’s worried; we all are. But talkin’ about it never’s done any good as far as I can tell. Things will either work out or they won’t.”
She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees and folding her hands together as she stared out the glass-paned doors. “I suppose. I just wish he’d get it off his chest, whatever it is. He’s not a young man anymore, Johnny. This sort of worrying can’t be good for him.”
“Can’t be too good for you, either,” he gently responded.
Teresa blushed. “I’m as healthy as a horse.”
“And not a finer example of womanhood to be found,” Scott proclaimed as he walked into the room.
Johnny twisted around in his seat at the sound of his brother’s voice. “Well, morning. I was beginning to think you were planning on sleeping the day away.”
“It’s not even seven,” Scott shot back, though his tone was mild. He got some coffee and joined Johnny on the couch. He turned his attention to Teresa. “So, healthy as a horse, huh? You look really good, Teresa.”
“I am, so both of you quit worrying. The doctor says I’m doing wonderfully for a woman in my condition.”
Johnny had to wonder at her strength. Not a year gone by since losing her first to illness, yet, here she was, more than ready to bring another one into the world. “You thought of a name yet?”
She shook her head and gave a pensive smile. “Jesse wants to wait. Besides, we’ve still got six months to go.”
Nothing more really needed to be said. Teresa’s husband had taken the loss of his infant son hard. Maybe even harder than Teresa. But the influenza epidemic had cut a wide swath through the community, taking mainly the very young and very old. They’d almost lost Murdoch. They had lost someone almost as dear.
Scott cleared his throat. “Where’s Murdoch?”
“Not here,” Johnny quipped.
Scott gave him a look. “I hope he’s not out checking on the herds. I told him we’d got them all to water.”
“Is it that bad?” Teresa asked.
Johnny shook his head. “Not really. We’ve lost some but we lose some every year, drought or no drought.”
“Then why is Murdoch so worried?”
“It’s like he’s waiting for something,” Scott mused.
Johnny frowned at his brother. “Like what?”
“I wish I knew.”
“Quiet, there he is.” Teresa put her cup down and stood up. “He looks ready to go. I’ll see you two later.”
They both kissed her goodbye and then went to stand at the open door. Outside, Murdoch helped her into the buggy and, with a distracted wave at his sons, started the horses up.
“I wonder where he went.”
Johnny shrugged. He didn’t think Murdoch planned on telling them.
I hope this letter finds you in good health and doing well, especially upon reading your disturbing and startling news. The words brought with them a sense of sadness and loss; Matthew Lewis was a fine man.
Scott held his pen over the paper, pondering his next words.
I know you will miss him deeply, as he has been a part of your life for as far back as I can remember.
He stopped again, at a loss. Finally, he stuck the pen back into the inkwell. He hated when he had difficulty expressing himself. Usually, his letters to his grandfather flowed easily, the ranch a topic Scott never tired of. But Harlan Garrett had been hit hard by the loss of his business partner and oldest friend and his letter had hinted at how Scott’s presence might make the pain more bearable. He didn’t want to disappoint his grandfather but there was no way he could leave right now.
He rested his elbows on the desk as he rubbed his temples. After all these years, he was still being pulled in two directions.
“What’s the matter?”
He brought his head sharply up. His brother stood at the doorway, his weight balanced on one hip as he leaned against the entrance.
“Nothing. Just trying to write a letter to Grandfather.”
Johnny walked into the room and threw himself on Scott’s bed.
“Make sure you keep those boots off my bed.”
Johnny grinned. “Quit acting like Maria. Besides, I wouldn’t dream of mussing up your fine spread.” He seemed to notice Scott’s mood then and sobered. “So, what’s with your grandfather?”
“He wants me to go back to Boston for a visit. A close friend of his died and I guess he’s feeling lonely.”
“What are you going to tell him?”
“I don’t know.” Scott turned in his chair to face his brother. “But I know I can’t leave now. With the cattle going to auction next week, we’re all going to have more work than we can handle.”
“That’s for sure. But at least it will cut the herd down to size. Water shouldn’t be a problem then.” Johnny sat up and then lay forward on his stomach, bending his knees so that his feet were dangling in the air and not touching the bedcover. “I saw Cipriano earlier. Seems he spotted Murdoch in town this morning.”
“No, earlier. Sun was just coming up.”
Scott narrowed his eyes. “What was Cipriano doing in town at that hour?”
Johnny’s chuckle was downright dirty. “Seems he has a real yen for one of the girls who works in the cantina.”
“Susie, the new girl.”
“Is he serious?” Scott couldn’t imagine the staid, older man giving his heart to someone like Susie.
“I don’t know, he appears to be. Maybe he figures he’s not getting any younger. Besides, she’s a fine looking woman.”
“I know but doesn’t it bother him, her being a working girl?”
“Doesn’t seem to. Anyway, he said he saw Murdoch coming out of the bank.”
“The bank’s not open at that hour, not to mention it’s Sunday.”
Johnny pushed himself up and swung his feet around to sit on the edge of the bed. “Maybe it’s not open for us. But Murdoch does a lot of business with that bank.”
“That’s true.” Scott thought about it for a moment. “I wonder why he didn’t mention anything to either one of us.”
“Yeah, that crossed my mind, too. Murdoch isn’t usually so secretive.”
“Maybe it’s personal.”
“Personal?” Johnny snorted. “Scott, since when has Murdoch had a personal life?”
Scott couldn’t help but smile. “You’ve got a point. But if it wasn’t personal, what was it? And why then? Bad enough it’s Sunday but why so early?”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, just what kind of business he was doing at that hour?”
It did make him wonder. Scott looked at his brother. Johnny only raised his eyebrows and then got up and strolled out of the room.
Alone, Scott found himself unable to think about anything else, his letter to his grandfather forgotten.
They were in the kitchen having breakfast when they heard the insistent knocking on the front door. Maria was busy at the stove, waiting for Murdoch to appear before serving him. With a mild oath, she pulled off her apron and left to see who it was disturbing their meal.
Scott looked at his brother across the table. They both started eating quickly, washing the food down with gulps of coffee. Something major had to be going on. Another fence down, another dried up stream, something. No one came pounding on the door before sunrise if there wasn’t. In any case, they knew this might be all they’d have to eat for hours.
They managed to finish most of their meal before Maria returned.
“It’s Cipriano. He looks worried.”
“Oh, that’s just great. I knew things were going too well,” Johnny groused.
It had seemed as if they were finally getting some relief. They’d had rain the day before; not a lot but they’d take what they could get.
“Well, we might as well get out there.” Scott stood and playfully shoved Johnny’s shoulder. “It’s too early in the day to get on Murdoch’s bad side.”
Johnny laughed. “I didn’t know he had a good one.”
When they got to the great room, their father was already there. Cipriano stood before him, hat in hand, nervously working the brim.
“Trouble?” Johnny asked.
“You could say,” Murdoch responded. “Cipriano just came in from the north pasture. We’ve got a couple of sick steers.”
“What’s the matter with them?” Scott aimed his question at Cipriano.
The segundo looked at Murdoch and waited for a nod of assent from the older man before answering. “They are listless and seem to be having trouble breathing.”
Scott was puzzled. “You noticed two listless steers in a herd that size?”
“They are next to three that have already died.”
“I’m hoping it’s not what I think,” Murdoch stated. “But I’ve seen this pattern before.”
“Years of drought after ones of heavy rains like we’ve had. It’s possible we’ve got an outbreak of anthrax.”
“Oh, hell,” Johnny swore quietly.
Scott looked at his brother. “Did you know about this?”
Johnny shook his head. “No, but I know what can happen when the disease takes hold. I’ve seen ranches go under because their entire herd is wiped out. What the disease doesn’t take, you’re forced to kill.”
“So what are we going to do?” Scott turned to Murdoch.
“All we can do right now is quarantine that particular herd and hope it hasn’t already spread. But most of the cattle have been in the same places because of the shortage of watering holes and springs, so it could have already infected some of the other herds.” Murdoch rubbed his shoulder, a pained expression on his face. “I need you two boys to get out there and start fencing that entire area. Get a couple of dozen men to help you.”
“Should I have the dead ones burned, Senór Lancer?” Cipriano asked.
“Yes, but be careful. People have been known to get sick after handling infected livestock. Make sure you wear gloves and cover your mouth and nose with something.”
“Isn’t there anyway to know for sure?” Scott interjected.
“There’s a test; it’s only been out about a year, so I doubt Doc Hildenbrand has it. We’ll have to get someone in from Sacramento.”
“Sacramento? Murdoch, that could take weeks.” Johnny ran has hand through his hair. “We’ve got to do something before then. Word gets out about our cattle being sick and you’re going to have half the valley on our backs, wanting us to destroy them all.”
“Don’t you think I realize that?” Murdoch scowled. “Now, get going. If there’s any chance of beating this thing, it’s making sure it doesn’t spread any further.”
As he and Johnny grabbed their hats, Scott looked back at their father. Murdoch was talking quietly to Cipriano; the Mexican’s head nodded from time to time. Both men looked worried but there was a look on his father’s face that unnerved Scott. Tired, he looked so tired.
“Come on, Scott.”
Scott felt his brother’s hand on his arm, pulling him outside. With a last anxious look, he followed Johnny out.
