Thanks very much to Con, as always, for the beta. I appreciate it. Comments are welcome and no money is made, only fun. Ronnie
out his bedroom window impressed at all of the activity going on. The sun
was rising over the mountains, its light touching the edges of the ranch
compound, but the lamps were blazing at the bunkhouse. Men were gathering
gear and loading wagons, saddling favorite mounts, and getting instructions
from Cipriano. Alexander Mason, known as Mert to the men, had disappeared
into the kitchen at the end of the bunkhouse at least a half hour ago and
Johnny figured breakfast was well on its way. The smoke piped straight up
from the stove’s chimney and forecasted a windless day.
Grabbing a towel from the dresser, Johnny rubbed the last of the shaving cream from his face and looked at his reflection in the mirror. He grinned, raised his eyebrows high into his bangs and admired his white teeth. Not bad, he thought, and decided to wear the blue flowered shirt that notched up the blue in his eyes. He’d been at Lancer a few weeks and had managed to win over most of the ladies at the ranch except the most important – the housekeeper and cook, Maria. She was proving a challenge unmoved by his charms. There weren’t many women in his lifetime that Johnny could recall ignored him, especially when he pulled out all stops. Well, he always enjoyed a contest of wills, which was good considering where he was and who he was with.
He pulled open the top drawer of the dresser and took out a fresh shirt. It was nice to have clean clothes - and ironed on top of it. Maybe this ranching had rewards after all. After all, there needed to be some considering what his father expected of him and his new found eastern-bred brother.
The stitches in his back twitched as he wrapped the shirt around his shoulders and pulled it over his arms. The wound he’d received from the Pardee raid hadn’t been bad; just enough to nag when he twisted too far. His thoughts tracked back to that day and the sick feeling before he fell. He didn’t know until later that Scott caught him and carried him to his bed. Johnny wasn’t a large man, but he was solid and well muscled. That his very skinny brother managed to haul his ass all the way into the house and up the stairs surprised him. He buttoned his shirt and shrugged, figuring chances were a lot of surprises would be coming down the road.
He took another look in the mirror and clapped his hands against his flat stomach. He ran his fingers through his hair, squeezed his butt muscles together and flexed his arms. Satisfied with the man that stared back at him, he winked. Opening the door, he stepped into the hallway and ran smack into his father.
“Johnny!” Murdoch urged as he reached out to catch him before he fell. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
“Woa,” Johnny said, taking note of his father’s tremendous strength as the impact banged him against the wall. Johnny’s first reaction was irritation and a sharp retort, until he noticed the white, pinched face lined with horror. “What’s wrong?” he asked, grasping his father’s arms as his stomach tightened from Murdoch’s expression.
His father’s pale blue eyes focused briefly on his son, and withdrew, darkening. “Nothing,” Murdoch whispered tight lipped. “I didn’t expect you in the hall,” he choked. His glance darted to Johnny’s face, and his hands tightened. Johnny felt as if he were holding his father up instead of the other way around.
“Murdoch,” Johnny appealed… But before he could finish the sentence, Murdoch let go of him and stumbled away.
“I’ll see you downstairs,” he stammered, and walked away, faltering as he reached for the banister.
hell,” Johnny whispered and stared open mouthed at the landing for several
seconds after his father had disappeared. He looked down the hall towards
his father’s room, and then glanced at Scott’s door. It was cracked open
and he wondered if something happened between the two men that set Murdoch
off. The look on his father’s face was haunted and although Johnny had
known his brother for just a short time, he didn’t think Scott was capable
of causing another man as much pain as Johnny had seen in his old man’s
He approached the door and stole a look through the slight opening. Scott was standing close to the window with his head down and seemed to be reading something. A bare shoulder indicated Scott wasn’t dressed completely, but Johnny noted a trousered leg and stocking clad foot planted on the floor.
Scott didn’t look as if he’d just had a run in with his father and in fact, he seemed pretty calm as he studied whatever was in his hand. Johnny took a deep breath and decided the best way to find out was to get it done.
“Hey, Boston,” he greeted as he plowed into the room.
Scott’s reaction was swift as he dropped the paper and reached for his shirt. “Damn it, why can’t you learn to knock?” he snapped as he turned on Johnny, reached for his shirt draped over the chair and slung it across his shoulders.
“Door was open. Didn’t think I needed to knock if it was open.” Confused by Scott’s response, Johnny’s reply was sharper than he intended.
“I did not leave it open,” Scott claimed, holding his arms close to his ribs as he tried to slip his sleeve on.
