Disclaimer: Oh, wait; I forgot I don’t believe in disclaimers. Actually, this should be a “if I had written this episode, this is how it would have been…” Nowhere near canon, because in this episode, the ‘canon’ sucked. Being from Boston, Scott would have been fully aware of the discrimination against the Irish immigrants, “lace curtain” or “shanty” Irish. And so would have Murdoch. So that impassioned plea by Moira was pretty damned pointless. About the best thing that can be said about this episode is that the actors involved – all of them – gave a great performance; but they certainly deserved better.
Got to love literary license. Thank you, Sam; I really miss you.
Special thanks to Renée, for kicking me in the butt.
THE BLACK McGLOINS
They were having a late breakfast. Murdoch had just arrived at the table, and Johnny and Teresa were already in their chairs. All three of them were clearly exhausted after an all night stint in the barn dealing with a yearling that had suffered from a severe case of colic. The colt, newly purchased, had rolled under a fence and consumed several baskets of spring carrots that had been harvested from the estancia’s vast communal garden. Since a substantial investment had been made in the colt as potential breeding stock – and where a lesser animal would have been put down – this one required special attention.
Murdoch, Teresa and Johnny had taken turns during the long night dosing the horse with mineral oil, keeping it on its feet and encouraging slow walking. By the time the sun had risen well above the mountains, the colt had noisily passed the majority of the food it had consumed and was now safely penned and in a clean stall; being tended by Mateo and Cipriano.
Johnny was on his third cup of coffee; and not in a good mood. The colt’s treatment had required a funnel, a long bit of hose, and more mineral oil than he’d seen in his short life time; most of which had dribbled down his arm and into his armpit. Even now, after a quick wash up and change of clothes, he could still feel the slickness against his skin, and the sensation both annoyed and angered him. It also, for some reason, appeared to have lubricated his tongue. “So where the he… heck is Scott,” he asked, digging into the scrambled eggs. He was still pissed that big brother had somehow managed to avoid the dirty work in the barn. “I checked his bedroom when I changed clothes, and it don’t even look like he slept in his bed.”
Teresa let out a very unlady like snort. “Some people,” she sniped, “actually make their beds when they get up, Johnny.”
Determined to stop any bickering, Murdoch tapped the rim of his cup with his spoon. “After what occurred last night at dinner, Johnny, I think he felt it wise to forego breakfast and get an early start.” He took a sip of coffee. “If you had been paying attention, the way you were teasing him about the McGloin girl was beginning to get under his skin. And it didn’t help,” he continued, scolding, “when you kept it up after we left the table and went into the Great Room.”
Johnny’s right shoulder lifted in a slight shrug and he avoided looking at his father. “C’mon, Murdoch,” he began, “if a man can’t take a little ribbin’ about the dumb things he keeps doin’, then he should quit actin’ stupid.” He picked up a piece of bacon and popped it into his mouth. “‘Sides, I was just funnin’.”
“Well, I don’t think it was funny, Johnny,” Teresa piped up; remembering just how relentless Johnny had been in his teasing. She stifled a yawn. “I think it was mean.”
Murdoch raised his right hand, shaking his head when the girl opened her mouth to say more. “John, I seem to recall you voted with Scott for the McGloin’s to stay on the land.”
At the word John, Teresa felt it would be a good time to pick up her dishes and leave the table. After a quick ‘excuse me”, she scraped them clean and deposited them on the counter; and immediately headed up the back staircase for the relative safety of her room.
The younger man hadn’t missed the stern ‘John’ either, and he watched as his sister made her escape; wishing he could follow her. Instead, he took a deep breath and turned his head to address his father. “Yeah, I tossed in with him.” He was playing with his bread knife, turning it repeatedly between his thumb and forefinger, the blade flashing blue-white beneath the overhead light. Scott’s words suddenly came to mind – ‘It appears, little brother, you’re finally growing up,’ – and he grimaced. “But I didn’t know he was goin’ to end up rollin’ around in the hay with her, actin’ like a jackass!” He picked up his fork and stabbed the remaining piece of bacon.
Murdoch had been about to take another drink of coffee. The cup hovered at his lips. “Excuse me?” When his son failed to respond, he took the direct approach. “Just what do you mean ‘rolling around in the hay with her’?” It was clear from his tone and the way his eyes narrowed, he expected an answer.
There were two things about food Johnny Lancer didn’t like; bland entrees that lacked any real spices and bacon that wasn’t crisp. The piece of bacon he had just forked was thick and definitely undercooked. His focus on the drooping piece of side meat was so intense he answered the question without thinking. “I heard ‘em in the barn,” he said, nonchalantly, forgetting just how many times his father had called him to task for his bad habit of eavesdropping. “Scott and the girl.” He began mimicking what he had heard. “‘Show me’, Scott says to her, and then I hear him say ‘Is that how you kiss a man you love?’” There was a chuffing sound as he snickered. “Then it got all quiet, and the next thing I know, the two of ‘em come waltzin’ out of the barn and the girl goes skippin’ off like someone…” he drug the word out, “…had just made her pretty damned happy.” The grin faded, and he turned to look at his father, displaying the piece of limp bacon that was sagging from his fork. “Maria off her feed this mornin’, or was Consuela loose in the kitchen again?”
Murdoch put down his cup and scrubbed his face with his open palms. There were times when his younger son could drive him to the very edge of sanity. When he finally spoke, it was through clenched teeth and tented fingers. “John,” he began, his voice deceptively soft, “may I remind you that you’ve done your own bit of ‘rolling around in the hay’, and I don’t recall one time where your brother badgered you about – or discussed – your transgressions.” His tone sharpened. “I want the teasing stopped. Today.” He emphasized the final word with the solid tapping of his rigid forefinger against the table.
“Aw, c’mon, Murdoch,” Johnny put down his fork. He chose to ignore the remark about his transgressions, definitely not wanting to go there. “It ain’t like you’re all that happy with what’s been goin’ on. Scott’s a big boy, he can take a little ribbin’, and if he can’t…” his right shoulder lifted slightly, a further indication he was not paying attention to what his father was saying.
“Yes, Scott is a big boy,” Murdoch agreed amicably; “Which is why I’m leaving it to him to settle the issues with the McGloin’s.” His head canted slightly as he studied his son’s face. It was clear from the boy’s expression that Johnny was already planning his next go-round with his sibling. There is far too much mischief dancing behind those blue eyes, Murdoch realized. “John, since you can’t seem to resist the urge to harass your brother,” he raised his hand when the boy started to protest, “I’m going to make it easy for you. Jelly is outside, getting ready to go up to check the dam, and to resupply the line shack. I’ve already told him that you might be joining him, and I’m sure – by now – he has Barranca saddled.” He shoved back his chair. “It’s going to take about a week; which should give Scott more than ample time to deal with the McGloins, and you,” he tapped his son’s chest with his finger, “the opportunity to rethink the appeal of constantly annoying your brother with your teasing.”
Johnny’s mouth dropped open. How the hell had this whole fuckin’ deal become his fault? And why the hell was he the one bein’ sent off on the grunt chores? Pushing back his chair, he stood up, the belligerence clear in his face. “I been up all night with that damned colt,” he complained. “And now you expect me to ride up to the Grand and put up with a week of Jelly’s bitchin’ and moanin’?” Stubbornly, he shook his head. “Ain’t happenin’,” he declared.
Murdoch laughed. “Oh, but it is ‘happenin’’, my son,” he answered back. Then, assuming his stern father tone and look, he swung his arm to point at the front door. “Go.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott dismounted; standing still beside his horse for a time as he gathered his thoughts. He was truly unhappy at how things had worked out at the McGloins, and the image of Moira’s face, the clear hurt and disappointment, was still fresh in his mind. He sighed. His flirtation with the girl – a pleasant interlude – had taken a turn he hadn’t expected, but he was wise enough to know that there was no real future for them. It had nothing to do with the girl, but it certainly had a great deal to do with her family.
And his, he mused. Moira’s father had created problems for Lancer that were beyond mending now, and the situation had to be rectified before there were more serious problems that escalated into open violence. However, it hadn’t made it any easier to issue the ultimatum. Twenty-four hours, he had declared. He had given the family twenty-four hours to vacate the land. And he had meant it.
