And Mother Makes Three
SERIES: First story in the MOMMY DEAREST trilogy
FEEDBACK: Always. E-mail me at KIANA1@NETACS.NET
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers. Lancer and the characters are not mine, but the story is.
SUMMARY: While Scott and Johnny are away from the ranch, Murdoch makes an unexpected trip to Mexico. The only message he left behind is a note saying that he would send a wire when he could. When the wire finally arrives, it contains little in the way of an explanation, and makes a very upsetting demand of Johnny.
The very last few scenes of this book were beta'd by Sharon C. Thanks, Sharon. All remaining errors are mine.
Author's note: There are a few passages containing quite a few Mexican words. I have tried to incorporate a translation into the surround text, but if I failed to do so adequately enough for the words to be understood, a translation is provided at the end of this book. Also, translations/phrasing was provided by an on-line translation dictionary, so if it is not correct, I do apologize.
It had been a little over a week since Murdoch Lancer departed his California ranch. On that day he had left behind all he knew and held dear for a fantasy he only barely dared hope could be real.
A day on the train to San Francisco, five days aboard a clipper ship bound for the lower Mexican coast, then a three day ride inland to a small village near Lake Chapala. There he made a short mountain climb to the stone fortress that had been many things to many people through the years - a place to worship, a place to hide, a place to be imprisoned, a place to learn, a place to heal, and now, if his prayers were answered, a place to come together.
Throughout his entire journey, he had thought nothing of the precious ranch he left behind, or of the beloved family that would no doubt be both worried and upset by his abrupt and secretive departure. From the moment the miraculous message had arrived, hand delivered by the man who now guided his way, he had been unable to think of anything but her and of the possibilities he had accepted as being forever gone.
During those weary days of travel his body had remained steadily on course, while his mind had wandered down many different roads. Guilt, anger, hurt, disbelief, were only a sampling of the vast array of emotions that had badgered his every moment. Waking or sleeping, he had been unable to think of anything but the woman who had once been his wife, who might still be, depending on the legal technicalities.
He remembered in vivid detail the love they had shared, the love they had lost due to greed and anger and emotions he still could not fathom. Every now and then the image of his son, of their son, would invade those thoughts. It was only then, when the possibilities of all that could have been relentlessly teased his mind, that his anger flared out of control.
It was during these brief moments of intense fury that his thoughts would turn away from her. At those times, when his rage became a burning inferno he could not ignore, he could see only the man who had cost him so much. He could think only of revenge, of justice, of eternal damnation for that one dark heart that held no love for anyone but himself. When his revenge came, it would be not be sweet, but it would be his.
However, when the anger faded, he was left shivering in fear and nee. Never could he remember feeling this nervous. Never could he remember being this kind of scared. What if it wasn't her? What if this was all a huge mistake? What if the truth as he had known it all these years was still the truth, and she was not waiting for him just on the other side of the stone wall he now faced in anxious despair.
"Señor?" the man next to him said softly.
Unable to reply, Murdoch merely nodded. The door opened, and Murdoch hesitated before entering. On shaky legs he made it just inside the door, before coming to an unsteady halt.
The room was bright and cheery. Sunlight from the soon-to-be setting sun flowed through the huge windows stretching from floor to ceiling along all three outer walls. Bookshelves covered the expanse between the windows, and in the center of the room was a large wooden table. A huge fireplace graced the wall opposite the door. The entire floor was padded with plush carpeting, some older, some new, but all showing signs of devotion to this place.
Then he saw her. She was sitting on a window seat in the far corner of the room. She was no more than thirty feet away, but even with her back to him, Murdoch knew it was her. He had loved her so deeply, so completely, that every inch of her beautiful form had become ingrained so deeply into his memories that even those agonizingly lonely years of separation could not dull his knowledge, could not dull his love.
Very slowly, he made his way towards her. She appeared oblivious to his presence, but he could not take his eyes off her. Nothing about his life had prepared him for this moment. Not even in his deepest fantasies had he ever dared dreamed today could exist. When he was within a few feet, he stopped, unable to go further, unable to even say her name for fear of ending the dream and returning to the lonely reality of his life.
True, he wasn't alone any more. He had his sons with him, he had their son, but even the presence of those two blessed gifts in his life could not fill this particular void. The loneliness he felt was that of a man for a woman, a husband for a wife, a lover for his beloved. Only one person could ever take this loneliness away, and she was now right before him. Living, breathing, and as tangible as anyone could ever be.
As if sensing his presence, she suddenly turned towards him. At first there was nothing but a gentle greeting in her expression, a greeting she would have bestowed on any stranger. Slowly, though, recognition began to settle in on her delicate features. Standing, she faced him, having to look up to meet his gaze, just as she had on that day when they first met, on that day when they were married.
Her eyes were filled with wonder, hope, and even a little uncertainty, but there was no fear in her gaze. There was only strength, borne of untold adversities, and mellowed by warmth and a welcome. "Murdoch," she said his name barely above a whisper.
With the force of an avalanche, the weight of reality slammed into him, taking his breath away and almost sending him to his knees. His arms shook when he reached out to her. When they touched her shoulders, that delicate body he had not know for so long, they pulled her swiftly into his embrace. It was as if his own body feared that to do otherwise would be to risk losing her all over again.
He held her tightly against his chest while tears streamed unhindered down a face that had seldom felt such moisture. He buried his face in her soft hair, taking in the scent of her, the feel of her next to him again, and the amazement of all things suddenly becoming possible. It was only then that he was able to speak her name.
*** *** *** ***
Next to her she could feel the man who had once been her husband, his body trembling even as he clung to her with the same intense need that had her clinging tightly to him. For twenty-five years they had both lived a lie - a lie beginning with whom she was not certain, but ending here, a place where she was equally as uncertain. They each had a lot that needed to be said, a lot that needed to be explained, neither of which would come easily or quickly. Twenty-five years would not be unraveled in a few moments, or even a few hours.
"You must be hungry after your long journey," she said in a voice so full of need she barely recognized it as her own.
The arms encircling her shoulders tightened, as if the man holding her was afraid to let go. "I don't care about food," that cherished voice replied from above her head. "I just need you."
Although different in some respects, she reveled in the recognition of his voice. Even without the Scottish brogue that had been so pronounced when last she had heard its deeply resonating tones, she knew without a doubt it was Murdoch Lancer. It was the same voice that had spoken to her in the darkness of their bedroom; after they had loved each other with a passion she felt could feel stirring in her heart once again.
How many nights had that voice talked her to sleep with vivid descriptions of a dream she had found as compelling as the man who had dared dream it? She didn't know now, not that it mattered. The only thing that mattered was what lay ahead, for both of them.
Gently extracting herself from his embrace, she marveled at the extreme sense of loss that ensconced her with the absence of his warm embrace. With a mental shake, she reminded herself that many things had undoubtedly changed over the years. She was not the same woman, nor was he the same man. The love they had shared back then had become old and antiquated. All that would have to be stripped away and rebuilt anew, or tucked away as a treasured memory of something that had once been, but was no more. In the here and now they were all but strangers, she reprimanded herself harshly.
"Murdoch, you need to eat something."
He opened his mouth to speak, but she quickly raised her hand, covering his lips with her fingers. Even as she felt the sparks of desire flaring from within her bosom, she firmly pushed them aside. That would be for later, much later, and would depend on many things that had not yet been discussed or decided. "Tomorrow will be soon enough. Tonight you will eat and get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow we can discover the truth together."
His eyes sparkled and his lips lightly kissed her fingertips. Taking her hand in his, he gently, but firmly, pulled it away from his mouth. "I need to know something now, Catherine," he stated just as firmly. "I have to know if leaving me was your decision."
And old familiar sense of confusion and loss settled on her weary shoulders. "I don't know, Murdoch. I honestly don't know for sure. I don't remember anything from that time. All I can say is what I was told," she paused, unsure of how best to proceed. She meant it when she said they needed to wait until tomorrow, when they were both rested and more physically prepared for the anguish that was sure to accompany the sharing that was to come. "I can tell you that what I was told directly contradicts what's happening now, so I'm just not sure."
His brow, marked with lines from the hardships of years gone by, furrowed at her remark. "Catherine?"
"Tomorrow, Murdoch." Standing her ground, she moved away. "Now come with me to the kitchen. You look like you haven't eaten in a week." Taking his hand she led him through a small doorway on the wall adjacent to the door from which he had entered.
*** *** *** ***
Frustration, fear, loneliness, and even a little anger wormed their way through his thoughts as they succeeded in keeping his sleep at bay. From the window of his darkened room, Murdoch looked out over the nearby lake, the waters sparkling like a bed of diamonds in the light of the full moon.
The view was spectacular, and even in his current state of unrest he could appreciate the glory of nature's
majesty. While nothing could stir in his heart with the same sense of awe as the image of the San Benito
mountains as seen from the his own bedroom window at Lancer, he had to admit that this scene came awfully
close. However, even the splendor laid out before him could settle his troubled mind.
Catherine. His beloved Catherine. She had been his first love, his most treasured gift, the woman who not only shared his love, but his dream for a ranch she would never live to see reach it's shining glory. Only she had lived, but in a place far from Lancer, far from his love.
The stress of the long journey from California and the uncertainty of what he would find when he arrived had left him unable to respond with his usual certainty and authority. He had been unable to resist when Catherine insisted that he eat, but for the life of him he couldn't even remember what he had eaten, although he did have the impression that whatever it was it had been good.
He didn't understand why she had refused to discuss the things he needed so much to talk about, but again he had been unable to refuse when she had insisted he retire for the night. After she had led him to this room, with a tender smile that he still could see clearly in his mind, she had turned and left. In that second, when the door closed between them, his heart had skipped a beat.
She was so close, yet he felt there was something between them. Something?
Actually, there were so many things. Twenty-five years of living lay between where they had once been and where they were now. Would it be too much? Was there anything left of the man and woman who had once loved each other so dearly?
Moving from his spot by the window, he made his way over to the large bed where he was supposed to be sleeping. The moonlight streaming through the window reflected off something on the bedside table. With hands more steady than he would have believed, he picked up the cup of tea Catherine had left for him.
Taking a sip, he found the liquid to be both bitter and smooth, relaxing and invigorating. He also found it to be extremely good. He sat alone in the darkness, continuing to try to make sense out of the total chaos running rampant in his mind, even as the serenity of his surroundings laid his tensions to rest. His body was at peace, but his mind was anything but. Finishing off the cup of warm tea, he laid down, not expecting to, but eventually losing himself to the sleep that would give him strength for what lay ahead.
*** *** *** ***
"What do you mean 'he just left'?"
Exasperation radiated off Teresa as she explained in a snippy tone, so unlike her normally congenial self. "I mean exactly what I said. He just left. I woke up and he was already gone." Reaching into her the pocket of her apron, she pulled out a folded piece of paper. "I found this on his desk. That was two days ago."
Accepting the paper from Teresa's grasp, Scott read his father's familiar handwriting.
I hate to leave like this, but I have no choice. This was too important to put off, even for the couple of days it would have taken for you to return. I will be gone for at least several weeks. I will wire you if I can, but if you do not hear from me, don't be concerned. Where I'm headed in Mexico may not afford me the convenience of modern communications.
"This is it?" he asked even as he read it a second time.
Teresa's voice cracked and Scott looked up, noticing for the first time the evidence of stress and worry on her usually relaxed face. Her eyes quickly pooled with tears as the fear became too much for her to bear. Pulling her into his arms, he held her close as she cried out her frustrations. For two days she had bore the burden of the unknown all alone, and now he willingly accepted the load from her weary shoulders.
Off to the side, the front door opened and Johnny burst onto the scene. He had his hat on the rack and was beginning to unbuckle his gun belt when he looked up at them. "I'm so hungry I could take me a bite outta one of those beeves even without-" His brother's teasing complaint was stopped short.
Without saying a word, Scott held out the note, knowing that he had no more answers than Teresa for the questions Johnny was sure to ask; they were the same questions his own mind was asking, the same questions which had plagued Teresa while she waited here alone for their return.
Johnny's spurs jingled at his approach, the deceptively light tingling sound a total contrast to the heavy atmosphere around them. He accepted the note without a word, and began reading. The amount of time it took indicated that he, too, read the words more than once.
"Mexico?" Johnny's voice was tainted with both worry and suspicion.
Startled by the wariness in Johnny's words, Scott quickly realized that he had missed something, though the anguished sob from Teresa told him that she had not. Then it hit him. Could Johnny's past have something to do with Murdoch's sudden departure? Something concerning Johnny Madrid? What other reason could possibly tear Murdoch away from Lancer in such a secretive manner?
"Johnny, we don't know-"
Scott was interrupted by Johnny's loud snort. "Sure, Boston," he said as he wadded the note into a ball before throwing it to the floor in anger. "You believe that if you want to." Turning, Johnny stormed away, slamming the door behind him.
Pulling away from Scott, Teresa looked up as him with teary eyes, full of desperation. "Don't let him go, Scott. Please, don't let him leave, too."
Hoping his smile was more encouraging than he felt, Scott leaned down and tenderly kissed Teresa's forehead. "He won't leave, Teresa." Unsure if he could keep his word, he rushed out the door, hoping to be able to stop his brother from doing something impetuous. As expected, Scott found Johnny in the barn in the process of resaddling Barranca.
"And just where do you plan on looking, Johnny? Mexico is a big country." Much to his surprise, Johnny stopped, standing with his head bowed, that saddle's girth still untightened. "Johnny, take that saddle off that poor animal. He's tired and so are you. Come back inside and-"
"And what?" Johnny's head shot up, his glare was both angry and sad. "Sit down over coffee and try to figure out what ghost from my past is come back to haunt us this time?"
Scott moved closer, gently nudging Johnny out of the way. He loosened the girth, and swung the saddle and blanket off the palomino's back and onto the stall divider. He would return it to its proper place when he was certain Johnny was not going to do anything stupid. Turning, he saw Johnny leaning against the hay bin, his head bowed, his arms wrapped around his body in what Scott had come to recognize as his brother's most defeated stance. "Johnny?"
"I'm just tired, Boston."
Although the both were physically tired, Scott knew that had nothing to do with Johnny's statement. What his brother really meant was that he was tired of Johnny Madrid dogging his heels, reaching up and tapping him on the shoulder every so often, just as a reminder that he was still there. To make matters worse, the past was already fresh on Johnny's mind.
During the trip to deliver a few head of horses to the Stockton railhead, a couple of drifters had recognized Johnny from his days on the border. Although neither one had the nerve to openly challenge Johnny Madrid, they had managed to stir up enough memories to keep Johnny on edge for the remainder of the trip. His brother had just begun to relax when they reached Lancer. Now those nerves were raw and frayed again.
"Johnny, Mexico is a big county."
"You already said that, Boston." Johnny looked up, grinning smugly, although his eyes were still clouded with a far-off pain. "I might be a bit stubborn and hotheaded, but my hearing ain't never been a problem."
Chuckling, Scott leaned back against the stall wall, his shoulder pressing firmly against Johnny's. "No, I can't say that I've ever known you to have a problem hearing." With a sigh, Scott continued his thought. "I'm simply trying to point out that just because Murdoch went to Mexico doesn't mean it has anything to do with your past."
Barranca snorted, and stomped his front hoof, understandably nervous by the unusual activity taking place in his stall. Under less stressful circumstances, the animal's mirrored antics of his restless owner would have been amusing. Johnny's response was to move to the palomino's head, where he began talking softly in Spanish as he stroked the golden neck.
Scott stood quietly at the side, just observing the man and horse. During his cavalry days, Scott had seen many men form unusual bonds with their mounts, but never had he seen anything that compared to the special gift his brother had with just about every horse he encountered, not to mention the extreme connection he seemed to have with this particular animal. Since Johnny had claimed Barranca that first morning at Lancer, the intense sense of loyalty of both for the other had continually left Scott in awe.
"You ready for some food?" Johnny asked over his shoulder.
"Can I take that to mean that you're planning on staying?"
Johnny looked at him over his shoulder. There was a familiar gleam in his sky-blue eyes that said more than any words ever could. "Since you done unsaddled my horse, it wouldn't be fair to go and confuse him by saddling
"No, we wouldn't want to confuse your horse, now would we?" With a feeling of relieved satisfaction, Scott grabbed Johnny's saddle and carried it into the tack room, where he placed it on the appropriate rack. He then joined Johnny, who was waiting for him by the barn door.
"Maybe it ain't got nothing to do with me," Johnny said as they walked towards the house. He didn't sound very convincing, or very convinced.
"Only Murdoch can say for sure," Scott pointed out. "Who knows, maybe he just got a hot tip on a really good bull or something. You know he's been looking for some new breeding stock to improve the herd."
"Yeah, I guess I'd feel mighty foolish tracking him all the way down to Mexico just to find out he was looking at some silly cow," Johnny laughed.
Satisfied that Johnny's mind was at least partially eased, Scott opened the door and waited for Johnny to enter in front of him. Following directly on his brother's heels, they both were almost knocked back outside when Teresa ran headlong into Johnny.
"Thank you for staying," she cried as she hugged him tightly around the neck. "I couldn't take losing you, too."
"I'm not going nowhere, Honey," Johnny whispered as he held her close. "Big Brother Scott pointed out that
Mexico is a mighty big place." With a mischievous glance towards Scott, Johnny added in a mock whisper,
"You know how he likes showin' off that fancy education of his."
"Oh, Johnny," Teresa scolded with a teasing slap to his arm. Moving to his side, while keeping one arm firmly ensconced around his waist, she used the other to pull Scott to her other side. "Murdoch's note said he'd wire us when he could, so, both of you promise me you won't go off looking for him. We don't have any idea where he went, and...and well, Mexico is a big place."
Johnny glared at Scott, but there was only affection in his eyes. "You been teachin' her that map stuff behind my back, Brother?"
"Maybe," Scott grinned. Between them Teresa giggled, but her features were still tight with stress and worry. "Murdoch will explain everything when he gets back," he assured her.
"I know. It's just the not knowing in the meantime that isn't going to be easy."
Scott couldn't agree more with her assessment, and secretly hoped that Murdoch had a better excuse than going to look at breeding stock. The tension and anguish he had brought down on his family would have to be answered for, and as Scott followed Teresa and Johnny into the kitchen, he made himself a solemn vow that he would be the one Murdoch answered to for this unjustifiable secrecy and hurtful behavior.
*** *** *** ***
Seated at the small kitchen table where he and Catherine had briefly shared dinner the night before, Murdoch sipped at his coffee, finding the taste of the Mexican brew much different than even what Maria fixed every morning in the Lancer hacienda. In the light of day, it was difficult for him to believe that he had he had actually been at this very table, only a few hours before, eating, while his first wife had sat smiling at him from across the table. The night had been long and hard, though not nearly as restless as he was anticipating.
Catherine had been right in her assertions that a fresh mind would be needed for the discussions to come. There were so many things he wanted to know, so many question he needed to have answered. There was just so much, where would they begin? So much had happened. Where did you possibly begin explaining the quarter of a century they had lost? Despite his anxieties, he did feel much better prepared for the hurdles to come, thanks to the sleep and time to think. Savoring his coffee, he focused his thoughts on the woman he still felt for very deeply.
So much of the woman he had met yesterday reminded him of the young lady he had married all those years ago, but at the same time, so much was different. This woman was no longer the vulnerable innocent he remembered from his youth. There was a strength about her. A strength that seemed so familiar, yet he couldn't quite place why.
The one thing he was absolutely sure of was that at no point during the previous evening had he been in charge of the situation. At the same time, the subtly of her coercions had been neither disconcerting nor disturbing. For reasons he could not begin to understand, and that surprised him to no end, he did not resent her for these actions. This was a new experience for him - not being in control - but it was one that did not annoy him as it had in years gone by. Previously, whenever someone else had tried to manipulate him, he had reacted with defiance.
Then again, maybe that was it. He hadn't felt manipulated, just directed. There had been no demands, no orders, no censure, no ultimatums, just... He smiled, an almost foreign sense of relief washing over him. It was just that he felt truly cared for for the first time in a very long time. Not the caring of a friend or even mere family, that special caring that was shared only between a husband and wife.
"Did you sleep well, Murdoch? I see you found the kitchen and the padre's special coffee."
Startled, he looked up to see Catherine had managed to slip in during his daydreaming. She was already at the stove, pouring herself a cup of coffee, her light green skirt and white blouse looking as refreshed as he felt.
"More?" she asked as she held up the pot, an expectant look on her face.
"No, I'm fine, thank you," he answered with a casual familiarity that seemed odd, yet somehow right. "And, yes, I did sleep well, thank you," he added. "Much better than I expected, given the circumstances."
Her light airy laughter floated across the room like a summer breeze. "That tea is a wonderful brew, isn't it? It's mixed with a special blend of herbs and minerals made by an old curandera who lives in one of the small villages on the other side of the lake. It relaxes one to the point where sleep is possible, no matter how disturbed the mind might be."
With steaming cup of coffee in one hand, she moved towards him, the impish smile on her face a testament to the fact that she had known all along exactly what she was doing. "I've used it often over the years as a sedative for the wounded or distressed," she continued as she slipped into the seat across from him, her smile fading into a sad frown. "Though I wasn't sure how effective it would be under these unusual circumstances. It took two cups before I could settle down for the night."
Setting his coffee down, Murdoch studied the woman who was both familiar and unfamiliar to him. There was so much he needed to know. So many feelings had been awakened within him. Feelings he had not felt since the day he had last seen his precious wife, at that time her stomach heavy with their unborn child. Feelings he could barely remember how to feel. Feelings he could barely remember wanting to feel.
"I hope you weren't too put out by being left alone last night." Her voice sounded a bit shaky, but still projected a sense of authority. "We've both had enough time to come to terms with the possibilities that became a reality last night, but after spending so much time speculating and wondering and wishing, the relief would have been enough to drain away any sense of balance either of us had left. I didn't want to have this conversation with our minds in that kind of disarray."
Her words reflected his previous thoughts, and he nodded his agreement. For the moment words seemed too hard to come by. He had no clue where to begin, so he settled on the beginning. "What happened, Catherine?"
A nervous tightness appeared on Catherine's face. Before she began speaking, she looked down into her coffee. "Murdoch, I have to tell you up front that I am not going to have all answers for the questions you're not doubt going to ask, and the ones I do have you're probably not going to want to accept. You need to be prepared for that. This discussion is going to be extremely painful for both of us."
"I can accept anything, Catherine," he countered quickly. Reaching across the table, he placed his hand over hers. The emotions stirred by that one touch threatened to overpower him once again. He fought for control. Now was not yet the time to succumb to wishes and dreams. There had to be an accounting first. "Anything except hearing that you disappeared because it was what you wanted. I need to know that you weren't a willing participant in what happened in Carterville?"
"Carterville?" She asked softly.
"That's where you-" The absurdity of those words stopped him short. "That's where I was told that you died. Where I stood over a grave that was supposed to be yours. That's where I lost my wife and my son." Old memories, long since buried, rushed to the surface with a vengeance he was not prepared to face, pulling his hand away from hers and sending it slamming down on the table with a thunder-like clap. "That's where I damn near lost my mind!"
Clenching his eyes closed as tightly as his fists, he fought desperately to control the bitterness and anger churning within his chest. "Please, Catherine, I have to know you weren't responsible. Before we go any further, before we discuss anything else, I have to know that you weren't part of that hoax." Opening his eyes he saw her staring at him from across the table, her expression as agonized as he felt.
"I loved you Murdoch, so much so I can't believe I could ever do anything so cruel." There was a certainty in
her tone, but not in her words.
"That's hardly an answer, Catherine." His sarcasm echoed through he cozy room.
"The truth is I just don't know, Murdoch. I don't remember ever being in a place called Carterville. The last thing I recall is being in Morro Coyo. My father had just arrived. We had a huge fight. He wanted me to take me back to Boston. He thought it would be best for me to have our baby in more civilized surroundings. My next clear memory is when I woke up here several years later. Then I couldn't even remember anything about my past."
"Nothing?" It seemed too unreal to believe.
"Nothing. Not even my name."
"But you do now. When...how...why?" Murdoch took a deep breath and ran a shaky hand through his hair. The frustration was beginning to win out, and he didn't know what to do. Suddenly a warmth appeared over his other hand, the one still resting on the table. He stared down at the once dainty hands, now marked with the lines of hardship and hard work, that encased his own hand in a cocoon of strength and assurance.
"Murdoch, let me tell you what I know, then we can go forward from there."
Not knowing what else to do, he merely nodded. His own mind was jumping haphazardly from one question to the next, wanting to know what happened back then, wanting to know what happened afterwards, and needing to know where that left them now. He wanted all the knowledge at once, but that simply wasn't possible. There had to be a start, and for the moment, Catherine's suggestion seemed to be as reasonable an option as any.
Her hands tightened their grip. "We must do this together, Murdoch.
Taking a deep breath, he nodded again. "Tell me what you know, Catherine."
"I was told an elderly priest arrived with me one stormy night; that would have been about twenty-two years ago. With the help of some loyal acquaintances, he had managed to free me, and brought me here for sanctuary."
"Freed you? From who?" Murdoch felt his anger rising. "If your father-"
"Murdoch, I don't know what my father did or did not do." Despite the forcefulness of her tone, there was a sadness in her voice, too. An ache that again rang loud and clear with an elusive familiarity.
"Did you willing leave Morro Coyo with him?"
"Yes, I did. I'm sorry, Murdoch, but I was just so tired of arguing with my father. You were gone, tracking down that man, Hamby...Handy...no Haney, that was his name. Anyway, I was scared, so I let father take me away. I had no intentions of remaining in Boston, but I did want our baby to be safe."
"Then what happened?"
"I don't know for certain. Padre Luis told me all he knew, which wasn't much. On the night he rescued me, he was walking by the cantina and overheard four men bragging on how they had purchased themselves a fine gringo whore."
"I know this is hard, Murdoch, but you have to know the whole truth. I don't remember any of it. According to the padre, he found me in their hotel room. He never would tell me too many details, but he assured me that it was quite evident that I had been with them...and frequently, too. He also told me that I was pregnant when he took me away, but that I miscarried two days after arriving here."
The onslaught of conflicting emotions was too much. Jerking his hand away, Murdoch surged to his feet and paced over to the far end of the kitchen, as far away from her as he could get. Looking out the window, he saw none of the picturesque countryside. He only saw visions of his wife, the woman he had loved with every fiber of his soul, in the arms of those other men.
In some they were forcing themselves on her, her screams for help going unheeded as they ravaged her beautiful body. In others, she was a willing participant, shower on them the kisses and affections that should have been his, and his alone. It was the one that would not fade away with the others that hurt him the most. In that vision he saw her as he had last seen her, her belly swollen with child; only this child was not his.
