Why do we always hurt the one we love? Not sure but this story is a definite hurt/comfort. It also portrays my favorite character as less than perfect, so if you don’t like a flawed Scott, (which is evident in the first paragraph) I would suggest you not read.
I always thought the character of Scott Lancer was cheated in his relationship with his father, so in my own way I try to make up for that. Nothing to me is more important in a child’s early life than to be loved by their parents. Scott did not have either parent, and what would have been more hurtful, was the knowledge that his father existed but as far as Scott knew, didn’t want him. Why? The show didn’t delve deeply into a relationship between Scott and his father. So, Murdoch is paying lots of attention to Scott in this story. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy it. And thanks to Mary O. for letting me know it all made sense.
Chapter One – Secrets
His hand shook as he lifted the small brown bottle to his lips. He tipped the liquid into his mouth and grimaced at the bitter taste. The burn sliced down his throat and he choked, almost bringing it back up. Leaning his head back against the tree, he tried to relax. He closed his eyes and waited for the trembling in his body to subside. It wouldn’t take long even though he needed to take more and more of the hated medicine to find relief. The twitching in his legs gentled and he opened his eyes to slits against the glaring afternoon sun.
His brother would be looking for him soon, wondering where he was. The excuse to leave the group and take off after a stray wouldn’t hold long, especially when he returned without a cow. With a deep sigh, he braced his hand against the tree and stood. His horse snorted and shook its head when he reached for the reins, as if in disapproval of what he had just witnessed. Well, the horse wasn’t the only one who would disapprove. Disapprove, hell. That term would be mild if his family found out. With bowed head he grabbed the horn and swung into the saddle.
How had he come to this? Furtive, deceitful, tripping over lies to hide his craving from family and friends. It had crept in, like a ghostly fog – airy and light at first, just to relieve the pain, then smothering with a twisted agony when taken away. Self-respect shattered in the grip of this horrible mistress. Even now as the liquid pulsed through his blood and brought physical relief, he hated himself for succumbing to its power.
Past tries to get off the drug had been dismal failures. Volunteering for boring line shack duties had been met with surprise by his father but accepted. Scott thought he could break free far from the hacienda and out of reach of what he called the brown syrup. After a few hours the pain and emotional need was overwhelming and he had stumbled into a decrepit shack behind the stage line at Cross Creek. Without comment the ageless man’s dirty fingers encircled the coins as he handed Scott the dusty bottle. When he finally realized he couldn’t do it alone, the drug had such a hold on him he didn’t know if he could ever shake it.
He would tell Murdoch. Tonight. He would. Although he’d vowed in the past to do just that, tonight he wouldn’t be the coward. Tonight he’d face the censure of his father without wilting. He was strong, he could do it. However, as his confidence soared, he recognized that it was the laudanum talking, always in control.
“Hey, brother. Where ya been?” A halo of dust drifted around Johnny as he rode up. Scott lowered the brim of his hat to hide the pinpoints of his eyes. From past conversations Johnny knew the signs of addiction, had seen enough friends die from it. Scott had as well during the war. Many thought it was a cure for all that ailed them, but the brothers knew the ugly truth. They’d even been critical of those who let the drug take over their lives. Self-loathing beat at Scott knowing how disappointed his brother would be. That would be harder than facing Murdoch’s censure.
“Where’s your cow?”
“I, ah, couldn’t find it. It must have been something moving out of the corner of my eye. A tumbleweed or something.”
“Boston,” Johnny chuckled, “figured you’d come far enough to know the difference between a weed and a steer.”
“I was mistaken. It was a shadow. You ready to head back?”
“Yup. Got about 30 head so Murdoch will be pleased.” Smiling, he swiped his arm across his forehead, mopping up sweat. “Well, let’s get going. I want to be home for supper.”
Scott nodded and turned his horse toward the bunch of cattle.
“Markus, you and the fellas get this group headed towards the south pasture. Me and Scott are heading home.” The old cowboy acknowledged with a wave of his hat, whistled at the other hands and started the herd south.
“Why are we heading home now? I thought Murdoch wanted us to stay with the group.”
“Murdoch gave me more orders after you went to saddle up this morning. He wants to go over the books, see what needs fixing, how much, stuff like that.”
Scott was caught off guard. He needed time for the fuzziness to get out of his head after the laudanum spike and concentrating on lagging cattle would do it. He just nodded and keeping his head low, changed direction to the hacienda.
“No, why do you ask?” Had Johnny spotted something? He’d been sweating pretty good before he thought up the excuse to go after the phantom cow. But it was a hot day! Anyone would sweat. Recognizing his paranoia, he struggled for calm.
“You look kind of squinty eyed is all.”
“You romped up half the dust on Lancer riding up to me. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, the sun is bright.” Would Johnny buy it?
The time lagged. “Think Teresa likes Harmon Adley,” Johnny finally said. “Not sure what she sees in him, but women don’t see the same as men.”
Scott smiled, grateful the conversation had turned to something else. “You’ve said a mouthful there. I think Harmon is a decent man, but Murdoch may not think he’s good enough for little Teresa.”
“Teresa’s pretty stubborn.”
“And Murdoch isn’t stupid. He knows if he interferes it may just backfire. Knowing Murdoch, he’ll bide his time, see how interested Teresa is.”
“He’s a pretty smart fella, our old man.”
Scott could hear the pride in Johnny’s voice and for some reason, it comforted him. His brother’s trust for their father grew day-by-day. Knowing how hard it was for Johnny to trust anyone, it gave Scott encouragement to approach Murdoch.
“He is that, Johnny my boy.” Scott pursed his lips and carefully worded his next comment. “He seems to be pretty forgiving also. I mean, with my grandfather, even allowing him to stay in the house after … well, after his last disastrous visit.”
“Hell, Scott. Too forgiving if you ask me. That old coot almost got you killed.”
“I know, Johnny. Calm down. I was just contemplating Murdoch. Sorry I mentioned it.” His grandfather was a sore subject, and Scott should have known better than to bring him up. Admittedly, if his family knew what Harlan’s quest to trick him back to Boston had resulted in, Johnny would have done more than shoot grapes at Jelly. But Murdoch had forgiven Harlan, or so it seemed. If his father could forgive Harlan Garret, it was possible he could forgive Scott for his failure.
“But he even shook hands with Grandfather before he left,” Scott said, desperate for reassurance.
“Yeah, well. He did at that,” Johnny said, the resentment heavy in his tone. “Even with all the trouble he caused, Murdoch didn’t kick his butt. So, I guess you could say Murdoch is pretty forgiving.”
Johnny chuckled and slapped Scott’s arm. “Why, you done something you need forgiving for, big brother?”
An urge to confess gripped him, but he pushed it down. Not now, not to Johnny. Even though Johnny may be able to soften the way with Murdoch, Scott needed to tell Murdoch first. He chanced a quick glance at his brother and smiled. “Don’t we all need forgiveness of some sort?”
Johnny snorted. “Some more than others, I would bet. -- But not my perfect, yellow-haired brother!” With a quick thrust of his arm, Johnny knocked Scott’s hat off and kicked his horse into a gallop. “Winner gets a bath first,” he yelled over his shoulder.
“That’s cheating,” Scott shouted back. Laughing, Scott dismounted, grabbed his hat, swung back in the saddle and spurred his horse after the fast moving palomino. Johnny could always make him feel better, even if his heart was heavy with shame. He hoped his brother’s ability to ease the pain would help him through the next several days.
Chapter Two - Almost
Scott wished Johnny would go to bed. He was almost asleep anyway, his upper body draped over his favorite ottoman. It would be time for another dose of laudanum soon and Scott needed to talk to Murdoch before he felt the hurt and backed out. He stretched his leg and bumped Johnny’s boot.
“Hey, sleepy head. You’re drooling all over the upholstery. Go up to bed and slobber into your pillow.”
Johnny’s head moved a fraction. “I don’t drool,” he mumbled.
“Oh, then what’s the puddle by your mouth?”
Johnny jerked his head up and looked at the ottoman. “Ass,” he grumbled and slowly pushed himself up. As he passed Scott’s chair, he paused and gazed down at him. “You’re looking pretty peaked brother. Maybe you should head for bed too.”
Was it starting to show already? The twinges were beginning and he felt clammy. Scott projected a nonchalance that he didn’t feel and shrugged. “Too much sunlight … and dust.”
“Yeah. Eating my dust cuz I – beat – you - home.” Johnny poked him hard in the ribs with each word.
“You cheated.” Scott slapped his hand away and rubbed his side.
“Getting pretty boney there, Boston.” In spite of the tease, there was concern in Johnny’s eyes.
“Lean and strong, my boy.” Scott grinned up at his brother trying to lighten the moment. “Always have been.”
“Hmm. Maybe.” Johnny stared at him as if he was trying to sort something out. Suddenly he yawned, stretched and popped Scott on the head.
“Ah, you’re too hard-headed to have felt anything. See ya in the morning, Murdoch.”
“Good night, Johnny. I’ll be following you soon.”
Scott listened to the soft footfalls as Johnny strode across the floor and up the steps. Well, now was just as good a time any and he glanced over at Murdoch. He was surprised that he found his father’s eyes studying him.
“Everything all right, Scott?”
“Yes. Why shouldn’t it be?”
“You just seem distracted lately.”
“No, no. Everything’s fine. Just tired I guess.” Well that was a perfect opening and Scott kicked himself for letting it pass. But maybe it wasn’t too late. “Uhm, you have a minute, Murdoch?”
“Sure.” Murdoch shuffled papers into a neat pile on his desk and leaned back in his chair. His eyes drooped and he seemed very weary. “What’s on your mind?”
“You look pretty tired tonight. Are you sure?”
“It’s ok. Just been a long day.” Nothing but a gentle smile was aimed Scott’s way. He savored the moment, realizing how easy it would be to make that smile disappear.
Scott pushed up from the easy chair and sucked in a breath as his belly twisted. It was too soon. The laudanum was wearing off earlier than usual. His nose started to run and he pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket.
“Getting a cold, Son?”
“No. I probably breathed in too much dust today. Livestock can sure stir it up.” Scott tried to sound casual but was anything but. His heart was beating so hard he thought it would pound right out of his chest.
“Must have bothered your eyes too. They look rather … watery.” Murdoch smiled. “You should probably go to bed.”
“I will. I will. I just ...” This was going to be as hard as Scott imagined. He looked at his father’s face, saw he had his full attention, and started sweating. His determination faded under the watchful eyes of his father. His stomach flip-flopped again and all he could think of was the little brown bottle tucked in his drawer.
“The, ah, changes you want to make on rotating the feed crops are good ones. Maybe we should let some fields lie dormant for a year though. Give the land time to recoup.” Damn, backing out again. Just say it!
“Yes son. I agree. But we went over that at dinner.” Murdoch’s eyebrows lifted in puzzlement. “Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, yes.” Scott shook his head. He couldn’t remember the conversation. Was his concentration going as well? “I’m sorry. It must have slipped my mind.”
“Uhm, Scott. Maybe you should consider seeing Doc Tucker. Since Harlan’s visit …” Murdoch shifted the papers on his desk, obviously uncomfortable with the subject. “Well, perhaps the graze or effects of the fall are still lingering. You took quite a spill from that wagon.”
“No, Murdoch, there’s no need. Chasing after those strays … they seemed ornerier than usual.” He chuckled, hoping to alleviate his father’s concern. The last thing he wanted was to see a doctor, at least until he could shake the laudanum. “But, I think I will take your advice and go to bed.”
Scott turned and headed for the stairs, disappointment welling up at his failure to tell his father.
“Son, you wanted to talk to me about something. Was it about the crops?”
Scott stopped at the inviting tone in his father’s voice. He turned around to face him, overwhelmed with the need to just get it over with. “Well, there is something …”
The front door banged open and Jelly burst in.
“Boss, that new mare ‘pears to be coming afore her time.”
“Are you sure? She’s not due yet.”
“I knows that, Boss. But she’s never foaled before, and with a new home and all … well, I just thought you’d wanna know. She’s snorting and running around that stall. Might hurt herself. Ain’t no one can settle a scairt horse like you can.”
Murdoch turned to Scott, his face apologetic. “Scott, I’m sorry. I probably should look in on her.”
“That’s ok. It can wait, Murdoch. It isn’t that important. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Good night, Sir.” He smiled at Murdoch hoping to pass along reassurance. “You’d best take care of her.”
“Tomorrow morning then, right away. We’ll talk.”
Scott nodded. “Yes. Tomorrow.” He had no intention of talking tomorrow. He’d nearly revealed the truth tonight, but was relieved that he didn’t. His head pounded and his spine was stiff from holding back shivers. The bottle was close and it would warm him up, quell the pain. It would take a few more days to work up the courage to approach his father.
Or maybe he’d try it one more time – alone. He groaned from the bottom of his heart. What was he going to do? Pain was the only outcome, no matter what he did. But if he could spare his family the strain of watching him go through the torment as well as his own humiliation, it was worth another attempt.
Nestled beneath clean shirts, the bottle beckoned relief. With shaky fingers, he pulled out the cork and brought it to his lips. The liquid fired all the way down, and he gagged, swallowing more than he intended. Well, he’d sleep tonight, not disturbed by worries, guilt or what he would do tomorrow. Yes, tonight he would sleep.
Chapter Three – Morning
Something, no, someone was jostling his shoulders. “Hey, Scott. Wake up.” His muddled brain recognized Johnny’s voice, but he sounded far away. The jostling continued, but harder. His body felt like it was bouncing.
“What?” His thick tongue had trouble getting the word out. He batted at the arm that was shoving him. “Stop.”
“You are alive! Hell, Boston, I was beginning to wonder.” The shoving stopped and the mattress lifted as Johnny rose from the bed.
Scott rubbed his hand against his forehead and tried to focus. Was it morning? His head was fuzzy but he managed to halfway open his eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to wake you from the dead.”
Through the haze that pulled at him, he tried to remember what day it was. “Is it time to go to church?”
“Church!” Johnny snorted. “It’s Wednesday brother. But late as you’ve slept, might as well be Sunday.”
With a light groan, Scott tried to sit up. His brother caught his arm and pulled him forward.
“Yeah, yeah. Just need to wake up.”
“Here, drink this.”
Johnny shoved a steaming mug of coffee at him. The smell was so good Scott wanted to disappear into the cup. He took a tentative sip, and ahd. “Oh, that is so good. Thanks.” Another sip and he could start to think.
“What time is it?”
“Around 10:00 or so.” Johnny settled back down on the edge of the bed.
Scott sputtered. “10:00! Why didn’t you wake me earlier?”
“Couldn’t. I tried – more than once, till Murdoch told me to leave you alone. Said you were sick or something.” Johnny tipped his head and studied Scott. “Are you?”
“I’m fine. Don’t know why you couldn’t wake me.” With fearful realization, he knew it was the laudanum. Too much had slipped down his throat last night. Oh God. He needed to quit before he ended up killing himself.
Johnny tilted more, his head angling for a closer look. “You take anything last night?”
“No.” He’d said it too sharp and lowered his voice. “Why would I take anything?”
“I don’t know. You seemed to be drugged when I tried to wake you up. Not even an earthquake was moving you and, brother, I did my best.”
“That’s silly, Johnny. I don’t need anything to make me sleep.” He twisted his shoulders, and started to feel a dull ache in his muscles. “Yesterday was … hard. Those cattle …”
“Not any worse than they normally are. And we came back early.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I did catch something. I’m fine now.” Scott looked at his brother, wanting him to go away. “I need to get up.”
Johnny didn’t move nor did he appear in any hurry. “You still look tired. Maybe you are sick or something.” He reached out a hand and touched Scott’s forehead.