Scott stared at the line of figures in front of him. He thought he had finally managed to get the books to balance then this last discrepancy had showed up. It looked like he was going to have to start all over again. He picked up his cup and took a sip of the steaming hot liquid while he pondered the information. He couldn’t understand where he had gone wrong.
He’d started that morning, the first free day he’d had in a long time. Normally, Murdoch kept them up when Scott got bogged down with his work outside. You could tell he’d tried; here and there, there were notations in his father’s familiar scrawl. But by and large the accounts had been left to pile up, until catching up had become an all-day task.
Scott didn’t mind; well, not too much. Oh, he certainly liked the change from the backbreaking job that working the ranch could be. It was just that recently it had started putting him into conflict with Murdoch in a way they had never been before. He would find mistakes his father would only grudgingly accept responsibility for, and only after arguing about it. Scott knew a lot of it was Murdoch getting older; the years of physical toil had taken their toll. That didn’t help when you had to explain to the man why you were making changes to figures he swore were accurate.
Talking it over with Johnny would have helped but taking care of the books was one chore his brother had for some reason been spared. Scott often thought their father was still under the assumption that Johnny didn’t know how to do the work. If the questions his brother asked him about their finances were anything to go by, Johnny was more than capable of handling the job.
Scott took another sip of coffee. Well, right now Johnny was more than welcome to the task he’d been handed. Keeping watch over thousands of penned-up animals wasn’t something Scott envied his brother. They had put down the two ailing steers but it had taken two days of working from sunup to sundown to completely fence in the herd at the north pasture. In that time no more had sickened. Now they were holding their collective breaths, waiting to see what happened next.
A shadow passed the window and drew his attention. Johnny stood just outside, in what looked like a heated argument with Cipriano. Scott felt himself go cold. *Please, God, no.* His actions were deliberate as he put down his cup and got to his feet. Even as he opened the door Scott knew his prayers had fallen on deaf ears. There was an anxious look on his brother’s face as he turned Scott’s way.
“There’s about a dozen of them acting sick and two already dead.” Johnny was still trying to catch his breath from what must have been a frantic ride.
“They must all be destroyed.” Cipriano said it as if he were repeating himself.
“Where’s Murdoch? He’s the one who’ll be making the decision.” Johnny made to get by Scott.
Scott moved back, motioning Cipriano to follow them in. “He’s upstairs, I think. He mentioned something about lying down for awhile.”
“Now? What the hell is he doing lying down in the middle of the day?” Impatiently, Johnny started up the stairs. “He’s got to know about this.”
“Do you really think we need to kill them all?” Scott couldn’t imagine slaughtering all those animals.
“Si, Senór Scott. You must. If you do not, there is too great a chance it will spread to the other herds.”
“But we don’t even know for sure it’s anthrax.”
“I have seen it before. It is anthrax. El Patrón will know what to do.”
“Scott! Scott get up here!”
Scott bolted for the stairs, alarmed by the sound of Johnny’s cry. He had never heard that tone of voice from his brother. He sounded afraid.
Scott sat by the fireplace and watched his brother pace. It was done slowly, head down; he didn’t think Johnny was even aware he was doing it, making his way from the entryway and the bottom of the stairs into the great room where they now waited. Every so often Johnny would stop at the French doors that fronted the room and look out, as if expecting someone. There was only darkness outside; a darkness of another kind inside, too.
Maria scurried by, a large urn of coffee in her hands. How long was the doctor planning on staying? She didn’t look their way, as if they were only observers of the unfolding spectacle. Perhaps they were. Scott certainly didn’t feel particularly helpful right now.
He looked at his brother again. “Johnny, why don’t you sit down?”
Johnny did, much to Scott’s surprise, though his body continued to move. His legs bounced in a nervous counterpoint to the hands he tried to keep still by clasping together between his bent knees. “I don’t understand why we can’t go up there.”
“We’d just be in the way. I’m sure if the doctor needs us for anything, he’ll call us.”
“I wish he’d hurry up.” Johnny glanced over his shoulder, as if he could summon the doctor down with a look. “He’s been up there awhile.”
“It always seems like a long time when you’re waiting.”
“I suppose.” Johnny looked outside again. “Did you say anything to Cipriano while I was gone?”
“Yes, I did.” Scott cleared his throat. They hadn’t wanted to waste time looking for a hand to send, so Johnny had rode out for the doctor himself. But that had left Scott to make the decision on his own. “I told him to start slaughtering the cattle.” He studied his brother. “You don’t agree?”
“No, I agree with you. I trust Cipriano’s judgment. I just hope it’s the only herd we have to destroy.”
“God, don’t even think that. I just wish I knew what Murdoch would do, what he’d want us to do.”
Johnny shrugged and studied his hands. “What do you think, Scott? You think he’s going to make it?”
Scott leaned back into the couch. “I don’t know. I guess it depends on what’s wrong with him.”
He had a pretty good idea, though. The slackness of one side of his father’s body, his inability to speak, perfectly mirrored symptoms his grandfather had mentioned when discussing a colleague. Scott shuddered. The man had hung on for months, a drooling, gibbering wreck.
“What happens if he dies?”
Scott looked at his brother, not sure if he should share his thoughts. Things were bad enough already. No sense telling Johnny it might be for the best, at least for Murdoch. “I don’t know, Johnny. I suppose we’ll go on as we are. What else can we do?”
“I can’t imagine him not being here,” Johnny whispered, as if to himself.
There was nothing to say to that, so they both sat quietly, each lost in his own thoughts. After awhile Johnny got up and continued his pacing. It was almost dawn by the time Doc Jenkins came down. Scott could tell just by looking at him the news wasn’t going to be good. He rose and, with his brother, met the doctor at the bottom of the stairs.
“Well?” Johnny glanced at the doctor but his eyes kept straying upstairs.
Jenkins hesitated a moment.
“Doctor?” Scott had to push the word out, his throat was suddenly so tight.
“He’s asleep right now but, boys, I think you need to prepare yourselves for the worst. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? You’re sorry?” Johnny was almost shouting. “Can’t you do something for him?”
“Johnny-” Scott made a move to grab his brother.
“No!” Johnny shoved Scott’s arm away. “What kind of a doctor is he?”
“There’s nothing anyone can do,” the doctor gently responded. “He’s had a cerebral vascular accident. There’s no known cure for something like this.”
“A what?” Scott hadn’t known what it was called.
Jenkins made a noise of frustration. “No one’s sure why it happens but the brain starts to bleed.”
“How long?” Scott asked, “How long does he have?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe days but I’m inclined to think hours.” Jenkins turned to start back up the stairs. “You should both come up. He’s not completely conscious but I think he’ll know you’re there.”
They followed the older man up the stairs and Scott suddenly understood that the decision he’d made the evening before was to be only the first of many. There would be no more looking to Murdoch for answers. Whether he and his brother were ready for this burden, it was theirs.
“...surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The preacher closed his Bible and stepped back, allowing Scott and Johnny, along with the four other men chosen to help them, room to work. While the ropes were pulled taut, the boards holding the casket up were removed. Slowly, as the men strained against its weight, the burial box was lowered into the ground.
Scott pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his brow. The black coat he wore was sucking up the heat and he was perspiring heavily in the midday sun. He was glad it was almost over. Only one more duty to be done here.
He waited while the ropes and boards were moved. Out of his peripheral vision he could see Teresa sitting next to her husband. Jesse had his arm around her and her head rested against his chest. He, Scott and Johnny had all tried to talk her out of coming; it was hot and she’d taken Murdoch’s death hard. But she’d have none of it. She would be fine, she’d said, and so would the child she was carrying.
She had cried, of course. Soft, quiet sobs made more heartbreaking because they knew she was doing it for them, holding back as best she could, not wanting to be a burden or make things worse. So much a woman now. She’d quieted after awhile and taken on a stoicism that would have made Murdoch proud. It wasn’t the way Scott saw her but he couldn’t bring himself to reject her gift.
Finally it was time. Scott came forward and leaned over to grab a handful of dirt. As the oldest it was his place, though an honor he could have done without. He gazed down into the hole. So final, this last act of deference to his father. From this moment on, all that would be left were memories, even those a pitiful few to what they should have had. He knew it wasn’t Murdoch’s fault, yet Scott felt he’d been cheated once again. The nudge at his side drew him back to the living. Johnny stood next to him, the same tight look on his face that Scott knew was on his own.
“Go ahead. Everyone’s waiting.” Johnny nodded behind him. Townspeople, other ranchers, old friends, all stood in a group, seemingly removed and untouched, yet expecting him to follow through on the next step.
Scott gave a quick nod. He slowly let loose the handful of soil, so that it dribbled down onto the casket. There was no loud clump of earth impacting but rather a slithering noise as the dirt ran down the sides of the casket. Scott shivered and moved away.
There was no official cemetery on Lancer; Teresa’s baby had been buried in the churchyard, Jelly, near his favorite place next to a stream that ran along the ranch’s northern border. For Murdoch, there could only have been one place. So for Scott it was only a minute’s walk from the grave site to the ridge that looked down on the house his father had built. Gazing out at the expanse, he wasn’t surprised when he felt a firm hand settle on his shoulder.
“Looks exactly the same, doesn’t it?”
Scott didn’t have to ask his brother what he was talking about. He, too, was comparing this moment to the one so many years before, when, as strangers, they’d got their first, brief look at their new home. “But it’s not the same. We’re on our own now.”
