Corruptio optima pessima - The corruption of the best is the worst of all.
Murdoch dropped into the worn leather of his favorite chair, a glass of his best whiskey in hand. He leaned back and closed his eyes. It was quiet, calm, restful.
He loved the laughter and company of children, but not in the numbers that
Reverend Calhoun’s group brought to Lancer. The children had been
everywhere: the kitchen, the great room, running through the hallways – his
bedroom! A man couldn’t even expect privacy where he needed it the most –
the outhouse. It was a good thing there was a stout lock on the door.
But he survived the invasion and now they were gone. Supplied with food from Lancer, and wagons and horses furnished by the army, the families had started their long journey to Sacramento under escort of the cavalry. A promised review of their case by California’s Lieutenant Governor would only be held if the men were in custody. But, at least the outlook was hopeful; more so then when the good reverend and his daughter first staggered into Lancer with a bedraggled Scott in tow.
Murdoch didn’t try to hide his surprise at finding Calhoun and his group at Lancer when he returned home. The surprise soon turned into displeasure when he found out why. He had to admire Scott’s composure when he explained why Lancer was overrun. It was only with Murdoch’s terse, ‘are these the Paiutes?’ that Scott colored and lowered his eyes. A soft, ‘yes, sir,’ followed after several long seconds.
Calhoun tried to appease by droning on about Scott’s generosity, courage, and honor. Hell, Murdoch knew Scott was all that. He didn’t need Calhoun to pacify him, especially with his type of soothing oil. Scott uncharacteristically fumbled a couple of ‘please, Reverend, not now,’ but the man continued spouting about justice and how thankful he was for Scott’s help.
All attempts from Murdoch to hold his temper failed when Calhoun stated to ‘go easy on the boy’. That was a discussion between father and son, not this hypocrite who professed to live by thou shalt nots. Obviously lying had been ruled unimportant. A livid ‘my son and I will discuss his actions privately’ shut the man up.
After promising to contact the Lieutenant Governor, Murdoch turned his back on both Scott and Calhoun, dismissing them. He needed time to think, to settle, to come to terms with the fact that Scott had lied to him. When he heard only one set of footsteps departing, Murdoch knew who waited.
Turning to face his son, Murdoch forced himself to remain in control. Scott stood there, long fingers smoothing across a stain on the brim of his hat, his expression one of regret. Feeling the full weight of Scott’s deception, Murdoch was surprised at the depth of his disappointment. Scott swallowed, his eyes seeming to search for understanding, permission. Murdoch’s stomach tightened at Scott’s distress - another new feeling. He seldom felt pity for those who lied to him.
As Scott took a small step towards his father, the front door swung open. Murdoch was thankful for Jelly’s announcement that the doctor had arrived to check on those with desert fever. Disappointment was evident on Scott’s face when Murdoch instructed him to help the doctor. A brusque statement to talk later was all Murdoch would give Scott.
The following days had been busy with no time for that talk.
Scott was responsible for making sure the people from Colorado were supplied with everything they needed. When two more children came down with the fever Scott barely took time to eat. It was only their quick recovery that stopped Murdoch from dragging his son to the dinner table.
The fever claimed one life, a woman who was sick when she came to Lancer. Doc Spencer thought it was starvation more than the fever that killed her. It seemed any food she received while in the badlands she gave to her children. Scott stood beside her husband at the graveside until Calhoun fetched him and said his children needed tending. Murdoch watched the sky turn orange behind the silhouette of his son, his slender figure alone on the hill, long legs planted beside the newly turned earth. It was almost dark before Scott descended from the knoll. Concerned and puzzled by Scott’s grief, Murdoch wanted to ask, but didn’t.
The man Rufus pushed his son too far with his insults and arrogance and came away with a broken nose, bruised ribs and wilted spirit. Murdoch tried to hide a smile, but gave up. Rufus got off easy; Murdoch would have broken more than his nose.
Aggie showed up with a wagonload of clothes and sweets for the folks from Colorado, trailing a pretty bay mare behind her wagon. She handed him the lead rope, kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘because we are friends’. He knew it was because he had offered refuge to the women and children from Colorado.
The mare from Aggie whinnied in the paddock jiggling Murdoch to the present. Probably lonely, he thought. He dragged himself out of the chair and to the window. She was a bit small for Murdoch’s taste, but had a delicate head, fine form, and intelligence. With ears perked forward, her attention was on something out of Murdoch’s view. Snorting, she danced a bit, then stilled. The edge of a shadow caught Murdoch’s eye.
From the shade of the barn Scott approached the horse, smiling. Resting his arms on the upper rail of the fence, he watched her. A long neck stretched towards him, her sensitive nose smelled the air, and she put one leg forward. Scott spoke to her and she tossed her head. He threw back his head and laughed, she pranced, he laughed again.