The putrid taste of bile rose in his throat, acting as an incendiary for the anger burning inside him. Turning away from the window, he looked back at the table, where she sat with her back to him, looking down at the table as if waiting for him to accept what she so obviously had already accepted. Well, if that was what she was waiting for, then she would be waiting until hell froze over.
His stride was swift and sure as it carried him back to the table. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he jerked her out of the chair, fully intending to demand an explanation for her behavior. He heard her gasp as the sudden movement startled her, but it was her eyes that kept him silent. She was staring up at him, neither cowering nor defiant, while still making it clear that he was making a huge mistake. Again the feeling of familiarity clouded his mind and his judgment, causing him to push her away.
More frustrated than angry, he knew he had to get away from her. He needed to be alone, to think, to decide if he wanted to know anymore about this nightmare. "I need some air." Without caring that he had no idea how to get out of the ancient building, he stalked out the door, determined to find a way to escape these stone walls, as well as the disturbing visions that would not leave his mind.
*** *** *** ***
After tossing another stone into the clear lake water, Murdoch sighed heavily, both out of frustration and regret. He had managed to find his way from behind the stone walls of the prison/fortress without too much trouble, and his subsequent wanderings had brought him to this secluded spot. Here he had been trying to piece together his fragmented thoughts into something more cohesive, more comfortable. So far, his efforts had been a fruitless waste of time. There was just too much of some information and not enough of what he really needed to know for him to reach any definite conclusions.
Somewhere to his right a twig snapped, pulling his attention immediately in that direction. In the fading sunlight, he saw Catherine walking towards him along the lakeside path. For a split second he saw her as an angel, coming back to him from the heavens to answer his prayers, but then the reality of it all crushed that fantasy to bits.
As she approached, he noticed something folded over her arms, which he finally recognized as being his own coat. For the first time he noticed the chill in the air. The sun was just beginning to set behind the huge stone building in the distance, telling him that it had been a very long day of thinking. If only it had been more productive.
"I thought you might be cold," Catherine said as she came to a stop next to him.
He didn't respond immediately. Instead he studied her closely, amazed by the absolute resolve in her expression. Her eyes were bright and clear, and showed no sign that tears had recently been shed. Nothing about her spoke of having endured any kind of emotional upheaval, making him wonder, again, who she really was. He was not questioning that she was Catherine Lancer. It was just that the Catherine he knew had been so loving, so tender, so sympathetic that she could never have emerged from their earlier encounter so unscathed.
"I don't understand," he snapped harshly.
A sad, but gentle smile greeted his anger. "Don't understand what, Murdoch?"
"This!" Slipping from his perch on the large boulder, Murdoch gestured towards her with a wave of his arm. "How can you be so...so...calm...so matter of fact? How can you be so accepting about what...what you told me? The woman I knew could never be so cold hearted!"
"The woman you knew is no more, Murdoch, as is, apparently the man I knew." Although there was no anger in her voice, there was a steadfast firmness that painted a vivid picture of independence and strength. "And as for being cold hearted, I grew up in a home nurtured with chilly love. I would not have been stupid enough to marry someone whose feelings were as cold as my father's. The man I married was kind and generous and...and very open with his feelings. All of them, not just the negative ones."
Stunned by her direct bluntness, Murdoch stared at her in disbelief. When he said nothing, she continued.
"That man I fell in love with all those years ago would talk to me not only of his fears and angers, but of his hopes and dreams, too. He was as kind as he was strong, as understanding as he was demanding. The man I met yesterday, the same man who ran out on me this morning, was so closed off I'm not even sure he had a clue what was going on inside his own heart." With a heavy sigh, she held his coat out to him. "Now, put this on before you catch a cold."
"I am not a child," he stated with great deal of annoyance, but took the coat anyway, though he made no move to put it on.
"Then quit acting like one."
For a long moment both of them stood staring at each other, neither giving an inch in the battle for supremacy. In the end, though, it was the more tactically minded of the two who gave in.
"Would you like to hear the rest of the story?"
Slumping back against the huge boulder, Murdoch felt like he had no more energy left in his body. "What I would like to hear is how you can be so accepting of something so...so heinous?"
"It's simple, Murdoch. All that I told you happened over twenty years ago, and are things I don't actually remember happening. Any tears that needed to be shed were cried long before now. I don't choose to make myself hysterical about things that, in my mind, happened to someone else. Everything I know had to be told to me. None of it is my own personal experiences, even if they did happen to me." Moving closer, she leaned against the cold stone, her shoulder just barely touching his arm.
"When I was first brought here, I was scared and confused and for a long time I refused to listen to anyone. I wanted to leave, to run and hide from the entire world that seemed so very foreign to me, but I wasn't allowed to go. Even though Padre Luis had found me a great distance from this area, he worried that if anyone became aware of my presence that word would spread and eventually those men would find me. Not only that, but back then this place was a monastery, and women were not permitted inside at all. For almost two years I knew of no one, saw no one, but Padre Luis."
"He held you prisoner here." It was more a statement than a question. A damning statement for something else he could not comprehend.
"He saved my life, Murdoch. More importantly, though, he saved my sanity. During that time of solitude I found my way back from the hell into which I had withdrawn. He made the most of a bad situation, counseling me, comforting me, and giving me room to return to the life of the living at my own pace. I read, I daydreamed, I wished for memories that both scared and enticed me. When my memories did begin to return, they were of the last part of that time. One of my first clear recollections is of the nuns arriving, which alleviated my need to remain hidden and allowed me to walk back into the world as a viable human being."
"When exactly did you remember being Catherine Lancer? Has it been a while, or did something make you
decide now was the time to 'announce' your presence?" Next to him he felt her shiver, sending his sarcasm
fleeing from the compassion surging through him. Unfolding the coat he had never put on, he slipped it
around her shoulders. In the fading sunlight, he studied her closely, noting that the strong-willed woman he
hadn't been able to recognize only moments before, had somehow transformed into someone more closely
resembling the delicate woman he remembered from the past.
"It was here," she said in a voice thick with pain. There was a faraway look on her face, as if she were reliving a very traumatic moment all over again. "I had been here for almost six years, but I still had no memory of anything prior to coming here, not even my own name. One night I was feeling restless and decided to take a walk down here by the lake.
"As I was walking, I heard voices. Although concerned, I wasn't really afraid. As I drew nearer I was able to distinguish two different voices; they were both female voices. There was a muffled sound. It sounded like a baby fussing, but I wasn't sure. I could only make out a few words, then I saw the woman closest to the water throw what I thought was her shawl into the lake. At first I couldn't understand." Tears filled her eyes, overflowing to spill down her cheeks, but still she looked out at the lake as if in a daze.
Fear and concern prevented Murdoch from remaining silent any longer. Despite his earlier anger, he still couldn't forget that she had once been his wife, and that he had loved her with all his heart. "Catherine?"
She turned towards him, leaning over and burying her face against his chest. When she spoke again her voice was broken and full of anguish. "She threw her own child into the lake. Without even thinking, I ran from the bushes and jumped into the water. Even as I was swimming towards the spot where the child had disappeared, I heard her screaming at me from the shore. She kept cursing me not to interfere; she kept saying that the devil was in her child and that this was the only way to save his soul."
Huge sobs shook her entire body and Murdoch held on to her as if his own life depended on it. In his heart he ached for her pain, only this ache came from a place he hadn't felt in a very long time; a place he hadn't even realized still existed. In that moment he discovered just how true her previous words had been. He had locked away part of his heart, even from himself. The part that had once belonged to her, and having her back in his arms had brought it surging forth, out of exile.
After a few moments, Catherine's sobs subsided, and she continued in a voice less strained, but no less sad. "I was too late, but while I was sitting here on this shore, with that precious little boy lying dead in my arms, it happened. My memories back to me. My life in Boston, my father, meeting you, loving you, becoming your wife, leaving for California with just our dreams and our love, carrying your child-" Whatever else she might have said was lost in the sound of a choked sob. "The only important thing I didn't remember, that I still don't remember, is having our baby. Please, Murdoch, please tell me I didn't hurt our child! Please!"
Understanding her distress better than he cared to admit, Murdoch quickly offered her the comfort only knowledge could give. "No, Catherine, you did not hurt our son. Scott has grown into a fine young man. A very fine man. You didn't hurt him in any way."
"Gracias, el Dios. Gracias," she whispered repeatedly against his chest.
Although he didn't quite understand how she could even think she had hurt their baby, Murdoch continued holding her as she trembled in his arms. Her thanks to God were repeated several times, piquing his curiosity even more, but he resisted the temptation to question her further. Part of him knew that now was not the time, while another part selfishly turned away from the questions his mind was screaming. That part of his heart simply did not want to know.
A small gust of wind blew over them, made cold from the still winter-chilled waters of the mountain lake, sending a shiver through both of them. Without letting go, he gently guided the woman in his arms towards the stone fortress. As they walked in silence, he tried to put his scattered thoughts
So much about the woman walking with him was familiar, but just as much was not. His intellect told him that
it had been twenty-five years since he had last seen her, making it a given that she would be different, just as
he was. Maybe his heart had hoped to find a woman frozen in time, the same beautiful young lady he had
fallen madly in love with on a cold Boston dock, but if that were the case his heart had been sadly mistaken.
Yes, she was still very beautiful, but her beauty was more mature and refined. Her character had changed, too, but he couldn't really say it had strengthened. She had always been strong; otherwise, she never would have left the comforts of Boston to accompany him on his journey west. No, it was more like she had shed away the innocence of youth and the awkwardness of inexperience. She was all woman now, and he found that to be extremely intimidating.
The only thing that hadn't changed at all was her eyes. They were still the same sparkling blue-gray color that never seemed to dim, even when she was at her most distressed. They still had the ability to look right through him, to see what he couldn't see in himself, and bring those qualities out like a rabbit being baited with a carrot. The love and adoration in those eyes had been his anchor through so many hardships, something he hadn't realized how much he had missed. Until now.
But her eyes also reminded him of something more, something that wasn't from the past, but was becoming an ever-increasing presence in his current life. They reminded him of a similar pair of eyes that were the same blue-gray color, but not nearly as captivating. Those eyes had been left behind in California, with a son to whom he suddenly felt closer to than ever, despite the physical distance between them.
When they reached the door to the mission, Murdoch kept his arm firmly ensconced around her, while using his free hand to swing the massive wooden door open. Catherine seemed almost in a daze, and moved with him, completely unresisting as he escorted her down the ancient hallway.
He had no idea where her room might be, so he concentrated on finding his way back to the room where he had spent the previous night. Despite her earlier denials of how unaffected she was about those things she couldn't remember, he could tell she was very much so. This knowledge gave his own heart a boost, in that he could now feel even more of a connection to her.
Looking up, Murdoch saw a young Mexican man standing in his path. He wasn't very old, probably not even thirty, but the scowl on his face left no doubt that he would hold no respect for this particular elder. "She is upset," Murdoch explained as gently as he could. "Can you take me to her room? Sleep is what she needs more than anything."
Despite the fact that the young man looked like he wanted nothing more than to verbally, and maybe even physically, waylay Murdoch, he remained silent, and lifted his arm only to point towards another hallway, just a little further back from where they had just come. Murdoch turned, guiding Catherine under his protective arm, and followed as the other man led the way. It was a short journey, and within moments Murdoch was entering the room his wife had called home for so many years.
After guiding her over to the bed, he glanced over his shoulder. "Gracias," he said, easily slipping into the Spanish tongue that was as prevalent back at Lancer as English was. Mixing the two languages was a part of everyday life, and he gave it no real thought. "I'll take care of getting her settled."
He had just gotten Catherine to sit down on the side of the bed, when the young man's cold tone made him hesitate. Looking up, he found himself on the wrong end of a determined, very hostile glare. He hesitated before speaking, though, remembering that he was the intruder in this place, not this young man. It was clear that he was concerned for Catherine, so Murdoch did his best to alleviate those concerns.
"I'm just going to put her to bed. She's been through a lot of emotional upheavals today, and rest is what she needs most. Don't worry, mi amigo, I won't leave her alone," he explained with more patience than he would have thought possible from himself. Instead of placating the young man, though, his well-intended words seemed to only stoke the fire of his anger.
"No, Señor. And I am not your friend. No permitiré que usted deshonre a Señora Anne."
Although confused by his use of the name Anne, Murdoch had no doubts that he was not going to be allowed to stay alone with Catherine. Even more surprising than his sudden bought of patience, was his even more intense urge to compromise. Offending this young man would only do more harm than good. However, he was also very firm in his stance that he would not be leaving Catherine's side. "If you believe there is a need for a chaperone, feel free to pull up a chair. But I am not leaving her. Comprende?"
Turning his attention back to Catherine, he kneeled down and gently removed her shoes and stockings. The angry hiss over such intimate contact that echoed from across the room did not go unnoticed, but Murdoch ignored the protest. Laying the shoes and stockings aside, he reached up and loosened the top few buttons of Catherine's blouse, before gently tugging the hem free of her skirt. He did, however, stop short of removing the garment entirely, another compromise with the seething man who had taken a couple of steps closer to the bed during his ministrations.
Catherine appeared to be in shock, and did not resist him in any way. Taking her by the shoulders, he eased her back onto the bed, then lifted her legs and laid them just as easily on the feather comforter. Her eyes closed almost as soon as he laid her head on the pillow, and another surge of familiarity and warmth spread throughout his tense frame. Maybe she wasn't so different after all.
Realizing too late that he should have pulled the bed linens back first, he took a chance and addressed his overseer. "Can you fetch a blanket?" he asked in an even tone.
The man nodded curtly, then moved towards a chest in the far corner of the room. Pulling a colorful blanket from the chest, he brought it to Murdoch, handing it over, but looking none too happy over his actions.
Ignoring the man's obvious resentment and hostility, Murdoch spread the blanket over Catherine's sleeping form. Satisfied he had done all he would be allowed to in order to make her comfortable, he looked around the room,and decided that the large chair a few feet from the bed would be his for the night.
Grimacing just a little as the old familiar ache in his leg chose to remind him he was not nearly as young as he used to be, Murdoch moved over to the chair and sat down. Leaning back, he shifted several times as he tried to get comfortable, but finally admitted that it was going to be a long night. Ignoring the other man, he closed his eyes, hoping that his own exhaustion would be more than enough to overcome the extreme discomfort of the deceptively appealing chair. As he drifted off, he wondered if Catherine had any idea what a backbreaking pile of junk she had in her bedroom.
*** *** *** ***
Waking slowly, Catherine stretched, feeling the tight kinks in her arms and shoulders give way even slower. She felt like she had been beaten, but it took her a moment to remember why. Suddenly wide-awake, she sat up, and was surprised to find that she was in her own bed. She was still wearing the same clothes from the day before; only her shirt had been pulled free from the waistband of her skirt. What truly surprised her, though, was the sight of Murdoch Lancer, looking very uncomfortable in sleep as he reclined in a nearby chair.
Despair filled her heart as she watched him shift restlessly in what she knew to be an extremely uncomfortable place to sleep. She had hurt him, but not because she wanted to. Ever since his arrival, nothing had gone the way she had hoped. Well, almost nothing. She had managed to get him to rest before they began this arduous journey through the past, but since then everything had spiraled out of control. He was angry, and she was feeling more vulnerable than she had in a very long time.
What bothered her the most, though, was that while she hadn't exactly lied about not being able to remember her time in the clutches of those other men, she hadn't been completely truthful with him, either. She was both ashamed and angry with herself for so bluntly telling him about what happened, it was no wonder he had been shocked and angry, but she was even more upset for denying that those events had any affect on her anymore.
They did. She would not be human if they didn't.
Over the years, though, she had found that keeping those feelings carefully tucked away behind the strength born of that very adversity had been the only way to keep her distress at bay. Murdoch did not understand, but that was hardly his fault.
She had given him no opportunity to find understanding. She had not told him that, despite only having the padre's words to tell her what few details he knew, her own mind had easily formulated the rest. If even the least of her imaginings were true, she could thank her inability to remember for her sanity.
As clear as it all seemed now, not one of those excuses could justify the way she had so unconscionably ill-handled the entire situation. Her only defense, though totally inadequate, was that coming face to face with Murdoch's shielded eyes had thrown her completely off balance. She hadn't lied, either, when she told him he wasn't the same man she had married.
Back then he had been so open, so caring, so filled with vibrant life and daring dreams. Most of those dreams had been centered on the grand ranch he was determined to carve out of the wilds in the American West. A place where they would raise their children and watch their grandchildren play. This was a dream she knew he had been fulfilled, to some extent. What she couldn't figure out is what could have gone so wrong to change him so drastically.
What had happened to that man, once so full of life, to turn him into someone so guarded and distant? Even when he had held her, had cried over her, she had felt a strong sense of the walls surrounding him. Her first reaction had been to put up her own walls, against a hurt she didn't know would be coming or not. That had been yet another mistake, but as with the rest, it was a mistake she vowed to rectify as soon as Murdoch woke.
"Señora Anne?" A young Mexican man stood hesitantly in doorway, a large serving tray carried easily in his hands.
"Sí, Mateo. I'm awake."
Entering the room, Mateo brought her the tray of food and coffee. A distasteful scowl screwed his features as he stepped over Murdoch's outstretched legs. "The gringo, he refused to leave your room last night, but I would not let him stay here alone. I kept watch. I made sure he could not hurt you any more. I only left to get your breakfast when I knew he was asleep."
Catherine sighed. It looked like her failures had not only affected Murdoch, but had also expanded to include her young friend, as well. After Mateo had deposited the tray on the bedside table, Catherine patted the mattress next to her. "Sit with me for a momento, por favor."
He obeyed, perching on the edge of the bed, but keeping a wary eye on Murdoch's still form. Taking his hand, she gave him her most reassuring smile. "Señor Murdoch did not hurt me. Nor will he hurt me."
"¡Él le hizo grito!" Mateo challenged.
"Shhh." Pausing to see if Murdoch would awaken, which he did not, she then returned her attention to the young man whose head was bowed low in regret. "Murdoch did not make me cry, Mateo. We were just remembering things that were very painful." Hooking her finger under his chin, she forced him to look up at her. "We talked about this when Padre Miguel left for California to bring him here. You know the reason he is muy importante to me."
"Sí." Mateo's answer was reluctant, at best. "He will take you away with him."
"Es posible." Catherine's heart broke as she admitted to that possibility. Despite her deep desire to see her
own son, to maybe even revive her long-lost relationship with Murdoch, leaving Mateo behind would be the
hardest thing she had ever done. Still, he was a grown man and he no longer needed her as he had when he
was a child. Very tenderly, she brushed back his silky dark hair with her fingers. "But you will always be mi
Mateo's chest puffed out at the praise. "Sí," he agreed with his head held high. His face was glowing with a confident smile and in his eyes glimmered the flame of pride - truly a brave knight.
"Gracias for bringing me breakfast. It's smells absolutely divine, but there is no need for you to stay any longer. Padre Felix is no doubt waiting for you to accompany him to the village." Mateo's expression took on a familiarly stubborn edge. "Todos estar n bien," she assured him.
"Él no debe estar adentro aquí con usted. ¡No es apropiado!" Dark brown eyes flashed with angry resentment.
"He is my esposo," she countered firmly. "There is nothing improper about his presence here, and we still have many things to discuss. You are needed to help Padre Felix. I have no need of protection, but your concern is mucho apreciado. Seré seguro con él."
"Si él le lastima..."
"He will not hurt me, Metao. Prometo." She smiled, thankful that Mateo had become such a wonderful young man. There were so many reasons for him not to be, but he had defied all odds and was now loyal, kind-hearted, and extremely smart. He would make any mother proud. It was a terrible shame that his own mother had not stayed to see what he could become. "Don't keep padre Felix waiting, Mateo," she teasingly scolded. "You know how he gets when he is kept waiting. After listening to his views on the virtues of responsibilities and selflessness all the way to town, you will be wishing you were here, keeping Murdoch company."
"Sí," Mateo agreed to quickly, then his expression soured, as if he had actually realized what she had said. "No pienso que estarfa tan. He is a gringo."
This belligerent attitude disheartened her. She had thought that Mateo had left such pettiness behind him. "I am a gringo, too."
"Sí, pero usted es un buen gringo," Mateo objected.
"If you will start thinking with your heart and not your fears, you would see the Murdoch has done nothing to deserve your distrust," she gave him a pointed look she knew he would remember from their long time together, "or your disrespect. He is a good gringo, too, and you would see that if you would just give him a chance."
"Sí, Señora Anne." Mateo looked at Murdoch again, but this time a little of the hostility was missing from his stare. As with all things, there was always hope. "I will try."
"Then you will succeed," Catherine assured him. "You have never failed at anything that was imporante." Before she could say any more, a loud voice echoed in through the doorway, calling Mateo by name. "It would appear that you will be listening to that sermon after all."
With a grimace and a sigh, Mateo stood and headed for the door. "Me pienso permanecerfa algo aquf con el gringo," he said in a disgruntled tone, but without the hostility of moments ago.
Unable to help herself, Catherine laughed as Mateo trudged out the door. Padre Felix was the kindest of souls, but once he got started on a moralistic tangent, he very seldom backed off of it. And being late for anything was a sure way to get him started off on just such a tangent.
"That young man is very protective of you."
Startled, Catherine looked over to see that Murdoch was awake. Although his voice had contained no trace of
anger, there had been an unmistakable hint of anxiety in his tone. He grimaced as he stretched his legs.
Catherine sympathized totally. "As nice as it was waking to find you here, I do wish you had gone to your room. That chair has got to be the most uncomfortable place to sleep that was ever made. Even sitting in it isn't all that pleasant."
"You know that?" Murdoch asked as he worked to get the kinks out of his back and legs.
Amused, she laughed. "Of course I know. Why do you think it's in here?" At his confused stare, she expounded on her statement. "Murdoch, no one sleeps in a chair in their own bedroom. The mission has a small hospital area for anyone who becomes ill, so there would be no reason for anyone to be keeping vigil at my bedside." Stifling another laugh, she added with an apologetic smile. "The fabric went so perfectly with the rest of the room that I couldn't resist. It's only here for the aesthetic value."
"Now you tell me," came the grumbled reply, followed closely by a groan and a few creaking bones.
Again she had to fight back the urge to giggle. "Would you like some breakfast?"
Murdoch cautiously eyed the tray on the bedside table. "I don't think your friend would approve."
As she had earlier with Mateo, she patted the mattress in invitation for Murdoch to sit. Only this time she slid further to the side, making room for Murdoch to join her more comfortably. Her actions were met with a raised eyebrow, but it was the glimmer of mirth in Murdoch's deep blue eyes that almost brought tears to hers.
"And he definitely wouldn't approve of that. I'm not in the market to get shot for compromising your virtue."
Blinking back her tears, Catherine struggled to contain the sudden onslaught of emotions and memories. Although she had told Mateo that Murdoch was her spouse, she had no idea of where she really stood with him, or how they stood in the eyes of the law. However, it was the memory of the last time she had sat in bed with him, when there were no questions like that to hang over their heads, that caused her the most pain.
The bed dipped beside her. "Catherine?"
"I was just remembering the last time I saw you," she barely choked out.
"I remember," his voice was also tight with emotion. "We were still staying in that small house in Morro Coyo. You were..."
Her hand moved reflexively to her stomach. "I was pregnant with our son. You were going to be leaving, to defend our ranch from that man who was trying to steal it from us."
She could only nod.
"The coffee was awful, and the toast burnt." A deep chuckle resonated from deep within Murdoch's chest, bringing a smile to both their faces.
"The coffee was weak enough for my stomach to handle, and the toast was not burnt, it was well-browned." Tears began falling from her eyes. "Tell me about our son, Murdoch. I want to know everything - what were his first words, when he took his first steps, how he did in school, who were his friends, who was his first love...I need to know it all."
*** *** *** ***
Unable to withstand the expectancy in her eyes, Murdoch looked away. The grip of fear, an all-consuming fear, took a strangle hold of his heart. Not even a year ago, when he had seen Johnny shot from his horse by Day Pardee, had he felt this kind of pure terror. At that time he had been certain that Johnny had betrayed him, so the fear of losing someone so close did not come until afterwards, when they were diligently nursing Johnny back to health. By then, however, the urgency had been quelled, making it possible for him to keep his shield of calm indifference intact.
Refocusing his gaze onto the figure in front of him, Murdoch flinched under the concern he saw in her eyes. How could he tell her he didn't know the answers to her questions? How could he tell her that he had chosen not to fight for their son? Had left him in Boston for someone else to raise? Would his reasoning stand up under her scrutiny, or would she find him at fault for Scott's prolonged absence in his life? Would she even believe that her own father could have been so spiteful and vindictive as to steal their baby away from his only remaining parent?
As if in a dream, he watched as she reached out, taking his hand in hers. It was only the warmth of that contact that convinced him any of it was real. It was the warmth of that contact that also gave him strength; it was the same strength that touch had provided during the long journey to California, the same strength that touch had given to sustain him through those hardest first years. Lancer had been built on the foundation of that strength, something he was only now beginning to realize.
"Catherine, I...I don't know the answers to any of those questions," he admitted with regret and shame. Neither condemnation nor censure followed in the wake of his admission, only the unparalleled patience he remembered so clearly from those years so long since gone.
Still there was confusion in her voice when she asked, "Why not, Murdoch?"
Although many layers of the protection had fallen away from his heart, he still could not bring himself to look at her. She had always been the most saintly and forgiving woman he had ever known, but for this he did not think even she could forgive. He wasn't even sure in the deepest recesses of the barricaded dungeons of his heart that he had ever been able to forgive himself. "I didn't raise Scott," he further admitted.
Her hand tensed around his, but then relaxed, giving a gentle squeeze. "Who did?" she asked in that soft voice that had been banished from his dreams decades ago. Only this time the dream had breathed life into a nightmare.
"Your father." With those words came a tidal wave of emotions, sending him over the edge of his control. Twenty-five years of anger, hatred, frustration, and more emotions than he could begin to identify all rushed forward at once.
Yanking his hand away, he surged to his feet, the pain in his leg and back completely lost in his anger. Barely able to breath, he stared down at her, not seeing her any more, only the grave he had been shown in Carterville. The grave he had secretly visited every year for twenty-five years.
"Your father stole Scott away from me!" he yelled down at her. "Your father took you away! Then he took my son! He left me with nothing but a grave...an EMPTY grave! He sold you like you were nothing but chattel, not the daughter he swore he loved more than anything in life, and all so he could steal our son away from me!"
Harlan Garrett had stolen his first life; Maria had stolen his second. For twenty years that empty grave had been all he had left of his two families. That grave had been his only link, but now he knew it had been nothing but a lie. It had been a fraud, perpetrated by a greedy old man who cared for no one but himself.