“Go ahead,” Jelly chuffed, interrupting Scott’s reverie. “Don’t talk to the hired help.”
Scott fiddled with his hat, a slow smile coming. “I’m sorry, Jelly,” he apologized, acknowledging the older man. “I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
Jelly snorted. “Them McGloins,” he muttered. He fell in beside Scott as the younger man headed toward the house.
“Right now,” Scott sighed, “I’d like nothing more than to wrap my hands around that man’s scrawny neck and to wring the life right out of him…” Before he had a chance to finish, Johnny came storming out onto the patio.
The sight of his elder brother caused the young man to hesitate mid step, but not for long. In spite of Murdoch’s warnings, Johnny’s mood brightened. Ignoring the soft ‘don’t do it’ his guardian angel whispered into this right ear; he perked up at the more persuasive prodding of one of Satan’s minions who was murmuring in his left, and the taunting commenced. “Hey, Scott,” he drawled, the teasing evident not only in his tone, but in the light two-step he did as he came down into the courtyard. “Nice seein’ ya. Thought maybe you’d still be off somewhere with your lassie; you know? Doin’ a little Irish jig.” He laughed, and did another little dance.
Scott took a deep breath. “Shut up, Johnny,” he ordered. There was no way in hell he was going to put up with another long session of his sibling’s smart mouth. He started by his brother only to have his way blocked.
Johnny ignored the clear warning, reaching out and pretending to flick something from Scott’s shoulder. He leaned in a bit. “Spend a little more time in the barn, brother?” he grinned. “Get all messed up rollin’ around in the hay again?” To add insult to injury, he pursed his lips and made a kissing sound.
Scott’s jaws tensed. Again, he sidestepped his brother; passing behind the horses Jelly was now continuing to load. Johnny laughed, and blew another noisy kiss in his brother’s direction. “‘Show me,’” he mocked.
His back rigid, Scott stopped walking. “I said ‘shut up’, Johnny,” he ground out, his fists flexing.
Alarmed, Jelly turned when he heard the exchange. Scott, he knew, rarely lost his temper; but it was clear from the young man’s tight-lipped expression he was on the edge. “That’s enough, Johnny,” he scolded, going into his surrogate uncle mode. “You two need to stop this foolishness…” The words only served to fuel the fire.
Johnny was facing Scott and poking his shoulder, walking backwards as Scott resumed moving. “You maybe have another peek at her while she was swimmin’ in the lake?” He elbowed Jelly away when the old man tried to hold him back and continued the baiting. “Her all soakin’ wet and her clothes…” He gestured with his hands, a crude outline of a woman’s figure, ending up with his hands cupped at his own chest; as if he were juggling ripe melons.
Determined not to give in to the building anger, Scott kept moving; almost marching now.“Shut up, Johnny,” he seethed.“If your ears were as big as your mouth, you would have heard me by now!”
The ragging continued as Johnny danced just ahead of his brother. “‘Is that how you kiss a man when you love…’”
CRACK! The blow came suddenly, a swift right uppercut to the button of Johnny’s chin that snapped the young man’s head back and dumped him on his back against the hard caliche.
“Oh, Lordy,” Jelly called out, the worry evident. He reached out to grab at Scott’s arm only to find himself losing his footing as the blond shouldered him aside. The old man beat a hasty retreat, immediately heading for the front door.
Johnny was on his feet and charging toward his brother.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch Lancer was at his desk, working his way through a stack of correspondence that appeared capable of breeding. The pile of papers seemed to grow instead of diminish, and he cursed softly as he used his pen to draw a series of lines through a particularly offensive paragraph in an Army contract for beef that had already been negotiated in John Randolph’s office. Much to the consternation of the career officer who had authored the original agreement, Scott had been diligent in pointing out the flaws in the contract, and Murdoch felt a father’s pride in a job well done. The boy’s a natural, he thought to himself; smiling. Always the cool head, the complete control.
“Murdoch!” Jelly charged into the room, his right arm jabbing at the open front door. “Those boys of yourn! They’re out there tryin’ to kill each other!” He took a breath. “Tried pullin’ ‘em apart,” he blustered, “not that they’re in a listenin’ mood. No, siree…” His cheeks puffed as he assumed his ‘banty rooster’ pose; Moses coming down from the mountain.
Annoyed at the interruption, Murdoch levered himself up from his chair; the springs squealing as he shoved himself away from the desk. Jelly’s talent for making a mountain out of a molehill was becoming tiresome, and there were times when Murdoch regretted having allowed the man into the inner family circle. He strode quickly across the room, past Jelly, and out the front door.
He stepped onto the patio just as Scott landed another roundhouse punch to his brother’s chin. The sharp blow was followed by a jab to Johnny’s belly that left the younger man doubled over and gasping for air.
Jelly found his way blocked by Murdoch’s suddenly outstretched right arm. “Well, are you gonna stop ‘em, or what?” he demanded indignantly.
Murdoch shook his head. “No, I am not,” he declared. He stood, watching as his sons continued to spar. Fascinated, he observed the contest, noting the differences between his two boys. Scott was clearly in control; his posture that of a professional bare-knuckle fighter, and his blows measured. It was clear the young man had had some formal training in the art of fisticuffs; in fact, in stance and deadly determination Murdoch was reminded of Tom Sayers, the bare-knuckle champion who fought a brutal forty-two round fight; the majority of the rounds with a severely injured arm.
Johnny on the other hand, had succumbed to his hot temper, reverting to the tactics of a street fighter. His tendency was to use brute strength and animal reflex, charging his opponent and head butting with the intention of getting his adversary on the ground; and then reverting to rough and tumble wrestling using both arms and legs, and occasionally teeth. In the rougher contests below the border, the long-roweled Spanish spurs could be used with wicked effectiveness; but so far, that hadn’t occurred. In fact, on both sides, remarkably little blood had been shed.
Scott’s height and long limbs gave him the decided advantage. Light on his feet, he bobbed and weaved away from his brother; delivering an occasional measured punch that was obviously meant to punish but not maim.
Again, Jelly attempted to push forward. “Boss, you gotta stop them boys.” He was almost pleading now, and there was genuine panic in his voice. When he turned to look up at Murdoch, the dread turned to anger. Murdoch was standing stock-still, his jaws set; his face looking as if it were carved from granite. Jelly swore. “Dammit, man, if you ain’t goin’ to help my boys…”
Murdoch reached out and grabbed Jelly’s shoulder. “My boys, Jelly,” he reminded, momentarily regretting the flash of pain he saw in the old man’s eyes. “Those are my boys, and I’ll stop them when I feel it is necessary.” His voice lowered. “This has been coming for a long time, Jelly. It needs to run its course.” He visibly winced as Scott scored another hit.
The scuffling continued. Johnny’s anger had turned to raw rage. It didn’t help that he was aware his father was standing on the porch watching; something that provoked within him a need to win. Scrambling to his feet, he grabbed a handful of dirt and pebbles; his intent clear. He made the toss, charging forward at the same time as Scott raised his arms to deflect the spray of gravel. Together, the two tumbled to the ground; their arms wrapped around each other as they rolled across the courtyard. They ended up in a tangled mass beneath the packhorses; dangerously close to shod hooves as the animals bolted and tried to break free from their tethers. The sound of flesh against flesh punctuated the air, combined with the stomping of the horses’ feet.
In two great strides, Murdoch charged into the courtyard and bulled his way between the two horses. He reached down with both hands, grabbing hair and fabric as he yanked his sons to their feet. “That’s enough!” he roared, dodging as Johnny swung at Scott’s head. Giving both his sons a head-bobbing shake, he repeated the words. “I said that’s enough!!”
The sound of labored breathing cut into the silence as both young men attempted to regain control. Murdoch’s fingers were still entwined in their collars, and there was no indication he was about to let go. If anything, he had increased his grip to give them a final shake.
He released his sons to do a cursory examination. Scott first; who showed little wear and tear other than his rumpled shirt and dusty pant legs. Then he turned to Johnny, cupping the youth’s chin firmly in his palm as he checked out the damage. Johnny’s appearance was more unkempt, his long hair sweat-damp and curled at his neck and ears. There was a bubble of blood at the corner of his mouth and a small bruise forming beneath his left eye. Satisfied the injuries were minor, he let go; and turned to Jelly.