“Johnny, stop it!” Scott batted his hand away.
“Boy, that long sleep didn’t improve your mood any.”
“Maybe because I have an irritating little brother who won’t go away and let me get dressed.” Johnny hated to be called little brother and Scott hoped it would get him on his way.
Johnny quirked an eye and pointed his finger at him. “You might think you’re fooling me, but there’s something going on with you.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.” If Johnny had seen something, he wouldn’t have any problem confronting him with it. No, he was just fishing but Scott would have to be more careful.
“Come on, Scott. Volunteering for line shack duties, mistaking a tumbleweed for a cow. I see you staring off into nothing like there’s something eating at you. Ever since Harlan’s visit you ain’t been the same.”
“John,” Scott replied softly, “you have an over-active imagination. Yes, grandfather’s blackmail did hurt … and Julie.” He sighed, especially Julie. “But there’s nothing going on except you not letting me get up. Unless you enjoy watching me wash, shave and dress, which, if you don’t mind my saying so, is a bit odd.”
“Then why does Murdoch want to talk to you?”
Oh, yes, the talk. The talk that wasn’t going to happen today. “It’s nothing, Johnny. We were discussing the ranch last night, Jelly burst in and Murdoch had to tend to a horse. He said we’d talk more today about it.”
“What about the ranch?”
Boy, Johnny was not letting this go and Scott was getting tired of it. A small drum was starting in the back of his head – he needed laudanum. “Just ranch stuff, as you call it. Crops, cattle, hands. Nothing special.”
“Why you getting so touchy about it if it’s not that important? Murdoch sounded bad he cut you off last night.”
“I can’t imagine why Murdoch would feel bad. You’ll have to ask him.”
Well, at least Scott didn’t have to worry about bumping into Murdoch. It would give him time to think of a more feasible story to talk to his father about.
“Where’d he go?”
Scott’s stomach dropped. The man who supplied him with the drug knew he was the son of Murdoch Lancer. But he wouldn’t say anything, would he? He’d lose a good customer. Ah, he was worrying for nothing. Murdoch wouldn’t set foot in that dirty little hovel anyway. He knew what it was. In fact, he had pointed it out to Scott on one of the rare trips they made to Cross Creek. That’s how Scott knew where to go for …
“Murdoch said last night his order of Scotch was coming in. Don’t you remember?”
Damn, he was going to pick up that order and at the same time get more laudanum. “Oh, yes. Now I do. But I told him I’d pick it up for him.”
“He thought you weren’t feeling good enough to go. Said he could check out that new vineyard on the way.”
How was he going to get to Cross Creek today? He’d have to think of a reason to get away for a while.
“Hey, Scott.” Johnny’s fingers snapped in front of his face. “There you go again, off somewhere’s else.”
“I’m disappointed is all. I needed to go to Cross Creek.”
“I wanted to send a telegram to Grandfather.” Another quick lie. They were coming all too easy. But they weren’t hurting anyone, he tried to reason.
Johnny huffed. “That old …” He looked at Scott and stopped. “Green River has a telegraph.”
“I know.” He needed to shift the subject to something else. “How’s the mare?”
“Easy to forget, isn’t it? Remember, the one that Murdoch went to tend last night?”
“Oh. She’s fine.”
When Johnny didn’t move, Scott nudged him with his foot. “Ah, if you please, I need to get dressed.”
Johnny gave him a skeptical look, but rose from the bed. “Well, ok.” He pursed his lips and settled his hands on his hips. He scrutinized Scott for a few more moments, and then turned to the door. “I’ll see you downstairs.”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Yup.”
“For wondering. But I’m fine. Really. Especially after I eat one of Maria’s breakfasts.”
“Too late for that. It’s almost lunch. This ain’t Boston, you know, where you can sleep till whenever.” His grin brightened, and Scott knew his tease was back. “No high-society gals waiting to take your arm to … what do you call it? Not lunch or breakfast.”
“Brunch.” Scott felt his lips move into a smile. He needed Johnny’s light-hearted banter right now.
“Yeah. Brunch. Dumbest thing I ever heard of. You eat when you’re hungry. No need to put a fancy name to it.”
“High society does a lot of things that do not make sense. I’m glad things are different here.”
Johnny chuckled and walked to the door. “Get dressed. We’ve got to help Walt and the boys with that bridge on Easter Creek. Can’t be dawdling over brunch.”
The door didn’t slam so Scott knew he had diverted Johnny’s suspicions to something pleasant - at least for now.
He rubbed at his eyes, flipped the covers back and swung his legs to the floor. The coffee was good but didn’t get rid of his jumping muscles. Only laudanum could do that. With a sigh, he walked to the dresser and retrieved the bottle. He was careful how much he took this time. Chasing the bitter taste with coffee, he shook his head.
The almost empty bottle alarmed him. He needed to replenish before he went anywhere today, but that wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Although he usually bought his own supply there were times when he’d been forced to take some from the ranch’s large bottle stored in the tack room. He thought he’d been careful to siphon only a small quantity but Cipriano had noticed the dwindling amount and brought it to Murdoch’s attention. Worried that someone was using it for more than just an injury, Murdoch left a small bottle for emergencies, but the larger supply was now locked in a sturdy side table in his study.
Scott had been mortified but was surprised how well he managed to hide his tumultuous feelings when they spoke about the laudanum thief. Murdoch instructed them to keep an eye out for any hand acting moody or erratic. Help would be offered but refusal wasn’t an option. There were too many dangers in ranching to keep a man who didn’t have full use of his faculties. No self-discipline, dishonesty and other terms were used, but they blurred after the comment ‘lack of character’ was thrown about. At that point Scott vowed to never again judge an individual too harshly.
Keys were made and given to only a few: Murdoch, Johnny, Maria, Cipriano, Jelly and, of course, himself. When Murdoch placed the key in his hand, he gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, he’ll slip up.” Fortunately, Murdoch was so busy handing out work assignments Scott’s deep blush went unnoticed. That had been a while ago and since then, Scott managed to keep himself supplied. But now, well, no question getting the laudanum without being seen would be tricky; nevertheless he had no choice. Physically, he couldn’t get through the day without it.
Instead of taking his normal route and using the back stairs, he thought his best chance of being unseen was to go down the main staircase and through the great room. As he suspected, no one was around. His long legs took him to the study door in no time and, peaking over his shoulder, he slipped into the room feeling like a thief in his own house. The key slid into the keyhole of the table and turned with a soft click. He pulled the drawer open and set the laudanum on top of the stand.
It was just his bad luck that the bottle was full. Any amount taken would certainly be noticed. A forgotten glass of water sat on a file cabinet, and for a moment he thought of watering down the drug. But his conscience wouldn’t let him do it – he’d not come that far, yet. He’d simply have to hope that the small supply in the tack room would be adequate for any injuries and the large container wouldn’t be needed until it could be refilled. Holding his hand steady, he poured a small stream into his flask.
“Hey, Scott. What are you doing?”
Cool liquid trickled over his fingers when he jumped and he instinctively put the bottle upright. Johnny was standing in the doorway with a puzzled look on his face.
“Dang it, Johnny. You took about ten years off my life. Why are you sneaking around?”
“I wasn’t sneaking. The door wasn’t shut and I wondered why. Appears to me you’re the one who’s doing the sneaking.”
“Sorry. You took me by surprise.” His brother’s face was upset and Scott struggled for an explanation. “I’m just getting a supply of laudanum in case we need it. You never know what can happen when repairing a rotting bridge.” Damn, he was getting good at coming up with answers. He hoped his face didn’t look as alarmed as he felt.
“Doesn’t Cip have some?”
“Isn’t he working the horses today?”
“Dang, Scott. Where is your head lately? Murdoch told Cip we needed that bridge fixed and to get as many hands on it as possible. You were there this … oh, I guess you weren’t.” Johnny’s stern look relaxed and he smiled. “You were still getting your beauty sleep.”
Scott glanced at the bottle and felt his heart slow down. He’d managed to hide it one more time. “Oh well, it doesn’t hurt to have extra. I’ll stick it in my saddlebag.” As he passed Johnny he hit him lightly in the stomach. “I need breakfast. Come on.”
“Lunch. I wish I had your hours.”
“Call it an early lunch and join me.”
“Oh, I plan to. But don’t count on getting to Cross Creek or wherever to send that telegram. Ain’t happening today with all the work Murdoch wants done and us getting a late start.”
“You didn’t have to wait for me, you know.”
“Yeah. I know. But … wanted to make sure you were okay.” His cheeks reddened. “Can’t do all the work, you know.”
Scott took the comment for what it was – Johnny cared and was embarrassed to show it. His own treachery pulled all the more under Johnny’s smile, but he would ride to Cross Creek in the morning even if that meant sneaking out hours before anyone else was awake. He’d figure out an excuse for leaving so early – tomorrow. He realized the tomorrows were getting away from him and his deception couldn’t last forever. It was just a matter of time before he was caught. How would he face his father, his brother? And … what would they do? There was no doubt the laudanum would be taken away. Although he knew that was the only option, he shuddered at what lay in front of him.
Chapter Four – Repairs
The bridge repair proved as tedious and dangerous as expected. Although the creek was narrow, the embankments on each side were steep so it was a long drop to the bottom. The decking was chipped and crumbling and one of the main supports was rotting. It was determined that the support could not be removed without the bridge collapsing, so the first order of business was shoring it up with another timber. They’d have to dig into the creek bed several feet and lever the reinforcement into place, then connect it to the girders. It would be a challenge to keep silt from leaching back into the hole so several men needed to work together in a small area.
After a few hot hours, the timber was in place and the men took a break. As they sat under some scraggly bur oaks trying to cool off, a young hand rode in.
“Drew, aren’t you supposed to be clearing Cyprus trees from Keep’s Meadow?”
“Yes, sir, Johnny. But I come across a steer trapped in a ravine. I can’t get him up by myself. Was wondering if someone could help me.”
“Is it hurt?”
“Don’t think so. But it’s hung up in some of those dang brambles at the bottom. I don’t know how he did it, but I think if I go down there and push while someone ropes him and pulls, we can get him out.”
Scott had been looking for a reason to get away and this was a good opportunity. While the boy went down into the ravine, he could snatch some laudanum without being seen.
“I’ll go. There isn’t much left to do here anyway except replace some of the decking planks.”
“If it is all right with you,” Cipriano said, “I would like to go. My brother, he is coming for a visit. Perhaps I could get back to the hacienda early and spend more time with him? If, of course, you permit me.”
“Oh, that’s right, Cip. Here we’ve been working you hard and I forgot about your brother. I’d say go for it.” When Johnny clapped him on the back a puff of dust rose. “Ah, maybe take a bath too.”
Cipriano had a pleased grin on his face and turned to Scott. “Senor Scott?”
How could Scott say no to the man? He was his father’s Segundo and the hardest worker on the ranch. Cip shouldn’t have to be penalized because of another’s weakness. Scott would just have to figure out something else to get away for a few minutes. “Of course. Enjoy your brother’s visit.”
“Gracias.” Cipriano pulled into the saddle. “Drew, por favor,” and he waived his hand to go.
Watching them disappear over the hill, Scott contemplated what excuse he could use to slip away. For some reason he couldn’t go two steps today without Johnny bumping into him. Did his brother suspect something from the encounter in the study earlier? At this point it didn’t matter. The only focus Scott had was the laudanum. He decided to say nothing and walked over to his horse.
“Where you going?” As expected, Johnny wasn’t going to let him go without an explanation.
“I have some personal needs to take care of – alone.”
“Hell, Scott. If you gotta piss don’t have to go far enough to ride a horse.” Johnny pointed to a bush a few yards away. “What’s wrong with that one?”
The men were watching the exchange, obviously amused. Scott was aware of his reputation for modesty amongst the rough-and-tumble cowboys. Most of the time it was a trivial annoyance, but this time it would suit his purpose. He decided the best thing to do was act insulted.
“For one thing, everyone has used that bush like dogs marking their territory. Probably killed it. Another thing, if I want some privacy, it’s my business.” With that, he mounted, scowled at Johnny and nudged his horse into a fast trot. He could hear the men chuckle as he rode away, then Johnny bark a “let’s get back to work”. Aware that his brother was not happy with him, Scott would try to smooth it over later. Right now all he wanted was the comfort of the little brown bottle in his saddlebag.
The distance wasn’t far to get away from prying eyes. He did have to relieve himself so wasn’t completely lying to Johnny. After taking care of that need, he fumbled for the bottle from his saddlebag. He pulled out the cork, started to tip it to his lips and it slipped from his trembling hand.
He watched in horror as the pain-relieving liquid seeped into the dry ground. Falling on his knees he grabbed the bottle and dipped his fingers into the laudanum filled dust, trying to salvage as much as he could. Dirt mingled with the fluid as he licked the tips of his fingers. He stared at his grime-encrusted fingers, remembered the drug dealer‘s filthy hands, and was sickened at how far he had fallen. Bowing his head, he could have wept. Damn, he didn’t need this.
Sitting back on his butt, he lifted his head to the blazing afternoon sun and cursed at his own carelessness. He quickly calculated if there was enough in the bottle to get him through tomorrow morning. There was – just. But he needed some now and by the time he swallowed the medicine, his head felt like a 4th of July parade drum. He stood, leaned against his horse and clutched the saddle horn. Desperate to maintain control, he concentrated on taking deep breaths. He simply had to tell Murdoch. He couldn’t go on this way day after day after day.
Within minutes the laudanum soothed and his body stopped quivering. The warm sun melted into his aching shoulders. Dry heat floated up around his bowed head and brought the sweet odor of earth. Laudanum-induced sensations of bliss soothed for a few moments and quieted a shaking world. He knew he should get back to work, but treasured the feeling of total contentment – gone all too soon.
With a deep sigh, he pulled himself into the saddle and clicked at his horse to start back to the bridge. When he came over the rise the men were circled around someone on the ground. Scott couldn’t see anything but a pink shirt through the mass of legs and rising dust. Johnny! He kicked his mount into a gallop and lurched out of the saddle when he reached the group.
Thank God – his brother wasn’t hurt. Johnny was almost on top of a man trying to hold him still while another hand, Walt, grasped his leg. The injured man was Tatum, a drifter who wandered into the ranch several weeks before.
Scott looked at the leg and grimaced. It was a horrific wound with a jagged edge of bone protruding from a bloody and torn limb. Every time Walt attempted to tend to the leg, Tatum screamed, his white face warped in agony.
“Johnny, what happened?” Scott knelt down close to his brother.
“He fell. Off the bridge.” Tatum screamed again. “Take it easy, Tate. We need to splint that leg before we can move you.”
“Jesus, Johnny. It hurts.”
“I know. I know.” Johnny looked at Scott, his face twisted with the effort to hold the man down. “Scott, thank God you brought that laudanum. Get it. Tate needs it pronto.”
Scott didn’t move. There wouldn’t be enough for both of them. What … what was he to do?
“Scott!” Johnny hissed, keeping his voice low. “I don’t need you daydreaming now. Would you get the damn laudanum.”
Scott shook himself. Of course he needed to get the medicine for Tate. “Sorry.” He rushed to his horse, pulled out the sticky bottle and hurried back to Johnny.
Johnny leaned down close to Tate and touched his shoulder. “Tate, Scott has some pain killer. Just open your mouth and swallow it.”
Scott held up Tate’s head and tilted the bottle, watching as the liquid dripped into his mouth. To his relief, the man quieted within a few minutes.
“Keep it handy, Scott. He may need more after we splint that leg.” Johnny glanced back at Walt. “Ok, Walt. Ready as he’ll ever be.”
