Taking the Lancers out to play again; I promise to return them unharmed. Some of the action of this story takes place at the same time as some of the action in the previous story, Undiminished. Still don’t own anything.
Thanks to Carmella and Mary O for their carefully editing and reading.
All this is perfectly distinct to an observant eye, and yet
could easily pass unnoticed by most.
Henry David Thoreau, JOURNAL 3 November 1861
“Whoa there,” said Dr. Sam Jenkins as he pulled lightly on the reins. It was a perfunctory command. He’d had the team of sorrels for five years. In that time they had come over the rise to the east of the Lancer ranch perhaps thirty times. He always stopped at the crest.
It had been twenty years since he’d first seen this valley. He remembered it like it was yesterday. He’d met Murdoch Lancer and the beautiful mysterious Maria on the boat coming up from Panama. They weren’t married then and Sam had never quite gotten it straight why Murdoch had been on the east coast of Mexico where he met Maria. Sam had come west to start a new life. He was glad to have fallen in with them; they were young and in the early flush of passion. Music was what he remembered most about Maria in those early days. She played the guitar, an instrument Sam was unfamiliar with, and she sang. She sang in Spanish, which he couldn’t understand, and so the music became all the more romantic.
His plan had been to start a medical practice in San Francisco, but an earthquake just hours after they’d disembarked scared the daylights out of him. Murdoch persuaded him to come inland with them where doctors were as rare as hen’s teeth. Three weeks later, he topped this rise for the first time. He couldn’t believe one man could own so much land. Lancer dwarfed the plantations of his native Maryland. Thankfully, the vaqueros and their families were not slaves, although they did seem tied to the land generation after generation. Self-sufficient Lancer was its own village, its own kingdom.
For twenty years he had witnessed the joys and sorrows of the people of Lancer. There had been births- Johnny and Teresa, and the children of the vaqueros. And losses -to death, to whatever it was that made Maria take Johnny and run; more than anything, for Sam there had been the friendship of Murdoch and Paul O’Brien and the opportunity to watch Teresa grow up.
Although Murdoch never recovered from losing Johnny, life at Lancer had settled into a rhythm. For years, Sam had felt a sense of pleasure and anticipation when the white hacienda came into view; until last November when Paul was killed and the land pirates swarmed over not only Lancer, but much of the northern area of California’s great central valley. After that Sam had only come to Lancer under the protection of a half a dozen vaqueros-but he’d come often. Murdoch had been wounded when Paul was killed. He nearly died of fever and shock although he tried to keep going, keep leading his kingdom. The kingdom was nearly destroyed. Some of the vaqueros were killed; others took their families and ran. In the end, a battered but unbroken Murdoch Lancer asked for the help of his sons; his lost boys.
Few would have realized what an act of desperation it was. Sam knew. He had been surprised when both boys came; thankful that they had been the key to saving Lancer and its people.
What now, wondered Sam as he gave the reins a small shake. The horses walked on, starting down the winding trail to the valley and the white hacienda gleaming slightly in the morning sun.
“I do not remember young Dr. Hendershot telling you to swing hammers as a part of the healing process for your back,” said Sam severely. He’d just come from the barn where Johnny had allowed him all of five minutes to take a look at the wound he’d received during the battle with the land pirates. He was not pleased to come around the corner and discover Murdoch at the forge shaping a horseshoe.
“This is a rounding hammer. It weighs less than three pounds. Swinging it wouldn’t strain a child’s back,” retorted Murdoch as he banged again at the horseshoe. “Cip is doing all the hard work.”
Sam had to agree. Cipriano was bent over with a horse’s foot balanced on his knee giving Sam a clear view of his wide backside. Cipriano’s younger son was manning the bellows to keep the fire hot.
Satisfied with the shoe Murdoch gave it to Cipriano. Then he stood by handing his foreman nails, hammer and pliers in turn. Sam watched the entire operation from his place against the wall. He turned to look towards the house and caught sight of Scott sitting at the table in the garden.
At least one of the Lancers, thought Sam, has sense enough to do what I tell him.
“How many more need new shoes?” Murdoch asked as Cipriano let the horse put its foot back on the ground.
Cipriano straightened his back and answered, “The bay with the white blaze and the sorrel mare.”
“Well,” said Murdoch pulling a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his sweating face. “Give me half an hour and we’ll finish up.”
“Si, Patrón,” nodded Cipriano; he reached for his wide hat and put it on. “Hola, Doctor. It is good to see you.”
“Afternoon, Cip. You didn’t get the day off like the rest of them?”
Cipriano shrugged and grinned. He took the horse by the lead rope and walked away. The boy, Mateo, worked the bellows slowly; his dark eyes on Murdoch as if looking for a clue as to what he was to do now.
“Matt, run up to the kitchen and ask your mother for two tankards of beer.”
“Si, Patrón.” The boy looked at the bellows in his hands, frowning. “What should I-”
Murdoch reached for the bellows. “I’ll watch the fire. It won’t take much to get it hot again.”
The boy nodded and ran towards the house. Murdoch watched him with a half smile as if he was pleased with the boy. Then he turned to Sam and demanded, “Well, did you have a look at them?”
