I still own nothing and no profit is being made. My thanks to Carmela for her amazing job of editing; I deeply appreciate her time. Thanks to everyone who offered help with the Spanish phrases; especially Becks and Laureen. All remaining mistakes are mine alone.
When Heroes Return
Now I return from a place far beyond
My mission I set, let it done
We still believe in a brighter future
The dreams are ours to fulfill
“Tell me a story, Daddy.”
“A story is it? Well, once upon a time, just about now, there is a little fairy named Teresa who lives in a magic kingdom with her daddy. Her daddy is a brave knight. A very handsome, brave knight. The kingdom is ruled by a fierce dragon that breathes fire. Even when he’s sleeping, black smoke curls out of his big red nose. Everyone is afraid but the little fairy.”
“Why isn’t she afraid?”
“She knows that the dragon is not wicked; he’s unhappy.”
“Why is the dragon unhappy?”
“Alas, the poor old dragon has a broken heart. His two fine sons have been stolen away from him.”
“Who stole them?”
“A raven-haired enchantress took the wee one. She’s hidden the poor little fellow in a place so hot, eggs are hard boiled before you can get them to the kitchen.”
“Is he afraid?”
“Oh, no, he’s a brave little fellow. He knows his dad is searching high and low for him. He’s going to bring him home.”
“Will the dragon be happy then?”
“Tis hard to say with dragons.”
“Where is the other one, the big one? Is he there with the hard eggs too?”
“No, no. He was snatched away by an evil old troll when he was just tiny baby. He’s kept prisoner in a place so cold that your breath turns to ice on your mustache; a terrible dark place of snow and coal smoke.”
“Is he afraid?”
“Not a bit. He’s a big boy now and he’s too busy to be afraid. The evil troll has set him a great daunting task; he must read every book in a room the size of the barn. Big, big books they are too. But he is a clever lad; he’s going to read them all.”
“Will he come home to the poor dragon then?”
“Hope so, darling. But for now ‘tis the task of the brave knight and his little fairy to take care of the poor old dragon. So little fairy, go give the poor old fire-breathing dragon your sweetest smile and tell him we’re all starving waiting for him to come in for dinner.”
“When will the boys come? When will Johnny and Scott come home?”
“Ah, like the heroes in the old stories, they will come when we need them most.”
Teresa sat on her heels in the middle of a patch of English peas. She was very still with her eyes closed. The memory was so real she could hear her father’s soft brogue; she felt herself small, so small she had to reach up to take his hand.
There were many versions of the story, and it changed as she got older. Paul O’Brien had a vivid imagination, he told her tales of each of the boys going on quests and having great adventures. And when she asked, as she always did, when the boys would come home; he gave the same answer- like the heroes in the old stories, they will come when we need them most.
“Well, Dad, you were right about that. They came when we needed them most. They saved us just like you said they would. But our dragon is still breathing fire and no one is very happy.”
Teresa came to her feet and looked out past the main barn and the corral. She saw the tall figure of her guardian stomping along, using his stick like some sort of weapon to slash at the wild flowers that grew along the rough track he was walking to the creek. The serious young doctor from back east had forbidden him to ride for several weeks. He had said that being on horseback would keep Murdoch Lancer’s injured back and leg in the same position for too long; that for his back to heal, Murdoch had to keep moving so that the muscles would regain their strength.
Murdoch had taken this advice with ill grace, muttering about cocky young quacks with their fancy medical degrees. But when his own doctor and old friend Sam Jenkins insisted he was making a choice between returning to physical vigor and essentially being an invalid, Murdoch had gritted his teeth and agreed. So now this man who had spent most of the last thirty years in the saddle walked.
Teresa knew that what made it worse for him was that every able bodied man on the ranch was helping with spring roundup. It was the first he’d missed in all the years he had been in California; he did not believe it could be accomplished without him.
Teresa sympathized. She loved roundup. She had talked her father into taking her along the year she turned eight; she’d gone every year since until this year. At first she was left with Miguel in the main camp; he taught her to cook over a fire. She’d loved the nights; curled up safe and warm against her father, listening to the vaqueros sing the herd to sleep. Last year when she was fifteen, she worked on horseback holding the cows back from their calves while they were branded. It was easy work compared to what those branding or chasing strays had to do. It had made her feel a part of her father’s life on the ranch.
Lancer, like some fiefdom of old, was a small world unto itself. Like those old fiefdoms, it was divided between those who gave orders and those who took them. Paul O’Brien was somewhere in the middle. As foreman and more importantly as the only person Murdoch Lancer treated as family, he gave orders; but he never forgot that it was Murdoch who called the tune.
Teresa wiped roughly at her eyes, angry with herself for crying. “I miss you, Daddy. If you were here it would be different. You’d know what to say so they’d stop treating each other like strangers.”
“Teresa? ¿Está bien, niñita?
Teresa turned around to see Abuela Mariah standing next to her holding a large basket of freshly dug potatoes. The gentle question made Teresa cry harder. Since she left school the preceding spring, all her old friends, even Maria, treated her in the way the vaqueros had treated her father; they were friendly but there was a little distance, a recognition that in the small world that was Lancer she was a bit higher on the social ladder. Only Abuela Mariah still ordered her about, scolded her and comforted her; only she treated Teresa as she always had.
Mariah set her basket down and touched Teresa’s face gently. She felt the tears and they worried her. It was not like Teresa to cry even when she had reason.