Walt grasped the leg and pulled. Another hand set two boards on either side of the break and deftly wrapped the limb with torn strips of cloth. By the time Tate was loaded into the supply wagon, he was wet with sweat and his groans were pathetic to hear.
“Scott, give me the bottle.”
Scott hesitated. He couldn’t make it through the day without it. “Why?”
“Because he’s in pain and needs it.”
“I know, but too much isn’t good.” Ashamed of his own reply, Scott lowered his eyes at Johnny’s dumbfounded stare.
“I don’t believe this,” Johnny muttered. He grabbed the bottle from Scott’s hand and thrust it at Walt. “Walt, just give him enough to take the edge off. Matt, you ride in the wagon with Tate. I’ll send another hand to town for the doc.”
“Right, Johnny. We’ll take it as easy as we can.”
Scott watched through the heat shimmers as the wagon headed off for the ranch house. In the background his brother snapped orders to the crew. He had an edge to his voice and Scott knew why. The men would be wondering too – why he acted so shamefully and wavered sending the laudanum with the injured Tate – why he was doing nothing but staring at the departing wagon. Embarrassed to face his brother and, in all likelihood the puzzled stares of the men, Scott waited until he no longer heard movement behind him. When he finally turned to go back to work, the hands were already at the bridge. Johnny wasn’t.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Johnny stood a few yards away, red faced and grim.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Scott went to push past him, but Johnny grabbed his arm.
“Why didn’t you want to send the laudanum with Tate?”
Excuses hurried through his mind as to why, but none were good enough. “I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You’ve been doing a lot of that lately.”
“I’m sorry, ok? Now let go.” Scott tried to shrug out of Johnny’s grasp, but his fingers tightened like bands of steel.
Angry at being restrained and afraid of what his brother may be thinking, Scott strained to wrench free of Johnny’s hand but the hold only grew tighter. “Johnny, I said, let go.”
“You had a full bottle of laudanum this morning when we left the ranch. There was less than half left when Tate took it. What happened to the rest?” Johnny’s eyes were penetrating, as hard as Scott had ever seen them.
Scott had been worried that Johnny would notice the missing contents when he handed the bottle over. His brother rarely missed a detail, especially when the clean bottle from the morning had turned into a dirty, sticky mess. “I spilled it.”
“Why the hell would you even open it, Scott?” He shook Scott’s arm, his question accusing.
“I had a headache. Maybe whatever I had last night, this morning, was still lingering. I thought I’d take a bit of laudanum to get rid of it. It slipped out of my hand, spilled in the dirt.” It was the truth – most of it anyway.
Scott could see Johnny wanted to believe. His fingers relaxed their hold as his features softened slightly.
“What did you think, Johnny?” Scott attempted to portray puzzlement. He was getting so good at lying, might as well throw acting stupid into the mix.
“I don’t know.” Johnny’s hand dropped away from Scott’s arm. “You’ve just been so … strange lately. I thought maybe …”
“Maybe you were taking laudanum when you shouldn’t be.”
There it was - so like Johnny to get it said, out in the open. Scott wanted to blurt out that yes, it was true. He tried to tell himself that Murdoch needed to know first, but he was scared. Not only did his body crave the medication, but he’d never known such serenity as those first minutes after taking it. He felt like he could climb to the top of the world without effort. Most of all, he could forget the grandfather who betrayed him and the absent father who broke his heart. Whatever explanations they tried to give him to justify their actions, they were only excuses. The laudanum took that pain away.
“Listen.” Scrubbing a hand across his face, Scott collected his thoughts. “I know lately I’ve been rather … distracted at times.” Johnny snorted at the remark, obviously still skeptical of Scott’s explanation. Scott continued. “Grandfather’s visit, what he did, well, it’s been hard to accept. And Murdoch with his evasiveness … I guess I’m still dealing with everything is all.”
His brother stood silent, scrutinizing Scott, analyzing, considering, perhaps wanting to believe.
“Come on, Johnny. Let’s get back to work.” Scott smiled, hoping to convey the intense warmth he felt for his brother. “That bridge is just a couple hours from being done. Work will take my … our minds off those two old men.”
Johnny pursed his lips, his gaze scanning the golden countryside. Finally, a light grin played across his lips and he nodded. “All right,” he whispered, then stronger, “All right.”
Draping an arm across his shoulders, Scott steered them towards the bridge. He could feel the stiffness in Johnny’s walk, and the casual grin never reached his eyes. He knew his brother so well -Johnny still had doubts.
Halfway to the bridge Johnny stopped and glanced up at Scott. His eyes seemed hurt, like he had lost something dear to him. “Don’t lie to me, Scott. You know … you don’t need to lie to me whatever you’ve done.”
Scott swallowed the knot in his throat and dropped his arm from Johnny’s shoulder. Johnny stepped away and waited, like he was inviting Scott to tell him the truth. Scott frantically searched for something to say to bring back his brother’s shining smile but it was futile. After a few moments, Johnny bowed his head and walked to the bridge alone. At that moment Scott was aware that Johnny knew. He hadn’t fooled him at all.
Chapter Five – Caught
The afternoon dragged on for Scott. The sun was merciless and Johnny’s silence unbearable. The men seemed to sense that all was not right and the unfortunate Tate wasn’t far from anyone’s mind. Their usual rough tease and vulgar remarks were absent. They did their jobs quickly and dragged into the ranch compound a couple hours ahead of schedule. Two hands were assigned to go back to the bridge with a wagon and retrieve the tools and unused wood. The rest of the men would pick up various small duties at the ranch to complete their day.
Without a word to anyone, Scott went to the barn, took care of his horse and started cleaning out stalls. His brain worked nonstop as he thought of Johnny and his own predicament of procuring … no stealing more laudanum until he could get to Cross Creek come morning. He caught himself staring at nothing several times.
There was no question he had damaged his relationship with his brother, but how much? Was Johnny so disappointed that he would never forgive him? Or so hurt? He tried to convince himself maybe Johnny wasn’t all that sure, that he was only guessing. But in the end, what mattered was the disillusioned look that Johnny had given him when he walked away.
His body wouldn’t let him forget that in a few hours he would need laudanum. That was his priority, how to get more. He could attempt to pilfer some from the large bottle in Murdoch’s study, but was taking a chance Johnny would be checking it. No, best to get a couple mouthfuls from the bottle in the tack room. He’d bathe, act his usual self through dinner, go to bed early and sneak into the tack room after dark. In a couple of days, when things settled down, he’d approach Murdoch. Yes, he would definitely tell Murdoch … in a couple of days.
With a plan in place, he felt better. He thought of other things – how Tate was doing, a good time for the next cattle drive, what horses to buy and sell. In no time at all, the stalls were cleaned and he stepped back satisfied with how they looked.
Deciding to get things ready for the early morning trek to Cross Creek, he draped the bridal, saddle and saddle pad over the top rail of Charlie’s stall. His saddlebags were still stocked with jerky and hard tack from the day. The bag was tossed across the saddle along with a freshly filled water canteen. He patted the backside of his favorite mount and headed for the ranch house.
On the way he ran into Cipriano and his brother and took a few moments to welcome the man. Raul was big, like Cip, and seemed pleasant, although Scott had the impression from the lines on his face and cautious look in his eyes that Raul’s life may have taken a different path than his brother. But Cip’s smile couldn’t have been bigger when introducing Raul and the pride in his voice assured Scott that Raul was a good man.
He was surprised to see Doctor Tucker’s carriage still parked in front of the house. The mare had been unharnessed and was in the paddock closest to the house. He frowned, wondering if Tate’s broken leg was causing the doctor problems. When he walked into the great room, Murdoch, Johnny and the doctor were sitting in various easy chairs with drinks in hand. They stopped their conversation as he entered making him feel that they’d been plotting something. Frustrated with his heightening suspicions, Scott dismissed the unwarranted fear and nodded at Murdoch. He avoided looking at Johnny and approached the doctor with his hand extended. “Good day, sir. I assume by your relaxed state that Tate is taken care of?”
The tall, elegant man stood and took Scott’s hand. “Yes. It is a nasty break but between your father and me, we managed to put him back together.” The doctor frowned. “It will be many weeks before he’s of any use to you though.”
Scott chuckled. “You make him sound like a horse that’s been laid up.”
“Don’t mean to. I believe, though, that you would shoot a horse with his injury.” The doctor smiled and settled into the armchair.
“He will be all right then.” Scott liked the doctor. He was big, almost as big as Murdoch, but with a grace that Murdoch would never have. Scott guessed him to be a little younger than his father, and a man who conveyed self-assurance. He’d been in the area for only a short time, but had gained the confidence of the communities he served with his no-nonsense but kind attitude.
“I’m afraid at his point he’ll find the pain worse than the injury. But yes, he should heal with maybe a slight limp that will diminish in time.”
“Good to hear.” Scott clasped his hands together and gestured to the liquor cart. “I’ll think I’ll join you.”
There was an uncomfortable silence as Scott poured bourbon into a glass. Maybe they had been talking about him. Did Johnny relay his suspicions to his father? Is that why the doctor was still here? He decided to ignore his mounting paranoia and fall back on the one ability that never failed him – his aptitude to make others feel comfortable.
“Are you staying for dinner doctor?”
“Yes. Your father has extended the invitation which I could not refuse. And please, call me Mark.”
“Certainly, Mark. Delighted you could stay.” Scott relaxed into a chair between his father and the doctor. “I hope you’re finding the area to your liking. The people around here seem to be very impressed with you.”
“Well, they’re good, hardworking people. I must say their ability to get to the point is refreshing after the atmosphere of the politics of post-war New Orleans.”
“Ah, I thought I detected a slight southern accent. But you’re not a native, are you?”
“No, Scott. I was born and raised in Philadelphia. The army needed my services in the south after the rebellion, so when I was discharged, I settled in New Orleans. It is a fascinating city. Wild and innocent at the same time. I did enjoy it, but … well there were many pains suffered due to the war and I needed a change.”
Sadness passed over his face while he talked about the past. Then he smiled and looked at Scott. “I’m sure war is difficult for you to understand. Forgive me.”
“Not at all. As a matter of fact, I was in the Army of the Potomac.”
“What! You must have been a babe in arms when you enlisted.” The doctor’s countenance registered shock.
“Well, let’s just say I fibbed on my age and leave it at that.”
“But certainly, your father …” The doctor’s face reddened and he turned to Murdoch. To Scott’s surprise, he stumbled over his words. “Pardon me, Murdoch. I have heard about … well, that your sons were not … that Scott did not grow up here.”
“Don’t worry, Mark. No, neither of my sons lived on Lancer when they were growing up. But they’re here now and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what is important.”
Scott admired Murdoch’s ability to smooth things over. Sometimes his intelligence and wisdom made Scott nothing but proud to be his son. He grinned as the doctor collected himself and nodded at Murdoch.
“I agree, sir, that’s what is important. Now, I hope my big foot in my big mouth will still allow me to partake of your excellent supper.”
“Of course.” Murdoch pushed his large frame up from the chair. “In fact, if I’m not mistaken, our fine housekeeper and cook, Maria, has brought out the soup. Please.” Murdoch motioned to the dining room table, allowing the doctor to go first. Johnny followed the doctor. As Scott passed his father, Murdoch laid a large hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
“But, doctor, I definitely would not have permitted my son to enlist at such a young age and, if he had, I would have dragged him back by the seat of his pants.”
Despite the smile on Murdoch’s face, a bitter worm twisted in Scott’s belly at the proclamation. Indeed, if Murdoch had cared enough to have him. Well, as his father had said at their first meeting, the past was over and nothing to be changed. There were times, however, no matter how hard Scott tried, that the resentment just wouldn’t let go. Realizing it was useless to dwell on old hurts, he crammed his feelings away and decided to enjoy the evening as much as he could.
The doctor was pleasant company, easy to talk to with interesting experiences and stories. Scott found himself relaxing and was pleased to note even Johnny seemed to unwind. However, after a couple of hours, Scott wondered when the doctor would leave. The inevitable twinges flittered through his legs alerting him to the fact that the laudanum was wearing off. Scott was relieved when the doctor finally rose, thanked them for a wonderful evening and declared he should be going.
“It is late, Mark. You are certainly welcome to spend the night. We have more than enough room.”
“Thank you, Murdoch. That’s very generous of you. Are you sure?”
“Definitely. In fact, I think I could find you a spare nightshirt. Maybe a bit large but …”
“I appreciate the offer and will accept it.”
“Good. Scott, if you would show him to one of our guest rooms I’ll get a nightshirt.”
Scott would have preferred Johnny do the chore, but he couldn’t very well say no. He’d get the doctor settled as quickly as he could, excuse himself and slip away to the tack room. In fact, this may work out better after all. Johnny would probably go to his room and think that he was talking to the doctor. Yes, it would do very well.
There was a comfortable bedroom in the west wing of the hacienda, a quiet room that served many guests that stopped at Lancer. Small talk and pleasantries were exchanged as Scott escorted the doctor and he chastised himself for his earlier suspicions. Within a few minutes Murdoch arrived with a fresh nightshirt.
“The day starts early here, Mark. But, please, feel free to linger if you wish. We’ll try not to disturb you.”
“Thanks, Murdoch. But I’m an early riser myself. I’d like to join you for breakfast if someone will just pound on my door.”
“I can, or maybe Scott?”
Scott planned to be on his way long before anyone was up, but kept his mouth shut. With a small smile, he nodded at his father’s request.
“Good night then. Scott, we’d best get to bed ourselves.”
“Yes sir. Good night Mark.” As he walked down the hall with his father a thought popped into his mind that he should leave a note of some kind so they wouldn’t worry about him. He’d have to think of a story but that needed a clear head and right now it was starting to ache.
“Scott, I couldn’t help but notice that you and Johnny barely spoke to each other tonight. Is there anything wrong?”
From Murdoch’s question, it was evident Johnny had not talked to him about the incident at the bridge. “Nothing is wrong. Maybe Johnny is just tired. He saw Tate fall. Was the first to him.”
“Perhaps.” Murdoch stuffed his hands in his pockets and slowed his walk. “Scott, what did you want to talk to me about last night?”
Scott fumbled for the right words. He hadn’t expected Murdoch to remember his request from the night before. “It’s late, Murdoch, and to be honest, I don’t recall what I wanted to mention. It really wasn’t all that important.”
Murdoch nodded his head but didn’t seem ready to stop with his questions. “Johnny couldn’t wake you up this morning. Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes, sir. I don’t know why but I was very tired. I must have caught something that went away quickly. I’m fine now.” Scott picked up his pace wanting to end the conversation as fast as possible.
Murdoch cleared his throat. “Ah, Scott, as long as Mark is here, why not have him take a look at you?”
He managed to suppress a loud ‘no’ and concentrated on each step up the staircase. “You’re rather getting to be a mother hen, Murdoch.” Scott chuckled, steering the conversation to something light.
With a snort, Murdoch grinned. “I must say I’ve never been called that.” He stopped at Scott’s bedroom door and paused for a few seconds before gazing at Scott. “But it wouldn’t do any harm, would it?”
“I’ll think about it.” Murdoch opened his mouth as if to say something else, but Scott interrupted. “Good night, sir.”
“Yes,” Murdoch stepped away, pursed his lips and eyed his son. “You seem … Well, get a good night’s sleep.” He rested his hand on Scott’s shoulder, then smiled as he turned to his bedroom.
Moving into his room, Scott held the door open slightly and listened for the click of his father’s closing door. When he heard it, he crept into the hallway and glanced towards his brother’s room. No light seeped from beneath the threshold; his brother must be sleeping.
Scott hurried down the staircase and through the great room. Instead of using the main door, he slipped through the French doors and across the paddock. A full moon cast silver patches through patchy clouds and guided his way into the barn.