A hand touched his shoulder and he jerked away. He stared down at the woman next to him, his mind in too much turmoil to comprehend how she came to be there. His thoughts became a collage of images and emotions, each more confusing than the one before. She had been on the bed...in a grave...beyond his reach. But she was here. How? Why was she haunting him? Why now, when he finally had their son back where he belonged?
Something cold pressed against his back, causing him to whirl around. The wall? He stared blankly at the solid structure, unaware that he had been moving backwards, but certain that he hadn't been this close to it before. How did he get here? He looked around, seeing the table by the window, the chair - the most uncomfortable chair ever made - the bed, and her. His eyes refused his mind's commands to look away from her.
She was standing very still, looking at him with compassion and concern, but then the image blurred. When it came back into focus he was seeing her as she had been. She was so beautiful, so captivating, so very much alive and full of love. He had never once questioned the fact that he would find a way to have her as his own.
The image blurred again, only to refocus in yet another form. Now she was wearing her wedding dress, the dress she had teased him about with tiny hints, but refused to let him see until that day. He remembered their vows, lovingly exchanged in a tiny church on the outskirts of Boston. Only a few close friends were present; his family was back in Scotland, her family refused to attend what they called a farce.
As he watched, the dress began to expand, stretching tightly over the rounded belly that he knew contained their child. He remembered the joy he had felt when she first told him the good news. At that moment he knew his heart would explode with pride; there was no way he could contain his joy. In that moment, even his beloved ranch had been forgotten, a dream in the works, replaced by another dream in the works. Then the happiness was gone.
A dark haze threatened to block out his vision. The dress turned black, the roundness of her belly shrank away. Then she, too, was gone. In her place was a granite monument, a stone as a reminder of a living woman. Why did they use granite for such things? How could something so cold be left in effigy for someone who had been so warm? It didn't seem right. It had never seemed right.
The darkness closed in around him, with only a bright spot of yellow in the middle. The spot moved, and it became a boy, a blond-haired boy. A tiny hand reaching out to him, tiny blue eyes looking up at him with nothing but a child's impatience at being taken away from what he knew. 'Pleased to meet you, Sir,' the boy's voice emerged out of the rushing sound in his ears. It was his son's voice! His son who did not even know who he was!
'Pleased to meet you, Sir.'
The words continued to echo through his head, getting louder and louder with each repetition, but never holding any warmth or affection, never ringing with any kind of recognition. Never! Never! He put his hands over his ears, trying to block out the sound of his son's voice. The non-condemning sound of a voice that did not even recognize him enough to hate him. There were no feelings whatsoever, just polite acknowledgment. An indifference that was even more painful than the most hateful of words could ever have been.
A sharp clap of thunder instantly chased the emotionless voice away. The darkness faded. Feeling as if he had come out of a bad dream, he shook his head. One look at the small, but cozy, room brought him back to his senses. Feeling startled and even a little relieved, his gaze fell onto the woman who was now standing beside him, her face masked in compassion.
In a repeat of their meeting two nights before, he pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. This time, however, as his tears fell, so did even more of the protective layers around his heart. He wanted it all back, everything they had shared, everything they had lost. He wanted it all. No matter what the price.
*** *** *** ***
Although her hand ached, Catherine ignored the pain as she clung tightly to Murdoch's trembling form. She was certain that he had been experiencing some kind of flashback, and had intervened only when he begun whimpering their son's name. Shaking him had done no good, neither had yelling his name. It was as a last resort that she had slapped him, slapped him hard enough to leave her hand throbbing, but her heart relieved when it had succeeded in bringing him back from his nightmare.
His arms finally released their tight hold of her, and she looked up into his face, knowing that she would see more than she had before. She could feel the walls coming down, but was also very much aware that they had been up for a very long time. It would take more than just one morning to bring back the man she had once known; the man she hoped he was still there, locked away inside an ever-crumbling fortress. If only she knew why that fortress had been erected in the first place.
"Feeling any better?" she asked softly.
A rueful smile appeared on his face. "Better may not be the best word, but definitely more in control." He looked away, but not before his eyes gave away his embarrassment. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I don't know what happened."
Taking his hand in her uninjured one, she led him back over to the bed. "Sit down and we'll talk about it." His skeptical frown made her laugh. "There's only one chair, so unless you want to relive that horrid experience of last night, there's nothing left but the bed." With her hands on her hips, she looked up at him and teased, "If it will make you feel better, I promise I won't do anything to compromise your virtue."
Holding her breath, she waited to see just how much of the old Murdoch had been released. To her total relief, she saw an even stronger flicker of humor light up in his beautiful blue eyes. Maybe the real Murdoch Lancer was still alive somewhere behind those walls.
"Nothing?" he asked with just a hint of suggestion.
The heat in her cheeks made her turn away. It had been so long since she had been with him in the wifely way, but she still remembered the closeness they once shared. Their nights had been joyous occasions of loving affection and tender touches. For those memories she was eternally grateful. They had gotten her through many a night when the imaginings of other hands touching her had threatened to bring her sanity tumbling down. "Maybe I should at least close the door, though," she said as she moved away to pull the door that Mateo had conspicuously left open when he departed closed.
When she returned, Murdoch was sitting on the bed, his back resting against the headboard and his long legs stretched out over the length of the bed. For the first time she noticed he was wearing only his socks, and couldn't resist tweaking his toes as she walked by. Instead of the expected grin as the once familiar actions, she saw only the slight furrow of his forehead. "What is it?" she asked as she settled down next to him in mirrored position.
"Catherine, is Mateo..." Murdoch began, only to pause before finishing his thought.
"No, Murdoch, Mateo is not my son, although I would be very proud to call him so." Retaking his hand, she held it tight, wanting to explain further, even though she knew she had already supplied the only piece of information he had requested. There was so much that needed to be said, so many things that needed to be explained, that there was nothing to do but just keep talking. There would be many moments such as this, and she wanted to be as open and honest with him as possible.
"As I told you, I saw no one for the first two years I was here, however, that did not mean I wasn't seen. At the time, Mateo was just a boy, about five or so. He was hiding, playing in the unoccupied rooms of the mission, when Padre Luis brought me in. He saw me then, but never said a word. It wasn't until many years later that he admitted to having known about my presence all along."
Murdoch nodded. "Why does he call you Anne?"
"I had been living here openly for almost six years before I remembered my name. Until then, they had to call
me something, and Mateo named me Anne. Even before I was able to walk around freely, Mateo told me he
began calling me by that name when was alone. He chose Anne because of the stories the padres told him
about Saint Anne, the patron saint of mothers. He said that he used to pretend that I was his real mother. He
seemed to realize that I was sick, and this helped him deal with his own sense of abandonment. When I did
regain my memories, Mateo was almost twelve and refused to call me by anything but Anne. I didn't have the
heart to make him do otherwise." Next to her she felt Murdoch tense.
"Why didn't you send for me, Catherine? Once you remembered who you were, why didn't you contact me, or even your father, since you say you don't remember anything about Carterville or what he did to you?"
Such a simple question. If only the answer were, as well. "The only thing Padre Luis could tell me about my past was that the men who claimed to 'own' me said they had been told that I had gone insane in the aftermath of childbirth. They said I had killed my newborn child, my husband, and my father and had run from the law by fleeing into Mexico. How they came to buy me, or where, or how I came to be in Mexico, I don't know, but they had laughed about how I was theirs for as long as they wanted because I would be facing a lynching if I ever dared returned to the United States. By the time I actually remembered anything about you, or father, or Boston, or Lancer, it had been almost eight years. I had no way of knowing that what I had been told might not be true."
"And you didn't even try to find out?" His voice echoed with hurt.
Although she had expected nothing less, the condemning tone of his voice made her heart ache. "Murdoch, I was here for nearly six years before that happened. When my memories returned, they were clear enough for me to know that neither you nor my father would have abandoned me if you were still alive."
"But you didn't even try?"
"No, I didn't," she admitted. "This area is still somewhat isolated, as I'm sure you noticed during your journey here, but it was even more so back then. Contact with the outside world was minimal at best, and to find out something about as far away as California seemed an insurmountable task." She hesitated, knowing it sounded like she was making excuses, but was unsure as to how to convey the uncertainty that had plagued her mind for years.
"That isn't the reason, though, it was just a convenient excuse. My memory loss was a blatant indication that something traumatic had happened to me, and...and I was too afraid to find out the truth. I made a home here, and tried to forget what I felt was a distinct possibility. I'm sorry, Murdoch, but I was too afraid to find out that I could have done such a thing. I couldn't face finding out that I had actually killed our baby, and you."
"What changed your mind?" he asked, his voice still defensive and cold. "What made you decide to take the chance of finding out now, after all this time?"
A slight smile tugged at her lips as she remembered that wonderful day of discovery. "A cow."
*** *** *** ***
Certain he had heard wrong, Murdoch repeated, "A cow?"
"A cow." A sassy grin spread across her previously sullen features. "A very old, skinny, brown cow that I would have considered the ugliest thing I had ever laid eyes on if it hadn't been for the very distinctive 'L' on it's backside. When I saw it I couldn't believe it. It was the same 'L' that you had chosen all those years ago to be Lancer's brand."
His anger and hurt disappeared as the businessman in him found immense pride in what he considered a very astounding revelation. "I wasn't aware any Lancer cattle ever made it this far south," Murdoch mused.
"This particular animal had a history." Catherine laughed. "A very long history, if even half of what I was told was true. However, at the time the only thing I was interested in was where it had come from originally.
When..." she paused and her lighthearted mood waned. "I never saw any of our cattle at the time I left, but I
always remembered you talking about the brand you were going to use on those cows. All the way from
Boston you described the symbol that would mark your herd as your own. When I saw it in the flesh, so to
speak, I had to find out the truth. In that humble cow, I found a renewed sense of faith that everything had
been a lie, that you and our son and my father were all still alive."
Murdoch stiffened. Catherine's grip tightened around his hand. He knew what was coming, but the forewarning did nothing to ease his nerves.
"Why are you so positive my father was behind my disappearance?"
Inhaling sharply, Murdoch fought back the angry torrent of words that were dancing on the tip of his tongue. He held on tight to her hand, relaxing only when he realized he had to be hurting her. That was the easy part, now he just had to figure a way to keep from hurting her with the ugly truth he had lived with for all these years. "Catherine, your father was the one who took you to Carterville."
"Was that where Scott was born?"
"Yes, or at least, that's what I was told. Now, I'm not sure of anything."
"Tell me what you know, Murdoch. We have to start somewhere."
Again, it took several moments of silent internal struggling before Murdoch was able to speak without anger. "Your father took you from our home in Morro Coyo, while I was out tracking down Judd Haney. When I returned, I found nothing but a note, stating that he was taking you back to Boston, back to civilized territory to have his grandchild."
Not 'their child' as in his and hers, but 'his grandson'. The implication had been clear - Murdoch had no rights in the matter. He looked down to see Catherine staring across the room. In her face he could see the stirrings of anger, which pricked at his heartstrings. He didn't want to upset her, but he would not lie to her, either.
When she finally looked back up at him, all trace of anger was gone. "I take it that this Carterville is somewhere between Morro Coyo and San Francisco? I remember father saying something about having already booked our passage on a ship headed for Boston."
"Yes. Harlan had discovered a group of disgruntled settlers who were headed for San Francisco. They had stopped in Morro Coyo for the night. I tracked you as far as Carterville, where I was told by the woman who acted as the local midwife that you had already gone into labor by the time the group stopped for the night. She's the one who told me you died because your father wouldn't allow her to help you until it was too late." Murdoch's voice became deathly quiet as he remembered that heartbreaking moment. "She's the one showed me your grave."
*** *** *** ***
Tears clouded her vision as she tried to put herself in his place, which wasn't too difficult, considering what she had already been told about those events. "I'm sorry, Murdoch." The burly hand was taken from hers, but her anxieties were instantly quelled when the strong arm to which it was attached slipped around her shoulders.
"You have nothing to be sorry for," he said softly. "You were a victim as much as anyone else."
His other hand appeared in hers, and she clenched on to it with a ferocity born of a common anguish. "Is that all you know?" she asked hesitantly.
"No," came the gentle reply. "She also told me was that your father had left, stealing our son with him, before you...before the alleged burial."
Surprisingly, there was no hostility in Murdoch's final words. This gave her the courage to say what she felt
needed to be said, even though she did not know how well it would be received. "If I tell you something,
Murdoch, will you promise to listen with an open mind?"
The arm around her stiffened, but only for a moment. With a nod, Murdoch voiced his affirmation. "I'll try."
"When I told you about Mateo, you never asked why he had been abandoned here."
"It didn't seem important." Murdoch's response was simply stated. "At least not to what was taking place between us."
"It wasn't then, but it can be. After it became safe for me to freely move around the mission, Mateo and I became very close. To him I was the mother he didn't remember. Later, for me, he became the son I hadn't killed."
"Catherine!" Murdoch interrupted, but let his protest fall silent when she pressed her hand to his lips.
"I know," she said softly as she looked up into his crystal blue eyes. "But I didn't know then. What I did know was that Mateo was a bright, sensitive boy, who was a vulnerable as he was strong. I was so angry with his mother for hurting him like that. She was a..." unwilling to allow herself to fall back into that pattern of thought, Catherine began again, with words that reflected her true feelings. "I believed she was the worst kind of human being."
"I take it that she showed up here at some later date and changed your mind." Murdoch suggested.
"No, Murdoch. I never met her, though, I would have very much liked to." A low rumble caused her to turn her head. What she saw was even more of the man she remembered.
Rubbing his cheek, Murdoch teased. "Don't tell me. You wanted to slap her, too."
"By then, no," she laughed sadly. "But I would have gladly done so if it could have changed things for her and Mateo."
This time it only took a pair of raised eyebrows to urge her on.
"When Mateo was ten, he came down with a severe fever. I went to the market to find obtain a treatment from the local curandera. I was very upset because he was so sick, and was being rather vocal about what I thought about his mother. That was when the curandera told me she knew of Mateo, and his mother. She told me the truth about why she had abandoned her son at the mission."
"And what was that truth?"
"Mateo's mother had been sick all her life, but it got very bad when Mateo was about two years old."
"Sick? How so?"
Instead of answering, Catherine leaned into Murdoch's solid frame, reveling in the feeling as he pulled her closer against him. In his tightened embrace she found a sense of security she hadn't realized she had been missing.
Snuggling closer, she prayed desperately that Murdoch would not be too blinded by hatred that he would be
unable to understand what she was trying to say, although, given what he had already told her, she wouldn't
be able to blame him if he was. Her disbelief was the only thing keeping her own anger at bay, and he would
no doubt, be lacking that particular asset.
"I'm not sure what disease she had. The symptoms the curandera described were horrendous, unlike anything I could ever imagine. She had developed skin lesions over her entire body, some swelling to the size of apples. Her left leg swelled until it was larger around than her waist, and even her head had become grotesquely misshapen."
"I've never heard of anything like that."
"She sought out the curandera for help for her affliction, but nothing they tried had any effect. Apparently her mind was quite sharp, but her body was a total wreck. Also, she was very young, and I got the impression that Mateo's conception was not voluntary, although this was never stated outright. As she became sicker and her appearance deteriorated, everyone shunned her, and in turn, shunned Mateo, also. Abandoning him at the mission was her last hope for him to have any kind of a normal life."
Murdoch nuzzled her hair tenderly. "Do you know what became of his mother?"
"Not for certain, but after Mateo recovered, I asked around. During my search, I heard several stories about a woman who had been found drowned in the lake not long after the time Mateo was abandoned at the mission. The only reason I believe it was her was because those who spoke of her were still highly emotional about her demise. There were those in the village who did not believe she should be buried at all. They said that whoever she was, she was obviously possessed by the devil and should be burned instead. Before the padres could make a decision, the body was stolen and burned on the outskirts of the village. Whether that was her or not, I've never been totally sure. All I know is that I my initial judgments about her were very wrong. She really had done what she thought best for Mateo."
After she finished, there was no immediate reply. The silence became almost oppressive as the seconds ticked by. Finally she could take no more and was about to ask what he was thinking, when Murdoch beat her to the punch.
"You're trying to tell me that I shouldn't judge your father until we know for certain that he had something to do with what happened to you." Although harsh, Murdoch's words held less anger than was expected. "Even though he was the only one there?"
"Neither one of us knows for certain what happened, and..."
"Murdoch, I know how much my father loved me," she beseeched for understanding. "There was always animosity between the two of you, and yes, I am well aware that it was mostly of his doing. But for him to hate you enough to hurt me in such a way?" She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I just can't see it. I would really like to hear his side of things, since, as you pointed out, he was the only one there. He may be the only one who can give either of us any answers."
"What could he possibly have to say?" Murdoch asked more civilly than expected. "I didn't realize my daughter wasn't dead when I stole..." There was a slight pause before Murdoch finished with, "when he left for Boston with Scott."
Feeling the need to acknowledge what she knew had been a monumental concession from the man sitting next to her, Catherine sat up and smiled. "Thank you."
"I'm not promising I'll believe anything he says, but I promise I'll listen."
"That's all I can ask." Sinking back into the warmth of his embrace, she knew it was time to get back to the original subject. These side trips were going to be frequent until most of the past had been discussed, but right now she only wanted to know one thing. "Murdoch, tell me about Scott. I know you can't answer the questions I asked earlier, but tell me what you can. Anything at all."
"Scott is a fine young man," Murdoch began, his voice blustering with pride. "He graduated from Harvard, was an officer in the war, and has adapted to ranching more readily than I ever expected. He's articulate and very well mannered, but what I find most impressing is that, despite being raised by your father, he is very generous with his trust and understanding."
Catherine laughed. "I was raised by my father, too, you know. My mother didn't die until I was nearly fifteen,
but she had been an invalid for many years before that."
"Wonders never cease." Murdoch's reply was droll at best.
"How long has Scott been at Lancer?"
"I sent for Scott just over a year ago. Lancer was in danger, and I..."
There was an ominous foreboding in Murdoch's hesitation. "You what?"
"I offered him $1,000 and traveling expenses if he would give me an hour of his time."
This surprised Catherine greatly. "Why, Murdoch? Why didn't you just ask for his help?"
"Catherine, I hadn't had any contact with him in twenty years, and I doubted he even remembered my one visit to Boston."
"Did you have a good reason for not contacting him?"
"Yes...I think so...yes." A heavy sigh announced what was sure to be another disturbing revelation. "Your father threatened me with a very ugly custody battle if I ever tried to take Scott away from him. He implied that Scott would be hurt the most, and like a fool, I believed him. He was hurt anyway, but by lies, not the truth. It took him a long time to accept that I hadn't abandoned him because I didn't want him or couldn't be bothered with a child."
"That, my father will have to answer for." Fair was fair, but for this her father would answer to her. How dare he threaten her son, no matter how much he despised her choice for a husband. "I take it Scott was able to help save Lancer?" she asked, needing to redirect the subject back away from her father and back towards their son.
"Yes, he and Johnny-" Murdoch stopped short.
Murdoch hesitated before answering. When he did, though, he sounded almost apologetic. "Johnny is Scott's brother, his half-brother."
"Murdoch, you thought I was dead. It's perfectly natural, and understandable, that you would have found someone else to love." Instead of her words bringing relief, though, Murdoch's frown only deepened. "What?"
"I wish I could..." he began, only to turn away. "I'm sorry, Catherine, but I'm not ready to discuss her with you, yet. She..."
Sensing his deep-seated turmoil, Catherine gave him the avenue of escape she knew he was searching for. "When you're ready, Murdoch."
Through the open window, they both heard the sounds of an approaching wagon. "It sounds like Mateo and padre Felix have returned," Catherine said as she very reluctantly extracted herself from Murdoch's embrace. Mateo had a very short temper, and it would not due for him to find Murdoch still in her room after all this time.
"I'll show you back to your room. I'll have a bath drawn for you and then we can talk more over lunch."
She waited while he pulled on his boots, watching his every movement as she contemplated the things that had been, wondering if they could be again. Who was this other woman who had captured Murdoch's heart? Was she still alive, and if so, why was Murdoch here? Was it only for Scott's sake that he came to find her? Why did that possibility hurt so deeply?
Startled, she looked up to see Murdoch standing next to her, his brow furrowed with a worried frown. "I'm sorry, Murdoch, I was just thinking." To her surprise, but total joy, he slipped his arms around her waist and pulled
her close to him.
"We've both been given a lot of things to think about, Catherine, and no doubt, there are going to be even more revelations to come." His frown faded into a shy smile. "You better show me back to my room before Mateo gets here. I'd hate to be killed before we get the chance to know each other again."
Something in his sultry tone said clearly that he was feeling the attraction blooming between them again, just as she was, which successfully banished all thoughts of her rival from her mind. Who ever this woman was, she did not have the hold on his heart that a wife should have, this was for certain. That would be a bridge to cross later. For now, he was hers all over again.
*** *** *** ***
Having stripped out of his clothes, Murdoch stuck his foot over the side of the tub, testing the water with his big toe, before finally stepping completely into the warm bath. Sinking into the soothing depths he uttered and audible sigh as his tensions slowly began to slip away. The last two weeks had been pure torture on his nerves, but he was finally beginning to lose the feeling that he was falling off a cliff. Not that he had landed totally unscathed after the fall, but the soul-destroying splat he had been holding his breath for had not come to pass either.
After a few minutes of simply soaking and relaxing, he lathered the rag with the bar of soap and got down to business. As he cleaned his body, his mind worked at cleansing his soul of the fears that had been clinging to him like a muddy residue. Catherine was here, she was alive, and God help him, she was as beautiful as she had been all those years ago. While he wasn't foolish enough to think they could just pick up where they left off, not after twenty-five years, he wasn't too blind to see that she was responding to him with the same feelings of reserved attraction.
They would both have to be careful, though. Memories could be powerful things. The two of them were, for all intents and purposes, total strangers at this point in their lives, and each would have to rediscover the other all over again. So much had changed over the last quarter century. Maybe they would be blessed and find love for a second time together, but there was always the bitter reality that such a love would remain just out of their grasp this time around. They shared a son, a distant past, but that was about it. There would have to be more than that for them to try again.
For the first time since his arrival he allowed himself to concentrate on how this miraculous turn of events would affect his elder son. Exactly how was Scott going to react to this incredible news? Once the initial shock had worn off, he honestly couldn't see Scott being anything short of thrilled, but anything was possible. There was a possibility that Scott would not be so understanding of the fears that had kept his mother from seeking the truth. Maybe, but it didn't seem too possible. Scott hadn't said it often, but the once or twice he could recall right off hand, Scott's commentary on wishing to have at least had a chance to meet his mother seemed very heartfelt.
No, Scott was the one least likely to be a problem, however, his grandfather was an entirely different matter. Murdoch made himself a vow that he would keep his promise to Catherine. He would listen to whatever tale the old buzzard had to tell, but there was little doubt he would be willing to accept anything the man said as the truth. He had been on the receiving end of her father's duplicitous nature on more than one occasion, and it was going to take more than a few well-spoken words to explain away all that had happened in Carterville, and since.
A knock at the door broke into his thoughts. "Yes?" he called out. The door opened and to his dismay Mateo walked in. It was only when he noticed the towel hung over the young man's arm that he relaxed.
"Señora Anne sent this," he stated in curt, heavily Mexican-accented English. Holding up the towel, he placed it on the stool next to the tub. The scowl on his face left no doubt he would have preferred to drown Murdoch as opposed to leave him the means to dry off.
Keeping his voice level, Murdoch said evenly. "You don't like me, do you, Mateo?"
"You are muy astuto," Mateo snapped, "for a gringo."
Murdoch ignored the younger man's condescending tome and manner. "Is it because I'm a gringo, or because you see me as someone who is going to take Catherine away from you?"
"Señora Anne," Mateo clipped with an emphasis on her name.
"Her name is Catherine."
Mateo turned and walked back to the door, stopping only when he reached the exit. "Llámela qué usted tiene gusto, pero si usted la lastima, gringo, le buscaré para tragar como un perro."
"I'll be calling her Catherine because that is her name, and if I hurt her, I'll be the first to grant you a blessing for your hunt, Mateo."
Although Mateo did not turn around, Murdoch saw him pause at those words. He had thrown the young man with his pronouncement, and now only time would tell how he would react to it. For now the reaction was to leave, which Mateo did without any further comment, reminding Murdoch of another hotheaded young man in the process.
Above and beyond Harlan, Johnny could prove to be the biggest wildcard of all in this delicate situation. His reaction to Marcy Dane already proved that he could make things difficult for anyone Murdoch tried to court, but with his those affections being offered to Catherine, things could get much worse. In light of the past, would Johnny see Catherine as being even more of a threat than any other woman who might try to find a spot in Murdoch's heart? Would he see her as his mother's rival, no matter how absurd that thought might be? Worse still, would he see her as a threat to his relationship with Scott? Johnny could very easily destroy everything if he chose to do so.
With that thought in mind, Murdoch began formulating a definitive plan of action. Standing, he waited until most of the water had dripped from his body, before reaching for the towel. Over lunch he would talk to Catherine about how soon they could leave for California. Once there, he planned to get any and all issues about Catherine's place at Lancer settled before she ever set foot on the ranch. Johnny would have to accept her, or...With a heavy sigh, Murdoch stepped from the tub and sat down on the small, tub-side stool. What was he going to do if Johnny refused to accept Scott's mother in their lives?
"Damn it, he's just going to have to accept it!" Murdoch cursed aloud. Standing he resumed dressing. He was not going to let anyone keep him from the happiness he hoped he could regain with Catherine. No one.
The first thing he needed to do was settle any legal issues that might arise due to his subsequent marriage to Maria. The trip back north would include a stop in San Diego. He knew of an attorney there he had used during a very complex contract negotiation with the army. He would contact Mr. Fields and have him take care of that most disturbing issue. A wire to Johnny would provide the information he needed. Once that was fully settled, dealing with Johnny would be much easier.
Besides Johnny, the only other real obstacle to their possible future together was his constant nemesis, Harlan Garrett. Catherine needed to find out what kind of a man her father really was, only her insistent need for the truth was liable to get in the way. The truth? From Harlan Garrett? That was laughable. However, she would settle for nothing less than a face-to-face confrontation, so he would arrange for that, too. At the same time he sent the telegram to Johnny, he would sent one to Harlan, requesting him to come to San Francisco on urgent business concerning Catherine. Just the mention of her name would be all it would take.
From San Diego, it would take them only a couple of days to reach San Francisco. Once they arrived he would send a telegram to Scott, instructing him to meet him at whatever hotel he and Catherine ended up in. Scott could make the trip from Lancer in only a day and a half, which would give he and Catherine some time to themselves before his arrival. Scott would then have a couple of days to get used to his mother being alive before Harlan arrived from Boston.