“Bring your basket, child. We will shell the peas,” said Mariah calmly in Spanish, leading Teresa to a rough wooden bench in the shade of a tall cottonwood. Mariah loved to work in the garden but these days her old knees and her back often troubled her. Her sons had placed the bench in the shade for her to rest on. She found it a good place to sit and listen to her little world.
Brushing her tears away Teresa followed the old woman.
Teresa had no memory of her mother. As a small child she was often left in the care of the women of the ranch. If it weren’t for her father’s insistence that she speak to him in English, Spanish would be her first language. Her playmates had been the children of the vaqueros. Lupe and Rosita were her closest friends; from a young age she worked beside them in the gardens and in the kitchen.
El Patrón inspired respect and fear among the children of the ranch. It was partly his size; he stood at least five inches taller than Cipriano who was by far the tallest of the vaqueros. It was also his voice which was deep and in Spanish halting. But mostly it was his gruffness. Her friends, even the boys, thought her very, very brave because she spoke directly to El Patrón, occasionally even took his hand. She tried to tell them what her father told her, that Murdoch Lancer was a very sad man because he missed his sons. The children preferred to think of him as the fire breathing dragon even though none of them was all together certain what a dragon might be.
“Come, child, come, sit,” said Mariah patting the slatted seat of the bench.
Teresa sat down, putting the basket of pea pods between the two of them. She took the kerchief from around her neck and opened it in her lap. She picked out a peapod, pressed her thumb against its seam and when it popped open she stripped the jewel-like peas out of the pod into the kerchief. She picked up another one; taking some comfort in the familiar action. Silently Mariah too worked on the peas.
“They should be back tomorrow,” said Mariah, her clouded eyes on the horizon. “Perhaps today if everything went well.”
“Si,” answered Teresa dully.
“You are not anxious for the patrón’s sons to return from the roundup?” Mariah asked carefully. This was not like Teresa, she thought, to cry, to be so quiet. What was wrong?
Teresa’s answer not only surprised Mariah; it deepened her worry. After the patrón had been wounded and Paul O’Brien had been killed Lancer changed. Many of the ranch hands, and those with families who farmed the fields scattered over the large property, started to leave; in the end only those like Mariah’s family who belonged to the land, who had nowhere else to go, had stayed. They had all been determined to defend the ranch but they had been afraid too. Without O’Brien’s leadership and seeing Murdoch Lancer weak and ill, they lost heart. Mariah was proud of her son Cipriano but she knew he was a vaquero not a soldier. By the time the spring calves were born, everyone on the ranch including Murdoch Lancer could feel disaster closing in upon them.
Everyone but Teresa, who though grieving deeply for her father, still believed with her whole heart that they had to hold on until the patrón’s sons came home. No one else, least of all Murdoch Lancer, believed that his sons would answer his call. Only Teresa was sure they would come; they would save the ranch, their father, all of them.
Only little Teresa with her big heart and her head full of her father’s stories had kept faith.
Teresa took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “I was foolish to think they would be like other brothers, best friends like Carlos and Mateo. How could they be when before they got here they didn’t even know about each other?”
“It will take time,” said Mariah with more confidence than she felt. Those two boys were very different from each other; it might be too much to hope that they would come to genuinely care for each other in the way brothers who shared a childhood did.
“Oh, Abuela,” cried Teresa softly, fresh tears spilling from her dark eyes. “I thought it would be so different. I’ve wanted them to come for so long. Ever since I was little I thought when the patrón’s sons come home he will be happy; really happy. But it isn’t anything like I thought it would be. If Daddy were here he’d know what to do. I miss him so much.”
Mariah put a gnarled hand on Teresa’s. “Yes, your dear papa would know how to talk to the patrón. They were good friends for a long time. We all miss him.”
Mariah had known Paul O’Brien since he was a gangly youth. When he had arrived with Murdoch and Catherine Lancer, those on the ranchero had thought him a younger brother to the tall, stern man who now owned the land they all depended on. He was easier to know; quicker than the patrón to laugh, to tell a story, to sing a song. Mariah knew that he had his dark moments like most men but he was a good man. And Teresa was right; Señor Paul would have known how to make the patrón bend a little where his sons were concerned.
“He loves them. I know he does,” insisted Teresa with such vehemence that a pea pod burst open in her hand. The peas rolled away unnoticed. “But he can’t show them and I don’t understand why. He has always been so kind to me, so generous, so good. But his own sons he treats like –like total strangers. How can they be total strangers if they look like their mothers? And I can see him in both of them. He only sees them as strangers. I don’t know how they see him.”
Mariah was pleased to hear anger in the girl’s voice. It was more like her to get angry than sad when something was upsetting her.
“Child,” said Mariah gently. “The patrón loves you for your papa’s sake and for your own sake. He watched you grow up. You carved out your place in his heart long ago.”
“But surely he loves his sons for their mothers’ sake,” insisted Teresa.
Mariah thought about the women she had known as La Señora and Doña Maria. She believed that Murdoch Lancer had loved both his wives but in very different ways, perhaps because the women themselves had been so unlike each other. They had been his greatest joys but Catherine’s death and Maria’s betrayal had been his greatest sorrows, all the more so because of the loss of his sons. Could he really love these young men for the sake of their mothers? Mariah did not know how to answer Teresa’s question.
She remained quiet and so did Teresa for several minutes. They went back to shelling the peas.
“He knew Johnny as a baby. You did too,” said Teresa thoughtfully. “What was he like?”