A muted nicker greeted him as he felt for the kerosene lamp stored just inside the door. “Easy, easy, it’s just me,” he soothed. With a shaking hand he managed to lift the glass chimney without dropping it. The wick flickered, caught and brightened the barn. He turned it down and headed for the tack room.
There were two entrances to the tack room – one from inside the barn and another outside door that faced the front of the hacienda. The pale glow from the lamp barely touched the dark corners but there was enough light that Scott could see his way without tripping over the saddles and tack waiting for repairs. The laudanum was in a storage cabinet on the right side of the room and Scott headed to it.
The hinge stuck and he pulled harder. It opened with a squeak and he held his breath, then cursed at his reeling nerves – no one was around to hear anything except the horses. He reached for the bottle and froze in alarm. It was gone! Scott panicked. Had Johnny taken it? He ground his teeth in rage at the possibility that his conniving brother had snatched it from him. What was he to do now? He’d have to ride into Cross Creek tonight. There was a full moon – he could do it. In despair he focused on the empty space, and then a reflection from the lamplight glittered on brown glass resting on the shelf below. The bottle was there. Scott gazed at the welcome sight of the container and choked with relief. It would be all right – he would be all right.
He set the lamp on a nearby work table and reached for the pain reliever. His clumsy fingers struggled with the stubborn cork. He put it between his teeth, bit down and the cork finally popped out. Closing his eyes, he counted his breaths before touching the bottle to his lips. Even though the medication was bitter, it was the sweetest taste in the world. In a few minutes it would calm his jittery nerves and mounting nausea.
“Got another headache, Scott?”
Scott whirled at the quiet words. Standing in the doorway, haloed by glowing moonlight, stood his brother, arms relaxed at his side, shoulders back. Johnny stepped slowly to the worktable and turned up the kerosene lamp. His face was hard, inflexible, angry. Instinctively Scott tucked the bottle behind his back.
“What are you doing here?”
“Why?” Even though his heart was beating like a captured bird, he had no intention of relaying that to Johnny.
“Oh, I think you know why.”
“Are you spying on me?” Maybe he could talk his way out of this by acting offended. It had worked before.
“Yup.” Johnny moved closer. “What do you have behind your back?”
It was no use. Johnny wasn’t going to buy anything he said. Not anymore. He was trapped with the evidence behind his back and his brother in front of him. He jammed the bottle in his pocket and glared at Johnny. “None of your damn business.”
Johnny’s lips tightened and a muscle jumped along his jaw. “Oh, I think it is my business.” His soft voice belied the burn in his eyes. “Especially when you’re guzzling laudanum in the middle of the night.”
“Then show me. What are you hiding?”
“I’m not hiding anything … and it’s none of your concern.” The situation was getting away from him and Scott faltered, trying to keep himself together, not let Johnny get the upper hand.
“No, Scott.” Johnny moved forward, his body relaxed. But there was nothing yielding in his eyes. “Not when you won’t wake up cuz you swallowed too much of that crap. You fixing to kill yourself, Scott, cuz that’s what’s gonna happen. Is that what you want? For me to find you dead?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I? This morning, when I couldn’t wake you, I wondered. I’ve been wondering for a while, then it all made sense.”
“What all made sense?”
“Oh, you not being yourself. Then today, stealing laudanum from the study …”
“I did not steal it,” Scott declared. “I explained why I was there. As if I needed to explain anything to you,” he spat.
Johnny kept on as if Scott hadn’t said anything. “A half empty bottle for Tate, you not wanting to give it up.” He pointed to the bottle in Scott’s pocket. “Did you think you could go on forever without getting caught?”
His brother was acting all too calm, but Scott knew that he was probably seething. After what seemed like forever, eyes boring into him, Johnny put his hand on his hips. “Well, nothing to say?”
“I’ll take care of this myself,” Scott snapped.
“Humph. Knowing you, I’d bet you’ve already tried. Maybe on line shack duty?”
Scott kept his mouth shut as he watched his brother move around the table. Johnny was right, but he was not going to let his kid brother back him into a corner, even if it meant a fight. The weeks of lying, always scrambling for the laudanum, worrying if there was enough, how to get more, the empty promises to himself that he would tell Murdoch, his own shame – all slammed into him.
“Leave me alone, just leave me alone.” Scott spun around and stalked out of the tack room. He was at his horse’s stall before he felt Johnny’s fingers dig into his arm.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
This time Scott was able to twist out of Johnny’s grasp. “For a ride. I need to think.” He smoothed the blanket over Charlie’s back, ignoring the black glare from his brother.
“Looks like you’re all ready to head out. Where to? Cross Creek and that filthy shack sitting next to the pile of horse shit in back of the stage line?”
“Back off, Johnny. Where I go is my concern.”
A strong pull sent him out of the stall and before he could react, Johnny had him up against the wall. “You’re full of crap if you think I’m going to let you ride out of here. When you planning on telling Murdoch or hadn’t you given him any thought?”
“I’ll tell him when I’m ready.” Scott struggled against the arms holding him, but Johnny kicked his legs out from under him and he went down.
“Now! He needs to know now.” Johnny stood above him, fists clenched, his jaw so hard Scott thought it could break.
“Don’t you tell me what to do.” Scott pushed up and headed for his horse. He could ride bareback, just needed enough time to get on the bridle.
Johnny’s fingers bit into his arm and swirled him around. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“And who’s going to stop me.”
Before he had time to move, he caught the site of Johnny’s fist barreling at him.
Chapter Six – Impossible
The nightmare started with a rough shake in the middle of the night coupled with an anxious, “Wake up. It’s Scott.” The harsh light from the lamp exposed rumpled hair and swollen knuckles. “He’s downstairs. You gotta come.” Johnny dashed out of the room, leaving behind darkness and bewilderment.
“Johnny, Johnny, what’s wrong?” Murdoch sat up, knowing his son was probably halfway down the staircase. He swore “what the hell now” and struggled out of bed. Groping for his robe he jammed his feet into slippers. One half-on slipper slapped down the dark hallway – thud, smack, thud, smack - until he stopped and crammed the damn thing on proper. In his haste he’d not bothered with a candle or lamp. More than 25 years of familiar in treading this passageway and he knew every squeak, rough spot and nail head. A light wasn’t necessary.
A buttery halo licked the bottom of the stairway. A brighter glow from the great room flicked gold over Johnny’s black hair. He was seated on the coffee table in front of the couch, jaw resting on fisted hands, his gaze unbreakable. As Murdoch approached, Johnny stood and put his hands on his hips.
“What is it son?”
Johnny shifted his arm towards the sofa. “It’s Scott.” He chewed on his lip and looked at Murdoch. “We’ve got problems.”
Murdoch came around to stand beside Johnny then, alarmed, dropped beside an unconscious Scott. “What happened?” He gingerly skimmed his finger along an angry red mark on his son’s jawline.
“I hit him.”
“But …” Murdoch didn’t understand. Other than Johnny being rather quiet at dinner, things appeared fine between the two brothers. He looked up at his son. “Why?”
“Cuz of this.” Johnny dug into his pocket and held a small brown bottle in his open hand. “I caught our laudanum thief. Scott.”
An astonished Murdoch tried to grasp what Johnny was saying. He knew Scott had been a bit off lately, but a laudanum addict. Impossible!
As if reading his mind, Johnny sat on the coffee table and scooted close to his father. “Listen. I know what you must be thinking, but I’m telling you, I know he’s taking it. This morning I caught him in the study filling up a bottle with the stuff. He almost jumped to the ceiling when I came in.”
“But that doesn’t mean …” Murdoch faced his son, unwilling to believe. “What did he say?”
“Pft.” Johnny threw out an arm rejecting the explanation. “He said it was in case we needed it at the bridge.”
“That seems reasonable, Johnny. It doesn’t mean he’s taking it.”
“Murdoch. Cipriano always carries a bottle. Everyone knows that, including Scott.”
“You know how he’s been – forgetful, absent minded. Maybe he just forgot.” It seemed plausible to Murdoch. What Johnny was suggesting was preposterous.
“There’s more.” Johnny glanced at Scott, fisted one hand into the other and squeezed. “This afternoon at the bridge. Scott went off by himself for a while.”
Murdoch held out his hands. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Murdoch, will you just listen! I know it’s hard to believe. Do you think I wanted to?” Johnny jolted up, stalked away a few feet, then glared at his father.
Surprised at Johnny’s agitation, Murdoch remained calm. “All right, Johnny. I’m sorry.”
Johnny blew out a breath and nodded, obviously trying to regain composure. “Wasn’t the first time that he’s made up some excuse to go off alone. The other day he went after a beef no one else saw. Today, said he wanted some privacy. He was gone for a long time, more than what it would take for a piss. I was thinkin’ of looking for him, knew he’d be mad if I did, but I was worried, you know? I couldn’t wake him up this morning.” He choked, then took a long breath.
It was as difficult for Murdoch to watch Johnny struggle as it was to grapple with the fact that one son may be ill by his own making. “Go on, Johnny. Please.”
“Then Tate fell off the bridge. I was so busy tending to him I didn’t notice Scott until he was right beside me. I remembered the laudanum and asked him for it.” He studied his father before he continued. “He didn’t want to give it to me, Murdoch. It was like he was in a fog. I had to ask a second time. When he finally gave the medicine to Tate, I noticed the bottle was sticky and dirty … half empty. Then we sent Tate on his way with the bottle but, boy, Scott sure didn’t want to give it up. I had to yank it out of his hand.”
Although Murdoch didn’t want to believe that Scott was held in a crippling dependence, he knew there had to be a reason for his recent uncharacteristic behavior. Now, his reluctance to give up the laudanum was so unlike him, Johnny’s story … no, his insight, had an air of truth. “What did he say about the missing medicine?” Johnny would have asked, of course.
“Said he had a headache and decided to take some. Claimed he dropped the bottle, spilled it.”
“And what did you think?” Murdoch felt cold and thought a fire would do. But, it was high summer. It wasn’t the temperature that made him shiver.
“Hell Murdoch, I wanted to believe him.” Johnny picked up a piece of candy from a bowl on the table and tossed it in the air over and over. “But I knew then he was lying. His damn lies, Murdoch. His damn, damn lies.” He threw the candy back at the bowl, missed as it skimmed across the table and bounced to the floor.
“You know your brother doesn’t lie.” But Murdoch knew what desperation could do and Johnny was so sure.
“He does now.”
Murdoch scrubbed a hand across his face and watched Scott. Other than the growing bruise, he seemed to be in a peaceful sleep. His hand was warm and dry under Murdoch’s touch. It seemed like all Murdoch needed to do was nudge him out of a gentle slumber and he’d open his eyes. But he was deeply unconscious and no amount of shaking would wake him. Johnny could throw a mighty punch when angry.
“I caught him tonight in the tack room. I knew he’d head there for the laudanum and I watched, wanted to stop him before he took any of the stuff, but I was too late. He had the bottle in his hand but still denied it. Finally gave it up. He was ready to leave, Murdoch. To Cross Creek and that dirty shack. Have you seen that filthy place?”
“Yes, son, I’ve seen it.” Murdoch absently stroked Scott’s arm, rubbed his fingers against the thin fabric of his shirt, and cherished the warmth of his son’s body. This whole scenario was impossible. He tried not to picture Scott sneaking into the shanty, dropping coins into grubby hands, and then dodging looks from knowing faces.
“I couldn’t let him go, you know.” The plea snagged a piece of Murdoch’s heart and he gazed up at Johnny. Clear blue eyes begged for understanding. “He wouldn’t wake up this morning. I couldn’t let that happen again, so I hit him … hard.”
“It’s ok, Johnny. You did what you had to do. It’s ok.”
“I could only think of him never waking up.”
Murdoch stood, walked over to Johnny and draped a hand on his shoulder. Regardless of Johnny’s anger, he also needed reassurance that everything would be all right – that Scott would be all right. Johnny stopped fidgeting when Murdoch touched him.
“So, now what?”
“What do you think, son? Did he admit it to you?”
“Not in so many words but might as well have. Said it was none of my business and he’d take care of it.”
A couple of steps brought Murdoch back to the couch and he stared down at Scott. “Well, time will prove one way or the other. Let’s get Mark up, check that jaw, see what he has to say.” He turned to Johnny. “Apologize, but tell him I’d appreciate his taking a look at Scott. I’ll stay with him.”
“How much do you want me to tell the doc?”
“As much as he needs to know. Everything.”
Chapter Seven - Convinced
What now, indeed, Murdoch thought to himself as he waited for the doctor and Johnny. He needed a drink. The amber bottle was welcoming and he splashed a good amount into a glass. The whiskey touched his lips, then he stopped, tasted the wet with his tongue.
Was he being hypocritical? He drank, sometimes daily. It was pleasant, relaxing after a stressful day. He’d seen many a man destroyed by alcohol, the only thing on their mind where the next drink was coming from. Murdoch reflected on his own habit and knew he could live without liquor.
What about laudanum? It was common; people took it for toothaches, for relieving coughs, for diarrhea. It was probably in most elixirs or potions that claimed cures for everything from crusty toenails to consumption. When Scott had been shot by the Deegans, laudanum had been the only thing able to relieve the horrible headaches that followed. Is that when it started?
No question that it could take hold and destroy a man, regardless there were no laws against it. And if what Johnny said was true, and Scott was trying to hide his dependence, it was proof he knew it was wrong. But still, this was Scott, his always responsible and steady son.
He had been so lost in thought he hadn’t heard the approach of Johnny or the doctor until Johnny said his name. Mark looked mussed but alert. Something was draped around his shoulders. On closer look, it appeared to be some type of knitted throw. The borrowed nightshirt hung well below his knees exposing large, bare feet. For a normally dignified man, he looked ridiculous and Murdoch almost smiled, but the thought scuttled away at the seriousness of the situation.
“Apologies, Mark, for waking you.”
“No apologies necessary.” He drew near the couch and studied an unconscious Scott before sitting next to him.
“Did, ah, Johnny tell you what happened?”
“A bit. That he and Scott had a fight.” Long fingers tracked along Scott’s jawline, then took firm hold and prodded the bones.
“It may be more involved than that, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, well, let me be sure that there are no broken bones, and we can talk about the other involvement Johnny mentioned.”
As Mark examined Scott, Murdoch poured a shot of whiskey into a glass.
“Did he hit his head against anything when he fell?” Mark lifted Scott’s head and manipulated fingers through his hair.
“No. Just straw.”
After several minutes Mark sat back and glanced up at Johnny. “You’ve got quite a punch there, young man. He’s what I call, ‘well and goodly out’.”
Johnny bowed his head for a moment then eyed the doctor. “I had reason, Doc.”
“And I’m sure I’ll learn more. Fortunately, nothing appears broken. I’m guessing he’ll have a heck of a bruise in a few hours, though.”
Murdoch offered the drink to Mark. “Thank you,” he said and with a large sigh moved from the couch to an armchair. He settled into it, took an appreciative drink, and looked at Murdoch. “Now, Johnny mentioned something about laudanum?”
“It may be the case.” Murdoch eyed Johnny, saw a quick flicker of anger cross his face. “At least Johnny’s indicated a number of instances where he believes Scott has taken it.”
“I know, son. I know. Just give me time to get my head around it, ok?”
Johnny pursed his lips and nodded. “Ok. But I know what I saw.”
“Agreed.” Murdoch sipped at his drink as he moved to an armchair close to the doctor. “To be honest,” he said as he slumped into the chair, “I don’t know where to go from here. Can you tell me, Mark?”
“I can tell you that laudanum abuse isn’t uncommon. I wish there were laws, restrictions as to who could distribute it … maybe someday. Not everyone agrees with me, including those in the medical profession. But in New Orleans I saw what it could do to broken soldiers looking for relief … something I had no cure for. It’s a blessing for the most part, but can be devastating as well.”