While he could easily send that telegram from San Diego, too, he didn't want to give Johnny any more of a heads up than was absolutely necessary. Just the thought of what Johnny might do had him worried. The only hope was to have everything else in place, and then let Johnny decide if he wanted to be part of it. If Johnny would just give Catherine a chance, he would see that she wasn't a threat to him in any way. The possibility that his youngest, most temperamental, son would be so amicable wasn't something he was willing to bank on, though.
Another knock pulled him from his thoughts. "Yes?" he said with a sigh as he pulled on his shirt. The door cracked open, but that was all.
"Lunch is ready, Murdoch. I'll meet you in the kitchen," Catherine's voice said from behind the heavy wooden door. "You do remember the way?"
"Yes, I'll be right there, Catherine." The door slipped closed and Murdoch's fingers began rushing with their task. It wasn't until he went to tuck in his shirttail that he realized he had buttoned his shirt with each button in
the wrong hole.
"You'd think I was rushing off to my very first date ever," he chuckled to himself as he worked to correct his blunder. If the truth be told, he did feel like he was young and in love for the first time. "Calm down, Murdoch, old boy," he scolded himself as he finished with the buttons and then tucked his shirt into his pants.
Being careful to pick up his left boot first, he pulled it onto the appropriate foot with ease. "That's better," he chuckled as the right one was then donned with equal ease. He stood up straight, looking down at himself to make sure everything was in place, before moving over to the small washstand in the corner. There he ran a brush through his almost-dry hair, and readjusted his collar. Just before turning away, he flashed himself a smile in the small mirror, then blushed at his own behavior. He did feel young, though. Younger than he had felt in years.
His blush deepened and he moved away from the treacherous looking glass. He was feeling other things, too. Things he hadn't dared feel for such a long time, and even a few things he hadn't felt since Catherine had been his wife. Things a man wasn't supposed to feel except for his spouse, which she was not.
"Be careful," he warned himself. "She may not be wanting to get in that deep again. Look before you leap, old man. There's too much at stake here." Despite his self-admonishments, Murdoch's heart pounded with joy inside his chest. His mind could believe what it liked, but his heart knew she was just as wanting as he was to see if they could rekindle what they once had. For the first time in years he could say he was truly looking forward to something as simple and mundane as lunch.
*** *** *** ***
"Tell me, Catherine, what happened to that Lancer cow?" Murdoch asked before taking another bite of stew.
Across the table, Catherine's blue eyes sparkled with amusement. "He was made into a wonderful stew."
Murdoch's hand stopped mid lift, and he looked down at his spoon in horror. "We're eating our cow?"
"Our cow?" Catherine laughed. "Now I remember what first attracted me to you, Murdoch. It was your hopeless romantic streak."
Still disconcerted, Murdoch eyed his stew suspiciously. "This isn't really our cow, is it?"
"No, Dear." Catherine shook her head and laughed again. "Now would you forget about that silly cow?"
"I swear, you have such a one track mind," she looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup with just a hint of a smile. "Then, again, you always did. Back when we first met, it was all about getting out west, carving your cattle empire out of the untamed wilderness, putting Lancer on the map."
While all of what she said was true, there was much more to it. "Yes, I wanted all that, but there was so much more to my dreams. The rest involved you, and our children, and spending our twilight years spoiling our grandchildren to the total exasperation of their parents."
Her smile turned whimsical. "I have to admit that sounds very appealing, Murdoch."
"Catherine, how soon can you be ready to travel?" Murdoch ventured cautiously, but with a hope he dared not set free. "Scott needs to be told that you're alive, and we..." Reaching across the table, he took her hand gently in his. "And we need to find out how much of us is left; if there's enough for us to be us again."
Catherine's expression softened and her eyes brimmed with tears. "I do want to see Scott as soon as possible," she said barely above a whisper. "And I want to find out if there is an us left, too. I want that more than anything, but..." she hesitated and looked away.
"What about her?"
"Her?" His question was met with a raised eyebrow.
Murdoch felt his blood turn cold. "Maria's dead, Catherine. She...she isn't anyone you need to be concerned about," he snapped more forcefully than he intended.
"It sounds to me like she might be. Or at least her memory might be."
Her response was grim, to say the least, and Murdoch cringed at his own inability to control his emotions. More calmly than he would have believed possible, he reiterated his claim. "Maria's memory is the last thing you need to worry about, Catherine. I promise."
Standing, he moved to the other side of the table and sat down in the chair next to Catherine. Taking her hand in his once again, he smiled his best smile. "Now, can we discuss something more pleasant and productive?"
"Such as our travel plans." Although Catherine's capitulation had come too easily, Murdoch wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He would no doubt pay the price later, but maybe by then he would have a better explanation, or at least be able to engage in a civil discussion on that topic. "By boat, it won't take more than a week to reach San Francisco, providing we don't run into any rough weather. There's a regular stop in the port of San Diego, where I plan to wire your father. I'll wire Scott once we've reached San Francisco. He can join us there, and you and he can meet and get acquainted without any distractions."
"Why not wire Scott from San Diego, too? That way he won't be so far behind us."
Murdoch hedged, then swiftly redirected his thoughts. "You've led a very sheltered existence here, Catherine. With the railroad expansion, it will only take Scott a little more than a day to get to San Francisco. If for some reason our arrival should be delayed, I don't want him to have to wait for us alone, wondering why I sent for him. It's not like I can just tell to come to San Francisco because his mother wants to meet him."
Beside him Catherine nodded. "Yes, I see your point."
"Besides, this way you'll have a good day to recuperate before he arrives," Murdoch teased.
The reluctant undertone in her comment made it impossible to resist a melodramatic groan, which earned him a playful slap to the arm. "How could I forget something like that, Catherine? On our trip from Boston, you threw up on me so many times I wondered if I would ever be able to get the smell off." He then added dryly, "I don't suppose your propensity for seasickness has lessened any over the years?"
"Actually, I wouldn't know. I haven't been on a boat since," she said with a smirk, which quickly faded into a desperate frown. "But I would gladly endure that horrid experience, and more, for the chance to see our son. I still can't believe I let my stupid fear keep my from him all these years. I can only hope he can find it in his heart to forgive me."
Sensing her distress, he tried to put her fears to rest, without being overly optimistic. "Catherine, I'm not going to lie and say that Scott won't have any questions about that issue, but I don't think he'll be too inclined to hold it against you. I imagine he's going to be nothing short of completely overjoyed to have you in his life. He is not the judgmental type. Bless him, but if he can forgive me-"
"Forgive you?" Catherine interrupted. "From my understanding of the situation, it is my father who should be seeking Scott's forgiveness. You did what any good parent would do; you protected you son from a ghastly experience that could have easily led to him growing into a very bitter, very vindictive adult. I know how easy it is for that to happen. I've seen more times than I care to remember."
While she was speaking, visions of another son flashed through Murdoch's mind. A son who had endured such devastating distresses during his childhood that he had become the very adult Catherine imagined their own son could have been. Johnny still harbored so much resentment in his heart, and most of it, Murdoch knew, was aimed in his direction.
He had seen it too many times during Johnny's angry outbursts, not to recognize the truth. Johnny blamed him for Maria's leaving. Even if he hadn't actually thrown them out like Johnny had been told all his life, Johnny believed he had made her want to leave, either through unintentional inattentiveness or just downright apathy. Either way, in his son's mind he was still the villain, and so far he had been unsuccessful in finding a way to convince Johnny otherwise.
Glancing over, he saw that Catherine, too, had become lost in a moment of thought, however she shook it off at about the same time. She looked over at him with a brilliant smile. "Then it's on to Lancer to wait for my father?"
Tossing aside the concerns he could do nothing about at that moment, Murdoch let his mind once again become filled with the wondrous thoughts of his lovely Catherine, and the future that they might yet be able to share. With his good spirits renewed, he couldn't resist laughing at her unenlightened speculation. "No, Catherine, that's why I want to wire Harlan from San Diego. If he leaves Boston immediately, he'll be in San Francisco in six days."
"Six days! Cielos merciful, Murdoch. Do you expect him to sprout wings and fly all the way from Boston?"
Having always considered Harlan a buzzard of sorts, her outlandish notion was more than just amusing, it
was oh so appropriate. However, he was unwilling to let thoughts of Harlan Garrett put a damper on the
current good mood, so he pushed those speculations aside, too. "No, Catherine. A few years ago the
transcontinental railroad was completed. Unless there is a problem with the tracks, travel from the East coast
to the West coast now takes a mere six days."
"Incredible," Catherine said breathlessly. Her expression turned hopeful. "I don't suppose there's a railroad that runs from Mexico up to San Francisco?"
"No, Dear. I'm sorry, but if we don't go by boat it will take weeks to get there." Suddenly overwhelmed by her closeness, he slipped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Encouraged by her nonresistance, his desires flared. "How soon can we begin our journey home?" he asked as he nuzzled her hair.
"Would tomorrow morning be too soon?" came a throaty reply.
Cupping her cheek in his hand, he gently turned her face towards him. In her eyes he could see his own desire and want being reflected back at him. So entranced by the moment and the possibilities, he didn't even notice the distance between them was closing until their lips touched. Like a spring lightning storm, the intensity of the contact was both magnificent and terrifying.
As if they had a mind of their own, his arms tightened around her. He could feel the same tremors of desire coursing through her body that were making his own body quake. Their kiss deepened, tongues meeting, probing, seeking answers that no words could ever provide. He wanted her, he wanted her so badly, but even under this tremendous onslaught of desire, he could not deny the true nature of his feelings.
He loved her. As if the past twenty-five years had never existed, his old feelings had come back to life, strengthened by a maturity that only years could provide, while still, needing and wanting with the same intensity his young heart had felt back when he had held her in his arms all night, basking in the afterglow of a physical explosion that left him both satisfied and hungry for more.
'Dear God, give me strength,' he thought as he struggled to squelch the carnal desires churning inside him. He loved her too much to risk losing what could be a lifetime of happiness for a single moment of pleasure. Breaking their kiss, he reluctantly pulled away, but one look at the pure contentment of her expression told him all he needed to know.
In her eyes, in her face, he saw the same needs, the same wants, and the same reservations about losing the long-term to the short-term. Letting his fingers slip gently through her silky-soft hair, he took a deep breath, and almost laughed when she did the same.
"Catherine, we-" A trembling hand pressed her dainty fingers against his lips.
"I know," she said softly. "We're not children anymore. There are more feelings to consider than just our own."
Fear grasped at his heart, and he pulled her closer, refusing to acknowledge the worst. "We just need to slow down," he said firmly. "I won't give you up again, Catherine. Not for anyone." Her expression flickered with something he could not quite define, but faded back into a sultry smile too quickly for him to become concerned.
"I won't give you up either, my sweet, Ducky."
Nothing short of a bucket of cold water could have killed his amorous mood so completely as that one word. "I suppose it was too much to ask for that particular memory to remain forgotten," he complained.
She, however, seemed to find great delight in his annoyance. "Forget my sweet MorDuck? Never," she teased.
He had always detested the pet name that had evolved from a terrible misunderstanding during their first meeting. It was a few months after he arrived in Boston, and he had found himself invited to a rather upscale affair by the son of one of the owners of the shipping dock at which he was employed. Catherine had been helping serve the meal, something he still didn't quite understand, but after three failed attempts to introduce himself to the lovely blonde angel, he was left with only an extremely bruised ego and overflowing plate of duck.
Three days later, he had run into her on the street, completely by accident. She had looked at him as if he were insane, but after another attempt to introduce himself she had burst out in laughter. It had been the most wondrous sound he had ever heard, and went a long way in soothing his wounded pride. Once she had composed herself, she then explained about the 'foul' mix-up.
It seemed that his brogue was still too thick, or maybe the transition between Scottish and Boston speak had been the cause. Either way, each time he had introduced himself she had mistaken his name for a request for 'more duck', which just happened to be the main course of that ill-fated dining experience. They had shared a laugh, a smile, and then proceeded to fall madly in love with each other.
In the wake of that unfortunate instance, Catherine had dubbed him her 'Sweet Ducky', much to his chagrin. Now, however, there was an added complication to consider; one that the mere thought of had chills running up and down his spine. "Catherine, you have to promise me one thing," he said in total seriousness.
"Promise me you'll never call me that in front of the boys." Images of Scott and Johnny welding that particular sword against him danced through his mind to the tune of her mirthful laughter.
*** *** *** ***
The times the Lancer formal dining table was the setting for a family lunch were infrequent, usually occurring only on Sundays, and even that was not a certainty. However, times were anything but normal, and this Friday found the Lancer family sharing a mid-day meal in somber silence.
"It's only been eleven days. That's hardly enough time to be sending out a search party. And he did say it might be a while before he could send any word." Teresa's cheerful commentary broke the silence, but not the mood.
Scott gave her a brief smile, but his attention remained focused almost solely on the dark-haired man sitting across from him. Ever since they had returned to the ranch nine days ago to find Murdoch gone, with a cryptic note that only raised more questions than answers their only solace, Johnny had been very slowly closing himself off from them. The 'looking at cattle' theory had barely survived long enough to be shared, and since then, had become nothing but a wistful pipe dream as the days drug by with no word from Murdoch.
The clatter of a fork hitting the table caused everyone to jump; everyone except the one who had dropped the fork. "I ain't hungry." Johnny pushed his plate away. When he stood up, his chair scratched across the floor with an ominous hiss. "I'll see you out in the north pasture, Brother," he remarked sullenly, then stalked out of the room.
"I know, Teresa." Spearing a green bean with his fork, Scott eyed the legume speculatively for a moment, then set his fork down on his plate without eating the suddenly offensive bean. "I hope we hear from Murdoch soon. I'm not sure how much longer Johnny's going to be willing to hang around here waiting."
"Surely he wouldn't head for Mexico? He'd never find Murdoch without some clue as to where he might have gone."
Teresa sounded as desperate as he felt. "I know." Heaving a heavy sigh, he pushed his plate away. "It was a wonderful lunch, Teresa," he tried to cover for his own impending ill-mannered exit, but Teresa interrupted him before he could finish.
"I could have served tree bark and clover grass, and neither one of you would have noticed."
She wasn't mad, and her commentary was delivered with just enough teasing to convey her dismay over the way things were progressing. Standing, Scott leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I better get going. I don't like letting him out of my sight for too long. That telegram better come soon. I'm not sure how long Jelly and I can keep tag-teaming Johnny before he catches on."
A raised eyebrow met his tired, but guilty smile.
"Jelly's watching him now. We figured that if we kept things changing, Johnny wouldn't catch on that we're afraid he's going to take off. It's working for now, only because Johnny is so distracted by whatever self-defeating thoughts he keeps running through his mind, but he's going to catch on sooner or later."
"Can I place my vote for later?" Teresa smiled back as she stood and started gathering the still half-full lunch dishes.
"You can vote all you want, but I don't think Johnny's going to accept the democratic rule." Scott headed for the door, but was stopped in his tracks by a rather sarcastic comment coming from behind.
"Wonderful, I finally get the right to vote when it won't make any difference. Some democracy."
Turning, Scott laughed. "Teresa, one day women will have the right to vote and it will count. I just hope it's after my lifetime."
"And just why is that?" she retorted with a huff and a scowl.
"Because, my dear, you ladies already possess far more power than you realize, and once you are given the legal status to use that power, I would rather not be around for the ensuing emasculation."
Tipping his hat, he
headed off to keep tabs on his flight-risky brother, totally amused by the confounded expression on his little
*** *** *** ***
At the break of dawn the next day, the bags were packed, the horses loaded with their cargo, but there was still one last detail to attend to before it was time to depart. Murdoch's encouraging smile helped considerably, as did the underlying affection shining brightly in his dazzling blue eyes. This was the right thing for her, and for him, and she knew it. Still, it would not be easy to say goodbye.
It was with confidence that she entered the mission garden, knowing that would be where she would find him. "Mateo?" she said softly as she approached him from behind.
"Sí, Señora Anne." But Mateo did not raise his head.
The young man looked lost, reminding her of the little boy she had met all those years ago. Catherine sat down on the hard stone bench and placed a comforting hand on Mateo's drooping shoulder. "I looked for you last night. I wanted to talk to you, to say goodbye, but mostly to tell you how much I love you."
"So you say, yet you still leave me for...for that gringo!" Mateo grumbled inhospitably.
"Mateo," she warned with a loving maternal firmness. If he wanted to act like a child she was quite capable of treating him as such. "I do love you, and you know it. Hurting me is not going to make you feel better."
His dark head remained bowed, but nodded one very jerky nod. "Sí, Señora. I...I do not wish to hurt you. I just..."
"I don't want to lose you, either, Mateo. Maybe, when things become settled-"
"No, Señora. Aqu¡ es donde pertenezco."
"You belong where ever your heart is, Mateo."
"Mi coraz¢n est aqu¡."
"And mine is in California, where it has always been," she admitted to both herself and to him. "I have to find the truth, Mateo. I have to go to my son. I have to try to form the bond with my child that I was never given the opportunity to do before now."
When Mateo looked up, there were tears in his eyes. "Your niño, he is muy afortunado. If he does not know this, you will come back to me?"
"Sí, Mateo." Her sad smile was matched by his, neither believing she would ever return to Lake Chapala.
Mateo's smile softened, and within his eyes danced a mischievous gleam. "Padre Felix is muy trastornado."
"Sí, I have already been lectured this morning," she admitted with a soft sigh. "And given instructions on how to behave properly."
The mischievous gleam intensified. "Properly for a monja, or for an esposa? I would not want to endure a leccion from padre Felix on relaciones maritales."
"Mateo!" Although she slapped him playfully on the arm, in her heart she was overjoyed that he was at least showing signs of accepting her leaving, as well as her potentially renewed relationship with Murdoch.
"Gracias por el ahorro yo de tanto, mi Madre."
His softly spoken words unleashed the floodgate of tears she had promised herself would not come. Hugging him tightly, she cried, not for what she was giving up, but for what she had been able to give. Long ago she had told Mateo the truth about his real mother. He had called her 'mother' until the truth had been uncovered, and since then, she had always been Señora Anne.
This farewell gift was worth more to her than all the gold every panned. Only one other voice calling her mother could ever make her heart swell with happiness as it was now.
*** *** *** ***
Mateo held tightly to the only mother he had ever really known. Saying goodbye to her was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as he had imagined. She was leaving because she wanted to, because she needed to be with her son, but he knew he would always hold a very special place in her heart. Many needy children had come and gone over the years, but not once had she let him feel pushed aside or deemed less worthy of her love or attention. In gratitude he would now step back, allowing her to find her dreams with a clear conscience and his eternal gratitude.
Out of the corner of his eye he a movement by the gate, and looked up to see the gringo staring at them from the across the garden. Surprising to even himself, he felt not anger. He had seen the way the gringo looked at her - not like the coyote eyed the rabbit, but like the eagle gazed at his life mate, accepting her strengths and willing to share the burden of life with her. Despite his best efforts to deny it, he knew the gringo was a good man, which was good, because otherwise he would never allow Señora Anne to leave with him.
Mateo could also see the gringo's eyes, or maybe it was just the knowledge of what he had been unwilling to accept before now. Whatever it was, it filled his heart with serenity. He sensed neither hatred nor victory, just a bittersweet happiness. Then Mateo almost laughed to himself; his expression, his stance, they were both asking the question of permission. Despite having the upper hand, the complete and utter triumph, the gringo was still honorably bowing to his acquiescence. The veil against understanding dropped permanently away.
*** *** *** ***
Too nervous to remain with the horses any long, Murdoch slowly made his way to the garden gate. It was
easy to understand just how much Mateo meant to Catherine, and why, but he also realized how distrustful
the young man was of both him and his motives. Part of him was thankful that Catherine had been blessed
with someone to watch over her so closely, while another part of him was actually fearful of the closeness of
their relationship. If anyone could stop Catherine from returning to Lancer, it would be Mateo.
Reaching the gate, he carefully slipped behind the iron barrier. He was unsure of where Catherine and Mateo would be, and he did not want to intrude unnecessarily. As soon as he cleared the shrubbery, however, he saw them a few yards away, sitting on a bench near the winding cobblestone path. Catherine was wrapped in Mateo's arms, her heaving shoulders evidence of her tears.
Almost instantly Mateo looked up at him, making him feel exactly like the unwanted intruder he knew he was for the young man. He could sympathize with Mateo's feelings. Catherine had been his only mother figure for most of his memorable life, so it was only natural that he would be hesitant to let her go and would be distrusting of the man taking her away. If only Mateo could understand that Scott deserved a chance with his own mother, too. He prayed to God that Mateo's love was strong enough to let him stand aside and allow Catherine the chance to be with her true son - without guilt, without reprisal.
Much to his surprise, a small smile flitted over Mateo's face. The young man nodded slightly, shocking Murdoch even more with this easily-given affirmation of the inevitable. No stinging words, no shouted accusations, just a young man being very mature and very wise. 'You did a very good job with him, Catherine. He was very fortunate to have had you in his life. If only-' this thought went unfinished as Mateo and Catherine rose and began walking towards him.
Silently the trio returned to the awaiting horses, Catherine between them with an arm around each of their waists. Her tears continued to fall, drying only when she gave Mateo a final hug, before allowing Murdoch to help her on her mount. After ensuring that Catherine was settled in the saddle, Murdoch turned to Mateo.
Somewhat hesitantly, he extended his hand and said in all sincerity, "Thank you, Mateo. For everything." His anxiety evaporated when Mateo accepted his hand without hesitation.
"Be well, Señor. May the blessed saints Sebastian, Dymphna, Pelagia, Erasmus and Gall keep you in their care."
It did not go unnoticed that the persistent sneer was absent from Mateo's voice, as was the disrespectful use of the word 'gringo'. "Be well, Señor," Murdoch returned the acknowledgement of manhood and respect. "I will never forget all you've done for me and my family."
Mateo nodded. "My only wish is to never need call upon you for your blessing for a hunt."
"You won't, Mateo. Prometo."
*** *** *** ***
Back at Lancer, the morning sun was barely above the tree line to the east, but the day's ranch work was already well under way. Breakfast was long since over, and the hands had been given their assignments. All that was left was for the bosses to get their own day started.
"Ain't you gonna give Jelly the signal?" Johnny asked as he slipped the reins back on either side of Barranca's neck.
Scott, already sitting astride Charlemagne stiffened in the saddle. He looked over with 'innocent' expression that was anything but innocent. "Signal?"
Swinging into the saddle, Johnny grinned, both amused and gratified by his brother's unease. "Since you're gonna be riding fence with me, I don't reckon there's no need for me having two baby sitters. Now give Jelly the signal an' let's get to work." Johnny didn't bother to wait for the supposedly clandestine wave he had observed too many times not to know that his over-protective brother was up to something.
Less than a minute later, Scott reined in Charlemagne beside Barranca. The spirited chestnut had no trouble matching the palomino's easy lope, which made for easy conversation between the two riders. "When did you figure it out?"
"'bout two seconds after you let me outta your sight without getting all uppity an' making me promise not to hightail it down south."
Scott scowled. "For the record, I do not get 'uppity'." Then his scowl faded into an almost prideful grin. "Two whole seconds, huh? You're slipping, Little Brother."
Johnny snorted, but didn't otherwise respond. It wasn't like he didn't know Scott worried about him, it was just that sometimes that particular thought was anything but comforting. At those times he felt almost smothered, and this was one of those times. Ever since they had returned to find Murdoch gone and a note that was even more unsettling, he had been feeling cornered, like the walls were closing in on him from all directions and there wasn't anything he could do to stop them.
In the past he would have responded to such a perceived threat with an utmost confidence in his ability to handle any situation, but when it came to Murdoch he had very little, if any, of that confidence. No one could make him feel like a little boy faster than his father, and that little boy always seemed to be in trouble. Right now he felt like he had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, only there was no cookie and there was no jar. There was just an unsettling feeling of not knowing, but at the same time, knowing that he had somehow become the thorn in his father's side yet again.
A few times he had even wondered if it was worth it, if having a home and a family was worth the ordeal of dealing with Murdoch Lancer's domination and condemning attitudes. There were more times, however, when he knew there was nothing that could take their place, so he stayed, hoping that one day things would be different.
Startled, Johnny looked up to see Scott staring at him with a very concerned expression. "What?" he asked more defensively than he intended.
With his bearings back and his melancholy thoughts pushed aside, he answered more civilly, "Don't what?"
"Don't drive yourself insane trying to figure it out," Scott implored solemnly. "Just forget about Murdoch for the time being. Put him out of your mind. If it helps, just keep telling yourself he's going to show up with a nice bull, or a few really good heifers to improve the Lancer herd."
"You mean lie to myself." The comment was meant to be a tease, but part of Johnny's heart ached at the thought of going back to something that had once been so easy. So much so that he could not bring himself to do it. Too many times his soul had been battered by his mind's ability to push it aside, to do things he knew he shouldn't have done. "Cain't, Boston. Not no more."
Even the wide-open spaces of Lancer could not stop the closed-in feeling from threatening to choke off his air. Spurring Barranca forward, he left Scott behind in a cloud of dust. His brother would understand, he always did, and would give him room for a while. Just long enough to get his bearings again, then Scott would be right there, providing the love and support Johnny had very reluctantly allowed to become his primary anchor to the very sanity Scott was afraid he was losing.
*** *** *** ***
The loud clanging of the clipper ship's bell shattered the sleepy morning serenity of the small Mexican coastal community. The 'Herald of the Morning' would be departing on the journey north in a few minutes, and she would be taking them with her, her multitude of sails harnessing the winds as they speed up the coast.
She was a magnificent ship that had, for the past 15 years, traversed the often-treacherous waters between Boston and San Francisco. Many a fortune seeker had found passage to their golden dreams on her sturdy deck. This voyage, however, would be in the name of a less obvious treasure - the reconciliation of a family long since torn apart.
Standing on the tiny dock, Murdoch took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of the ocean breeze and remembering how vibrant they had made him feel as a youth in Scotland. His father had worked the docks for years, and as much as Murdoch had come to appreciate the beauty and strength of the water, his dreams had always been elsewhere.
Fertile pastures, majestic mountains, crystal clear streams, and burly cattle had been the fodder for his destiny. He had braved the wild ocean, then the untamed wilderness, but he had found his destiny through blood sweat and tears. Many, many tears. Next to him walked the woman with whom he had hoped to share those dreams, before the cruel had of fate had intervened and stolen her part in his dreams away.
One look at Catherine's slightly green complexion, told him that he was not going to escape taking another trip down memory lane, and truth be told, he simply did not care if he spent the entire voyage holding a basin in one hand and Catherine's hand in his other. Just as he had before, he would be with her over every roll of the ocean and every...every not-so-subtle reminder of their first boat trip together. "Are you ready, Catherine?"