“He was a beautiful baby; a happy baby. Lupe says that Señor Johnny’s smile is like sunshine; I believe it because already as a tiny fellow he had a smile like sunshine. His papa, your papa, they doted on him. Before he was six months old the patrón had him on a horse,” said Mariah her voice growing softer. It had been a happy time but she couldn’t help remembering Doña Maria who too had a smile like sunshine and a temper like a thunderstorm. When she took the boy away all the sunshine disappeared from the patrón’s life for a very long time.
“Don’t you think the patrón remembers how much he loved his little boy?”
Mariah nodded. “Oh, yes, he remembers; maybe he remembers too well.”
“I’ve wanted them to come for so long and now I dread that they will be back tomorrow,” said Teresa with such sadness her voice was almost a cry. “The last couple of weeks with just the two of us at the dinner table the patrón talks to me about books; what he’s reading, what I’m reading. It makes me miss Daddy all the more because it is the way things used to be. All the years I was growing up the patrón talked to us about books. Daddy used to tease him that instead of being a rancher he should have been a teacher in one of those fancy schools in the east. For a little while it was like it used to be. I could pretend that Daddy was out on the roundup; that it would be him coming home soon. But it won’t be Dad that’s coming back; it will be Scott and Johnny. Once they come all the patrón will talk about is the ranch and how much work there is to do.” Teresa turned to the old woman. “I know that his leg hurts him and he’s angry he can’t work. But he’s like a bear with a sore head and Johnny is like a coiled rattlesnake just waiting for a reason to strike. I’m so afraid that one day Johnny will get so mad he’ll just ride away.”
“You are very fond of him.”
“I am.” Teresa paused, frowning. “What they say about him, about the things he’s done; sometimes I have trouble believing the stories are true because he can be so easy, he makes me laugh. He has a good heart, I know he does.”
Mariah reached out to gently touch Teresa’s face. She pushed the heavy dark hair back behind the girl’s ears. If the boy was like his mother, as changeable, as dangerous as the weather, Teresa was sure to get her heart broken. There was nothing Mariah could do but pray.
“And Señor Scott?” asked Mariah with a touch of hesitancy. It saddened her a little that everyone on the ranchero spoke so often of Johnny Lancer and so rarely of Scott Lancer. She understood why. Even though she could not see him clearly, she knew Johnny was handsome and charming. Her sons, their wives, others still on the ranchero remembered him as a little boy. Mariah thought again of Murdoch Lancer’s wives. Doña Maria had the sort of beauty that made even old married men square their shoulders; the sort of woman who was never ignored. La Señora had been so different; so much more than she appeared. Mariah was sure that was true of her son as well. “Do you like him?”
“I do. But I’m a little afraid of him.”
“Afraid, child?” Mariah blinked her clouded eyes in surprise. La Señora’s son was quiet and serious; she sensed sadness and loneliness in him, perhaps anger as well but nothing for Teresa to fear.
“He’s so Eastern, not like anybody I’ve ever known. Maybe it’s because he is so old,” said Teresa with a hint of breathlessness. “The way he talks-Daddy used to tell me a story about Scott saying he had to read all the books in a great big room before he came home to us. And when Scott talks I think Dad must have been right. Not that Scott talks very much. And well, sometimes he is so fiercely determined.”
Teresa could still see Scott, bloody and bruised after being jumped by three of the land pirates in the general store, struggling to get to his feet. All she’d wanted to do was get him in the buckboard and safely home. But Scott had brushed off her concerns and had said through gritted teeth, “I came to buy some clothes and clothes I’ll buy.”
“Even when he is quiet I can feel him thinking, taking everything in. But I don’t know what he’s thinking; he is so polite but it is like he is-”
“Is what?” asked Mariah curiously. She wasn’t sure afraid was the word for how Teresa was feeling. To Mariah they were both children but Teresa was right, Scott was almost exactly eight years older than she; to her he would seem very old.
“Well, it is like he’s using all those fancy manners as a . . . a kind of mask that he is hiding his true feelings behind. I’ve only seen him smile, really smile once. And it was you who made him smile.”
“Yes, a couple of weeks ago, that Sunday afternoon you made him something to eat. I told him you’d called him ‘my boy’ and he smiled. Oh, Abuela, if Johnny’s smile is like sunshine then Scott’s is like . . . like a rainbow; rare, beautiful and gone too soon.”
Mariah sat back on the bench. She had done something good for La Señora’s son that day. It pleased her greatly. It pleased her as well that he too had his mother’s smile. Perhaps someday the patrón would see it and remember how happy he had once been.
“At least when Johnny and the patrón are sharp with each other I know what they’re thinking. But with Scott, it’s all ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’ Nothing that let’s us get to know him.”
The bell in the tower rang out. It startled both women. They stood, the shelled peas rolled to the ground and bounced. Teresa climbed up on the bench to get a better look at the fields beyond the barns.
“What is it?” said Mariah, annoyed that there was a trace of fear in her voice.
“They’re back,” answered Teresa with a touch of resignation. “I can see a herd of horses moving towards us from the south. I can just make out riders on some of them.”
“Go, heat the water. And bring their things out to them so they don’t track all the dirt through the house,” ordered Mariah. She had been the hacienda’s housekeeper for most of her life. She knew just how dirty the men would be.
Teresa jumped down and ran to the basket of potatoes they’d left in the pea patch. She picked it up and started to the kitchen. Mariah called after her, “Send Lupe to me to finish the peas.”
Murdoch had seen the herd of horses moving towards him like a swarm of bees on the land before the bell rang. He stopped near the wide creek to watch them. Johnny was in front on the big palomino, bare-headed, leaning low as he urged the horse into a full gallop. It looked like Cip’s sons behind him and then the rest of the crew and the extra horses.