Johnny leaned down and picked up a few pebbles from the ground. He began to toss them, one at a time, over the edge of the ridge. “It’s been a long time since either of us has been on our own but I don’t think it’s a skill you lose just because you don’t use it for awhile. Besides,” he let loose the remaining stones and swung his arm over Scott’s shoulder, “we’re on our own but neither of us is alone, are we?”
Scott looked at his brother and smiled. “You’re right, we’re not. But you’ll probably have to keep reminding me of that. Come on, let’s go home.”
They rode side by side on the way back to the house. Behind them snaked a long line of riders and buggies, though a respectful distance was kept. There was still the rest of the afternoon and evening to get through, as mourners and well-wishers alike descended on the ranch. Maria had spent most of the previous day preparing enough food to feed them all; she was probably setting it out just about now. After that, well, after that it would be just him and Johnny, the way it would be from now on.
“You need help?” Johnny lounged against the entry leading into the kitchen.
Maria only glanced up for a moment at his question, shaking her head without taking her attention from the salad she was making. “No, but I think your brother does.”
“Scott?” Johnny approached the woman. He gazed at all the food spread out before her before grabbing a stalk of celery. “What does Scott need help with?”
Maria slapped his hand when he reached for a boiled egg. “Ay, muchacho, I need those for the salad.” She gave him an exasperated look and then handed one over. “Your brother isn’t doing too good. I think he’s letting his anger get the better of his sense.”
“We talking about the same man? Tall, thin blond, reads a lot, never raises his voice? That Scott?”
“You have not talked to him since the funeral. He is very angry.”
“Yes, I did. We rode back together. He wasn’t angry then.”
She sighed, putting down the knife she’d been using to chop the vegetables and giving Johnny her full attention. “Then maybe something happened later. I don’t know. But he was in here a little while ago. He’s,” she groped around as if trying to pluck the words she needed out of the air, “he’s like a wounded animal. He hides his hurt, afraid it will be seen as a weakness. But, at the same time, he’s so angry.”
“At who?” Johnny narrowed his eyes. “He’s mad at Murdoch, isn’t he? For dying.”
“Si, I think so. And he’s been drinking.”
“I guess I can’t blame him for that, Maria. I’ve had a couple myself.”
“Not like this. I could smell it on him.”
He gave a soft whistle. His brother rarely drank, and then only in moderation. “I guess I should have seen this coming. He was talking about being alone earlier.” He shook his head; sometimes, he just didn’t understand his brother. “Where is he?”
“He said he was going to take a plate of food to Teresa.” She snorted. “The woman can take care of herself. He’s the one who should be eating.”
Johnny laughed. He’d heard you should never have two women under the same roof. The years between Teresa reaching maturity and her leaving to marry had not been calm ones. He leaned over and kissed Maria on the cheek. “I’ll see what I can do.” He grabbed a couple of cups from the cupboard on his way out.
He took a detour upstairs to his room before starting to look for his brother. He’d stashed a bottle of tequila behind his headboard and now seemed the best time for it. He put one knee on his bed for balance and leaned over. Running his hand back and forth, his fingers finally found the cool glass. He grabbed it and hurried back downstairs.
From the foyer, he could see the back of Scott’s head through the people milling around in the room. The crowd had thinned quite a bit; most people had to get home early. Work didn’t stop for anyone. Johnny stopped and spoke to the few who remained, working slowly toward his brother and Teresa. Scott was sitting at one end of the large sofa, a plate of food balanced on his lap and a half-empty glass of wine in his hand. Across from him, in one of the overstuffed chairs, Teresa was talking intently, though Johnny couldn’t hear what she was saying.
He finally managed to make his way over to them. He sat down next to Scott and placed the bottle and cups on the table. “I hear you’re in a drinking mood, Scott.”
Scott made a noise of disgust. “Not you, too. You’d think no one had ever seen me drink before.”
“I tried to tell him, Johnny,” Teresa spoke up.
Johnny glanced at the plate on Scott’s lap then looked at Teresa. “This yours?”
“Yes, but he needs it more than I do. He won’t eat any of it, though.”
“I told you, I’m not hungry.” Scott smiled.
Johnny had seen that smile before. Scott used it to charm the ladies. They both knew it worked on Teresa. “Well, I’m not here to make you eat.” He turned his attention back to Scott. “Actually, I was thinking me and you could work on this.” He lifted the bottle off the table and waved it at his brother.
Scott grinned. “I like the way your mind works.”
“Teresa, you think you could look after what’s left of our guests?” Johnny asked. “Scott and I have an appointment out in the courtyard.”
She looked from one to the other with dismay. “Oh, Johnny, not you, too?”
“Oh, don’t worry about us, honey.” He grabbed the plate off Scott’s lap and handed it to her, then picked up the two cups from the table. “We’re two full grown men, isn’t that right, Scott?”
“Most certainly,” Scott responded as he pushed himself up off the couch.
Johnny studied him a moment. Scott wasn’t drunk, not yet. But he would be if he had anything to do with it. Johnny leaned over and kissed Teresa on top of the head. “Don’t worry, Teresa,” he whispered, “I’ll take good care of him.”
With that, he motioned with his head for Scott to follow him and started for the door.
They’d given up using the chairs; the wall of the courtyard didn’t move every time they leaned over to grab the bottle, but rather served as a nice support against their backs. The ground was softened by the pillows they’d taken from one of the benches, while the cups Johnny had brought sat abandoned on the table. It was dark in the enclosed verandah and they were both very drunk.
Johnny looked up into the night sky and shivered. It was so quiet. Everyone had finally left and the place felt deserted. He turned to Scott. Even on a moonless night, it surprised Johnny how well he could see him in the darkness. His brother’s hair, bleached by the sun, was only a little brighter than the fair skin beneath it.
“How you feelin’?” Johnny grabbed the bottle from Scott’s hand. Scott made a halfhearted attempt to hold on to it but then gave it up without a fight.
Scott seemed to think it over. “‘Bout the same. You?”
“Oh, I’m doin’ all right. Sort of lonely, though.”
“Well, get used to it, brother. It’s only you and me now.” Scott chuckled. “Not like he was ever really here for us.”
Johnny took a drink and then passed the bottle back to his brother. “Why do you say that?”
“Why? Johnny, when was he ever here for either one of us? All that ever mattered to him was this ranch.” He waved his arm in the air in an encompassing motion, sending the liquid sloshing in the bottle.
“I thought it meant something to you, too.”
“It does, it does. It’s just that,” Scott shook his head, confused. “It’s just not everything, that’s all. He made it his whole life...and then it took even that.”
“He didn’t die because of the ranch.”
Johnny didn’t like where this was going. “He would have had...whatever it was he had, whether he’d owned the ranch or not.”
“Maybe, but maybe if he’d been thinking about something other than the ranch he might have let us know he wasn’t feeling well. We might not have had to go through the last two days. He might even have lived.”
“Talkin’ doesn’t fix everything. A man’s got a right to his own thoughts, Scott.”
Scott stared at him for a moment. “That’s right, you’re just like him, aren’t you? Whatever happens, don’t let anyone know what you think. And God forbid you let them know what you feel.”
“I’m not like that,” Johnny responded indignantly.
“Like hell you’re not. When Lúpe left, you clammed up and didn’t say more than two words at a time for months.”
“Not all of us feel the need to spill our guts every time we’re hurtin’, Scott. It wasn’t anyone else’s business, anyway.”
“Is that what you really think?” Scott shook his head and took another drink. “If it is, then it’s no wonder it didn’t bother you that Murdoch never told us what happened between him and our mothers. It wasn’t any of our business. After all, it didn’t have anything to do with us, did it? So, mind your own business, Scott Lancer. Whatever goes on in your father’s or your brother’s life doesn’t concern you.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Johnny ran his fingers through his hair in an impatient gesture. “I just figured you wouldn’t be interested.”
“Why? Because you’re not interested in mine?” Scott lunged up, trying to get his feet under him. “You are just like him. A law onto yourself, isn’t that right? You don’t need anyone and God help anyone who needs you.”
Johnny grabbed Scott’s arm and forced him back down. “Stop it. That’s not what I meant.”
“Get your hands off me!” Scott shoved him away and managed to get to his feet this time. “The hell with you, then; the hell with him. I’m so sick of all of it.”
“Sick of what? That we weren’t refined enough for you?” Johnny was angry now and all the old differences between them rushed to the surface. “Poor Scott, never got to know why he’d been abandoned. Grow up. At least you had a roof over your head and plenty to eat. If that wasn’t enough for you, too bad.”
“Oh, that’s right. It didn’t bother you at all. You just went out and became a hired killer. Yeah, you handled it just fine.”
“That’s right, I did. You don’t like it? Nobody’s telling you to stick around.”
Scott’s eyes went wide. He seemed about to speak but then suddenly noticed the bottle in his hand. With a force propelled by rage, he threw it against the far wall, where it shattered and rained glass and liquid on the dusty ground.
With that Johnny came up off the ground and threw himself at his brother. They went down in a tangle, both too drunk to do much damage to the other. Johnny tried to pin Scott to the ground, straddling him while forcing his arms up over his head but every time he thought he’d managed it, Scott would get free.
