WHN - Legacy
A tidal wave of early morning sunlight splashed through the wide open windows and doors, touching off all of the kitchen’s adobe brick and Spanish tile in pink fire. The rays warmed the space as well as, if not better than, the banked fires of the large cast iron stove. They picked out the silver strands coursing through the loose bun of Maria’s otherwise black hair as she bustled around the room and its assorted occupants with practiced efficiency, singing a corrido while she worked.
Unmoved by the beauty of the morning, Teresa was the very picture of gloom sitting at the kitchen table, absently humming snatches of Maria’s song as she added to the etchings already carved into the old table top. It was hard to feel guilty about the series of flower petals she was adding to the existing gashes and bashes. It had never been a thing of beauty. She was, however, glad that they had finally gotten back to taking breakfast there, instead of in the formal dining room, where they’d been relegated for the last week; forced into those strange, formal meals, while the rest of the world got to go on doing things as normal. All for Mr Harlan, who could have cared less – but Teresa sure didn’t know how.
She felt like a traitor for even thinking it, he was Scott’s grandfather after all, but she wished Mr. Harlan had stayed in Boston. Scott was hurt because of him. Murdoch was gone, left for the Tabor’s three days ago to see to Scott himself, taking Mr. Harlan with him (thank god) and sending Johnny home (another blessing). Maria had come to stay with them like she usually did when Murdoch was away, but it didn’t change the fact that the reason he was away was because his son had almost been killed.
Murdoch had been sending word, nightly: Scott was fine, getting better by the day. He had even turned up in person for a couple hours this morning to pick up some fresh clothes for Scott and to change his own. He’d had breakfast with them and for a little while she could almost pretend things had gotten back to normal. Murdoch and Maria presiding over the first meal of the day in shifts, like always, while they ironed out the final details of the day’s plans; all of the noisy confusion of folks stopping in for a quick bite and a warm cup of coffee.
Except the day’s plan included: How to Get Scott Home Without Finishing Him Off and What Kind of Medical Supplies They Might Need to Hand If They Managed to Get Him Home in One Piece. It made her feel sick inside.
And now Murdoch was gone again, taking Johnny with him, to bring Scott home. She wanted to go too and help collect her brother, but Murdoch had vetoed this proposition right out of hand. Enough to deal with, he’d said, without having to keep track of her.
Keep track of her, like she was a piece of luggage or something. This business she resented bitterly and made no bones about saying so. Her formal protest went over about as well as could be expected, and now she wasn’t allowed out of the house at all; had been made a prisoner at the kitchen table that she’d missed so well with only her school books to keep her company.
She’d been staring at the same page for the better part of an hour, chopping at her steak and eggs until it was a decidedly unsavory mess. She’s lately moved on to etching little flower petals in the table when Maria came by and swatted the back of her head.
“Ow!” Teresa rubbed at her head. “That hurt!” she protested, even though it hadn’t really hurt at all.
“What has gotten into you?” Maria asked, taking the knife out of Teresa’s hand and removing her plate. Teresa made no answer. She had no answer, had no idea what had gotten into her. Maria scraped the half eaten breakfast into the slop bucket and turned back to Teresa, sighing. “Have we got anymore tomatillos in the hothouse?”
“Yeah,” Teresa said and angrily turned a chunk of pages.
“Then since you are clearly not studying, why don’t you put yourself to some good use and go pick me some.”
Teresa pushed her chair back from the table, its legs barking over the tiled floor, and dragged her socked feet all the way to the back doorstep where she sat down again to pull on her boots. She was stamping into the second when Maria gently toed her out of the way. Without looking up, she scooted over to let the older woman by, but Maria sat down beside her instead, filling up the remaining space in the doorway. She looked over at Teresa, slouched glumly into the door jam, and sucked her teeth.
“These dungarees are almost ready for the rag bucket, I think,” she said, giving a light tug on the tear in the bib pocket where her pruning shears had cut through.
“We can fix ‘em!” Teresa shot her a sour look, as if this day wasn’t already appalling enough. The very idea of turning her favorite pair of bib-alls into a pile of rags!
“By ‘we’, of course, you mean me,” Maria concluded.
“You could show me,” Teresa scrunched her face, already planning where she was going to stash the dungarees between wearings. “I learned a lot last time.”
“Hm.” Maria’s look was skeptical. “You learned quite a lot.”
“That suit came out real nice, you have to admit it.”
“Yes,” Maria begrudgingly admitted. “Yes, it did.”
Teresa sighed. “Scott liked it, anyway.”
“Talking of which, I saw that wretched cat has returned to Esco’s room.”
She snorted and collapsed a little further in on herself. Maria put an arm around her shoulders and drew her in close.
“He is going to be just fine, niña. You do not need to worry.”
“They’ll be back before you know it and then you can see for yourself.”
She nodded again and Maria gathered her up into a tight hug.
“Maria?” Teresa gasped.
“I can’t breathe!”
Maria laughed and crushed her a little tighter before letting her go. “Better?” she asked and, getting a smile out of Teresa, prodded her up off the step. “Off you go, my girl. Andale.”
The trip to the greenhouse was a tonic, the greenhouse itself a balm. Just walking through the door helped to calm her nerves considerably, something about all of that life gathered together made even the worst of days seem bearable. There was very little that gave her more pleasure than spending time out there, looking in on all of the plants, singing silly little made-up songs to them and especially to her corner of exotics.
She’d always been good at growing things. It had been with her whole life, like breathing and reading books; couldn’t remember a time before any of them. She’d been turned loose in the gardens pretty much as soon as she could walk and before that, as local legend had it, Maria carried her around in a papoose while working in the garden herself. Maria, shaking her head in dismay as Teresa grew older and it became abundantly clear that it was going to be generally safer for all concerned to keep her out of the kitchen, sent her out to the gardens in a permanent capacity last year; the whole running of which was now more or less under her control. Mostly. She’d had a fight on her hands when she announced a few months ago that she wanted to try growing orchids.
Impractical, the M’s unilaterally agreed. Maria said that they were too time-consuming and hard to grow, “Next it will be bonsai trees”. Murdoch, wondering how Maria knew about bonsai trees, said they couldn’t be eaten and therefore should not be taking up space. Unimpressed with their naysayery, Teresa argued that food wasn’t all there was to gardening, that beauty was practical too, and just because it hadn’t been tried before didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. Murdoch shot it all down, said he wasn’t going to fight with her about it, she had her college boards to study for; and that had seemed the gloomy end to that. Then, a few weeks later the college boards arrived and she and Murdoch ended up having to spend two days in Green River for the testing.
The tests were grueling, to say the least, but some of it was actually kind of nice. She hadn’t altogether forgiven him for the orchids, and suspected that it was in part his way of making up for it, but they got to eat fancy dinner at the hotel’s new restaurant after she was done testing, both nights. And she enjoyed having him mostly all to herself.
Meanwhile, her brothers, who had sat silently, and rather uncomfortably, by through her whole fruitless campaign, had taken the opportunity of their absence to build her a little addition off the big greenhouse. A space just for her to try her hand at whatever exotic thing she could get to come up.
“Early birthday,” they’d hedged, even though her birthday wasn’t for another six months, when the vein in Murdoch’s forehead began to visibly pulse. “Every girl needs a space of her own and since you’ve turned her loose to boss the entire grow operation, it’s only fair that she have somewhere to boss it from, close to the…uh…well, the operation.”
They’d set it all up, ignoring Maria’s dire predictions of doom and mayhem, put together a small L shaped bench in one corner and even hauled a little secretary’s desk they’d found up in the attic out there for her. It wasn’t big, couldn’t hardly get more than one person in there at a time, just enough room for her and her plants. And she couldn’t have loved it or them any more than she did at that moment.
“You spoil her,” Murdoch had grumbled.
“You started it,” Johnny countered, not quite under his breath, and ended up detailing outhouses for his troubles. But Murdoch let it stand and even sprung for the first seed order.
She smiled at the memory as she made her way down the rows of tomatillo and tomato plants, picking the beautifully ripened fruits looking almost ready to burst out of their skins from the vine. She popped a few smaller grape tomatoes in her mouth along the way, inspecting the leaves and moisture of the dirt and still humming Maria’s corrido as she went before finally making it to her office.
Shouldering the door open, she gently dropped the small burlap sack of fruits on her desk before freeing a few lady bugs out of the little atrium occupying the corner with the hard won orchid shoots and cranked open a couple more windows for cross-breeze before settling in at her desk with her planting calendars and yield ledgers and almanacs.
She had only planned to glance through them, but soon found herself lost to her studying and bookwork. She’d been at it long enough to completely lose track of time when the solid thump of a set of boots on the wood plank flooring of the Big Green brought her back to the here and now. A moment later Maria’s youngest son, Diego, knocked and stuck his head through the door.
“Thought you were supposed to be out on Ribbon Creek all day today,” Teresa said by way of greeting.
“Yeah…” Diego answered. “Change of plan.”
“Could you be a little bit more vague?”
“Mmmm…” Diego pretended to give the matter a bit of thought. “Perhaps.” He finally answered, eliciting a rather unladylike snort out of Teresa. “You been eating your pen again?”
He stepped all the way into the room at her confused look, his long legs carrying him across the space in two steps, and drew his thumb up the blotch of ink running out of the corner of her mouth.
Smiling, she looked at her right hand; it too was stained with ink at the fingers. “Comes with the territory,” she said.
Diego looked over her shoulder at the notes and ledgers spread out around her desk top, not a stray drop of ink on them. He shook his head. “I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know how you keep all them pages so neat and tidy.”
“Hard won experience. I wanted as little to do with Ms. Eslinger’s ruler over my knuckles for sloppy work as possible, I guess.”
“Yes, Old Lady Eslinger’s ruler and my knuckles became well acquainted through the years. I’ll happily take my chances stringing barbwire, thank you very much,” Diego said and Teresa laughed, taking one of his hands in hers.
“Looks like they’re holding their own against the barbwire, Mr. Cipriano,” she lied, turning the hand over to inspect it front and back, the many little white nicks and scars standing out against the deep brown of his skin, before lacing her ink stained fingers with his. “So, what brings you out here visiting?”
“Mama said you’d probably still be down here, wanted me to come fetch you.”
“Oh, sugar. I was pretty sure she just asked for these tomatoes to get me out of her hair, I didn’t think she really wanted them back right away.”
Diego shook his head. “If she did, she’d have come down here herself two hours ago.” He tugged on her hand, prompting her up from her seat. “Walt Jr. just came in, said Senor Murdoch was just up the road.”
At this announcement her throat constricted painfully and her skin went all cold and prickly.
“He didn’t come in with any bad news,” Diego hastened to add and she knew she must look as horrible as she suddenly felt. “Just that they would be here shortly.”
She dipped her head and steadied herself with a deep breath before lifting it again, her face stony with resolve. Diego smiled, brushed a quick kiss across her lips and, her hand still in his, led her out of her sanctuary.
She heard the jingling of tack and clomp of hooves as soon as they were outside and couldn’t stop herself running up the grassy hill, out of her garden, following the sound to the front of the house where Murdoch was reining the buggy horses to a gentle halt; couldn’t stop herself yelling his name. He’d handed the reins over to whoever was in the passenger seat and climbed stiffly out of the driver’s side looking hot and like he could sleep for a week. He met her at the back of the buggy, caught her up before she could get any further.
Johnny was the next one out, looking almost as tired as his father. Teresa tried to pull away, tried to go to him, but Murdoch held her fast and she thought she might choke on the tears and anxiety piling up at the back of her throat. Mr. Harlan climbed out of the front passenger side of the buggy and she almost didn’t recognize him, he was so curiously attired. Gone was the richly tailored black silk suit she last seen him in, replaced with a pair of dungarees and a light cotton work shirt, blue plaid and too short in the sleeves. He came round to help with the limp, pallid creature wearing Scott’s clothes that Johnny had just pulled from the back seat, head wrapped in a heavy bandage, spots of red dotting the right side.
A frisson etched its way up her back and she felt nauseous with it, remembering another time, not so long ago. Murdoch had come home in much the same condition, pale as death, bandages and blood everywhere. Her father was on a litter. No bandages for him. He was already dead.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, Pea,” Murdoch tried to assure her, shook her, breaking up some of the ice flooding her veins. “Come on.”
It was almost like a funeral procession, Teresa couldn’t help thinking. Everyone was so quiet and somber. Murdoch had gone to Scott, got a bracing arm around him, taking on the bulk of his son’s weight as he helped him into the house, Mr. Harlan trailing close behind.
Motivated to action by her utter distaste for Scott’s grandfather and a desire to keep him from visiting anymore hurt on them, she began pushing her way through the crush of on–lookers gathered at the doorstep, keeping the back of Harlan’s grey head in her tightly focused glare. She ran into Johnny at the epicenter of the crowd, he was yelling at everyone not helping to “back the hell off, god damn it”; would have shoved right on by him too, but he’d grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
“Hey, you alright?” he asked, and when all he got in answer was her venomous glare turned on him, Johnny looked to Diego who was right behind her. “She alright?”
Teresa bristled, yanking her arm free. “Let go of me. I’m fine,” she said to Johnny and then turned on Diego, “And I can speak for myself, thank you very much.”
“Yeah, Johnny,” Diego raised his hands in mock surrender. “Teresa can speak for herself.”
“How’s Scott really?” she demanded, turning back to Johnny. “And don’t lie to me.”
“He’s fine, too,” Johnny snapped.
“He doesn’t look fine at all to me.”
“Well, it was a rough ride.” Johnny wilted a little, his shoulders slumping. “Probably shouldn’t have moved him, but he insisted he was ready. Wanted to get home.”
“Home where, to Boston?” The bitter words were out before she could corral them.
“Why don’t you ask him,” Johnny pushed by her and elbowed a young ranch hand out his way.
“Now is not the time, Teresa,” Diego said, shaking his head in dismay.
But all of the pent up worry and frustration she’d been feeling for days was fast bubbling to the surface and her willingness to check it fading faster. “So when’s the good time, then, Diego? After Mr. Harlan finally gets the rest of Scott’s head blown clean off?”
“You’re damn right I’m angry,” she said, her tone biting.
“And just who exactly are you angry with?” Diego tried to reason with her as the crowd began to nervously disburse.
“Right now…every last one of you,” Teresa said and, brazening her way through her more immediate fears, stormed into the house.
Diego found her stalled in the back stairwell, afraid of what she was really going to find upstairs. None of her wildest imaginings had stacked up to the reality and she just couldn’t fathom it. What has happened to my brother? She wondered again and again. Diego took a seat the next tread down from her and they sat quietly together for a few minutes as little motes of dust sifted in and out of the shaft of light that shone in through the window at the first landing.
“Fighting with Johnny isn’t going to help anything, you know,” Diego said, his subdued voice easing into their mutual silence.
“Can we just skip the lecture, please?” Teresa sighed. “I’ve been coddled and handled enough for a lifetime today and I’m just about sick to death of everyone treating me like some silly girl that doesn’t know what’s going on. Or like I’ll shatter if I know the truth.”
“You’re not really advancing your case any, acting this way.”
“And just what way is that, Senor Cipriano?”
“Well, moping in the stairwell for starters, when Scott’s upstairs, sick, and seeing your sunshiny face is the certain antidote to all that ails him.”
Teresa swatted his arm. “You are so full of manure!”
He turned around to find her smiling at him and returned it, taking both her hands in one of his. “No one thinks you’re a silly girl. Least of all me,” Diego said, sobering. “And I think you have every right to be angry. You just gotta learn to pick your battles, querida.”
“I know. And I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
“Yeah, you did,” Diego said, his smile returning. “But it’s okay, I can take it.”
Teresa scooted down a step to sit next to him and he twined his fingers with hers. They sat together a few minutes more before Diego finally cajoled her into going to see about Scott’s condition for herself.
Scott’s room was as quiet as a church on Tuesday when Teresa and Diego got there, and dim with all of the curtains pulled shut. No one had noticed them come in and so they stashed themselves in the corner by the dresser where slowly, her anger dimming, Teresa’s senses began to let things in: Maria at the nightstand, stirring something into what looked to be water, the sound of the spoon clinking rhythmically against the side of the glass; Murdoch, perched on the opposite side of the bed, laid out the medical things. He’d already unwrapped Scott’s head, and she winced in sympathy as Murdoch applied some kind of ointment to the nasty, stitched up gash; Mr. Harlan stood stiffly behind Murdoch and, idly, she wondered again where his expensive suits had gone.
Johnny, seated at the foot of the bed, whistled. “That’s one helluva sewing job, Brother. Murdoch ought to take up quiltin’,” he teased, though his attempt at light-heartedness sounding forced.
“Watch your language,” Murdoch grumbled absently as he applied another glob of ointment and then a square of gauze before winding the first layer of bandage.
“Why’s it so dark in here?” Scott asked, his face pinched with the pain.
“Do you know where you are, Son?” Murdoch calmly went around Scott’s head once more with the bandage.
Scott lightly sucked his teeth. “Of course I know where I am,” he said, flinching as Murdoch checked the security of his work. “I may be seeing ten of everything, but it seems like I was seeing ten broad daylights just a few minutes ago.”
“And so you still would be,” Murdoch assured him, “had we not shut all of the curtains. Thought your eyes mightn’t like so much light. Hold still for me please.”
“Well, can we at least crack a window or something? It’s hot as hell in here.”
“That’s just the dregs of your fever talking, buddy, and probably not a little of that concussion, too. The windows are already open.” Murdoch secured the tail end of the bandage and handed Scott the glass of water Maria had prepared. “But we can open your balcony door.”