“Johnny will be going with you,” he announced. “You’re going to be in charge, Jelly, and I’ll want a full report when the two of you get back.”
Jelly’s posture changed as he hooked his thumbs in his suspenders. He was rocking back and forth, heel and toe. “I’ll get ‘er done,” he promised. “And I’ll get ‘er done right.”
Johnny, still breathing hard, cursed. “Fuck that! I ain’t goin’!” he yelled. “There’s no fuckin’ way I’m goin’ if you’re puttin’ him in charge!” He knew damned good and well his father was punishing him. Pissed, he tried another tact. “He started it,” he said, jabbing a finger at his brother.
Murdoch shook his head. “No,” he responded. “He finished what you started last night at dinner, and what you obviously continued when he came home. And that’s the end of it.” Not that he was going to let his elder son off the hook.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Johnny was staring straight ahead; trying hard to ignore the man who was riding to his right. He reached up, flexing his jaw; and then worked his tongue across his teeth checking for damage. There was the faint, rusty taste of blood; and he leaned to the right, spitting into the dirt and then wiping his chin with his shirtsleeve. He was pissed; at his brother, at his father, and even more at Jelly, whose mouth had been going full bore for the last five miles. He nudged Barranca’s ribs with his heels, urging the horse into a trot.
Jelly gigged his horse into a trot and caught up. Leaning to his left, he reached out across the narrow space that separated them and grabbed the palomino’s cheek strap. “You slow up, boy,” he ordered. “Don’t you get it in your head that you’re gonna be runnin’ off again. Murdoch’ll have your hide; you pull a stunt like you did when you took off after that stallion. I’m tellin’ you, boy…”
Johnny pulled his horse to an abrupt halt, Barranca dancing beneath the tight rein. He was in no mood for one of Jelly’s pain-in-the-ass lectures. “You’re not tellin’ me one fuckin’ thing, old man!” he seethed. “Not…one…fuckin’…thing!”
The old man increased his hold on the palomino’s bridle. “You stop it now!” he chuffed.
Roughly, Johnny slapped the man’s hand away. “You go to hell!” With that, he kneed Barranca in the ribs and took off. He gave the horse its head, the animal dropping low into a ground-eating run. Johnny’s hat was whipped from his head, held in place by the storm strings, the stetson spiraling in the wind.
Jelly heaved a great sigh. Behind him, the pack animals tugged at the lead rope; eager to join their stable mate. He’ll ride it out, he consoled himself. At least the boy was heading in the right direction.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
He rode against the wind, his lungs burning as he hunkered down and sought solace in the sound of shod hooves against the thick turf. Barranca’s long mane whipped across his cheeks, the coarse hair and the wind bringing tears. Johnny didn’t care. The emotions that tore at him brought with them the usual conflict he felt when he was at odds with this thing called family; and he needed the release.
Finally easing up, he allowed Barranca to slow to the smooth, rocking-chair gait that brought with it a comforting rhythm; the tattoo of the animal’s hoofbeats somehow now in time to the youth’s beating heart. Flat, open land lay before them; the new grass spring green beneath the winter gold. Johnny pulled himself erect in the saddle, looping the reins around the saddle horn, and then letting go. Arms outstretched, he rode with his face lifted to the sun.
Gradually, the palomino’s pace slackened, slowing to a gentle canter. Johnny threaded the reins between the fingers of his left hand, neck reining the horse in a slow arc and heading down a gradual decline toward a small grove of spring-fed cottonwoods. Barranca slowed to a walk.
Pulling his horse to a halt, Johnny dismounted, his hand lingering on the animal’s neck. Eyes closed, he leaned in, resting his forehead against the palomino’s sweat-flecked cheek. He stood for a time, gathering his thoughts; and then removed his canteen from the saddle. “Sorry, compadre,” he murmured. Uncorking the flask, he pulled the stetson from his back and poured a measure of water into the hat. He offered the water to the horse, using his free hand to briefly scratch the animal’s left ear. Only then did he raise the canteen to his own lips.
The water was tepid; and it left him longing for a swig of something stronger. Tequila would have suited his mood, which was still grim. Swiping his lips with the back of his hand, he turned to stare out at the broad expanse of grassland that spread before him.
Lancer. He whispered the word. It was as much a place as it was the man, and the word evoked the love/hate relationship he had with both. He had bled for this land, had felt his blood soaking into the soil, as if the earth beneath his belly was sucking the life from him. It was crazy. It drove him crazy. The same land that had seemed to be stealing his soul now nourished him. He ate the crops that grew in the fields, feasted on the animals that took their sustenance from the grass that had been slick with his own blood.
He’d bled for the Old Man, too. Lifting his hand, he fingered the small cut at the corner of his mouth. A scab was forming, and he picked at it, drawing blood. Scott, he thought bitterly. Damned if he hadn’t bled for Scott as well. And the Old Man had let it happen. He swore. “Fuck!”
The temptation to remount Barranca and to take off filled him, but he couldn’t do it. The land tugged at him; he could feel the pull, as surely as if a pair of hands were rising up from the depths of the earth to clutch the soles of his boots. He wondered if it wasn’t the Fantasmas – the ghosts – of all those who had gone before; the long dead Chumash and others who had died in this place. And then another thought consumed him, something crazier than his original musings.
What if it was Catherine, Scott’s mother? He remembered something his father had said. About how – unlike his own mama – Catherine had loved the land; had shared her husband’s dream of the home they would build together and the children they would have. He knew Catherine hadn’t died on Lancer, knew all about Carterville and how Catherine had lost her life and Scott had been stolen away. But what if her love for the land had been so strong that her espíritu – her spirit, a piece of her soul – had remained behind and she was still here?
He had often sensed her presence in the house; even with the remnants of his own mother’s brief stay – the dowry she had left behind. And he’d seen her likeness; in a silver-framed portrait on Scott’s dresser, and in the locket his father kept hidden in his desk drawer. Once, in going through an old trunk in the attic, he had even found the oval, carefully hand-tinted wedding Daguerreotype; his much younger father and the sweet-faced woman who had stolen Murdoch’s heart. Scott not only had his mother’s eyes; he also had her fair skin and blond hair.
Swallowing, he felt a deep ache in his throat that extended downward to his heart. “This is fuckin’ loco,” he whispered. Catherine Lancer was a ghost; nothing but a ghost. A gentle breeze, like the brushing of soft fingers lifted the curls at the back of his neck and he instantly raised his hand to brush the sensation away. Feeling a strange warmth, his fingers lingered. Again, he felt the tug; as if his feet were being rooted in the ground. The wind whispered ‘stay’.
Resolute, he put his foot in the stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle. As a small child in Mexico, he had been exposed to the peasant superstitions of a pagan based form of Catholicism. The power of the village brujas combined with the ruthless influence of the local priests had left him bereft of a true spiritual connection; but he had learned one thing. Sometimes, it was wise to yield to the voices of the disembodied spirits. He preferred to think of it as instinct, and it had allowed him to survive.
He spurred Barranca forward, up the small incline to the ridge overlooking the trail. When he arrived at the roadway, Jelly was already there. Silently, he fell in beside the old man.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch found his elder son in the Great Room; a tumbler full of Glenlivet in his hand. “A bit early for that, isn’t it?” he asked sharply, not sure he wanted an answer.
Scott chugged the drink and poured another. “I’m sure somewhere in the world, it’s the appropriate time for a drink; and probably for good reason,” he responded, his tone flat. He gestured toward the decanter with his glass.
In spite of the early hour, Murdoch nodded. He watched as, with a steady hand, his son filled a second tumbler. “What happened out there?”
Scott handed off the drink. His brow furrowed. “Johnny,” he answered.
Instead of going to his desk, Murdoch headed for the large overstuffed chair beside the fireplace. He sat down, leaning forward, and tapped the top of the matching ottoman. “Sit,” he ordered.
“I prefer to stand,” Scott responded, his tone much the same as that first day when he had tossed out the cold and defiant ‘will I?’
Murdoch was having none of it. “Don’t use that tone with me, young man,” he declared, thumping the cushioned footstool a second time.
Briefly, Scott’s eyes closed and then opened. He gave a curt nod, and eased himself down in front of his father. They were so close, their knees touched.