Johnny changed direction slightly, leading them towards the shallow crossing. Murdoch felt a swell of pride as he watched his son and horse splash through the clear water. What a sight they were! So much power and strength; horse and rider as one. His son. If only he could trust that the boy would stay; that he would leave his reckless life behind. If only he could trust Maria’s son not to break his heart as she had.
Johnny led the herd to the corral gate. The other riders pushed the animals through. Johnny having caught sight of his father trotted over to him. Murdoch recognized Scott as he peeled off from the herd and joined Johnny. Something eased in his chest and he realized that he had been worried about them; that he was thankful to see them both back in one piece.
Walking towards them Murdoch saw that they were dust covered; their cheeks rough with days of growth. Johnny was grinning; Scott’s face was unreadable in the shadow of the broad brim of his hat.
“That is a lot of land out there, old man,” said Johnny by way of greeting. He pulled Barranca to a halt and swung down.
“You’re back a day earlier than I expected,” said Murdoch gruffly. He leaned heavily on his cane. “How did it go?”
“Given that we all but gave up sleeping I’m surprised we weren’t back yesterday,” said Johnny with glance at his brother.
Scott, still on horseback, said, “I believe it went well, sir. Cipriano seems to be pleased. I have the numbers for you.”
Murdoch looked up at his elder son. “I’m anxious to see them. Get yourself cleaned up and we’ll go over them before dinner.”
“Yes, sir,” answered Scott. He turned the horse, touched it lightly and took off at lope towards the corral.
Murdoch was pleased to see Johnny cheerful, almost playful, after two long weeks of days in the saddle and nights on the hard ground. Scott was still all business; still calling him sir, still giving the impression that he would salute as though he was still in the army.
“How is this horse working out for you, John?” Murdoch asked, lightly slapping the palomino’s sweaty neck.
Mariah listened to her youngest grandson Mateo with a wide smile on her face. The boy was so excited to have been part of the roundup as a real vaquero for the first time. Her smile grew wider as he heaped praise upon his black and white dog that he had raised from a puppy.
How glad I am to have lived to this day, she thought, to hear this dear boy claim his place among the men.
Around her she heard the women and children greet the vaqueros. There was relief in everyone’s voices. The gathered herd had been larger than expected; no one had been badly hurt during the time on the range; she even heard praise for El Patròn’s sons, Johnny has such skill with a rope, Señor Scott is a hard worker.
Still listening to Mateo Mariah watched two men approach her. Her eyes were too clouded by cataracts to see details; she judged by their shape and height that they were Scott and Johnny Lancer.
“I swear to you, Mama,” said a voice in her ear, “I did feed him. But he works like the devil himself is his taskmaster.”
Her younger son, Miguel, leaned down to kiss her cheek. She smiled up at him and asked a few questions about the roundup. When the Lancer brothers reached her, she greeted them politely.
Hesitantly Scott said, “Buenas noches , Señora.”
“You just said good night,” said Johnny, shaking his head. “Buenas tardes is good afternoon.” He spoke rapidly to Mariah in Spanish.
Scott grimaced and said, “What did you say?”
“I told her I didn’t have time to give you Spanish lessons because I was too busy trying to teach you which end of the calf to brand.” Johnny turned back to Mariah. He warned her that he was hungry enough to eat a steer by himself; that Miguel had starved them out on the range.
Miguel joined in claiming that keeping Johnny fed would have meant all the other men would have gone without. Mariah joined their laughter. Yes, she thought he has his mother’s charm.
Scott stood by quietly, favoring his sprained left ankle and wondering if it showed a lack of character to fear they were laughing at him.
He felt Mariah’s searching gaze; she had squinted her clouded eyes. It made him a bit uneasy. What was she looking at him for? He liked Abuela Mariah; she had been very kind to him. He was hoping someday to learn enough Spanish to speak to her about his mother. But today he was just too tired to try carrying on a simple conversation with his few words of Spanish.
Mariah turned to Johnny and said something in Spanish. Then she nodded at Scott.
“What?” asked Scott, his sandy eyebrows drawing together in a worried frown.
“She wants to know what your favorite meal is,” translated Johnny slowly. A wide grin spread over his handsome face. “Don’t say oysters. She ain’t gonna know what they are and I don’t know how to tell her.”
“Some day, brother, you are going to eat an oyster,” laughed Scott with real pleasure. Oysters would be their joke; a private joke like other brothers had. It was a start. “I see your point. My favorite meal, well, just now that would be a perfectly cooked steak-still pink in the middle, potatoes with parsley and butter, um, a salad of some sort and a -?” Scott raised an eyebrow at Johnny. It seemed likely that the old woman was planning on producing this meal he was describing. It seemed only fair that Johnny should have some say in it.
“I reckon you’re craving a nice foamy cup of chocolate and a churro.”
“I’m sure I am,” said Scott, nodding gravely at the old woman. He had no idea what a churro might be.
“¿Que?” said Mariah, tapping Johnny on the arm.
Scott listened as Johnny translated his request into Spanish. It seemed to him that his rather straightforward menu needed an awful lot of words in Spanish. Abuela Mariah was listening closely. She asked several questions and looked a little surprised at one point, glancing at him with her head tilted. Scott suspected some dish he had never heard of let alone tasted was about to show up as one of his favorites.
“You two look like you was rode hard and put up wet,” said Teresa from where she was standing by the gate in the garden wall. If she hadn’t known it had to be them she might not have recognized them. Their clothes were dusty and sweat stained. Both of them were bearded, Johnny’s black as coal, Scott’s surprisingly red. And she noted with some concern, they were both definitely thinner than when they’d left. Given Johnny’s appetite it wasn’t too worrisome in his case; all he needed was a few good meals. Scott, on the other hand, had needed feeding up before the roundup.