They rolled across the verandah, leaving broken pots and upturned chairs in their wake. Johnny saw stars when his brother’s fist managed to connect with his jaw but kept Scott from getting the upper hand by landing a punch into Scott’s midsection.
It ended as quickly as it had begun. One minute they were struggling for dominance, the next they were holding onto each other for dear life.
“Scott?” Johnny could hear the pounding of his brother’s heart from where his head rested on Scott’s chest.
Scott took a shuddered breath. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t mean any of that.”
“Me, either.” He lay there a few more seconds. “You figure we could get up now?”
Scott’s chest started shaking. Johnny couldn’t tell if he was laughing or crying; he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. Then he heard the humor in his brother’s voice.
“We are a pair, aren’t we?”
Johnny came up on his knees and pulled Scott up into a sitting position. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“Here we are, taking out on each other what we felt about him.”
“Scott,” Johnny hesitated, “I really didn’t have a problem with Murdoch. Well, maybe not the same one as you did.”
Scott laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. “Maybe you didn’t. If not, I’m glad for you, Johnny. Because right now,” he looked away, as if uncomfortable with Johnny seeing so much of what he felt, “I’d give just about anything to be able to tell Murdoch just how much I resent him never telling me about her.”
“All these years and he never said a word.” He finally looked back at his brother. “It doesn’t bother you at all, that he never told you about your mother?”
Johnny stood up and then stuck out his hand to help Scott up. “Come on, let’s go inside. We both could use some coffee.”
Scott gave him a look but complied, allowing Johnny to help him to his feet. They picked up as best they could, the activity clearing their heads a bit. Johnny used his foot to push the broken bottle into a corner, while Scott picked up the upended chairs.
“All done?” Scott had the two cups clutched in one hand. At Johnny’s nod he started for the door. Johnny placed one of the flower pots that was still in one piece in front of the pile of glass and silently followed him into the house.
While Scott got the fire going, Johnny filled the coffee pot with water and spooned in the grounds. He placed it on the stove and brought out a cup and spoon for each of them. Once settled at the table, Johnny remained quiet, uncertain where exactly to begin, Finally, he picked up their conversation.
“I think I always knew what my mother had told me wasn’t the whole truth. Learning that maybe none of it was, well, she’s dead, what difference would it make now?” He fiddled with the spoons on the table. “I loved my mother, Scott. I didn’t want to hear that she’d lied to me, that she’d taken me from a good home and a father who wanted me and proceeded to hit every border town from Tijuana to Matamoros, picking up with some not exactly respectable men along the way. Maybe that’s exactly how it was but Murdoch’s staying quiet about it let me keep my memories of my mother the way they were.
“Somehow, though, I don’t think it was that simple. And maybe I did let Murdoch off the hook by not pressing the issue. I don’t know. All I know is, I can still think about my mother the way she wanted me to.”
“All the memories I had of my mother were ones my grandfather gave me. And even those were tainted with his own feelings against Murdoch.” Scott got up and went to the stove. He grabbed a pot holder and brought the coffee pot over, pouring them both a cup of the steaming liquid. “And before you ask, I did try to get him to tell me.” He put the pot back and returned to his seat. “He just wouldn’t.”
“When was this?”
“Remember when my grandfather came out? We’d been here about a year.”
Johnny chuckled. “How could I forget?”
“Yes, Grandfather wasn’t at his best that time. But I asked Murdoch then, and then again a few weeks later. Both times he put me off.” He gazed into his cup. “I suppose I should have tried again. But time went by and somehow I never got up the nerve.”
“Maybe it was for the best,” Johnny offered. “It’s hard for a man to talk about failures.”
Scott looked up and studied him. “You talking about Murdoch now or yourself?”
“Could be both.” Johnny took a sip of the scalding coffee, gathering his courage. “You want to hear about Lúpe and me?”
His brother leaned back, his expression of surprise quickly suppressed. “I thought you’d never ask.”
His head didn’t feel too bad in the morning. Scott lay in bed for awhile, cataloging how the rest of him felt. His stomach was fine, a miracle in itself considering how much he’d drank the night before. There was a slight twinge in his shoulder; teach him to roll around on the ground, trying to fight a battle he couldn’t possibly win. *Don’t go there.* He wouldn’t, either, because as long as he didn’t think about it, he could push his father and their unresolved issues to the back of his mind.
It had been worth it, though. Lord, he had been surprised when Johnny had opened up about Lúpe. Scott had tried for months after the woman had left to get his brother to let him in. Johnny had remained tightlipped. And in all the time since, Johnny had never mentioned her once, even though her picture still graced the top of his bureau.
If he had been asked, Scott couldn’t imagine anything could have brought him out of his dark mood yesterday. Yet, once his brother had started talking, all Scott had felt was honored and so very aware how much he’d longed for this. He and Johnny had grown very close over the years; the confession, for that’s what it had been, had affirmed to Scott that, whatever else he’d lost, he still had this most special of relationships.
He heard the sound of pots banging about and then a faint smattering of Spanish. Scott chuckled. Maria must be having trouble in the kitchen. But he could also smell a hint of coffee brewing. He pushed the covers aside and got out of bed.
Scott washed up, dressed and made it downstairs before his brother. With Maria still preparing breakfast, Scott poured himself a cup a coffee and sat himself down at the kitchen table.
The door to the verandah was open. The days were still hot but the nights had begun to cool off and morning’s were a refreshing respite from the heat. Outside, flowers trailing from hanging pots swayed in the wind and there was a cool breeze flowing through the kitchen.
Scott hoped it was sign of things to come. They were about to start separating out the cattle they hoped to sell; they’d been fooled before but they were hoping the crisis was over. The job would be easier if the weather decided to cooperate.
“Is your brother planning on eating this morning?”
Scott turned from the scene outside. “I’m sorry, did you say something, Maria?”
The woman brought a basket covered with a checkered napkin to the table. “I was wondering about Johnny. He’s usually down before you.”
“He should be down any minute; I could hear him moving around when I passed his room. Scott peaked under the cloth. “Muffins? Since when did you start baking muffins?” He grabbed one, tossing it from hand to hand to allow it to cool.
“Why not? A woman’s got to learn how to make new things if she wants to keep her men happy,” she huffed and walked back to the stove. She stirred the pot bubbling on top. “ Besides, tortillas don’t go with porridge.”
With a hoop of glee, Scott put down his muffin and made a lunge for the woman, grabbing her around the waist and hugging her hard. “Maria, you’re a gem!”
She smiled and turned her head long enough to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “You need to keep up your strength. Teresa told me yesterday you like this stuff.” She eyed the glutinous mass doubtfully as she spooned some into a bowl. “Besides, maybe it will put some meat on those bones of yours.”
“Now, you’re asking for miracles.” Johnny sauntered in and took a seat at the table. He eyed the muffins. “Knew something smelled good in here.”
Scott chuckled and, bowl in hand, returned to his chair. “Cretin. You just don’t have an appreciation of the finer things in life.” He began drowning the porridge in cream and sugar.
“That stuff looks like something we’d feed the cows.” Johnny gave Scott a disgusted look then turned to plead with Maria. “Please, tell me you cooked something else.”
She placed a bowl in front of him. “Eat. I don’t want you getting skinny, too. Everyone will think I’m a terrible cook.”
Scott caught the wink she threw at his brother and realized that they were still watching out for him, still trying to humor him out of his depression. It occurred to him he should be rather indignant about it but couldn’t work up the energy. They loved him. Both of them. He wouldn’t throw that back in their faces because he wasn’t sure his father ever had. He picked up his spoon and began to eat.
“God, he’s getting fat.”
Johnny looked down for a moment and tried to hide his smile. “That usually happens when they get fed as often as Maria’s been feedin’ him.”
Scott was on his knees, running his hands over the calf’s sides. He looked across at the woman on the animal’s other side, a bottle in her hand. “How much are you feeding him, exactly?”
“No sé. But I can’t help it if he eats so much, can I, 'Cisco?” She cooed at the calf as she positioned the bottle at the its mouth. He took it greedily.
“‘Cisco’? You gave him a name?” Johnny laughed.
“And why not?” she shot back, indignantly. “He deserves a name just like anyone else.”
“I don’t care what you call him,” Scott got to his feet, dusting off his pants and shirt. “I just think you should cut back on his food.”
“Yeah, Maria, or he may become food.”
She gave Johnny a look. “He’s going to grow up to become the best breeding bull this ranch has ever had. St. Francis will look after this one, you’ll see.”
“St. Francis?” Scott looked at Johnny.
“Patron saint of animals.”
“Well, he certainly seems to have someone looking out for him.”
Johnny clapped him on the back. “That’d be you, Scott. So, what are you going to do with this prize bull-to-be?”
“Why, breed him, of course.” Scott studied the little animal. “He does have a certain regalness to him, doesn’t he?”
“If you say so,” Johnny responded. But right at that moment, he probably would have agreed with just about anything his brother said. Three days since the funeral, it was the first time Scott had actually sounded like his old self.
“Maria agrees with me, don’t you, Maria?”
The woman laughed. “He’s muy magnifico.”
Both men turned at their name. Standing at the entrance to the barn was one of the hands. Randy Aimes, if Johnny remembered right. The man’s hat was in his hands and his gaze continually shifted.
Johnny got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. He glanced at Scott; his brother had gone white.