“If you mean your sons,” responded Sam slowly as he walked forward and settled comfortably on a convenient stack of firewood. “I did. Johnny has healed up real well. That’s a strong boy.”
“He’s needed to be; the life he’s led,” said Murdoch grimly as he hung the bellows on a hook over the fire pit.
“Is he staying?” asked Sam. When last he’d been at Lancer, there seemed to be some doubt about whether Johnny would stay or go now that the trouble had passed. In truth, Sam was a little surprised to find him still there. He hoped it meant he had misjudged the boy’s restlessness during the time he had insisted Johnny stay in bed after being wounded. Sam had thought he’d heard a desire to get away. Now he thought maybe it had just been the normal restlessness of a healthy young man confined to bed.
“For now. Maybe for good, but that seems too much to hope for. I don’t know,” said Murdoch shaking his grey head. He straightened to his full height, rolled his shoulders and rubbed the small of his back. “Sometimes, Sam, I see the little boy we knew in him. Sometimes all I see is Madrid.”
The doctor remembered the little boy with bright blue eyes and a mop of black hair. Johnny might have been the most charming child he’d ever met; the last time he’d seen him, two year old Johnny had learned to talk a blue streak; horses were his favorite topic.
“I see a lot of that little boy in him; the smile is still the same. I reckon he can still charm the women out of any treat he wants.”
The lines of Murdoch’s face relaxed suddenly. For a moment he looked almost happy and years younger. “I heard him in the kitchen this morning. Maria was fussing him about being barefoot. I guess he’d just gotten up. He was speaking Spanish to her; his voice was soft and musical. He wanted hot chocolate for breakfast. When he was little, I think I spent as much on cocoa powder as I did rope. That fellow in San Francisco must have thought I was out of my mind spending good money on chocolate like that. ”
Sam laughed. “He’s got quite an establishment now. That whole part of town smells like heaven. Did you ever figure out how to say his name?” He knew what Murdoch wasn’t saying; it had been Maria who cost him the fortune in cocoa. She had craved it while she was pregnant with Johnny and never lost the taste for it. Sam couldn’t help but wonder in how many other ways the boy might be like her.
Murdoch shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like it’s spelled; I’m fairly sure he told me he was born in Italy but he spent some time in South America before he came up here for the gold rush. He didn’t stick to mining very long because Paul and I came across his store in Stockton sometime late in ’49.” Murdoch chuckled “Paul had never tasted chocolate before. I think he’d have given up whiskey for it.”
They were quiet for a moment; sharing their grief at the loss of their friend without the need for words.
Murdoch picked up the poker and stabbed at the embers in the fire pit. “Damn shame that store in Stockton burned in the big fire in ’51.”
Sam pursed his lips thoughtfully; he looked out of the lean-to that covered the forge and saw Johnny walking towards the house. A black and white dog ran up to him. Johnny knelt down and allowed the dog to lick his face. He was laughing.
Murdoch’s gaze was also directed at Johnny; a half-smile curving his lips.
“He is still a boy, Murdoch,” said Sam softly.
“Johnny Lancer might be, but Madrid . . .” Murdoch’s face settled back into the stern lines as he spoke. He turned back to the fire and stabbed it again with the poker. “You haven’t seen Madrid.”
Sam frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
For a moment Murdoch didn’t answer. When he spoke, he sounded tired and a little bewildered. “He changes, fast and completely. His eyes go cold, his face goes blank. There isn’t even anger, just nothing. It is like a mask drops over his face.”
Sam considered the idea for a few moments. Then he asked, “Did you ever think maybe it is a mask, an act he puts on? How old was he when that fellow reported back that Johnny had put a gun to his throat and told him to tell you to go to hell?”
Murdoch’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Did Paul tell you that?” he demanded.
“Of course,” responded Sam mildly. “You know he wouldn’t tell anybody else but me. He was broke up about it. You finally find the boy just to be told he don’t want to be found. Johnny couldn’t have been more than sixteen if that.”
Sam recalled that Paul thought Murdoch should try again. That he should go himself now that he had an idea where Johnny might be found and what name to look for him under. But Murdoch had covered his pain and disappointment with anger; he would not go hat in hand looking for a border pistoleer.
Murdoch stood still with his jaw clenched. Sam knew a whole series of emotions were running through his mind. But his face remained the same -as if it was carved from granite. Masks, thought Sam, Johnny’s not the only one who can hide his feelings.
“What’s that got to do with Madrid being an act?” growled Murdoch finally.
“Well, just that already he was living by the gun at that young age. A sweet-faced boy wouldn’t get taken very seriously by other men making their living that way. I’ve heard stories about Texas right after the war when all those battle-hardened men came home in defeat. They aren’t pretty stories. If Johnny was to make his way among them he had to be better than good with a gun and at least look mean as a rattlesnake.”
Murdoch turned away and picked up his rounding hammer. He put a horseshoe on the pointed end of the anvil. He pounded it a few times; not to any purpose-just to have something to do with his hands.