“Hey, muchochita,” said Johnny brightly. “Don’t get too close, Scott stinks.”
Scott shook his head tiredly as he said, “While you’re a bowl of roses. Good afternoon, Teresa.”
“The cistern is full of hot water. I’ve got clean clothes and towels for you in back by the shower. And your shaving tackle. If I’ve forgotten anything just give a shout.” Teresa spoke quickly, not taking a breath she went on. “Don’t you give me that look, Scott Lancer. I know you don’t like me poking around in your things but just think did you really want to have to drag yourself upstairs for clean clothes before you washed the dust off?”
“You have a point,” conceded the tall man. “Thank you, Teresa, for your thoughtfulness.”
“I’ll flip you for who goes first,” said Johnny, digging into his pocket for a coin.
“No, you won’t,” said Scott, handing Johnny his rifle. “I am invoking my rights under primogeniture.”
Johnny’s blue eyes were puzzled. “Primo what?”
“Primogeniture,” repeated Scott as he continued walking towards the hidden corner of the garden where the ingenious shower stall was hidden. “It means firstborns have certain privileges in this case a hot shower. First.”
“Just leave your dirty clothes back there. Laundry day Monday,” called Teresa after him. The she turned to Johnny. “You don’t look good but he looks awful.” Then in a tone of accusation she said, “Johnny, he’s limping!”
Johnny’s grin widened. “Yeah, well, old Boston took a bit of a spill a couple of days ago; came down kind of hard on that left foot.”
Teresa’s eyes widened. “He fell off his horse? I can’t believe it. He seems like such a good rider.”
“Well, it was-,” Johnny ducked his head and rubbed his hand over his mouth trying to choke back a laugh. “It was more like he got pulled off.”
“How can you laugh about him getting hurt?” she asked crossly. “This is all new to him. You can’t expect him to be able to do what the rest of you have spent your lives doing.”
Johnny put Scott’s rifle against the wall and unbuckled his gun belt. “Don’t start acting like a mama bear. He ain’t hurt that bad.”
“Was he just terrible?” asked Teresa in a whisper. She knew that while the vaqueros made roping, branding and herding look easy, it wasn’t.
Johnny shrugged his broad shoulders. “He’s learning. I’ll give him one thing. There’s no quit in him. Of course he may hang himself with his own rope.” His voice rose to a shout.
“I heard that, little brother.” Scott shouted from the far end of the walled garden.
Wide-eyed Teresa looked towards where Scott was and then at Johnny. Softly, almost to herself she said, “Something has changed.”
“Hmmn?” Johnny sat down on a bench and pulled his boots off with a happy sigh.
“Between you and Scott, something has changed. You’re. . . you’re joshing with each other.”
Johnny’s beautiful smile lit his dark face. “You may not believe it but Boston can laugh. You don’t have to take my word for it; all the men heard him.”
“You’ve made friends,” said Teresa slowly, her own smile growing wide. “That’s wonderful, you’re friends.”
Johnny’s grin disappeared. “Teresa-”
“I’m so glad.”
“Teresa!” said Johnny sharply.
“Don’t do that.”
“Do what?” she asked warily. She realized that Johnny wasn’t smiling anymore. In fact, he looked very cross.
“Make something of it just ‘cause you want it to be so,” said Johnny sternly, his blue eyes boring into hers. “Scott worked hard and I can respect that. So we got along. That don’t make us friends.”
“Don’t you want to be friends with your brother, Johnny?” asked Teresa in a voice so small she sounded ten years old. She felt that she had done something wrong.
Johnny didn’t answer her. He slung his gun belt over his shoulder, picked up Scott’s rifle and walked in the direction Scott had gone.
Teresa couldn’t understand why Johnny was upset with her. It was so clear to her that something important had changed. In the past when Johnny made a comment at Scott’s expense Scott had bristled. This time she had heard amusement in Scott’s voice; he was in on the joke. Why would Johnny not want to be friends with Scott?
Leaning against the corral fence Murdoch listened intently to his foreman Cipriano. He knew he was lucky to have a man like Cip. Murdoch was fond of him and respected his knowledge of both cattle and the ranch. But at moments like this he ached for his friend Paul O’Brien. Cip was a good foreman but he would always be an employee, always defer to Murdoch; always call him Patrón. Paul came to the ranch with Murdoch and had known considerably less about cattle than Cipriano did. He was foreman because Murdoch could never convince him to accept an interest in the ranch. They had been as close as brothers, fought like brothers, had each other’s backs until that terrible night. On the ranch only Paul had called him Murdoch; only Paul had known the depth of his sorrows; only Paul had treated him like an equal.
“How did Scott and Johnny do?” he asked trying not to show how badly he wanted to hear they had done well.
“Cip?” Murdoch noticed that Cipriano’s eyes were avoiding his. There was something he should know that his foreman was reluctant to tell him. Grimacing he asked, “Did Johnny slack off?”
Cipriano’s brown eyes snapped back to Murdoch. He insisted, “No, no, Patrón. Johnny is good boy; so much skill with the rope. He worked hard. Everyone worked hard.”
Murdoch frowned; he knew there was something that Cip wanted to tell him, something he needed to know. Cip wouldn’t be reluctant to talk about anything concerning the herd. That left the boys. If Johnny did indeed work hard as Cipriano was insisting, then it must have been his temper that caused a problem.