“If Scott has taken more than he should,” Murdoch started, trying to ignore Johnny’s exasperated huff, “what can we expect?”
“A lot depends on how long this has gone on.”
Murdoch gazed deep into the warm liquid in his glass. Since Harlan, he thought bitterly, with his deceit and cunning. He almost got Scott killed and it seemed they were still in his clutches. “It’s possible it’s been going on for a while. Several weeks anyway.”
Fabric rustled next to him as Mark moved. Murdoch held his breath, waiting for the onslaught of information that would only mean misery. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Well, I’m sorry to say withdrawal can be pretty devastating. There will be severe chills, periods of extreme sweating. Stomach cramps, headaches, nausea, body tremors. The intensity may vary somewhat from person to person, but …”
Delivered in a cold, clinical fashion, Murdoch waited for him to continue. After several moments of silence, Murdoch lifted his head to Mark. “But, what?”
“Those are just the physical side effects,” Mark said in a sad tone, his face conveying regret. “There will be anger, desperation, remorse … and he will beg you for relief. I’ve never seen it easy, Murdoch. I’m sorry.”
The ‘he will beg you for relief’ hit Murdoch the hardest. He grappled with the thought that it wasn’t true, this nightmare. Scott would wake up with just a swollen jaw and everything would be fine. Johnny would apologize for hitting him and Scott would be angry but understanding. Scott was always understanding. But in the back of his mind he recognized there had been a change in Scott and that change needed an explanation. Murdoch had to be prepared whatever the outcome.
“You know, he wanted to talk to me last night. Now that I think about it, he’s come to me a couple of times but the conversation always ended up being about some small, incidental thing. I wonder …” What if Scott came to him for help? Was he so involved with the ranch that he shunted him aside?
“Murdoch, you can’t blame yourself. I can tell you that it’s difficult for most people to admit they have a problem. If Scott wanted to tell you, well, at least it’s a step in the right direction.”
Mark’s encouragement helped but didn’t stop the guilt that maybe Murdoch could have done something earlier. “Will he try to get away?”
“In all likelihood. The pull of laudanum is very strong.”
Murdoch drained the glass and set it firmly down on a side table. He pushed himself up from the chair and took a deep breath. “Well then, we’ll need to plan accordingly. There’s a room not too far from the kitchen with two beds in it. It’s where we moved that old chair from my study a few months ago. Do you know which one it is, Johnny?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“Can you get a padlock on the window tonight?”
“Good. I think there’s a key for the door in that old wardrobe.”
“Murdoch?” Johnny’s tone was hesitant. “You gonna lock him in?”
“Yes, son. I intend to be with him, but I think its best.” He could see that Johnny wasn’t happy with the idea but then, neither was he. Murdoch took a couple of steps towards Johnny, hoping it wasn’t going to be a problem. “I don’t see any other way. Do you?”
“No.” Johnny glanced over at Scott. “I guess not.”
He swiped his hand in the air as if dismissing his own objections. “I understand.”
Nothing else would insure Scott’s security, short of tying him to the bed, and Murdoch wasn’t going do that.
“It’s a wise move, Johnny,” Mark said, supporting Murdoch’s decision. “I’m not sure if you intend to … assist your father.”
“I’m not sure either. Would like to say yes, but don’t know if Scott would want me around.” Johnny shrugged his shoulders.
“I just wanted to say I’ll help in any way I can. I do have calls but will make it a point to stop by when I can.”
“I, we appreciate that Mark.”
“Murdoch, I suggest one more thing. Think about someone who can relieve you, if even for a few hours. It could be a long few days.”
“I’ll manage.” Murdoch didn’t want anyone to see Scott, except maybe Johnny.
“You may think so but consider Scott. A man overwhelmed with fatigue won’t do him any good.”
“And I don’t want to expose Scott to that … humiliation.”
“I understand. But just have someone in mind. In a couple of days you’ll have a better appreciation of what I’m suggesting.”
Mark was probably right but at this point, Murdoch was too tired to even contemplate who that could be. “I’ll think about it. For now, could you help me carry Scott to the bedroom while Johnny gets the lock on the window?”
“I can get a stretcher from the barn when I get a padlock. It’ll be easier to carry him.”
“Thanks son. It would be.”
As Johnny installed the padlock, Murdoch and Mark took off Scott’s clothes and got him into bed. Dawn was just a few hours away when they finished, and Murdoch told them both to get some sleep. He would stay with Scott and use the other bed.
But sleep didn’t come. At one point he heard Scott move and listened in the darkness to see if he would wake up. There was a rustling in the bed, a low moan, and then finally soft breathing.
Murdoch’s mind wrestled with Scott, laudanum and the days ahead. Resigned to a sleepless night, he was surprised when a noise in the hall woke him up. Glancing at the window, he could discern a faint light in the east. Sunrise. It was probably Maria in the hallway making her way to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
A grumble from his stomach reminded him that Scott would be needing food. He glanced at the bed next to him. His son was lying on his belly with one hand tucked under the pillow. Murdoch needed to get shaved, dressed and relay the day’s tasks to Cipriano and Johnny. Not knowing how long Scott would sleep, he wanted to be able to talk to him before he started getting sick. Murdoch didn’t want to believe that would happen, but was now convinced it would.
The key to the room was under his pillow and as he tossed off the linens he grabbed it. Scott turned in bed and Murdoch stilled and watched. When he seemed to settle back to sleep, Murdoch hurried through the door and locked it.
The first order of business was Maria and getting breakfast for his son. Without a long explanation, he told her about Scott. She silently listened, nodded and without question said she would make him a fine breakfast. He had the presence of mind to tell her he would instruct someone to go with her. She frowned and opened her mouth to protest, but stopped. Instead, she laid her hand on his arm and said “Si, Patron.” Murdoch almost kissed her.
As Murdoch shaved and dressed the doctor’s suggestion to get someone to relieve him stuck in his mind. It was his plan to have Johnny help, regardless of Scott’s feelings but it wouldn’t hurt to have another person as a stand in. By the time he met with Cipriano and Johnny, he had decided to ask Cip. With humility Cip asked if he might consider someone else, not because Cip wouldn’t do it, but because he knew someone who had been through the same thing.
“My brother, Raul. He is now free of the evil, but at one time it was like a dog had sunk its teeth into his leg and wouldn’t let go. Raul will understand.”
Murdoch hesitated but Cipriano pushed. “He is a silent man, my brother. But good. He will tell no one.”
Perhaps it was better to have someone who knew what to expect. Murdoch had welcomed Raul when he first rode in, extended hospitality after the long trip. Raul had been respectful but not talkative. There was also a rough edge to the man, not dangerous, but disquieting. He now understood why. Murdoch agreed to Raul’s help and requested that Cip ask his brother to accompany Maria with the breakfast tray.
Mark was eating breakfast when Murdoch entered the kitchen. They talked more about what to expect and how to alleviate Scott’s distress. It wasn’t very encouraging, but Murdoch would do what he could.
Breakfast over, Mark took his leave and Murdoch confronted the task of getting this sorted out with Scott. He met Maria in the hallway and was pleased to see an empty breakfast tray.
“How is he Maria?”
“He is all right now but fearful. He worries what his papa is thinking.”
Well, his son wasn’t alone. Murdoch didn’t know what to think. He thanked the kind Maria and strode down the long hallway, his mind in turmoil as to what he would say, how he would act when he saw Scott.
Without doubt he was concerned about his son’s health. And he was angry, very angry. How could Scott let something like this happen? In addition, it would be impossible to keep such a thing quiet from the men and townsfolk and Murdoch admitted he worried about what they would think. As a father he was afraid. Was this somehow his fault for abandoning his son to Harlan Garret?
Raul nodded as Murdoch approached. Good god, the vision of a man standing guard on his own son was a brutal reality.
“No senor. He has been very quiet.”
“Ah, Cip said you’ve had experience … with this?” Murdoch rubbed the side of his nose, uncomfortable that he may leave his son in this stranger’s hands.
Damn, couldn’t he say more? Like, yes, I’ve been through it. It’s not that bad. Your son will be fine. Offer insight, advice, anything.
As if aware of what Murdoch was thinking, Raul cleared his throat. “Senor Lancer, I know what your son will be going through. I tell you, do not give in to him whatever you do. Do not think farther ahead than the next minute. And,” Raul lifted his hand in emphasis, “there will be an end.”
“He will be okay?”
“If you stand your ground.”
Murdoch scratched his jaw. “This is damn difficult.”
“I know. My brother, you are good to him and his family. It would be my honor to help yours.”
“Do you wish me to stay?”
“No. Get some breakfast if you haven’t had any. I’ll ask for you if I need you.”
“Do not worry to do so. I would be good to your son.”
Raul handed Murdoch the key and walked away. Murdoch felt easier asking for Raul’s help even though their conversation had been short. Eyeing the doorknob, he gripped the cool round metal and hesitated as it jiggled in his hand. If this nightmare were true, Scott had been lying to all of them for weeks. Would he continue with his lies? Who was this young man waiting for him on the other side of the door? Murdoch heaved a huge sigh, slowly turned the handle, and stepped over the threshold.
Chapter Eight – Anticipation
The sheets were cool and smooth as he shifted his bare legs. The bed wasn’t as big as his, but comfortable. Stroking his chest, he realized he wasn’t wearing a nightshirt. His fingers tracked down to his belly – at least he had drawers on. But where the hell was he and who took his clothes? His jaw throbbed and helped to clear the jumble in his brain. Oh, yes. It was coming back to him. The barn, Johnny, his fist. His brother could sure make a hard point.
Scott looked around the room with half-closed eyes attempting to put everything together. There was another bed a few feet away, the linens rumpled like someone had slept in it. A sturdy wardrobe was against the far wall, its wood pitted and scared with age. He recognized a worn easy chair that used to be in his father’s study. Hadn’t he moved that chair when a new one was purchased? Faint light from the window indicated sunrise but the window was closed – unusual on a summer morning.
Rubbing his eyes with the back of his palms he contemplated getting up. He wondered why he wasn’t in his bedroom. If he guessed correctly, he was on the ground floor of the hacienda not too far from the kitchen. Although his stomach was growling, without clothes he couldn’t get very far no matter how close the kitchen was. He gazed at the door, sighed, and threw off the sheet. Maybe he could find something to wear in the wardrobe.
The wooden floor was warm on his bare feet as he padded to the cupboard but the only items on the shelves were spare sheets and blankets. Well, a sheet would have to do. Wrapping one around his shoulders, he walked to the door, turned the knob and pulled. The door wouldn’t budge. His brow wrinkled into a frown and he tried the door again, harder. He was locked in!
He eyed the window. That was probably secured as well, but he hurried across the room and tested it anyway. Swearing softly, he noticed the padlock. No exit here either. Knowing it would be futile, he twisted and wrenched at the metal lock, but it wouldn’t budge. Enraged at being held captive in his own home, he beat his palm against the windowsill. Damn, if Johnny hadn’t thrown that lucky punch he would have been well on his way to Cross Creek.
Leaning his head against the window, he closed his eyes. Well, now what? Despite his anger, he recognized none of this was Johnny’s fault. He couldn’t shift the blame to anyone else. This predicament was his own doing – not his grandfather’s, his brother’s or his father’s. His eyes popped open and he straightened up. His father! It was a given that Murdoch was now aware of his son’s sordid craving. Damn, to find out this way, one son knocking out the other, probably hauling him into the house over his shoulder. He exhaled a heavy breath and shook his head.
He glanced at the chair. Realizing it was just a matter of time before his father appeared, he preferred the less vulnerable position of being seated. However his thumping jaw said the bed. Besides, any appearance of dignity would be undone by a white threadbare piece of cotton barely covering his half-naked body. Tossing the sheet from his shoulders over the footboard, he settled with a sigh against the soft pillow and closed his eyes.
The metallic click of a key stirred him from a light doze. His stomach twisted at the prospect of his father’s entrance, then dropped with unexplained disappointment when Maria entered with a tray. Although he hated the prospect of facing Murdoch, he just wanted it over with.
He followed Maria’s movements as she set the tray on a table near his bed. She smiled as she turned to him. “You are hungry, yes?”
“Yes, I am. Thank you.”
“Good. I have pancakes and applesauce. You eat.” She pulled the table up to the bed and poured a cup of coffee.
“Forgive me if I don’t get up, senora, but I seem to have misplaced my clothes.” Scott tried to make light of the situation, but her smile faded into a distressed frown. She opened her mouth to say something, then, tight-lipped, strode to the other bed and snapped the linens into place. It was then Scott noticed the back of a large man blocking the doorway.
His appetite fled at the sight of Maria’s escort and suddenly he felt very sad. “You don’t need a bodyguard, senora, I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Oh no, chico, he is not here to protect me.”
Her face reflected such deep pity that Scott wanted to comfort her even though her sympathy was directed at him. But it did not lessen the hurt at the presence of the sentry by the door. “Oh? Then why is he here?” He laid the forkful of pancake aside and pushed away the table.
“No, no!” She scurried to the side of the bed and pulled the table back. “You must eat. You may not want …” She stopped and bit at her lip.
“I may not want what, Maria?”
“The doctor, Senor Mark, he says you may not eat once your … sickness starts. So you eat now, por favor.”
The doctor. Scott had forgotten Mark spent the night and in all likelihood was still on the ranch. Undoubtedly he had relayed to his family what they could expect when the laudanum was withheld. Great, nothing like being watched as you steadily withered into a lump of … what? Scott didn’t want to put a name to what he would be going through. God, he just wanted it to be over with. Combing his fingers through his hair, he held his bowed head in his hands.
“Por favor.” He jumped at Maria’s exclamation. She stamped to the other bed, snatched off its pillows and with surprising strength, hoisted Scott up and stuffed them behind his back. Before he could protest, the food tray was sitting on his lap.
“You eat. Pronto.” She stood like a statue, grim faced, hands held tightly together, glaring down at him. Scott understood why Maria’s children obeyed her without question, and many, even his father, stayed out of her way when she was riled.
“You would make a good sergeant, Maria.” He grinned, picked up the fork and ate the pancake. Her stiff arms eased to her sides and she nodded.
“Si. With so many ninos – of all ages,” she inclined her head to Scott, obviously inferring to more than just children, “one needs to be firm at times.”
“I, ah, suppose that could be the case.” He wanted to chuckle, but focused on the breakfast. It was really quite good and his appetite returned after the first bite. And Maria was right. It would probably be the last food he would want to eat for a couple of days.
When he finished, he folded the napkin and tucked it beside the empty plate. It would have been impossible to keep the fight with Johnny secret and he wondered if she purposely fixed him pancakes knowing that his jaw would bother. She was a kind and thoughtful individual and he held his coffee cup up in toast to her. “Thank you, senora. It was excellent.”
“Bueno. It is good.” She moved the tray to the table and fussed with the pillows. “Do you want them taken away?”
“No, they’re fine. I can throw them back on the bed.” Thinking of the other bed, someone had slept in it. “Maria, who used that bed last night?”
“By Senor Lancer, do you mean my father or my brother?”
“Agh, you should know. I do not call your brother Senor Lancer. Perhaps Senor Johnny as I call you Senor Scott.” Affection beamed across her face and she snickered. “Sometimes I call Johnny ‘mi hito’ but he does not like.”
“No, I would imagine my brother would not like that term.” Scott’s grin turned into a frown when he thought of his large father in the too-small bed. “So, my father slept here last night?”
“Si, he was here, but I don’t know if his sleep was good.”
“He’s angry.” It wasn’t a question. Scott already knew the answer.