Scott eyed the glass suspiciously, one pupil significantly larger than the other giving the illusion that he had one black eye and one blue. “I drink anymore water and my eyeballs will be floating in their sockets,” he grumbled.
“You need it,” Murdoch insisted. “Drink up. Drink up for the Fat Lady.”
This was Murdoch’s stock answer to most forms of protest. Anything they didn’t want to do must be done anyway, for the Fat Lady. And there was no real arguing in the face of such absurdity. Teresa had yet to figure out who this Fat Lady was, though she’d spent the time, while washing the stupid windows or whatever, adding to her already rather gruesome mental portrait. And she wasn’t the only one. They’d compared. Hers was worse than Diego’s, but not as bad as Johnny’s. His Fat Lady had a beard. And Scott’s Fat Lady, with his passion for detail, was worst of all. His had a terrible odor. And bedsores.
Harlan moved to open the balcony door, parting the sash and securing it to the door knob. A beam of sunshine fell upon the dresser, bathing the contents of its top in light as he turned to return to his grandson’s bedside and stopped cold. Harlan cast a deeply horrified look at the small house cat, the orange patches of its calico coat strategically enhanced with barn door red paint, and neatly dressed in a tiny black suit. It was rather incongruously posed as if prepared to do battle with something twice its size, to the death if it should come to that, and sitting in pride of place in the middle of Scott’s dresser top.
Harlan’s mouth dropped open, then closed and dropped open again before he found his words. “What in the name of heaven is that?”
Murdoch saw the flashes of devilish pride ricochet across Johnny’s and Teresa’s faces and shook his head, thinking: they wouldn’t dare… as he turned to see what had gotten Scott’s grandfather so excited. Indeed, they had dared. “Oh, for god’s sake,” he grimaced, looking first to Teresa and then Johnny. “The Gift?”
Scott snorted into his glass of water. “They thought of everything.”
“The what?” Harlan asked.
“We er just…we just uh…” Teresa’s expression sailed past remorse and landed somewhere closer to scrambling to come up with a plausible lie before she trailed off with a shrug.
Johnny, utterly remorseless, coughed up the truth instead. “Forgot about Mr. Harlan?”
Murdoch bit back a bark of laughter. No doubt they thought the Gift would give their brother a bit of cheer, and it seemed to be working. Hell, even Maria was fighting down a smirk and she hated this particular Gift like sin, for she was forever coming upon the thing unexpectedly and in the most random of places.
Scott turned an accusatory look on Maria. “There’s laudanum in this.”
“Of course there is, Esco,” she countered. “And you’ll thank me for it later.” When Scott opened his mouth to protest further she pushed the glass to his lips. “Drink.”
His eyes bulged as he gulped at the onslaught and a thin stream of water trickled out the side of his mouth.
“Looks like you’ve got two choices, Son. Drink or drown,” Murdoch advised.
Scott opted to drink and when the glass was empty Maria eyed it with a satisfied smile. Pulling a handkerchief from her apron, she mopped up his face. “Gracias, Chico,” she said and, with a light touch to Scott’s cheek, rose from the bed.
Harlan looked as though he didn’t know which was more appalling: their highhanded housekeeper or the taxidermied cat. Turning on Murdoch, he opted for the cat. “You know about this thing?”
For a split second Murdoch felt almost as guilty as the kids, complicit somehow; which, he supposed, on some level he probably was given that he let it stay in the house. “Well, not until it turned up in my bed, I didn’t,” he said and judged by the look of deepened horror spreading across Harlan’s face that it was the wrong answer.
“That was Scott’s idea,” Teresa said and Diego slapped a hand over his mouth to cover the enormous smile that had just erupted there.
“I only mentioned it as a joke,” Scott grumbled.
He’d actually known about the taxidermied cat from hell long before it turned up in his bed covers. Maria had found it in Teresa’s room during one of her cleaning frenzies. Terrified, she’d dragged him in from the forge, all in a lather, and preparing to call in a priest to have the house exorcised. The Gift had been turning up all over the place ever since. Lurking in the tomatoes in Teresa’s greenhouse, waiting for Johnny in a corner of his horse’s stall, stashed in Diego’s saddlebags, and currently as the center piece on Scott’s dresser.
“Well. That’s one mystery solved,” Murdoch said, though he could see that Harlan was not impressed. And he didn’t care, not a speck. He’d frankly all but given up even the pretense of caring about the man’s comfort some days ago. “Though I guess I should have suspected something was a foot when the Hermann Plouquet books started disappearing off the shelf.”
“Herman who?” Harlan was apparently unfamiliar.
“Plouquet…and the more practical taxidermy texts,” Murdoch clarified.
“Taxi… But it’s… It’s a… Harlan stammered.
“Well, it’s a nightmare,” Murdoch supplied, failing to extinguish the perverse, connoisseur-like pleasure that he took in what could only be described as the rather more haunting twists of his kids’ minds, and which he guessed was displayed all over his face. “But what are you going to do with them once they’ve seen Plouquet?”
“We should have suspected something was on foot when Teresa showed an interest in sewing.” Maria cast Murdoch a knowing look.
“And that she would find a way to put the one and only domestic art she possesses to diabolical use,” Scott added as Murdoch continued to fail miserably at suppressing his unapologetic delight.
“Not like we killed it or anything. It was already dead when we found it,” Johnny muttered defensively, as though this should have cleared everything up, then swatted at the foot kicking at him from beneath the covers.
Scott snorted again, the laudanum clearly starting to take effect. “Probably not helping, Brother.”
Maria’s general and continuing disgust with the Gift, however, was no match for their guest’s.
“That you obviously condone this aberrant behavior is nothing short of shocking, Murdoch,” Harlan accused. “You’ve got my grandson living in a house of horrors.”
“Just let it alone, Grandfather. The Ploucquet books are mine,” Scott said irritably, and nestled himself down in the comforts of his bed, wincing as his head hit the pillows. “It’s where they got the idea in the first place.”
Murdoch, sobering, pulled the covers up over Scott’s shoulders and let his hand linger there. “How’re you doing, Son?”
“M’fine,” Scott mumbled, his tone still burred, from the center of his canyon of pillows; and then, softer, almost an after-thought, he added, “You know, I think there is a lesson to be learned in all of this, something about curiosity…”
“Just don’t even say it,” Murdoch said, chuckling openly now.
“And science. I was going to say there’s something scientific. To be learned.” Scott smiled drowsily and turned on his side. “And besides, I like the Gift,” he said, his eyes drifting shut, one and then the other. “It just keeps on giving and giving.”
“Okay, let’s everybody clear out of here, so this boy can get some rest,” Murdoch said, making no move to leave himself, “Except for you.” He beckoned to Teresa. “You come here. Johnny, Diego, you boys don’t get too far a field for the day, please.”
They nodded their understanding and paused at the door to let Maria through first.
Murdoch put out a hand to Teresa, who was apparently not at her speediest this morning, and she picked up the pace a little, finished crossing the room and accepted it. It was the first good look he’d had of her, had been too busy this morning even to notice that she looked terrible. Dark circles under her eyes, it appeared as though she hadn’t slept in days.
“How’re you holding up, Sugar Pea?”
She nodded mutely, lips pursed, and glanced at Scott before planting her gaze firmly back on Murdoch’s face.
“It’s a nasty looking wound, huh?” he said.
“So close,” she whispered and Murdoch stomach clinched.
He’d seen what the ugly wound looked like fresh, knew it was improving. But the other, the other…he couldn’t even let his mind go near the fact of how close the bullet had come to taking his son for ever and ever. And he dared not look away from her or she would never believe the next thing out of his mouth. “Looks a lot worse than it actually is.” Murdoch let go her hand and pushed himself out of the big, comfortable chair that had been dragged to Scott’s bedside. “Here, why don’t you sit with him for a while? I’ve got a few things around here I need to look into. I’ll be back to check on you two in a little bit.”
“Now what is the meaning of this!” Harlan began to protest and made to intercept Teresa.
“Not now, Harlan,” Murdoch cut him firmly off, his heart going out to her as he watched Teresa take a seat at the very edge of the cushion, her back ramrod straight, hands pressed together in her lap almost in an attitude of prayer.
“That Teresa?” Scott murmured, and she sat slightly, stiffly forward at the sound of his voice.
“Hi, Scott,” she whispered.
“Hey, Pea.” Scott pried his eyes half open. “How’ve you been doing?”
“’M fine. How…how are you?”
“Fine,” Scott said, his voice thick with the laudanum. He sighed. “Yeah, I’m fine, too.”
Murdoch left them to it then, motioning to Harlan to follow him out of the room and thinking on how he was going to keep the man busy and out of everyone’s hair for the next few days.
“Scott, why’s your grandpa wearing those funny clothes?” he heard Teresa ask as he was shutting the door quietly behind them and, a small smile touching his lips, paused just a moment.
“What clothes are those, honey,” Scott asked, drowsy.
“Jeans.” She was perplexed, Murdoch could hear it in her voice, and his smile grew a touch wider. “And plaid.”
Scott barked a laugh. “Loaners from Jerry Tabor. It is a little spooky though, isn’t it?” he said as Murdoch closed the door with a snort of his own and Harlan grumble his way across the hall to his own room.
The living room was deserted when he got there, and he was glad of that. Suddenly he knew, more than anything, he needed the solitude. Then right behind that thought, perversely, he wondered at how quiet it was. Anyone would think there was a wake in progress. Where was all the noise? Making his way to the sideboard, he poured himself a measure of scotch, knocked it back in one swift swallow, not caring that it was only eight in the morning.
Murdoch thumped the decanter of Glenn Ord back down a touch harder than was necessary to give a little extra noise in the room, trying to beat back the overwhelming desire to throttle Harlan to within an inch of his miserable life. Though heaven only knew he had every reason in the world to want to. Harlan hadn’t been in town a full week and he’d managed to remorselessly turn all of their lives upside down.
If he were a superstitious man, he’d have to believe Harlan to be some sort of harbinger of chaos and would have nailed a toad with warts over his bunk the minute he learned of the old man’s impending arrival. As it was, the last time he came anywhere near the ranch Murdoch lost his first wife. This time he nearly lost their son. Again. Murdoch shook his head, poured himself another drink. This one he carried to the mail bin by the front door to sift through the pile that had been delivered in his absence, his mind still churning through that awful night. He could hardly bring himself to believe that it had only been a few days. It felt like 300 years ago that Scott had announced that he was going to be going back East with his grandfather, first thing in the morning, and this whole nightmare had begun.
Scott dropped his little bomb on the family after dinner and promptly left the living room. Completely broadsided by the announcement, Murdoch had been too shocked to move; it was Johnny who’d gone after his brother to demand answers only to find himself frustrated. Harlan had stood over him, gloating, claiming to have been surprised by the decision as well. Like hell he was, Murdoch thought. Teresa, quietly fuming, glaring her anger and disappointment at each of them in turn, flipped the chess game that Johnny had fallen asleep in the middle of off the ottoman, scattering the black and white marble pieces all over the floor, and retreated outdoors. Not knowing what else to do with himself, Murdoch pried himself up off the couch and went up to bed, leaving Harlan to a victory party of one.
It was useless. He’d tossed and turned for hours, only relaxing just a fraction when he heard Johnny’s bedroom door slam angrily shut in the middle of the night. He relaxed a bit more when Teresa’s did same not long after. But his tension ratcheted back up as he waited in vain for Scott’s door, listening, let another hour tick by. Meanwhile Scott’s announcement replayed in his mind: how uncomfortable he had been, casting about for his words. How unlike his son to be unable to meet any of their eyes; the way he’d all but cringed under his grandfather’s touch.
Irritated, Murdoch finally flung back covers and quit the bed. He wasn’t going to be able to rest until everyone was accounted for anyway and he still hadn’t heard Scott go to bed. He didn’t care if he looked like some kind of maniac, prowling about in the small hours wearing nothing but a nightshirt. It was his house, damn it, and this whole business stank to high heaven.
He didn’t have far to look, found Scott sitting in the near dark kitchen, drinking himself silly. Murdoch was no fool, no stranger to Harlan’s tactics, and needed no further evidence to know Scott’s decision to leave home had been made under some kind of duress. So, he poured himself a drink and joined his son, asked him just what the hell this was really about. The alcohol had gone a long way towards loosening Scott’s tongue and they’d had the whole thing out then.
As he suspected was going to be the case from the minute he learned of Harlan’s impending arrival, it turned out this wasn’t just the social visit of a concerned grandfather. He had come armed with a couple of plans for getting Scott to move back to Boston. There was Plan A, which Murdoch had sussed the second they’d arrived from the train depot: the old flame and romantic decoy; Harlan had brought Scott’s ex-fiancé with him. And if she wasn’t a compelling enough reason, he had lined up a Plan B: the threat of false murder charges leveled against his father. Harlan had rounded up a couple of brothers, a few years older than Scott, claiming that Murdoch had murdered their father. Degan. Carl and Billy Degan. Christ, but he hadn’t heard that name in over twenty years.
He’d told Scott some of the old story that night: Of how he’d been up in Sacramento on business when they’d gotten word that Harlan had come out to California on a surprise visit; he’d landed in San Francisco and would be making his way to Lancer. Eight months pregnant, flying in the face of all that was rational and every one of Murdoch’s arguments, Catherine decided to go and meet her father; accompany him back to the ranch. “Survived a trip around Cape Horn, will be fine a couple days up the road and back, darling, I’ll take Paul with me.”
Bloody stubborn woman. This in a telegram. These her last words to him.
Paul had sent word that she’d had gone into hard labor on the road home, he’d rounded up a midwife and was hunting the countryside for a doctor. Harlan was with her, she was in good hands. Murdoch had ridden his horse near to death trying to get to his wife in Carterville and had been waylaid a couple miles out of town by the Degan boys’ father; ended up killing the man in the exchange.
By the time he’d made it to Carterville it was all done. Catherine had died and Harlan had taken the baby further south to San Francisco. It was another five days hard riding to get there, cleft heart and all. But Harlan was already on a boat sailing back around the Horn by the time he got there. He hadn’t the money for passage, was prepared to work off the fair if even on the worst kind of pirate ship, but there was nothing else shipping out to the East Coast in under two months. Five years would pass before he could manage the trip. And other twenty after that before he would manage to finally get his son home.
The State had clear Murdoch of all charged in the matter of Degan’s death after he’d made his report to the proper authorities, a crucial fact that Harlan failed to impart after producing the man’s now grown sons as proof to back up this claim of murder. But Harlan’s threat of exposure had made Scott’s mind up. Even if the whole thing was a lie, it was a lie that could destroy many of lives. And not just their family’s, though it would most certainly do that, but the lives of everyone who depended on Lancer for survival. It wasn’t worth the risk, too much at stake. He would go with Harlan now and find a way to get back.
It was like a bit of horrible history repeating. Harlan had found a way to snatch his son yet again.
Scott asked that the whole mess be kept between the two of them until he and Harlan were well underway. Johnny and Teresa are very upset, Murdoch advised. You’re going to have to explain it to them, they don’t understand. But Scott was vehement that his brother and sister would eventually come around. And it turned out that Johnny and Teresa were to be the least of their troubles anyway. Scott hadn’t got his grandfather very far down the road before Harlan’s Plan B ambushed them and left Scott with a furrow the size of the San Joaquin valley blazed across his scalp. Not fatal, but close a-damn-nuff.
Murdoch swiped at his eyes and gave a piece of his attention over to the wire he’d plucked from near the top of the mail stack. It was from his segundo, down in Arizona the last couple of weeks, purchasing a bull. According to the wire, the trip had been a success and Ernesto would be back Sunday. Murdoch thought for a moment – tomorrow. The bull was on the train a couple days behind. Pleased, he put the communication down and pushed aside the bulk of the rest of the mail to get to the large envelope on the bottom of the stack. He sighed, knew what it was without even opening it; had been expecting this piece of mail for some weeks.
He tapped the still closed parcel on the table, and hearing Johnny and Diego’s subdued voices from his study across the way, he crossed to the doorway. There he found Johnny, his fingers steepled before him, reclined so deeply in the large desk chair that only his toes touched the floor. He spun round from the window to face the desk and the man on the other side of it, eyeing him sternly for a moment before opening a slim, leather-bound volume.
“I’m sure you must be wondering why I invited you here, Mr. Cipriano,” Johnny said.
“I admit, Mr. Lancer, that my curiosity is piqued.”
A thin and altogether calculating smile crawled across Johnny’s face. “I’ve done some research into your somewhat… checkered past.” He ran a finger across a few lines of type in the book, nodded appreciatively and turned the page. “Looting, pillaging.” He looked Diego hard in the eye. “The Pinkertons were quite thorough.”
Diego met the look unflinchingly. “I was pirating back then. Looting and pillaging sort of come with the territory.”
“Indeed,” Johnny agreed. “It says here that you have some experience with plundering as well.”
“If it is seedy and underhanded,” Diego brought his right foot up to rest on the opposite knee, “I have some experience in it.”
“Excellent.” Johnny hissed and re-steepled his fingers. “I believe you will be a wonderful asset to our organization. Here at Garrett Enterprises…”
Diego snorted but quickly recomposed himself. “Sorry.”
“What?” Johnny asked, relaxing his unnaturally stiff posture to collapse, boneless, into the embrace of his father’s desk chair. “Too much?”
Diego’s lips quivered. “I just thought up the name for this one.” He retrained his face. “We’ll call it: Interview With a Vampire.”
Johnny and Diego were so busy laughing at their own joke that they hadn’t noticed Murdoch paused just inside the door of his study. Silly boys. Silly was good. Silly was progress. He almost laughed himself. Interview With a Vampire, indeed. Sounded like they’d come up with a new game.