She gave a shaky nod, followed by an even shakier declaration. "I'll be fine. It's only for a couple of days."
"Two days to San Diego, a day in port, then another two days to San Francisco," he offered in affirmation. The weather might complicate things, but he wasn't about to voice those thoughts. If it happened, it happened.
With his arm wrapped in support around her shoulders, they made their way up the gangplank and onto the deck. Even with the relative stillness of the boat's mooring, her pallor became tinted with an even more palpable green hue. A pair of seagulls fluttered by, screeching to one another. The sound sent an ominous shudder up his spine.
Cautiously, they made their way along the deck towards the cabin Murdoch had secured late the previous evening. The few passengers standing on deck, waving at loved ones on the dock, quickly cleared the way at their approach. It was obvious to all the Catherine was going to be ill, and he couldn't help notice that she was conspicuously keeping his large frame between her and any sight of the ocean. For the most part, she kept her eyes clenched tightly closed, allowing him to lead her wherever he wished.
"I've actually gotten queasy just watching water boil," she remarked in an almost surreal tone.
As absurd as the statement sounded, looking at her now Murdoch could actually believe it possible. "Just for two days, Dear."
"No wonder my father couldn't stand you," Catherine teased with a shaky laugh, opening her eyes just long enough to look up at him. "Your math skills are atrocious. I believe that would be four days, Dearest."
Usually it took nothing more than the mere mention of his long-time nemesis to get his dander up, but he couldn't even force himself to do so now. Just having her at his side gave him more comfort than any thoughts of his ex father-in-law could ever negate. "For your information, my math skills are more than adequate. It is two days until we dock again. You'll have a nice breather on shore before another two days of-"
"Putrid hell," Catherine supplied for him, with a dismayed groan to match.
Leaning into him, she sighed heavily. "I just wish there had been more time to talk on the trail. We've still got
so much to tell each other, and I feel like this whole week is going to be a total waste. I do hate being sick."
Bringing them both to a halt, Murdoch set down the carpetbag that held their clothes from previous night and a few personal hygiene items they used at the hotel that morning. The remainder of their luggage had been loaded onto the boat the prior evening. Turning towards her, he was taken by surprise by how totally desirable she was, despite the clammy look on her face. "Your cabin," he said as he made a casual gesture towards to the door next to them.
"This is it?" she gasped, eyes springing wide open in horror. "Here? On deck? So...so close to the water?"
"Catherine, in the first place, this is a clipper ship. She's built for speed and cargo. The staterooms were already booked and this was the only cabin available, and only then because a passenger disembarked in Rio de Janeiro. In the second place you're going to be sick no matter where we are. If you remember, our cabin for the trip from Boston was well down in the interior of the ship, which did nothing to curb your seasickness." He chuckled slightly. "This way I don't have as far to run to empty the basin."
Her train of thought, however, had swiftly jumped the track. "The only cabin?"
Her look of reproach had Murdoch shifting awkwardly on his feet. "Catherine, we were married once," he stated in his own defense, sticking steadfastly to his decision not to reveal that the boat captain had been led to believe that they still were husband and wife. "If there had been two cabins, I would have booked two for the sake of propriety," he fibbed, "but we both know where I'm going to be for the duration of this voyage."
Lifting her hand to his lips, he gently kissed her fingertips. "I'll be with you every second, Catherine. Just as I was back then, only not nearly as frustrated."
Ignoring her stunned look, he pushed open the door and walked into the small cabin. Small was a good word for it, too, but it had the essentials - a bed, a small table, a washbasin, a chamber pot, and a chair. First things first, he thought, and immediately sat down in the chair, testing its suitability for the days ahead.
"Comfortable?" Catherine asked wryly from the doorway.
He wiggled around a little, settling his weight in the cushioned frame, before nodding. "I think it will do just fine." Noticing the icy glare he was getting, he stood and went to her, putting his hands on her waist as he looked anxiously down at her face, noting the green tinge had somewhat subsided. "What is it, Catherine?"
"Not nearly as frustrated?" she repeated, her tone cool and aloof.
Having inadvertently opened that can of worms, there was nothing left but to follow up with what he hoped would be an adequate explanation. "The last time we did this we had been married for less than a year. I was a newly married young man who spent five months, three weeks and six days not being able to do what newly married young men are supposed to do...and on a regular basis. If I remember correctly, our first anniversary was not spent sharing a bottle of champagne before a romantic evening of loving and reminiscing, but instead, in a fruitless effort to save my one pair of decent shoes, which you had chosen to use as a substitute sick basin while I was out emptying the real one."
"I did not!" she huffed.
Her indignation was amusing, considering that she wouldn't have remembered dancing naked in the galley during that particular part of their westward voyage. "Yes, you did," he countered with a grin.
Both her expression and her tone softened. "You told me they got lost during the voyage."
"Technically, they did - right after I tossed them overboard."
"I'm so sorry, Ducky."
"Not your fault, Dear. I'm sure, given the choice, you would have much rather forgone that part of the experience." He placed a reluctantly chaste kiss on her forehead, then retrieved the carpetbag from the floor. Walking across the small cabin, he placed it on the table, where he proceeded to rummage through its contents, turning back to her only when he had found the object of his search. "Maybe you should slip this on now," he suggested as he held her nightdress out to her.
Knowing what was coming he quickly interrupted. "Catherine, in less than an hour you're going to be lying in that bed, seasick to the gills. Denying it isn't going to change anything, and will only force me to have to figure out how to get you into it on my own."
Indignation quickly digressed to bemusement. "Figure out how? Has it been that long, Ducky?" she purred.
"Yes...yes it has," he stammered. Overcome by loss over such an admission, he sank down on the bed, looking down at the nightdress he still held in his hands. "Yes, Catherine, it has been that long since I've felt like this. Too long."
The bed dipped next to him and a warm hand covered his own. "It's not just the thought of...well...Catherine, I would be lying if I denied thinking about being with you again - the way a man and wife should be together - but it's more than that."
Looking over at her, he saw only understanding in her beautiful blue eyes, understanding and the ever-increasing fires of the love he remembered from so long ago. "It's the companionship, Catherine. It's the not being alone anymore, the having someone to hold and to be held by, and it's the need to know there is someone there for me, who accepts my weaknesses along with my strengths, without disappointment or condemnation."
"I'm here, Ducky." She gently tugged the nightdress from his grasp, then kissed him tenderly on the cheek, her lips promising everything, but demanding nothing. "From now on I'll always be here for you."
He watched her disappear behind the small dressing partition at the far end of the room. Part of him still couldn't believe that she was really here, really alive after all these years. He wanted so desperately to believe that they could rekindle their lost love, but even if that didn't happen, he held on to his faith that she would always be a part of his life.
That particular thought brought him both comfort and despair, but he refused to give in to his inner demons. They still had a long way to go before either one of them would be ready to honestly commit to the other. It would be rough, as rough as the sea crossing they were about to endure, but endure it they would. The emotional voyage would end with either a second wedding or a lasting friendship, but it would not end with them apart, of that he was certain.
*** *** *** ***
Scott looked up from his task of cleaning Charlemagne's front hoof to see Jelly standing just at the edge of the stall, looking nervously out the barn door through which Johnny had departed only seconds before. Releasing the chestnut's hoof, he waited until it was firmly on the ground before standing up straight.
"Well, I asked ya how's it goin'?" Jelly asked again, sounding more annoyed than worried for just a moment.
"So far so good," Scott answered the old man's question. "Ever since he let on that he knew we were watching him, he's been rather, well, practically sedate."
"Too seedate, if ya ask me," Jelly grumbled. "He's planin' somethin', I'm tellin' ya."
Although Scott appreciated Jelly's concerns when it came to Johnny, he did not share them in this instance. "I don't think so, Jelly. I told you we talked a little. While his initial reaction gave me a few doubts, once he had a chance to think things over his whole attitude changed. Don't worry. Johnny is going to wait for Murdoch to get back before he gets himself all worked up over nothing."
An irritated scowl formed on the whiskered old face. "Scott Lancer, you cain't be that derned ignerent. That boy's no more gonna wait patiently for Murdoch to get hisself back here than...than..." Jelly stuttered, then pointed at Charlemagne, "than that horse a yours is gonna give up eatin' grass fer roast beef. It jest ain't gonna happen."
"Jelly, don't go looking for trouble where there isn't any," Scott admonished in a friendly tone. Giving his horse a gentle pat on the rump, Scott exited the stall, where he placed a comforting arm around Jelly's shoulders. "Now how about you and I get cleaned up for dinner. I think Teresa was planning on serving roast beef, and Charlemagne hasn't expressed any desire to join us."
"Hmmmpf," Jelly snorted, his disbelief ringing loud and clear, but he made no further comments as they made their way towards the hacienda.
*** *** *** ***
Murdoch yawned loudly and moved his head from side to side, gently stretching his aching neck muscles. Pushing his elbows back, he arched up out of the chair, giving his equally cramped back muscles a dose of the same gentle relief. Stifling another yawn, he opened his eyes and glanced over at the still figure on the small bed.
Wrapped in a heavy quilt, Catherine was sleeping soundly. The past two days had been exhausting, but no more so than he had expected. Catherine had become violently ill within two hours of setting sail, and the only time she wasn't trying to expel her insides was when she was asleep.
By mid-afternoon of their first day, the captain had noticed his frequent trips to empty the basin he was using as a sick bowl, and had sent one of the other passengers down, a doctor on his way back to the States from South America, to check on Mrs. Lancer. The doctor had offered several doses of a mild sleeping powder, but other than that, there wasn't much he had been able to offer in the way of relief. His understanding support, however, had been greatly appreciated.
A soft rapping at the cabin door had him pushing his way out of the chair with a groan. The ship's chair was downright luxurious compared to that device of torture Catherine had kept in her room at the mission 'because it went so well with the decor', the very idea made him grimace, but his back and leg still ached from the inactivity as he limped across the floor. On the up side, he didn't feel like he had been maimed in his sleep. Opening the door, he was surprised to see the doctor, but even more surprised to see the docks in the background.
"Mr. Lancer," the doctor smiled sympathetically. "We've just docked and I'll be debarking here in San Diego. I just wanted to check on Mrs. Lancer before I left, in case some more severe symptoms had developed."
Murdoch shook his head, still finding it hard to believe they had docked already. "No, she's sleeping now. We'll be taking a room in town until the ship's departs tomorrow."
The doctor smiled. "That sounds like a very good idea. I do wish you both well, and a smooth journey to San Francisco."
"Thank you, Doctor."
Pulling his watch out of his pocket, Murdoch found that it was almost five o'clock in the morning. Not realizing they were so close to port, he had given Catherine one of the sleeping powders a short while ago, but on the bright side, that would give him enough time to get his plans accomplished.
Fifteen minutes later he was buttoning his the waistband of his trousers when he realized what he had just
done. He was thankful that Catherine had not woken while he was changing clothes, but at the same time, he
found it rather amusing that he didn't feel the least bit self conscious over having undressed with her in the
room. He felt like he belonged there, like she belonged there - he felt like they had never been apart.
Tossing those thoughts aside for the time being, he scribbled out a quick note, just in case she woke before his return. After he got the telegrams on their way to Johnny and Harlan, he would secure a hotel room, and then return to collect her. The other passengers would no doubt be staying on the ship during this delay in port, for unloading one cargo before taking on another, but Catherine could use the time off the water. He would verify with the captain that their departure was still set for the following morning before he took her off to the hotel.
Placing the note on the table next to the bed, he leaned over and placed a loving kiss on Catherine's pale cheek. "I'll be right back, my dear," he whispered to the sleeping woman. A tightness formed in his chest as he looked down at her sweet face. She looked tired, but she also looked so very beautiful. After risking another kiss, he stood and moved away. First things first.
*** *** *** ***
"I'll meet you over at the saloon in an hour," Scott said to Johnny as he climbed down from the buckboard in front of the bank.
"Sure thing, Boston."
Looking over his shoulder Scott's eyes narrowed. "One hour, Johnny."
Johnny nodded. "I heard you, Brother. I ain't deaf, you know. Besides, since you're buying, I'll be there right on time." With a flick of the reins, the buckboard pulled away from the blond man.
"And just who said I was buying?"
Scott's voice called out from behind him, but Johnny didn't even turn around. He was still thinking too hard on things he couldn't find any answers to when he pulled the rig to a halt in front of the general store. Scott was taking care of some banking needs, and he was left with the menial task of loading the supplies. 'Guess that's why you get to buy the drinks, Older Brother,' Johnny thought rather sardonically.
"Howdy, Johnny. Ain't seen you in town for a while."
"Been busy, Clem. You know how it is, slaving over them danged cows. Ain't got a lick of sense, they don't." Jumping down onto the loading platform, Johnny reached into his pocket for the list of supplies he was supposed to pick up.
Clem slapped Johnny casually on the back as he accepted the list. "You can sure say that. Make for a mighty fine meal, but they ain't got the brains to come in out of the rain when they're on the hoof."
"Johnny!" A voice yelled from the distance.
Glancing over his shoulder, Johnny had to squint to make out the figure rushing towards him from across the street. The man dodge past one horse, then made a beeline for the general store.
"Howdy, Evan," Johnny called out when the figure finally came into focus. "What's got your pants on fire?"
"Got that telegram you and Scott have been pesterin' me about for more'n a week now." Evan handed Johnny the official envelope, then turned to go. "Gotta get back right away," he called over his shoulder. "Ain't no one there to man the machine, but I knew you'd be wantin' that as soon as possible."
"Gracias, Evan," Johnny called out without looking up. Anxious fingers tore open the flimsy envelope, but the anticipation died out as soon as he read its sparse contents. After stuffing the paper into his jacket pocket, Johnny made a beeline for the livery stable.
*** *** *** ***
After wiping his mouth with his napkin, Murdoch watched Catherine finished off the last of their late lunch. She was wrapped in a dark red robe that he had found in her trunk before whisking her off the ship and to the hotel. Her color looked much better, and she actually seemed to be enjoying the light serving of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans.
Earlier that morning, he had sent the necessary telegrams, one to Lancer and the other to Boston, before making a quick stop at Stanley Fields' office. Thankfully, Stan had not only been in his office, but had also had a few free minutes to spare. He hastily explained the situation to the attorney, who agreed that positive verification of the information requested from Johnny was a very prudent course of action, and agreed to handle the job.
While walking back to the ship, a small voice of guilt whispered in his ear over his hiring of Stan. It wasn't that he didn't trust Johnny; it was simply that he was not willing to take anything for granted. Catherine meant too much to him for anything to be left to chance, and, even Stan had agreed it was a good idea. Surely, once he had a chance to explain things to Johnny, his son would be able to see the wisdom in his actions.
Across the table, Catherine dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, then looked up at him with a sweet smile that made his heart flutter. "That was a very nice meal, Murdoch."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it, Dear," he said with an answering smile. "You do look like you're feeling much better."
"I am. I feel so refreshed, and after just a morning off that silly boat." Her lips puffed out. "Do we really have to get back on board?"
Murdoch smiled, vividly remembering the power that pout could wield. It had gotten him to do several things he would never have otherwise done, including being nice to Harlan for an entire evening on Catherine's birthday. This time, however, giving in would be detrimental to achieving their goals. "Would you prefer to walk to San Francisco?" he asked in mock seriousness. "That would take quite a while, you know. By the time we arrived we could have grandchildren waiting for us, too."
A rosy blush crept over her cheeks as she laughed. "I want to get acquainted with my son first, if you don't mind." Placing her napkin on the table, she stood up and held out her hand to him. "Come, it's getting stuffy in here."
Together they moved out onto the small balcony, where he held her tight and she laid her head against his chest and sighed heavily. "The ocean really is beautiful," she said wistfully.
"From a distance," Murdoch agreed.
"Murdoch, tell me about Scott and Johnny. Do they get along?"
"Yes, they are extremely close," Murdoch answered, thankful to the bottom of his heart that there had never seemed to be any real animosity between his sons, which could very well have been the case, given the extreme diversity of their backgrounds. "At first they were suspicious...no that's not right, cautious would be a better word. They were cautious of each other in the beginning, but now they're closer than most brothers that were raised together all their lives."
She seemed pleased. "Do they look like you?"
This question made Murdoch laugh. "No, not at all. It seems neither of my sons gained any of their looks from me. Scott looks a lot like you. He has your facial features and eyes...well, I guess he did get his height from me. Johnny's a little shorter, more stocky, but compact and muscular. He's got my eyes, but other than that he's..."
"He's what?" Pulling away, Catherine looked up at him with questions in her eyes. "Why do you always get so tense when you talk about Johnny? I hope you're not worried about me accepting him."
Instinct told him to turn away, but he couldn't. Something in her eyes, in the way she was looking at him and through him at the same time, prevented him from doing so. He would not be able to push her away, to close off the past from her scrutiny as he had done with his sons. She would not allow it. Something akin to disapproval dampened her features, and he knew he had to at least try to explain it to her. "Catherine, it isn't you, and it isn't Johnny, either."
"Then what is it?"
Breaking eye contact he looked out over the ocean and sighed. With all the regret he felt in his heart, he admitted, "I was going to say that, other than his eyes, Johnny looks just like his mother." Her hand appeared on his chest, and, without looking down, he covered hers with his. He didn't want to talk about this, but he owed it to her to do so.
"What's so wrong with that, Murdoch. You did love her, after all."
*** *** *** ***
Scott pulled the team to a stop in front of the barn, having lost very little of his agitation during the hot and dusty drive from town. His feet were barely on the ground when Jelly appeared through the barn door.
"'bout time ya got back," Jelly scolded.
"Don't start with me, Jelly. All I want to know is where that brother of mine is hiding out. First he stands me up at the saloon, then I find out he's borrowed a horse from the livery stable and left me high and dry with a wagon load of supplies. He better have a very good excuse," he declared forcefully.
"Don't know how good his 'cuse is, but he ain't hidin' out nowheres. Jes open yer ears and listen. You'll find him easy 'nough."
Pausing for a moment, Scott listened intently, for what he wasn't sure. In the distance he heard a thud, followed not too swiftly by another, and then another. Confusion and concern pushed aside his anger. "Johnny?" he asked needlessly.
"Yep. Lit in here about three hours ago, mad as a hornet an' not wantin' to answer no questions. Started in on that woodpile 'round back, and ain't quit since. That axe may not be a pistol, but I fer one ain't gonna be the one who tries takin' it away from him." Glancing up at the sun high in the mid-day sky, Jelly wiped his neck with his handkerchief. "Ain't never seen this kinda weather. Ain't supposed to be this hot this early in the year. That boy's gonna give hisself heat stroke if he don't quit soon."
Scott nodded absentmindedly, only sparing a brief thought to the abnormally hot weather that had descended on the valley a few days before. The air was thick and stiflingly hot, more reminiscent of late July or August than early April, and nothing compared to the balmy summers he had enjoyed in Boston.
The methodical sound of an axe hitting wood was almost hypnotic, but the effects lasted for only a moment. Jelly was right, it was too hot for Johnny to be going at that woodpile in the middle of the day, especially with the gusto those too-frequent strikes indicated he was using.
"Take care of this, will you?" Scott didn't wait for a reply before heading off in the direction of the house. The woodpile Johnny was working on was in the courtyard in the center of the hacienda, making it easily accessible from both the kitchen and the wash shed.
Rounding the corner of the main building, Scott saw Johnny standing in the middle of a pile of chopped wood.
His brother was sweating profusely in the hot mid-day sun, and although his shirt had already been discarded
on the ground, his pants were speckled with dark patches of moisture.
"Johnny," Scott called out as he approached, not wanting to startle his brother, especially not with an axe in his hand. "Johnny," he repeated when Johnny made no indication that he had heard his name. Still there was no response.
Waiting patiently, Scott planned his next move to correspond with the apex of Johnny's swing, reaching out and taking a firm hold of Johnny's arm just before the axe's backwards momentum was changed into a forward swing. Johnny spun around as quickly as greased lightning, but not before Scott grasped the axe handle in his other hand. With a flick of his wrist, he twisted the hand out of Johnny's grip before releasing his hold on his brother's arm.
"You always get the sudden urge to chop wood when you're supposed to be meeting me at the saloon?" Scott asked conversationally as he set the axe aside and waited for Johnny to catch his breath. "Mind telling me what it is that's got you so bent out of shape, Brother?"
"I ain't bent outta shape!" Johnny snipped in between labored breaths. Picking up his discarded shirt from a pile of unsplit logs, he fumbled around for a few seconds, then threw a wadded up piece of paper at Scott. "Seems we was wrong." Without any further explanation, Johnny stalked off towards the kitchen door.
It was the hurt in Johnny's expression, more than the anger, that sent Scott's mind reeling. Bending over, he retrieved the hotly discarded paper, and very carefully, smoothed it out. He felt a bit of trepidation at the prospect of reading its message; it had to be bad news to have gotten his brother in such a state.
Need exact location of your mother's grave for legal reasons. Wire information c/o Stanley Fields, Attorney at Law,
San Diego, CA.
Twice he read the words, the second time bringing no more comprehension than the first, but increasing his agitation tenfold. With an exasperated sigh, he looked around at the discarded axe and the half-split stack of wood in disgust. "Damn it, Murdoch, why do you always have to do things this way?"
Turning, Scott saw Teresa standing just inside the door to the washhouse. Her worried expression said she was aware something was wrong, but whether that insight had come from Johnny's bizarre behavior or from actually overhearing what had been said was anybody's guess. "Teresa," was all he could say.
"Is that from Murdoch?" she asked with a nod towards the paper in his hand.
"He's not looking at cattle, is he?"
"Not hardly," Scott snorted, then immediately felt a stab of guilt for taking his frustrations out on her. However, one look at her sad smile and the slight nod she made towards the house let him know that all was forgiven, and that she, too, was worried about what Johnny would do now. With a smile and a sigh, Scott folded the offensive telegram and tucked it away in his shirt pocket.
Thoroughly disgusted with his father's lack of tact and poor timing, Scott headed into the house. As he climbed the stairs he desperately tried to come up with some argument that would prevent Johnny from doing what he knew his impulsive brother was going to do - no wire would be sent; Johnny would be delivering the message in person.
Pausing outside Johnny's door, he raised his hand to knock, then thought better of it. Giving Johnny even a split second of a heads-up could be a mistake. Grasping the door handle, Scott threw caution to the wind and barged in, fully expecting to find Johnny half packed and ready to head out in search of their obviously asinine father. To his total shock, he found Johnny sprawled out across his bed, lying on his stomach with his arms crossed under his head as a pillow.
"Need something, Boston?"
After shaking off his momentary shock, Scott moved over and sat on the edge of Johnny's bed. His brother's breathing was still labored and his back was covered in a sheen of sweat from his strenuous attempt to...to what? Scott wasn't quite sure exactly what Johnny had been trying to do. He did wonder how many of those logs had Murdoch's face on them just before they were splintered wide open by Johnny's axe.
Testing the waters, Scott ventured hesitantly. "Did you wire the information Murdoch requested before you left town?"
"Nope. Don't plan to, neither. If the old man wants to know where she's buried, then he can ask me to my face." Johnny's reply was curt, but not blatantly angry.
Scott chewed his lip for a moment, then bit the bullet. "Do I need to start worrying about you taking off?"
A loud snort reverberated off the headboard. "Start? Like you ever stopped."
"I did, Johnny," Scott protested mildly. "I trust you, and even though you never actually said the words, in your own way you let me know you weren't going to head out on your own. Now I'm asking if that's still the case."
"Don't know where to look, remember?" Johnny mumbled against his sleeve.
"Didn't," Scott corrected.
"Still don't. Just 'cause that lawyer's in San Diego don't mean Murdoch is."
Scott had to admit Johnny had a point. If Murdoch was in San Diego, there would have been no need for Johnny to send the reply to his query in care of an attorney. But if Murdoch wasn't there, had he been? And why? What legal consequences could the location of Johnny's mother's grave have after all this time? It just didn't make sense. His eyes refocused on Johnny's still form, but when he opened his mouth to speak a soft snore caused him to choke back his words.
A rueful smile formed on his lips. Johnny hadn't been sleeping well, this he knew for a fact. For two weeks now he had woken at least once every night to the sounds of Johnny's nocturnal stirrings. The boy was nervous and edgy, but was valiantly keeping to his unspoken promise not to take off on a wild search for their father. It wasn't without a price, though, and now that price had caught up with him.
Very cautiously Scott eased up off the bed. Past experience had taught him all too well that Johnny was a very light sleeper. As soon as his contact with the mattress was broken, he paused, holding his breath in anticipation of a stir that didn't come. Instead, another soft snore floated up from where Johnny's face was buried against his crossed arms.
Confident that the hardest hurdle had been cleared, Scott turned to go, but when he twisted his shoulders around, a slight crinkling sound made him pause. Another snore from Johnny let him know all was well in that department, for now, but the reminder of the small scrap of paper in his pocket had his blood beginning to boil.
Being careful not to let his boot heels knock against the floorboards, he tiptoed out of the room. Pulling the door closed behind him, he let out his breath. With his hand still firmly grasping the door handle, he mentally cursed their father.
'Why, Murdoch?' he asked himself. 'Why couldn't you have waited until you got back? Why couldn't you have shown enough compassion for your own son to make such a delicate request in person, and why not a long time before now?'
*** *** *** ***
From the balcony of their hotel room, Murdoch looked across the short distance to the open water, his thoughts crashing about in his head as fiercely as the waves breaking against the pier. Catherine's assumption that he had loved Maria mother was natural, but to be totally honest he had no clue how to respond to her statement? What he needed to say, what he knew he had to say, was something he had never dared voice before now. Leaning heavily against the railing, he sought his answers in the nearby ocean.
From a distance the sea looked so soft and inviting, but she was a hard mistress for any man who chose to try and tame her. Bitter with salt, she was water that provided only teasing torment when one was thirsty. She was also a water that could not provide a refreshing sense of cleanliness, but, instead, used that same sand to blast the hide right off a man's body. Yet, despite all these hazards there were always men willing to try to tame her. Foolish, arrogant, stupid men who refused to accept that they could not do the impossible. He had turned away from this form of torture when he left Scotland, but he had found a living, breathing mistress who had been more harsh.
Catherine was beside him, waiting patiently for him to explain, but he wondered if she would be able to understand the depths of his darkest feelings; these feelings he had never shared with another soul. "I met Maria in Matamoros, on a hunting trip I took to Mexico when I was in Texas."
"She was Mexican?"
Her simple inquiry, delivered as just that, with no censure, gave him the courage he needed to go on. "Yes, she was Mexican. She was also very young," he paused to contemplate the possibility. "Maybe even too young. Maybe she had not been capable of understanding what being with me would be like," he paused again, his uncertainty growing with each word he did not say. "Maria came into my life when I was finally getting over losing you. Until she came along, with her tantalizing smile and boisterous spirit, I hadn't even looked at another woman. Maria was so vibrant and alive, and I was so tired of feeling dead inside. I..." Murdoch stopped.