Murdoch’s posture had not changed. He was still forward in the chair, his drink between his palms, his elbows on his thighs. He waited.
Scott took a small sip of his scotch. “He just wouldn’t quit,” he began. “I told him to stop…” he corrected himself, “…to shut up. Not once,” he held up his left hand, three digits extended, “but three…” he repeated the word, “…three times.” Raking his fingers through his hair, he sighed. “I just couldn’t take it anymore, sir. He picked up where he left off after dinner last night, and this time I just couldn’t walk away.”
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Murdoch prodded. It was clear from his demeanor he wanted an answer.
“What difference?” Scott shot back. Then, calming, he resumed speaking. “Wouldn’t,” he said finally. He asked a question of his own. “Why didn’t you stop the fight when you first came out on to the patio?”
Murdoch’s lips twitched. “Couldn’t,” he responded. He reached out, patting his son’s knee. “I had spoken to him at breakfast, about the teasing. I told him I wanted it stopped.” He took a drink. When he resumed speaking, his voice was whiskey-hoarse. “I had hoped he would listen.”
Scott laughed. “Johnny? Listen?” He shook his head. “When has he ever truly listened to advice, no matter how well intended?”
Murdoch’s head came up. “My father,” he began, “used to talk about a malady he had observed among some of his scholars at University. He referred to it as ‘selective deafness’; a condition where the very young consider themselves a fountain of knowledge and in no need of the guidance of older, wiser men.”
Scott lifted his glass in salute. “Have you ever wondered what he would have thought of Johnny,” he asked. He immediately apologized. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. That was inconsiderate…”
Shaking his head, Murdoch interrupted. “My parents were aware of Johnny’s existence, Scott; and yours. My one regret – regarding your grandparents – is that I wasn’t more adamant about the two of them emigrating.” He gestured to the room; to the house beyond. “There was certainly room for them here, and your Mother and I had discussed the possibility.” He was quiet a moment. “‘Man proposes, and God disposes,’” he murmured.
“The history of Lancer,” Scott said, his tone ironic. He straightened, stretching his right arm above his head. “About my brother, sir.” Inhaling, he continued. “I know I need to make this right.” His eyes narrowed. “I’m just not sure how.” He felt his father’s scrutiny, and returned it in kind. “Johnny was wrong, too.”
Murdoch nodded. “Yes. On two counts. Continuing the teasing and disobeying what he was told.”
Scott smiled. “So am I to assume that you’ve already meted out the punishment for the disobedience?” he ventured. “Putting Jelly in charge?”
Murdoch signaled for his son to stand and then levered himself up from his chair. “A lesson in humility,” he said. He decided another drink was in order and made his way to the drink table. “As only Jelly can provide.”
Scott wandered over to where his father was standing, and poured himself a half-measure. “And my punishment, sir?” He stared into the glass, swirling it a bit, watching as the liquor whirl-pooled against the edges. His lips curled into a wry smile as he realized that the knuckles of his right fist were bruised and somewhat swollen.
Murdoch hadn’t missed the bruised knuckles. He was also aware that while the boy was exhibiting recent injuries, the knuckle of his right little finger was larger than normal with no sign of fresh abrasions; a clear indication his son was no stranger to physical combat. “I was thinking more in terms of penance,” he answered.
It wasn’t the answer Scott expected. “As in?” he questioned.
“You are going to make things right between you and your brother,” Murdoch answered. “I also want you to promise that you’ll keep a rein on your temper, and regardless of what your brother does to annoy you – and I’m certain he will try – that there will not be another bout of fisticuffs.”
Scott drew in a deep breath. “Murdoch, I’ve never had a brother,” he started. “At least not one I knew about. Grandfather’s friends were of his age; and most of them were grandparents as well, and their grandchildren – for the most part – much older than I, or the majority of them, granddaughters.” He hesitated. “Clay Porter was my closest friend when I was growing up; a surrogate older brother.” A soft chuckle came. “I think he was the only one of my friends Grandfather trusted.”
Murdoch harrumphed, loudly. “After that near fiasco in Sacramento, I’m not so sure I concur with that judgement,” he declared.
Risking censure, Scott made an observation of his own. “You were there, too,” he reminded. There was humor in this voice, as well in his eyes.
“Your point being,” Murdoch groused. However, he was smiling. Skillfully, he changed the subject. “Son, I need to ask you a question. It’s of a personal nature, and I need a frank answer.”
Scott canted his head slightly. Murdoch was extremely articulate and he always chose his words carefully. He was also a stickler on the use of the words won’t and can’t; need and want. “All right,” he said. He looked across to his father, meeting his gaze. “Ask.”
Murdoch took a drink before responding. “It’s about the girl,” he said finally.
Scott went on alert. “She has a name, sir. And I think it’s only fair to tell you the reason I struck Johnny the first time was because of his reluctance to use it.”
The room was quiet for a time, save for the ticking of the clock. Murdoch was studying his son’s face, a slow smile coming. “I see,” he nodded, recognizing Scott had just established a modicum of control. He took a small breath and resumed speaking. “It’s something Johnny said at the table this morning. That you and Moira,” he stressed the word, “had – as he put it – a tumble in the hay in McGloin’s barn. He also said…” he made an effort to use the girl’s name a second time, “…that you and Moira were in the barn for quite some time, and that there was some obvious kissing.”
I’m going to kill him! Scott thought. It was now obvious his brother had been outside the barn much longer than he had admitted. And had been eavesdropping, dammit. He shook the thoughts aside. “I can tell you, Murdoch, in all honesty; that while Moira and I engaged in some rather flirtatious behavior, we did nothing that would be considered shameful.” He straightened. “And I’m rather disappointed, sir, that you felt you had to ask.”
Murdoch’s cheeks colored. “Scott…” Before he could finish speaking, there was a commotion just beyond the French doors. Moira McGloin burst into the room. It was clear from her disheveled appearance she was in a state of panic and seeking help. Something rare and unexpected from the fiery young woman who was fiercely independent.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The sudden shrieks from inside the small cabin rose above the noise of scattered gunfire, bringing an instant cease-fire. Then the wailing began, multiple voices rising in an eerie lament that reminded Murdoch of the funeral chants of his youth. He holstered his pistol and moved forward, towering over Jim Talbert and the others as he strode across the clearing. Now clearly in command, he waved the others back, and called out sharply to his son. “Scott!”
Together the two men entered the cabin, slamming the door shut as they surveyed the interior. McGloin and his son were still moaning, and Murdoch – his eyes narrowing dangerously – silenced them both with a single glance. His gaze quickly shifted to the old woman, who was sitting in her rocker, fanning herself. There was a single bullet hole in the back of the chair, just inches from the woman’s head.
Murdoch crossed the room to lay a gentle hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “Are you all right?” he asked. The concern was genuine. Seeing the jug on the floor next to the rocker, he picked it up, pulled the cork; and shoved it into the woman’s hands. She tipped it back and took a long swallow. Murdoch was impressed.
Scott was quickly surveying the room. Padraic McGloin was strangely quiet, and Sorely Boy, Moira’s brother, was nursing a shoulder wound. Moira was now, tearfully, tending her grandmother. “Murdoch, we need to get them out of here,” he murmured.
Nodding, Murdoch was also assessing the present scenario. “Well, it’s obvious Talbert and the others have again forgotten they are on Lancer land,” he observed drolly. “I think it’s time to remind them just who’s in charge.” Quickly, he crossed the room to where Sorely Boy was standing. “This is going to hurt,” he said. There was little remorse in his voice.
Grabbing the young man’s upper arm, he squeezed; producing a renewed flow of blood. He staunched the flow with his handkerchief, but continued to milk the wound. When he was satisfied, he went back to where the old woman was still nursing her jug. He spoke to Scott without turning around. “We’re going to convince Talbert that they’ve killed the old woman,” he announced, dabbing the bloodied handkerchief against her right temple. When he was satisfied with his handiwork, he put more blood around the bullet hole beside her head, in the chair’s back. Gently, patting the woman’s shoulder, he removed the stone jug from her hand and placed it on the floor. “You need to play dead,” he grinned.