They’d been keeping a good deal of their nonsense under wraps since Harlan’s arrival, and there was a thing even eerier, if possible, than Devil Kitty – to see Scott retreat effortlessly back behind that cool shield of impeccable manners and Johnny and Teresa working so hard to follow suit, make a good impression. It was, Murdoch now knew, a shield of tin. It hadn’t taken long for the stress to begin to show. Matter of fact, Devil Kitty’s shameless reappearance was a pretty strong indication that they’d given it up altogether.
“What are you two hyenas laughing about?” Murdoch asked, announcing his presence in the room.
Johnny swiped at his eyes and attempted to pull himself together. “Nothin’,” he said, still chuckling. “Diego just…” He shared a meaningful look with his friend.
Diego dragged his fingers through his thick black hair. Then, squinting up at Murdoch, he scratched at an eyebrow, achieving no more chagrin than had Johnny or Teresa at Harlan’s discovery of the Gift. “Just…nothin’.”
Coming around his desk, Murdoch looked from one to the other and shook his head. “I’m glad that you guys are all self-entertaining.” He nudged Johnny’s head so that the rest of him, chair included, followed in a lazy turn. “Up you get, mijo.”
Johnny planted his feet to stop the chair and hopped up. “How’s Scott?”
“Resting.” Murdoch settled himself in his seat. “Teresa’s with him.” Murdoch looked the boys over. “How are you two doing?”
Diego shrugged. “I’m just ready for things to get back to normal, Padrino.”
“Amen to that,” Johnny said, rubbing at his eyes. “Can you find someone not me to drive Mr Harlan back to Green River, Murdoch?”
Murdoch sighed. “Boys, I’m afraid Harlan is going to be staying with us for the rest of his visit.”
Diego groaned and Johnny shot forward in his chair.
“What!” He flung a hand in the general direction of Scott’s room. “He’s the reason my brother’s laying up in that bed with half his head blown off!”
“Knock it off, John. It’s only going to be for a few days.” The longest days of their lives, Murdoch predicted, there was just nothing to be done about it.
The last thing that he wanted was to have this man as a guest in his house. But Scott deserved a chance to make whatever sort of peace he could with his grandfather, he was owed at least that much respect. And, alas, that would be next to impossible to achieve with Scott laid up at Lancer and Harlan banished to Green River.
“It took him less time than that to almost get Scott killed.” Johnny railed, his voice rough, like it had been dragged over ten miles of bad road. “And then you invite him into our house?” He pushed up from his seat and paced a few steps across the room. “This is crazy!”
“Look, damn it.” Murdoch brought a hand down on the desk top, rattling the green lamp shade and rocking the sextant. “Get yourself back in that chair and settle down.”
Murdoch waited until he’d been obeyed, however reluctantly. Smoldering, Johnny threw himself back into the chair next to Diego who had begun picking nervously at the seam of his jeans. “After all the hell he’s put us through, no one is more ready to see Harlan on the first available piece of transportation out of this valley than I am. But that’s not the way it’s going to be. I’m not asking you to like it, but I am telling you to keep it civil. Are we clear?”
Johnny looked away, furious. “Guess we better be,” he muttered after a moment.
“Care to repeat that?” Murdoch said, his tone hard. However much as he understood his son’s anger, it was just going to have to be one of those times. No prevarication. Just get the tune called and stick to it.
“Thank you,” Murdoch said and considered the subject closed. “Diego, your father will be home tomorrow. Let Maria know for me, would you?”
Diego grinned. “Mama already knows,”
“Doubtlessly before the ink dried on this telegram.” Murdoch returned the smile.
“How’d Cipriano make out with the bull?” Johnny asked.
“Evidently, quite well. It’s supposed to be a couple days behind him on the train. I think we should throw that on the list of reasons to celebrate. What do you boys think of roasting a hog for Sunday dinner?”
“Celebrate? You still wanna have Sunday dinner?” Johnny asked, his tone still burred but subdued.
“I do.” Murdoch let his smile widen, tickled that Johnny had been drawn in in spite of himself. “I think I’ll be hungry by then. Diego, do you think you can hold down the fort for a few hours? I’m going to be running into Green River here in a bit and I’m taking John and Teresa with me.”
“What do we gotta to go to town for?” Johnny’s look turned wary.
His amusement with Johnny quite short lived indeed, Murdoch cut his eyes over at him, chose to ignore all but the very surface of that question. “Well, if we plan on meeting payroll tomorrow I suppose one of us’d do well to get to the bank. Maria claims she’s not worried about getting paid, but threatens to either quit or go blind if her supply list isn’t filled soonish. And since we were already going that way, I offered to pick up Harlan’s belongings at the hotel.” Johnny’s face soured further at the mention of Scott’s grandfather. “And in the meantime, mister, I think you’d do well to take your crotchety self out for a session at the woodshed.”
Johnny looked for a second like he was going to argue, but Murdoch’s hard, implacable expression killed the protest in its infancy. Letting a sigh that swung perilously close a growl telegraph his discontent instead, Johnny heaved himself up out of his chair and left the room. Diego stood up behind him, albeit quite a bit less dramatically, and gave his godfather an apologetic shrug.
“Thought for sure I’d have him with Quit or Go Blind.” Murdoch shook his head.
“He’s taking all of this pretty hard,” Diego said quietly, trying to explain. “Teresa too.”
“Yes, well, I suppose I’d be even more concerned if any of you were taking this easy.” Murdoch sighed and looked around at the content of his desktop as if seeing it for the first time. “I need a few minutes alone here to get caught up,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
“I’ll go check if Mama’s feeling her sightless way about the kitchen yet or just walked off the job,” Diego said and smiled, letting Murdoch know that the joke hadn’t gone completely unappreciated.
At this Murdoch snorted and watched as Diego retreated towards the kitchen. He shook his head and absently shuffled the collection of papers around for a moment before reaching for his letter opener and slitting open the fat document from the morning mail. It really couldn’t have come at a better time. Talk about reasons to celebrate. They were all so desperately frazzled and could do with a bit of good news.
Scott lied to and laid up, Johnny and Teresa come so close to losing the brother they loved so much, all of them looking on the verge of coming undone. He couldn’t help but remember the kids’ eyes from their earliest days together. The hurt, the anger, but mainly the fear. How it tore at him to see even a hint of a return of those wary eyes.
He wanted to find a way to reassure them that what they had was strong, that they would not come apart. But he didn’t know how without it coming off sounding like a load of horse hockey. Faithless bastard that he was, no one knew better than Murdoch, things fall apart. They fall apart no matter how hard you work, how much you pray.
No worries, he’d told Harlan just a few short days ago, and shook his head now at the depths of his own foolishness. No worries at all. Damn fool thing to even think, much less say. Pride before a fall, Murry, his mother had always warned. How right she was, and he couldn’t help but think, this time they were all dangling on the precipice of a mighty big one.
The ax head whistled through the air and landed true with a satisfying thunk in the middle of the round, cutting the wood like a hot knife through butter. The splits fell away in two clean pieces and Johnny tossed them onto the pile before jiggering the blade loose from the chopping block and setting up another round. The sour feeling he’d been wearing most of the week started working its way up from the pit of his stomach again and he beat it back down with another powerful swing.
“You look hot.”
Johnny turned to see Teresa standing behind him, one hand on her hip and the other holding a large mason jar of water which looked to be sweating almost as much as he was.
“I am hot,” he said, straightening up with a split in each hand. He frowned down at them before adding them to the unruly pile he’d made and cast a not so subtle glance at the water. “Did you bring that out here to taunt me?”
Teresa’s smile was sudden and broad. At least she wasn’t laughing outright as she often did in the face of his ill-temper.
“In search of peace: Chop wood, carry water,” she said, handing over the glass. “What’re you doing out here anyway? I thought you’d be back up to sit with me and Scott as soon as Murdoch got done with you.”
Johnny set up a new round. “Murdoch doesn’t think I’m fit for company right now.” He repositioned the log for better balance. “He’s probably right. What’s your excuse?”
“Mr. Harlan,” Teresa said with a grunt and a shrug as she sat down on a nearby bench. “He pretty much kicked me out, suggested I go change into a dress or something.” She grimaced. “I suggested he looked like a lumberjack.”
Johnny snorted, pulled his gloves snug. “Scott awake for this?”
Teresa waved the notion off. “Maria’s drugged him to his eyeteeth. The charge of the Light Brigade wouldn’t have woken him up.”
Johnny snorted again and planted himself for his next swing.
“Mr. Harlan said he’d talk to Murdoch about my smart mouth if he thought it would do any good,” Teresa continued. “Apparently we’re getting away with some scandalizing amount of hot murder around here. And anyway, jeans or a dress, according to Mr. Harlan it’s not right for me to be alone with Scott. I gather because I’m not a boy.”
His anger renewed, Johnny brought the ax down with such force the round exploded and Teresa threw up an arm to block her face from the flying splinters. Johnny left the ax head, buried near to the poll, in the chop block and yanked off his gloves.
“What is wrong with you?” Teresa demanded. “You coulda put my eyes out!”
Johnny took an angry step towards the wood pile, stopped and crossed his arms tight across his chest, took a deep breath and turned back around. “Murdoch’s lettin’ Mr. Harlan stay with us for the rest of his visit.”
“At Lancer?” Teresa’s face crumpled in appalled dismay. “All the way till Monday?”
“Yeah,” Johnny grunted, his face the mirror of his sister’s, as he joined her on the bench. “And the old man’s pretty much promised dire consequences if we don’t cooperate.” Johnny managed a small smile in spite of his lingering irritability and bumped Teresa’s shoulder with his own. “So, no more lumberjack cracks, Pea. Least ways not in Murdoch’s hearing; or else you too could find yourself chopping a cord of wood for the Fat Lady.”
Teresa laughed, but her humor was short lived. “Sorry I snapped at you earlier, Johnny.”
Johnny scratched at the stubble on his cheek. “Me, too. Sorry I snapped back.” He sighed. “It’s gonna be a hulluva long few days ahead.”
“Yeah,” Teresa agreed. “No sense making matters worse being at each other’s throats and displeasing our benevolent overlord.” She sighed then stood up. “Anyway, I ought to get back to work.”
“Better stay in shoutin’ distance.” Johnny kicked a foot out, scuffing the dirt with his heel. “Murdoch’s dragging us to town with him in a couple hours.”
“He’s going to town? How come we have to go?”
“He didn’t say and I didn’t ask. But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it was to prevent the outbreak of another civil war.”
Just as Teresa was about to add her input as to the reasoning behind this sudden trip to town an incredible din started up out in the stable yard. “What on earth is all that racket?” she said instead and turned to look but found that the woodshed was blocking her view.
“Haven’t we had enough excitement for a lifetime?” Johnny grumbled, coming to his feet and making his way around the wood pile out into the yard to find out what the rumpus was about.
Jelly’s pigs had gotten loose and now they were on the stomp. All twelve of the beasts were running, spooked and squealing, hither and yon, all over the yard. Everyone in the area began to spill out of various corners, crevices, and outbuildings; some trying to help in the recapture of the runaway pigs but most just roaring, helpless with laughter. Johnny and Teresa came around into the yard and found themselves near the epicenter of the ovine pandemonium, laughing themselves. And then laughing harder still when Jelly began shouting at them about their shiftless ways and to carry their collective and narrow behinds on out to lend a hand.
Noisy. Gracious, but they were a noisy lot. It had been brushing the edge of his thoughts from the moment he’d arrived; what had it been, almost a week ago now? He’d had other, more pressing issues to occupy him at that point, though, and the last few days he’d been too busy being scared half out of his mind over Scotty’s health to really even take in those Tabors and their eight screaming brats. It had been grave yard quiet when they’d gotten back to Lancer early this morning, but grown steadily noisier as the morning progressed until reaching a steady roar. And now he was annoyed.
Not that Boston was oh so blissfully quiet. But that was normal, city noise, and when it got too much he had avenues of escape; could retreat to his office or his study. The thick glass windows and solid brick buildings provided a buffer, a sanctuary. Here, in this enormous house with nearly all of its windows and doors flung wide from dawn until well after dusk, the noise carried through the adobe walls amplified out of all proportion. And no one, not a one of them, seemed to notice. Or care! Where did a man go to collect his thoughts?
Decidedly, not the great room.
Harlan sighed and redoubled his efforts to concentrate on his book. The place was busier than South Station and his son-in-law’s desk was right in the middle of it. How the man got a single thing accomplished was a mystery. Never mind the incessant lowing of all of those godforsaken cattle and the general cacophony of the hired men, somebody was constantly yelling for somebody else or just yelling in general. Men, women and children—young and old—screaming from one end of this ranch to the other like a pack of wild things. He was certain that there was more peace to be found in the Boston Zoological Gardens.
That Maria girl’s barbaric children were a scandalizing second only to Murdoch’s, and combined they were the worst of the bunch. Heathens, the lot. And there was one of them now, the one called Diego, looking for his mother. Or Murdoch. Apparently either one would do. To his unending astonishment, even Scotty had taken up this appalling habit. Harlan knew he’d raised the boy better than that. One short year out in this wilderness and his grandson had run completely to seed. He blamed Murdoch and his two out of hand youngsters, Johnny and Teresa. But mostly Murdoch.
“You’ll find that life starts a bit earlier out here than it does in Boston, Sir,” his grandson had warned when he first arrived, and he found himself relieved that at least it was still ‘Sir’. Next Scott would be calling him Harlan. Or Mr. Harlan, as Johnny and Teresa did; as if this were all the deference they could muster and, worse still, all that they were expected to muster. Of course, they called their father by his given name—appalling—as did everyone else. Including the help! As far as Harlan was concerned it was quite telling. The man obviously had no control over his own house. How Scotty managed under these conditions… Well, and despite all of his efforts to train it out of him, the boy had always been a little too unreserved for Harlan’s liking. A touch too easy with his affections.
Harlan’s eyes jumped up from the page as the front door banged open and was then slammed resolutely shut.
“Murdoch!” Johnny shouted, pausing only long enough to remove his gunbelt and sling it unceremoniously onto the rack. His spurs jing-jangling, he shoved his hat off his head to hang at his back and stepped, or rather more dropped into the living room, and was halfway across before giving Harlan any of his attention. “Hey, Mr. Harlan, you seen my pa?”
“No, boy, I have not seen your father.” The words had hardly passed his lips before Johnny had wound himself up again and was back to shouting for Murdoch. He left the room and could be heard pounding up the stairs moments later.
Scarcely five minutes had passed, and Harlan was just settling back into his book, when young Teresa shot into the room, screaming for Johnny. Harlan snapped his book shut, exasperated. “Young lady.” His voice bit and she turned to him, startled. “May I speak with you for a moment?”
She came closer, but not too close, eying him warily.
“Is there some reason why you can’t walk through this house and find Johnny in a quieter fashion?” Harlan asked just as Murdoch came through the door his son had recently slammed shut, hollering for Maria as he hung up his hat.
“Que quieres?” Maria yelled back from somewhere deep in the house.
Harlan threw his book down on the end table next to his chair in defeat. “It’s no wonder they behave as they do,” he grumbled, standing to turn a baleful look on his son-in-law who appeared to have just noticed that he was not alone in the room.
“Oh, hello, Harlan,” he said with a grimace. “Teresa, have you seen Johnny?”
“Huhuh, I was just looking for him,” she said, her expression awash in a great deal of relief.
“Were you calling me?” a very harassed looking Maria asked as she joined them by way of the formal dining room.
“Uh, yeah,” Murdoch said. “I was wondering if you’ve seen John…what happened to you? You look as if you’re about to come unglued.”
“Don’t ask,” Maria said, her tone dark as she plucked a large clump of dust off her shoulder. “I heard Juanito come through about ten minutes ago. I think he is upstairs.”
“Teresa, go find your brother and the both of you meet me out by the corrals,” Murdoch ordered and Teresa paused, her face clouding over for a moment as she seemed to be making up her mind about something. “Well, go on.” Murdoch nudged her and she managed to walk most of the way out of the room, even seemed to be dragging her heels a little, but then was off like a shot as she reached the hall door, screaming Johnny’s name.
“He’s up here!” Scott bellowed from upstairs, confirming the housekeeper’s suspicion.
And Maria left too, grumbling about clutter in attics. Harlan turned on his son-in-law after another door banged shut behind her.
“This place is a madhouse!”
“See, that’s where you have to make up your mind, Harlan. Is it a house of horrors or is it a madhouse?”
“Oh, it’s both, for heaven sakes! You have let the lot of them run completely wild.”
“Are you really lecturing me on how to run my mad house of horrors?” Murdoch was mostly unmoved as he glanced to the ceiling at some pretty serious thumping and bumping coming from above. “Really?”
“Well, anyone can see that there is room for improvement,” Harlan looked for a second like he didn’t even know where to begin. “Taxidermied house cats… and that girl of yours, I don’t know what alley you rescued her from but it is improper in the extreme, leaving her alone behind closed doors with Scotty.”
“Actually, it’s not.” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Also, ‘that girl’ has a name. It’s Teresa, please use it.”
“Well, does Teresa own a dress? Tell me I look like a lumberjack, I would swear the girl had never heard of them.”
“With this tribe, you really do learn to pick your battles.” Murdoch had the gall to smile. “I’m kind of surprised you picked that particular ax to grind. I would have thought for sure that we’d be having a discussion about that mouth of hers by now.”
“I was getting to that,” Harlan’s tone was grim.
This time Murdoch did laugh. “That is a battle we do choose to fight.”
“I’m sure I don’t understand any of this ‘we’ business. I would have thought matters of discipline were yours and yours alone.”
“Think of it as pluralis majestatis if that helps things set a little easier in your mind.”
“You’re talking in circles.”