Taking a deep breath, he continued to struggle for the words to describe those disturbing thoughts that had haunted him for years, but never more prominently than they had during the last year. "I can only hope that I loved her. I can only hope that we shared some measure of the feelings I had with you, the total fulfillment and love of life and each other, but I just don't know anymore."
A comforting hand appeared on his arm. "What's keeping you from knowing?"
"The hate!" he growled fiercely, before choking back his anger. Seeking some of her calming strength, he placed his hand over the smaller one wrapped around his forearm. "I just can't seem to see past the hate anymore, Catherine. I can't even say with certainty that I ever loved her, but God forgive me, I can honestly say I hate her. Whenever I try to remember the good times, all I find is a wall of bitterness. I hate her more than anyone in this world."
A sympathetic, yet almost incredulous, voice asked, "Even more than my father?"
Murdoch could help but laugh at the bitter irony in her words. He wondered how Harlan would feel if he knew that not only did he not occupy the number one position on Murdoch's most despised list, but that his place been usurped by a foreigner, and a woman, too. "Yes, Catherine, even more than your father. Your father took Scott away before I ever saw him, before I ever held him, before I had the chance to realize how much of my life could be filled by a small bundle of joy in my arms. I still loved Scott and missed him with all my heart, but what Maria did..."
He shuddered as the old familiar rage swept over him. For months now he had fought very hard to suppress these feelings, for Johnny's sake, but now he could not. "Maria let me get to know our son, let me experience all the wonders of being a parent. She even gave me hope that I could finally get my family back together again. Then she stole my sweet precious baby away from me without so much as a backwards glance." A strong wind blew in from over the water. It was as if the sea was mocking him, as if Maria's spirit inhabited those damning waves, hellbent on tormenting him even in her absence.
"When Maria left she not only took my love, my son and my future, she also stole Scott's future and Johnny's future, too. With a wife and a family, not to mention a ranch showing a profit, I was finally in a position to bring Scott back where he belonged." Snorting, he looked out at the ocean waves. "All I can feel for her now is total contempt. And as for what she did to Johnny..." More than just anger kept him from continuing his thought; fear and regret were also contributing to his sudden silence.
"Even if Scott isn't able to fully understand why I never came for him, I never worried about his safety or his health. I always knew that Harlan would take care of him and that he would want for nothing. I found comfort in those thoughts when things got bad, when I felt myself losing my resolve not to do something futilely foolish that would only break Scott's heart."
Another cool breeze blew over the balcony, the setting sun losing its ability to warm the air flowing in off the cold water, but chilly air was not the cause of his shudders and he knew it. His hate was the fuel for these trembles. "But what Maria did," he shook his head in despair. "I had no idea where Johnny was, if he was safe, or happy, or even alive. Any love I had for her faded into oblivion during those agonizing years of uncertainty. It was an empty black hole of nothingness, until I finally found out the truth about what had happened to Johnny. Then the love died and the hate took over. Now I only have my hate for her." He wondered if maybe his voice sounded a little bit remorseful, even though his heart most certainly did not. He didn't have to wonder too long.
Catherine's slender fingers squeezed his arm. "Let it go, Murdoch. You've suffered long enough. She's gone now, and there's nothing you can do about the past except let it go."
It was all he could do not to burst out laughing at her counsel. How many times had he declared the past dead and gone? How many times had he refused to discuss the past, but for reasons he firmly believed his sons would never understand? But he understood too much, saw too many things, had the pieces to a puzzle that would never see the light of day. "I don't think I can do that, Catherine, not with Johnny right there under my nose, looking so much like her, acting like her, dangling her in my face every time he looks at me like he knows I am to blame for her leaving, for the life he had been forced to live."
Pulling away from her, he moved to the other side of the balcony. "Sometimes I can't even look at him without feeling the bile rising in my throat. At those times I just....I just want to shake him, to demand to know everything he refuses to tell me, everything that might explain why she did such a thing."
Instead of being repulsed by his unfounded accusations against a son who had no concept of the agony he brought to his father's heart, Catherine reappeared at his side, her soft touch to his arm as gentle as the words that could have been so brutally spoken. "Murdoch, do you really think your son would know something like that and not tell you?"
"No...maybe...I..." Murdoch said with a desperate sigh. "I sincerely hope not, Catherine, but sometimes the feelings get so intense. I don't trust myself to say anything to him and...and when I do, we usually end up in an argument. Johnny stomps out of the room and rides off to God knows where, and I'm left with the same old unanswered questions."
"Have you tried being honest with Johnny about your feelings? Maybe if you explained to him why it's so hard for you-"
Murdoch snorted. This suggestion was beyond absurd. "By saying what, Catherine? I'm sorry, Son, but I hate
your mother so much that if she wasn't already dead I would be more than happy to do the job myself. Don't
take it too personally, though." Regretting his sarcastic outburst, he looked at her apologetically. "No, Johnny
would leave for sure. He would misinterpret my words. He would think I thought that way about him, too."
Her raised eyebrow countered his words with stern reproach. "And you don't think he is misinterpreting the looks he's getting from you simply because his mother isn't around to be the target of your animosity?"
Even without raising her hand, she had mastered the skill of slapping him with just her words. "It's not that easy, Catherine. There's already so much tension between us. No matter what I say or do, he looks on it as a personal attack. He's so easy to rile. His temper flares so quickly. He's like her in so many ways. Sometimes I think the only thing he got from me were my eyes."
Another gentle, but firm, rebuke followed. "Is Johnny really so much like her, or do you just perceive him as being that way because you're still so angry with her?"
Her words stung, painfully, and his immediate reaction was one of self-defense. "I am not imagining things, Catherine. Do you actually think I want to be repulsed by my own son?!" A frustrated anger coursed through his body with each beat of his heart. He wanted to yell, to cry, to turn away from an issue he had avoided for so long. But he couldn't.
"I want to...I do love Johnny, I just wish that we could be closer, the way it is between me and Scott, but...but she keeps getting in the way!" Turning away, he ran a shaky hand through his hair, and spoke the words he had promised himself he would never speak. "Sometimes I wish I had never met that witch."
"Without her you would not have Johnny." Another painful slap.
"I know." Another painful admission.
"And yet you can still wish you had never met her?"
Although his heart clenched at such an agonizing truth, he could not deny the way he felt. "Yes."
Up until then Catherine been only compassionate and understanding, but now her voice was hard with disapproval. "Your son deserves better than that, Murdoch."
His own voice hardened in response. "I know that, too."
"Then surely you know that for every moment you let her memory come between you and your son that you're letting her take even more away from you? By keeping Johnny at arms length, you're letting her win all over again. Don't you think having a loving, nurturing relationship with your son in spite of all her efforts to prevent that from happening would be a much more fulfilling form of revenge?"
Like a dagger into his heart, her words hurt as none before ever had, not even his own self-recriminations had been more blunt and brutal. His anger waned, only to be replaced with a frustrated sense of defeat. Maria always won, no matter what the battle. "If only it were that easy."
"It can be."
"No it can't." Suddenly overwhelmed by the frustration of her refusal to accept the way things were, even more so than his own inability to change those very things, he snapped coldly, "Johnny will never need me. He's so independent, so unwilling to become reliant on anyone, and no one more so than me. He would die before he would admit to needing me in his life."
A low growl broke his torrent of angry words. "Yet another of Maria's kind and thoughtful gifts," he snorted disgustedly. "First she filled his head full of lies, then she died on him, leaving him all alone to fend for himself the best he could in those border towns she had made him call home. It wasn't very long after her death that Johnny began building quite a reputation for himself as Johnny Madrid."
Next to him he felt Catherine stiffen, and heard her shocked gasp of disbelief. He had been dreading this moment for a while, knowing full well it would come, but still wishing he could bury his younger son's past once and for all. "From your reaction I can only guess you've heard of him?" Murdoch sighed, preparing himself for the reproach, and shocked when it was fury, instead.
"She took Johnny to the border county?!" Catherine was shaking even as she choked on her words. "How could she?! Was she loco or just plain evil?! She was his mother; she had an obligation to protect him, not cast him into such an sinister environment when is was totally unnecessary. If she couldn't live with you, so be it, but she had no right to subject and innocent child to such a life!"
Stunned, Murdoch looked over at her, his mind filled with confusion and concern. "Catherine?" He watched as she reigned in her emotions, something that she was not entirely successful in doing.
Pure anger tainted her voice as she asked, "Murdoch, do you remember what I told triggered my memories to return?"
Such an awful day, but also a very good day. "Yes," he said sadly.
"What I didn't tell you was why that woman was willing to kill her own child. Why she was so certain the he was possessed by the devil and had to be destroyed."
What she had told him had been bad enough, hadn't it? "No you didn't. Given the rest of the story, it didn't seem like a relevant detail."
"Well, it was!" she snapped harshly. In her eyes was a flash of fury he would not have believed her capable of feeling. When she spoke again, though, the reason became all to clear, and all too justifiable. "She killed her own child because he had blue eyes."
With an almost audible swoosh, Murdoch felt the blood rush from his face. "She was willing to kill her own son just because...because he had blue eyes?" he croaked.
"Yes." Catherine leaned against him, sighing heavily as his arms wrapped around her. "Things have changed much since then, thank God. The locals have become much more tolerant, mainly because many Spanish-Mexican marriages produced blue-eyed offspring. Back when that atrocity took place, though, giving birth to a blue-eyed baby was considered evidence that the father was a gringo, which was the worst form of low. I've heard the stories of how the prejudice around the border was even worse. How could any mother subject her own child to such torment? It's unconscionable!"
"Careful, Catherine, if you keep that up you're going to become even less benevolent towards her than I am," Murdoch warned ruefully.
After taking a deep breath, Catherine's response was delivered with more of the calm assuredness that he had come to expect from her. "You're right. After misjudging Mateo's mother so badly, I promised myself I would never make hasty, uniformed judgments against anyone again. I just cannot comprehend any justification for her actions. At least Mateo's mother took the necessary, albeit drastic, steps to ensure his safety, while it seems Johnny's mother did exactly the opposite." Tilting her head back, she looked up at him with a puzzled frown. "You said Johnny had a reputation. A reputation as what?"
This inquiry startled him. He had honestly believed that her gasp had been at least partially fueled by such an astounding revelation that his son was a notorious gunhawk, not just because Johnny had grown up along the border. "You've never heard of Johnny Madrid?"
No hint of recognition dampened her puzzlement. "No, should I?"
"Johnny was...Johnny..." Murdoch struggled, finally coming to the conclusion that the truth was the only real
answer. "Catherine, Johnny was a hired gun, a pistolero, a..." No matter how much troubled water lay
between them, he could not bring himself to call his son a killer.
"A survivor," Catherine finished for him in a voice laced with bitter condemnation; a condemnation for Maria, of that he was totally certain. "What else was he to do?" Turning, she walked back into the hotel room, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
To Murdoch it seemed like Catherine was beginning to find some of the hate he had been living with all these years. This was not something he planned, nor something he wanted, but he could not deny that it felt good to know that he was not alone anymore. More than once he had doubted his own right to those feelings, wondering if he was to blame, as the short hand-written note he had found in his drawer - the only message he had ever received from her - had declared him to be. Now he had some measure of assurance that just maybe he had not been totally at fault.
*** *** *** ***
It was late as Scott wandered out the French doors and onto the patio, casually approaching his brother with a proffering of drink; brandy or tequila, although he was certain which one would be accepted. "Nice night, Brother," he said as he came to a stop next to Johnny.
"Yeah," Johnny mumbled, but did not take his eyes from the steadily rising full moon. It's eerie glow seemed so fitting for the atmosphere of despair that seemed to have settled on the Lancer household.
Nudging Johnny's arm, Scott held out the glass of tequila. His smile faded when Johnny accepted it, but merely held it in his hands. This wasn't the man he had come to know as his brother, but it was a part of his brother he wanted more than anything to get to know. Fair weather friends - and brothers - was not how he envisioned their relationship. He wanted to be there in the worst of times, too.
"Johnny, talk to me." To his surprise, Johnny did just that.
"My mamma wasn't the bad person he thinks she was." Johnny reply was softly spoken, but the silvery moonlight cast harsh shadows on his strained features, putting an edge to his words that might not otherwise have been there. "She loved me. She treated me good. We may not've had much, but what we did have was always enough."
Scott studied Johnny in the pale moonlight. He had often wondered about Johnny's life, having found out very little about how he grew up, just knowing how he had turned out. So many times he had hoped his brother had been loved, almost as if that could make amends for the fact that Murdoch had not been, at least not at the end of his second marriage. Women who loved their husbands did not take up with other men and leave with them.
"Your mother hurt Murdoch, Johnny. You can't expect him to simply forgive her for leaving him like that."
"I don't expect him to forgive her, I just wish he didn't..." Johnny's voice trailed off, but the further slump of his shoulders told the true story.
"Murdoch doesn't blame anything that happened between them on you, Johnny."
Johnny snorted, a disturbing sound rippling with sadness and hurt. "Sometimes I can feel it when he's looking at me. It's a burning sensation, like the fire in his heart is reaching his eyes for a little while. I...I sometimes feel like he wants something from me, something that'll make him feel better, but that he's convinced I'm deciding not to give it to him."
For the first time since Scott joined him, Johnny looked up at him, his eyes reflecting the truth in his words. "I would if I could, Scott, only I don't know what I can do to make it right." The pain flashed brightly, then faded.
Johnny turned away. "You know how he is when it comes to discussing the past. I just don't think he'd wanna
hear that my mamma was so loving to me and to...well, like you done said, not after her up an' leavin' him like
Johnny had almost spoken the proverbial loaded statement; the one Scott would have dodged if it didn't seem so important to his brother. "She and your stepfather got along pretty good?" he inquired cautiously.
For the first time in days, Johnny smiled. "Yeah, they really loved each other. He was a decent man - worked hard, treated me good, even though it couldn't've been too easy, not with me being someone else's kid, and an embarrassment on top of that." Raising the glass to his lips, Johnny downed the clear liquid in one gulp. When he turned back towards Scott, his face was twisted in pain once more.
"He cared for me, Scott. I was nothing but a snot-nosed, half-breed kid that brought him more grief than he deserved, and he still cared for me. He set the rules, and he whopped me good when I broke 'em. He wouldn't'a gone to the trouble if he hadn't thought it was worth it."
Although spoken as a statement, Scott could hear the underlying question in Johnny's voice, see the need to know in those pleading blue eyes. "No, he wouldn't have, Johnny," he said, hoping to assuage those unspoken fears. His brother's needs far outweighed his own uncertainties about Johnny's mother and her rather ambiguous actions; even if he still found those actions hard to accept without any bitterness. "What happened to them, Johnny? You've never told me."
"They died of the fever," Johnny answered softly. "My mamma caught it first. He sent me away so he could care for her without having to worry about me bein' underfoot. Then he caught it. The next thing I knew the old woman he'd left me with was talking to the padre, asking if the church could take me in since I didn't have no one else. I had just turned nine. I was supposed to be asleep, but..."
Scott's heart broke for his brother. If losing his mother and the only father he had ever known wasn't bad enough, hearing about it in such a way had to be even worse. "Johnny, I'm sorry."
Although Johnny was once again staring off into the darkness, the tightness of his jaw indicated that he was reliving a very harsh memory. "I wasn't about to let him take me. I'd heard stories about them orphanages, so I ran away. I..."
Something in Johnny's strained voice said more than his words could convey, declaring that something more traumatic that just losing his parents had happened. "Johnny?"
"I was on foot, we didn't have no horse, an' it took more'n a week or so to reach the next town. Along the way I caught a few rabbits, and drank cactus juice. I'd heard some of the old timers in the saloon taking about how to survive in the desert that way." Johnny snorted. "Didn't think that'd be the best lesson I'd ever learned."
Scott was relieved, thankful for those boastful men who had unintentionally given Johnny the means to survive. "It kept you alive long enough to reach help."
"Kept me alive, but the help weren't there. The fever musta been something real bad. The folks in that town was so scared I'd brung it with me, they sent me packing as soon as I said where I was from. Told me they'd shoot me dead if I set foot in town again."
What?! Scott couldn't believe what he was hearing. How could they? How could anyone throw a little boy out into the desert without any food or water? Before he could formulate a reply in the face of such an atrocity, Johnny began speaking again, this time is voice full of apology.
"She always took good care of me, Scott, the best she could, even giving up stuff she coulda used so I could have something nice. I can't hate her, not even for lying about Murdoch throwin' us out. She had..." Johnny turned away. "There was reasons why she felt she had to lie."
Johnny loved his mother and believed with all his heart that she loved him, too. In the face of such certainty, Scott could not bring himself to voice his own doubts about the woman he had never met. He just wanted to understand. "Can you share those reasons?" he asked hopefully.
"No," Johnny sighed. "Wouldn't be fair to you."
Scott was taken by surprise. "Not fair to me? How?"
Johnny's head bowed low. "Scott, you had your own issues with Murdoch when you came here. You seemed to have found a way to get 'round them, or maybe you just give him more credit than I woulda been able to, but you don't hate him. You've gotten over him knowing where you were the whole time, but not sending for you 'til he needed you. I won't do nothing to make you feel different about him."
This was something Scott had never considered in reference to his brother. It was a slap in the face to discover that Johnny had stayed, maybe even come to Lancer in the first place, only because he was able to accept that Murdoch hadn't been able to find him any sooner.
"Johnny, I have grown to love Murdoch, but I'm not blind to his faults. Just as I love my grandfather without being blind to his limitations. I was exposed to enough of his business dealings to know that if Murdoch had tried to take me back then that my grandfather would have become solely focused on preventing that from happening."
Scott took a sip of his brandy before voicing a thought he had never put into words before. "Even at my expense. That's the way he is, and I do not delude myself into thinking otherwise. Part of me will always be grateful to Murdoch for having the courage to not do anything until I was able to make the decision on my own. I didn't always feel that way, but I do now."
Johnny nodded slightly. "Scott, I...I love Murdoch, too. I just feel," his voice cracked, clearly strained by emotions that were becoming too overwhelming. "I feel like I'm caught in the middle, that I'm maybe betraying her by not hatin' him, and him by not hatin' her. Usually I can keep them feelings separate in my mind, it's just that...sometimes I...I have a hard time deciding who to believe. I wanna believe 'em both, but I can't. I..." Setting his empty glass down on the ground next to the pillar, Johnny abruptly walked away.
As he watched his brother retreat, Scott's heart bled for his pain. So many questions, so many answers, only none of it added up to anything but more confusion. Never before had he considered himself fortunate that his mother had died, but now he could see how her death had spared him so much pain. Of all the things he had questioned all his life, he had never felt the need to question his mother's motives, or Murdoch's. There had never been the need to come up with excuses for loving either of them.
He had no idea what to say to his brother, but he did know one thing; from now on he would have a much more difficult time maintaining his resent and anger towards Johnny's mother. Murdoch wasn't the easiest person to live with, that was a fact, and for some reason Johnny felt that Maria had been justified in leaving her husband and taking him with her. The only problem was that this particular War of the Roses had not stayed between the two principal combatants - Johnny was the one paying the highest price for their failed marriage.
*** *** *** ***
Both physically and emotionally drained, Murdoch's hand shook slightly as he pushed the key into the door lock of the hotel suite he had secured a little over an hour before. After moving Catherine from the boat to the plush hotel room and settled into bed, he had ventured back out in the early morning dawn for the sole reason of sending send a summoning telegram to Scott. Now he was ready to relax while Catherine slept through the last sleeping powder in the next room.
Sinking down onto the cozy divan that was situated by the large bay window that looked out over the bustling bay area, he leaned over and pulled off his boots, ignoring the twinges of pain shooting through his back. He was used to the pains by now, and had come to accept that they would be a permanent reminder of his battles with Day Pardee.
With a yawn, he leaned back, stretching his legs out in front of him, and allowing a small smile to grace his lips. Besides the pain in his back, he would always have the dead land pirate to thank for helping him achieve what he had not been able to do on his own for over two decades - bringing his sons back to Lancer where they belonged. For the past year he had thought nothing could make his life more fulfilled than having Scott and Johnny around, but now there were even more opportunities to be enjoyed.
His precious Catherine, the beautiful woman who had dared defy her pristine family to share in his 'outlandish' dreams, the courageous wife who had left behind a life a luxury and wealth to face the unknown hardships of the untamed wilderness, was miraculously back at his side. This was a fantasy he had never once considered, given what he had believed to be the permanent nature of her absence from his life, but now that those dreams were back within his grasp he was determined not to let her slip away from him again. As long as she felt as strongly from him as he was now feeling for her, there was no reason at all that they couldn't make a happy marriage once again.
The final leg of their boat trip north had started out much as the first, with Catherine becoming ill almost immediately upon leaving the pier. There were less moments of sickness, though, as the extra sleeping powders the good doctor had provided had allowed her to sleep through most of the journey. Even the heavy waves stirred up by an early summer squall had not been too hard on her. The storm itself had been intense, but very short lived, yet it had been intense enough to make him feel an twinge of queasiness at the height of its fury.
While the trip had gone pretty much as expected, with him taking care of Catherine or just sitting by her side, what he hadn't counted on was the tumultuous resurgence of memories from his second marriage. Since he opened up to Catherine about his hatred for Maria, his mind had been a swirling vortex of conflicting feelings; mostly bad, but some were actually surprisingly pleasant.
What was most painful about those unexpected good feelings, and even more disturbing, was that they all seemed to be limited to the time before Johnny's birth. Once their son was born, instead of becoming content in her motherhood, Maria had turned into what he could now only describe now as indifferent, which was so unlike the woman he had married.
When he first met Maria in Matamoros, she had been alive and vibrant and almost intoxicating in her vitality. He had felt the heat of her hungry gaze within minutes of entering the dusty saloon. Their eyes met, and the attraction flared like a blaze out of control. The passion, the want, the all-consuming desire had been missing from his life since the day he had stood hopelessly lost at Catherine's graveside. Finally he was able to look back with an objective eye and know with absolute certainty that, just as the offspring brought forth from each woman were as different as day and night, so was the love he had felt for them.
The love he shared with Catherine had been refined, dignified, and, for lack of better terms, pure. She had been his first love, and your first love was always the most special. There was never anything hurried or frayed about their love, or their lovemaking. They were intense in their passions, but never so out of control that they would have made the kind of mistake he would later make with Maria. Their wedding night had been their first time together in the Biblical sense of the word, and he would not have considered it being otherwise; not with his precious Catherine.
His love for Maria had been more wanton than anything he had ever had with Catherine. That wasn't to say that he had considered Maria a whore, or any less precious than Catherine. He would not have married Maria if he had though so little of her. While he probably would have taken more time to get to know her better had Johnny not been conceived so quickly, in his heart he knew would have married her eventually. There had been something about her, something so overwhelming that he could no more refuse her advances than he could have willed his heart to stop beating.
What he couldn't figure out was what had happened. What had turned that fiery love into a fiery hatred capable of doing him so wrong? This was the thought had occupied his mind for most of the past two days, but no matter how many ways he looked at it, no matter how much he searched for another reason, he always found himself right back at the same disheartening answer.
Johnny. It was his son's birth that had signaled the beginning of the end for his marriage.
It wasn't that things had been perfect before Johnny's birth. He had known instantly upon their arrival at Lancer that Maria had been disappointed by the still-developing estancia, but even that disappointment had not seemed to dampen her vivacious spirit, or anything else, for that matter. Still, throughout her pregnancy she seemed to be satisfied and content, for the most part. The thing he remembered most about that time was how her condition had done nothing to dampen her already well-developed libidinous appetite.
While Catherine's sexual urges had decreased as her pregnancy progressed, Maria's desires escalated until they were just shy of demands. He had done his best to juggle his responsibilities to her and to his ranch without neglecting either, and she had seemed to be accepting enough of his divided attentions - until the day Johnny was born. He had not been able to see it then, but now he could see that was when everything changed, but for reasons he could not fathom.
With a wistful fondness, he remembered how eagerly they had both looked forward to the birth of their child. They made plans for the nursery, chose and rechose names, and engaged in many a lively debate about whether their unborn child would be a boy or a girl. It was from this blissful memory that sprang forth a very disturbing consideration.
Could it be possible? Had Maria really been so determined that their child would be a girl that when Johnny was born a boy that she had felt cheated? Had she been so resentful of his maleness that she had made herself not want the child she had carried so happily for nine months? It was an answer, of sorts, but not one he was willing to accept too easily.
For himself, the arrival of their son had been nothing short of awe inspiring. He had longed for a brother for Scott to nurture and grow with once he had been retrieved from Boston, but he would not believe that if Maria had bore him a daughter he would have loved her any less than he had his precious son. It was simply inconceivable to his paternal mind. It seemed impossible to him to even consider being upset by what had been a fifty-fifty chance all along.
He smiled as he recalled that bright December morning, the images flashing through his mind as clearly as if they had taken place only yesterday. The sun rose into a clear blue sky, shining brightly down on the newly fallen snow that blanketed the ranch in a coat of glistening white frost.
His newborn child slept peacefully in his arms while Maria lay in their bed in an exhausted sleep. His pride in his son, in his world, had never been greater than during his son's first sunrise. It was the horror to come that he had not been prepared to face.
Johnny had been born a few minutes past midnight, just barely into the twenty-third day of December. Maria was in labor for almost two full days, and was completely exhausted by the time Johnny finally graced them with his appearance. At the time his mind and heart had been so overwhelmed by the miracle of it all that he had not been able to see the warning signs. Looking back now, with eyes finally able to penetrate the shroud of bitterness that had blinded him for so long, he could clearly see what he had missed back then.
It was while the midwife was cleaning Johnny's tiny body that Murdoch sat with to his worn out wife, offering her what little support he had to give in the wake of such a laborious ordeal. It was then, just as Maria drifted off to sleep, that she mutter the words he had instantly dismissed as the ravings of woman who had just experienced the most demanding task any woman would ever endure.
'You have your son, Murdoch. You raise him.'
It wasn't until a little over a year later, when he woke up to find both his wife and his son gone, that he even remembered those harsh words he had so easily refused take seriously. A few unnerving days later, days spend searching for his family with no result, he found the note she had left for him in his bureau drawer.
'I've changed my mind. You don't get to raise him.'
That was all she had left behind, those few scribbled words and twenty years of painful contemplation and
worry. So deep had been his grief and anger, that the full meaning of those words had remained elusively
hidden away. His befuddled mind had refused to see what an unfit mother his second wife had become, and
by the time the haze had cleared, it was hatred that kept him blind to what she had become.