Sam pulled his hat off his head. He took his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the sweat from his brow. He settled his hat back on his head and waited.
“What about Scott?” said Murdoch finally, still pounding at the horseshoe.
“The ankle isn’t broke but it is as bad a sprain as I’ve ever seen. It must have been hell to work on for a week, just mounting up must have felt like knives going through his foot. I don’t know how he got his boot on and off.”
Murdoch raised his voice. “I said he’s stubborn. Cip says Scott didn’t slow down after getting hurt.”
“Well,” drawled the doctor. He was immune to his old friend’s glares and growls. “You know what they say about apples and trees.”
“Don’t blame me. Garrett raised him.”
Sam wondered about the bitterness he heard in Murdoch’s voice; was it directed at Scott’s grandfather or Murdoch himself? Sam had known Murdoch ten years before he’d known of Scott’s existence. He had watched helplessly as Murdoch suffered through Maria and Johnny’s disappearance. He had witnessed his retreat from the world, spending all of his time and energy on the ranch. And he had been thankful when a few years later it seemed Murdoch had suddenly “returned to the living” as Paul O’Brien had put it. Sam would have said that he knew the man well. But he hadn’t known about Scott until a chance remark of Paul’s.
“What’s worrying you about the boy, Murdoch? Everything I’ve seen of him looks like you’re damn lucky. An educated man like that could have easily turned up his nose at working cattle. I have to say -I would. Seems to me you got more than the soldier you were hoping for, you got a good hand. He’s taken a real interest in the ranch. ”
“Maybe. According to Johnny, Scott has a ways to go before we can call him a cowhand,” he answered. He straightened again; the hammer held loosely in his right hand. “I’m not surprised he’s taken an interest in the ranch. Harlan Garrett’s grandson would know a golden opportunity when it came his way. He didn’t hesitate when I made that offer.”
“It seems to me, this golden opportunity comes with a lot of strings attached,” retorted Sam. “The boy is a stranger here; half the people around him speak a language he doesn’t know; he works from sunup to sundown; and he has to dance to your tune. There must be more than just the chance to own a piece of the ranch holding him here.”
It appeared to Sam that some of the starch went out of Murdoch. When he spoke, it was quietly. “Mariah took me to task yesterday about Scott being too thin. I watched him climb the stairs last night. He went up slow, dragging that left foot. It looked like it was taking his last ounce of strength just to go to bed.”
Sam could imagine Scott doing just that. Too much damn pride, that’s what ailed all the Lancers. Murdoch was too proud to go hat in hand after his sons, too proud now to tell them they meant more than heaven and earth to him; Johnny was too proud to accept help as a boy, too proud now to just settle in where he was wanted; and Scott was too proud to admit he was hurt; too proud to ask for help. They deserved each other.
“Ah . . .that’s why the hands got a whole Saturday off.”
“They earned it,” barked the big man.
“No doubt about that,” Sam snapped back. “But it was Scott you were worried about, wasn’t it? The waking bell didn’t ring this morning and the boy got all the sleep he needed. You could have told him to take the day to rest that ankle; it is pretty common for a father to watch out for his son.”
“He wouldn’t have listened. He’d have told me he didn’t need any special treatment.” Murdoch looked at Sam directly. His eyes bright in his heat reddened face. “Is Mariah right? Is he too thin?”
Sam considered for a moment and said, “Except for that ankle, he looked healthy enough to me this morning. I grant you he’s thin but he’s built long and lean. This sort of work, especially in the heat, is guaranteed to keep the weight off a man. Seems to me you were pretty skinny yourself twenty years ago.”
Memory flitted over Murdoch’s face; he almost smiled. “I suppose I was.”
Mateo had returned from the kitchen. He was carefully carrying two tankards of beer. He stopped just outside the lean-to. His dark eyes shifted between the patrón and the doctor.
Murdoch held out his hand for his tankard. Mateo came forward and gave it to him. Then he handed the doctor his. Sam thanked him. With another slightly worried glance at Murdoch, Mateo retreated to just out of earshot.
Sam laughed softly. The people of Lancer knew their Patrón very well. He sipped his beer and watched Murdoch do the same. After a few minutes he asked with obvious curiosity, “The boys getting along all right? They don’t seem like they would have a lot in common except for you.”
“Or the lack of me. And both of them will be happy to tell you they never missed me.”
“They may say it, that don’t mean it’s true.”
“Don’t talk sentimental,” growled Murdoch. “They’re both tough and smart in their own way. I’m thankful for that. You know they’ll need to be out here. As to getting along, they haven’t killed each other yet, but that may be Teresa’s doing. She is bound and determined that we all be a family. Does she seem all right to you?”
Sam took another gulp of beer before he answered. “Well, she misses her Daddy something fierce; so do I and so do you. Taking care of you, fussing over the boys like she did when Johnny was shot and what I saw her doing with Scott today, gives her a sense of being needed. That helps with the pain.”
“I know. But I hate the thought of her being disappointed.”
“You do want them to stay, don’t you, Murdoch?”