“No, I’m just not going to discuss ‘matters of discipline’ with you. Look, we do have our own way of running things around here, and I know this must all seem quite foreign to you, but you’re just going to have to either adjust or keep scratching your head. It’s really all the same to me, so long as you stay focused on the reason why you’re here and otherwise let my kids alone.”
Harlan drew himself up to lodge a formal protest, but Murdoch waved him silent.
“And that, I think, really ought cover the salient matters at hand here. Freeze!” he suddenly snapped, turning to the hall doorway and startling Harlan with the abruptness of the conversational shift. To his complete astonishment Johnny and Teresa materialized from behind the wall. “Front and center.”
Murdoch pointed to the floor directly in front of him and waited until they were on the move before giving his attention back over to Harlan. “Oh! Maria said something this morning about supper at six. We should be back well before then. Enjoy your book.” He leaned in to get a better look at the cover. “Bleak House…Hm.” Shaking his head, he turned back to Johnny and Teresa, clamping a firm hand on a shoulder a piece. “I thought I told you two to wait for me out at the corrals. This isn’t the corrals.”
“But, Murdoch…” Teresa began to protest only to be cut off.
“Don’t ‘but, Murdoch’ me,” he said as he herded them through the veranda doors. These they left open.
“We were on our way,” Johnny grumbled.
“Uhhu,” Murdoch was saying when Scott shouted down to him. Harlan began to gravitate toward the veranda at the sound of his grandson’s voice as Murdoch turned to face the upstairs terrace. “What is it, Son?”
“Don’t forget the schmackle.”
Harlan paused at this, wondering if Scott’s concussion was more pronounced than anyone had suspected; if he had, in fact, lost command of the English language. But then Murdoch seemed to know what the boy was talking about. “I’ve got it.” he said, waving Scott off.
“Madhouse,” Harlan said under his breath, stopping almost to the veranda doors.
“Got what?” Johnny butted in and was roundly ignored. He looked to Teresa for answers and she shrugged.
“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” Murdoch asked.
“I’m fine.” Harlan barely made out Scott’s voice and took another step toward the veranda doors as Teresa edged in closer to Murdoch who put an arm around her shoulders. “You all go on ahead. I’ll find some way to amuse myself.”
“We should be back by supper. Maria’s around here somewhere…doing heaven knows what. And your grandfather’s right here,” Murdoch spared Harlan a glance, “if you need anything.”
“You know, Murdoch, you do a really good impression of a mother bear. You might consider taking that show on the road.”
“Subtle.” Murdoch cast Scott an appreciative smirk. “And did you know, just because your eyes are crossed doesn’t mean I won’t come up there and rattle that head of yours, my son.”
“Head’s already rattled,” Scott pointed out, and Harlan felt a stab of guilt. It was for his own good, he told himself again, tamping the alien feeling back down.
“Hmm. So it is,” Murdoch conceded, smiling.
“Scott, what’s he got?” Johnny tried again, looking up to the second story terrace, and apparently receiving no kind of satisfactory answer, he crowded up to his father. “What’s the schmackle?”
“None of your business, how ‘bout that?” Murdoch said, nudging him out of the way.
“How ‘bout it’s time to Hop On Pop?” Johnny said and Teresa heartily agreed.
“Now you two cut it out! It is not time to Hop On Pop,” Murdoch protested, laughing as he let Johnny and Teresa herd him off to the buckboard waiting by the corrals. “See you in a few hours, Son.”
“Bring him back in one piece, guys,” Scott called after them. “He’s the only pop we’ve got.”
For the boy’s own good, Harlan tried again to bolster his flagging confidence in the notion that he’d held with such single-minded conviction for…well, for Scott’s whole life; and certainly through this last year while he made his plans for getting his grandson back to Boston, where he belonged; all the way across the continent to California, through some of the most godforsaken wilderness in the country, he’d held the thought firmly; and finally to this ranch out in the back end of beyond. All the way until he’d laid eyes on his grandson three days ago, all bloodied and bandaged and in some shabby stranger house, when it came painfully clear how close he’d come to destroying the very thing he cared for most in the world.
Jenkins had said upon his initial examination that while Scotty was certainly concussed, he would be fine. Hard-headed—like his father, the doctor had said. Like his father… Harlan couldn’t help the red tongue of irritation that licked at his heart, now as then, at just the thought of that witch doctor, with his snake oils and potions. Next he’d be letting Scott’s blood. Harlan doubted that the man had ever had any kind of proper medical training, or was even qualified to treat barn animals, much less his grandson. But Murdoch had won that round and Jenkins has been allowed to “treat” Scott. Only because he was still a bit shaken up from that nasty little shoot-out with those barbarians, the Degans, he consoled himself. He would have never let Murdoch get away with such high-handedness otherwise.
With Murdoch and those other two heathens well on their way, the noise around the house had dampened down to a dull roar and Harlan decided to venture up to Scott’s room to see if he wanted some help back to his bed. At that Maria girl’s insistence, they had set up a little divan out on his balcony so that he could get some fresh air. Harlan personally felt that, while the fresh air was most likely good for him, all of that sun would do nothing but turn his skin brown, ruddy and common. Or rather, more so than it already was. Why, he was getting as dark as some of those Mexican cowhands. But Scott, still out on the divan, had turned away just as Harlan walked into the room, pulled the light sheet up over himself with a sigh and seemed to be settling down to a nap. Always did need to have some sort of covering over him to sleep, no matter the temperature which was already blazing at this early hour and promising to soar.
“Oh, Scotty…” Harlan reached towards his grandson’s head and then pulled up short, maybe because of the impressive amount of bandage still wrapped around it like a turban, making him look like some sort of swami from those books about Arabian knights and genies and such that he used to read on the sly when he was a boy. Harlan settled for pulling the light cotton sheet a little higher up on his grandson’s shoulders, let his hand rest there for a moment, before retreating from the room.
They weren’t but a half hour into the hour long drive and he was pretty sure if he stayed in his jacket much longer that he’d burst directly into flames. It had to be ninety degrees. He resisted the urge to shift, squirm, and itch his back against the seat rail as a fat bead of sweat trickled between his shoulder blades then inched in maddening fits and starts the rest of the way down his back before soaking into the waistband of his pants. He’d been fighting off the urge to fidget for what had to be almost fifteen whole minutes – maybe a record – but Johnny knew he wasn’t far from losing his little private battle.
Murdoch had gotten serious about them letting him alone to drive. And after threatening to pull over and kick them both out Teresa settled in the wagon bed with the book she had stashed under the driver’s box leaving Johnny to fend off the boredom on his own. He’d hunkered down and tried to let the whirring crickets and trees flickering by, green and brown, beneath the brim of his tipped down hat lull him into some much needed sleep but it wouldn’t come, his thoughts kicked up like so much dirt beneath Ol’ Bessie’s feet. He was wrung out from the ordeal of getting Scott home – hell he was wrung out from the ordeal of the whole last week.
Had there ever been a worse one? Maybe, he thought, but it just wasn’t coming to him. If the heat didn’t get him then trying to untangle the mess of Scott’s grandfather’s visit surely would. He had most of the story at this point but he’d be a lie if he said he all the way understood half of what went on. This thing had gone far beyond blind desire, way past the thin line between love and hate. Credit his father anyway for creating a space for Scott to find the grandfather he loved in the midst of the shambles the old man had made of their relationship. Credit him again for locating the charity to do it. Johnny wasn’t sure he could be so generous.
He sure felt bad for Scott’s old flame, getting dragged into Harlan’s schemes – the old man was holding something over her for sure – but Johnny couldn’t say he was sorry to see her go. She was pretty alright. Beautiful. But there was something about Julie that just didn’t run true. Johnny found himself wondering, not for the first time, how it would have gone had they decided to pick up where they left off and get married. And it made him feel a little treacherous and sick inside. He just couldn’t figure what it was that Scott had ever seen in her. He’d chalked it up to his brother having been a different man back then, a younger man, and tried to let it go at that.
They’d gotten engaged before Scott had gone off to his war. Childhood sweethearts, he explained while Johnny sat with him that first night over at the Tabors, both of them waiting for Murdoch to come back. They’d covered quite a bit of territory in those small hours. Scott, for all his brutal silence the night before, after telling them he was leaving for good, seemed to need it. He wanted to try and explain. He’d come back from that war altogether changed, didn’t fit anymore. Not in Boston, not with Julie. Not in his own skin. It wasn't the whole reason why he'd accepted the 1000 Dollar Hour invitation, but it was pretty high up there.
Apparently, Harlan didn't feel that going West was one of Scott better ideas and had been campaigning to keep him in Boston, and then to get him back there, ever since. And when that didn't work, the old man decided to break out the big guns. The ex and those Degans. He almost felt bad for them too. Almost.
“Murdoch?” Johnny finally blurted as he shoved himself up in his seat and gave in to the desire to scratch his back on the seat post. This line of thinking wasn’t going to get him anywhere. The urgent cut of his voice startled them both, and he felt his father’s glance even though his face was still hidden by the low tip of his hat.
“Thought you were asleep,” Murdoch answered and Johnny detected a hint of a smile in his voice. “Teresa certainly is.”
“Was tryin’ to be.” Johnny pushed his hat back off his face and shot a quick glance to the back of the wagon, reassuring himself that Teresa hadn’t been carried off by eagles before resettling in the slouch into which he’d sunk a half hour before. “Looks like someone knocked her out cold and dropped her back there.”
“And none too carefully,” Murdoch chuckled. “What’s on your mind, Son?”
Feeling suddenly and unaccountably put on the spot, Johnny made a needless readjustment of his hat, blushing clear up to the brim as if Murdoch had asked him if he knew about the birds and the bees.
“Mr Harlan sure is a piece of work.”
Murdoch was thoroughly amused. “That, Johnny, my boy, might be the kindest thing that’s been said about him lately.”
The return of his father’s humor, a thing which had been conspicuously absent since they found out Mr Harlan was coming three weeks ago, went a long ways toward easing Johnny’s mind. They hadn’t exactly been tiptoeing around on eggshells, but hadn't been far off. Living with Murdoch lately had been kind of like living with a bear. Scott had gone all strange too, closed up like he had been when they first met. Thank goodness he still had Teresa, she had been excited as hell to meet a Scott’s real-live, in-the-flesh grandpa.
And truth told he had been curious himself, wondered what kind of man he would be that had raised his brother. How much of Scott would they see in Harlan Garrett? He had thought, hoped anyway, that Harlan’s arrival would prove all of this upset to amount to a tempest in a teacup. Boy, he’d never been so wrong about a thing. Far from setting things aright, Harlan’s coming had managed to shove the whole damn household off the deep end.
“I sure would like to know what was on his mind.”
“Are loneliness and desperation so hard to figure, Johnny?”
It was Johnny’s turn to be taken aback. “Sounds like you’re defending him.”
“Let’s just say I have a certain amount of understanding for where he’s coming from. I can empathize with the man without condoning his actions.”
“Why? Did you charge out to Boston with a suitcase full of plots and schemes and an old flame just in case, storm the Garrett mansion and try to snatch poor young Scotty out of Harlan’s clutches?”
“Nothing so dramatic as all that.”
Johnny sat for a moment with that truth.
“So you went?”
“Yes, Son. I went.”
“Does Scott know?”
“Do you think I would be talking with you about it if he didn’t?”
The answer was so obvious Johnny didn’t even bother with it. He apologized instead. “I’m sorry I cussed you this morning. Just came up on me a little too sudden, I guess.”
Murdoch reached over, never taking his eyes off the road, and gave Johnny’s leg a quick pat.
“Scott was surprised too.” Johnny forded on. “I talked to him a bit before we left.”
“Oh, you did, did you?”
“I guess he’s not so sure he wants his grandfather around right now. Said he didn’t know if this was gift or a lump of coal. But he was leaning towards coal.”
Murdoch snorted. “I believe Harlan himself will be the deciding factor on that. One hopes it turns out to be a gift, but I think Scott will be grateful to know the true cut of the man, one way or the other, in the end.”
“It’s funny, strange I mean, that all of us had one parent lying about the other.” He threw this information out there, testing the waters, fully expecting that his father didn’t even know the half.
Murdoch sighed. “I’ve long suspected that this unfortunate commonality is what pulled the three of you together early on.”
Johnny looked at his father’s profile in no small amount of wonder. Murdoch had been doing that to them a lot lately, just when they though he wasn’t paying them the slightest bit of attention he’d come out with something like this. Johnny shook his head. “Well, we kind of liked each other, too, you know.”
Murdoch’s smile then, brief though it was, washed some of the tension out of his face. The hand at the back of Johnny’s neck was warm, calloused, and comforting. “I suspected that as well.”
Johnny picked a leaf off a low hanging branch of an old maple as they passed it by and had it shredded to the point of unrecognizability before he spoke again.
“I ain’t getting’ all dressed up for dinner tonight,” Johnny didn’t know why he even cared, just suddenly felt that he needed to make a stand somewhere in all of this. Then again he really was hot enough to go boom.
“Me neither,” Teresa roused herself just long enough to add. “Not even for the Fat Lady.”
Murdoch’s great snort was followed by a good deal of laughter. “Noted,” he more or less agreed and handed Johnny a canteen.
“Murdoch?” Johnny passed the canteen back to his sister, whose eyes narrowed at the tone. But their father didn’t catch it, he was still full of humor.
“Scott's known that you didn’t abandoned him for a long time.”
Murdoch sobered instantly and his face turned to stone. His answer was long enough coming that Johnny figured he wasn’t going to get one. “I know,” he said and kissed the horses up into a ground covering lope.
When Murdoch first came to the San Joaquin there had been no such thing as the town of Green River. As these things went, for years there was only Morro Coyo, which had grown up with the area and had itself been part of Rancho Campo de los Franceses during the time of the Californios. Even now, going there was like stepping back in time to Old Mexico. It was a dying town, though, the process helped along by the savage attempted land grab last year.
Almost in answer the lawless nest, Spanish Wells sprang up to fill the void though it quickly became little more than an outpost for every criminal in the area. Scott (and a reluctant Johnny) tried to do something about the situation there, spending a considerable chunk of their father's money to do it. Murdoch hadn't really minded though. He could certainly think of worse, and far less altruistic, ways to spend a few thousand dollars. They had a jail built, even got the governor to send law enforcement. But the law man didn't last, had yet to be replaced, and all of the businesses of any repute: blacksmiths and stables, supply and grain stores, hotels and restaurants, no one ever dared establish a bank but the churches (which were already precious few) and the one school had pulled up stakes. Some relocated to back to Morro, but most came to Green River.
No throbbing metropolis by the stretch of anyone's imagination, certainly no Boston, Green River was as close as they got around these parts and were Murdoch preferred to do business. It was the town closest to his front door, that helped. But more than the convenience, he liked the mix. Mexico meets the States in its architecture, its people, and consequently its sensibility. It reflected well the make-up of his family, of the folks that worked and lived on the ranch. It had a little something for everyone and Murdoch liked his family rooted in that particular community.
It was almost noon and the sun really beginning to brand by the time he guided the wagon down its main road baked hard, the paint of its building facades seared dull from the heat and dust. The Adobe more tan than pink. Murdoch smiled at the rail thin three legged dog, chasing his own tail around the fountain at the center of town. It was the liveliest thing going at the moment. Most of the storefronts were shuttered, their owners gone home for lunch and siesta. Johnny had finally settled down for a siesta of his own several miles back, Teresa not far behind. Murdoch and the dog were just about it for signs of life in town at the moment, them and Louisa Baldomero, who was out sweeping the walk when he pulled to a stop in front of her family’s mercantile store.
Murdoch lifted his hat and smiled in greeting, surprised that she was still open. Mrs Baldomero paused in her chore to return the gesture with a smile of her own.
He tied the reins off to the hand break and reached under the seat for a canteen before swatting Johnny on the thigh. “We’re here,” he said and shook the canteen before taking a swig and handing it over to his son, who was blinking owlishly, taking in his surroundings. “Drink up.”
Murdoch hopped stiffly down, his boots kicking up a cloud of dust as they hit the ground, and he noted a flickering of the curtain at the doctor’s office across the street. This he ignored, and stretched before making his way to the side of the wagon. Johnny had taken no time at all to recover himself and was already flirting shamelessly with Mrs. Baldomero while Murdoch got Teresa sitting up and awake. “Come on, Pea, take some water.”
“Phew!” Teresa sighed after drinking deeply, a hot breeze picking up the many wayward tendrils of her hair. “I was having the best dream!” She stood a little unsteadily and grabbed hold of the back of the wagon’s seat, preparing to vault over the side.
“Would you please just come down off the tailgate, Teresa,” Murdoch grumbled.
“Oh, yeah!” Teresa remembered herself with a smile. “It was a flying dream,” she continued, lifting her free arm like a wing as Murdoch took her other hand to help her to the ground. “I could fly just everywhere and it wasn’t even scary; like I knew how to do it all along. Howdy, Mrs. Baldomero!”
Smiling, Murdoch shook his head, and plucked a stray piece of straw out of Teresa’s hair. “How are you doing, Louisa?”
“Very well, Señor Murdoch, very glad to see you. Come in, come in! Before this heat becomes our ruin,” Louisa said as she led them all inside.
“Have you had word from Adolfo?” Murdoch inquired after her husband. “I hear he’s been out of town.”
“Yes, he has had to go home to Zacatecas for a time,” Louisa reported. “His youngest sister is to be married.”
Murdoch chose to ignore the somewhat dire tone of the news and extend his congratulations.
“Humph,” Louisa said. “That little hussy. She is lucky that any man will have her at all, running off with that horrible bandito. Baldomero Senior has had to pay an extra thousand into her dowry.”