“What is it, Randy?” Scott cautiously approached the man, as if afraid of spooking him.
“Mr. Lancer,” the man stuttered, “Cipriano done sent me in with a message.”
When the man didn’t continue, Johnny stepped impatiently forward. “Well, what did he tell you to tell us?”
Aimes looked from one to the other. “He said to tell you to come out to the northeast pasture, pronto. We’ve got us some more sick cows.”
They watched from a the ridge overlooking the pasture; Scott didn’t think he could stand being in the thick of it again. From the look on his brother’s face, he knew Johnny had felt only relief when he had suggested staying up here. It wasn’t as if you couldn’t see the black cloud of smoke half a valley away.
The slaughtered cattle had been piled six deep and the smell of burning carcasses clogged their nostrils, the wet handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths doing little to suppress the stench. The bonfires stretched across the field, in ghastly juxtaposition to the fiery streams of red caused by the setting sun.
He heard more than saw Johnny shift in his saddle. His brother cleared his throat. “You know no one’ll touch any of the rest of our cattle, don’t you?”
“If we contained it...”
Johnny snorted. “We’ll be lucky if they don’t demand we kill the rest of them, just on principle.”
Scott felt his guts crawl. He couldn’t imagine having to do this again. “They’ve got to give us time to find out if the rest of the herd is all right. These cows were the ones closest to the first outbreak. They might have even shared pasture.”
“Everyone’s scared, Scott. They’re not thinking straight. All they want is for this thing to be gone.”
“So what do we do?”
“Try to wait it out. The rest of the cattle never used these pastures. Murdoch was so hard-nosed about keeping them separate, he must have been worried about something like this happening. Then, if there aren’t anymore outbreaks and if we don’t have a mob of angry ranchers threatening to burn us out, we lay low for a year or two, keep the herd just big enough to have something to build on. It’ll be rough but we should be fine in the long run. But we’re talking about having to pay out expenses and nothing coming back in.” He looked at Scott. “We do have the money, don’t we?”
“Last time I did the books we did.”
“How long ago was that?”
“About three months. I tried catching them up the other day but didn’t get very far. I was planning on going over them tomorrow.” It occurred to him he didn’t even know how much cash was stashed away at the ranch. “You were planning on going into town tomorrow for supplies, weren’t you?”
“That’s right. I thought I’d spend a little time with Teresa, too. I know it hasn’t been that long since the funeral but I thought, well, she’s bound to be still takin’ it pretty hard. Why you askin’?”
“Could you go by the bank? I think we should have some ready cash on hand, a couple of thousand or so, just in case something else comes up.”
“Sure.” Johnny’s gaze swung back to the scene below.
They quieted after that. A little while later Scott noticed a couple of men shoveling dirt on one of the fires; the devouring pyre had obviously done its job. A gust of wind blew the smoke their way, enveloping them in ash.
Johnny coughed. “I think I’ve had enough; you ready to head back to the house?”
Scott gave the conflagration one last look. His watering eyes made the fires look like candles on a birthday cake. If it hadn’t been so grotesque it would have been funny. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
They turned their horses toward home.
Johnny could feel the looks that followed him down the street. He sat straighter in his saddle and tried to pretend they weren’t there, that sometime between last week and now he and his brother hadn’t become the town’s pariahs.
What surprised him most was that it had surprised him. Having seen firsthand what something like this could do to a community, he had still allowed himself to believe their situation was different. Once upon a time, it would never have occurred to him to think anything but the worst of people.
*You’ve been away from it too long.* That was certainly true enough. It had taken a few years but he’d finally stopped looking behind him all the time, stopped sizing up every man he ran into. He’d become Johnny Lancer, burying Johnny Madrid under the weight of the security and affection he’d found with his father and brother. Madrid hadn’t gone easy but it had been years since Johnny had felt any life in the corpse of his other identity.
The rock that impacted against his forehead was small, small enough that Johnny didn’t turn to see who had thrown it. Whoever it was, would be long gone. *Lucky thing it wasn’t a bullet.* He let the drop of blood run down his face. He’d deal with it later.
Teresa was standing outside the store when he rode up. From the look on her face, she’d seen what happened. “It was the Myers boy.”
Johnny swung down from his horse and tied the animal up to the railing. “Kid’s only twelve. What does he know about what’s going on?”
“He doesn’t have to know. All he has to do is hear what everyone is talking about.” She took his arm in hers. “Come on. Let me fix that cut, then you tell me all about the ranch while I serve us lunch.”
She walked him through the store and towards the door at the rear that led to the living quarters. “Jesse, I’ll be in the back,” she called out.
“You going to make lunch?” A head poked up from behind the counter. “Oh, hi, Johnny.”
Johnny had always liked Teresa’s husband. The man was no cowboy; he’d come into Spanish Wells on the stagecoach one day and proceeded to set up shop. Dependable and honest, it had taken him less than six months to sweep Teresa off her feet and into his home.
“I’m taking Johnny to the back. You want me to bring your food out here or call you when it’s ready?”
“Got to finish inventory. Give me a holler and I’ll come get it.”
“All right. Come along, Mr. Lancer.” Teresa strengthened her hold on Johnny’s arm and pulled him along to the back.
Once in the kitchen, she had him sit down while she bustled about in the cabinets. She pulled out a couple of bottles, found some clean bandages and joined him at the table.
“Here, hold this.” She handed the roll of bandages over while she set to work cleaning off the wound.
“I don’t need a bandage. It’s not even bleeding anymore.”
Teresa studied his forehead and made a face. “That brat could have taken your eye out.”
“Well, he didn’t. It’s fine, Teresa, really it is.”
“Okay, no bandage but hold still while I put this on.” She took a square of cloth and soaked it in the dark liquid from one of the bottles and started dabbing it against the cut.
“Ouch! What are trying to do to me?” Johnny pulled back. His forehead stung more now than it had originally.
“Don’t be a baby. You don’t want it to get infected, do you?”
Johnny waved her away. “I’ve been hurt worse.”
She lowered her hand and turned her face away. “How can they be this way to you? As if you and Scott haven’t suffered enough.”
“Hey.” he firmly grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. “This is nothing. Besides, me and Scott can take care of ourselves. You’ve got plenty of worries of your own; don’t be takin’ on our problems, too.” He studied her face. “You look tired.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes I can’t sleep at night, wondering what’s going to happen next.”
“We’ve had a run of pretty bad luck, haven’t we?”
“Doesn’t it worry you, Johnny? Aren’t you afraid? I am. It’s like I’m afraid all the time. Jesse tells me not to worry, that things can only get better, but I can’t seem to stop.”
“You and Scott are a pair, you know that? Always worrying about things you can’t do anything about.”
“And you don’t ever worry, is that it?”
He took both her hands. “You know what I worry about? I worry about you and I worry about Scott. I worry when I hear him pacing around at night and I worry when I hear you’re doing the same thing.”
“He’s taking this really hard, isn’t he? Murdoch’s death, I mean.”
“I don’t know.” It was his turn to look away. He wasn’t comfortable talking to anyone about Scott, even Teresa. Since their conversation the night of the funeral, he had felt as if they’d sealed a pact between them. Scott would keep his secrets and he would keep Scott’s. “I guess he’s handling it okay.”
“I miss him, Johnny, I miss him so much.”
He looked at her then and saw the grief she tried so hard to hide. “I know you do, honey. We all do.”
“Jesse hardly knew him. Sometimes, I want to talk about Murdoch with someone who knew him, too. It makes me feel so alone when I can’t.”
“Hey, I’m here now.”
She smiled at him. “Yes, you are.”
Johnny had a good time that afternoon. Between him and Teresa they managed to talk Jesse into eating his lunch with them instead of behind the counter. So he closed up the store and joined them in the kitchen and the three of them passed the time in the kind of conversation one only has with family. Even Johnny hadn’t heard all the stories Teresa told that afternoon.
When he walked out of the store a few hours later, Johnny almost laughed at the dark look the old biddy he tipped his hat to gave him. He had other things on his mind. As he mounted his horse and rode off toward the bank, all he was thinking about was that next time he ought to bring Scott with him.
He sat at the desk, his elbows propped up on its surface, his forehead leaning against his clasped hands. Of all the things Scott thought he’d find within his father’s papers, this total confusion would not have been it. After hours of backtracking and following clues that led to dead-ends, he had been no closer to figuring out exactly how much money they had and where it all was than when he had started.
And then he’d found this. Scott had never thought to rifle through Murdoch’s papers; why would he? The ranch had always made a profit, or so he’d always been led to believe; his going through the books had been merely to reacquaint himself with their financial situation. But the ledgers he had found buried in the bottom right-hand drawer of the desk had opened up a veritable Pandora’s box.
He brought his head up when he heard a door slam. Footsteps moved rapidly toward him from the back of the house.
“Scott? Scott, where are you?”
Johnny. “In here.”
His brother appeared at the entryway. He looked like he had been riding hard. “We’ve got another problem.”
“I went to the bank, like you said.” He took off his hat, hanging it up on the rack near the front door and unbuckling his holster as he spoke. “They wouldn’t give me any money. Said Murdoch took out a loan awhile back and there hasn’t been a payment made this month.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Johnny walked over, clearly confused. “What do you mean, you’re not surprised? This is the first I’ve heard of any loan.”
Scott picked up the ledger and handed it to Johnny.