The old woman complied. Tilting her head to the side, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
Murdoch straightened. He tossed the bloody handkerchief to Scott; and nodded toward Sorely Boy. “Bind up his wound.” Then he turned back to face McGloin. “And you keep your damned mouth shut,” he ordered.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Murdoch opened the door and stared out into the yard. His gaze shifted from one man to the next, a grim frown coming as he silently chastised them. “The old woman is dead,” he announced.
There was an awkward shuffling of booted feet and muted conversation. Jim Talbert was the first to speak up. “Now, Murdoch,” he began.
Murdoch beckoned the man forward, standing aside and opening the cabin door a crack. It was just enough that Talbert could look inside. Directly in his line of vision was the rocking chair and the sunlit corpse of the white-haired old woman, something saint-like in her appearance; save for the a smear of blood at her temple and a bigger splotch on the back of the chair.
Talbert was clutching his hat. “My god, Murdoch,” he stammered. “We never meant for this…” the words trailed off.
“We’re going to need a coffin,” Murdoch growled, loud enough the others could hear. “It’s the least you fools can do.” With that, he stepped back inside the cabin and shut the door.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Talbert stood for a time; fisting his hands around the felt stetson, his face grim. What a hell of a mess, he thought. He swallowed as the reality of the situation struck home. They were on Lancer land; had come here as vigilantes without the support of the local law. In fact, had ignored Gabe’s orders to not interfere. But, dammit, McGloin had burned his barn; had threatened to burn his home.
Hands shaking, he scrubbed his fingers through his hair. There could be charges, he thought. His jaws tensed as Porter joined him. “We could all go to jail,” he said aloud.
Porter blanched. “What are we going to do, Jim?” he asked, nodding toward the cabin.
Talbert jammed his stetson onto this head. “We’re going to find some wood and build a coffin,” he answered. He pointed to the barn.
Porter and the others fell in behind and they trudged toward the outbuilding. “And then what?” he asked.
“We’re going to send those McGloins on their way,” he announced. “Put this behind us and hope to God Murdoch doesn’t press charges and turn us over to the law.” With that, he stepped forward and opened the barn door, wide.
There was an audible gasp as the men stepped inside. Somewhere behind Porter, someone stifled a guffaw that turned into a cough.
Porter’s jaws tensed and his cheeks reddened. Before him lay a stack of freshly milled timber. The same timber he had ordered to rebuild his burned out barn.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
The sun was just coming up when Murdoch Lancer stepped into the kitchen. There was a definite spring to his step; the result of a good night’s sleep. The McGloins were gone, it was a new day, and Jim Talbert and his crew of vigilantes had been well and truly punished for their transgressions. An honest man, Murdoch normally would have felt ashamed for his deception, but somehow the ends had justified the means. Peace had been restored to the valley. The livestock the McGloins had purloined from the other ranchers had been returned; as had the many items the Irishman and his family had ‘liberated’. Well, except for a portion of Jim Talbert’s lumber. He found that exhilarating, and somehow very funny.
“Good morning, Murdoch!” Teresa greeted brightly. “Maria’s made fresh flour tortillas.” She stood on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek.
Murdoch gave the girl a quick, one-armed hug. Over the top of her head, he watched as Scott packed his saddlebags. There were several packets of paper-wrapped food on the table, along with what he recognized to be a pair of Johnny’s leather pants, and two shirts; one of them blue-flowered. “What’s going on?” he asked. He reached across the table to accept the cup of coffee Maria had poured.
Scott smiled. “Good morning, sir,” he greeted. Like his father, he had enjoyed a restful, dreamless sleep. He patted the saddlebags. “I’m about to do my penance,” he teased.
There was a sputtering sound as Murdoch almost choked on his coffee. “I thought you would wait until Johnny returned home,” he said.
“He’s been gone three days,” Scott grinned. “I thought it might be a good idea to go up to the dam and make sure he and Jelly haven’t killed each other.”
Murdoch laughed. “You seem to be full of ideas lately,” he said. He saluted his son with his cup, his mood turning serious. “That was a good point you brought up yesterday evening when we were coming home; turning that piece of land into a base camp. The location is right, and there’s good water. The buildings are in need of some repair, but – considering what occurred – the damages are fairly minimal.”
In spite of the compliment, Scott couldn’t stop the look of chagrin that made his face look boyishly young. “Well, it would be a good deterrent to squatters,” he said.
Murdoch was in a very forgiving mood. “That it would,” he agreed. “So when do you plan on being back?”
Scott was checking his saddlebags, itemizing the contents. He nodded his thanks to Maria as she handed him the still warm, paper wrapped tortillas. “I plan on helping Johnny finish the job,” he responded. He took a small breath. “I’m going to send Jelly back to Lancer,” he said. He raised his hand when Murdoch opened his mouth. “I know he won’t be happy, but I also know that if he remains at the cabin, Johnny won’t be all that receptive to what I plan to do and say.” He was quiet a moment. “Jelly has a way of butting in, and not always in a positive way,” he said softly. “I don’t want him interfering.”
Murdoch took another sip of his coffee and then made his way to his usual spot at the head of the table. “You still haven’t said when you’ll be back,” he reminded.
“I’m not sure,” Scott answered honestly. “By the weekend,” he amended.
Five days, Murdoch thought. “All right,” he agreed. He watched as Scott hoisted the saddlebags on to his left shoulder. “Remember your promise,” he chided.
Scott smiled. Leave it to his father to have the last word.
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
Scott remained mounted. He watched as his brother, obviously unaware of his presence, struggled with the remains of an uprooted tree. Johnny’s faded shirt was blood red from sweat, and he was without gloves; his knuckles scraped and bloody.
The blond dismounted. Quietly, he made his way at an angle down the muddy creek bank; the noise of rushing water masking the sound of his descent. He stepped into the ankle deep water, and reached out; tapping his brother’s shoulder. “Here,” he said, offering the pair of leather gloves. A second pair was neatly tucked into his own waistband.
Johnny’s right hand instinctively went to his bare right hip as he dropped into a crouch, and it took him a little time to recover. He looked up, spied the gloves, and debated accepting the offer. Averting his eyes, he took a breath; and then reached out. “Hope you ain’t expectin’ a thanks,” he muttered. “‘Cause you sure in hell ain’t gettin’ one.” To make his point, he tapped at the bruise below his left eye.
Scott was putting on his own gloves. “But it would be a start,” he chided softly. He moved further into the water, assessing the tangle of roots and the heavy clump of mud caked at the tree’s stump. It wasn’t really impeding the flow of water; but there was always, he supposed, the potential for future trouble if there was another hard rain. “We need an axe and a shovel,” he observed. Turning slightly, he looked up to where Jelly – back to the creek – was hammering away at straightening a scattering of bent nails that were spread across a flat rock. “I see he’s practicing his ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’ philosophy,” he sighed.
Johnny paused to scoop a handful of water from the fast-running stream, wetting his lips. “Yeah. Nothin’ like spendin’ the mornin’ straightenin’ rusted nails when there’s a keg of new ones sittin’ up there on the porch. Sometimes…”
“…you wish you hadn’t brought that particular stray home?” Scott interrupted, smiling.
Johnny’s head snapped up. “Don’t go hangin’ that one on me,” he said, thumping his chest. “I’ll admit to bein’ the one who said we needed to take care of those kids, but it’s the Old Man who decided to keep Jelly for a pet.”
“Murdoch felt sorry for him,” Scott said. “I can’t fault the man for having compassion for someone whose intentions – although not totally honorable – were basically good.”
Johnny’s chin dipped against his chest. “Don’t mean he has to let him think he’s blood,” he murmured. He turned towards the sound of the hammering, the sudden shift in position causing him to lose his footing. Unconsciously, he reached out, grateful when his brother grabbed his arm and kept him on his feet. “Jesus, Scott. Murdoch put him in charge of this fuckin’ job. Swear to God, if that old fart takes out his damned pad of paper, or licks the tip of that damned pencil one more time, I’m gonna toss him down that old dry well and tell Murdoch he took off.” His jaws tensed. “Hell, the Old Man put him charge just to…”
“… teach you a lesson,” Scott interjected. When he saw his brother’s cheeks redden, he raised his hand. “If it makes you feel better, Johnny, you aren’t the only one Murdoch called to task.” He decided to save the details for the conversation he planned on having. “Let’s take a break,” he suggested, nodding in the direction of the line shack.