“It was open, and no need to be so touchy,” Johnny bit. “You’re gonna have to lose those shy ways,” he said as he watched Scott trying to cover his chest. “Don’t know how they are back east, but most men out here work with their shirts off when the days get hot.”
Scott reddened, but continued to struggle into his shirt, pulling it across his chest as much as he could. “Doesn’t have anything to do with modesty,” he retorted. “A man’s room should allow him some modicum of privacy. Besides,” he continued, “I burn so I’ll not be without a shirt.”
In his hurry to cover himself, one of his sleeves had twisted and he couldn’t get his arm into the hole. Johnny stepped over to help, but Scott backed away, declaring he do it himself.
“Suit yourself,” Johnny shrugged, irritated with Scott’s reaction and not understanding how this up-to-now calm man was being so damn prickly. Oh well, time and the men would take their toll on his brother if he continued to act like some unsoiled virgin. And the way Scott was blushing, a thought popped that maybe his brother had never… Nah … Johnny didn’t know his brother well, but Scott was smooth and liked the ladies too much to never have had one before.
“You and Murdoch have a spat?”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t seen Murdoch this morning.” Scott jammed one arm into a sleeve but was having trouble with the other one.
“I just saw him in the hallway. He was paler than you are; looked like he was gonna be sick. Like something had slammed into his gut and come out his eyes.”
Johnny was tempted to try again to help his brother, but decided he’d just get an angry leave me alone. Puzzled, Johnny couldn’t figure out why Scott was acting like he was over the simple act of being caught with his shirt off. “You’re sleeve’s twisted, Scott,” he offered. “If you’d let go of the front of your shirt, you could get it. Oh, and don’t worry. I’ve seen a man’s chest before so it won’t get me excited or anything,” he threw out. “Now if you was a woman…” he chuckled, trying to lighten things up.
For a brief moment Johnny thought he saw unease and fear skitter across Scott’s face, but it vanished as his grim-lipped brother let go of his shirt, twisted his arm to reach into the sleeve and stuffed it into the garment. But Scott wasn’t quick enough and before the shirt dropped to cover, Johnny saw long, thin white fingers of puckered scars that coiled across his brother’s ribcage.
A whip – at some point not that many years ago Scott had been lashed and the cruel leather had left its mark upon the tender skin of his brother’s side. Johnny could only imagine what Scott’s back looked like. And then he realized that Murdoch must have seen it. Nothing else made sense for his father’s behavior earlier in the hallway. Johnny guessed that Scott had been so occupied with whatever he was reading that he hadn’t heard Murdoch enter the room. What’s more, Scott insisted that his door had been closed when it wasn’t. No, Scott hadn’t heard Murdoch come in; of that Johnny was sure judging by Scott’s reaction when he came through the door.
Johnny watched as his brother fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. His hands were jittery, and he couldn’t quite manage to get them into the holes. After several seconds of working at the shirt, it was buttoned, and Scott shifted his gaze to Johnny. He seemed to be searching Johnny’s face for a reaction. Was he suspicious that perhaps Johnny had seen the scars? Johnny tried to keep his face emotionless, but knew he showed it the second Scott turned away, the pain in his eyes unmistakable.
“Give me a minute and I’ll be down for breakfast,” Scott said dismissing Johnny. He bent and retrieved the paper from the floor before reaching for his boots.
Dios, Johnny thought, his mouth dry. “Scott,” his voice a whisper, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say.
Hard blue eyes stopped any conversation as Scott stood stiffer than the starched collar he’d worn on the stage the first day they met. “I said I’ll be down shortly.”
Johnny swallowed what little spit he could get into his mouth. “Okay, brother.” He walked towards the door but stopped without looking at Scott, his hand picking at the door jamb. “Don’t know how it came about, but ‘spect you didn’t deserve it.” He waited, tight, wondering how Scott would take his remark. He believed what he just said and hoped this almost stranger did as well.
“How do you know?” The voice was deep, throaty, like the pull of a low moon on a Mexican bay.
He turned and faced Scott; saw the hurtful stare as his brother waited for an answer. He didn’t know how; but Johnny just knew. All the fine manners, polish and ruffles couldn’t hide the quiet lion looking back at him. “Figure a man who could forgive his father for ditching him 20 odd years ago…well, that man couldn’t do something bad enough to be whipped for.”
Scott studied him long enough that Johnny wondered if he said the wrong thing.
“What makes you think I’ve forgiven him?”
“You don’t hate him. I know that much. That’s near close to forgivin’ as far as I’m concerned.”
Scott walked to the chair beside his bed and sat down. “Don’t tell him,” spilled out as he set the boots on the floor.
Shit, Johnny thought. Hell no, I won’t tell Murdoch. Don’t have to tell him something he already knows.