For several minutes she teased him, coming close, then scurrying away. Finally she extended her neck close enough to nuzzle his hat. When she dropped her nose to his hand, Scott’s fingers touched her muzzle. She jerked away, but then came back and sniffed at his hand. Scott started a light scratch on the side of her face, and before long, her head was leaning into the touch, her eyes closed. The horse laid her head on Scott’s shoulder and he rested his cheek against her neck.
Murdoch stood still, watching. He was enthralled by Scott – the gentleness of his touch, his seeming contentment, the happiness on his face. Murdoch had caught brief glimpses of this visibly tender Scott, but not to this extent. Distance, years and invisible walls were between them. But now Scott stood unguarded just outside the window.
Murdoch caught his breath, not for the first time realizing how empty his life had been before his sons came home. At first he tried to treat them as business partners only; that any other type of relationship was unnecessary. He choked on that word now – unnecessary. They were a part of him, and everything they did affected him in ways he would not have thought possible.
Why hadn’t Scott trusted him with the truth? Scott had lied so well. When they laughed together over the pomposity of the self important, did Scott feel humor or was he just placating the old man? Their conversations on politics, books, and philosophies – did Scott agree with him only because Murdoch was the tune caller? Looking at his son now, at the kind expression on his face as he touched the animal; confident, fair, thoughtful, that was his Scott. Was he prepared to know another?
Murdoch hardened his jaw and took a healthy gulp of the whiskey. It was silly, this introspection. His son had lied to him, pure and simple, and whatever the motive, Murdoch would get an explanation. And Scott deserved an opportunity to explain his actions. Murdoch was not going to let either of them off by ignoring that lie.
“Scott.” The name boomed from the French Doors as Murdoch threw them open. The filly jumped away from Scott, her head clipping his hat and knocking it to the ground. “I would like to see you.”
Scott seemed taken aback for a few seconds, then, grim lipped, nodded. He stooped, picked up his hat and walked, stiff legged, towards the house. Murdoch stepped aside as Scott passed him.
“No thank you.”
“I need a drink.” Murdoch strode to the whiskey cart, uncapped the crystal and topped off his drink with a long splash.
“We need to get this said, Murdoch. I’ve been hanging onto it for the better part of a week.”
“And you think I haven’t?” Murdoch snapped, angry with Scott’s matter-of-factness.
“I … I’m sure you have, sir. I didn’t mean to imply …”
Murdoch waived his hand. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. He’d never been this angry at Scott before. He needed control. “I didn’t want to start this conversation on an adversarial plain. It seems I have been affected more than I realized.”
“As have I.”
“Have you? It’s good to know I’m not the only one who’s been stewing on this.” Murdoch settled into the chair behind his desk and motioned to the chair across from it.
A small grin played across Scott’s face as he walked to the chair. He shifted into the seat, crossed his legs and put his hat on his knee. The bruise on his cheek from Rufus’ fist stood out when he lifted his eyes to Murdoch.
“You find this amusing?”
“Actually, sir, far from it. It just reminds me of when I was a child and grandfather would lecture me when I had done something wrong. He would sit behind his desk, just like you are now.”
“I can assure you, Scott, now is not the time to bring up your grandfather.” The old hurt came back; a little blond boy of five, his small hand disappearing into Murdoch’s, obeying a grandfather who had no right. It should have been Murdoch teaching him values, administering discipline.
“I apologize. The statement was untimely.” Scott straightened his back. “Have you ever been to the badlands where the Calhoun group camped, Murdoch?”
“I have,” Murdoch answered, wondering about the start of this conversation. “It is a desolate, mean, windswept country.”
“It is a hard land. I thought I would die out there, alone. I was grateful for their … the reverend and Sara finding me. I didn’t realize at the time how much jeopardy they put themselves in by taking care of me. Not until I tried to leave.”
Murdoch took a gulp of whiskey trying to cope with the vision of a dying Scott. The burn trickled down his gullet and into his belly. “They wouldn’t let you leave?” He cleared his raspy throat when Scott threw him a probing look.
“No. Not at first. They said they couldn’t afford to have anyone know where they were. When they left, they said they would let me go.” Scott pushed himself up from the chair and grabbed the whiskey decanter. He poured a healthy amount into a glass and set the container on Murdoch’s desk before sitting back down.
“The people there … women and children … with fever. Without food or medicine. The woman we just buried … she was scared. I think she was one reason they agreed to let me help.” Scott swirled the whiskey round and round the glass. Tight fingers raised the glass to his lips. He glanced at his father. “Have you never lied, Murdoch?”