“Let that be a lesson to you, Teresa,” Johnny said with a smirk, and hopped nimbly away before the heel of her boot could come crashing down on his foot.
“I guess that’s just about enough out of the two of you,” Murdoch warned.
“Oh, I doubt we will ever have to worry about such things with this one,” Louisa said, laughing and pulling Teresa in for a light hug as the front door bell signaled the entrance of a new customer. A pleasantly plump older gentleman, dressed head to toe in an excruciating amount of black broad cloth came through the door. “Ah, Doctor Jenkins!”
“Louisa, good to see you.” The doctor’s gaze traveled from Mrs. Baldomero to Johnny then to Teresa before finally settling with a grimace on Murdoch.
“You must be supernatural, Jenkins. Or was it my wallet that you smelled?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you are accusing me of, Murdoch,” the doctor began to explain. “I saw you pull up…”
“Mhhm.” Murdoch was dubious. “Yes, I saw you see me pull up. Business must be slow.”
Jenkins ignored the dig. “And hoped that you weren’t avoiding me.”
“Avoiding you?” Murdoch crossed his arms over his chest. “Now why on earth would I be avoiding you, Jenkins?”
“Fear is a powerful motivator, my friend.”
“Oh, this I don’t need.”
“Hmm, I think maybe you do need,” Johnny said, nudging his father towards the door.
“The chessboard is still set up, Murdoch.” Jenkins shrugged with practiced unconcern. “If you’re game.”
“I was wondering when you planned to get to that.”
“You just keep still over there,” Murdoch cut his eyes over at her in warning.
Teresa rolled her hers. “How long’ve you two been at this latest game, Doc?” she asked, ignoring the warning completely.
Jenkins looked at a loss for a moment while he thought back. “A month?” He looked to his friend for confirmation.
“Month and a half, maybe?” Murdoch wasn’t terribly certain himself.
“You have been playing the same chess game for a month and a half?” Mrs. Baldomero asked in disbelief. Murdoch’s game of cold persecution was well known the valley wide.
“Only because they spend most of their time bulling each other than actually playing,” Johnny said, nudging his father again.
“Mm,” Teresa agreed, sending a knowing glance her brother’s way. “That and arguing over whose turn it is to hold the twenty-dollar gold piece they’ve been passing back and forth for at least as long as I’ve been alive,” Teresa said, nudging Murdoch closer still towards the door.
“Which is not long enough for this much sass, young lady,” Murdoch grumbled, much to Doctor Jenkins’ amusement.
“I’ll give you a refresher if you need,” Jenkins assured, “just to get you caught up on the finer points. It’s been a while and I know you’re getting forgetful in your advancing years.”
Johnny coughed into his fist to disguise another snort of laughter.
“Moving the pieces around to your advantage is probably a bit closer to the case, you devious, fat old quack,” Murdoch countered.
“Say what you will about my upbringing and ability to practice medicine, sir,” Jenkins admonished. “But if you must stoop to bringing my figure into it then, please—rotund.”
Murdoch couldn’t help it. He barked in laughter as he dug a slip of paper out of his pocket and quickly scanned it before handing it over to Johnny. “Payroll, Son.”
“I got it, Murdoch,” Johnny assured, smiling.
“Teresa, your books…”
“I know, I know,” she groaned.
“And Louisa, is the…”
“It is here, Senor Murdoch. I have it all ready to go.”
“What’s here? Is it the schmackle?” Teresa asked.
“Never you mind about the schmackle.” Murdoch brought her head to his chest and gave Johnny a pointed look. “Just don’t forget to pick up the payroll, that’s all.”
“We’ll get everything taken care of, Pa,” Johnny promised with a wink and a toothy grin. “Don’t you worry.”
‘Pa,” Murdoch grumbled to hide his delight. “And when next we meet I expect to be able to see your ears, my beamish boy.”
“My ears? That your fancy way of tellin’ me I need a haircut?”
“Your ears, John.” Murdoch picked Johnny’s hat up off his head with his free hand and squashed it back down over his face before releasing Teresa with a kiss to the top of her head. “And your collar.”
“Have fun storming the castle!” Teresa called as the doorbell tinkled again. This time Jenkins opened the door for his friend.
“Age before beauty.”
“You’ve got to be hot,” Murdoch commented as he left the store. “Why on earth are you wearing so much black?”
“Martha says it’s slimming,” Jenkins said, running both hands down his sides to his hips. “So how’s it going with your dad?”
“Please don’t call him that,” Murdoch groaned as he closed the door behind them.
Johnny and Teresa were out on Green River’s dry, dusty boardwalk not long behind Murdoch and Doctor Jenkins. Having spent a good deal of time unsuccessfully trying to wheedle the mystery of the schmackle out of Mrs. Baldomero, she finally drummed them out of her store with a sack of honey sticks so that she could fill Maria’s supply order in peace. The town was starting to wake back up now that they had made it to the other side of the heat of the day.
“You wanna split up?” Johnny asked and tipped his hat to the smithy who’d shouted a howdy to them as she drove her wagon by. Teresa dropped a rough curtsy and Hatty laughed and slapped her leg. Johnny scratched at the stubble on his cheek and then answered his own question. “Let’s split up. You books, me bank, and we’ll meet back here in an hour.”
“Don’t forget your ears,” Teresa reminded him, tweaking his left lobe as they made their way down the boardwalk.
“Yeah, well…” Johnny began to grumble but then realized he had bigger, far more immediate fish to fry than an unwanted haircut as the Mayor’s wife rounded the corner with purpose.
Teresa took a sharp breath and they jumped into the nearest doorway, no time to see where it led. A moment later the door was opened behind them unexpectedly and they all but fell inside.
“What are you two no-accounts doing loiterin’ around my door?” a gravelly voice demanded. Their large eyes and silent pleas for discretion were no less demanding as they scrambled deeper into the room.
Their host stuck his head out the door to see what all the fuss was about and nearly had it taken off as Mrs. Hicks came upon him. Then the mayor’s wife opened her mouth and he wished it had.
“Sheriff! Sheriff Crawford! A word if I may.”
The baleful glance that Val Crawford cast back into his office would have burnt Johnny and Teresa to the ground had they been in any position to catch it. As it was, they’d stashed themselves in a dim corner near the coffee pot and Val’s old socks; a stinky choice, to be sure, but better than the alternative.
“Howdy, Bea,” Val adjusted his vest as he turned back to the door, standing full in it now, in hopes of blocking Mrs. Hicks from coming all the way in. “What can I do for you.”
But his boney self was no match for her considerable bulk. She all but pushed him aside and sailed into the room, physically and verbally.
“What you can do, Sir, is tell me just what you intend on doing about those miscreants, those Degan boys. As I understand it, Scott Lancer is refusing to press charges!”
It might be the first, and almost certainly the last time Val found himself agreeing with anything coming out of Bea Hicks’ mouth. He couldn’t pretend to understand it either, but Scott flat refused to swear out any charges against the Degans, his grandfather either. Lucky the three of them, Val had thought as he left Scott all bloodied and bruised up at the Tabors three days ago. He’d have happily put them all under the jail. “This has gone far enough,” was Scott’s decision. Maybe. But it didn’t mean Val couldn’t at least lock those Degans up for a few days for shooting up the countryside like a couple of reckless assholes.
“Can’t do anything about it Ma’am,” Val said. “If he don’t wanna press charges there ain’t a thing in the world I can do. Lessin you two have managed to talk some sense into your brother.” Val turned on Johnny and Teresa, effectively throwing them under the stage coach.
“His decision, Val,” Johnny said, pushing off the wall. “And anyway, I’m not tryin’ to talk him into changin’ his mind because I happen to think he’s right.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t see the wrong in letting those men go free to roam the streets of Green River, John Lancer!”
Teresa stepped around Johnny with a purpose, one Johnny has some idea of as he’d seen the fire ignite his sister’s eyes.
“No Ma’am,” Johnny jumped in before Teresa could open her mouth and things went from frying pan to fire. “I don’t see the wrong in turnin’ the other cheek. Not in this case.”
“Anyway, ain’t no miscreants roaming the streets of Green River,” Val said. “Not those particular ones anyway. I’ve got ‘em on ice until the next stage comes through and I can put them on it.”
“So, there, see. Nothing to worry about, Ma’am.” Teresa said through gritted teeth and Johnny almost snorted.
Mrs. Hicks’ zeroed in on Teresa with narrowed eyes. “Does Murdoch know you’re in town in this condition, young lady?”
“Uh, yes’m,” Teresa answered, not sure exactly what condition that might be.
“Honestly, the things you young people get away with these days. When I was a girl, we did as our elders bid and said thank you for the pleasure. Never mind all the back-talk and sass. I wouldn’t have been caught dead or alive!”
“Right, is there anything else you need, Bea?”
“Just you make sure those Degan don’t get the opportunity to besmirch the good name of this community any further, Sheriff.”
Teresa hooked a pane of the green shade covering Val’s barred window with her finger as Mrs. Hicks sailed back out the door just as Murdoch stepped out of Jenkins’ office a few doors up. She couldn’t exactly see his face, but she could imagine the look on it as he spied Mrs. Hicks with his little eye and jumped back in the door. She laughed, but it was a dark thing.
“Know what I think?” she said. “I think Mr Harlan ought to stay with the Hicks for the rest of his visit. Serve them all just right.”
“Esco.” He didn’t bother opening his eyes for Maria as she sat down on the edge of the small couch and laid the back of her hand on his cheek. “Esco?”
“I’m awake,” he mumbled, still half asleep.
“You should come in out of this sun for a while before you burn.”
“I’m fine,” he said, drowsy.
“Now you are fine. Soon you will be as red as a tamale. Come. I brought you some cold soup for lunch.”
“Lunch?” At this his eyes popped open independently only to slam shut again at the surprising amount of light. “What time is it?”
“Lunch time,” Maria said and felt his other cheek.
“Cold soup?” he asked, catching up.
“Gazpacho, niño, it will make you feel better,”
Scott had to privately admit that it was getting a bit sweltery out on the terrace and that cool soup would be nice. He pushed back his covering and Maria got up to make room for him to swing his legs over the side.
“Are they back yet?” he asked, pulling his fingers through his sleep tousled hair.
“Not yet. I expect them any time though. Your father said that they would be returning in a few hours, and that was a few hours ago. Come, come.” Maria bullied him off the couch. “Can you make it, or do you need some help?” she asked.
“I can make it,” Scott muttered somewhat irritably as he tottered up off his chair, looking like he’d just put away half a bottle of scotch. Maria obviously had her doubts, but stood back anyway and let him at least try. And then got a securing arm around his waist when, before he’d even managed two solid steps, Scott lurched awkwardly and it looked as if he were about to pitch right off the porch. “Don’t think I’m quite ready for these dizzying heights yet.”
“Boracho,” she said, amused. “You look like you are drunk.”
“I have never been that drunk.”
Smiling, Maria helped him over the threshold. “That’s the way, it is important to keep in good humor.”
“You sound like my father.”
“Well, we have known each other for a very long time.”
“Do you want lunch at your table or in your bed?”
“Table. I’ve been in bed for three days and I’m sick of it.”
“Then you must be getting well.” She tried not to hover and let him lower himself down into the chair under as much of his own steam as seemed prudent given the circumstances. Catching sight of the Gift, Maria crossed herself. “Gato del Diablo,” she muttered as she moved to the bed. “Has your abuelo been to see you – your grandfather?”
“This morning,” he answered, settling in. “Briefly.”
Scott heard the old man come in just after his father left for town with Johnny and Teresa. He knew it was childish, but he just wasn’t ready to face him alone yet, and so he pretended to be asleep
“Johnny and Teresa tell me that Murdoch invited him to stay here for the rest of his visit.”
“Yes, I have made up a room across the hall,” Maria said, unceremoniously tearing the old sheets from his bed and went to work remaking it with fresh linens. “It is good. It is a good start.”
“I’m not so sure that I would call it that exactly.”
Maria glanced at him sharply. “You must not do that, Esco. I know that his visit has been – difficult, not all that you would have wished.”
Scott snorted and Maria ignored him.
“This is an opportunity, niño, not a punishment,” she said as she snapped down the top sheet with practiced force. “If you do not take it, there will be regret.” She beat the pillows into fluffed submission. “But I am not telling you anything that you do not already know.”
Scott quietly watched her, not wanting to hear this but knowing he needed to, hardly daring to breathe lest he break her mood.
“Su papa has given you the gift of time, Esco. You would do well to use it wisely.” Maria straightened up to eye the neatly made bed with the masterly squint of veteran bed-maker, nudged a pillow in line. “Forgiveness, niño. Your abuelo will come around.”
“It’s going to take a lot of forgiveness,” Scott mumbled thickly around the sudden knot in his throat.
Maria turned her appraising eye on him. “Yes,” she said, crossing the room to him. “But I think you are up to it.”
They both turned to the window as they heard a wagon pull into the yard below. Maria pulled one panel of the curtain back. “Ah! They are home, and I need to get to the rest of lunch.”
“Go.” He waved her off before she started fussing him. “Go. I’ll be fine.”
‘Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“I just want my life back,” Scott muttered, sinking into the cushions of his chair. “If you could get me my life back, that would be wonderful.”
“Oh, Milagro. Nothing is lost. You’re life is right here.” Maria dropped a kiss on top of his head. “It is right here.”
Left to his devises, Scott settled back in his chair, listening to the bustle of life around him and studied the gold-green hills rolling up to the mountains. He tried to study them anyway, in spite of the somewhat disconcerting fact that they appeared to be trying to flip up off the horizon in weird fractured chunks. He blinked hard a few times, concentrating his efforts on holding his world in place, if not in one piece. Seemed like that was all he’d been doing for the last week, even before the concussion currently wreaking havoc with his head.
He knew, almost from the minute he picked the old man up from the train station at Cross Creek, he’d been right to worry. But never, not in his wildest imaginings, had he dreamed it would go this badly. Julie. The Degans. The man had descended on their lives with all the grace of a sledge hammer. The last week had been an eye-opener on pretty much every level, left Scott on shaky ground with himself; never mind Harlan. But lessons had most definitely been learned, not the least of which: the condition of his well-being was his responsibility to safeguard with vigilance.
At least he was home, he thought. And he knew, maybe for sure for the first time, that it wasn’t just a convenient name to slap on the place for lack of a better. He was home. Now to try and make himself believe that Maria was right, that nothing was really lost after all and that somewhere in his heart he was up to all of this forgiveness she seemed so sure he was capable of. He could always take a page out of his father’s book, who, against all reason, had invited Harlan into his house when it had to be the last thing on earth he wanted to do. Murdoch was trying to give grandfather and grandson a chance to make amends, practicing the forgiveness for which he was advocating.
Sighing, Scott looked up at the sound of footsteps making a ponderous progress up the stairs, unsure if it was the unending nightmare which characterized his grandfather’s visit thus far or the wildly splicing world on the other side of his eyelids that was causing the dull throb in his head. Rubbing at his temples, he decided probably both, and waited for his father’s large form to fill most of his bedroom door.
Murdoch leaned there a moment, holding a mug of beer and brown paper wrapped package in one hand and a few small bottles in the other.
“That for me?” Scott pointed hopefully to the beer.
“Not yet, Son,” Murdoch said, smiling as he pushed off the door frame to come into the room.
“Well, that’s just not even fair,” Scott grumbled.
“How about this: You eat a few bites of that soup and finish your water and then we can negotiate.”
“I’ll get back to you on that as soon as I figure out which of these spoons is the real deal,” Scott sighed.
Murdoch turned the spoon’s handle to set in the bowl to Scott’s right hand. “It’s this one.”
So, you made it to town and back again in one piece,” he said, after taking a spoonful of soup and finding it to be quite tasty. “Johnny and Teresa raze Green River to the ground instead?”
Murdoch’s smile broadened. “Town is still standing, and they’ll be up to see you after they get some lunch. Mrs. Baldomero sends her well wishes, by the way.” The smile faded as he felt Scott’s cheek. “I wish you’d throw off the rest of that fever,” he said as he gave the cheek a pat before taking a seat in the chair across the small table from Scott. “I know you’re probably sick of me asking, but how’s the head?”
"It’s fine.” Scott said, but changed his tune at his father’s deeply exasperated look. “Okay, it hurts some. Mostly itches.”
Murdoch rolled his eyes and began shuffling through the various bottles he was still holding. Finding the one he wanted, he stuffed the other two beside himself on the chair. “Here.” He shook a couple of small white pills out of the remaining bottle. “Take these.”
It was Scott’s turn to give his father a sour look. “More medicine?”
“Some new-fangled thing Jenkins gave to me for you. He says it’ll help with the headache and bring down that fever, with the added benefit of being a helluva lot easier to swallow than Maria’s willow bark tea.”
“Well, if it gets me out of the willow bark tea…” Scott fingered the pills. “They look like little candies. Am I supposed to chew them?”
“Jenkins says to just swallow them down with some water.”
“You saw Jenkins, huh?” Scott asked after taking the pills. “Who’s holding the twenty dollar gold piece now?”
“He is, the cheating old coot. I’ll fix his wagons,” Murdoch said, and Scott laughed at his father’s dark tone. “Sunday.”
“What happens on Sunday?” Scott pictured the two old friends standing before one another, a gauntlet thrown down in the dust, Murdoch demanding satisfaction.
“He’s coming out to have a look at you.”
Scott sighed. The picture he was quickly building in his head of their duel, which involved swords and capes, was just as quickly destroyed. “I could do with a little less poking and prodding.”
“You just have to give it time, Son. We’ll have you back up on your feet before you know it, and then you and those other two hooligans can get back to turning the rest of my hair gray.”