“How long you think you can keep it from him? He’ll find out, sooner or later.” Sooner than you expect, brother.
“He won’t ask. Even if he should see it, he left it behind 24 years ago,” Scott declared as he picked up a boot, and thrust his long foot into the shaft. He pulled on the tabs and his leg slipped into the soft leather. He reached for the other boot. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.” He looked up at his brother before he pushed his leg into the boot.
Johnny pursed his lips, hooked his thumbs on his belt loop and nodded. “Okay,” he whispered. “Okay.”
He walked down the hallway, slow, thinking, wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into. His old man – there was no mistaking the misery on his face. Murdoch wasn’t gonna be able to leave that behind; and Johnny knew Scott couldn’t, ever. Not when Scott carried the scars every day for the rest of his life.
Johnny paused at the landing and listened to the steady tick of the grandfather clock in the Great Room. He took a deep breath and smelled the heavy leather and mahogany wood of his father’s house. The home was fine and comfortable, but no way were things going to be left behind, no matter what his brother wanted or his father spouted about the past being the past. Johnny stepped down the risers, taking his time and wondering how he was going to face the old man like nothing was wrong. He could do it, though. He had enough practice of lies and lying; one more thing that couldn’t be left behind.
Left Behind – Part 2
Murdoch grabbed the coffee pot, hissing at the burn as he snapped his hand back from the metal. At least the heat brought him back into focus; almost. He snagged up a dishtowel and wrapped it around the handle. His hand shook as he poured the dark coffee into the cup, spattering some of it onto the cupboard. He set the pot back on the stove, ran the cloth over the spill and tossed it aside. Picking up the full cup, he sat down in the nearest chair, his body heavy with exhaustion.
The coffee scorched his mouth and rolled hot down his throat all the way to his belly. Murdoch heaved a sigh and took another large gulp, not caring that the roof of his mouth was well on its way to blistering. The pain was a welcome diversion to get his mind off what he had seen.
His thoughts whirled back to Scott’s room.
The last few
mornings Murdoch had pounded on Scott’s door on his way downstairs. Scott
had mumbled something from the other side that he was up, but Murdoch knew
that his son was fumbling out of bed. This morning Murdoch decided he
wouldn’t be so gentle and planned to go into the room as silent as he could
and wake his sleeping son with his stern presence and a loud “get up”.
Turning the knob as slowly as possible, Murdoch had opened the door and stepped into the room. His eyes swept to the bed – it was empty. He looked towards the window and spotted his son’s blond head lowered and looking down at something, his back to Murdoch. The light was turned high on the lamp sitting on the small table near the window. Murdoch was pleased that Scott was up and curious as to what he was looking at in his hands. It wasn’t until he had taken a step closer that he noticed there was something shadowing across Scott’s bare back.
Peering through the dimness, he was puzzled at the roughness and random difference in the flesh tones. At first he thought it was the distortion of the flickering light, but his eyes widened with horror as he realized why the muscles and tendons were uneven. His son’s back was rimmed and puckered like the proud flesh of an injured animal; valleys and ridges mapped across Scott’s back, testimony of a lash meant to torment and disfigure.
like someone had rammed him in the face and bile gurgled in his throat.
Holding back the bitter fluid, he stumbled into the hallway. He didn’t know
how long his hand groped along the wall, but knew his walking was erratic
when he ran into Johnny.
“Johnny, I’m sorry. Are you okay?” Murdoch reached for Johnny as he was slammed into the wall. --- God, where did you come from? He saw anger on his son’s face that turned to concern.
“What’s wrong?” Strong hands clutched at Murdoch’s arms.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, raced through his mind. If he said it, it was real and he didn’t want it to be real. “Nothing,” he stammered, centering on Johnny. “I didn’t expect you in the hall,” spluttered out of his mouth, realizing how weak that sounded. He gripped Johnny’s arms, trying to anchor himself to something solid and strong. He felt like Johnny was holding him up.
“Murdoch!” There was a plea he had never heard before in Johnny’s voice. Was it concern? He was ashamed that he felt the need to ask himself that question. Who were these strangers; these foreign sons?
Somehow he had managed to choke out an, “I’ll see you downstairs.”
He had tried
to walk straight, but wasn’t sure he succeeded. Gripping the banister,
taking one step at time, heavy limbs brought him to the kitchen.
Now, as he sat at the table waiting for the coffee to cool, he thought of his son. Murdoch had seen many horrible accidents to both man and animal, and was always sickened by the site of broken limbs and crushed bodies. He had ended the pain of a suffering animal more than once with a bullet to its head. In his 50 plus years he wasn’t naïve to the deliberate cruelty one man could inflict on another. But knowing that his son had been a victim to such brutality, and seeing the results, was beyond anything he had experienced.