“Of course I want them to stay. I’ve got less than half the men I need to work a ranch this size. I’ve got you and that young quack from back east telling me I shouldn’t ride a horse so I’m trying to run my ranch blind. And without Paul,” he paused and shook his head. “Without Paul, it is all so damn hard.”
It wasn’t the answer Sam had hoped for. Murdoch was still making it sound as if the only reason he’d sent for Scott and Johnny was the ranch. Sam didn’t believe that. A man who could be as good a friend as Murdoch Lancer was; who could care for a child that wasn’t his own as deeply as he cared for Teresa; could not be that indifferent to his own flesh and blood even if he did barely know them. It did hearten Sam some that Murdoch was willing to admit his grief over Paul. But he didn’t envy those boys trying to get to know their father.
Sam drained his tankard and set it down on the ground. He stood and said, “I’m going to find Teresa and check on your people. I reckon I’ll see you and your sons at dinner.”
“Suppose so.” Murdoch picked up the bellows and pointed them at the fire. He shouted, “Matt, tell your father we’re ready for the bay!”
It took most of the afternoon to make the rounds of the vaqueros’ families. Two of the men were still laid up from being wounded in the attack by the land pirates; one of the wives was pregnant and Sam always liked to take a look at each of the children when he came. The younger generation all spoke some English but the older people like Abuela Mariah and the old dairyman spoke nothing but Spanish. It frustrated him that after twenty years of having Spanish speaking patients he still wasn’t fluent. These days Teresa made the rounds with him. Sam enjoyed having her company as well as her help.
From the cluster of small houses they walked back towards the hacienda. The day had grown warm. Sam carried his bag and his jacket over his arm.
“Teresa,” said he glancing over at the girl. “You’re awfully quiet, child; everything all right?”
She sighed, looked up at him and then down again at her dusty boots. “He wants me to call him Murdoch,” she said without preamble. “He says it will put us all on an equal footing.”
Sam was surprised. He glanced towards the house. Johnny and Scott were sitting at a table in the garden. “Is that what the boys call him?”
“Scott always called him sir,” she said as her gaze followed his to the garden. “Johnny didn’t call the patrón anything unless he was angry and then he called him old man. But last night, the patrón told them to call him Murdoch.”
“Well,” drawled Sam, “I’m glad he did.”
Teresa stopped walking. She blinked her large dark eyes in surprise and frowned. “But they ought to call him father or dad or even pa. Not Murdoch as if he was just another man they know.”
“I do see what you’re saying, honey, but they are grown men,” said Sam turning back to look at her. “I know that Johnny is young, but given the life he’s led, I don’t doubt he’s old beyond his years. Murdoch is still pretty much a stranger. I don’t think you can expect them to call him father.”
“But he is their father,” insisted the girl her eyes filled with sudden tears. “They are a family; they need to treat each other like family; they need to talk to each other like family.”
“Teresa, honey, you can’t force them to be family. Given time, they could all come to it on their own. It might be someday, one of them, maybe both of them, will want to acknowledge the ties between them by calling Murdoch pa. It is hard to say. It is early days yet.” It distressed him to see the tears in her eyes. Murdoch had said she had her heart set on them being a family, but Sam had not realized how much she wanted it. He hated to think she would be disappointed in this after she had suffered the loss of her father.
“Johnny might someday,” she said thoughtfully. “Do you think he remembers anything about living here when he was small?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He wasn’t three yet when Maria took him. Memory is a funny thing,” answered Sam with a slight smile lightening his lined face. “Some thing you think you’ve forgotten completely can come back to you at the strangest time. I was walking down the alley behind the widow’s store. She was baking molasses cookies. I closed my eyes and it was like I was back in my mother’s kitchen more than fifty years ago. It might be Johnny has memories of Lancer that he doesn’t know come from here. He was so awfully young.”
“Why did she take him, Doc?” asked the girl in a small voice. “Why did she go? I can’t think Murdoch was ever unkind to her. I know he loved her.”
Sam had no idea how to answer that question. He had theories about why Maria Lancer had done what she did, but he wasn’t sure he could put them into words Teresa would understand. “Did your Daddy ever say what he thought?”
“He said . . . well, you know Daddy could be a bit fanciful.”
“I know,” Sam nodded. “What did he tell you?”
Teresa’s cheeks grew red; she looked down almost whispering. “He said Maria was sort of a witch. That one day she would be beautiful and kind and the next-well, he said she had a devil in her that couldn’t get enough. He didn’t really care for her.”
“That’s true,” he said grimly. “When Maria was here your daddy stayed away from the house. You remember that I met Murdoch and Maria on the boat coming up from Panama. After I settled in Green River, I’d come out here as often as I could.”
“You liked Maria,” said Teresa. She made it a statement rather than a question.
“I did.” He said with a nod and a smile. “When she was happy, she was as charming a woman as I’ve ever known. And I rarely saw her when she wasn’t happy because I think she liked having company; I think she liked being the patrón’s lady. But for some reason, your dad never felt the power of her charm. It was after she was gone that I realized how close Murdoch and your dad had been before Maria came. Lucky for Murdoch they regained that closeness or he’d have been a mighty lonely man all these years.”