“What’s this?” He started skimming through the pages. With a frown, he sat on the corner of the desk. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. But apparently the books I’ve been working with for the last year and a half don’t tell the whole story.”
“Where’d you find this?”
Scott opened the drawer. “In here. I couldn’t figure out why the numbers weren’t adding up. Money was coming in but I couldn’t tell from where, covering bills I’d never seen before. So I thought I’d start going through everything, old receipts, bills of sale, everything. That’s when I found them. As far as I can tell, Murdoch started keeping a second set of books about four years ago.”
Johnny flipped to the first page. “This was started this year.”
“That’s because there are four of them. That’s just the most recent. Whatever was going on, started then. At first, they almost exactly duplicate the books I was given. There’s a few discrepancies but mostly the two give the same accounts. Then, about eighteen months ago one set, that one,” he nodded toward the ledger in his brother’s hands, “starts showing us losing money. Did the bank tell you what the loan was for?”
“No, but Mr. Guthrie called me into his office. Told me he wanted to set up a meeting with the two of us. He said we both need to hear what he has to say.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d have to talk to you about it but that I didn’t see that it would be a problem. I figured we could both ride in first thing in the morning.”
“Damn him!” Scott shoved the rest of the papers away. “What the hell was he doing?”
“Whatever it was, it was eating him alive.” Johnny lowered his head in thought. “I used to wonder why you were so worried about him. I couldn’t see him getting that upset about the drought, not yet, anyway. I mean, it was bad but nothing like some I’ve seen. And Murdoch had probably been through worse. But this,” he tossed the ledger back on the desk and looked straight at Scott, “yeah, this must have been weighin’ awfully heavy on him.”
“Well, there’s no sense my continuing with this.” Scott stood, stretching to work the kinks out his back. “Have you eaten?”
“I had something at Teresa’s but I could do with a drink right about now.”
“I think there’s some chicken left over from last night. While I go get it, why don’t you serve us both a glass of something?”
“Whiskey okay with you?” Johnny started toward the liquor cabinet.
“Sure. I’ll be right back.”
Scott stopped at the doorway. “Yes?”
“What are we going to do for money?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know, Johnny. I guess that’s something else we’ll have to ask Mr. Guthrie.”
They rode into town early the next morning, leaving the house just after dawn. If Scott said three words along the way, Johnny would have been surprised. He gave up trying to get a conversation going even before they had gained the boundaries of Lancer.
He cast a worried glance at his brother. Scott has always been the levelheaded one, always so steady and sure. It was disconcerting to see him this way. Lost. It made Johnny feel strangely alone.
When they reached town they rode directly to the bank. It was something of an unpleasant surprise to find one of the clerks waiting for them as they entered the building. Without having to be told, he knew exactly who they were and escorted them directly to the manager’s office.
“Have a seat, gentlemen.”
Two chairs had been placed in front of the bank manager’s desk. Not seeing that it made much difference, Johnny took the one on the left. As his brother settled beside him, they shared a worried glance.
“Would either of you like something to drink? Coffee, perhaps?” Mr. Guthrie moved as if to stand up.
“No, that’s quite all, sir, thank you,” Scott replied.
The man nodded. “Very well. I imagine you’re quite curious as to why I wanted to see you.”
“Yes, sir, I am. And I was surprised to learn we no longer have an account with this bank.”
“That’s not exactly true.” Guthrie hesitated a moment. “The fact of the matter is, you do. It’s just not the type you thought. You see, Mr. Lancer, your father took out a loan from this bank,” he flipped through the file in front of him, “four years come September. Unfortunately, recent events being what they were, we were in the process of attempting to refinance the loan when your father passed away.”
“How much was the loan for?” Scott asked.
The banker cleared his throat. “Fifty thousand dollars.”
“What? Fifty thousand dollars?” Johnny could hardly believe it. What had Murdoch needed that kind of money for? And where was it now?
“I don’t understand.” Scott shook his head in frustration. “Why would Murdoch take out a loan, especially for that kind of money? The ranch was doing fine.”
“Have you ever heard of Jay Cooke and Company of Philadelphia?”
Scott looked at him warily. “The name sounds familiar.”
“It should. That bank takes much of the blame for the economic panic which ensued when it closed its doors four years ago.”
“What’s that got to do with Murdoch?” Johnny asked.
Guthrie looked from one to the other, as if reluctant to continue. “I suppose there’s no easy way to tell you this; your father invested heavily with them in their financing of the Northern Pacific Railroad. That apparently entailed depositing the bulk of his funds in an account there. When the bank declared bankruptcy, he lost all of it.”
“Why? Why would he do that?” Scott looked like he was having trouble believing any of it.
“He wasn’t alone, Mr. Lancer. Many astute businessmen were convinced into making the same rash speculation. What’s unfortunate is that he put all his eggs in one basket, as it were. That made his situation that much more extreme, but he wasn’t the only one by far. Quite truthfully, the economy has not yet fully recovered. Even the cattle industry was momentarily crippled because of it. That’s one reason we’ve been forced to call in the loan.”
“What are you talking about, call in the loan? Are you saying that not only will you not give us any more money but you expect us to pay back this loan all at once, too?” Scott asked.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I’m sorry, truly I am, but my hands are tied. I can probably give you a couple of weeks to come up with the money, but past that....”
Johnny leaned forward in his chair. “What happens if we can’t pay it back?”
“The ranch was used as collateral. It would be sold and the debt settled.”
“Wait a minute, how was it possible for him to get a loan without mine and Johnny’s signatures? We were part owners even then.”
“If the deed of title was set up a certain way, it would be more than possible for any one of you to do so. Your father probably had it written that way in order to retain a certain control over the ranch’s financial power. Especially since neither of you were seemingly aware of that resource, it appears to have worked.”
Johnny stared at his brother, stunned. “Can they do that? Can they take the ranch if you can’t repay the loan?”
Scott looked suddenly exhausted. “Yes, I’m afraid they can.”
Johnny lay awake, staring at the ceiling. He figured it had to be way past midnight. Not that he’d been watching the clock. But he’d come to his room right after that god-awful dinner and no way could have any less than half the night already passed. It seemed like an eternity since that silent meal, him and Scott both sitting there pretending to eat, pretending that their world wasn’t falling apart around them.
He’d never forget the driven look on Scott’s face as they left the bank and started their journey home. *Home. But for how long?* He closed his eyes and tried to banish any thought of that. They’d figure something out; they had to. If for no other reason than he didn’t think he could stand seeing Scott like that anymore. His brother was fast reaching his breaking point and it showed.
*And what about me? What’s my breaking point?*
It surprised him a bit, how well he seemed to be taking all this. He missed Murdoch; after the first couple of years, once they’d managed to settle into an easy relationship based more on the here and now rather than the past, Johnny had come to realize just how much like his father he was and how easy that made it for him to enjoy Murdoch’s company.
Johnny hadn’t lied to his brother when he said what was between his father and mother wasn’t something he was interested in, he just hadn’t told the whole truth. When a woman you loved left, no matter the reason, the wound was just as deep, the pain something you learned to ignore if you wanted to survive it. The scar he himself carried made it impossible to want to pick at his father’s.
He smiled into the dark. Never would he have dreamed that entire mess with Lúpe would actually have a bright side. If nothing else, it had brought him peace of mind in regards to his father and he and Murdoch had gone on from there. But he did not mourn, not in the way Scott did.
The noise was barely perceptible at first, a soft bump, as if something had fallen. Johnny got up and padded over to the open window. The cool night air felt good against his bare skin as he gazed out into the courtyard. Nothing. The dark was uninterrupted by either moonlight or lantern. If anyone was out there, they would have to be part cat to see where they were going.
It was the crash that spun him around and had him hastily pulling on his pants and rushing toward the door. He grabbed his gun off his dresser and stopped at the entrance to his room, just listening. There, to the left. Murdoch’s old room.
He crept down the hallway, his bare feet aiding his stealth. But whoever it was wasn’t even trying to be quiet. it sounded like the place was being torn apart. When Johnny reached his father’s room, he slowly pushed the door open and peered in.
Later, he thought he must have stood there for a full minute, watching as his brother continued his frantic demolition. Scott was fully dressed and had obviously not been to bed. Drawers lay open, their contents neatly stacked on the floor. Some of Murdoch’s clothes were strewn on the bed, the pockets turned inside out. But it had apparently been the armoire, locked, the key missing, that had started Scott on his destructive rage.
“Scott!” Johnny shook himself out of his inertia and, taking only enough time to place his gun on the bed, hurried over to his brother. He threw his arms around him and tried dragging him away. “Scott, cut it out!”
Scott fought back, kicking out and struggling to throw Johnny off.
It couldn’t last; Scott was running on little more than sheer willpower and the rage that fed it. Johnny hung on, their struggle quiet except for the grunts of exertion from both men. Finally Scott seemed to give up and slumped in his arms. Unprepared for the capitulation, Johnny found himself going down and they both landed in a heap on the floor.
Scott’s head was down and he was panting heavily.
Johnny leaned over and looked up into Scott’s face. His brother’s eyes were closed. “You okay now?”
Scott didn’t answer at first. But after a couple of minutes he took a deep breath, let it out slowly and sat upright. Finally, he opened his eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay. You can let go now.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He snorted. “At least, I think I am. I’ve never done anything like that before.”