He was surprised at his own reaction. He took pride in his self control and stoicism, and wondered at the sensation of his stomach bouncing on a hard rock surface. It seemed that indeed layer after layer of his stubborn defenses were giving way to emotions he could only explain as fatherly. It had bit at him when he first saw his sons, but he stamped it back. When Johnny fell with Pardee’s bullet, it had gurgled up and he couldn’t deny it. He knew others saw it when he fussed over a wounded Johnny; but now he was toppled by the tracks of a whip upon the lean frame of his older son.
He tried to collect himself before Johnny came for breakfast. And where was he? He should have followed him down. It was just as well --- he was grateful for the time alone. Then he heard the soft tingle of spurs and stiffened, preparing for his son’s entrance, molding his face into a business-as-usual mask. At least that was his hope.
Johnny stepped to the coffee pot and poured the black, steaming fluid into a cup. Murdoch noted he had the presence of mind to use a pot holder and glanced at his own red fingers.
“Coffee’s hot, Johnny,” he warned. His tongue flicked gingerly across the roof of his mouth, and tested the soft blister. After the second hot sip, Murdoch had allowed his coffee to cool off. When Johnny brought the pot over to refill his cup, he put his hand over the mug and shook his head. Johnny gave him a perplexed look, but returned the coffee pot to the stove before sitting down next to his father.
“You liken’ your coffee cool, Murdoch?” Johnny’s tone was low. It seemed almost tender to Murdoch.
When Murdoch looked at him he saw concern; a new look for Johnny, at least towards his father. “No, just burned my mouth on that first sip.” He hunched over the table. “Thought I’d let it cool a bit.”
“Hmm, probably good to do that.”
The uncomfortable, quiet seconds stretched. Murdoch figured his son was as nervous as he was. He watched Johnny as his finger traced around the rim of the cup. He brought the cup up to his lips and blew on the steam. “It is hot.” Johnny smiled, awkward before taking a tentative sip.
Johnny set the cup down and looked around the room. Murdoch could almost touch the unease and knew he should say something about his actions in the hallway, but he didn’t know how to start.
“Thought you were right behind me,” he ventured, wondering at the sound of his own voice. It was hoarse and shallow. Damn. Did Johnny notice? Murdoch glanced at his son and nervousness skittered across his eyes. Johnny had never looked like that before; like he was hiding something. But Johnny shrugged and ringed the cup over and over again with his finger.
“Johnny, I asked you a question.” Murdoch tensed, hoping this son had no revelation; at least not followed by the discovery he had just made in Scott’s room.
“I was talking to Scott,” Johnny stated quietly.
Murdoch looked at him, wondering if Johnny saw Scott’s back. “Is he coming down?” he question brusque, trying to project a semblance of control.
A lopsided grin appeared on Johnny’s face. “Why shouldn’t he?”
“No reason. He needs to learn to be on time,” Murdoch snapped, angry that Johnny seemed to pick up on his anxiety.
Johnny let out a soft breath. “In the hallway,” he started, “you, ah---you seemed upset.”
Murdoch took a sip of the lukewarm coffee. “He needs to get up with the rest of us. This isn’t Boston.” His tone was gruff, wanting to dismiss the topic of his fumbling in the hall.
Johnny leaned back in the chair and ran his hands back and forth along his thighs. “He was up, Murdoch. I went into his room and he was up, standing by the window reading a piece of paper.”
Murdoch’s stomach twisted and he swallowed what little spit he had in his mouth. “Did you see…?” he whispered, chewing on his lip.
Head bowed, Johnny nodded. “Not much. He asked me not to tell you, but I didn’t say one way or the other. Figured you already knew---that you must have seen it.” Johnny’s voice tripped over the last sentence.
Murdoch scrubbed a hand across his face. “He doesn’t know I was there.” It wasn’t a question.
“No, unless he figures it out. His door was open; he was mad that I barged in. Claimed the door was closed. I asked if he had a run in with you…after you rammed me in the hallway I thought maybe you’d had a fight with him.”
Intent on every word, Murdoch watched his son’s face. Johnny paused and brought his gaze up to his father. His blue eyes---they seemed bluer this morning. Murdoch’s mother had eyes that blue. He felt sad that she never knew these grandchildren.
“That door was open, Murdoch. You were in the room and saw something that made you sick. It was on your face.”