With a sigh, he casually eyed the small bar in the corner of the room with a small amount of interest. It was too early to start drinking, so he settled for a mental chastisement of his previous assessment. Maybe unfit was too harsh a word for Maria, but that she had definitely lost all interest in their son could not be denied. Almost from the moment Johnny had been born, she had refused to have too much to do with him.
Blinded by his love for his wife and child, he had failed to see what was now as plain as the nose on his face. When Maria left, his heart and mind had settled on the fact that she had left him, had been dissatisfied with him, with their marriage with life at Lancer. The pieces were now falling into place, and the picture they were revealing was even more vile than the one of a bitter wife deserting her husband. The picture he was seeing now was that of a woman obsessed with making her child pay for being born a son.
After giving birth, it had taken Maria only two days to decide that she was incapable of nursing Johnny. There were hysterics and tears when it was decided that a wet nurse would have to be called in. It had saddened him that their son would not be suckled at his mother's breast, but Johnny had to eat. If Maria's body was incapable of providing the nourishment their son needed, then they would do what had to be done. Their child's needs had to come first.
Looking back, he found it strange that the wailing and the tears had died out rather quickly once the decision to seek a wet nurse had been made. Had her maternal sorrow been nothing but an act? Had she truly been incapable of nursing Johnny, or had she just chosen not to do so? Had there really been acceptance for that which could not be changed, or had her acceptance been nothing more than satisfaction over a plan so flawlessly executed?
If it had just been those two things, he would be more skeptical of his newly formed realizations. However, there was more. There were countless nights when proclaimed headaches had not only kept her from their bed, but also away from their son, as he was sometimes very restless and noisy. It had never occurred to him then that these headaches had never plagued her before Johnny's birth, or that they never seemed to manifest themselves when a trip to town was on the agenda.
At those times, either Johnny had been left at the ranch in the care of his nurse, or Murdoch had found himself as the doting father for the entire trip. He had played the role of proud papa to the hilt. There was always someone new around to introduce his beautiful baby boy to, but that had been his role and his role alone. Not once that he could recall, had there been a time when Maria actually came looking for her child, instead, taking on his care only when circumstances left her no choice.
While nothing he could remember had ever kept her from her own pleasures, she had systematically cut their son out of her life, little by little, so subtly that he had even now he could not pinpoint when he had become the sole parental care giver to their child.
The only major flaw in this whole theory was that if Maria had despised Johnny so much, why had she taken him with her when she left? If there had been no love in her heart for her own son, why hadn't she left him behind? Surely her life would have been much easier without an unwanted baby at her side.
Then, there was also Johnny himself. The man who had returned to Lancer a year ago was filled with rage and lies about the unjust treatment he and his mother had received from his despicable excuse of a father. Johnny had defended his mother valiantly until Teresa told him the truth. Since then he had became closed mouthed and silent on the subject of his mother. Although, Johnny had not once come out and said so, Murdoch always sensed the underlying currents of a very deep love and devotion in Johnny for his mother.
Had Maria's attitudes changed so drastically after leaving Lancer? If not, how had she managed to deceive Johnny so completely? Johnny was no fool when it came to judging people, yet it was written all over his face whenever the subject of his mother was even slightly broached that there had been a very strong bond between mother and son.
The only thing he could deduce was that there was a very large, very important piece to the puzzle still missing. He was clueless as how to go about finding that piece, though, as the subject of Maria had always been a volatile issue between he and Johnny. It was hard for him to imagine Johnny ever understanding these less-than-flattering opinions he had of Maria. What was impossible for him to imagine Johnny staying calm long enough to listen to what he had to say.
Shaking off a sleepy haze, he looked up and saw Catherine standing in the doorway to one of the suite's four bedrooms. Standing he headed that way, coming to a stop when she raised a hand to wave him off.
"Would you like something to eat?" he asked even though he knew what the answer would be. The unsteady shake of her head confirmed his belief.
"Some coffee will be enough for now," she said softly. Sinking into the high-back chair on the opposite side of the bay window from the divan on which he had spent the morning in thought.
"All that's here is old and..." he stopped short. "I suppose that hasn't changed either? You still like old, room temperature coffee more than fresh brewed?" he asked with a shake of his head and a short chuckle.
"If you'd try it, you might find you like it, too."
"I have," Murdoch admitted with an unhappy frown. "Usually not by choice, and enough times to realize that I do not like it. Harlan probably told you it was the best way to drink it just so he wouldn't have to waste one precious penny of his 'inherited' money."
"Murdoch, you're above such petty comments, or at least you used to be."
All amusement was gone from Catherine's reproach, but Murdoch refused to back down. Not on this topic. "I will not apologize, Catherine. I've endured that man's unscrupulous tactics for almost twenty-eight years. When you can say the same, then I'll consider your opinion. I've agreed to hear your father's side of the story when he gets here, but I will not speak nicely of him just so you can maintain your illusions of the wonderful man he is not. I will not be a hypocrite, even for you."
A strained silence settled over them. It took only a short time for Catherine to come to a decision. Nodding, she said, "I can accept that, Murdoch. My illusions are not nearly as rose-colored as you would imagine, but he is my father, and I do love him." She straightened in her seat and gave him a gentle smile. "Did you send for Scott?"
Realizing that both of them had conceded as far as they were going to at that point, he gratefully accepted the change in topic. "First thing this morning, while you were still sleeping. Unfortunately, that storm delayed our arrival just long enough to put a kink in my plans. The last train Scott would have been able to catch left Cross Creek station this morning. Even if Scott went to town early for supplies, there's no way he could have made it to Cross Creek in time."
"When is the next train he could take?"
"Not until Monday afternoon, I'm afraid." The disappointment in Catherine's expression broke his heart. She was so anxious to finally get to meet her son, and now it would be another couple of days of waiting. Moving closer, he kneeled down next to her chair and took her into his arms. "I'm sorry, Darling."
After a few minutes of weeping, Catherine sat up and wiped away her tears. "I'll be okay," she said firmly. "After twenty-five years, what's another couple of days."
Murdoch sighed. "A couple of days too many."
Catherine took a deep breath and smiled. "So, is there really any stale coffee left, or were you just leading me on, Mr. Lancer?"
Returning her smile, Murdoch leaned forward and kissed her tenderly on the cheek. "I would never lead you on, Miss Garrett," he said softly. "One cup of the worst coffee available, coming right up."
After struggling to his feet, his back protesting the movement with a few rather intense grumbles, which he did his best to hide, he headed for the breakfast tray sitting on the table by the door. While he was pouring the obnoxious brew, Catherine got up and opened the draperies.
"Heavens, Murdoch, what time is it?"
Glancing at the clock on the fireplace mantle, he was shocked to see that it was already nearly 1:30. "Later than I thought. I must have slept as well as you did. It's well after lunch time. Are you sure you're not ready to eat something?"
Catherine was still standing by the window when he handed her the cup of coffee. He grimaced as she took a sip and seemed to enjoy it immensely. It was beyond his capacity to understand how anyone could actually prefer cold coffee to anything...even dirty swamp water sounded better to him.
"Not just yet, but if you're hungry, please don't mind me. Go get something to eat. I'll just stay here and admire the view."
Slipping his arm around her waist, he looked out over the bay. "I can wait. I'd rather spend time with you." She leaned her head against his shoulder and he let his cheek rest easily on her hair. There were so many things he wanted to say, so many promises he wanted to make, but he didn't want to move too fast and end up spoiling things in his haste. With that in mind, he chose what he considered a safer topic of conversation. "You look much better. You must have slept very well."
Slipping from his arms, she returned to her chair. "Actually, I had the most unusual dream."
She gazed at him over the rim of her coffee cup, and something about the gleam in her eye made him wish he hadn't asked. The die was cast, however, so he played along. "And what was so unusual about this dream?" he asked as he retook his place on the divan.
"You may not want to know," she laughed. After taking a sip of coffee, she smiled deviously in his direction. "Do you remember Mateo's farewell blessings?"
In his mind, the parting with Mateo had gone more smoothly than he would have believed possible. They had found a common ground in their love for Catherine, and had also established a level of respect for each other. "He was very gracious considering what he was losing. He," Murdoch's eyes narrowed. "He bestowed the blessings of several saints on us. Saint Sebastian I assumed was Sebastian of Aparicio, the patron saint of travelers, but the others were not familiar to me."
"The second was Saint Dymphna, the patron saint of family happiness. By bestowing her blessing, he was, in effect, giving us his best wishes for a life together."
Murdoch's throat constricted slightly. Although he had realized he had gained Mateo's acceptance, he had not fully understood just how much the young man's feelings had changed. "That was very gallant. I didn't tell you at the time, but you did a wonderful job raising that young man. You can be proud of his maturity and restraint."
Catherine laughed. "Thank you, Murdoch, but I can't take credit for how Mateo turned out. He is a very strong-willed individual, and he has a genuine nature about him that is not something he learned from me. It is who he is. As for his restraint, believe me, there are times when Mateo has very little of that particular gift."
Recalling the night spent in Catherine's room, with a very suspicious Mateo glaring at him through the night,
Murdoch did not find this concept too unbelievable. "Still, he could have made your leaving difficult for you, and
for him. He chose not to because he respects and loves you. That's what keeps him from being hotheaded."
"True." An admission made too coyly.
"So tell me, Darling, this all sounds so civil, so what part gave you unusual dreams? What were the other saints Mateo mentioned."
"Well, there was Saint Erasmus, who is the patron saint for seasickness."
This also sounded reasonable enough. Murdoch was sure that Catherine would have mentioned her adversity to ocean travel at least once over the years. Yet there was a tremor in her voice that left him wondering what potshot Mateo had taken at him without his knowledge.
"What about the other two?" he asked with mild trepidation.
Catherine had to stifle a laugh, which did not bode well for what was to come. For a long moment she chewed her lip, as if trying to decided which saint to bash him with first. "It seems that while Mateo has come to respect you, he also wanted to make absolutely certain that we did not...how shall I say...behave improperly."
"And just how would he accomplish that?" Murdoch demanded.
"By asking for the blessing of Saint Pelagia of Antioch for our journey." A few more twitches at the left side of her mouth heralded in a rather stunning explanation. "Saint Pelagia is the patron saint against sexual temptation."
Murdoch's eyes bugged out of his head. That Mateo would even do such a thing in jest was reprehensible. "Do I dare even ask about the last blessing?" he asked indignantly.
This time Catherine was even less successful at stifling a laugh, actually snorting in the attempt, and nearly spilling her coffee in the process. In what seemed to be a very practical maneuver, Catherine set her coffee down on the arm table, before continuing. "That would be Saint Gall."
"Who would be the patron saint of what?" Murdoch demanded.
"Birds," Catherine squeaked. "Geese, loosely translated..." A loud choking sound was cut off before it became a cackle. "Ducks." Giving up the effort, Catherine burst out in hysterical laughter.
*** *** *** ***
Scott was in the barn saddling Charlemagne when he heard a rider coming in at a rather fast pace. He stepped out of the barn just as Benny Anderson pulled his bay gelding to an abrupt stop by the corral. Between the galloping speed and the sliding stop, a cloud of dust quickly engulfed the area.
"What's the hurry, Benny?" Scott asked as he waved away the floating dust.
Without dismounting, Benny guided the bay over to where Scott was standing. "Evan told me to get this telegram out here as fast as I could." The dark-haired man leaned over and held out the envelope, which Scott took without hesitation. "Said you'd be needin' to read it real fast, unless you was planning on waitin' 'til Monday to do what it says."
Scott tore open the envelope and hastily read its message -
Come to San Francisco immediately. Meet me at the Pacific House Hotel. Come alone. Johnny can tend to the ranch by himself for a few days.
After reading the message, he was never more glad that Johnny's increasingly sullen mood had taken him away from the hacienda at an unusually early hour this beautiful Saturday morning. Johnny did not need to be subjected to yet another callous message from their father. Even as he folded the offensive paper and stuffed it into his pocket, his mind was busy formulating a plan of attack.
"Benny, thank you so much for getting this message here so fast. Now why don't you give that horse of yours a rest," he said with a compassionate pat to the bay's lathered neck. "You can put him in the corral, and you know your way to kitchen. Maria and Teresa will be more than glad to serve you a nice hot breakfast for your trouble."
"Thank you, Scott," Benny said quickly. "I'll be glad to. Them ladies can sure whip up a mean meal." Dismounting, he opened the gate and called out after Scott, who was already headed for the house. "Thanks for the hospitality."
With anger and disappointment burning at his soul, Scott ran upstairs to pack. It was still early, and if he hurried, he could catch the westbound train at the Cross Creek station. Thank goodness it was so early, as there wouldn't be another train headed for San Francisco until late Monday afternoon.
Scott didn't think he would be able to keep Johnny in the dark for two whole days. With just one look at him, Johnny would know something was up and would not let up until he had been told about the second telegram. Johnny's tenacity was second only to his stubbornness, which was something Scott had learned early on was not to be circumvented too easily.
"Teresa!" he yelled over his shoulder as he stuffed a carpet back with clean shirts and pants. He had no idea what he would need, so he packed light. Murdoch's telegram said Johnny would only be needed to run the ranch alone for a few days, so he shouldn't need to take that much. He was just finishing up when Teresa appeared at his door.
"Scott, if you think I'm going to bring you breakfast in bed-"
"I don't have time for breakfast, Teresa," he interrupted tersely. "I'm heading for the train station at Cross Creek. I'm not sure when I'll be back."
"Why?" she asked with barely contained curiosity. "Where are you going? Should I have someone fetch Johnny? He left for the north-"
"No!" Scott interrupted again. He hated what he was about to do, but he needed her to understand. "I'm not telling you where I'm going or why because I don't want you to have to lie to Johnny. This is something I have to do alone."
Teresa's expression instantly crumbled. "That's why Benny Anderson is here so early, isn't it? He brought you a telegram from Murdoch. Murdoch sent for you, but not for Johnny, didn't he?"
Placing a hand on each of her shoulders, he hesitated for a moment, then pulled her close as much for his own need for comfort as for hers. "I'm sorry, Teresa, but sometimes I do wish you weren't so perceptive. I don't want to ask you to lie to Johnny, but I won't stand for him being hurt anymore. He can't know where I've gone, or why."
"Don't worry. I'll think of something to tell Johnny." When she spoke again, the confidence and determination was missing from her voice. "What's going on, Scott? Why is Murdoch behaving like this?" she cried softly against his chest.
A cold wave of anger overtook Scott. "I wish I knew, Teresa, but rest assured, I will find out. He is not going to
get away with it this time."
Teresa pulled away, her beautiful brown eyes looking up at him brimmed with tears. "Scott..."
Pulling her back against him, he tried to belay the fears he knew were taking over her heart. "It will work out, Teresa. No one is going to leave, but Murdoch has got to learn that he can't keep doing this to us. He may call the tune when it comes to the business dealings of this ranch, but we are a family. He is going to start showing us some respect...all of us." With a tender kiss to the top of her head, he released his hold and grabbed the packed bag from the foot of his bed. "I've got to get moving, or I'm going to miss the train. It comes early on Saturdays."
True to her strong-willed nature, Teresa wiped her eyes and lifted her chin. "Save some of him for me, Scott," she said defiantly. "I've got a few things to say to Murdoch, too."
As he moved by her, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "You can count on it," he said affectionately, before rushing from the room.
Gathering Charlemagne from the barn, he mounted up and head out at a breakneck pace. As he raced under the Lancer arch, he couldn't help but smile at the thought of Teresa taking a chunk out of Murdoch's stubborn hide. He was looking forward to witnessing that particular confrontation, knowing that Teresa could get to Murdoch in ways that he and Johnny would never be able to do.
*** *** *** ***
As he watched Catherine sitting across the restaurant table, conspicuously not eating her dinner, Murdoch wondered at her mood. Things had started out well enough that day, beginning with the merriment of their afternoon sainthood lesson, something that he had found anything but funny but for some reason had left her tickled silly. As the day wore on, however, her spirit had faltered, until now she seemed to be in a very depressed state.
"Catherine, what's wrong?" he asked gently.
She looked up, startled, as if she had lost track of where she was. Then she smiled at him, her tired expression foreshadowing the words to come. Before she spoke, her gaze fell back to her plate. "I'm worried, Murdoch."
Concern washed over him. "About what, Darling?"
She toyed in her peas one last time, then set her fork aside with a disgusted sign. "I'm worried about meeting Scott, and trying to explain to him why I didn't try to find out the truth after I got my memories back. What if he doesn't understand? What if he sees my cowardice as proof that I just did not want him?"
"Catherine, our son is one of the most understanding, forgiving, non-judgmental men I've ever met. The fact that he's at Lancer now proves he can forgive even the most monumental shortcomings." Reaching across the table, he took her hand in his. He was shocked by how cold it felt. "I'm not saying Scott isn't going to have questions, that there won't be moments when he doesn't understand, but I'm sure having you in his life is going to mean more to him than any questions he might have concerning those few years."
Her fingers tightened around his, and when she looked up there were tears in her eyes. "I feel like such a fool. I should never have let my fear keep me from finding out the truth, keep me away from my son."
"You are anything but a fool, Catherine," Murdoch chastised. "You had every reason to believe what you had been told was true. Such a traumatic event would have explained the memory loss, and your life-" he choked. Just the thought of what else she had endured made him feel ill. Composing himself, he continued with the more relevant part of his thought. "And some women do change after childbirth. I know this to be true. I've seen it first hand. Every one of your fears were plausible and understandable."
Brushing away her tears, she nodded, but did not look entirely convinced. "I have to admit that I wondered
when you seemed to accept my explanation so easily. I had spent so many sleepless nights while waiting for
your arrival, wondering if you would be able to understand. I was so grateful when you did, but..."
"But Scott doesn't have the benefit of your experiences with Johnny's mother. Maybe he'll turn away from me, like he's bound to feel I've done to him all this time."
"He won't." Murdoch had never been more sure of anything.
"How can you be so certain? Is it because Scott was able to accept your leaving him in Boston with his grandfather? But that's not the same, Murdoch. Even without fully understanding your reasons for doing so, he had the comfort of knowing that you knew where he was, that you knew he was safe and being well cared for." Her voice faltered and she bowed her head. "I don't even have that benefit of the doubt."
"Catherine, I'm not saying acceptance is going to come instantly, but it will come. I know this because I saw the way he accepted his brother. Johnny's life before returning to Lancer was very ugly. He-"
Catherine's head shot up instantly. "He survived the hell he was dragged into by a mother more unfit than even me!" As soon as the angry words left her mouth, though, she was glancing around, looking fearful that this private matter had been aired for all to hear.
He too took a brief survey of their surroundings, but thankfully, it was late and the restaurant was basically empty. One or two diners across the room looked their way, but then returned to their own conversations.
"Catherine, you are not an unfit mother. You've faced some very difficult choices, and you made those choices to the best of your ability. Scott will be able to understand that, you'll see." Not wanting to risk any further public displays, he wiped his mouth. "Unless you're planning on making another stab at tormenting those peas to death, maybe we should call it a night."
She blushed and nodded. "I guess even a pea has the right to rest in peace."
As if to contradict her words, Murdoch stood, but moved too quickly in his attempt to reach Catherine's side of the table. He ran head-on into a waiter, who was laden down with the empty dishes from another table. Dishes, forks, knives, and spoons went flying in all directions, with the one bowl of half-finished split pea soup landing with a splat against his chest. Green ooze dribbled down his shirt, pants and onto his boots.
While the waiter sputtered profuse apologies, and attempted to clean the soup from Murdoch's clothes, Catherine stood off to the side, her attempts not to laugh neither successful nor subtle. After assuring the waiter and the manager, who had appeared on the scene moments after the horrendous crash of dishes, that he was fine, his clothes were fine, and that he and his wife had not been harmed in any way, he quickly ushered Catherine towards the stairs.
"Mrs. Lancer?" Catherine teased as they began ascending the grand stairway.
"Yes, well, I..." Murdoch stammered for a moment, then gathered his wits and stated what he considered to be the obvious. "It seemed easier to agree with his assumptions than to try and explain our rather unique circumstances."
After opening the door to their suite, he followed her inside. "And I'm glad you found that so amusing," he quipped. "I think I'll change into some clean clothes, now that the war you started with the peas is over."
"How was I supposed to know that peas have such a staunch sense of loyalty to each other?" She called out after him as he disappeared into his bedroom. "Who would have thought a legume would be so vindictive? I'll have to be sure and never poke at my steak if I don't intend to eat it, or else you might end up with a cow in your lap."
"Very funny," Murdoch called out from behind the nearly closed door. Despite the inconvenience and mess,
his voice still held a touch of amusement. Before she could respond, though, a firm knock rattled the main
door of the suite.
"I'll get it," she called out and headed for the door.
*** *** *** ***
Having stopped at the front desk to get Murdoch's room number, Scott knocked at the door of room #317. He was taken completely by surprised when a woman greeted him with a curious smile and a gently spoken 'can I help you?'. His first impression was that there was something vaguely familiar about her, but his staunch manners kept any hesitancy from his apology. "I'm sorry, ma'am. The desk clerk must have given me the wrong room number. Please forgive my intrusion"
From deeper inside the room, a familiar voice exclaimed, "Scott!"
After gasping out his name, the woman took a step backwards, her hand at her throat. She turned a ghostly pale, and Scott wondered if she might faint. Just then a movement from inside the room caught his attention. Looking passed her into the hotel suite, Scott was again taken by surprise when he saw Murdoch standing in the doorway of one of the interior rooms. Although he had recognized Murdoch's voice, it was his father's appearance that gave him cause to pause.
His father's shirt was half buttoned and there were no boots on his socked feet, but was most intriguing was his expression - he looked like he had been caught doing something he should not be doing. If the situation was not so dire, it would have been funny. However, the situation was dire, and he was anything but amused.
Infuriated indignation coursed through Scott's already tense frame. "Murdoch," he said coldly.
"I didn't expect you so soon, Son."
As these things always seem to happen, the bellboy from the lobby picked that particular moment to arrive on the scene. Speaking up with a cheerful tone indicative of his position, he stepped right up and drove the final nail into Murdoch's coffin. "Excuse me. Mrs. Lancer, you left your handbag in the restaurant. The manager asked me to bring it right up to you."
The strange woman, evidently his father's new wife Scott thought bitterly, gave the bellboy a shaky nod. The young man moved closer, and her hand shook as she retrieved the offered handbag from his outstretched hand.
"Thank...thank you so much."
After relinquishing the handbag, the bellboy gave each of them a curious look, then wisely decided to make himself scarce, foregoing any form of gratuity in his haste. He paused only once in his flight, when he reached the end of the hallway, and that was only long enough to cast one last speculative glance their way before he disappeared around the corner.
For Scott, all thoughts of politeness and proper etiquette flew out the window. He could not believe his father had put them all through this nightmare of uncertainty and outlandish speculations just because he wanted to take another wife. Storming into the room, Scott threw his bag to the floor, barely missing Murdoch's toes in the process.
"Mrs. Lancer?" Scott growled at his father. "That's what all this has been about? You wanted to getting married again? Would you care to explain to me why it was too difficult for you to have a normal courtship, get married after a proper engagement, and NOT keep your family in the dark by leaving us senseless clues until you decided to introduce us to your new wife!"
"Scott, you don't understand. This isn't what you're thinking."
Ignoring the pained expression on his father's face, Scott snapped back sarcastically "And whose fault could that possibly be? A little information might have gone a long way to preventing such unenlightened conclusions, but, of course, that would have been way too much trouble, wouldn't it? Why spoil the big surprise when you can torment your family and get married, all at the same time."
"I think I should leave you two alone for now. I'll be in my room, Murdoch." Both men watch in silence until the woman, still looking shocked and pale, disappeared behind a door on the far side of the room.
"Separate bedrooms?" Scott smirked. "I had no idea you had such a puritanical streak, or was that just for my benefit?"
"That's enough, Scott!" Murdoch roared, paused to take a deep breath, then continued in a more controlled tone of voice. "Please sit down and let me explain, Son. There's more to this situation than you know. I'm afraid you're going to find that information rather shocking, but I'm hoping once you've had a chance to let it sink in that you'll be as happy as I am."
Biting back the bitter retort to the effect that finding he had a new stepmother was plenty enough of a shock and that he would only be happy when Murdoch admitted to being a complete jackass, Scott opted to listen to what his father had to say. Then he would lay into him for his deplorable behavior towards the family he was supposed to love.
Walking across the large room, he took a seat in a high backed chair situated near the large bay window. Making a concerted effort, he pushed aside his anger and hurt long enough to study his father more closely. Nervous fingers fiddled with buttons and holes before the shirt was closed properly. The shirt was tucked into his pants, then Murdoch disappeared into the room from which he had emerged half-dressed, only this time when he came into view, his boots were on his feet. It was an almost sheepish expression that met his gaze.
"Thank you, Sir." Murdoch was more nervous than he had ever seen him, so Scott refrained from making any more comments. He would listen first, then decide how to most suitably dress down Murdoch for his totally insensitive actions of the past few weeks. There would be some apologies forthcoming, of that he would make certain.
While he watched his father pour two cups of coffee, images of Johnny's hurt expressions flashed through his mind, strengthening his resolve even more. However, that resolve wavered when Murdoch approached, holding out his coffee with a hand shaking so badly that the cup rattled against the saucer on which it was sitting. Compassion and concern became his primary emotions.
"What's going on, Murdoch?" Scott glanced furtively at the room into which the woman had disappeared. "Please don't tell me that..." he looked down at into his coffee, wishing he had not even broached such an inappropriate subject - and with his own father! What was he thinking?
"Don't tell you what?" Murdoch's voice was a shaky as his hand had been.
"You didn't, well, you didn't have to get married, did you?" The heat of his embarrassment had him wishing the nearby window was open.
"Son, no one said I got married..." The impact of Scott's question finally hit home. "No, I did not have to get married, and I do not appreciate your insinuations."
"I'm sorry, Sir. I was completely out of line." Looking up at his father, Scott let a little of his own anger surface. "However, if you knew the turmoil the rest of us have been living through since you up and disappeared, with only that feeble excuse for a note as an explanation, you might understand my anger. Would a few more details really have been too much to ask?"
Murdoch at least had the graciousness to look contrite. "In this case, yes, it would have been, Scott. When I left the ranch, I really didn't know what I would find in Mexico. I knew what I hoped to find, but it would have been cruel of me to raise your hopes about something so important without being sure of my facts first."
Scott was even more confused now. "'Your hopes' as in mine, personally, or as in the family's as a whole?"
"Your hopes specifically, although this is something that will affect the whole family."