“Si. He is. But he is more … wounded?”
“Disappointed then – and angry.”
Scott picked at the linens for a few moments then glanced at the man just outside the door. “Is Murdoch the one who took away my clothes, locked me in like a prisoner?”
“The doctor, he wanted your clothes off. And your papa does only what he thinks is best.”
“By sending a bodyguard with you? What does he think I’m going to do?” He slumped against the pillows and closed his eyes. “I’m not a danger to anyone.”
“Oh, probecito.” She held out her hands, as if supplicating for understanding. “Was it not the sickness that made you fight with your brother? Your papa is afraid of that sickness, not of you.”
The knot in his throat swelled until he didn’t think he could breathe. “Where is he?” he managed to rasp.
“He is talking to the doctor. He will be in soon.”
Finally the knot slipped away when he swallowed. “Thank you, Maria. I hope my father knows how valuable you are.”
“He does. And he feels the same for you as well, Senor Scott.”
Scott cocked his head and studied her. “Si?” he whispered hopefully.
“Si.” She smiled as tears filled her eyes, then skimmed her hand across his cheek. “Usted es su corazon,” she murmured. He had never felt such tenderness as she bent and kissed his forehead. “You are his heart.”
Sniffing into her apron, she patted his cheek once more. Within a few moments the tray was gathered and she walked to the door. Glancing over her shoulder, she smiled, and then was gone. Her kindness seemed to linger like a lost ghost – a shadow of what could have been, if only. If only.
Rousing from his useless daydreams, he listened for the sound of the turning key - but it did not come. Through the wooden door, he could hear muffled voices. Maria talking to someone with a masculine voice - the man at the door. Only one pair of footsteps faded down the hallway. The guard still stood at his post, like any good soldier.
Deep within his head he could feel the beginning of a familiar ache. It would come, slicing like a cold and bitter nor’easter at high tide along the winter Atlantic, driving in wave-after-wave of relentless hurt. He didn’t want to think of that now. He needed to see Murdoch regardless of the recriminations that were sure to come. As desperate as he had been and would be for the laudanum, he yearned for the compassionate strength that would see him through this.
It seemed like he lay there for hours thinking, worrying, anticipating, but it was more than likely just a few minutes. In the distance he picked up the faint step of someone’s approach. As it drew closer, the tread grew heavier, the stride that of a long-legged man. The footsteps stopped and Scott discerned a few muted words outside the door before once again someone walked away. Scott listened, expectant, observing the doorknob, waiting for the circle to turn. The fixture rattled, the door opened and a tall man stooped as he crossed the threshold. He paused, filling up the entrance, before closing the door.
Scott never took his eyes off his father as Murdoch calmly stepped to the side of the bed, pulled over the worn armchair and settled into it. He leaned back, placed his arms on the rests and gazed at him.
“Well, Scott. I think it’s time we had that talk, don’t you?”
Chapter Nine – Confessions
Not many things reached in and ripped a hole in Murdoch’s heart anymore, but the anxiety and fear ghosting across his son’s sharp face sure did. Scott’s eyes sparked like sun on a clear stream but the deep shadows beneath were a dark contrast to his pallid features. A sheen of sweat crept across his forehead and long fingers tugged restlessly at the bed linens. The ugly bruise on his jaw had blossomed into black and Murdoch wanted to reach out and stroke it away. Just moments before Murdoch had been angry enough to grip Scott with his powerful arms and shake him, but now worried his son was forever broken.
“Son,” he started gently, “I understand you and Johnny had a fight?”
Scott’s tongue slipped across his lips and he cleared his throat. “Yes sir. We did.”
“What was it about?”
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“I’d like to hear your side.” Was Scott testing the water, wondering if he could gloss over the facts of the clash? It saddened Murdoch to think that way, but if Scott had kept a dark secret for so long, he may try to continue the deception.
“My side?” A cheerless smile slashed across his haggard face.
“I assume you do have one? I’d like to hear it.”
“I’m sure you’ve learned the ugly details. What do you want me to say? That they’re all correct?”
“I want you to tell me the truth, Scott. That’s all.”
Scott blew out a long breath and crossed his arms over his chest. Murdoch was concerned that his son seemed so defeated, but then a change occurred. Tiny lines around Scott’s eyes tightened, a sure sign that his stubborn was kicking in. Well, a fight was better than none at all and Murdoch was prepared to win.
“I can handle this Murdoch.”
“What can you handle?”
“Johnny told you.”
“You tell me. I need you to tell me.”
“What difference does it make?”
“Because it would be better if I heard it directly from you and not your brother’s suspicions.”
“Well, I think it would be safe to say that my brother’s suspicions will be clarified in a couple of hours.” Scott held eye contact, as if challenging to push further.
“Why are you afraid to tell me?”
That question hit and Scott lowered his eyes. “I tried you know.”
Even though Murdoch didn’t think Scott was trying to make him feel guilty, that tired statement did. Justifying Scott’s uncharacteristic behavior to Garrett’s disastrous visit was an easy way out. His son’s nonchalant excuses shouldn’t have been accepted. Murdoch didn’t understand the pull of laudanum, but it was a reality. He could only hope that his son could shake his dependence.
“Son, I’m sorry. I take responsibility for not listening.”
Scott raised his head, surprise on his face. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for. I wanted to tell you, but … something … It was me, not you. It’s not easy to tell your father that he has a laudanum addict for a son.”
Ah, it was said. As hard as it was to hear, Murdoch was grateful for the admission. He rubbed his hands along the top of his thighs, struggling with where to go from here. He wanted to yell, admonish, criticize but knew nothing would be accomplished by doing any of those things. Still he couldn’t gloss over the seriousness of Scott’s lies over the past few weeks.
“Scott, whatever the cause or problem, I do accept the fact that if I’d been more available … now and in the past. Perhaps …” The past damn it. Not shared. It was a challenge developing a relationship after twenty four years that should have been started the day his son was born. Murdoch studied his knees, faltering with the right words to say.
He glanced up at Scott. A small hopeful smile flickered across his lips, perhaps extending encouragement? Murdoch swallowed hard, knowing that what he was about to say would not be something Scott wanted to hear. But Scott’s sham and deliberate deception was very difficult to understand.
“The fact remains, that for the past several weeks you’ve lied to me and Johnny. You put your life in danger as well as those you work with. I am concerned and disappointed that you would do something like that.”
Scott’s expression immediately changed. The expectation of reassurance vanished replaced by confusion, disappointment and finally hurt. It was a steel blow to Murdoch knowing that his few damning words caused his son grief. But it was the truth and Murdoch was never one to candy-coat what needed to be said.
There was silence. Murdoch studied Scott’s bowed head, not regretting his words, but sorry for the distress they caused.
“I am sorry, sir,” Scott said after a few moments. He raised his eyes to his father, a stiff, cold young man. Whatever wounds Murdoch had inflicted Scott hid them well.
“As am I, my son.” Murdoch struggled to remain calm as he imagined Scott tipping a bottle to his lips and swallowing – too much – never to awaken again.
Several moments passed without a word. Scott held Murdoch’s gaze, then started fidgeting. His legs jumped a little and Murdoch wondered if the laudanum was starting to wear off. He didn’t relish the coming hours but knew they were inevitable. He wasn’t sure what he wanted from Scott, or if words could heal the deep sense of mistrust.
“Nothing to say?”
With a shrug of his shoulders, Scott seemed to dismiss the question.
Murdoch bristled inwardly at the indifferent gesture. His mother always advised him to count to ten before reacting negatively, but by now he must have counted that ten times over.
“Scott. I think you owe me … all of us … an explanation. How could you let this happen?” Scott responded to the disapproving tone by crossing his arms in front of him, effectively shutting down any further communication.
“Don’t presume this is going away just because you don’t want to talk about it. I do not intend to go anywhere.”
“Well,” Scott spat back, “obviously neither do I, with locks on the door and window and a jailer in the hallway. You’ve made my home a prison. What did you think I was going to do to Maria that you had to send a guard with her?”
“I wasn’t sure. After the last few weeks, did you think you were entitled to any form of trust?”
“You have no right to say that!”
“Oh really. You’ve stolen, tried to hide your thievery, deceived and done just about everything I thought you were incapable of doing. I ask you again, how could you let this happen?” Needing to do something physical to alleviate his frustration, Murdoch pushed himself up from the chair and paced to the window. His anger was getting away from him. In fairness, he understood Scott hadn’t intended for the drug to take over his life, but Murdoch was more upset that his son had lied to them for so long.
“Let it happen! Do you think this is something I wanted? I didn’t say to myself one morning, I want to become dependent on laudanum. It just happened, Murdoch. At first to help with the pain, and after that because …” Scott scrubbed fingers through his hair and tightened them into a fist.
“What do you mean?”
“You said at first to help the pain, but after that because of what?”
“The headaches. After grandfather’s visit. You know that.” Scott’s hand fell to the bed and he glared at Murdoch.
“From the fall off the wagon. Yes, I know that, Scott. But then what?”
“It just happened. That’s all. I hurt so I took it, then I hurt when I didn’t take it.”
“There more to it.”
“It’s nothing. Leave it alone.”
“Humph. I think we’re way beyond that, don’t you?” A few steps brought him back to the bedside. He scowled down on Scott, hands on his hips, knowing the impact of his towering form.
“I want to know why you didn’t say something. Long before this, Scott. Long before this.” He pointed a finger in the air and thrust it in his son’s face. Scott flinched away and hunkered deeper into the pillow.
“Because I didn’t realize at first how dependent I was. Then I thought I could break from it. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.”
“And you didn’t consider asking for help? Did you think I’d throw you off the ranch?”
“No. Nothing like that.” Scott waived his arm in the air. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Then why, Scott? Why?” Murdoch grabbed Scott by his arms and held on. Scott tried to pull free but Murdoch gripped tighter.
“Let go of me.”
“Not until you tell me why? Was I so unapproachable? Was Johnny?”
“No, Murdoch. Let go.”
“I will when you give me an answer.”
“Why is it so important?” Scott hissed, eyes blazing as he tried to twist out of Murdoch’s grasp.
“Because I need to know why my son didn’t come to me when he needed help. I don’t want that to ever happen again. If there’s something I did wrong, then tell me Scott.”
“You did nothing wrong.”
“You could have died. Don’t you understand that?!”
Murdoch lifted Scott from the bed in his frenzy for an answer. He thought of Johnny, the fear in his eyes when he couldn’t wake Scott. He felt Scott’s warm life pulsing through his hands and tightened his hold, maddened at how close he’d come to losing him.
Scott’s fingers pulled at his hands, trying to break free. His head jerked and he gasped, his face distorted with pain. Alarmed, Murdoch released Scott and he fell back onto the pillows. Around both arms was a band of angry red marks where Murdoch’s giant hands had punished him. Murdoch slumped into the chair, stunned at his own behavior. My God, what was he doing? These sons, these sons - they could fire a passion in his soul like lightening on a dry prairie and bring him to his knees.
“Son … son. I’m sorry.” Murdoch closed his eyes, felt the thudding in his chest and swirling disbelief of his actions.
“I was ashamed.”
The words were so low Murdoch wasn’t sure he heard them. Scott’s eyes were wet, his hands rubbing his arms where Murdoch had seized them.
“I was ashamed. I wanted to tell you. Then, when Cip discovered laudanum disappearing, it was too late.”
“Too late! My God, Scott. It’s too late when you lie dead.” Murdoch twisted a hand across his face and silenced the scream in his heart.
“Don’t you understand?” Scott held out his arms, pleading. “I was in too deep. Everyone was talking about how weak the culprit was. You were angry.”
“Of course I was angry. But I would never have believed my own son was the thief. I gave you a key for heaven’s sake. I could have given you a key to your death.”
“It’s no use talking to you. We’re not getting anywhere.” Scott pushed up from the bed, then looked down at his bare legs. He whipped the covers back over his body. “I want my clothes.”
“That’s not happening.”
“I am a grown man. You have no right to keep me here.”
“Maybe not, but if you think you can get past me, you’re welcome to try.” Murdoch had the upper hand, at least physically. There was no way he was going to let Scott out of this room.
A light knock on the door broke the simmering tension. Murdoch gestured to Scott. “You stay right where you are.”
“Pfft. It’s not like I can stand and greet anyone properly.” Scott crossed his arms over his chest and scowled.
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Murdoch would have chuckled at the disgruntled look on Scott’s face. He huffed, then opened the door. Maria held a tray with a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
“I hope you do not mind, Patron. But I thought perhaps you would … appreciate something to sooth the nerves.” She smiled and extended the tray to Murdoch.
“I, ah, suppose you could hear us?”
“Si,” she nodded. “Pequeño.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit early for brandy?”
“Perhaps.” She tilted her head and shrugged her shoulders. “But who will tell?”
Murdoch bent over and placed a light kiss on her cheek. “Gracias Senora.” He took the tray. “I think it is just what we need.”
“Bueno.” There was a huge smile on her face as she pulled the door closed.
It wasn’t a long walk to the bedside table, but Murdoch could feel the scorch of Scott’s eyes as he followed him.
“I need to pee.”
“There’s a chamber pot under the bed.”
“Who’s going to empty it?”
“That would be me.” Murdoch glanced quickly at Scott and strained not to smile. “Don't look so disgusted. I've been up to my armpits in the birth canal of hundreds of beeves. My son’s water won't bother me.”
Scott’s mouth remained twisted with distaste. “I’d like a bath.”
“I’ll get a bucket.”
“That’s not much of a bath.”
“It will do.” Murdoch calmly poured two measures of brandy into the glasses and held one out to Scott.
Scott quirked an eyebrow at him. “I’m surprised you’re allowing me to drink.”
“Do you want it or not?”
“Humph.” Scott took the glass and sipped.
Murdoch settled into the old chair. He’d forgotten how comfortable it was. It had conformed to his body over the years and he would have kept it in the great room except Scott and Teresa thought it too shabby for company. Johnny hadn’t cared one way or the other. He smelled the warm liquor, took a mouthful and felt the smooth trickle all the way to his toes.
“Do you know what I want for you Scott?”
Scott peaked at him from over the top of the brandy glass. “I would guess that I was no longer scrounging for my next bottle of laudanum.”
“Well, yes, that too. But, what I want is for you to live to a good old age. To be happy, have a wife you love, children. I want a good life for you.”
Murdoch took a sip and observed his son. He’d forgotten how lost he could become in those eyes, those blue eyes of Catherine. He noted the long, slim fingers similar to his own – a trait in the line of their Scottish clan. An aunt of his had hair like Scott, reminded him of yellow wildflowers on the Highlands. Generation followed generation – ah, what a wonder that was. From youth to age bundled in 70 or 80 years and before him on the bed was the continuation of men and women long dead, long dead.
A sad, hollow feeling rolled over him. Who would care one hundred years from now that Scott Lancer, his shining son, had ever lived? No one would know of these days, this battle. Their struggles would have ended, and not even the empty places would remember the missing.
“My son, I want this … episode to be a dim memory. Something you learn from and go on. When I am gone, I pray many years before you, that you will recall this time as only … a blur of a few dismal days in a lifetime of happiness.”
“Murdoch,” Scott whispered, “I …”
Murdoch held up his hand. “Let me finish. There is no question that these next few days will be difficult, for both of us. But you … we will get through them. No matter what it takes, you will not leave this room until you are rid of this horrible menace. And I will do whatever it takes to help you, hold you or fight you … I will be here for you, Scott, for you.”