“I thought it was the blades of grass that did that to you hair,” Scott said, waving to the general outdoors.
“Well, it appears that you three are determined to finish the job. Smart Alec.” Murdoch chuckled.
“So, what’s that?” Scott pointed to the paper wrapped package Murdoch had set on the table. “Not another Pinkerton report, I hope. I don’t think I could stand it.” Scott said.
“Glad to know that concussion hasn’t interfered with your sense of humor, even if it seems to have dimmed your short-term memory.” Murdoch handed the package over to Scott. “The schmackle you requested.”
“Ah, yes. The schmackle.” Scott’s face brightened. “They’re going to love this,” he murmured to himself almost conspiratorially, then looked up at his father. “You didn’t tell them what it was, did you?”
“No. But I’ll thank you not to mention any future schmackles you don’t want them to know about within their hearing. And if you do, you’re going to have to pick the damn thing up yourself. I got no end of grief the whole way into town, and they just got worse on the way back.”
Scott laughed. “They are a nimble pair, aren’t they? Sometimes I think Brother and Sister must be made of India rubber, the way they bounce.”
“They’re going to be okay.” Murdoch paused, smiled gently. “And so are you. Better now that you’re home.”
“I haven’t changed my mind, Murdoch,” Scott sighed. “I have no plans on returning to Boston with Grandfather.”
“I believed you when you told me the first time, Son. And I’ve always known you to be a man of your word.” Murdoch eyed him carefully. “Have you spoken with Harlan about it yet?”
“A little. At the Tabor’s,” Scott said, his tone flat. “He knows I’m not going back, but beyond that, I don’t really know what to say to him right now. To be honest, I’m not sure I have anything to say.”
“One of my kids at a loss for words?” Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up and a small smile came to his lips. “I don’t believe in it.”
“I amend: I don’t have anything very nice to say right now.”
“It’s hard to know where to even begin to get into all of this, I know.” Murdoch took a sip of his beer.
“Maria tells me that it begins with forgiveness, that I should view Grandfather’s staying here as a gift and an opportunity.” Scott shot his father a pointed look. “And Johnny and Teresa tell me that I have you to thank for this opportunity.”
“Let the cat out of the bag, did they?”
“Unlike Devil Kitty over there,” Scott hooked a thumb towards the taxidermied cat sitting atop his dresser and managing to look even more sinister than usual in the waning daylight, “I fear this gift will not keep on giving and giving.”
“Well, I think that’s going to be mostly up to your grandfather, but it’s up to you whether or not you are willing to give him the chance. And, Son, however angry you are right now, however justified you are in that anger, I think you are going to regret it if you don’t.”
Scott looked up from the bite of soup he was about to take. “Do you and Maria rehearse some sort of script after we’re gone for the day? That is pretty much what she just got finished telling me.”
“Well…” Murdoch shrugged. “We’ve known each other for a long time.”
Scott took a moment to stare at his father in disbelief before shaking his head. “You two are sharing a brain, aren’t you?” he muttered, picking up another spoonful of the soup, but then, sighing again, dropped it back in the bowl. “Mostly I just feel like a bit of uncontrollable screaming.” He laughed bitterly. “But that wouldn’t be very polite of me, would it?”
“Well, I don’t think it would do
your head any good, but if you want to scream at me, go ahead. I can take
Scott snorted. “I guess I don’t really feel like screaming, but all of this…it’s such a waste of time. Energy. So unnecessary.” He shook his head. “He didn’t need to do all of this, go through all of this.”
Murdoch watched him absently chop the spoon around in the bowl for a while. “Old men make mistakes, too, Scott.”
Scott stopped chopping at the soup to study his father somberly for a moment. “This isn’t a case of fallen idols, Murdoch. I’ve known who my grandfather is, what he’s capable of, for a long time.”
“I understand that. But the cut and the thrust can feel a lot different when it’s aimed at you. I’m just saying that when some of that anger dies back you may be able to better understand his motives and maybe find your way to a bit of forgiveness for the means.”
“Why are you protecting him?” Scott snapped, fighting down the frustration welling up in his chest.
“Not him, damn it. You,” Murdoch shot his son a look that suggested now would be a very good time to pull his head out of his ass. “Always you.”
Something about his father’s tone, a strange brew of determination and fear, effectively buttoned Scott’s frustration back in check. “Make no decisions in anger still applies, right?”
Murdoch gave him a tentative smile. “Something like that.”
Just then the dinner bell began to clang as though someone was trying to summon a fire brigade, and they both jumped. Scott’s face split in the biggest, toothiest grin he possessed. Harlan, his means, and his motives were, for the moment, forgotten.
“Maria’s meal chimes like music enter in mine ears,” he said and began to laugh, really laugh for the sheer joy of it for the first time in days. “How am I ever supposed to live anywhere that doesn’t feature Devil Kitty and Fire Marshall Maria?”
“Harlan’s probably had a stroke,” Murdoch grumbled through the din and Scott laughed harder still. “One of these days I’m going to smelt that thing down and use it for horseshoes.”
“You do and she’ll just go out and get a bigger, louder one,” Scott warned, wiping at his eyes as he began to get himself back in hand.
“I’d have thought she would have skipped it at least for tonight, given your condition.”
“Life would be a dull, gray place without it, Father.”
The dinner bell stopped ringing then and ‘Father’ fell out into the silence that followed, unlooked for, unplanned, and wholly unexpected. A first. They looked at each other, both of them a bit startled. Then the laughter burbled up again and was out before Scott could do anything about stifling it and Murdoch joined him.
“Why not that too?” Scott threw up his hands.
Murdoch pushed what remained of his beer across the table to Scott. “Finish it,” he said, standing to go. “I’ll send Los Hooligans your way after they’ve had something to eat.”
"Hey, Brother,” Johnny said by way of announcing that he was coming in, a heaping plate of food in tow. “Whatcha doin’?”
“Hey, yourself,” Scott said, prying his eyes open. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think some wise-cracker slipped me a peyote button.”
“I ate peyote once.” Johnny shot his brother an impish grin. “Thought I’d just about got my head blowed off.” He gave his brother's bowl a cursory glance. "Gazpacho, huh? Maria’s gazpacho is good, but there’s not much to it. You sure you don’t want some of this?”
“I don’t think I could handle any of that, but thanks,” Scott said, watching, cross-eyed, as three of his younger brother dropped into the vacant chair to his left and thumped five plates down on the table wavering nauseatingly between them.
“How’s the head?” The Johnnys hove into one being, then shimmered and split back out into four as he picked up a few legs of fried chicken and inspected them briefly before shoving them into his mouths.
“Which one of you is asking?” Scott said, causing his brother to chuff flakes of deep fried batter out of the sides of his mouth.
“How many of me are there?” he asked.
“Six to eight,” Scott said. “Though I’m hoping to get it down to one or two before Jenkins gets out here or I’m going to have to find an alternate means of escaping these twelve walls.”
“So, getting better then.” Johnny laughed around his mouthful of food.
“Or something,” Scott said, closing his eyes again and changing the subject entirely. “So, I mean, not that I don’t relish the company, but why aren’t you downstairs having supper at the table and where is your sister?”
“She’s all mine now, huh?”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Well, if that means crazy then you have dinner in a nutshell,” Johnny said.
“What happened, did Maria produce a Pinkerton report? No, wait, Harlan invited the Degans to dinner.”
Johnny almost choked on his chicken, so sudden and uproarious was his laughter. “No, but that is good.”
“Can’t think of anything crazier than that.”
“It all started ‘cause I came in kinda late,” Johnny launched in. “I was out in the barn helpin’ Tito and Diego get Buttons all bedded down. Lost track a time.”
“She’s foaling?” Scott asked and Johnny nodded in answer. “Teresa must be beside herself.”
“Teresa’s a somethin’, alright. Anyway, Murdoch was askin’ what took me so long to get to the table and I was startin’ to tell ‘em all about it,” Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “But it seems your grandpa was worried that I might not be as clean as I could be.”
“Oh, dear lord,” Scott groaned.
“Turns out that he’s kind of a stickler about these things.”
Scott buried his face in his hands.
“Well, you know, I’m not too worried about it. I mean, I get it that he’s not too comfortable out here, around all of us.”
“Understatement,” Scott muttered.
“But, boy, he climbed all over me! It’s been a while since the last time I had my sins tallied up at the dinner table, but your grandpa just went right on up one side and down the other about my manners and my clothes and my lack of respect. There was more, I don’t even remember what all, I was really only half listening. Mostly I was looking at Murdoch, wondering what the hell to do since I don’t think either of us was expecting this when I agreed to keep it civil with the old man no matter what.”
“When did you agree to that?”
“This morning when he told me that Mr. Harlan was staying with us for the rest of his visit. And I disagreed with that plan.”
“Anyway, just as Pa was about to put a stop to it, which itself would have been a sight to behold, Teresa beat him to the punch.”
Moaning in dismay, Scott’s head dropped back into his hands. “This is going nowhere good.”
“You have no idea… Well, you probably have a really good idea,” Johnny amended around a mouthful of food. “It’s been kind of a rough week, and she’s been hanging in there like a champ, but I think Miss Teresa’s pretty much come to the end of her patience with all of this. Plus, we had a run-in with the Dragon in town this afternoon.”
“Oh, God, not Bea Hicks.”
“Oh, yes, Bea Hicks. And she was in rare form. Demanding to know what the collection of us planned to do about those miscreants Degans, marauding the streets of Green River. Your decision not to press charges ain’t sittin’ well with her. Val told her what he planned to do which was to keep feeding them Beef-N-Bean Bolt until he gets them on the first stage out of here. Said it was the least he could do.”
Now Scott was roaring with laughter.
“Teresa’s willing to leave the Degans in the capable hands of local law enforcement, but feels that your grampa might be more comfortable finishing out his stay with the Hicks, or pretty much anywhere but here. A position she made pretty crystal clear at the table tonight.”
“Oh, no!” Scott was helpless.
“Before anyone knew what was what, she’d jumped to my defense, your defense…” Johnny pursed his lips and began ticking off the list with his fingers. “The M’s. The Ranch. Basically straight down that old man’s throat.” He nodded and then shook his head. “What we learn is: she doesn’t like Mr. Harlan very much.”
“He’s not a very popular man around here these days, is he?”
Johnny cut his brother a meaningful look and continued his story. “Well, and you know how she gets. I’d just as soon tangle with a moving freight train. Most of her tirade was colorfully, fluently in Spanish, but Murdoch ended up hauling her out of there anyway. I don’t know where they went, but I got a pretty good idea what happened once they got there.”
“I shouldn’t be laughing.” Scott continued to laugh. “This is terrible.”
“Me and your grandpa just sat there all silent and awkward and stuff until Murdoch came back, mad as hell, and kicked me out. I was happy to go. It’s crazy town down there, Brother, that’s why I’m eatin’ up here with you.”
Scott wiped at his eyes. “So, I guess I don’t need to ask how she’s doing.”
“She’s scared is how she’s doin’. This whole business has scared hell outta her.” Johnny suddenly yawned and, finished with his meal, he hunkered comfortably down in his seat. “Probably doesn’t help that she hasn’t slept more’n two winks since the night you told us you were going back East with Mr. Harlan.”
“If it makes you feel any better, neither have I.” Scott glanced at the door. “I hope those two old men don’t kill each other.”
“I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for that, Brother. Murdoch looked fixed to raise Cain when I left. I ain’t seen him this mad since…” Johnny paused to think. “Well, I’ve never seen him this mad.”
“Frumious, huh?” Scott asked.
Johnny looked at his brother and smiled. “As a Bandersnatch.”
They both began to laugh when, unbelievably or no, Johnny’s stomach grumbled. Loudly. He looked at his plate, empty but for some very clean bones, and then over at Scott’s barely touched bowl of soup. “You gonna eat that?”
“Seriously, John…” Shaking his head, Scott pushed the bowl toward his brother.
Johnny was about to attack the soup like a starving man when the sound of something being rather laboriously dragged down the hall had them both looking to the door. Moments later Teresa struggled to the door wrestling a largish chair, its upholstery having definitely seen better days, and which that morning had been beside Scott’s bed.
“Well if Murdoch didn’t wear you clean out then Maria’s sure gonna finish the job when she sees the condition of this floor,” Johnny said as he hopped up to give her a hand.
“Who can tell the difference from when it was dragged out in the first place?” Teresa grunted as she was relieved of half the weight of the chair. Together she and Johnny got the chair positioned in front of the window and between the other two. Teresa collapsed into it and sighed, order once more restored to at least this corner of the universe. “What was my chair out in the hall for anyway?”
“Well, it was somewhat crowded in here this morning…” Scott answered and Teresa grimaced her opinion on that theory. “So, how was supper?”
“Eventful,” she said, glancing from Johnny to the bowl of gazpacho on the table next to him and then back to Johnny again. “You gonna finish that?”
Johnny shrugged. “It’s Scott’s.”
Scott laughed and waved her on. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you two really are blood relatives.”
“Well, I didn’t get to eat very much of my own supper,” Teresa said, reaching for the bowl.
“Yes, I heard you’ve been giving Grandfather fits,” Scott’s smile turned into a smirk. “Good girl.”
“I guess Johnny’s already filled you in on all the grizzly details.” She took a spoonful of soup.
“I understand you mounted a vigorous defense,” Scott said, still smiling.
Johnny snorted. “A blue one anyway.”
“I don’t know how you can sit there and laugh after the things he said about you,” Teresa said and pinned Johnny with a pointed look, “at the dinner table. In your own house.”
“Guess you already covered everything that needed sayin’ on the subject.”
“It doesn’t bother you in the least that Mr. Harlan almost got your brother killed? And then walks around here like he’s lord and master, acting like nothing even happened?”
“Bothered or not, at least I can sit properly in my seat.”
“Okay. Cool it, you two,” Scott interceded. “My head doesn’t need this. Whole situation is already bad enough without you two at each other’s throats.”
But Teresa wasn’t done. “And you.” She turned on Scott. “You were just gonna leave with him. What am I saying? You did leave!”
“I had a feeling this was going to come up.” Scott sighed. “There are things, Teresa… Circumstances…”
“Yeah, I know all about the circumstances, Scott.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You thought you were protecting Murdoch from some trumped up murder accusation.” Johnny whacked her on the leg, throwing her a look clearly advising that an excellent time to shut up would be right now.
Scott looked at Teresa in disbelief. “Really, you are going to have to tell me someday how it is you know so much about every damn thing,” he said before turning pointedly to his brother.
“She worked it out on her own, I swear.” Johnny held up his hands. “I just confirmed what she already knew.”
“Oh, please.” She sucked her teeth. “I’d have to be blind or stupid or both not to have worked this one out.”
“No one would ever accuse you of being stupid.”
“Well, then maybe I’m blind after all because I just don’t get it. Who does stuff like this?”
“Evidently, my grandfather does stuff like this. And I’m sorry. Sorry I tried to keep you two in the dark about why I was leaving.” Scott sighed deeply. “I wanted to tell you…” he paused and shook his head. “There just wasn’t any way. And I’m sorry everything has been so insane around here since Grandfather’s arrival.”
“I don’t guess that’s your apology to make,” Johnny said.
“There's more." Scott paused, considered keeping this tidbit to himself for the time being as he was pretty sure that revealing it would only serve to add more fuel to the fire. But then he remembered how Johnny found out just how much Murdoch knew about his past and quickly he changed his mind, knowing that likely it would come out eventually anyway. And better they hear from him than find out accidently or from some strange source. "He...he knew about you, Johnny.”
Johnny paused a beat, letting this new information sink in. “You mean your grampa?”
“Well, didn’t you say he had Murdoch investigated by the Pinkertons? Of course he knew about me.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes, who around here hasn’t been investigated by the Pinkertons?” Teresa wondered as she scraped Scott’s bowl of soup clean.
Johnny coughed out a guffaw.
“I have been wondering the same thing,” Scott agreed. “But I don’t think they were involved this time. I’m not talking about Madrid. He’s always known about you, since before Madrid; since you were little.”
“Wow. He's know all this time that you had a brother and never told you," Teresa gave voice to what they had all been thinking, slowly shaking her head in utter disbelief. "He just doesn’t quit. And you know about this how?”
“Mr Harlan said?” Johnny asked.
“I talked to Murdoch.”
“Murdoch said?” Johnny and Teresa asked as one, such was their disbelief.
“Not in so many words, but I can read between the lines. He knew.”
“Well… I don’t guess that’s your apology to make either. And anyway, it doesn’t change anything. We got each other now, that’s what counts.”
Scott flashed a smile. “Look at you, quoting Murdoch.”
Johnny returned the smile. “I guess the Old Man knows a thing or two after all. I don’t see what good comes of you two ripping strips off each other over something neither of you can change. Mr. Harlan must have had his reasons.”
“I sure hope they’re good ones,” Teresa said, not quite under her breath. “Your grandpa ought to grow a mustache so he can twirl it,” she twirled an invisible mustache in illustration of her point, “give other folks a fighting chance.”
At this, Scott and Johnny roared with laughter.
“For the record,” Scott said when he’d gained some composure, “I’m glad the two of you don’t know how to mind your own business, otherwise I’d be half way to the east coast by now.”
“You’re our brother.” Johnny shrugged. “You’re our business.”
Scott gave a small nod of recognition, sure he was now being loosely quoted here. Teresa threw her napkin at him.
“Yeah, dummy,” she said with a smirk.
Scott returned the smirk and the napkin. “As a token of my gratitude, I present to you now…” He reached behind himself and produced the slim package Murdoch had earlier delivered. “The schmackle. I think you’ll both be pleased.”
“Be more pleased if I knew what the hell it was,” Johnny grumbled. He did not love a mystery.