Murdoch lowered his head at Johnny’s truth, and the image came back. “His back was full of scars. The muscles looked ---disfigured. I didn’t know what it was at first---thought it was just shadows and the light flickering from the lamp.” He felt his throat squeeze and he couldn’t breathe. “I left,” he murmured.
“Well, he’ll be down soon. You gonna say anything?”
“No!” Murdoch barked, followed with a more subdued, “no. I need some time before I say anything to him.” And do I have the right, flashed through his mind. Twenty-four years; he is my son but does he consider me as his father? Truly as his father?
“I expect he does too. Maybe we all need a bit more time.” Johnny got up and refilled his coffee cup as well as his father’s.
Murdoch watched him move to the stove and set down the coffee pot. Yes, they all indeed needed more time, but his lame response was, “He, ah---I expect he won’t say anything.”
“I’m thinkin’ not,” Johnny confirmed. “Didn’t seem all too fired up to talk about it to me.”
“Did you see his back?” Murdoch didn’t know how, but he managed to blurt out the question.
“No, just his ribs. The whip must have come around on his sides a few times.”
Murdoch’s head pounded and he knew he needed to get himself under control. Johnny’s expression told him he’d reacted visibly. He couldn’t do that in front of Scott.
“Just take one breath at a time, old man,” Johnny counseled. Murdoch felt Johnny lean into him and touch his knee, comforting Murdoch with this new intimacy. Johnny’s tone was mild and urgent at the same time. “He don’t need to know. He’s thinking about me right now. He don’t need to know about you.”
Murdoch nodded, grateful for this wild son. If anyone knew about pain and hiding it, it was Johnny. And now it appeared Scott did as well. Even though he had grown up protected and with plenty, hurt had still managed to twist its way into his life. But where; and why was he whipped? Well, for now Murdoch tucked that thought away, and put it behind him as he heard the steady, confident step of his elder son coming into the kitchen.
Behind – Part 3
Johnny’s footsteps had long since faded, but Scott remained in the chair. Elbows resting on his knees, head down, his eyes drifted over the light speckles moving across the rug. The sun was coming up and he knew he needed to get downstairs; they would be waiting. His father would likely be angry with him for being late---again. But many thoughts kept him from moving.
The primary one---Johnny had seen the scars. Scott closed his eyes, aware of how he had failed to keep that part of his life hidden. One stupid oversight, not putting on a shirt, had unveiled his disfigurement. He knew it was just a matter of time before his father or brother would see his back, but hoped to have more of an idea of who these strangers were and how they would react.
Well, it was done with Johnny and in truth a relief. Murdoch was another matter, and a tough, complicated question mark. The man was his father, but seemed more like an employer. What was even more ironic; Scott felt comfortable with the arms-length relationship. Awkward feelings and conversations were unsettling, even though an acknowledgment from his father that he was adapting to this new life would have been appreciated.
Scott found it difficult getting used to these up-before-sunrise hours. He’d put in long days the few weeks he’d been at Lancer; days that tested his muscle and stamina. He was exhausted at bed time, but refused to give up the habit of reading a book before he retired. Unfortunately, he usually fell asleep a few pages into the volume.
His father’s irritating pound on the door every morning was frustrating. He didn’t want to oversleep, he was just so tired. Scott surmised Murdoch grumbled and resented having to knock morning after morning. A few mornings ago Scott had picked up a huge novel and almost threw it at the door after one of Murdoch’s wake-up calls. He was making more headway with learning the ranching business and gaining respect from men who considered him a greenhorn than he was in trying to get to know his pragmatic father.
But he maintained control. He stuffed back his anger and refused to exhibit any sign of weakness or hesitation. A year’s captivity in a Confederate prison camp had honed him well; and if he could endure that, he could without a doubt take on anything that this vast country and hard people could throw at him.
A damp winter had mired into a wet spring before his liberation from the Confederacy. Decay was everywhere. Lungs coughed up blood and slime; bones, muscle, tendon, and tissue rotted and men moaned with fever. His back wouldn’t heal. Week after week he laid abed, the fire from the lashes never ceasing. A young rebel doctor tried to stitch the deeper lacerations; the thread held but the flesh did not. He thought he would die and sometimes wished he would.
Through the hazy veil of his delirium, he traced letters in the dust on the floor with his finger. He would spell Julie over and over again. She got him through the war and prison and he loved her still. He was surprised when one day he found the name Murdoch Lancer written in the grime. He didn’t remember doing that. What an enigma that was, but at the time he was too sick to care much beyond the puzzle.
Scott chuckled at himself. It appeared he was once again gazing at a floor with his father on his mind. However, this floor was much cleaner than the filth of his southern confinement. Every day since his release from that abomination he had tried to leave the war behind. However, the mirror wouldn’t let him do that nor would his soul. The back that had once been youthful and smooth would never be so again, nor would his abiding belief in the kindness of mankind be untarnished.