Leaning forward, his hands encircled the fragile glass. Afraid that it would shatter, he consciously relaxed his fingers. He took a breath, desperate to relay the depth of his commitment to this boy, his stolen child. “What I want you to remember, and never doubt, is how much you and your brother mean to me. From the lost past that I cannot, cannot change…” A knot swelled, threatened to choke him. Bowing his head, he pushed it back, collected himself. “Remember, when I am long gone and the words can no longer be said, that I love you. Because you are my son and because you are a good man regardless of mistakes. Whatever the future holds, Scott, believe what I am telling you now.”
He drew the glass close to his face and inhaled the smooth, liquid flame of the brandy. Oak, caramel and cocoa played across his tongue, warmed his mouth and he swallowed. Finally, he looked at his son.
Scott stared at him with a combination of sadness and tenderness. There was a pink blush on his cheeks and Murdoch didn’t think it was from the alcohol. “I hope that you don’t plan on leaving us any time soon.”
“I do as well.”
Lowering his head, Scott cleared his throat. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate … the sentiment.”
“It’s more than sentiment, Scott.”
“Yes.” He nodded, head still bowed. “I know.”
It took everything in Murdoch not to reach out and touch that golden hair. “Well, I’ll get a bucket of warm water so you can wash up. If you’d like, I’ll bring in the chess set. Maybe we can play a while until ….”
“Yes. Maybe – for a while.”
“We’ll get through this. Everything will be fine.” Murdoch laid a hand on Scott’s leg and softly squeezed.
“Yes, sir.” He smiled up at Murdoch. “I think it will be.”
“Good.” He took the empty glass from Scott’s hand and picked up the tray. “I’ll be back soon.”
In the hallway Murdoch set the tray on the floor and took the key from his pocket. He studied the small piece of metal, hating the idea of what it meant. But he slipped it into the lock and turned it. What did Scott think as he heard the click? Hopefully he understood, realized that there was no other way.
With a grunt he bent, picked up the tray and ambled towards the great room. As he passed the kitchen, he could hear Maria and Teresa preparing lunch. Their usual laughter and light hearted chatter was missing.
He wondered where Johnny was. He hadn’t seen him since early morning. Knowing Johnny was very upset with the situation, Murdoch wasn’t going to insist he sit with Scott. Still, he hoped that at some point Johnny’s concern would overcome his anger and he would volunteer to help. And once Johnny saw his sick brother, Murdoch had no doubt that he would forgive him. As Murdoch already had.
Chapter Ten – Promise
He tried to stay away. He really did. But the pull of the house and everything it contained gripped him and wouldn’t let go. The reasons were as elusive as his needs. A rain slicker with a rip in the bottom and in case of storms a new one was needed. A clean shirt was called for. After all, he was part owner of Lancer and you never knew who you might meet on the range. And an extra pair of socks was always a good thing to have.
But there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was the dry season. The only other things on the range were cowboys in shirts just as dirty as his and slobbering cattle. And socks? He already had two pair in his saddlebags. Slickers, shirts, socks - all excuses to come to the house, maybe catch a glimpse of Murdoch. Or Scott.
Johnny found himself once again leaning against the jamb outside the kitchen staring down the hall at that bedroom. Scott. Dang, what was happening behind that door? His father had locked himself in with his brother and Johnny hadn’t seen either of them for over two days.
Maria said she’d seen Murdoch a couple of times heading to the outhouse, but he wasn’t away for long. Once he had asked her to find Raul. That time she guessed he must have washed and shaved as he hadn’t looked so ragged when he returned. Meals were requested along with lots of fruit juices – particularly apple. Murdoch always stood in the doorway when she brought food so she was unable to see Scott. Maria stressed that she wasn’t spying, but Johnny knew she was worried. About the old man and Scott. Just like he was.
In fact, he was surprised to find no Maria when he had come through the back door. More than likely she had other things to tend to, but Johnny figured she wanted to stay close to the house until … everything was over. He ducked back into the kitchen when he heard voices approaching from the great room. Raul and Maria walked by and he peaked around the corner. He wasn’t sure why he was hiding, but felt like an intruder.
Raul knocked on the door and in a few seconds it opened. He could hear Murdoch but was unable to understand what he was saying. They talked for several moments until a low groan slipped from the bedroom. Three heads turned towards the sound as Murdoch called in an “its ok son.” Murdoch moved aside allowing Raul to enter. A half-choked whimper escaped before Raul closed the door. Johnny closed his eyes, staggering under the pitiful cry of his brother. Too late, he lifted his head to see Maria headed his way. In his hurry to get back into the kitchen unseen, he rammed into a chair and tumbled.
“Ah, Chico. It is too early for supper, no?” Maria calmly walked past him, opened the oven door and eyed whatever was in there. It smelled like roast – what else on a cattle ranch?
“I,uhm, forgot something.” He shoved up from the floor and slapped the dust on his pants.
“Again? What this time? A handkerchief perhaps? Or another pair of socks?”
“No. Nothing like that.” Not daring to look into her all-knowing eyes, he lifted the toppled chair and pushed it under the table.
She put two cups on the table and poured black coffee into them. Two plates with warm apple pie were soon alongside the coffee as well as a small pitcher of sweet cream.
“Your papa will be here soon. He asked for some coffee, but I think the pie will be welcome. Sit, join him.” She motioned to a chair.
Finally having the courage to look at her, he stumbled out a thank you. He wanted to ask about Scott, but thought he’d bust into tears. A man didn’t cry, even when his heart did. But Maria knew and he loved her for it.
“Your brother, he … struggles. But the Patron will make sure he is better.”
The rolling in his belly made its way up his throat and he swallowed, praying he wouldn’t throw up. She rested a gentle hand on his arm and he focused on the beauty of her work worn fingers.
“You brother will be all right.”
Not trusting himself to speak, Johnny nodded.
“Juanito,” she chided gently, “there is no reason for you to linger in the hallway.”
Dang it. She was too smart for him. Probably knew he was hiding in the kitchen when she passed by with Raul.
“Your father would welcome your help, but … ah, he will not ask.” She squeezed his arm and tilted her head.
“No Senora. He will not ask.” He smiled down at her. “He should not have to.”
“Bueno.” Knowingly, she patted his arm, stepped away and picked up a large bowl from the cupboard. “I need to pick green beans for supper.” Without another word she was through the door.
With a sigh, he pulled out the chair he had fallen over and sat down. Cinnamon sugar shined on the crust of the pie and his mouth started watering. He sloshed it with a healthy amount of cream and dug in. When it was gone he studied his father’s piece.
“You shouldn’t covet what isn’t yours, my son.”
Johnny jumped, surprised that his father had come in so silently.
“Aw, Murdoch. I’d just get another piece if I really wanted one. Maria’s got a whole other one cooling on the counter.”
There was a tired grin on his father’s face as he dropped into the chair. With a sigh of deep contentment, he held the coffee to his nose and inhaled. Smiling, he glanced at Johnny. “This is sweeter than a sip of Scotch,” and he tipped it to his lips.
Murdoch closed his eyes as his big hands engulfed the coffee mug. Grey whiskers shadowed over his face making him appear grizzled and scruffy. Deeper lines were chiseled around his mouth and his broad shoulders, usually so straight, slumped into his wrinkled shirt. Even though Murdoch wasn’t afraid of hard work and dirt, the front of his shirt was stained with sweat and something else Johnny didn’t want to think about. This wasn’t his neat, dignified father who usually smelled of prairie and good tobacco. This man was weary to the bone.
“Pie tastes pretty good, Murdoch,” Johnny said, encouraging Murdoch to eat. “A little cream makes it hard to say no.”
Murdoch raised his head and looked at the pie as if he had forgotten it was there. “Well, I wouldn’t want to insult Maria by passing it up.”
A soft twinge lipped through Johnny as his father pick up the pitcher. It was tiny in Murdoch’s giant fingers and Johnny had to look away, strangely touched by the hard callouses holding the fragile china. Murdoch picked up the fork, cut off a healthy bite and lifted it to his lips. Johnny relaxed, taking comfort in the simple process of his father savoring a piece of pie. Things were fixable if small pleasures could still be enjoyed.
Licking the last bit of sugar from the fork, Murdoch glanced at the remaining pie on the counter. “I wonder if Maria would notice.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Murdoch grinned and reached a long arm to the pie tin. He cut two more slaps and sloshed both with cream. They silently ate, sipped coffee and burped with satisfaction.
Johnny scraped his fork against the plate, not wanting to spoil the mood but aware that the unasked was obvious. “How’s it going?”
“Slow.” Murdoch rubbed his palms against his eyes then rested his elbows on the table. “He’s hurting and the only thing I can do is sit there.”
Afraid to ask anything further, Johnny fingered the scars on the old kitchen table. “I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
“We’ll get through it.”
Lifting his eyes to his father, Johnny recognized the determined set of his jaw. “Did you want …” Johnny stammered, hesitant to offer, scared of what Scott was going through. But he would do this for Murdoch.
“Do I want what, son?”
Clearing his throat, Johnny blurt out, “Help. Do you want help?”
Murdoch leaned back in the chair and refilled his coffee cup. “It’s not an easy thing to watch, Johnny.”
“I know. I’ve seen it before. With other men.”
“You were pretty angry with your brother. Has that changed?”
“It’s for you Murdoch. You need some rest, a few hours anyway. I would expect you don’t leave him with Raul too long.”
Murdoch took a huge breath and blew it out. “No. Scott is … it’s harder on Scott with a stranger. At least I know him, more sensitive to what he may need.”
Johnny snorted. “Hell, old man. I’ve never heard you called sensitive.”
A soft chuckle came from Murdoch and he grinned. “You’d be surprised what your old man can do given the situation.”
“I bet I would.” Johnny draped his arm over the back of the chair, always surprised by his father. Dios, he might not have met him at all. He could have died in front of a firing squad hating him, never knowing how much his father cared or the good man he was. He realized he would do anything for this man, anything, including watching over Scott for a few torturous hours.
“Give yourself a break, Murdoch. I can do this.”
Murdoch stared at him as if considering if he was up to it. “All right, Johnny. I just ask one thing.”
“Don’t go in there angry. Scott doesn’t need that, not now.”
“Don’t know how I can kick that varmint across the road, but I’ll try.” Johnny traced his finger around the top of the coffee cup. “He’s lied to us for weeks, Murdoch. It’ll be hard to ignore that. Plus we could be burying him.”
“Oh, you can be assured that has never been far from my mind.”
“Have you talked to him about it?”
Murdoch frowned and scrubbed his nails against his grizzled jaw. “Yes.”
“And?” Johnny prodded when Murdoch didn’t continue.
“Unfortunately, you’ll see the evidence of my … interrogation on his arms. I’m afraid I bruised them very badly.”
“Ohhhkay.” Johnny had never known Murdoch to be a violent man. Although he’d lost his temper a time or two since Johnny had been home, he was very slow to lift a hand against anyone. Obviously, Scott had set off a rare fire in Murdoch.
“That’s why I’m asking you not to do what I did. I can tell you I felt worse about the whole thing than Scott.”
Johnny hunched over, elbows on knees and hands together. “Listen, Murdoch. How do I get that morning out of my head? When I couldn’t wake him? I could have broke his jaw and not been sorry I was so pissed that night he tried to leave, running after that … shit.”
“Hmm. Seems to me you did a pretty good job on his jaw anyway.”
“This ain’t funny.” Johnny scowled from the lightness in his father’s tone.
“No. No it’s not. But I can tell you this.” Murdoch stared back, his gaze intense. “Scott is paying for what he’s done far more than whatever hurt he may have caused us.”
Knowing what Murdoch said was true, Johnny still had a hard time letting go of his brother’s betrayal. But he would try, for his father’s sake.
“All right, Murdoch. I won’t say a mean word to him. I promise.”
“At this stage he’s probably beyond caring, but your promise means a lot to me. Thank you, son.” Murdoch clapped his hand on Johnny’s leg, then stood up. “I think I’ll try to get some rest. Any questions?”
“Ah. Well, what do I do? You know, with Scott?”
“If he shivers, give him a blanket. When he sweats, try to keep him dry as best you can. If he needs to relieve himself, there’s a chamber pot under the bed. If he throws up, there’s a bucket by the side table. Try to get as much juice into him as you can. Duck if he throws the juice back at you. And don’t take anything he says personally.”
“Sounds … well, I’d say good but it isn’t.”
“Son, he’s been fighting me for two days. He’s pretty weak at this stage so I think you can handle him. But he can’t leave that room until this is over so do whatever you have to do to keep him in there. Understood?”
“Yeah, Murdoch. I understand.” Johnny wiped his sweaty hands against the rough fabric of his trousers.
Murdoch laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Just so you’re aware, you may be shocked at his appearance. He’s very sick.”
“Ok.” Johnny nodded, felt his body tense. “Ok.”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“Jesus, Murdoch. I don’t think I can take one more thing.”
“I’m just trying to prepare you, Johnny.”
Johnny blew out a breath and looked up at his father.
“He may beg you for laudanum. Don’t give in.”
“Hell, I won’t be giving into that crap.”
Murdoch’s grip tightened. “I mean it. Don’t give in, no matter how much you want to.”
“Want to! How could I?”
“You’ll see…” Murdoch stepped back seemed about to say more, but clamped his mouth shut. He scratched the side of his nose and stared at the floor.
Murdoch glanced at Johnny and a worn smile quirked the side of his mouth. “Sorry son. You’ll do fine.” He scanned the room as if looking for something he lost. “Well. I’ll find Maria and ask her to wake me in a few hours.”
“She’s outside picking beans for supper.”
His father appeared so distracted Johnny was worried he wouldn’t find his room much less Maria. “I’ll tell her. You go on up to bed.”
“Yes. And don’t worry, Johnny. In a few days this will all be behind us and we’ll just move on.”
“Yeah. We will. So … go, go.” Johnny felt like he was shooing chickens trying to get his father pointed in the right direction. But he managed to get him out of the kitchen and headed up the back stairs.
Maria was right where she said she’d be, picking beans.
“Give him a few hours,” Johnny instructed. “Old man needs the rest.”
“Si. I’ll wait until supper time to wake him. And you? Where will you be?”
“I’ll be with my brother.”
She stood on tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek.
“What’s that for?”
“Because you are a good son … and brother.”
“Maybe an ok son,” he snorted. “But not so sure about what kind of brother I’ll be.”
Maria smiled in her wise way and picked up the pan of beans. He didn’t move to follow. She stopped at the door and turned, a question on her face. No use putting it off, he thought. He promised Murdoch.
“Come then. You brother is waiting,” she said.
“Yup. Reckon he is.” And he followed Maria through the door.
Chapter Eleven – Baiting
Johnny stood with his hand poised to knock. He stopped, leaned against the panel and listened for a sound, any sound. He expected to hear something, a whimper, cry, moan - even a yell. Not this deadly silence as if nothing was alive on the other side of the door.
Why was he being so … gutless? Just buck up and knock on the damn door. Still, he was afraid of the coming hours. Regardless of what Scott had done, this was a man Johnny cared for deeply. Even though he had lied to them all, Dios could Scott lie, Johnny hated the thought of watching him in pain. For Johnny had seen it all before and new exactly what to expect.
But he had promised his father that he would sit with Scott, and intended to do just that. Steeling himself against the inevitable, he tried to fire up his anger. After all, this wasn’t some stupid yahoo who came barging into his heart. This was his brother, a man he trusted with his life. But Scott hadn’t trusted enough to share that he was in trouble. Why? Clenching his jaw he fisted his hand together and banged on the door.
Fast-moving boots clunked across the floor and the door popped open as Johnny raised his fist to pound once more. A scowling Raul stood in the entrance, then stepped into the hallway closing the door behind him.
“What is it?” he snapped.
Surprised at Raul’s reaction, Johnny bristled at the hostile stance. “I’m here to see my brother.”