Together, the two young men made their way up the steep bank; quietly making their way to where Jelly was still concentrating on his labors. The old man looked up, his words directed at Johnny. “I don’t recall tellin’ you you’re done workin’ on that tree stump,” he huffed. He reached for his pocket, and the pencil.
Johnny’s jaw tightened and he briefly closed his eyes. “Scott told me to take a break,” he said. “And you don’t need to be writin’ that down.”
Jelly straightened, his chin jutting out. “The boss put me in charge,” he chuffed. “Told me to make sure the job was finished proper; and that he wanted a report on how things was done.”
Before Scott had a chance to respond, Johnny spoke up. “Yeah, well Scott owns one third of Lancer, and the Old Man ain’t here.” He smiled. “Figure that makes him ‘boss’ right now.”
Scott fought the smile. “Not to mention the fact I’m also your legal guardian when Murdoch isn’t around to call the tune.”
Johnny turned suddenly and knuckled-punched his brother’s arm; hard. A good indication he still wasn’t over their fight. “You know how stupid that is?” he groused. “Sayin’ ‘not to mention’, and then mentionin’ it?”
The soft laughter was followed by a tempered confession. “My apologies, brother,” he grinned, lifting his right hand in a gesture of peace. He quickly sobered and turned his attention to the older man. “So, Jelly, is the dam in good repair now? And the line shack secure and fully stocked?”
Jelly debated his answer and knew at once his bluff had been called. “Just like the Boss wanted,” he answered, the words coming slowly. He puffed up again, his eyes narrowing as he switched his gaze to Johnny. “But he ain’t got that crick all cleared.”
Scott removed his stetson and finger-combed his long hair. “This is how it’s going to be, Jelly.” He used his hat to point to the place where the pack animals were grazing. “You’re going to pack up the tools you brought, and you’re going to go back to Lancer. You can tell Murdoch that Johnny and I are going to take care of that stump and anything else that might need to be done, and that we’ll be home once we’re finished.”
Jelly’s eyes were busy, flickering from one young man to the other. “Finished what?” he asked pugnaciously. “That fight Murdoch broke up just a’ fore he sent me and Johnny up here to take care o’ this job?”
Scott’s jaws tensed and his fingers tightened on his stetson. The words came quietly, but with great resolve. “Jelly, as much as I appreciate your efforts and your concern, the fact remains that I am the one in charge here now; and I’m telling you to go back to the hacienda. My brother and I will be home as soon as we’ve taken care of business. Our business.”
It never failed to impress Johnny when Scott went into his Lieutenant Lancer mode, even when it reminded him of his Old Man when he was giving orders. He turned to grin up at his brother. “I’ll get the axe and the shovel,” he volunteered. Without another word, he headed for the line shack. Then, just to aggravate Jelly, he called back over his shoulder. “I’ll be usin’ the axe, brother!”
Jelly stood for a moment. He was still smarting from the abrupt way Scott had called him to task. “Your Pa ain’t gonna be happy with this,” he complained. “He’s expectin’ me to bring that boy home.”
Scott shook his head. “Murdoch is aware of where I am, and why.” He looked squarely into the older man’s eyes. “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings by pulling rank, Jelly. But this is between ‘that boy’ and me, and you need – quite frankly – to butt out.”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
It had taken them a hard two hours to reduce the tree stump to nothing more than a large pile of chips and muddy debris that tumbled down the fast-flowing creek to end up at the bottom of Cedar Lake. The brothers were now at play, swimming naked at the headwaters where the stream and the lake met; the drop-off where the small falls concealed a hidden cave.
The sun was dipping lower on the western horizon, radiating atop the spring snows that still covered the distant mountains. There was a westerly wind, it was growing cold, and Johnny – more used to the southern deserts and the occasional springtime oasis – was the first to leave the lake.
“Giving up, brother?” Scott called; treading water.
Johnny was scrubbing at his upper torso with his shirt. “Sure in hell ain’t stayin’ in there ‘til my dick shrinks to the size of your little pinkie,” he called, slipping into the damp camisa (shirt).
Scott’s laughter echoed throughout the small arroyo. He began swimming toward the bank; long graceful strokes that carried him through the water like a shark. When he reached the shore, he reached up to take his brother’s proffered hand, and promptly pulled his sibling into the water.
“Son of a bitch!” Johnny yelped. He immediately retaliated, grabbing his brother’s hair and pulling him into the depths. They sparred, until tired, and then surrendered to dog-paddle side-by-side to the shore; climbing up onto the bank to collapse backwards into the still sun-warmed grass.
Johnny was the first to speak. “That was low, brother, pullin’ me into the water like that.”
Scott was staring up at the clouds, marveling at the gilt touched puffs of white that seemed solid against the evening sky. He knew they were nothing but vapor; wisps on the wind, constantly changing shape and moving. “As low as when I punched you on the chin back at the house?” he said, softly.
“You apologizin’?” Johnny asked, turning his head.
“No,” Scott answered. “But we do need to talk.”
It was Johnny’s turn to stare up at the sky. “Murdoch made you come up here, didn’t he?”
Another negative reply. “No.” Languidly, Scott stretched. “It was my decision, and he agreed with it. That said, after some reflection, I came to the conclusion that you and I – brother – need to establish some ground rules regarding the boundaries of our relationship.”
“Rules,” Johnny snorted. “Thought by now, you’d have it figured out just what I think of rules.” He shivered a bit as the wind picked up. For some reason, it pissed him off that his totally naked brother didn’t seem to be affected one bit by the growing cold.
Scott lay with his arms folded behind his head. “When I was growing up in Boston, Johnny, I had the opportunity to enjoy the company of friends; friends who had siblings. I was able to watch them, see how they behaved with each other; observe the relationships between them.” He hesitated. “But that did nothing to prepare me for becoming a brother,” he turned his head to study his sibling’s profile. “Not for the twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week experience,” he reached out to poke Johnny in the ribs, “of…you.”
Johnny’s head came up. He couldn’t stop the laughter. “Trust me, Boston. I could’a been raised in a houseful of muchachos and nothin’ would have prepared me for you!” The laughter bubbled up again. “Jesus! Those pants,” he chortled.
Scott tapped his brother’s cheek, lightly. “I’ll have you know, Johnny, those pants were the epitome of style.” Levering himself up, he retrieved his clothes, which he had neatly stacked before their long swim. He slipped into his shirt.
“In some high-class Boston whore house, maybe,” Johnny sniped. Reaching for his pants, he sat up. “So what happened with the McGloins,” he asked.
Scott was on his feet now, buttoning his trousers. “They’re gone,” he replied. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. His head canted. “You should have been there, brother. You would have enjoyed the show.” He extended his hand, pulling his brother to his feet.
They stood for a long moment, silent, staring out at the western horizon. A lone star hovered above the mountains. “What show?” Johnny asked, yielding to curiosity.
“Talbert and the others,” Scott began. “They decided to lynch the old scoundrel.” He laughed, softly. “McGloin – good Catholic that he was – talked them into hearing his last confession. It was enough of a stall for Murdoch and me to get there. And then…” He chuckled.
“Then what?” Johnny prodded.
“There was a bit of a skirmish,” Scott continued. “When the firing stopped, Murdoch and I went into the cabin.” His right eyebrow arched. “It was brilliant, Johnny. Murdoch convinced Talbert and the others their assault ended up killing the old woman.”
At that, Johnny’s eyes hardened. “The abuela?”
Scott nodded. “Murdoch made Talbert and his crew construct a coffin. And then we put the old woman inside – properly cushioned with several blankets and a pillow – and loaded it in the wagon.” He grinned across at his brother. “Sent McGloin and his son off with the pine box and the proper show of respect; with Murdoch and me watching. By the time Talbert and his crew skulked off, McGloin was well on his way.” Scott laughed. He swiped at his nose, shaking his head. “When McGloin topped the hill, he stopped the wagon, popped open the coffin and gave his mother her jug. She took a long swig, laid back down, and off they went into the sunset.”
Johnny let out a whoop. “Just like that,” he grinned, snapping his fingers.
“Just like that,” Scott responded.
“And Murdoch was okay with it?” Johnny asked.