Scott glanced over at him, still smiling and began to carefully unwrap the thing.
“Oh, for the love of God,” Teresa groaned, but Scott was unmoved. He continued to carefully unwrap the schmackle so as to save the paper.
“I present to you, a little light reading for our collective enjoyment.” Scott held up a little paper-bound book.
Johnny leaned in closer. “Dr. Goodlove’s Miracle Elixir, Good for all that ails you?”
Frowning, Scott turned the book around and Teresa took it from him.
“Larabee Laroo, the Laconic Lawman of Last Gulch, Volumes I and II, by L. Brown,” Teresa read the cover. “Oh dear.”
“That’s gotta be good,” Johnny said, laughing.
“In the worst possible way,” Scott agreed. “I thought we could use a little something to amuse the pallet, as it were, after our long, dark nights spent tangling with the Russians.” He winked at Teresa. “A little more crime and a lot less punishment.”
That had been the original idea behind ordering this “little amusement”, but after the week they’d all just had, Scott reflected, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Teresa laughed as she opened the book, scanned the first page with an ever widening grin and then began to read aloud.
“It was a hot and burning day in the hot and burning desert and Lawman Larabee LaRoo could feel it - feel it in his very bones - that trouble was coming. Coming - riding in thick and dangerous waves across the hot and burning desert he called home.”
Outside, something came along and scandalized the chickens. She looked up from the page, grinning widely. “The hot and burning desert? Oh, I already love it,” Teresa said and Scott nodded, returning the grin.
“I thought you might,” he said.
“This is the best schmackle ever,” Johnny agreed and, as her brothers settled in, Teresa continued:
“He stood on his long, muscular legs - bowed from years in the saddle, riding his whole life like he was born to it - and moved his rugged, manly form across the rustic porch to cast his keen, eagle's eyes across the hot and burning sands, thinking back in a moment of shivering prescience such as are sometimes had only by those men who live their lives as part of nature - those men of the red earth - of his old, arch enemy, Luther La Fontayne, who had hated him ever since he had trounced his evil purposes by winning from under him the hand of the beautiful and virtuous Lucinda Littletree.”
He'd sat at the dinner table alone long after it had been cleared of plates and people, fuming his way through a litany of irate 'How Dares'. How dare that girl speak to him in such a manner and tone?! How dare Murdoch come to her defense?! How dare they leave a guest sitting alone at their dinner table?! How dare that Maria take his plate before he was even done?!
It had taken some real time for the fury to die back to good old fashioned anger. By then Maria had reappeared to finish cleaning up and dampen the lamps. She went about her business in silence, he wasn't even spared a glance. Harlan almost wondered if he were actually still there. She was the only one to put in any sort of appearance in the great room after Murdoch threw Johnny out in the middle of boy's own meal, gave Harlan a piece of his mind and then stormed out in his own great fury. Harlan removed himself to the living area soon after that, located a bottle of the best Scotch he figured he was likely to find around here stashed all the way in the back of Murdoch's liquor cabinet.
By the time he'd made it to the bottom of the first glass and was pouring out a second, good old fashioned anger had edged up on the quite foreign territory of self-recrimination and not a little bit of guilt. Never mind the complete disaster that was the evening meal. This trip!
It was no uses trying to lay the blame for this debacle at anyone else’s doorstep but his own; so many things he should have accounted for and hadn’t, details over-looked, deemed beneath his notice. He must be slipping. There was no way he would have opened himself up for this kind of mess even a year ago, not even for Scotty. He’s made some serious miscalculations. He could admit that now, if only to himself. And he'd been blind.
He hardly recognize the young man who'd met him at the train depot. Those rustic work clothes! Those ruddy cheeks! One almost got the sensation that Scott had just stepped out of the barber’s chair moments before the train pulled into the station. And that the barber was actually an ax murderer. There was almost nothing of the young man, so at war with himself, that left Boston a year ago. And Harlan had failed to see who had settle in that place.
The boy had written dutifully, of course. But dutiful is all those letters were, nothing like the soaring epistles he used to receive whenever Scotty was traveling. These worryingly cautious creations just made his head spin. How are you Grandfather? I am fine. He’d discovered his brother, acquired a sister, was getting to know his father, the acres were vast, the house grand. Lots to do, lots to learn. I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. They left Harlan wondering if Scott had been taken hostage again and if these letters had been written at gun point.
A door clicked shut somewhere in the back of the house. Harlan turned to see Johnny cat-footing it in a few moments later carrying his boots, looking exhausted, and smelling richly of horse.
“On the run from the law?” Harlan asked and then wondered at himself.
Johnny froze, and the boyish chagrin he'd prepared his face for ricocheted into cold weariness in the space of a blink. Harlan was reminded so thoroughly of Scott in his last weeks in Boston, it almost took his breath away.
"Evenin'…" Johnny grimaced, but then located a few manners. “Sir.”
“It’s a bit late, isn’t it, John? Everyone else has been in bed for hours.”
A new expression, surprise, flickered across the boy’s face and Harlan wondered at that too, finding it suddenly difficult to believe in the gunfighter of his reports
“Murdoch’s up somewhere.” Johnny’s voice was subdued but certain. He shrugged. “Old man don't sleep until we’re all accounted for.”
“The old man?” There was never going to be a time, he was certain, that this casual way the younger generation had with their elders around here was going to sit well with him.
“He worries,” Johnny said by way of explanation.
“But that doesn’t stop you from coming in at all hours.”
Johnny flashed a grin, relaxed a little. “Sometimes.”
“Cheeky boy.” Harlan grumbled.
“That’s what my pa says.” If possible, his grin grew cheekier still. “Night, Mr Harlan.”
He watched Johnny head for the stairs, as light in his skin as if he'd just sprang out of bed rather than headed to it at the end of a ridiculously long day, and found himself marveling. Back in Boston, reading all sorts of things into Scott's letters, Harlan frequently wondered at the curious lack of information concerning this wild younger brother with a trail of bodies behind him. He'd expected that business, sooner rather than later, would have had Scott heading back to civilization without Harlan even lifting a finger. Now he thought he was beginning to understand.
He hadn’t given it much thought until now really, but he could see where Scotty might find it difficult to wrap his head around this hardened gunfighter business. The wild, ruthless killer tip-toeing through the house with his boots in hand – Harlan snorted and blamed the scotch - trying to figure out how to arrange his face and sneak in under his father’s nose.
He shook his head. Madrid aside, he knew enough now to be thankful to have been spared some of the more intimate details about the high riders and other assorted craziness going on around here in Scott’s earliest days at the ranch. Otherwise he would have been out here a lot sooner, dragging Scott home to Boston in his trunks if he had to. Or succumb to heart failure.
On the other hand, at that point he would have at least had a leg to stand on. Things had settled down considerably since then, by all accounts. Until now. It was not good to know that this recent business was to be marked down in Lancer history as the Time Scott’s Grandfather Came For A Visit and It Was Worse Than Land Pirates. This from Johnny. Harlan would have laughed if it wasn’t probably true.
Scott was changing, Harlan understood it now, had become at once harder and lighter – a lot like his mother in fact – he could tell from the letters. But he hadn’t quite taken it in, hadn’t really believed in it, not even when he’d first gotten here and clapped relieved eyes on his grandson. It was so glaringly obvious to him now, he wondered that he could ever have missed it. He could never, would never apologize for wanting his grandson with him but he had to admit, and not uncharitably, that being out here might really have done Scott some good.
A strong gust of wind gushed down the chimney stack, stirring the embers and tugging at the open collar of his shirt. Downstairs in his in this condition. Apparently it didn’t take long for their frightfully informal ways to get to a person. Harlan shook his head, pulled the collar tight and took a sip of his scotch. Scotty would probably faint dead away from the shock if he saw this. But then again, maybe not.
He froze in the process of shrugging his shirt on and grimaced at the knock on his bedroom door. More than a few seconds ticked by and no one came through it.
Rarely did anyone in the house bother with such courtesies, and if they did, he counted himself among the lucky that he even got that much of a warning.
Had to be Grandfather.
Knowing that Harlan would never enter without invitation, Scott seriously considered not answering. But only for a moment. At this juncture he doubted he’d ever be ready for this conversation, but Grandfather was going to be leaving in a couple of days. Ready or not, there was no more getting around this thing. He knew he had to give the old man a chance to say his piece.
“Come in,” Scott called and dipped his head to concentrate on his shirt buttons which had settled down considerably since the day before.
“Scotty,” Harlan said as he came through the door.
Scott looked up from his buttons with a slight frown.
“Excuse me, my boy,” Harlan started to retreat. “I didn’t realize you were still dressing.”
“I’m used to it.” Scott chose one of the two buttons wavering before his eyes, found it solid and threaded it through a hole. “The wonder is that I’ve gotten this far without a string of visitors.”
“Used to it?” Harlan shook his head. Scott could see that Grandfather was uncomfortable, let him struggle with the issue of propriety and almost breathed a sigh of relief when he let it go in favor of the rather more salient matter at hand. “Should you be up?”
“I’m tired of being down.” Scott glanced to his button work. “Is there something I can help you with, Sir?”
“I thought perhaps,” Harlan paused, gave the Gift a wary glance. “Can’t you put that thing away, in a closet or something? Feels like its eyes are following me around the room. It’s unnerving.”
“That’s part of its charm.” Scott was unmoved.
“Charm…” By his tone it was clear that this was not the first word that jumped to Harlan’s mind regarding Devil Kitty.
“Plus it’s against the rules.”
“What rules, for goodness sakes?”
“I don’t know. The rules.” Scott got to the bottom of his shirt, was on the verge of a triumphant smile when he ran his hand down the placket and found a lump. With a grimace he unthreaded the buttons up to the lump and started over. “It makes Johnny and Teresa happy - also part of the charm.”
“You indulge them.”
Scott’s mind turned to the conversation he’d had with Julie, while the sun was still shining on them; before he caught her trying to sneak off alone in the night, before she confessed to her part in Harlan’s scheme to get him away from Lancer. Before he was shot and all this other fresh hell broke loose. She had been trying to talk him into going back to Boston, make Grandfather happy, make her happy. Who makes me happy? he’d asked, the words between them before he knew they were coming. And come to it, he already knew what made him happy, that he was already happy, and he would never marry Julie.
“I’m indulging myself.” Scott smiled, but it was wan and brief. “So, is there something I can help you with?”
“I thought perhaps we could talk, before this place turns into a circus.”
“Grandfather…” Scott tried to stop this before it got truly uncomfortable but Harlan was determined.
“I recognize that our relationship has been somewhat…strained since you decided to come out West.”
“That's one way to put it. Another way to put it would be that our relationship had been strained since long before I decided to come out here and I think we both know it, Grandfather.”
Scott was taking certain perverse delight in Harlan's clearly growing frustration. “Well, that rash decision certainly didn’t help matters,” Grandfather snapped.
“I’ll grant you that. Let’s just agree then that it was a convenient excuse to carry on ignoring the elephant in the room.”
Harlan had passed frustration and now looked ready to pounce, but Scott was unwilling to be diverted into a protracted discussion about a past they couldn’t change and issues they would never agree on.
“They were genuinely looking forward to meeting you, Sir. Johnny and Teresa. Teresa especially. She was nearly beside herself, getting to meet someone from the rest of my family. Neither one of them have ever known what it’s like to have a proper grandfather. They asked endless questions about you and Boston, my time at Harvard. I admit, I had my reservations, but their enthusiasm is hard to resist and, reservations aside, I was proud for them to know you.”
Scott decided it needn’t be said that Murdoch was somewhat less overjoyed at the prospect of this visit. They were fairly universal in their agreement that they’d have better outcomes teasing a nest of angry mongoose, as mess with him. Mercifully, their father put most of his tetchy energy to use out at the forge. And Maria, whatever beef she had with Harlan having apparently survived the gulf of years, had disappeared into the attic for the bulk of the occupation. The upshot was they wouldn’t want for summer clothes or horseshoes anytime in the foreseeable future.
“This has not been the trip that I had hoped for either, Scotty.”
“So I gather.” Scott cut his eyes at his grandfather and then quickly closed them.
Harlan frowned and forded on manfully. “I just want you to know, however misguided, all that I have ever done was with your best interest at heart.”
“No sir, not this time.” Scott snapped, his eyes coming open as the onset of anger boiled through his veins like a sudden and violent squall. “What you did was in your own interest and no one else’s.”
He’d promised himself he wouldn’t do this, but he was angry, damn it. And it wasn’t going away. The scream, which had started in his temples with the Degans’ bullet, had worked its way down until it had back up behind his teeth. And now it was spewing: out of his mouth, through his trembling finger tips. He pushed up from the bed, his shirt only partway done, and stumbled a half-step for his audacity.
“Look now! Where do you think you’re going?” Harlan jumped to his side, got a hand on his shoulder, but Scott pushed the hand away, braced himself against the bedpost.
“Misguided.” Scott spat the word out, disgusted. “Let’s just call this what it was, Grandfather. Blackmail. Plain and simple blackmail.”
“Is that what you’ve learned out here, disrespect for your elders? I know I taught you better than that, my boy.”
“Blackmail, Sir.” Scott amended, rigid as much from anger as working to keep himself upright. “I’ve always known you to be ruthless in business dealings, Grandfather. I’m just trying to figure out when it was that I became the business.”
“The business,” Harlan scoffed. “I can’t imagine what you’re driving at.”
“And I can’t imagine how you could drag Julie into this, bring those Degan boys straight to my doorstep.”
“The West has made you blunt.” Harlan turned away, found himself face to face with Devil Kitty, and turned again towards the windows. “I suppose Murdoch’s told you his sordid version of the truth.”
“Never mind what Murdoch and I talk about. Right now I'm talking to you.”
"You're working your way towards some mighty thin ice, young man."
They had at retreated into territory that was familiar, but only just: Harlan to the high ground of his authority and Scott's almost knee-jerk reaction to instantly obey. Except not anymore. He was a man, grown – a man, wronged – and he wasn't giving an inch.
"And you have already fallen through it, Sir."
Harlan changed tact, appealed to Scott's sense of guilt and their shared history. “You had been sick for so long after… after you came home. And even when you regained your health, you seemed determined to throw your life away.
“I wasn’t blind to all of the late nights, the carousing. Robert Harrison told me all about what happened that night with Barbara.” Harlan raised his eyebrows at Scott’s incredulous look. “And he’s not the only one. Then Murdoch crooks his finger after all these years and off you go without so much as a by your leave. How could I not see this sudden decision to go west as anything but more proof of your erratic behavior?”
“You didn’t trust me.”
Harlan’s answer was so swift, so sure, Scott found himself thoroughly shocked at how much that truth hurt.
“I would have done anything, my boy. Anything. This land had already claimed my dear Catherine. I couldn’t stand by and let it take you from me as well.”
Scott touched his arm to his forehead, blotting at the sheen of sweat that had started there with his shirt sleeve. He sat back down, the fury leached from his bones as quickly as it had struck, leaving a wrung out emptiness behind. His head sank to his chest. “I’m tired, Grandfather.”
“Well, I shouldn’t wonder.” Harlan lifted a helping hand once more only to let it fall back to his side, impotent. “You’re trying to do too much…”
“Tired of fighting you for control of my life. Murdoch, Johnny, and Teresa, these people, they’re my family. And I want you to be a part of it. But not like this. I really just…I just don’t know what to do with all of this.”
Harlan paced to the window and was silent for a time, long enough for Scott to start feeling a bit antsy. “I know it may be asking too much of you right now, my boy, but I hope that one day you will come to forgive me.”
“You’re right, Sir. It’s too much.” Scott pushed up to his feet again, a little more cautiously this time. “I’m going down for morning meeting,” he said and stepped out into the hall, headed towards the back stairs to make good his word. Harlan hesitated just a beat before following as far as the door.
“Scotty, have you lost your way? The great room is that way.” Harlan pointed to the opposite end of the hall.
“Yes, but the food is this way,” Scott said and shuffled on towards the kitchen stairs, one hand on the wall for guidance and support.
“Oh, for heaven sakes,” Harlan grumbled. Catching up to his grandson in a few long strides, he caught Scott up by the elbow and was pleased to note that he hadn’t been shrugged off again. “Stubborn boy.”
They walked into bedlam the likes of which Harlan had never witnessed. People streamed in and out of every available portal toting all manner of baskets and bowls, all them engaged in overlapping, animated conversation in what Harlan thought he might recognize as English, but he wasn’t prepared to lay his hand on a bible.
The table, a working definition of function over form, was full to capacity but for one seat to Murdoch’s right. Johnny, Teresa, Diego and another that Harlan didn’t recognize but was clearly another of that Maria’s offspring were in deep, Talmudic discussion. The subject was, of all things, magical creatures as a species and unicorns specifically. This was apparently Morning Meeting and it was in full swing.
“You know, in my mind, a unicorn isn’t any more far-fetched than a zebra,” Teresa held as she pilfered a strip of bacon off her brother’s plate.
Johnny snorted and watched his bacon disappear with a slight frown as he reached for the coffee pot. “Roaming the Serengeti with dragons and the impala.” He wasn't buying any of it.
Harlan’s head snapped round at the sound of loud honking, though everyone else in the room remained unfazed. The older gentleman whose pigs had escaped the day before was leaving with a cup of coffee in one hand and a goose in the other, tossing a rough “See ya’ll later” over his shoulder on his way out the door leading into the side yard.
"First of all," Teresa tore her bacon in two as if to punctuate her point, "Dragons don't roam. They fly."
“EJ, what do you think?” Diego turned to his brother, and he was serious.
“Well, setting aside that dinosaurs actually existed and unicorns and dragons, um…didn’t,” EJ pontificated philosophically, “in terms of believability, I’d say the unicorn actually comes out ahead.”