“Daddy loved Johnny,” she said slowly, her gaze drifting back to where the youngest Lancer was sitting in the shade of a grape arbor. “He used to tell me a story about Johnny wandering into the barn when he was just a tiny child. Most of Daddy’s stories about the boys were fancies, but this one was true. Nobody could find him; I reckon they were all frantic. And finally Daddy found him in the stall of a mare who was about to foal. Just sitting there in the hay in the corner watching the mare as if he knew something was about to happen.”
Sam chuckled and rubbed his chin. “I remember hearing about that. Way I heard it, Johnny stayed right there until that foal was born. Murdoch was so proud of him. I remember too that his mama wasn’t happy about the whole affair; she was afraid he’d get hurt.”
“Was that why she took him?” the girl asked eagerly. She wanted badly to understand what had happened all those years ago.
The doctor shook his head. “I don’t know why she took him except that in spite of everything, Maria was a mother who loved her child. What your dad said isn’t far from the truth if you ask me. There was something in Maria that just couldn’t be satisfied. She was lonely here. Murdoch worked like the devil and I suppose since she liked putting on the airs of being the patrón’s lady it was hard for her to be close to the women here. But it was more than that. Something I just don’t know how to explain.”
With a trace of fear in her voice Teresa asked, “Is Johnny like her?”
“In some ways,” said Sam slowly. “He’s got her smile and a lot of her charm. But if you’re asking me if that same insatiable hunger burns in his belly as it did in his mama’s, I can’t answer. I don’t know.”
She looked towards the house again, her bottom lip caught thoughtfully between her teeth. “Do you think maybe you ought to tell Johnny that story?”
“Well,” drawled Sam, smiling. “I think it’d be a fine thing if Murdoch told him.”
“He won’t,” said Teresa flatly, she started walking again. She walked as if she were angry, little puffs of dust rose as she set her feet down. “He never talks about the past. At least Johnny could have memories of Lancer. All of Scott’s memories are of those people back east.”
Sam walked with her. Now he was perplexed by her anger. He’d known Teresa all her life. She’d always been a happy child who wore her heart on her sleeve. Her father had been the center of her world, but she’d had plenty of love for Murdoch, others on the ranch and for Sam himself. When her father was killed, she had been devastated but she had somehow managed to hold herself together. Murdoch had become the center of her world. It was almost unheard of for Teresa to be critical of Murdoch.
“Honey,” he said slowly, “the thing about memories is we are always making more. Soon Scott’ll have plenty of memories of Lancer, Johnny, Murdoch and you.”
“If Scott stays that long.”
Sam stopped walking; he pulled on Teresa’s arm. It stopped her and he turned her to him. He looked closely at her, a frown knitting his forehead. “Is Scott thinking about leaving?”
“I-I don’t know,” stammered the girl. She looked shamefaced, as if she had put a thought into words she hadn’t intended.
Sam wanted to question her more. He wanted to know why she was afraid that Scott would leave. He felt sure that if the boy did leave Murdoch would be deeply wounded, but based on their earlier conversation, it seemed unlikely that Murdoch would do anything to try to stop either Scott or Johnny from leaving.
Sam didn’t ask Teresa any questions. She seemed a little fragile today; not quite herself. He didn’t want to make whatever she was feeling any worse.
“Doc,” she said almost shyly, still not looking up at him. “Do you think I ought to be on an equal footing with the boys and Murdoch?”
“But I’m not a Lancer,” she insisted with more of her normal spirit.
“No,” said the doctor slowly, “but you are the child Murdoch knows. He helped raise you.”
“He is very good to me, but he has his sons, they are his children.”
“Teresa,” said Sam with a touch of sternness. “You know this is what your father would want. Murdoch and Paul were like brothers. Murdoch couldn’t love you more if you were his own.”
“I don’t want to get in the way.” She had her hands balled into fists; her eyes were bright when she raised them to his.
“Oh, child, what nonsense,” said Sam sharply. “Why, seeing Murdoch treat you like a daughter is the best way for his sons to realize he’s capable of being a father. You want them to be a family -you show them how.”
“Scott already has a family, Doc,” she responded earnestly. “Those letters you brought out were from his grandfather and a cousin. He was awful pleased to get them. He showed photographs of his family to me. He has lots of cousins; he seemed real fond of them.”
Sam rubbed his chin and looked down into the tear-filled eyes of the girl. He didn’t know if Teresa had any blood kin left alive now that Paul was dead. And yet at Lancer she had a large and loving family. Those who had stayed at Lancer through all of the troubles were bound together; any one of the vaqueros would lay down his life for la señorita; the little girl they had known all her life. Teresa knew that. She was sure of her place at Lancer; sure of her place in Murdoch Lancer’s heart. Those tears were not for herself. They were for Murdoch.
“Honey, let me tell you something about family. You can’t have too much. Now don’t get me wrong; most everyone has at least one relative they’d rather not have to acknowledge. But real family, people you feel a connection to, you can’t have too much. Be they blood kin or those who have taken you in and loved you.