With a deep sigh, he shook himself from his reverie and stood up from the chair. He wasn’t looking forward to facing his knowing brother or irate father, but the Mistress Lancer didn’t care. He hoped Johnny’s discovery wouldn’t affect the promising relationship they were just beginning to develop. The last thing Scott wanted was Johnny’s pity or anyone else’s. After all, he didn’t pity Johnny for the hardships that brought him to choose his way of life. Understanding of who Johnny was, and what made him that way---well, that was another matter and easy to accept. Scott could sympathize with Johnny’s past, but he would never feel sorry for the person Johnny was.
Passing by the side table, he halted and picked up the letter from his grandfather. He’d been so engrossed in it earlier he hadn’t noticed Johnny’s entry until his loud Hey, Boston. Scott edged the sheet with his finger, longing to see the old man again.
Their parting had not been a happy one. His grandfather objected with such vehemence to Scott’s decision to come west at his father’s behest, that he seemed a different person. Scott was shocked at his grandfather’s almost murderous reaction, but Garrett’s arguments seemed based on outraged righteousness. After all, Murdoch Lancer’s abandonment of his son was unforgiveable, or so Harlan Garrett insisted. Scott agreed, but was curious about the man who sired him. He was also itching to get away from the tender prison of his planned life. Not as harrowing as the confines of ‘the rebellion’, but just as stifling. And after his breakup with Julie, he had no heart to remain in Boston.
His grandfather’s announcement of Julie’s engagement had Scott examining every word in the letter. He had wanted to marry her and still did, but his own infidelity had proven too much for Julie. Scott had seen it in her eyes when she cancelled their wedding and returned his ring. Where once she had sparkled when he entered a room; that glitter in her eyes was gone. When he realized that he could do nothing to bring it back, he packed up at the first opportunity that came along. It just happened to be a request from his father to come to California.
Scott folded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. He tucked it inside a novel he was reading and smiled, envisioning the tall, stiff bearing of his grandfather. He could hear his voice fondly calling him ‘Scotty’ long after he had outgrown the name. Scott didn’t regret leaving Boston, but this morning he longed to sense the familiar.
Well, the only thing familiar awaiting him downstairs was Maria’s hot, black coffee that proved to jolt him into full wakefulness. This morning, however, he didn’t need it; after the encounter with Johnny, he was very alert. Hopefully Johnny wouldn’t mention the scars to Murdoch. Scott had asked him not to, but his brother hadn’t said one way or the other. From the shock on Johnny’s face after he saw the marks coursing across his ribs, Scott wondered if the request even registered.
As Scott made his way into the hallway, a thought occurred to him. Murdoch hadn’t knocked on his door to wake him up. It was Scott’s intent to be down at the breakfast table before Murdoch, but he was sidetracked when he spied his grandfather’s letter. He had wanted to read it the night before, but after falling into the comfortable mattress, sleep had been immediate.
Johnny asking if he’d had a spat with Murdoch as he looked upset. That
meant that Murdoch had been up. If Scott had learned nothing else about his
father, he was a man of habit. Murdoch wrapped on Scott’s door every
morning; why not this morning? Scott knew his own inability to wake up
irritated Murdoch. But what were the words Johnny used? Like something had
hit Murdoch in the gut and come out his eyes. A late sleeper wouldn’t cause
that reaction in their father.
Scott thought maybe Johnny was overreacting, but dismissed that idea. Johnny was pretty held in himself; hell they all were. Trying to settle into some kind of normal routine in an abnormal situation kept them all at bay; testing the waters, not going too deep. No, Johnny was concerned about the old man, not something he voiced every day.
Suddenly Scott’s stomach recoiled and he stopped in the middle of the stairway. Johnny said the bedroom door was open. Considering that Johnny barged through a closed door, he wouldn’t lie about coming through an open one. Scott made sure his door was closed every night. Could his father have come in without Scott knowing it? Had he been so absorbed in the letter that he didn’t hear Murdoch? Did Murdoch see his back causing the reaction that Johnny described? Scott knew what his back looked like. His grandfather had been horrified when he saw it; Julie had wept. Even the business-as-usual courtesans he patronized in Boston were moved by the mutilations.
No! Murdoch couldn’t have seen it; he couldn’t have! He had been so careful, so very, very careful that no one knew or saw the ravaged ridges of his torn back. It had been over five years since his attempted escape, ultimate failure, and punishment. But the punishment of his back was nothing compared to the death of sixteen comrades. The scars reminded him daily of those young lives taken in such a brutal manner. He couldn’t explain the sickness he felt every time he saw those marks, and couldn’t face the questions of these two outsiders who were struggling with him to become a family.