“The entire thing was his idea,” Scott replied. He winked at his brother. “It would seem, brother, we inherited our talent for fast thinking and great plans from our father.”
The frown came quickly. “Like him puttin’ Jelly in charge and sendin’ me up here to do the grunt work?”
Scott shook his head. Sometimes his brother was like a dog gnawing at a bone, intent on sucking out all the marrow. “That wasn’t a plan,” he said. “As I said before, he sent you up here with Jelly in charge to teach you a lesson.” He inhaled. “He told me that he lectured you about the teasing, and that you chose to ignore him.”
Johnny bent forward to pick up his boots. “He lecture you about sucker punching me?” he grumped.
“Let’s go make some supper,” Scott suggested. He picked up his own boots and turned to head for the cabin.
Johnny hurried to keep up. “And the… Moira?” he called out, making sure to use her name. “What happened to Moira?”
~*~ L ~*~ A ~*~ N ~*~ C ~*~ E ~*~ R ~*~
They’d had a light supper of side meat and fried potatoes, and were working themselves through a pot of coffee. Johnny was mopping up his plate with one of the flour tortillas Scott had brought with him. He knew it was a bribe. “You didn’t answer me about Moira,” he said, carefully using her proper name although he was almost – almost – tempted to do a bit of ribbing.
Scott waved his hand in no particular direction. “Gone,” he said. “She finally managed to cut the ties. She headed in one direction; her family in the other.” He laughed, softly. “Between us, Murdoch and I slipped her close to a hundred dollars.” His brow furrowed, and the next words were spoken with a degree of regret. “She intends to ‘better’ herself,” he breathed.
Johnny swallowed the last of the flat bread. “Hell,” he grinned, “she looked pretty damned good to me just like she was!” When he saw his brother’s sudden frown, he raised his right hand. “No offense,” he said. “Honest.”
The grimace on Scott’s face eased. “None taken,” he said amicably. “But I think we’ve danced around this long enough.” He sucked in a short breath. “You were out of line, Johnny.” He held up his hand, stalling the anticipated argument. “Murdoch, at least, gave me the opportunity to find out for myself that I’d made a mistake in how I approached the problem. But you,” he pointed an accusing finger at his sibling, “you stuck your nose in where it had no business. You also made assumptions that were totally unfounded.” His voice softened. “There’s a big difference between a bit of harmless flirtation with a girl than a ‘tumble in the hay’ that has no meaning.”
Shit, Johnny thought. Shit, fuck. Murdoch had told on him. It riled him, and added a bite to his words. “And you sucker punchin’ me makes it right?” Shit. The words sounded stupid, even as he said them.
Scott shook his head. “No, it doesn’t make it right. But it also doesn’t make it right that you kept pushing; that you wouldn’t let it go. I think what really made me angry was that you could think so little of me as a man – as a brother – that you would presume I’d use a woman like that, with no thought of the consequences.” He cleared his throat. “I also resented that you could assume Moira was the type of girl who would give herself away after a single kiss.”
“Two kisses,” Johnny corrected. His chin immediately dropped against his chest; but he still couldn’t bring himself to say ‘I’m sorry’.
“You were eavesdropping outside that barn for a lot longer than you admitted, brother,” Scott accused. “It was a flirtation, Johnny; a mutually enjoyed flirtation. Not a romance.” He reached out and tapped his brother’s arm. “That said, I’m sorry I lost my temper. I’m sorry I just didn’t walk away.”
The apology, Johnny knew, was sincere. He stood up and headed for the pot-bellied stove; opening his hands to the heat that radiated from the grates. “Shirt’s still wet,” he complained. “And it’s gettin’ cold.”
Scott sighed, softly. “I brought you a change of clothes, Johnny.” He nodded toward the bench by the door. “In my saddlebags. Maria insisted. She said you need to remember you have more than one pair of pants, or a single shirt.”
Cheeks flushing, Johnny chuckled. “So what’d she pack?”
“The usual. Another pair of pants with conchos. And the white shirt with the embroidery.”
Johnny groaned. “I hate that shirt,” he groused.
“I know,” Scott replied. “That’s why I packed another. The blue one with the flowers.” He smiled. “Your ‘get lucky’ shirt.”
The younger man perked right up. “That mean we’re goin’ to town?” It was late; but that didn’t stop him from being hopeful.
“Not yet,” Scott answered. “We’re not done.”
Shit. Johnny’s shoulders slumped. Then it hit him; the part about not being done. He could feel his brother’s eyes on him, and knew exactly what was expected. Not that he was happy with his options. “I was out of line,” he said finally. “I shouldn’t a been such a smart ass about the girl…Moira… about what I said.”
Scott waited. The usual calm was there; and he was totally in control.
Johnny sucked up. “I’m sorry,” he murmured softly.
Two words, Scott thought, and it was like pulling teeth. “Beg pardon? I didn’t quite catch that.”
Johnny let out a breath. He knew damned good and well his brother had heard him. “I’m sorry,” he said, this time a bit louder.
“For what?” Scott pushed. He wasn’t being vindictive; he just wanted the air cleared.
“I’m sorry for raggin’ on you,” Johnny confessed. And he was. “I’m sorry for not backin’ off and lettin’ it go.”
Scott’s smile said it all. “Get changed,” he ordered. “There’s a full moon, and if we take the short cut, we can be in Green River in about an hour.”
Johnny was already stripping off his shirt. He wadded it up and tossed it at his brother’s head. Digging out the blue shirt, he slipped his arms into the sleeves. He slowed down, fiddling with the buttons. “So we’re good?” he asked.
Scott stood up. He gathered up the dishes and piled them on the dry sink at the far wall. He had already made up his mind they would be coming back to the line shack for a few days of fishing. “We’re good,” he said, crossing the room to give his brother’s shoulder a firm shake. “And tomorrow, we’re going to be even better.”
Murdoch – a drink in one hand and Johnny’s jacket in the other – stepped out onto the tiled patio. “Not quite spring yet,” he intoned, handing off the coat.
Surprised, Johnny looked up. He was leaning against one of the adobe pillars. Reaching out, he took the coat and slipped his arms into the sleeves. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Once that sun goes down…” Staring out into the horizon, he noted the color of the sunset. “Red sky,” he breathed.
Murdoch moved closer to his son. “‘Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in morning, sailor’s warning’.” He took a sip of his scotch. “I dreaded a red dawn when I was commanding a ship,” he said softly; “the responsibility for my men, for keeping us all alive.” He was quiet a moment. “The sea can be a cruel mistress. She can bewitch you and draw you in, and just as quickly pull you to her depths.”
Johnny studied his father’s profile. He could see the man at the helm of a great clipper, like the model ships that decorated the shelves of the Great Room. Command came easy to his Old Man; sea or land, he mused. “Ever wonder why they call it – the sea – her?”
There was silence for a heartbeat before Murdoch responded. “I never thought about it,” he answered. “Maybe it’s like this…” he gestured with his glass toward the vastness beyond the porch that was Lancer, “…the way we refer to the land as ‘Mother Earth’. She gives life, nurtures us,” he hesitated, “and in the end she cradles our remains; draws us back in.” He had no idea why he was feeling so philosophical, or why his son was being so attentive.
Johnny pondered the words. “She sucks you in,” he murmured. He kneaded his upper left arm with his right hand, as if he were cold; shivering when he felt a now familiar sensation at the back of his neck.
It was clear from the expression on Murdoch’s face his son’s words surprised him. “Has she sucked you in, Johnny?” he asked. “Lancer?”
The youth’s brow furrowed, and he considered the question; deciding to avoid it. “I was gonna leave,” he said finally. He stared into the growing darkness. “Jelly’s mouth was goin’, and he wouldn’t shut up.” The irony of that struck him, and he winced.
Murdoch was staring into his glass. His lips twitched. “Like you wouldn’t shut up when you were badgering your brother?”
Score one for the Old Man, Johnny thought. “Jesus, Murdoch.” His hand darted out and he caught a large moth that had been fluttering against the reflected light on a pane of glass in the French doors. He examined the wings for a moment and then let it go. “You put him in charge! I could’a done the fuckin’ job on my own…”
“Johnny,” Murdoch cautioned. “You know that no one on Lancer goes off by themselves. Ranching is a dangerous business even on the best of days, and to ride off alone…” He let the rest of the words die unspoken. “So why didn’t you leave?” he asked, taking another drink.