When I came out here twenty years ago, it was to make a fresh start. You know the story; I’d lost my wife and two children to a cholera epidemic. I just wanted to get away from everything that reminded me of them including my family. Do you know that I never even let my brother know I’d made it out here alive all those years ago? But after the war, I started wondering about how my folks had fared in Maryland; they would have been caught right in the middle of it. So, I wrote a letter and do you know, I think my brother Jim must have sat down the very day he got my letter and wrote me back. Since then we’ve been writing every month or so. I’m thankful for the railroad making the mails reliable. I plan to go back and visit if I can find a young doctor fool enough to take over my practice for a couple of months. I love my family there, now that I remember I’ve got them. But I won’t stay. This is my home. Scott does not have to give up his family in the east to be at home here.”
She had listened thoughtfully. Then she spoke “But he does have to feel that connection you were talking about to feel at home here.”
“He must feel something,” insisted Sam. “The way I hear it, Scott is working awfully hard out on the range.”
She started walking again. Sam barely heard her when she murmured, “That won’t be enough.”
The food at Lancer was always good. Sam looked forward to it and dinner that evening was no exception. Murdoch asked a few questions about the patients Sam had visited that afternoon. Sam shared a little news from Green River, Morro Coyo and the outlying homesteads he’d visited over the past few weeks, but on the whole it was a quiet meal. Scott and Johnny listened politely but were too new to the area to ask questions. To Sam, Teresa still seemed distracted.
He hadn’t had a meal with all of them before. The first time he’d been at Lancer after they’d arrived, Johnny had been confined to bed on his orders. The second time, when he brought Dr. Hendershot to have a look at Murdoch’s back Johnny had been on the range somewhere. During that meal, Scott and Hendershot had talked the whole time about some game they’d played back east.
Sam looked from one Lancer to the other. There wasn’t much family resemblance, well, maybe around the mouth. Johnny might have Murdoch’s nose and he certainly didn’t get those blue eyes from Maria. Her eyes had been as deep brown as the chocolate she craved. But all in all, he reminded Sam more of Maria than Murdoch.
As for Scott, his coloring was similar to Murdoch’s but Sam had an idea that his mother had been fair too. There was something about Scott that was very like his father. Something in his manner, just a touch too serious for the situation and yet with a sense that underneath there was humor, dry humor no doubt.
After dinner, Murdoch poured whiskey for the boys, Sam and himself. Scott, still limping a little, sat in the armchair by the fireplace and put his feet up. Johnny went to stand at the open French door. From somewhere, probably the bunkhouse, came the notes of a guitar being played. Teresa had helped the housekeeper Maria clear the table. She returned to the great room with a cup of tea.
“How long did it take Paul to build that ship?” asked Sam gesturing with his glass towards the elaborate model of a sailing ship.
“The better part of ten years, I suppose,” answered Murdoch putting the cut glass stopper back in the decanter. “He worked in the winter mostly.”
Johnny turned away from the door and walked over to the model to take a closer look. “Your father built this?”
“Yes,” Teresa nodded with more enthusiasm than she had shown all evening. She blew across the top of her steaming tea cup.
“Why?” asked Johnny then he smiled at her shyly and said, “I mean it seems like a funny thing for a cowboy to spend ten years building.”
“He wasn’t always a cowboy,” she answered, a wide smile spreading across her face. “Daddy was born in Ireland. He was one of eight children but by the time he was ten all but two of them were dead. The other one that was left was a brother, James, who was eight or nine years older than Daddy. He was a sailor; when he went to sea he took Dad with him.”
“It’s not that unusual for there to be young boys on ships,” interjected Murdoch. “Paul started as a cabin boy and then he was made a galley slave- that’s what he called being helper to the ship’s cook.”
“He used to point to the very top of the mast,” said Teresa as she set her cup and saucer on the table the model was on, “and say that was his favorite place on the ship. Daddy said when he and his brother had a few minutes together they would climb up there.”
“How did he end up here if he was a sailor?” asked Johnny.
Sam smiled. He didn’t know about Madrid, but Johnny Lancer was a bright, curious boy who liked to know the details. And in that he was definitely like his father.
“His brother died when the ship was coming up the west coast of South America. When they made port in San Francisco, Dad jumped ship. He always said it that way, but I don’t think it meant he really jumped off the ship. I guess it was hard to stay on the ship without his brother.”
Sam suspected that Paul had made his life aboard ship sound like a great adventure when he told Teresa about it. Sam knew that it had been drudgery for the most part, a form of slavery really. Without the protection of his brother –who had always sounded like the sort of man it’d be wise not to cross- the fourteen year old Paul had been in real danger. Jumping ship had been the wisest thing to do.
“Paul built that model as a kind of tribute to his brother James,” said Murdoch; leaning back against the front edge of his desk. He took a sip from his glass.
“He must have known every inch of that ship to make it so real looking,” said Johnny examining the fine detail of the model. “We’re a long ways from San Francisco. How did he get here?”
“That is a wonderful story. You should tell it,” said Teresa looking at Murdoch.
“No, darling,” responded Murdoch shaking his head. His voice was low and sad. “That was your daddy’s story to tell.”