Scott had hoped California would mean a new start, and he could forget about the war, and prison, and death. Straightening to his full height, clamping his fingers around the handrail, he was determined that it would be more than a hope. He would not give the soldiers of his past away; those young men deserved more than a remembered sorrow or the traces of a whip upon his back. His steps were firm as he put one foot in front of the other and made his way to the kitchen and his waiting father.
sitting close together at the table, Johnny’s fingers coming away from their
father’s leg, Murdoch’s countenance was grim as he nodded at Johnny. It was
obvious that Johnny had said something compelling to Murdoch. Whatever it
was, Murdoch appeared almost shamefaced when he glanced at Scott, but he
covered it up with a mild, “Good morning.”
Scott nodded, and returned with a very formal, “Good morning, sir.” Murdoch frowned, and Scott took an unkind pleasure in knowing that his father disliked the reserved greeting. Recognizing that it put his father on the defensive, as a former cavalry officer, that’s where he wanted his opponent. For a moment he felt guilty in thinking of his father as the enemy, but Scott hoped the tactic would get him out of the kitchen and away from unwanted criticism of being late.
“The old man was just about ready to send me up to get you, Boston.” Johnny’s grin was genuine, but he didn’t hold Scott’s gaze like he normally did. Scott wondered how his brother got away with calling their father ‘old man’. It was obvious it irritated Murdoch, even though Johnny’s bite wasn’t as harsh as the first time he spewed it out when they met their father.
“I needed to put some things away,” Scott stated noticing Murdoch’s stiff movements. Both Murdoch and Johnny looked ill-at-ease and Scott tightened, wondering if Johnny had given him away. Trying to maintain a calm exterior, one he didn’t feel, Scott strode with purpose to the stove and poured himself a cup of coffee. He faced the two men and offered the pot. Each shook their head accompanied with Murdoch’s short no thank you.
“I thought I’d survey that western draw, Murdoch; see how far our land extends into that sandy region. If you’ve no objection, of course,” Scott stated with deference as he hooked the chair with his foot and sat down.
“I’ve no objection, Scott. Maybe Johnny can help you with it?”
“No, I think I can manage.”
Murdoch cleared his throat and with caution stated, “I’d prefer if you took someone with you, Son. Jeb McCaan thought he saw some drifters along that high ridge above the draw. There may be some of Pardee’s men still in the area.”
Scott glanced at his father, wondering why he was requesting. Usually he ordered. Murdoch took a small sip of coffee and swallowed. “Is there something wrong with your throat, sir?” Scott asked, noticing Murdoch grimace.
“I, ah, just drank the coffee when it was too hot. Burned the roof of my mouth,” he explained with a shrug.
Scott nodded, but wondered why his father seemed almost---hesitant? It was the lone word that came to mind and was an unfamiliar adjective when applied to Murdoch. “Well, I highly doubt if any of Pardee’s men would still be around and we have drifters all of the time coming through Lancer.”
“Don’t want my company, brother?” Johnny sat back in the chair with an uncharacteristic air of appeal, not lost on Scott by any means.
“It’s just a long ride, Johnny. Are you up to it?”
“Yeah, Scott, and the wound isn’t that bad. I’ve got worse scars than that one.” Johnny lowered his eyes when Scott stared at him. Clearing his throat, he sat forward. “I mean, I could use the ride.”
Scott bowed his head over the coffee, hating the fact that his brother was uncomfortable mentioning scars. When he looked up, Murdoch was eyeing him. Not wanting to know if his father had seen his back, he recognized the paradox of being lured down that road anyway.
“You didn’t knock on my door this morning, Murdoch. Why not?”
Murdoch’s face reddened but his answer was an abrupt, “Decided it was time you got yourself up.”
“Well, I was up earlier than usual. I thought I’d be downstairs before you, but I was distracted. However, I do appreciate your---concession that I am capable of getting myself out of bed without your assistance.” Scott took a sip of the black coffee, and watched for his father’s reaction. Murdoch Lancer didn’t concede anything, at least nothing that Scott had seen to date. Would his proud father back down to hide his own lie?
The way Murdoch seemed to be worrying his tongue, in addition to the blister, he wouldn’t be able to eat for days. Scott glanced at Johnny and recognized with relief the hard stare of annoyance. Scott hoped that meant Johnny was on his way back to normal. He didn’t look guilty, so maybe Johnny hadn’t mentioned anything to their father. But it could also mean that Johnny was angry Scott didn’t want his company on the survey job.