Murdoch cast a quick glance their direction, looking on the verge of actually being pulled into weighing in on the ridiculous debate before he caught himself and carried on mapping out the whereabouts for the day of apparently everyone in the county with Maria who needed to know how many would be back to the house in time for the next two meals.
“Yeah, I mean, what’s a dinosaur but this monstrous beast, that really did roam the earth, probably the Serengeti,” Teresa continued, “and a unicorn is just a horse…”
“With a horn.” Johnny conceded the point in the face of her empirical logic.
Circus, indeed. He wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see a trapeze artist or two coming swinging through the kitchen. Scott paused just inside the room taking it all in, a small smile on his face.
Maria was the first to see him. Her hands went up and she was across the kitchen in a shot. “Oh, Esco, are you just going to stand there and wait for birds to cover you with leaves? Come to the table, Milagrito!”
And with that the room went from simple bedlam to pure pandemonium as nearly everyone in it surged forward with cries of delight, sucking Scott into the center of their vortex. He was tugged and hugged, kissed and admonished all the way to the table where Murdoch helped to guide him into his seat.
“Johnny, Son, get another chair out of the dining room for Harlan.”
“No need,” EJ jumped up from his seat next to Teresa, stuffing the greater part of a biscuit into his mouth. “I’m done,” he mumbled around the baked good.
Teresa, nowhere near to finishing her breakfast, looked as though she were being fed to a den of hungry lions. Harlan was about to excuse himself but, at the veiled look from his grandson, changed his mind and located enough grace to accept the invitation. Before he knew what was what, breakfast was placed in front of him along with a cup of coffee. He stared at the mountain of food before him, not quite sure where to begin. There was enough on his plate to feed a small army.
“Scott,” Johnny said, pouring his brother a cup of hot coffee. “How’s the head?”
Scott wrapped his hands around the cup. “Well, there’s only two of you now, so I guess that’s pretty good. I’m hoping to get it down to one before Jenkins gets out here.”
Johnny smirked. “I’m sure you’ll manage, Brother.”
“Somehow,” Scott agreed, smiling also. “So that takes care of my morning’s activities, now what about you? What’s on your agenda for the day?”
“Oh,” Johnny shifted in his seat. “We’re gonna take a ride out to the south pasture, check on how Teresa's alfalfa’s doin’.”
Scott groaned. “Haying soon.”
“I know it’s your favorite.” Johnny’s smirk broadened into an out and out grin. “And cleared for work just in time! But I brought you somethin’ that might make up for it.”
“What’s that?” Scott asked. “A scythe?”
Johnny smiled, dug into his pants pocket and producing a watch. It was a beat up old thing, looked like it might have travelled the globe, taking a bullet or two for its owner along the way. Harlan had given his grandson that watch for his 16th birthday and he’d carried it with him ever since.
Johnny slid the time piece across the table to his brother. “Picked it up for you in town yesterday. Clarkson said it’s been done for ages.”
Scott reached for the timepiece with a smile of his own and popped it open to check that it was actually working. Satisfied, he snapped it shut again and briefly, almost absently rubbed his thumb over the ornately engraved cover before secreting it in his own shirt pocket.
“I can’t believe you’re still carrying that thing.”
Scott gave Harlan his attention for the first time since sitting down. “I fell into Ribbon Creek a few weeks ago, trying to rescue one of our calves from the mud.”
“Fell my foot,” Diego snorted. “You sailed into Ribbon Creak.”
Scott laughed. “You give that graceless tumble far more credit than it’s due. I came out of it okay but my watch refused to carry on. It has been through hell and now high water, I suppose. Ribbon Creak was the final insult.”
“He tinkered with that thing every night for a week,” Johnny said. “I got tired a hearin’ about how he couldn’t even believe it was broken, offered him my mine, but he turned me down flat.”
“Well…I really like my watch,” he said and cleared his throat. “So, in all of the hoopla I forgot to ask, how was town yesterday?”
“You mean, apart from running into the Dragon at Val’s?” Teresa wondered.
Johnny snorted with a bit more enthusiasm. "Speaking of dragons..." he muttered mostly to himself.
“Hey…” came a warning from Murdoch’s corner.
Teresa scrunched her nose, but took his meaning and moved away from the topic of this Dragon. “Well, Johnny got his ears lowered.”
Johnny groaned. “Feel naked without my hair.”
“It’s a cunning haircut, Brother.”
“How is old Valentino anyway?” Diego asked.
“Crusty as ever. Still brewing the worst coffee in the whole wide world.”
“I must remember to thank him for the Bean Bolt next time I’m in town, I’m sure the Degans won’t.”
“So does that mean you’re staying?” Teresa ventured.
His eyes softened. “With all my might, Sugar Pea.”
“You can thank Val yourself later on,” Johnny said. “We invited him out to dinner.”
“Murdoch said Jenkins was coming out to check on me today,” Scott shot his father a look which was returned with a smile as Murdoch continued his coordination efforts with Maria. “He said nothing about Sunday dinner.”
“Oh yeah. He seems to think it’ll make you feel better,” Teresa said and then tore off a bite of biscuit.
“You’re getting pretty good, Father. Sunday dinner’s just the thing to help facilitate a speedy recovery.”
“I thought it might, Son.” Murdoch gave his full attention over to the table for the first time since they’d sat down. “Thought it might also be nice for your Grandfather to enjoy at least one relaxing day while he’s here.”
“Very gracious of you, Murdoch.” Though he had no idea what this Sunday dinner business would entail Harlan knew he would endure it for Scott’s sake.
“It’s a rather informal occasion,” Murdoch advised with a smile hovering just under the surface. “No need to dress.”
“Are you sure?” Harlan asked, deadpan. “I had the clothes Mr Tabor loaned me washed and pressed just in case.”
Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up in clear delight and he had the unmitigated cheek to wink. “Not this week.”
The boys and Teresa began scraping back their chairs with ill-disguised sniggers. Only Scott remained where he was, relaxed in his seat and looking every bit the smaller, younger version of his father. He wished his siblings and their friend a good day as they carried their dishes to the kitchen sink.
“Before you all run off…” Murdoch cleared his throat and sat back to allow Maria to remove his empty plate as she passed by. “We received some good news in the mail yesterday.” Murdoch pulled a piece of paper folded in thirds out of his shirt pocket and slid it across the table. “And by we, of course, I mean you, Pea.”
Teresa’s eyes widened in surprise, she seemed to know what it was without even looking at the document. “They came,” she breathed.
Murdoch nodded. “The first one came.”
She picked up the paper and began reading under her breath, hopping in place from one foot to the other and working up an excited little scream. She held the paper aloft when she’d done reading and shook it in triumph.
In spite of himself, Harlan found he was curious to know what had come. Everyone else seemed to know what the mysterious document was all about. But before he could think another thing about it the place ratcheted up a couple of notches from the pandemonium to which he was just getting accustomed and erupted into an absolute roar. In came the crowd, bringing with it more hugs and kisses.
“Well, come on, tell us which one is it?” Johnny asked.
“Vassar!” Teresa screamed and came round the table like a bolt of lightning to nearly choke Murdoch to death with her love.
“We’ve got a scholar in the family.” Scott slipped an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.
“I couldn’t have done it without you, Scott.”
“I was glad to help, kiddo.”
“Scott’s on the mend and Teresa’s a genius, good thing we’re having a party tonight.” Johnny said, laughing.
Teresa, still smiling, paused then and glanced around the room. Thoughtlessly, Harlan followed her gaze until she found what she was looking for. Diego had moved to the edge of the excitement to lean just inside the side door, his arms crossed over his chest. When she caught his eye he managed a small smile in return before dropping down the back step and out of sight.
Harlan turned to Teresa, half expecting her to throw a cup of coffee in his face, the little savage, surprised that she had the cheek to address him at all.
She straightened up. “Sorry I cussed you last night.”
She really didn’t sound the least bit sorry, but he accepted the apology anyway. “Thank you, young lady. And please allow me to congratulate you on your achievement. I understand Vassar is one of the premier schools for girls in the county.”
He caught Murdoch glancing over to them, his only acknowledgment a small quirk at one corner of his mouth as he gave her a little nudge.
“Thank you, sir,” she said a dropped what Harlan thought was supposed to be a courtesy, complete with boots and jeans. Then she looked to Murdoch, not really for approval but more to suggest that this was as good as it got and they should be glad to get this much. Murdoch, biting his lips, looked about to either laugh or cry. Satisfied her duty was fulfilled she turned back to Harlan—and smirked—before heading out through the side door herself.
“Wicked, wicked child,” Harlan grumbled.
The sun had finally dipped down into the tree line - sweet relief - the shade was actually beginning to work, and Murdoch celebrated with a semi-quiet after dinner beer in the cool interior of the stable. He was checking up on Teresa’s new foal and giving half an ear to Los Hooligans who were outside playing some sort of full-contact croquet for barbarians, near as he could tell. Boisterous alliances were formed, dissolved, and reformed faster than he could ever have kept up with even if he was of a mind to, which he wasn’t. He’d learned early to generally stay well out of their nonsense unless bloodshed was eminent. They were much more entertaining that way.
Not so Maria. She liked to get right up in the thick of their nonsense, which is where she currently was. Where she found the energy after the almighty table she laid this afternoon… Yet he could hear her out there cheering on everyone involved in the game and some that weren’t. Certainly the most vocal of the many spectators, her allegiances were pretty equal opportunity. In various turns, at one time or another, both Ernesto and Murdoch tried to explain to her that she had to pick a team, but she would just look at them as if they’d sprouted a second head and explain: “Pero amo a todos.” And who were they to argue.
This was much more like it, Murdoch thought as the foal nuzzled and nibbled at his neck. LaRoo, Teresa was calling him for now, because he was “all bandy legged” apparently like this character from the schmackle Scott had ordered for them. She and John told him all about it last night, laughing their silly heads off, as they all sat with Buttons and the latest addition. Their company had been a balm in spite of all of the various run-ins of the day. Even with Harlan still lurking about the place, for those few hours he could almost pretend that things were getting back to what passed for normal for them. And today he found he didn’t even have to pretend.
Sunday dinner had come off better than they had any business expecting, certainly better than Saturday dinner. Jelly roasted the hog to succulent perfection, and not much of it was left. The table had been full of family and good friends and they managed to get through the meal without a second civil war breaking out. Ernesto made it home just in time to eat and with good news concerning the health and points of Lancer’s new prize bull. Scott achieved his goal of single vision and Jenkins cleared him to carry on giving bullets to the head a bad name. Sheriff Crawford made it out as promised and he even managed to put on a clean shirt - the equivalent of Harlan's tails and a tie.
And Harlan! He'd come to all sorts of uneasy truces with Scott and even Jenkins; with the folks of Lancer in general. Teresa was still not his biggest fan, but no one was expecting miracles. His wardrobe, though, that was the real triumph of the day; not quite so casual as Jerry Tabor’s plaid but not buttoned up to his eyebrows either. Some even dared to call it comfortable!
He looked up towards the door. Not that he could see what was going on, but it had grown awfully quiet out there. He waited. And then waited a little longer. Then pushed up from the stool he'd been settled on and made his way to the barn doors.
Scott had undone the sizable turban of bandage Teresa wrapped around his head partly out of concern for her brother’s still healing wound and partly because she’s ridiculous. He’d made his way out onto the croquet pitch, likely taunted and harangued there by John and Teresa, and was now taking aim at the apparent shot of the century. Everyone gathered round seemed to be holding their breath. Harlan had joined the crowd of onlookers and peacocks, and he leaned in with the rest in rapt anticipation.
Murdoch relaxed into the door frame, tipped the brim of his hat down a touch to get the sun out of his eyes, and watched the scene unfold. Scott was giving this shot the concentration of a sniper. When he finally made it – and won the game – the crowd erupted as though he'd singlehandedly won the Civil War. And Murdoch supposed it really was something of a triumph. His son up on his feet (and playing croquet, for heaven sakes!) was a quite a good deal more than he'd dared hope for even a few days ago. Murdoch found himself sending up a silent prayer of thanks as he pushed off the door frame and began making his way across the yard, dodging the peacocks and navigating the milling crowd.
He came upon Ernesto and Maria sitting at one of the picnic tables shaded by one of the oldest oaks on the property. Now that there was no game to cheer, they were discussing one of the kitchen girls, Annunciation. Apparently she was finally starting to catch on to the rigors of working under Maria Cipriano, who was known for eating her young. But more to the point, it seemed the girl had taken a shine to their older son, EJ, and it was a problem because EJ couldn’t have been more oblivious.
“He’s shy,” his mother contended. “He does not know how handsome he is!”
“We certainly don’t have these same problems with Diego,” Ernesto said with a long suffering sigh.
“Well, Diego is another kettle of fish,” Maria agreed.
His original plan had been just to freshen his beer but he ended up sitting down with his friends and found himself wincing in sympathy as Johnny gave his brother a slightly less enthusiastic than usual version of their running head-lock/hug.
“Well, Senor Murdoch, how has it gone with su papa?” Ernesto asked with a certain glint in his eye.
"Why does everyone keep calling him that?" Murdoch winced again. “Please, don’t call him that.”
“I understand the moments have not been dull.”
“That’s certainly one way to put it,” Murdoch agreed as he wiped foam from his top lip. "Touch and go is another. Now then, what’s this I hear about EJ getting married? You two are going to be grandparents soon?”
“Ah, EJ is so…introvertido. Annunciation will have to smack him on the nose before he catches on that she is even interested much less get him down the aisle,” said Ernesto.
“Diego and Teresa will be first, even with her going off to school,” Maria prophesied just as the couple caught up to her brothers. Teresa slipped her free arm into Scott’s, her hat bouncing at her back as loose tendrils of her hair blew wild in the breeze.
To her right, the wind was raising as much or more hell with Johnny’s plentiful cowlicks. His blue shirt, his favorite one with the stars, came untucked as he flipped his hat up and then caught it before the snapping gusts could. And Scott, tall and straight, lightly swatting his sister’s arm, his face flush and healthy, the color of lightly toasted cinnamon sugar, turned to the clear pale sky and smiling.
"When does she leave?" Maria asked.
"Ah! We have much time to plan. Vassar is all the way back East. She will need new clothes for winter."
"Well, we've still got four more schools to hear from. She may not chose Vassar." Secretly he was hoping she wouldn’t chose Vassar. As proud as he was, he privately hoped that Mills College in Oakland would choose her and that she would choose them, staying a closer to home.
No telling what they were talking about: Scott’s amazing croquet abilities or perhaps Devil Kitty, the head of which Murdoch glimpsed on his was across the yard poking up from the floor board of Jenkins’ phaeton. He snorted. Whatever they were talking about it had them all in the humors.
“I’ve never seen Scott like this.” Harlan had joined him.
“Like what?” Murdoch couldn’t help asking.
“So…” Harlan took a moment to search for the right word. “Unreserved.”
They sat together and watched as Johnny flipped his hat once more. Scott snatched it out of the air this time and sent it sailing over to Diego who took off running, zig-zigging his way through the croquet pitch with Johnny now in hot pursuit. Diego had a decent lead and managed to let the hat sail back towards Teresa who caught it. Johnny abruptly changed directions and she bolted. Murdoch smiled.
“Yes, well, those two monkeys have managed to shake a goo deal of the starch out of him.”
“I always felt that he was just a touch too unreserved.”
“Well, how it looks all depends on where you standing, doesn’t it?” Murdoch said just as Johnny caught his sister by the straps of her dungarees, lifting her into the air as she screeched with glee and made a wild throw of the hat. Scott scooped it up just before it hit the ground and squashed it down on his brother’s head.
“I suppose it does.” Harlan agreed as the young people joined them at the table and they found themselves surrounded by the kids, boisterous and happy.
"Scotty, you really have no business out of bed, much less playing croquet,” Harlan admonished half-heartedly. Scott made no comment, but shot is grandfather a sour look that really said it all.
"Tell him no and next we'll find him up to far worse behind our backs."
“What can be worse than this?” Jenkins asked as he joined the group, Devil Kitty caught under his armpit at the neck.
“I was wondering where he’d gotten off to.” Scott commented as he stole his brother’s beer.
“It’s…” Jenkins thought it over a bit. “Well, it’s mostly a nightmare.”
“Yeah,” Johnny scratched at his head. “That’s what Murdoch says. And Teresa’s not allowed to read Frankenstein anymore.”
“He’s taken our Hermann Placquet books away, too.” Teresa admitted, sounding rather put out.
“This was your idea, young lady?”
“Stashing it in your buggy?” Teresa hedged. “Uhuh. That was Scott’s idea.”
“Wondered where it’d got off to, did you?” Murdoch’s eyes crinkled as he shot his elder son an appreciative smirk.
“Maria, what do you think of all of this?” Jenkins asked.
“I’ve been mostly hoping they send it back east with Mr. Harlan,” she confessed and the table roared with laughter.
“Fire is another solution to the problem.” Harlan added and they laughed harder still.
“Well, that’s an honest answer anyway,” Jenkins conceded. “I’ll give you this, it’s a pretty good job of taxidermy you’ve done here. Though I have to wonder, and pretty regularly, how on earth that man ended up with the three of you.”
“Oh, just lucky, I guess,” Johnny said, elbowing his father playfully.
The breeze brushed his face and Murdoch smiled. He looked to Harlan, seated across the table, and caught the first real glimmer of understanding in the older man’s eyes. And he knew then that, having come to a place of understanding for the man, it was a short step to forgiveness. He would try anyway, for all of their sakes but especially for Scott. Because he was lucky, indeed. Luckier than any man had a right to be.