“Jelly said you’d have my hide,” the youth replied. There was a degree of subdued humor in his voice, along with a measure of self-doubt.
“Jelly would have been right,” Murdoch responded. He watched as Johnny’s head suddenly came up. “Son, are you afraid of me?”
The question came as a surprise, and a look of bewilderment flittered across the younger man’s face. He hesitated, again working the muscle of his upper left arm with his right hand. “Yeah,” he confessed softly. “A little.”
Murdoch’s lips turned up into a brief smile, the skin at the corners of his eyes wrinkling. “‘Love and fear,” he began, “‘Everything the father of a family says must inspire one or the other.’” He tilted his glass to his lips and finished the scotch. “Joseph Joubert,” he said, “a French author.”
Johnny chuckled. “You and Scott read too much,” he observed, drolly.
There was a soft padding sound as Martín Ortiz approached the patio, appearing out of the hazy darkness, the mist of a late evening fog hovering above the ground and obscuring his lower legs. “Patrón,” he greeted. He nodded at the boy. “Juanito.”
“Martín,” Murdoch’s head dipped slightly in greeting. “I’ll see to the lantern here,” he said, gesturing to one that hung suspended from the rafter between the door and French windows leading to the Great Room.
Johnny said nothing, choosing to remain silent as Martín worked his way down the row of lanterns. One by one, the lights went out. Ortiz then retraced his route, heading toward the other hanging lamps at the opposite end of the long veranda. “You ever notice lately when he’s doin’ the lights, he ends up at the one just outside the kitchen?” he murmured.
Murdoch had been toying with his now empty tumbler, watching the light reflecting against the cut glass; the intricate indentations acting as prisms that radiated a series of rainbows within the crystal. “I think, Johnny, Martín may be courting Maria.” He turned slightly to covertly watch his son’s reaction to the news. “Do you have a problem with that?” It was a struggle to keep the humor out of his voice.
At the mention of Maria’s name, Johnny’s thoughts instantly turned to food, and his stomach rumbled. “She’s family,” he said softly. The sentiment was sincere, his affection for the woman genuine. “I could shoot him,” he volunteered.
Murdoch looked at his son. “You will not shoot anyone,” he chided, laughing. He was quiet a moment. “Johnny, I asked you a question earlier. Has she – has Lancer – sucked you in?”
Johnny remained silent, considering his words. He debated telling his father about how Catherine, not his own mother, had tugged at him. No, that was a discussion he was saving to have later, with Scott. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Murdoch,” he said finally; the words a mere whisper.
If Murdoch was satisfied with the response, it didn’t show in his expression. If anything, there was an element of sadness in his eyes. “Do you remember, Johnny, when we went to Sacramento? When we attended the baile for Gaspar Hurtado, his daughter’s Josepha’s quinceañera?”
The mention of their time in Sacramento caused Johnny to suppress a snicker. It had been their first trip as a family, and he and Scott had managed to get into a fair amount of trouble. “Kind of hard to forget, Murdoch, when you’re still dockin’ my pay for the damages at the hotel.”
“‘As ye sow, so shall ye reap,’” Murdoch intoned. He cleared his throat. “Gaspar has invited us to another celebration,” he announced.
Johnny was toying with the buttons on his shirt. “He got another daughter?” he asked, fighting the grin.
“It’s not that kind of celebration,” Murdoch answered. “What he – what his family is commemorating – is two hundred years of being on their land, their estancia.”
A low whistle sounded. “Jesus, Murdoch…”
Murdoch was staring out into the darkness. “I’ve owned this land for thirty years now,” he began, something wistful in his tone. “I’d like to think that at the hundred year mark, your children and Scott’s children – your grandchildren – will be right here; that the land will have passed from father to son into the next century, and beyond.”
Mentally, Johnny was doing some ciphering. Eighteen hundred forty to Nineteen hundred forty. It made his head spin. There were times when he didn’t plan beyond tomorrow, let alone a hundred years from now. The idea was both frightening and mesmerizing. It came with a sobering thought. Was there a difference, he mused, between being tied to a place, and being rooted? To being forced to stay, or just wanting to belong?
“I built this for you and Scott,” Murdoch said, interrupting his son’s thoughts. His jaws tensed as momentary flashes, vivid images of his two wives, swept across his mind. “A place where you could grow into men, where you could shape your own destinies and the future of your children.” He took a deep breath. “The only regret I have is that it took so long to get both of you back to where you belong.”
The conversation was going in a direction that for some reason made Johnny uncomfortable. Maybe it was the discussion of kids, or the sudden crush of responsibility that came with his father’s words. ‘Where you belong,’ he thought, echoing his father’s words. “Sorry,” was all he managed to say.
“You have nothing to be sorry for, Johnny,” Murdoch responded gently.
Johnny was quiet for a moment. “Can I ask you something, Murdoch?”
Murdoch nodded. “Ask away,” he prompted.
“How come, when me and Scott were fightin’ you waited so long to bust it up?”
A slow grin tugged at the older man’s lips as he debated his answer. The truth was he had secretly enjoyed watching his sons brawl. He had no doubt they would have had their share of tussles had they grown up together; something he had observed as he had watched Mateo and Paco grow up. “Sometimes, my son, experience is the best teacher. If you remember, I told you that Scott had reached his limits where the teasing was concerned, and you chose not to listen. If I had stopped the fight earlier, what would you have learned?” He speared his son with a particularly unwavering gaze. “You did learn something, didn’t you?”
Johnny let out a long sigh. “I learned he’s got one hell of a right hook,” he said, absently touching the button of his chin.
“I would have thought you had learned that when the two of you fought after Scott’s clothes buying trip,” Murdoch guffawed.
Johnny’s head snapped up, the pout forming. “T’resa been tellin’ tales outta school?”
Murdoch shook his head. “Contrary to what you and your brother think, there are few secrets on Lancer,” he said. “One of the vaquero’s saw it, told his wife…” He shrugged. By the time he had heard the story, it had grown considerably in the telling.
There was a silence between the two, finally broken the youth. “So, you tellin’ me the next time Scott and me get into a fight, you’re goin’ to just stand back and let it happen?”
“There better not be a ‘next time’,” Murdoch growled. His stance relaxed slightly. The lilt of Teresa’s laughter, followed by the sound of clapping hands, reached out to him. Peripherally, through the windows, he could see the girl and Scott playing cards at a small table beside the fireplace. He turned to his younger son again. “And as to your disagreement with your brother, Johnny. Can I safely assume you and Scott have resolved you differences?” The fact his sons had returned home and in one piece had given him a degree of satisfaction, but he still wanted to hear the words.
Restless, Johnny shoved himself away from porch column and stepped into the soft halo of lantern light. He reached up with his right hand and pretended to flex his jaw; attempting to skirt the question. And then he saw the expression on his father’s face and knew it wasn’t the right time to play games. “Yeah, Murdoch,” he answered. “We’re good. Real good.” He said the words with conviction.
Somewhere in the darkness, an owl hooted; and – from the distance – another answered. A door opened and shut, and the footsteps of a solitary person sounded against the turf, moving the direction of the barn. It was, Johnny knew, Martín heading for his cabin just beyond the paddocks; and the thought brought him a great degree of contentment.
Murdoch reached out, tapping his son’s shoulder. When Johnny flinched, he raised his hand to gently clasp the boy’s neck, his touch turning into a reassuring caress. “We need to go inside, son,” he said. “It’s getting colder, and we still have some unfinished business.”
Johnny’s mind began to work; hard. Unfinished business, he fretted, desperately cataloging the hours since he and Scott had returned home. Other than a minor incident at the table when he had tossed Scott a roll as opposed to passing the breadbasket, he couldn’t think of a single thing he had done wrong. He decided to take a page from his brother’s book, and to make a frontal assault. “What ‘unfinished business,’?” he asked.
Murdoch could hear the worry in his son’s voice. He gave him a swat across his behind; not too hard, but hard enough to remind the boy just who was in charge. “There are two more places at that card table in there,” he said, nodding toward the window where Teresa and Scott could clearly be seen. “And I think it’s time, son, we go in there and show them just how the game should be played.”