Johnny finally let go and clumsily stood up. He put out his hand. With a weak smile Scott took it and Johnny helped him to his feet. “Guess we all get a little loco from time to time.” He glanced around the room. “What were you looking for, anyway?”
Scott shrugged. “Anything, everything. More secrets.”
“You think there were more?”
“Who knows.” He walked back to the armoire and studied the ruined doors. “I’d still like to get in there.”
“Where’s the key?”
He gave Johnny a look. “If I knew that....”
With a grin, Johnny started searching around the room until he found one of the fireplace pokers. He came over and stood next to Scott. “Move over.”
With a flourish, Scott moved out of the way.
He stuck the point of the poker under the lid of the wood and with one hefty pull, tore the door open.
Murdoch’s clothes hung in orderly fashion; his work shirts hung next to those he wore to church, which hung next to his three good jackets. Johnny broke the other door. The three shelves held mostly personal items, things, Johnny supposed, one would want to keep under lock and key. There was a box of letters he knew they’d be going through, and an assortment of pictures. But what got their attention was the small valise sitting on the bottom shelf.
They looked at each other and then Scott grabbed it and tossed it on the bed. He undid the clasp and, taking a breath, pulled it open. It was filled with money.
“Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, five hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty, six hundred. Twenty, forty, sixty...that’s it. Fifteen thousand, six hundred sixty dollars.” Scott placed the last set of bills on the table. He and his brother looked at each other over the stacks of money laid out between them.
Johnny picked up one of the stacks, flipping through the bills like playing cards. “It’s not enough. You think he’s got anymore stashed around here?”
“I doubt it.” Scott picked up the small journal he’d found in the side pocket of the valise and tossed it at his brother. “This notes every time he took money out and why. Taken together with the ledgers from his desk, it tells a pretty grim story.”
He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back into the larger of the great room’s sofas. He had hoped to find more money; he knew just by looking what was in the case wasn’t all of it. They’d spent the last week looking for it, but this and the journal was all they’d ever found.
It had been a busy week. While both were needed in running the ranch, Johnny had taken the heavier share of the burden while Scott had spent every free moment trying to untangle the financial mess Murdoch had left. Today had been the first free time both men had to count the money and figure out where they’d go from here.
Johnny had put the money down and taken up the journal. It lay open on his lap while he stared at the first page, his elbows propped up on his knees. “Looks like he spent most of the money the first couple of months.”
“He had to. Everything was coming due and the money he’d expected to pay it with was gone.” He picked up the glass of wine sitting on the end table and took a sip. “According to the ledgers, the first couple of years he was able to pay back a decent chunk of the loan. We were doing fairly well and there was more than enough money coming in.”
“But by then the drought had really taken hold,” Johnny remarked.
“Exactly. Money we’d always had before to get us through hard times just wasn’t there anymore, so he started using the cash he had on hand from the loan. That’s also when the books I worked on starting diverging with the ones Murdoch kept. Bills were being paid with money I didn’t know about.”
“Scott, why’d he keep the money here, anyway? Why not in the bank?”
“Would you, after losing everything to one?”
Johnny gave a wry smile. “You got a point. So, if he used the loan money to keep us paid up, why does the bank want it all back now?”
“Because it’s not Murdoch making the payments anymore. And since we didn’t know about the loan, we didn’t make the payment this month. That’s all they needed. Guthrie practically admitted the bank was in trouble. They weren’t about to let something like this slip through their fingers. For less than thirty five thousand dollars, which is what’s left on the loan, they get Lancer. I’d say that’s quite a deal.”
“So what are we going to do?”
Scott sat forward. He’d been thinking about a couple of things. He hoped Johnny would be willing to go along with them. “First, I thought I’d take some of this in tomorrow. Not everything, we still need money to run the ranch; maybe keep ten thousand and hope the rest is enough to make them hold off, give us some more time.”
“Some more time for what? Even if they agree, that still leaves almost thirty thousand due.” Johnny narrowed his eyes. “What are you up to?”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“I can tell that already, so give.”
“I’m going to wire my grandfa-”
“Like hell you are!” The journal fell to the floor as Johnny gained his feet. “Are you crazy? How would being in debt to your grandfather be any better than being in debt to the bank?”
“Because Grandfather would give us time to pay it back!”
“And what if he doesn’t want to lend you the money?”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
Johnny snorted. “Why wouldn’t he? What happens if we lose Lancer, Scott? What would you do?”
Scott started to speak until he realized he didn’t know what to say. What would he do? But that was something he didn’t want to think about right now. “That doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting hold of enough money to pay off the loan.”
“It would matter to your grandfather. I’d lay odds he’d figure you’d hightail it back to Boston.”
“Refusing me the loan certainly wouldn’t make me think to return to his house, Johnny. He must realize that.”
“Don’t bet on it. He probably figures he could talk you into it, eventually.”
“It’s our only option. Don’t you see that?”
“It’d be like selling our souls to the devil. Don’t you see that? Even if he did lend us the money, there’d be hell to pay.”
“It doesn’t matter! Think about it, Johnny. We’ve got a week to come up with the money; I can try to get us more time but don’t count on it. And if we don’t....”
“We lose Lancer.” Johnny slumped back into his chair. “I hate this! God, Scott, isn’t there some other way?”
“If you can come up with another way, I’m more than willing to listen.” Scott grabbed his brother’s arm. “Don’t think for a moment I’m looking forward to this. I love my grandfather but that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his faults. He’s a shrewd businessman and my being his grandson isn’t going to hold that much weight. He’s going to get the best deal he can for himself. All we can hope for is, whatever it is he wants, it’s ours to give.”
His hat tipped forward to shade his face, Johnny sat on his horse and watched as the cattle moved past. The days weren’t quite as hot; summer was giving way to autumn and the cool nights spoke of things to come. Still, the midday sun gave a lie to that promise as he sweated beneath its unyielding rays.
His saddle creaked as he readjusted his position. They’d been at this since dawn and his body was protesting the long stretch on horseback. Johnny glanced over at his companion. Cipriano surveyed the cattle with a shrewd eye. There are been no more outbreaks of disease for over a week but they were taking no chances. Each herd was kept from the other and all were being carefully watched.
“I hear Matt Forrester’s been snooping around here.” Johnny had been surprised. He hadn’t thought any of the other ranchers would step foot on Lancer.
Cipriano nodded his head. “He says he might be interested in buying some of our stock.”
“Did he, now?” Johnny snorted. “I can just imagine the price he’s willing to pay, too.”
“Si, it was less than half the going price. He knows no one else will touch our cattle.”
“I wonder why he’s not afraid.”
“The man is a thief but he knows we would not sell them to him if they were diseased. But more like him will come, like vultures.”
“Damn.” Johnny lifted his hat to wipe his brow with his shirtsleeve. “All this work and we’ll be practically giving them away. I don’t understand how Murdoch could stand dealing with some of these men.”
“He understood them. Senór Lancer was an honest man but....”
Clearly ill at ease, Cipriano seemed to weigh his words. “In México, there is always el patrón, the one in charge. He is born to the position and the power weighs on him lightly. Su papa, he was the same way. When he dealt with these men, it wasn’t as an equal.”
“But Murdoch wasn’t born to power. He had to fight for everything he had.”
“That is so. But many men fight for wealth, power; few get it. Those that do, there is a thing in them that sets them apart. A hunger, maybe.”
Johnny remembered back to his first meeting with Murdoch. He’d thought the man ruthless, a feeling that had changed as the years had gone by. He wondered now how much of that was his not wanting to see it in his father. “So, you saying you think Murdoch would have done the same thing?”
“No, he would never have done that. But I think he would have found a way to get the better of these men, a way to keep the ranch going no matter what.”
*Oh, yeah, he found a way, all right.* Trouble was, if there was more to his plan, he hadn’t bothered letting him and Scott in on it. “I guess I never thought of him that way. As far as I could see, he was just a rancher like all the rest of them.”
“And you were just a rancher’s son?” Cipriano asked.
Johnny gave the man a speculative look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“No more than Sénor Lancer was just a rancher, are you just a rancher’s son.”
“I’m just like everyone else.”
The man shook his head. “Perhaps that is how you see yourself; maybe you were at one time but no more. Your brother, now he carries himself as the son of a great man should, expecting to be obeyed, knowing he is heir.”
Johnny laughed. “I’m gonna tell Scott you said that, too. Come on, Cipriano, we’re not royalty.”
“Look around you. Is Lancer not a kingdom? What do you call a man who creates such a place? What do you call those who inherit it?” Cipriano hesitated a moment. “I received a letter yesterday.”
Johnny blinked. Where the hell had that come from?
“It was from my niece.”
Damn. Johnny couldn’t remember Cipriano ever bringing up Lúpe before. He’d always had the feeling the man was somehow ashamed of what happened. But maybe talking the whole mess over with Scott had helped because it didn’t hurt quite so badly this time. He licked his lips. “What’d she have to say?”
“She is doing well. As well as can be expected for one who will never have what she wants.”
“She didn’t want me, Cipriano. She’s the one who left, remember?”
“She wanted you, Johnny. But, unfortunately, she thought it would be the same as if she’d married someone like you at home. She didn’t want un vaquero; she could have wed a dozen times over if that were the case. No, she wanted el patrón’s son.”