Thrown a bit by Scott’s question, Murdoch almost laughed. “If you’re trying a diversion tactic, son, it won’t work. This is about putting this ranch and the people here in jeopardy.”
“How did I put Lancer in harms’ way?”
“You bring strangers into our home, men wanted for murder? Did you think there was no danger in that?”
“The reverend is not a murderer, Murdoch.”
“No need to take that tone of voice with me, Scott.” Murdoch let the words sink in. “Perhaps the reverend is not, but can you say that of the others? What about that Rufus fellow, or Sara?”
“Why do you ask about Sara? Did she say anything?” Scott asked, anxiety flickering across his face.
“It’s just a feeling I had. She is very protective of her father, isn’t she? Seems it should be the other way around.”
Scott studied his glass. “Life hasn’t been easy these past few months for her. It’s hard for her to trust anyone. But she did the right thing in the cave. She untied me.”
“So you could stop a man from killing your brother?”
The words hit - Scott closed his eyes. “I had no idea it would come to that,” he murmured. He lifted his head to Murdoch. “They didn’t understand. They thought they were acting in self defense.”
“Regardless of what they thought, they were wrong. But there’s more then Lancer involved, not to mention my responsibility to the community.”
“Yes, I am aware of that. But we had the means to feed starving people. I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone who they were, so I made up the lie about the sick Paiutes. I thought they would be gone. That’s all. I apologize for the deception.”
“That’s all?” Murdoch snorted. “Do you think it’s that easy, Scott? Are you sorry for the lie or getting caught?”
“You know better, Murdoch.” Scott’s met his eyes head on.
“No, Scott. I don’t. You tell me. Why didn’t you trust me?”
“I didn’t want to get you involved.”
“But you did. The minute you brought them into our home. You involved everyone on this ranch. What’s more, young man,” Murdoch continued, stabbing his finger at Scott, “you could have been charged with assisting fugitives, eluding authorities. It took some talking on my part for Gabe not to press charges. Do you think you’re above the law?”
“Of course not.” Scott sighed and looked away. “What would you have done if you knew who they were?” Scott asked, swinging his gaze back to Murdoch.
“Exactly what I did do, Scott,” Murdoch replied, trying to keep his tone non-confrontational. “I contacted a friend for help, and they are getting that help. I would not have overlooked the fact that they saved my son’s life.”
Scott raked his fingers through his hair. “I promised them, Murdoch. How could I break a promise?”
“And how could you lie to me?” Murdoch stood and stalked to the window, his back to Scott. – Damn, he had to hold his temper. They wouldn’t get anywhere if they got into a shouting match.
“I didn’t want to, Murdoch. But I couldn’t see a way out.”
“So it was easier to lie to your father!”
“No! It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy to lie to you or Johnny or anyone.”
“Did the good reverend help you come up with the story?” Ever since Murdoch had found out about the deception, he could barely stand to be in the same room with Calhoun. He wanted to believe that only Calhoun was at fault, even prayed for it. But that would make him no better than … he stopped, the words ‘his son’ trailing in his mind.
The seconds crawled. The filly called for company. He envisioned his son’s face pressed into the long neck. “Scott, answer me.”
“Yes, Murdoch … yes. We talked about it, trying to think of all of the questions you might ask. Does it make it easier for you to know that? But it was my decision, Murdoch. I swore on the bible I wouldn’t tell anyone. I swore on the bible! I couldn’t break a vow like that.”
“So you lied to me. Is this the only time?”
“Murdoch, I’ve … I’ve never …”
Murdoch whirled around, angry, frustrated, but the misery on his son’s face slammed into him. Scott looked crushed, his eyes wide with surprise and hurt. Murdoch knew Scott was sorry, but was it for the right reason? Maybe, regardless Scott’s age and a father’s long absence, Murdoch could still teach his son values.
“Scott,” he reasoned, keeping his voice low, aware of his son’s pain. “Making an oath on the bible and thinking that you honor it with a lie. How can you in anyway contend that it is … right?”
“I’m not saying its okay. I’m saying that …” Scott sputtered and gripped the arms of the chair. He pushed himself up and stood before the desk, rigid, trying to mask a vision of pride, but failing when his eyes slipped from his father’s face.
Murdoch waited, patient. The stakes were too high. He was not willing to allow anything to cause a rift in a relationship that had been lost for 24 years.
“What would you have done?” Scott’s voice was edgy, his expression unconvinced. Was hope for an answer flickering beneath the look of … was it rebelliousness? But this was Scott, surely not.
“It’s a hard situation to be in, but … not unsolvable. I would like to ask you a question first.” Murdoch settled into his chair and motioned for Scott to sit. “Please, sit down,” he asked when Scott didn’t move.