"Mine? But I've never even been to Mexico. What could you possibly find there that would relate to me more than to Johnny?" Just the thought of the anguish Johnny had been living through brought on a resurgence of Scott's protective anger, and made him push harder than his respect normally would have allowed. "Murdoch, do you have any idea what kind of hell you've put Johnny through these past few weeks?"
To his surprise, Murdoch appeared to be genuinely shocked by this suggestion, which infuriated Scott to no end. "Yes, Johnny! Your other son. Remember him? Dark hair, blue eyes, grew up in Mexico; the one who has been thinking himself insane trying to figure out which ghost from his past has resurfaced to bite him in the backside this time. I couldn't even tell Teresa where I was going because I refused to ask her to lie to Johnny; considering the subject matter of your last telegram, sending for me and not him would have been a kick in the teeth he did not deserve."
Murdoch's complexion had taken on an ashen hue. "Scott, I had no idea Johnny would believe this had anything to do with his past."
"Well, you should have." Scott sighed in resignation. Sometimes he could not fathom how his father could be both caring and dense as a railroad tie when it came to Johnny. "There are a few apologies to be made when we get home. I know you don't usually make apologies, but in this case you will, and you will damn well mean them." He gave his father only a small opportunity for rebuttal, and was relieved when none was forthcoming. This was a fight he was tired of having, and one he was even more tired of losing.
"What is all this about, Murdoch?" Another curious glance was aimed at the door across the room. "Who is she? And if she's not your wife, why did the bellboy address her as Mrs. Lancer?"
Instead of answering, Murdoch leaned forward. He rested his forearms on his knees and studied his fingers as he pressed them against each other. In a soft voice, so unlike his usual firm tone, he asked without looking up, "Scott, answer me one question. If there was one wish you would want to come true more than anything in the world, what would it be?"
"Murdoch," Scott huffed impatiently, but did not continue his rebuke when his father raised both hands in a gesture of surrender.
"Please, Son, just answer my question. You'll understand everything very soon, I promise."
While he really did not feel like playing guessing games, it wasn't often Murdoch Lancer pleaded with anyone for anything, including his sons, which was exactly what he was doing at the moment. Feeling more than just a little unnerved, Scott shrugged. There really was only one answer. "I guess I would wish to have a chance to know my mother."
"What if I told you that you could?"
Another form of anger surged through Scott, one that he had felt before, but never had it been directed towards someone he loved. Even at his most insensitive, Murdoch had never been this cruel. "I would tell you to go to hell!"
"Scott, I know how that must have sounded, but I would never hurt you like that. Never."
"Then why are you suggesting I can have the impossible?"
"We don't have all the answers yet, Scott. What we do know is that something happened in Carterville when you were born. Something that led us all to believe a truth that has turned out to be nothing but a lie."
The tightness in his chest was making it hard to breath. "What are you trying to say?" Scott choked.
"Scott, your mother didn't die when you were born. She's alive...she...she is the woman in the other room, the one who greeted you at the door."
"No," he whispered through his shock. Shaking his head, he repeated his thought. "No, it can't be."
"Yes, Son. She's right here, right now. Everything you've ever dreamed of is within your grasp." After he finished speaking, Murdoch stood and walked over to the door through which she had disappeared. He knocked lightly, and when the door opened, she emerged, stopping next to him, but looking in Scott's direction.
In that moment Scott could not think. He could only stare at the woman standing across the room; the woman who he could now see was a mature version of the large portrait over the fireplace in his grandfather's formal dining room, the smaller portrait over the desk in his den, the one that hung in his own bedroom, the many pictures scattered throughout the Boston mansion he had left behind over a year ago.
How many heart-wrenching hours had been spent studying those pictures? How many times had he wished for just a chance to know the woman behind the smile, the woman who had given him life at the cost of her own?
Those pictures had been the best part of the mother he had never known. Now those pictures had come to life. That precious image was now standing before him, but he could not bring himself to accept that any of it was real. He could not believe that what he had wanted all his life, had accepted would never be something he could have, was now standing a few short feet away from him.
At some point he had stood up, because now he found himself turning away. He tried to focus his sight on something outside the window, but all he could see were the images of her. "My mother is dead," his voice sounded brittle, even to his own ears. A warm hand appeared on his shoulder, taking away what little breath he had left in lungs that no longer seemed to want perform their perfunctory purpose.
"No, Son, your mother is standing right over there. I would never tell you such a thing if it wasn't so."
Jerking away from his father's touch, Scott moved away from the man, as far away as he could. He needed space, needed to be able to think. He took several very deep breaths, but kept his eyes focused on the door to the hallway. He couldn't look at either of them, not without losing what little control he had left.
Too many questions were racing through his mind: If she really was his mother, then where had she been all this time? Why had she not come for him sooner? Why had she aban- A strangled cry caught in his throat. How many times had he wished is father would come for him? How many times had he felt abandoned by that same father? And now to find out that his mother had left him alone, too!
A shaky hand ran through his hair, but instead of his fingers slipping free when reached the crown of his head, they curled themselves tightly around the golden strands. As he squeezed harder, he could feel the pain as his hair was pulled taunt, but he could not let go. He had to feel something, anything to break through the numbness that was spreading from his heart, outwards through the rest of his body. He clamped his eyes shut while he struggled desperately to regain his quickly eroding composure.
Her voice was soft, and came from directly in front of him, speaking his name with an affection that both
comforted and frightened him. He had needed to hear that voice for so long, hear his mother talking to him,
calling him by name, her words ringing with love and laughter. There was no laughter, now, but he could feel
the warmth, the love, the intense need that mirrored his own, only there was none of his fear in those soft
tones. She was not fighting her need the way he was fighting his. She did not fear him the way he feared her;
the way he feared discovering that this was some kind of demented and cruel joke.
He fought back his fear. He had survived a war in which he had faced horrors he could never fully explain to anyone. He could face this woman. He could. Courageously he gathered his strength and forced himself to face what had to be faced. When he opened his eyes, he found himself staring down into the mirror image of his own eyes. In those eyes he saw nothing but the love and concern he had heard in her voice.
Releasing his grip on his hair, he reached forward, very slowly, even tentatively, until he could actually touch her. Very gently he let his fingertip skim over her cheek. She gasped lightly, and he quickly used the back of his hand to brush away the tears that began cascading from her eyes.
"Mother," he choked. Unable to resist any longer, unwilling to fight what he wanted and needed to be with everything in him, he threw his arms around her, pulling her close. With his eyes clenched tight, he tried to fight back the assault of tears, but even the thoughts of his grandfather's disapproval over such a display was not enough.
A few tears managed to find their way out, sliding down his cheeks before landing on his mother's hair. Then he realized she was hugging him back, and another sob caught in his throat - at twenty-five years of age he now knew what it felt like to be held by his own mother, and that feeling was better than anything he had ever imagined.
How long they stood there he didn't know; neither moving, both holding on to the other as if they dared not let go for fear of losing each other again. He could smell the lavender scent of her bathing oil, and feel the softness her hair against the tear-stained cheek he could not seem to lift off her head. He was in heaven and hell, all at the same time. He never wanted to let go, but at the same time his mind was screaming for an explanation, a justification for his years of tormented loneliness. It felt like he was being torn apart from the inside out.
Breathe, he kept telling himself. Breathe.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl, but, thankful, his sense of panic had, too. His tears dried, his breathing became steadier, and each heartbeat came a little slower and less intense than the one before it. Still his arms refused to relinquish their hold of her, keeping her pressed tightly against him. He did not want to let go.
He was holding his mother. His supposedly dead mother. His not dead mother.
The happiness over having her with him began warring with his need to know why she had not been in his life when he needed her most, why he had been deprived of her for the first twenty-five years of his life. He had to know why. He deserved to know why. "Why were you never there?" he demanded, yet still could not ease his tight embrace; his tone conflicting actions as the became tangible representatives of the battle raging inside his soul.
"It's very complicated, Scott," she whispered against his chest. "But it was not my decision or my choice. It was never my choice."
Nodding, Scott was willing to accept that much for now. Complicated or not, he had the right to know the entire story, but for now he found significant comfort in the fact that she had not left him because she had not wanted him. Lifting his head from its cozy nest in her hair, he opened his eyes and looked around for Murdoch. He was somewhat surprised to find his father still standing in the same spot by the window, the last place Scott could consciously remember him being.
Murdoch was too far away to have heard anything that had been said between he and his mother, and a wary fear etched every line of his anxious expression. Scott nodded again, this time for his father's benefit, knowing full well that any smile he had to offer would be weak, at best. To his surprise, though, Murdoch visibly relaxed at just that simple gesture, then turned away, but not before Scott caught a glimpse of what might have been a tear on his father's cheek.
*** *** *** ***
The weight on her head lifted, and she knew it was time. Sniffling back her tears, she ventured one more nuzzle against her son's shoulder, then pulled away. She shivered as the cool air invaded the space where Scott's warm body had recently occupied. Then she shivered because of the task ahead, the explanation that would lead to the make or break moment when her son would either accept or reject her presence in his life.
"Come." Taking his hand, she led him over to the divan. "You want to know why. I'll tell you all I can."
Despite her worry that this was the beginning of the end of the last civil conversation she would ever have with her son, she recounted to him the story she had told Murdoch back in Mexico. She left nothing out, laying her life out on the table without hesitation, but not without fear.
Unlike his father, Scott listened without interruption, letting her set the pace and the tone until it was all said. The whole time, though, he sat forward, away from her, as he stared down at the floor in front of him. Sometimes he fidgeted with his fingers, but mostly he was so still it was hard to tell he was even breathing. Through it all, though, his jaw remained clenched, making her wonder how it had not managed to break under the pressure.
After a few moments of silent contemplation, Scott stood up and moved over to the window, his back to her, while he stared out over the ocean. The minutes drug by slowly, each one stealing away more and more of her hopes that Scott would understand, would be able to accept her. Finally, all hope was gone and she could hold back her tears not longer. Wrapping her arms around her herself she cried for all she had lost. Almost instantly, Murdoch was in front of her, kneeling at her feet and holding her tightly in his arms.
*** *** *** ***
"Fifteen years," was all he could say when he found the will to even speak.
Two heads rose, and two faces turned towards him; one streaked with tears, the other tight with concern. Neither spoke, but two questions hung heavily in the air around him; one of those questions he was not ready to answer. She had been given her say, now it was his turn.
"You told me it was never your choice, but it was," he accused stiffly, unemotionally. "For fifteen years it was your choice."
"Scott-" his father began, only to stop when his mother grabbed at the front of his shirt and shook her head.
Tilting her head back, she looked directly up at him. Pain was etched in every line of a face that seemed ten years older than the woman who had answered the door only a short while ago, but still she faced him with dignity and courage. It was what was in her eyes, though, that caught his attention and kept it. In those gray-blue eyes he saw love, but more important, he saw admission and regret.
"Yes," she said softly.
"Catherine!" Murdoch objected loudly, before turning angry eyes towards his son. "Scott, it was not her-"
"Yes it was, Murdoch," she interrupted, but not once did her eyes break contact with his. "For fifteen years I chose not to face my fears. I chose not to validate my memories. I chose not to find out the truth about my son. My reasons aren't important, the only thing that matters is that I did choose, and now I have to face the consequences of those choices."
Taken aback, Scott stared down at her, trying to gage her sincerity, as well as her honesty. He had expected
denials, excuses, even wailing cries and sobbing pleas for forgiveness, but not this unconditional willingness to
accept the burden of responsibility. Searching her eyes for some sign that this was not just an act, he found in
their depths only a selfless courage that he had seen far too seldom in his life; the most recent times being in
another pair of blue eyes, only those eyes were the color of the spring sky. Those eyes belonged to his brother.
So many times life had sought to trample Johnny into the dirt, but each time his brother had climbed back to his feet and stood his ground, facing round after round of anguish with a gritty determination that completely belied the warm and tender soul inside. Yet, Johnny never dodged his past, never took pride in the things he had done, but always accepted responsibility for those actions without hesitation. Not once had he used his unfortunate circumstances as an excuse, and not once had he made excuses for what they were.
Sometimes Johnny took that responsibility to the extreme, letting events come between those he loved and was scared would be hurt in his name. Even after a year at Lancer, he had not yet fully accepted that he no longer had to fight his battles alone, but he was trying; trying because he had faith in his family, and a love in his heart that knew no bounds. He did the best he could, and Scott had never needed more from him. Of all the men he considered himself blessed to have known, none of them were held in higher esteem than his younger brother.
That had not always been the case, though. He had, at their first meeting, scorned the man who now was more important to him than life itself. He had let a false image and unfounded impressions blind him to the reality that was his brother, which was something he would regret for the rest of his life. His thinking had adjusted rather quickly, but that he had actually judged his brother so harshly was always sitting in the back of his mind.
He did not hate making mistakes, they were the most fundamental lessons one could ever experience. However, he loathed making the same mistake more than once. That was something that never should happen, and right now he had the unequivocal feeling that he could be in a position to do just that.
Was it possible that he was letting his wounded pride, his ego, his selfishness get in the way of the truth? Was he actually considering turning away someone, who, like Johnny, had done the best they could with the hand life had dealt to them? Had he not fiercely defended Johnny's choices in life, even arguing their merits to their own father on occasion, standing firm in his conviction that it was the heart of the man behind the decisions that make them right or wrong? Could he, in clear conscience, refuse his own mother the same benefit of the doubt that he so freely gave to his brother?
With that final question looming overhead, unanswered, he focused his attention back to those eyes that were still looking up at him, still unwavering in their acceptance of whatever decision he might make. It was in her courage that he found his own, and his answer.
Stepping forward, he held out his hand to her. She accepted it without hesitation, as he knew she would, and he pulled her to her feet. She stood toe to toe with him, allowing herself to be overshadowed but no overwhelmed by his superior stature. He vaguely noticed Murdoch struggled to stand from bent knee, but his attention remained firmly on his mother. What was between Murdoch and her was between them, this was between him and his mother.
"It hurts. I won't lie and say that it doesn't because it hurts like nothing I've ever felt before. And I won't deny that a part of me wants to hate you for the choices you made, for allowing fear to barricade your love and steal fifteen years of living away from us."
Looking down at their hands, his larger one wrapped firmly around her smaller one. His mother's hand; that simple thought nearly drove him to his knees with it's magnitude. "I...more than anything, I appreciate you being so open and honest with me. I...I can't begin to imagine how you survived...how I would have reacted to the things you went through...and I...I..."
"Scott, please look at me."
Her voice was soft and tender, as was the hand that cupped his cheek, asking more than forcing him to look
at her. When he did, the moment was so intense he had to force himself to take a breath. In that instant, as
his mother looked at him with love and askance in her expression, his desire became his decision, one that
he firmly believed he would never come to regret.
"You've been handed an awful lot in a short time. You need time. Time to decide-"
"No," Scott interrupted firmly. "The decision has been made. Now, we've just got to figure out how to make it happen."
"We?" her voice trembled.
"Yes, 'we', Mother. I may not fully understand all your fears, but I can accept that it was those fears and not a lack of love for me that kept you from seeking the truth all those years. I've been denied having you in my life for over twenty-five years. I will not be denied any longer."
Her courage crumbled and the damn broke. She practically fell into his arms, where she clung to him as huge sobs racked her entire body. He had been prepared for her reaction, and held her tightly to him as she cried out her relief the way men were not allowed to do. Women were allowed their tears, maybe as a trade-off for other things they were denied, but he had discovered since coming out West that tears did not mean women were weak. Far from it.
The women he had known in Boston used tears as a weapon, constantly turning them on and off whenever they felt the need to get their way, to conquer a man's soul, or for the sheer fun of it. Women out here were different; in so many ways. They did not primp and pamper as they did in Boston, but neither did they seduce and beguile. Only since coming to Lancer had he discovered the real power behind an honest women's tears.
Teresa had been his first teacher, with his first lesson coming during a burst of tears while Johnny was recovering from the bullet he took to the back during the gun battle with Pardee. It had been touch and go for a while, and when Johnny's fever finally broke, so had Teresa. The onslaught had been furious, but brief, and when it was over, she picked herself up and carried on with a renewed strength that left him in awe.
Since then he had seen her react the same way to different forms of pressure, never using her tears as a means of self-pity or control. She accepted them when they came, then got on with life. After a while he had come to realize that the true purpose of women's tears was to wash away their anxieties and frustrations, leaving them prepared to fight the next battle, whatever it might be.
"It's been a long day," Scott said when his mother's crying began to subside a few minutes later. "I think we could all use some rest."
"Scott's right, Darling," Murdoch agreed. At some point he had sat down in the chair behind them, and he groaned when he stood.
Scott frowned. "Is your back bothering you, Murdoch?"
"Not too bad, Son. Nothing a good night's sleep in a nice soft bed won't take care of."
"Surely your back isn't still aching from one night in that awful chair?"
Although Scott had no idea what awful chair his mother was referring to, it was clear that she did not know of Murdoch's chronic back problems. Feeling it wasn't his place to say anything, he waited for his father to handle the question appropriately. To his surprise, Murdoch actually did, too.
"It's not from that chair," he said as he stretched out another kink. "I've been having trouble on and off ever since I was shot about a year and a half ago."
"You were shot that long ago and it's still bothering you? What you need is a good massage to relax those muscles. There could be some scar tissue that is causing them to tense up whenever you sit down for too long."
"That's really not necessary, Catherine, and besides, how would it look?" Murdoch's rather sheepish glance in his direction was amusing, and if he had the strength, Scott would have laughed.
However, his mother was not to be dissuaded so easily. "Who cares how it would look. We're the only ones who will know. You can have Scott chaperone, if you like, but you're going to get a back rub. I've got a bottle of liniment in my room. I'll be right back." In a flurry, she hurried off into her bedroom.
With all his energy drained from the preceding weeks of nervous turmoil, as well as his own emotional overload of the day, Scott shook his head. "Count me out," he said as picked up carpetbag up from where he had thrown it upon his arrival. Murdoch pointed toward the door next to his mother's, indicating that it was to be his room. "Besides," he paused as he reached the door and looked back at his father, "You're married. What could be inappropriate?"
His mother reappeared and looked and gave him a quizzical look. "I'm calling it a night, Mother." He used the term 'mother' before he realized it, but found that he liked the way it sounded very much. "We still have a lot to talk about, but those things can wait until tomorrow."
Tears filled her eyes, and she nodded. "Good night, Son. Te amo. Sueño bueno."
Having lived among Mexican speaking people for over a year, Scott understood her words, but had to admit that even his tired mind found it difficult to comprehend his mother being so comfortable with the same phrases his brother would use. At the same time, however, there was a comforting sense of familiarity that otherwise might have been missing. "Good night, Mother."
*** *** *** ***
Murdoch's eyes may have been on Scott as he said good night to his mother, but his only conscious thoughts were of his son's words, which were echoing over and over in his mind. 'You're married.' Could Scott really see it that way? And if Scott did, would everyone else, too? In his own mind he saw himself and Catherine as two single people who used to be married; but were they?
Looking down, he saw Catherine standing beside him, bottle of liniment in hand. Suddenly, the last place he wanted to be was alone with her. It wasn't that he did not want to be with her, it was just that he needed to be alone in order to maintain his illusions of their non-married status.
Gently, he took the bottle out of her hand. "Not tonight, Darling. I'll be fine after a good night's rest, and you're already exhausted. You'll want to be rested for spending the day with your son."
"Murdoch-" her protest was cut off when he pressed his fingers to her lips.
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What's wrong, Murdoch?"
He did not know what to tell her, so he didn't. "Tomorrow, Catherine."
Hurt flittered across her face, but she only nodded, then turned to go. Before she could take more than a step, he reached out and grabbed her by the arm. She looked back at him, but he couldn't find the words to explain.
Taking a step back, she looked up and smiled. Leaning up, she kissed him tenderly on the cheek. "I love you, Murdoch. If you need until tomorrow, I can wait."
"I love you, too, Catherine. I just need-" this time it was her fingertips on his lips that halted the conversation.
"Good night, Darling." She smiled and then walked away, stopping only when she reached her bedroom door.
"Good night, Dear," he called out after her, catching her return smile as the door closed between them.
Making it three for three, he slipped into his room and closed the door. Stripping out of his clothes, he climbed into bed, and prayed that sleep would not be too elusive. His hopes faded away as he lay in bed and his anxieties continued to grow. He was only now beginning to realize just how many things he had not considered in his haste to find Catherine, and what those things could do to his family; what they could end up meaning for his younger son.
What disheartened him most, though, was that he had no idea if this newly recognized threat could even be fought, much less denied its victim. Was Scott's happiness with his mother going to come at his brother's expense? Was the future he was so looked forward to sharing with Catherine already going to cost him one of his sons? First thing in the morning, he would seek out the one attorney he knew would understand his dilemma and the direness of the circumstances.
*** *** *** ***
Looking totally out of place in his Mexican pants, low-slung gun belt, unshaven face, and rumpled appearance, Johnny stood on the boardwalk across the street from the luxurious Pacific House Hotel, eyeing the building as if it were an enemy in and of itself. Most of the early morning passers by gave him a wide berth, accompanied by fearful and suspicious stares. Their actions didn't bother him any, instead, bringing only a smug smile of satisfaction to his rugged features.
He found it rather amusing to consider the reaction of the uppity guests of the grand establishment would be, were they to suddenly find out who was about to enter into their midst. Every one of them would be downright appalled, not only by his dubious past, but by the way he had unscrupulously pried from Evan Ingles the contents of the telegram that had whisked Scott away from Lancer the day before.
While he had not enjoyed having to get rough with the telegraph operator, he had been determined to find out once and for all what was going on, and to do than he had to know where to look. He had been infuriated when he was told that Scott had been sent for, while he was to be left hanging with no explanation of any kind.
Unlike Scott, who had managed to make it to the train stop in time to catch the Saturday train headed for San Francisco, Johnny had not been so lucky. When the station master disclosed that there would not be another west bound train for two days, it had frustrated him to the point of openly cursing the fates that seemed determined to ruin his life at every turn. This blatantly disgruntled attitude came in handy for once, by attracting the attention of a station worker, who cautiously informed him that an unscheduled freight train would be coming through later that afternoon.
It would not be the pleasant ride of a passenger car and there would be numerous stops that would delay his arrival until sometime the next morning, but he was sure the engineer could be convinced to take on a passenger, providing the price was right. The price had been a whopping thirty-seven dollars for a space just big enough for him to sit down in one of the freight cars, but it had been a price he was more than willing to pay.
Comfort meant nothing to him, and in reality, he actually spent the trip in growing anticipation of telling Murdoch what an exorbitant amount he had paid for this little train ride. He would enjoy seeing his father come unhinged after the last few weeks of emotional upheavals the Lancer family had endured due to Murdoch's secret mission. With a sardonic laugh he contemplated the fact that for once he would actually deserve Murdoch's ire.
His father could be angry all he liked, though. Besides that, as grand as the hotel before him was, Murdoch would have no room to chastise anyone for being over indulgent.
Murdoch could be angry with him for coming with out being summoned, too. If this, whatever it was,
concerned his mother, it damn well concerned him. He had every right to know why the location of his
mother's grave should require Scott's attention over his own. Their father better have a good reason for all the
grief he had caused this time. A damned good reason.
Moving with a bold swagger, Johnny crossed the street and stepped through the front doors of the Pacific House Hotel, ready to do battle with anyone who challenged his right to be there - including Murdoch Lancer. Once inside, though, his confidence wavered. The building was grander than anything he had ever seen before. Luxurious fabrics covered the furnishings, and hung from ornate rods over each window. A plush bed of carpeting covered the entire floor.
It wasn't the type of accommodations he had ever frequented during his days on the border, and was more impressive than anything he had ever seen before. Tucking his intimidation aside like a used handkerchief, he headed across the lobby, but just as he approached the front desk a familiar sound reached his ears.
Scott. He would recognize his brother's buoyant laughter anywhere. He turned just in time to see his brother walking into the hotel restaurant. Ahead of him was the unmistakable burly form of their father.
Unable to believe his eyes, Johnny watched as Scott pulled a chair out for the strange woman in their company. She smiled sweetly and reached over to pat his cheek. Scott blushed and turned away, just as Murdoch's deeper laughter rumbled through the late morning calm.
Johnny's mouth slacked open when he saw Murdoch's lips call the woman 'darling', but when she responded with an equally affection 'dear', his jaw practically hit the floor. Scott took the seat across from Murdoch, a tired but sappy grin plastered on his face.
The rush of realization hit him with the force of a runaway moose. It all made sense - Murdoch had found some woman he wanted to marry. That would explain why he suddenly needed to confirm that he wasn't married to Johnny's mother anymore. Scott had been summoned to meet his new stepmother, while...This time it was the brutal fist of betrayal that slammed into Johnny's gut.
His father was too ashamed of him to want to introduce his ex-gunhawk son to his new woman. Scott was respectable and would make just the right impression, whereas Johnny was to be hidden away until it was too late for her to back out. Or maybe Murdoch even had plans to give him is walking papers as soon as the happy threesome returned to Lancer.
Despite the monumental sense of rejection crashing down on him, Johnny's instincts warned him that he was being observed. Shifting his attention back to his surroundings, he was taken by surprise when he realized that it was the very object of his fear that was staring at him from across the room. For a moment their eyes locked, but just for a moment. Turning away, Johnny rushed from the hotel, barely keeping his wits about him enough to keep from bumping into everyone in his path. She was the enemy and it would not do for him to reveal any level of vulnerability.
After fleeing the hotel, Johnny made his way back towards the train station, and during this time his hurt transformed into a blinding rage. He would not be denied his birthright this time. Murdoch Lancer was going to have a fight on his hands if he thought he was going to get rid of him that easily. No one was going make him leave Lancer again. No one!
TBC in COLD SHOULDERS, HARD CHOICES, the second story in the 'Mommy Dearest' trilogy.
No permitiré que usted deshonre a Señora Anne - I will not permit you to dishonor Mistress Anne.
mi caballero valiente - my brave knight
Él le hizo grito - He made you cry
Todos estarán bien - It will be okay.
Él no debe estar adentro aquí con usted. ¡No es apropiado! - He should not be in here with you. It is not proper.
Seré seguro con él - I will be safe with him
Si él le lastima... - If he hurts you...
Prometo - I promise
No pienso que estaría tan - I do not think that would be so
Sí, pero usted es un buen gringo - Yes, but you are a good gringo
muy astuto - very astute
Llámela qué usted tiene gusto, pero si usted la lastima, gringo,le buscaré para tragar como un perro
- Call her what you like, but if you hurt her gringo, I will hunt you down like a dog
cielos merciful - merciful heavens
Aquí es donde pertenezco - This is where I belong.
Mi corazón está aquí - My heart is here
muy afortunado - very lucky
muy trastornado - very upset
monja - nun
Gracias por el ahorro yo de tanto, mi madre - thank you for saving me from so much, my mother.