“Daddy is dead.” Her voice was flat, almost hard. Her dark eyes gazed steadily at her guardian; her wide, normally mobile mouth was set in a straight line.
Murdoch stood straight.
Johnny stopped his examination of the ship. He turned and looked at Teresa. Scott had been sitting quietly with his feet on an ottoman. He brought his feet to the floor and sat forward slowly, his eyes on Teresa.
“If you don’t tell Daddy’s stories, Murdoch,” she said carefully, perhaps addressing him in this new way for the first time. “They will die with him.”
Sam was stunned. Teresa had always been a lively child, but she had never been a sassy one. Her tone was steely. She was telling Murdoch that she would not take no for an answer. For years they had all joked that Teresa had her father and the Patrón wrapped around her little finger. All she had to do was ask sweetly and they would do her bidding. This was something entirely different. Murdoch was not a teller of stories. Paul had been the story-teller. Murdoch did not talk about the past. But Teresa was determined. She wanted this story told.
Scott and Johnny exchanged a glance that seemed to ask and answer the same question- something unusual is going on here. It surprised Sam that after such a short time they would have developed that level of understanding.
Murdoch looked like a cornered bear. His jaw was set and his eyes were narrowed. Sam expected the next words out of his mouth to be –Teresa go to bed.
To Sam it felt like the five of them were all holding their breath, that even Murdoch was unsure what he would do next. Then slowly as if the words were thick and hard to pronounce, he began to speak.
“When Paul jumped ship, San Francisco was not much more than the mission, the Mexican fort and docks where the traders did business. That was the winter of ’39. By the time we arrived in late March, he’d pretty much become a wharf rat-living from day to day on the little bit of work he could find. He was scrawniest boy I’d ever seen.”
Sam smiled slightly. Paul had told the story a bit differently. Presenting himself as an enterprising youth. Murdoch’s version was probably more accurate.
“Who’s we?” asked Johnny. He’d perched himself on the arm of the sofa and watched his father with bright inquisitive eyes.
Sam glanced at Scott. He was still sitting in the armchair, slightly hunched his gaze focused on his hands folded in his lap. It struck Sam as odd it would be Johnny who was so curious, because Scott had to know who besides Murdoch and Paul O’Brien played a leading role in this tale. But then he realized that it was because Scott knew what was coming that he was so still. With a flash of insight, Sam knew why Teresa had been so determined that Murdoch tell this story.
He might have imagined it, but Sam thought he saw a shudder pass through Murdoch’s big frame.
Teresa was standing behind the sofa close to Johnny. Her hands gripped the high back so tightly her knuckles were turning white. Sam felt the need to say a quick prayer that this all worked out the way she hoped it would.
“Me and my wife, Catherine,” Murdoch said finally.
So softly, Sam was surprised anyone heard him, Scott said, “My mother.”
Johnny glanced at him and then back to his father.
“We’d come out from Boston, gone around the Horn that winter. We were headed inland. When we off-loaded, we had two trunks, a packing box, a couple of valises and a duffle with my blacksmith tools; too much to carry. I had to find a cart.”
There was a note of defensiveness in Murdoch’s voice. Sam knew why; he was afraid Scott would judge him for leaving Catherine with the luggage.
“We had quite a bit of money with us; her money, a legacy from her grandmother.” Suddenly Murdoch’s voice changed. It was soft, the words came easily but he was looking over their heads, not really talking to them; just remembering. “She’d sewn pockets into her petticoats and hidden the money there. She was clever like that. Anyway, we piled all our things together and Catherine took a seat on top of it. She wore a dark blue cloak lined with fur, mink I believe. It was a gift from her father; he’d been so afraid the voyage itself would prove too much for her. But she loved it. She’d wear that cloak and stand out on the deck clutching my arm watching the sea. That day we landed it was foggy, a little cold; she was all wrapped up in her cloak sitting on top the pile of luggage. Under the cloak she had a dueling pistol, loaded and cocked. An uncle who had been in the army had given it to her.”
Murdoch paused for a moment. There wasn’t a sound in the room but the soft pops of the small fire. Sam looked around. Teresa had relaxed a little but her dark eyes were still on Murdoch as if she were willing him to go on. Johnny still looked curious but the expression in his blue eyes had softened. He appeared to realize that there was more going on than just the telling of an old story.
Scott was watching his father now; his expression unreadable to Sam.
“I meant to stay within her sight; certainly within earshot. The fog got denser. When I looked back, I couldn’t see her. I was about to turn back when I heard the shot. I went running.”
“Three men, rough, probably sailors who had deserted their ships came up to her and demanded to go through the trunks and the packing box. I’m sure they thought she was easy picking; she was a small woman, fair with straw colored hair that was always escaping her combs. She looked like a child sitting there. Those toughs must have been shocked when Catherine pulled that pistol out and fired. She managed to wing one of them. Of course, in those days, a pistol only had one shot and the recoil almost knocked her off her perch. About the same time she fired, from out of nowhere comes this bag of bones slamming into one of the toughs and hurling him into a second one. When I caught sight of them, Catherine was standing on the packing box swinging the pistol by the barrel to keep one of the men at bay and Paul was punching and kicking and probably biting the other two. I waded in and pulled them off him. Took them one by one and dropped them into the harbor.”