“Lúpe wasn’t a gold-digger.” Johnny bit out the words. “Besides, I gave her everything she ever asked for.”
“Ay, muchacho, you do not listen. It wasn’t the money, not in the way you think. She came from a small town, where men work hard all day to scratch out a living.”
“That’s the way it is here, too, pretty much.”
“But she married the son of Senór Lancer. She thought it would be different with you.”
“She thought we’d sit around drinking tea all day, is that it?”
Cipriano shrugged. “Perhaps. She lived in a grand house, with servants to do her bidding, like a great lady. You were her, como se dice, her knight, her lord. Such a person doesn’t spend the day working like a common peasant. Or maybe she just needed more time from you than you had to give.”
Johnny scowled. “The ranch takes a lot of time.”
“Si, that is what your father always used to say.”
They broke off checking the herd when evening fell. Johnny left Cipriano in charge of the men and rode back to the house, all the while going over in his mind everything the segundo had told him.
He’d known almost from the beginning how unhappy Lúpe had been but wasn’t able to figure out exactly what it was she was unhappy about. Now that he knew, it disturbed him more than he could say. Whether it had been true or not, she had seen Lancer as a rival. Just like his mother.
He had caught the similarities in his and Murdoch’s positions, both marrying women who eventually left them, right from the start, but only to a point. It had never occurred to him that the women might have had a lot in common, too.
The lights of the house came into view and Johnny gave the horse its head. It was already full dark, he ached from a long day in the saddle and he was hungry. He hoped Maria had left something out for him.
As soon as he entered the house he knew something was wrong. There was a heaviness weighing down on it, yet, at the same time, it felt empty.
Johnny walked through the house into the kitchen. Sitting on the slowly cooling stove was a plate with his dinner. He grabbed it but instead of taking it over to sit at the table, he took it along with him as he checked both the upstairs and downstairs rooms. He found nothing. Though empty of life, each room was as it should be. It was only when he was returning his dish to the kitchen that he thought to check the verandah.
“Scott?” He could barely make out his brother’s figure in the gloom of the enclosed area.
“Here.” A match flared, brightening the table in the corner. Scott lit the candle at its center and motioned Johnny over.
Johnny pulled a chair around and straddled it. “What are you doing sitting in the dark?”
“Waiting for you.”
Johnny studied his brother. Even in the candlelight, Scott’s features were wan and tired looking. “What’s happened now?”
“I got a reply from my grandfather.”
“He’s not going to lend us the money, is he?”
Scott almost smiled. “That just about sums it up. No, that’s not quite true. You were right, about making a bargain with the devil. He’ll lend us the money if I agree to return to Boston...permanently.”
Johnny frowned. “What would be the point, then?”
Scott didn’t answer right away. Instead, he seemed to be scrutinizing Johnny. Finally, he spoke. “You’d be able to keep the ranch.”
Yeah, he’d have the ranch. He’d never have to worry about where his next meal was coming from or who’d he run into in the next town he entered. There’d be no returning to the haphazard way of life he’d had before Lancer. He could continue to live here for the rest of his life. Alone.
“The price is too high, Scott. Nothing is worth a person’s life. Besides,” he threw his brother a telling look, “then it’d be my soul your grandfather would own.”
Scott took a breath and Johnny could hear the shakiness in it.
“Thank you. I would have done it, you know. If that’s what you had wanted.”
“I know you would have. Sometimes, Scott, you’re so noble it’s scary.”
There was a bark of laugher, as if he had surprised his brother. And then Scott gave in fully to his relief, letting go of weeks of worry and despair. It was several minutes before he could talk without it degenerating into peals of mirth. “I do try, little brother.” He held his sides and chuckled. “God I needed that.”
“I’d surely love to be there when he reads your answer.”
“Knowing Grandfather, he’ll crumble up the telegram and then get on with his business.”
“Speaking of business, what did the bank have to say?”
Scott sobered. “I managed to get a three month extension on the loan but only by paying them five thousand dollars.”
“Why didn’t you give them all of it?”
“For the same reason Murdoch didn’t. We’re going to need it, Johnny. To eat, to pay the men, and hope there’s not another emergency.”
“We might have some more money coming in. Matt Forrester was sounding out Cipriano about buying some of our cattle.”
“Yes, he was here.” Scott leaned forward to rest his arms on the table. “I thought maybe I should wait for you before making a decision but since we’d already talked about it...” He looked at Johnny, apologetically. “Anyway, it isn’t much, nowhere near what they’re worth.”
“Look on the bright side, at least we don’t have to feed them anymore.”
His brother didn’t answer.
“I....there may not always be a bright side. You know that, don’t you?”
Johnny nodded. “So, we won’t be princes, anymore.”
He laughed at the look on Scott’s face. “Come on, it’s getting cold out here. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Scott tied his horse to the railing and stepped up onto the wooden porch. Honeysuckle vine grew along its southern exposure, shading and cooling the house’s entrance. He lightly rapped on the front door.
It opened on the first knock. Maria stood just inside, not speaking. Scott could tell she’d been crying.
“I’ve brought you something.” He motioned behind him. “He’s going to need a home and, well, he’s used to you.”
She stepped out and followed him off the porch. He undid the rope tied to the pommel of his saddle and handed it to her. “Go ahead, take it,” he coaxed.
At first she only stared at it, as if it were something that would harm her. The animal tied to its other end she barely glanced at. Finally, she took the rope. It looked like she was about to speak but instead she covered her mouth with her hand and closed her eyes.
“Maria, please, don’t cry.” It tore at him, watching her this way, when she had never been anything but strong. He found it harder to bear than the forced stoicism from Teresa when they had last seen her. He wrapped the woman in his arms and held her as she cried out her grief.
With her face pressed against his chest, he could feel her tears as they wet his shirt.
“Don’t go,” she whispered against him.
“We have to. There’s nothing for us here, anymore.”
They had tried. God only knew how hard they had tried, perhaps longer than they should have. How long did you fight for a dream when that dream wasn’t even yours? When did you let go of the past in order to grab the future? Finally, with only two weeks left on the loan extension, he and Johnny had decided. It was time to go.
They agreed to the offer that had been forwarded to them through Mr. Guthrie from an unknown buyer. It wasn’t what the land was worth; things being what they were, they hadn’t expected that it would be. But it was enough to pay off the loan and still leave them plenty to make a start somewhere else.
“There are the people who love you.”
“Oh, Maria, don’t. I know you’re going to miss us; we’ll miss you, too. But you have your children; I’m sure your sons will be happy to have you home all the time. You have your grandchildren. And Teresa has Jesse.”
He felt his own eyes fill and he blinked to clear his vision. “We need to go somewhere where we can start fresh, without the burden of being Murdoch Lancer’s sons. Here, there would always be the reminder of what might have been. Murdoch’s gone now; and so is Lancer.”
Maria nodded and moved out of his arms as she wiped the tears from her face. “Where are you going?”
“San Francisco, for now. That’s where we had the stuff we kept from the house shipped. We took a lease on a place for a year. That’ll give us enough time to figure out what we’re going to do next.”
“You’re leaving today?”
“Yes. The new owners are here. We were showing them around when I remembered about an errand I had to run.”
She looked at the calf who had been placidly standing nearby. “What am I supposed to do with him?”
“Raise him. He’ll make a good breeding bull someday. You said so, yourself.”
“He is getting so big.” She petted the animal’s head. “I will take him. My son’s herd is in need of a good bull. And he would have been afraid, left with strangers.”
“That’s right, he would have.” He looked away. “I better be going. Johnny will be wondering where I got off to.”
“Did he remember to pack the silver set?”
Scott couldn’t help but smile at that. She’d been on them almost at once, cajoling them to take as much as possible. Even then he had known she was using it to hide behind, unwilling to deal with their leaving until she absolutely had to. “Yes, he packed it. It was one of the first things to go.”
“Bueno. It might bring pain now but someday, when you have children, it will be a comfort, something you can point to and say, ‘look, this was your grandfather’s.’”
He couldn’t take anymore. He pulled her to him once again, holding her close while she clung to him. Kissing the top of her head, he forced the words passed the tightness in his throat, “I have to go. Take care of Cisco, okay?”
The strangled cry from the woman propelled him from her embrace and onto his horse. He rode off, unable to look back. He didn’t know if he’d have the strength to keep going if he did. The ride back to the ranch was a blur.
Cresting a hill, Scott could see Johnny waiting for him on the road that led away from the ranch. Scott didn’t even think of it as Lancer, anymore. It was just a place where he had lived for a time. Where he had found a brother. Where his father once reigned.
He quickly rode across the field that separated them and came to a halt at Johnny’s side. “You ready?”
His brother turned and gave the place one long, last look. Nodding toward the arch that had met them so many years before, Johnny grinned wickedly. “We should have blown it up.”
Scott gave a startled laugh and felt his spirits lift. With an outlook like that, how could the future not beckon? “Come on, brother, we have a train to catch.”
They wheeled their horses around and rode away.
In either hand the hastning Angel caught our lingring Parents,
and to th’ Eastern Gate led them direct, and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plaine; then disappeer’d.
They looking back, all th’ Eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late thir happie seat,
Wav’d over by that flaming Brand, the Gate
With dreadful Faces throngd and fierie Armes:
Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.
John Milton, 1667