Glancing back at Murdoch, Scott discovered his father’s countenance had changed. If Murdoch’s jaw got any harder, Scott thought it would break. Most of the time that ‘look’ was reserved for Johnny. Scott found himself sorry it was the only familiarity he recognized from his father. Suddenly he was tired of the whole morning and wanted to be on his way. Before Murdoch could say whatever was on his mind, Scott scraped his chair back and stood up.
“If you want to come with me, Johnny, we might as well get going.”
Scott chuckled at his hungry brother, grateful for the light distraction. Leave it to Johnny to think of his belly; one more thing Scott could add to the list of ‘learnings’ about this new family.
“You have breakfast; I’ll get the buckboard loaded up and the horses hitched.” Scott gave Johnny a good natured smack on the shoulder and headed for the kitchen door.
“Son, you should eat something.”
Scott turned at the unexpected tone. The stone face was gone replaced by something he’d never seen before. There was an understated tenderness in his father’s eyes. The harsh patriarch that demanded absolute obedience had disappeared to be replaced by a look of concern that Scott could only define as solicitous and maybe even fatherly.
Dumbfounded, Scott found himself stammering out a vague, disjointed reply of Johnny packing enough lunch so he’d get his breakfast. Good lord, he was stuttering. Scott rarely found himself at a loss for words and realized he was hot with blush.
“You feverish, brother? Could be that’s why your smooth’s gone south.”
Scott could feel himself coloring even more at Johnny’s smug comment and would like to have knocked the smirk off his face. Unsettled by his reaction to his father’s words, surprised that they could affect him as they did, Scott twitched. He never twitched!
The warm flow of Spanish fluttering into the room from Maria saved him from any further mortification. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, but smiled, relaxing at the bustling motion of the round little woman.
Scott didn’t understand the language but did pick up a few words---daughter, salt, sugar. From Maria’s arm waiving and angry face, he could pretty much surmise the little girl was in big trouble. Johnny chuckled and said something back to her in Spanish, making Maria fuss all the more. Murdoch grinned with affection as she stormed about the kitchen and Scott realized how much his father thought of Maria.
“Maria, it is all right. We’ve just been talking, so please, calm down.”
“Si, Patron, but you have much to do and that little one…..”
Murdoch rose from his chair and put a large hand on her shoulder. He soothed a few words in Spanish, Scott understanding the word for children. He wondered with resentment what Murdoch would know about children. Nevertheless, Maria calmed somewhat, reached for the coffee pot and began to refill their cups.
“Maria, you don’t need to fill mine. I’m going to hitch up the team.”
She looked at Scott like he had insulted her. “You are not eating my breakfast?”
“I just, ah, thought I’d get a head start. I’ll eat something along the way,” Scott appeased, hoping to pacify the already upset woman.
“What---eat something on the way! What is that?” She turned on Murdoch. “You let him go without breakfast! What kind of papa is that?” A few more Spanish words were thrown about.
Scott had never heard her talk that way to his father and he was sorry he’d mentioned not eating. He thought his father would be enraged, but it seemed Murdoch was full of surprises this morning.
“Si, Maria. It is a bad papa who would send his children out without breakfast.” Murdoch turned to Scott and smiled. “You would not want me to have a bad name with Maria, would you Son?”
Scott looked from Murdoch to Maria to Johnny. Maria was flushed, standing with her arms tight across her most amble bosom. Johnny was relaxed at the table, head resting on his fist, a silly grin on his face. Murdoch was patient, expectant, and almost appeared hopeful.
Smiling and bowing his head for a moment, he looked back up at his father. “No sir, I certainly would not want Maria to think poorly of you.”
“Good,” Murdoch said, a happy glint in his eyes. “Then, let’s sit down and get ready for one of Maria’s fantastic meals.”
Scott followed Murdoch to the table and allowed Maria to refill his coffee. As the smells of bacon drifted throughout the kitchen, Scott followed the conversation of Murdoch and Johnny, talking about what work to do, adding his own comments along the way. Their chatter was easy, uncomplicated, and welcome.
If Murdoch had seen his back, and from his behavior Scott was pretty sure he had, well, then it was done. One day he might tell them about his time in prison, and the escape attempt; when he knew them better. Maybe Johnny would share with them his life in the border towns; Scott was sure there was a lot to tell. And maybe, some day, Murdoch would tell him why he left him behind all those years ago. He hoped so anyway. No doubt there would be bumps and storms along the way, and maybe even a fist or two, but he was willing to give it a try. He was happy that he had left Boston behind and looked forward to trying to build a future with these people and this land.