It took a few seconds, but with a clip of his head, Scott lowered himself into the chair. “I don’t believe anything you ask will change how you feel about this situation.”
“Maybe not, but humor me.” Watching his son, Murdoch was struck, for the first time, by the depth of Scott’s silent stubbornness. Murdoch knew Scott wasn’t afraid of confrontation, even if it meant coming up against his father. But this mulish, quiet tenacity was revealing and … just like his mother.
“What is your question?” Scott asked.
“Did you ever feel that your life was in danger?”
Scott reached for his glass and tasted the edge, a twitch in his hand betraying nervousness. “Not at first. I knew some of them didn’t trust me, but why should they? Besides, if they wanted to kill me, why not just leave me in the desert? But then … It was Rufus. His son had died from the fever a few days before, he was angry, bitter. He didn’t want me there. He and the reverend disagreed. Sara admitted later that Rufus gave her a gun, and orders to use it if needed.” He raised his head. “I don’t think she would have.”
“You sound pretty sure of that, son.”
“I was. … Murdoch. What would you have done, with a promise made?”
Taking a deep breath, Murdoch gazed around the room before settling back on Scott. “Not carried it through. Of course, you have to consider what the circumstances were at the time you made the vow … if you felt threatened.”
“That’s not why I made the promise.”
“I believe you, Scott. But I also think that the reverend, of all people, should have understood your dilemma. And to actually help with the falsehood … well, how does that speak to the type of man he is? I wonder if there are facts about Cripple Creek that he chose to withhold.”
“He did what he thought was best, Murdoch. He was trying to protect his people.”
“And I am trying to protect mine.”
Scott didn’t reply. Murdoch could tell he was thinking, taking it all in.
A spasm pushed through Murdoch’s back as he stood. Rolling his shoulders, he walked to the front of his desk and leaned against it, his shadow towering over his son.
“It’s done, Scott. I understand you were in a hard position. You didn’t want to go back on your word. I think with more maturity, you would have recognized that lying to keep a promise was wrong.”
“Are you saying I’m immature,” Scott asked with a small smile.
“With age comes experience, boy. You’ve got a few years to go yet.”
Scott looked up at his father. “I am sorry, Murdoch. For everything.
“I know you are, son.” Murdoch wanted to reach out and touch him, but he didn’t … couldn’t. He had been robbed of those years, those times.
“Your brother is doing a tack inventory. I’m sure he’d appreciate any help you could give him.”
“He hates doing inventory,” Scott chuckled.
“But he does a nice job of whining about it.” Murdoch stepped to the side of the chair and gave his son’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. There was tension, but then Scott relaxed.
“Well, I’d better go help Johnny before he throws the ledger book out the barn door.” Scott reached for his hat as he stood. “Are we done here?”
Murdoch choked back a <God I hope so.> “You’re going to wear out the brim of your hat the way you keep playing with it.”
A full smile shot across Scott’s face, the kind that gave Murdoch quiet pleasure. “It’s a habit I picked up when listening to windy speeches at political rallies grandfather would take me to. I wore out many caps that way. I am afraid I do it without realizing.”
“Be careful a hole doesn’t give you sunburn. … Your brother’s waiting.” Murdoch motioned to the door, warming to the little boy who played with caps.
“ Oh, and, Scott,” Murdoch said as Scott moved towards the door.
“Don’t lie to me again.”
A blush spread over Scott’s face as he lowered his eyes. “No sir.” He settled the hat with a light tap, and in a few long strides, was out the French doors.
The filly ran along the fence as Scott walked by the paddock. She nibbled on the fingers he reached out to her. He gave her a quick pat before he continued to the barn and Johnny. His movements were easy, relaxed – opposite of what he had been just a short time before. The words, ‘I love you’, burned deep in Murdoch’s belly as he watched his son walk away.
Murdoch drifted back to the first time he saw Scott. Adorned with frills, gloves, and ruffles; a too lean package with a gentleman’s manners. Not much use for any of that on a ranch that demanded muscle, doggedness, and sweat. In those first weeks, Murdoch wasn’t sure he would make it. The old bunkhouse cook had remarked that he looked lower than a brooding hen. Murdoch knew he was the brunt of jokes, tested by the men and his own inexperience, but Scott never complained. Only once did he ask his father for something – to explain why he’d left him in Boston. Murdoch failed miserably with the answer. But Scott had never failed him … until now.
“Corruptio optima pessima,” he murmured, staring out the window after his son had disappeared into the barn. Murdoch would like to have believed that Calhoun alone was responsible for those words coming to pass and shadowing his son, his family. But the world had a way of perverting individuals with even the most honorable of intentions.
The corruption of the best is the worst of all.