He glanced over Cipriano’s shoulder to see Abuela Mariah walking towards them. A memory flitted through his mind; now Mariah was stout with a lined face, clouded eyes and a long braid of iron gray hair. She had been a woman in her prime when they first came to the ranch. Catherine always said without Mariah they would have starved to death within six weeks. He pushed the memory away.
“Buenas tardes, Mariah,” he said when she reached them.
“Hola, Mama,” said Cipriano dropping an arm around her shoulders and kissing the top of her head.
“Patrón,” the old woman spit the word out; and followed it with a torrent of Spanish mixed with the Indian language of her childhood.
After so many years in California Murdoch spoke passable Spanish and understood most of what was said. However, he understood little of what Mariah was saying then. The few words he got made little sense: heartless, poor boy, work, La Señora.
Murdoch had rarely spoken of his wife, Catherine, with Mariah since Catherine’s death. But he knew that when Mariah said La Señora she could only mean Catherine. And he had a sudden rather sick feeling that poor boy referred to Scott; that what Cip was so reluctant to tell him had to do with Scott. Murdoch realized with a start that he had not considered the possibility of there being a problem with Scott. Already, after such a short time, he felt he knew that Scott was steady and reliable; not nearly as likely as Johnny to cause trouble.
When she paused for breath Mariah punched Cipriano on the arm and pointed to Murdoch. Cipriano’s dark eyes went wide with alarm.
“Go ahead, Cip,” said Murdoch rather slowly, “I didn’t understand much of that. You’ll have to tell me what she’s upset about.”
“Ah, well, you see Patrón,” stammered the big man, “Mama has taken a liking to Señor Scott and she feels that maybe-”
“Spit it out, Cip.”
Cipriano took a deep breath. “He is too thin. He is working too hard. His voice is tired. The boy is sad and lonely. Now he is limping. I should have watched out for him on the roundup and you-”
Mariah was looking straight into Murdoch’s eyes as if it were she who was speaking.
Murdoch was uncomfortable to see so much anger in her face. He swallowed and said, “Go ahead.”
“Mama,” said Cipriano with an imploring look at his mother.
“I guess I’m the heartless one,” said Murdoch softly.
Cipriano shook his head and squared his shoulders. “Mama says, the boy needs love and you are treating him like a vaquero.”
Murdoch couldn’t bring himself to ask what she had said about Catherine. He asked slowly in Spanish, “What would you have me do, Mariah?”
“Today. . . today it would be good to tell him,” she answered with great care, “he does not have to do the work of five men to gain his father’s respect.”
“Now what’s she talking about?”
Cipriano muttered a Spanish curse that earned him another sharp slap from his mother. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Señor Scott works very hard. He is the first one in the saddle and the last one off his horse. He takes the second watch, you know the hardest watch, during the night. He stayed with the herd rather than take his siesta.”
“Johnny said something about being back early because they’d given up sleeping. I’m sorry Scott pushed you that way,” said Murdoch, his disappointment slowing his voice. He had hoped after how well Scott had handled the men during the fight with the land pirates that he could trust him with the everyday interactions with the vaqueros. “I thought he’d have more sense than that. Have the men taken against him?”
“No, Patrón,” said Cipriano angrily, no longer showing reluctance to speak his mind, “Señor Scott did not push us. He pushed himself. He gave no orders at all. He took orders. I thought that he was like you, unable to rest when there is work to be done. But Miguel said something like what Mama is saying. He is doing so much to please you; so that you will know he deserves what you gave him.”
Murdoch stared down at them and repeated softly, “To please me?”
“Hombre estúpido!” snapped Mariah as she turned on her heel and stomped away.
Cipriano drew a deep breath, “I’m sorry, Patrón, you know Mama; she lets her feelings get the better of her sometimes.”
“Yeah,” breathed Murdoch watching the angry woman’s rigid back. He turned to his foreman and said, with puzzlement, “Cip, I just don’t understand what she wants me to do. I’m pleased to hear that Scott is a hard worker. I don’t imagine he’s done a lot of physical labor in the past. I’m sure all of you are bone-tired; that’s roundup.”
“Si, Patrón, we are all tired.”
Cipriano was shaking his head. Murdoch had a feeling Cipriano shared his mother’s opinion of him. But he didn’t understand any of this. Hadn’t he shown faith in the boys by giving them shares in the ranch? He couldn’t do much more than that.
Teresa had just finished setting the table for dinner. She was going out to the garden to gather some flowers to brighten up the great room when she caught sight of Scott walking towards her. She had an odd feeling that she should run up to him and gather him into a hug; that she should tell him everything was going to be alright, they just had to ride it out; that she should comfort him as if he were a child; a very tired child.
The whole idea startled her. Scott was a full grown man and had been a soldier. She’d seen him go not only toe to toe with Johnny but with the Patrón. Scott Lancer didn’t need a silly girl like her trying to comfort him.
Teresa shook her head and looked at him a bit more closely. She noticed the clean trousers she put out for him were riding low on his slim hips. The white shirt was untucked, hanging open. His gun belt was over his shoulder and he was carrying his rifle. His hair was wet, his cheeks were freshly scrubbed but Teresa realized that what made him look suddenly so young and –what was that word-vulnerable were his bare feet.
You couldn’t really be in awe of a barefooted fellow, she thought, especially if he was limping.
Scott realized she was there and walked a little straighter. His right hand went to the buttons of his shirt. He managed to get three into their buttonholes before she spoke to him.
“You look better.”