Sam noticed Johnny’s lips curve into an amused smile. It was an easy image to conjure. How surprised those toughs must have been to have a giant of a man appear from out of the fog.
“Paul claimed to be fourteen but he was small and half starved. And dirty. His brogue was so thick Catherine could barely understand him. I wanted to give him a little money and send him on his way. Catherine wouldn’t hear of it; she called him a hero and fussed over his black eye and split lip. After that, we couldn’t get rid of him. About a year later, the three of us came over the rise and saw this valley for the first time. By then even I’d gotten used to having him with us.”
Murdoch turned away from them. He went to his desk chair and sank into it. He looked worn out.
It struck Sam as odd and sad that telling a story, a story about people you cared deeply for, that had a happy ending, would take so much out of a man. All Sam knew about Catherine Lancer was what Paul had told him on several occasions when Murdoch had not been with them but the decanter of whiskey had been. As Teresa said, Paul tended to be a bit fanciful. He had described Catherine as ethereal; a word one wouldn’t expect an uneducated man to know. It had given Sam the idea that she’d been delicate. Paul spoke of her as one would a cherished elder sister. Sam realized that this was the first time he had ever heard Murdoch say her name. He wondered suddenly when was the last time he had said aloud the names of his own wife and children.
Teresa looked as exhausted as Murdoch. Johnny was watching her with his head cocked to the side. He said something too softly for Sam to hear but he surmised it must have been, “are you alright?” because Teresa stood a little taller and nodded her head. It was a thoughtful gesture on Johnny’s part and Sam liked him all the better for it.
Teresa went to Murdoch and sat on the arm of the chair. She snaked her arm around his neck and laid her head against his shoulder. Murdoch stroked her hair gently. All the steel that had been in her a few minutes before was gone; she was the little girl they knew again.
Sam drained his glass. He went to the decanter and poured another drink. Johnny lifted his glass and Sam filled it. He looked towards Scott but realized whiskey, even good Scotch, was the last thing on Scott’s mind. Although what Scott was thinking was a mystery to Sam.
A few minutes later Teresa whispered good night to Murdoch and stood. She came to Sam and standing on her toes kissed him on the cheek as was their custom when she retired for the evening. She and Johnny exchanged smiles and soft good-nights. Then she walked towards Scott. She hesitated as if she didn’t want to disturb his thoughts. She started to walk past. Scott reached out his right hand and caught hers as she passed. He held it only for an instant; they didn’t look at each other.
Once Teresa had gone up the stairs, Johnny went back to the open door and stared out into the night. A few minutes later he turned to his father and said, “There is something I don’t understand, Murdoch. If Paul O’Brien was with you from the beginning and he was good enough of a cattleman to be foreman, why’d you never give him a piece of the ranch? Sounds like he’d earned it.”
“He more than earned it,” said Murdoch coming to his feet. He crossed to the table the decanter was sitting on. “I tried, I don’t remember now how many times to make him a partner. He wouldn’t take it.”
“Why not, sir?” asked Scott. He joined his father at the table for a refill. “I’d think if for no other reason, he would want a piece of the ranch to provide security for Teresa.”
Murdoch looked at Sam. Sam nodded and said, “You might as well tell them the truth. Teresa will never say anything but she knows.”
Both his sons turned to Murdoch with open curiosity on their faces.
Murdoch sighed. It was a deep, resonant sound that added importance to what he said next. “Paul was a good man. A good father, a good man to work with or for,-ask any of the vaqueros. And he was as good a friend as I’ve ever had.”
“I feel the same,” interjected Sam.
“And, well . . . every now and then he’d slip the traces and go off on a binge. Only three times since Teresa was born, but before that it’d happen most every year. Something would set him off; sometimes I knew what, sometimes not. He’d be gone a month, maybe more. The first time I thought he was gone for good. And almost every time when he came back, he’d be broke. He told me flat-out that if I gave him part of the ranch, chances were good he’d lose it and I’d find myself partners with some tinhorn gambler.”
“You have to understand, boys,” said Sam solemnly. “Paul knew that Teresa would always have a home here. He never did anything that would have put her in jeopardy. Sometimes I guess, he just needed to bust loose.”
Johnny returned his attention to the moonlit scene beyond the veranda. Scott joined him in the doorway. Sam noticed that their stance was the same; their weight forward on the balls of their feet, their arms crossed except when they raised their glasses to drink. Murdoch often stood the same way, not that it was an unusual way for a man to stand, but it struck Sam as a curious coincidence.
“But he always came back,” said Johnny in his soft musical voice.
Murdoch’s voice was low and firm when he said, “Because this is his home.”
Sam knew by how their shoulders stiffened that both Murdoch’s sons heard the change in tense. He was sure they understood what their father was trying to tell them –that he wanted them to be at home on Lancer.
It would not be easy, thought Sam, but Teresa’s hope for them to become a family did not seem as doomed to disappointment as he’d feared.