“I smell better too. Thank you for having everything ready for us. That shower is really ingenious, simple but effective,” he said, smiling his real smile.
Teresa felt her cheeks warm. “My dad built it years ago. I’m sure you’re used to much fancier ones in Boston.”
“Well,” he hid a yawn behind his hand. “I’ve seen new houses in the Back Bay that have fully functioning bathrooms. They’re complicated affairs with pipes connecting the sinks and tubs to cisterns on the roof. The theory is that rain and snow will fill the cisterns. Of course Mother Nature has to cooperate for it all to work or someone has to carry water the whole way to the roof.”
“What’s the Back Bay?” asked Teresa, always curious to know about his life in the east.
“It’s a part of Boston; new houses; most of them built since the war. Several of my cousins have houses there. Our house is on Beacon Hill. It’s old; my grandmother grew up in it. Running water there is the scullery maid and the boot boy running up the back stairs with buckets of water.”
Teresa smiled widely. She didn’t care what Johnny said, something was different. Scott had never spoken so openly to her before.
Murdoch was making his way slowly back to the house. He stopped when he caught sight of Scott and Teresa talking by the French doors. Teresa was laughing; a lovely light sound that always made him smile.
He thought Scott looked different then realized it was because he was smiling, something he did rarely. But he thought perhaps it was more than that, more even than the bare feet and untucked shirt. He looked so young. Old Mariah’s words came back to him unbidden: La Señora’s hijo, Catherine’s boy.
“You have your mother’s eyes” had been almost the first thing he’d said to Scott the day he arrived. He hadn’t spoken of Catherine since; hadn’t seen her in Scott. He heard Harlan Garrett in Scott’s voice, the Boston accent, the precise language that came from an excellent education. He recognized himself in Scott’s deliberate manner; the way he approached problems.
Now as he watched his son look down at Teresa with a gentle, slightly grave smile, his head tilted as he thoughtfully listened to her, there was no escaping Scott’s resemblance to his mother.
Murdoch felt a fist crushing his heart. Nearly a quarter of a century and he still couldn’t face the pain.
Scott caught sight of him. A change came over him. He stood taller and squared his shoulders. Murdoch was relieved; once again he could slam the door shut on the past.
“I have those numbers for you, sir,” said Scott with military formality. “I’ll put these things away and be right in.”
Murdoch walked towards them saying, “There’s no rush. When you’re ready we’ll have a drink before dinner and take a look at them.”
“Thanks again, Teresa. I’ll be with you momentarily, sir,” said Scott as he limped into the house.
Sir, always sir with military preciseness, thought Murdoch watching him go.
Again that disastrous first meeting came to mind. He hadn’t expected both of them to arrive at the same time. His surprise had robbed him of self-control. He couldn’t remember what he’d planned to say to them individually and so he had retreated into his own bad temper. He had made the point that their presence had no more importance to him than that of any other men he might hire.
A few minutes into the absurd situation Scott asked, “What do I call you? Under the circumstances father hardly seems appropriate.”
Did the boy know what those words had done to him? Had he deliberately withheld the one word Murdoch Lancer had ached to hear for so very long? Or was it worse than that- had he simply made the point that the words father and son had no meaning between the two of them? Murdoch had responded out of his disappointment which he covered with anger, “Call me anything you like. We are strangers to each other.”
Scott had accepted that; he had treated him like the stranger he was. Their conversations had been straightforward. Even now, weeks after the confrontation with the land pirates their discussions about the everyday running of the ranch felt like planning sessions for a military operation. Murdoch knew he could have been any of dozens of superior officers and Scott would have treated him exactly the same.
Johnny often called him old man; sometimes in a voice filled with anger, resentment and disrespect. He greatly preferred it to Scott’s quiet, polite, distant sir.
“Maria, you and the girls have really outdone yourselves this evening. This is a wonderful meal,” Murdoch said to the housekeeper in Spanish.
The housekeeper’s cheeks grew pink. “The garden has started to produce. Everything is better when it is fresh but tonight Abuela Mariah should be praised. It is she who decided what we should make. The best is yet to come, Patrón.”
“I don’t see how it could get much better than this,” said Murdoch as cut a bite off his steak. Chewing he looked around the table.
Teresa sat beside him. She had tied up her hair and changed into a dress for dinner. It always surprised him a little to see her in a dress. He wondered suddenly when she’d last gotten a new dress. It had to have been before Paul was killed. In past years they had gone to Sacramento just before Christmas to buy presents; a tradition that started while Teresa was in school there. Last year there had been no presents, no Christmas.
Johnny sat next to her. He was trapping bright green peas between his knife and fork. He always ate as if he was desperately hungry and didn’t know from where his next meal was coming. Murdoch feared that in the past that had often been true.
Scott was across the table. He was eating slowly. Mariah had said he was too thin. Murdoch realized she was right. His cheeks had hollowed out since his arrival. And even Murdoch could see the boy was tired; his blue-gray eyes were deeply shadowed.
These three were the most important people to him in the living world; they were his family. The irony was that of the three, the one he knew, the one who loved him, was not his child. His sons were strangers.
Could they be a family, he asked himself? Could they come to care for each other, trust each other?
“Johnny, have some more potatoes,” said Teresa, spooning the potatoes onto his plate. Then she directed her attention across the table. “Is the guisado de chicos to your liking, Scott?”
Scott, who was tentatively tasting his soup, raised his eyes to her. He said, “What is it exactly?”
“Dried corn, pork and red chilies,” she answered trying to suppress a smile. “Johnny told Abuela Mariah--”
Staring hard at his brother, Scott interrupted saying, “I know what Johnny told her.”
“Good, ain’t it?” said Johnny handing Maria his soup bowl with a smile.
She filled the bowl with the ladle from the tureen in the middle of the table. Her dark eyes shifted between the Lancer sons. So Abuela was right. Johnny had added a dish of his own to his brother’s list of favorite foods. Well, he deserves a special treat too; roundup was hard work, she thought with a fond smile for the youngest Lancer.
“It’s delicious,” said Scott slowly, blinking his watering eyes.
Murdoch listened to this exchange about the soup with puzzlement. Except for him, everyone including Maria was in on whatever the joke was. He was glad he supposed that they were all getting along so well.
“Would you like more wine, Scott? You really should have that ankle up.”
“It will be alright, Teresa,” said Scott quickly. He was gulping water and trying to wipe the tears from his eyes unobtrusively. He thought suddenly of all the head colds people in Boston suffered with in the winter. Two or three spoonfuls of guisada whatever Teresa had called it would be a real cure for a stuffy head.
Teresa was already out of her chair. Struggling slightly to carry it, she brought the ottoman from across the room. Setting it down near him, she picked up his leg and carefully propped the ankle on the ottoman.
Murdoch craned his head. He saw that Scott’s ankle was swollen. It was garish shades of purple, yellow and green.
“Abuela Mariah makes a salve we can put on it to help the swelling.”
“It is much improved, Teresa,” said Scott, his cheeks growing red. “There is no reason for you to go to so much trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“She’d do as much for a horse,” said Johnny between spoonfuls of the soup.
Unsatisfied with the ottoman, Teresa brought a pillow from the sofa. She slid it carefully under Scott’s foot. She smiled then and touched Scott gently on the shoulder before she returned to her seat at the table.
Murdoch watched her. Paul had often called her “little fairy”. She had been the bright light in both their lives. He was never so sad or tired or discouraged that Teresa couldn’t bring a smile to his face. Even when she lost her father, she’d said with tears running down her face, “We’re still a family, you and me and Scott and Johnny.” Like her father, she always included Scott and Johnny in the family even though she had never set eyes on either of them. And Murdoch himself never spoke of them to her. Was there enough love even in Teresa to bind them together as a family? He couldn’t answer that question. But he knew he had to try.
“Scott,” Murdoch said, noticing that Scott immediately sat up straighter and looked at him with a level gaze. “I never gave you a satisfactory answer to a question you asked me a while back.”
“What question was that, sir?” responded Scott politely. He laid his fork and knife down and waited.
“What you should call me. I think given our situation you and Johnny, Teresa as well should just call me Murdoch.”
Scott hesitated for a moment, then said, “If that is what you prefer, sir.”
“Would that suit you, Johnny?” asked Murdoch, turning to his younger son.
“Well,” drawled Johnny, his sly grin on his face. “I’d kind of settled on calling you old man.”
“I’ve noticed,” said Murdoch rather grimly. “Do me this favor, will you?”
Johnny grinned a little wider. “Murdoch it is.”
Teresa looked at him with suddenly tear-filled eyes. “I’ve always call you Patrón,” she said softly.
“I know, darling,” he said gently. “It is just that we’ve begun a new chapter and I feel it would be good if we were all on equal footing so to speak. Could you do it for me?”
Softly Johnny whistled a few bars of “Oh, Susannah.” Scott coughed into his napkin. Murdoch didn’t noticed; he was concerned with the tears in Teresa’s hazel eyes.
“Of course I will. If it is what you want,” she said, blinking hard.
Maria came in carrying a large tray. Johnny jumped up to help her with it. While he held it she served them each a large cup of frothy milk and chocolate. In the center of the table she put a basket.
“Churros,” said Johnny, looking at Scott.
Scott picked one up cautiously and examined it. “They look like stretched out doughnuts.”
“Precisely what they are,” said Murdoch, reaching for one. He dunked it in his chocolate and took a bite. He turned to Maria to compliment her.
Scott followed his father’s example. Then he looked at Johnny who had resumed his place at the table. “Well, Johnny, I think I do have a new favorite. This is delicious.”
“What did happen to your ankle, Scott?” asked Murdoch.
“Ah, well-” stammered Scott, caught off guard.
Johnny was taking a sip of his chocolate. He laughed into the cup making bubbles. Teresa covered her mouth with her hand, not wanting to laugh aloud.
Scott readjusted his foot on the pillowed ottoman. He held his cup and saucer in his left hand and dipped the churro into the chocolate with his right.
“I think Johnny should tell the story, sir,” he said, smiling slightly. “His perspective will be more interesting than mine.”
Johnny gave his brother a searching look as if trying to gauge his seriousness.
Scott looked him in the eye and said with a slight sigh, “He’s going to hear about it anyway. You may as well have the pleasure of telling him.”
Teresa only half listened to the story. The details didn’t matter. All that mattered was that something had changed between Johnny and Scott. There had been no cross words during the meal; Johnny was still at the table with them and it looked like he had no impulse to escape. He’d even smiled at her when he first sat down at the table as if to say she was forgiven for what happened earlier. Scott just looked exhausted. But he’d eaten a good meal including the soup and that pleased her.
The patrón had sat back too and was sipping his chocolate; his expression thoughtful and watchful. She did not like the idea of calling him Murdoch. To do so would separate her even more from her friends on the ranch; it would mean leaving another piece of her childhood behind. But Murdoch was right. Everything was different now.
Like the heroes in the old stories, Johnny and Scott had come when they needed them most. A new chapter had begun.