“What?” Johnny asked, dumbfounded by the refusal.
“Well, I’m thinking I can.” Johnny bunched his hands on his hips and met Raul’s glare. What the hell was going on? Recalling the silence as he had stood before the door, he feared something had happened to Scott.
“Nothing except now you come. For what? A visit? To chat perhaps? No.” Raul shook his head and waived an angry finger in the air.
“What the hell? This is my home, my brother, and I am going to see him.”
“Only if the Patron agrees. He is the one I take orders from, not el gemido who is too weak to help his papa. No.”
Raul crossed his arms in front of his chest and lifted his chin in determination, obviously prepared to fight. Baffled, Johnny couldn’t decide if he should take a swing at the much larger man or run to Maria for help. He was pretty sure Raul could deck him and he would feel like a kid asking Maria for aid. Besides, the last thing he needed was a full-out fist fight in the hallway with Scott on the other side of the door. He took a deep breath, stepped back and tried to rope in his frazzled nerves.
“Raul. My father has gone to bed to get some rest. I told him, and he agreed, that I would sit with Scott. Now, we can stand here and hash this out for as long as it takes, but you are not going to wake my father to get his permission and I am going to sit with my brother.”
“Why now? Days after you were needed?”
“That is la familia - between my father, my brother and me and is none of your business.” He recognized why Raul was angry, thinking he should have been here before this, but Johnny didn’t feel he owed this man any type of explanation. This was between family, something Raul would understand.
Softening his stance, Raul lowered his arms and studied Johnny. Each man stood his ground. “Your brother is sleeping.”
“And?” Johnny didn’t know why Scott’s sleeping would bar him from the room.
“It’s just … his sleep does not come easy. It is like, pfft, it goes quickly.”
“I’ll be quiet.”
Raul didn’t move but Johnny could see he was backing down. La familia was the very heart of the Mexican culture. Raul was out of bounds – and knew it. Especially in another man’s house.
“Have you … do you know what will happen? How your brother will be?”
“I do. I’ve seen it.”
It was evident that Raul not only felt an obligation to Murdoch but was also trying to save face. Johnny appreciated what Raul had done to help his father and brother, and decided to give the man his due.
“I’m grateful, we’re all grateful, Raul, for what you’ve done to help. But this is my brother, mi hermano. I can take care of him.”
With a slight nod of his head, Raul lowered his eyes, opened the door and stepped aside, allowing Johnny to enter the bedroom. Johnny held back a moment before crossing the threshold.
The first thing to hit his senses was an odor of apples and sour. It was a strange mixture, not sickening but unpleasant. The second was the grey – the room was gloomy and shadowed with blocks of darker greys where furniture stood. It took a few seconds for Johnny’s eyes to adjust.
“It is easier for your brother to sleep with the drapes drawn,” Raul whispered as if aware of what Johnny was thinking. “Please, we must talk low.”
Raul closed the door, making the room even more depressing. “Here is the key. I did not lock the door but I am much heavier than your brother and he has … weakened.”
The key lay cool in Johnny’s hand and he folded his fingers over it. He didn’t think it was wise for Raul to leave the door unlocked. He hated to think that Scott could be pushed to such desperation, but it would only take a moment to grab something – the bucket or lamp – bang it over someone’s head and escape. Scott wouldn’t get very far, but he didn’t need to. Laudanum was in the tack room or Murdoch’s office. He wondered if his father was aware, but Johnny wouldn’t say anything.
“I think I’ll keep it locked,” Johnny murmured.
Raul rubbed his hands along the back of his pants. “I will go then.”
There was a long silence and Johnny wondered what Raul was waiting for. He had already thanked the man. What more could there be? Finally Raul walked slowly away.
At the doorway he paused and turned to Johnny. “Lo Siento,” he said softly. “It was not my place to keep you from your brother.”
“Está bien,” Johnny said, deeply affected by the man’s quiet manner. “Está bien.”
Raul slipped into the hall and Johnny locked it after him. He was now alone with Scott for the first time since he had decked him in the barn.
The room was warm and stuffy. Johnny wished he could open the window but the padlock prevented that and no need to tempt Scott. Fresh air from the hall was also impossible. He stood in the middle of the floor, flicking his fingers against his trousers, wondering what to do next. He was damned uncomfortable, both physically and mentally. He walked to the chair and lowered himself into it trying to be as quiet as possible.
Even though the lump in the bed was sleeping, it wasn’t still. Scott’s blond hair peaked from the blanket and despite the hot room, he trembled. His breathing was uneasy, a muffled groan escaping now and then from beneath the bedding. Long fingers gripped the edge of the covering as if fighting to hold on. Raul was right. It was a troubled, edgy slumber.
Johnny took a long look around the room. The other bed was rumpled and he wondered how his father managed to fit. Between Scott and the puny bed no wonder he looked so ragged. Folded bed linens sat neatly stacked on a bureau against the wall. A mound of what he guessed were dirty sheets lay piled on the floor next to the bureau. A woolen blanket was tossed across the foot of Scott’s bed as well as a couple of towels.
A half-empty glass of what looked like apple juice sat on a side table, as well as a full glass of water. Johnny assumed the two pitchers on the stand contained juice and water. On the floor by the bed was a water basin with a rag floating in it. Underneath the basin was an old piece of carpet that appeared stained. Johnny bent down to smell it, hoping it wasn’t piss, and was relieved when it smelled like apples. He noticed on one of the walls a large wet splotch with dribbles down to the floor. Well, Murdoch had told him to duck if Scott threw something and it looked like he was speaking from experience.
The bed covers rustled. Johnny tore his gaze back to Scott and held his breath, hoping he wouldn’t wake up. Scott’s legs jerked forcing the blanket halfway down his chest and Johnny bit his lip at the change in his brother’s appearance.
The normally healthy glow on Scott’s face was gone replaced by the bleakness of a cold winter sky. The black bruise on his jaw veined into the pallor and reminded Johnny of a dying man. Skin stretched across his cheeks and seemed that it could tear at the lightest touch. Shoulder bones protruded and his upper arms painfully bore the marks of their father’s hands. Any anger, any resentment, any outrage Johnny held vanished. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned. What Murdoch said was true. Any hurt that Scott had caused he was paying for – many times over.
A gurgle came from the bed and for a moment Johnny thought Scott was choking. He grabbed the blanket at the foot of the bed and laid it over his shivering brother. “Take it easy,” he soothed over and over. But the trembling grew worse as Scott drew his legs close to his chest. Scared, Johnny wanted to run to Murdoch for help, but remembered how weary his father had looked and that he had faced this alone for over two days. Johnny would do the best he could.
Cold fingers snagged around Johnny’s wrist and locked like a band of iron. Scott’s ashen face twisted with pain as his eyes squeezed together. His breathing came faster and faster and Johnny could only hold on and pray that the spasm would pass. It seemed forever before Scott released Johnny’s wrist and slumped into the bedding, exhausted. Even though he still quivered, his hair and body was plastered with sweat. Johnny didn’t know whether to drape more quilts over him or throw them off.
“Scott,” he said as he touched his brother’s shoulder. “Scott, are you cold? Do you want more covers?”
Scott’s eyes opened to silver slits as he seemed to try to focus. “Murdoch?” His voice was rough and crackled.
“No, Scott. It’s me. Johnny.”
“Yeah. Yeah. It’s me.”
“He’s trying to get some rest. I spelled him.”
Scott turned a tired face to Johnny. “You?” He grunted and looked away. “Didn’t expect to see you in here.”
“Well. I thought …” he stammered, not sure what to think of Scott’s reaction.
“Thought what?” Scott burrowed further into the blankets and brought them up to his neck.
“Murdoch needed a break.” He didn’t add that he was also worried about Scott.
“Really. Well, he’s not the only one.”
Johnny held back the urge to remind Scott that he was the reason they were in this fix, and why his father was so exhausted. Normally a very kind man, Scott hadn’t been himself for weeks and Johnny wondered if he ever would be.
“You want anything?”
“Is that an open question or are you just trying to be a jerk?”
Again, Johnny bit his tongue at what he really wanted to say. “I’m trying to help you, Scott. That’s all.”
“I’ll take some water with a laudanum chaser.”
“Yeah, well. That’s not happening.”
Scott quirked an eye at him. “I expect you’re gloating about now.”
Scott squirmed and Johnny thought he was going to have another spasm but relaxed after a few moments.
“I could use some water.” Scott rubbed a hand across his dripping nose. “And a handkerchief.”
Johnny took a couple of steps to the end table for water. “Can you sit up a bit?”
With effort, Scott pushed himself up and sipped at the water. His hand was shaking so badly Johnny had to hold the glass. When done he fell back onto the mattress.
“A little laudanum would take off the edge,” he choked out. He rolled his head against the pillow and looked up at Johnny, his eyes pleading and edged with hurt.
Feeling sick, Johnny looked away as he stood and reached into his pants pocket for a handkerchief. “Here. It’s clean.”
A small smirk played at the corners of Scott’s mouth as he took the piece of cloth. “Your usual slippery self.” Scott rubbed his nose and stuffed the hanky under the pillow.
Johnny ignored the sarcastic remark. “You want some apple juice or something?”
“I’ve had enough apple juice to become a tree. For some reason Murdoch thinks it helps.”
Johnny plopped into the chair and crossed his legs. “Is that why there’s some on the wall?”
“My hand slipped.”
“Slipped six feet up the wall?”
“If that’s where it ended up, yes.”
Johnny’s irritation went up a notch or two. “Who’s going to clean it up?”
“Hmm. You think that’s fair? The wall will need whitewash to get out the stain.”
“If it bothers you that much, you can do it.”
“If it was my doing, I surely would.”
“Screw you, Johnny. I’m here because of you. You can clean the damn wall.”
“You’re here because you messed up, Scott. Not me.”
“I could have made it to Cross Creek if not for you. This wouldn’t be happening.”
“Sooner or later it would. Unless you planned to stay on laudanum for the rest of your life. But considering how lousy you are on how much to take, the rest of your life might not have been very long.”
“I was doing ok …”
“You were doing crap, Boston.” Johnny kept his voice level, even though he wanted to shout at his stupid-ass brother. “Don’t try passing the blame.”
Scott glanced at him with a puzzled look on his face. “You seem especially restrained. I thought you’d want to try breaking my jaw again. How come you’re so calm?”
“I promised Murdoch I wouldn’t say anything mean. And I didn’t try to break your jaw.”
“Felt like it.” A soft smile lifted the corners of his mouth and for a second Johnny saw the old Scott. His eyes were teasing, affectionate, free of hurt. He snuggled back into the covers and closed his eyes.
Johnny tented his fingers together and watched Scott. “Thirsty?”
He shifted in the chair and gripped the side arms. “Want to talk?”
Johnny thought that talking would take Scott’s mind off of whatever ache he may have. “You sure? Maybe it’ll help … you know.”
“No. And sorry to bore you. I suggest you get the hell out of here.”
“Nope. Can’t leave you alone.”
“Little boy afraid of what papa will say?”
Johnny smiled to himself, knowing that Scott was baiting him. “Insult all you want, I’m here and staying.”
“I prefer my own company.”
“Yeah, in this case I’d prefer that as well. It stinks in here.”
Scott lifted his head. “I thought you weren’t going to say anything mean.”
“I didn’t say it was you.”
“The implication was there.”
“Sure you are,” Scott said, obviously not believing the apology. He slumped against the pillow and rolled his shoulders.
Johnny had never seen his brother look so helpless and pathetic. Not this man, straight-backed, neat to a fault, strong, respectable. Johnny resisted the urge to run a soothing hand over Scott’s forehead. Murdoch could probably get away with it, but it would be damn awkward for Johnny.
Scott’s eyes drifted shut and his legs stopped twitching. His breathing steadied out and Johnny heaved a sigh, relieved that he’d fallen asleep. Maybe the worst was over and this wouldn’t be as bad as Johnny imagined. But then there was a sharp intake of breath as Scott clutched his belly. The blanket bunched beneath his hands and his legs zigzagged back and forth across the bed. He turned his face into the pillow, muffling a ragged cry.
“Dios.” Johnny bolted to the bedside, wanting to help but not knowing how. Water. Apple Juice. Hell, they did nothing to ease his brother’s pain. Would a little laudanum be so bad? Just a drop? Then he remembered Murdoch’s warning and understood. It had only taken a short time from Johnny swearing he’d never give his brother laudanum to almost running for a bottle.
Scott tilted over the side of the bed and Johnny pulled a bucket to him just in time. He wretched up the little bit of water Johnny had given him, then shuddered with wave after wave of dry heaves. Holding his shoulder to keep him from falling, Johnny watched, helpless and miserable.
“Oh God, make it stop,” Scott wept as his head hung over the bucket. With a final choke, he collapsed against Johnny, his arm dangling to the floor.
“Ok, Scott. Ok.” Johnny lifted him to the mattress and grabbed the rag floating in the basin to wipe off his mouth.
“I can’t do this anymore.” Scott looked at Johnny through half-closed eyes, his breathing rapid as if trying to stem another attack.
“Yes you can. You don’t have a choice.”
“You do, Johnny. Please. Just a little.”
“I can’t, Scott. I can’t.” Johnny felt the sting of tears and swallowed painfully. He’d never felt so powerless in his life. This time, embarrassment didn’t stop him from rubbing his thumb against his brother’s temple.
“What if it comes again?”
“Just hold onto me.”
“Hell,” he snapped and batted at Johnny’s hand, “that’s not much help”.
“You can do this. The Scott that I know can do this.”
“I’m not that Scott,” he spat. “He wouldn’t let this happen.”
“We all make mistakes, brother. Don’t let this one win. You’re almost there. It won’t be long.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You don’t have bugs biting at your gut, crawling under your skin. Jesus, they’re worse than the pain.”
“But it’s going on three days. It shouldn’t be much longer.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’ve not been on it for that long. Think of Murdoch. He’d be here telling you the same thing.”
“He doesn’t know.”
Scott’s hand shook as he brushed away tears sliding down his cheeks and Johnny almost lost it. This was Harlan Garrett’s fault and his damn lies. A vision of Scott, shot, bloody, struggling on the ground, came to mind. Then headaches followed that only laudanum could ease, and now this all because of one old man’s selfishness. Johnny wanted to shoot Garrett for doing this to Scott.
Grasping for anything that would give his brother encouragement, he desperately searched for the right words to make him feel better. “Murdoch knows. He’s been around a long time. He knows everything.”
“I saw his face when he left, Johnny. He looked beat to the point of giving up.”
“He won’t give up on you, Scott.”
“How do you know?” Fingers bunched around the light cotton of Johnny’s shirt and twisted the fabric tight. “How do you know?”
“Cuz you’re his golden haired son.”
His grip lightened, and he stared at Johnny wide-eyed. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” Did Scott actually think Murdoch would … could walk away from him! “He’s got you back after twenty-four years. He’s not gonna let anything change that.”
“I know, Scott. He gave up once. He won’t make that mistake again.”
“No buts. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t look like hell now.”
“Thanks,” Scott grunted. “But that doesn’t make me feel better.”
“I didn’t mean … Oh, hell, Boston. You’ve got us so twice tied we don’t know what to say. Now shut up and try to sleep.”
Scott nodded as his hand fell away and he closed his eyes. “God, I am so tired,” he murmured, his voice barely there.
“Concentrate on me. I’m not going anywhere.” Johnny hesitated, afraid of rejection, then once again edged his thumb along Scott’s temple. He seemed to relax under the stroke of Johnny’s hand. Johnny would keep at it then for as long as it took. Even if he had to sit all day and night, he’d keep at it. And think of ways to kill Garrett.
Chapter Twelve - Consequences
There was nothing more luxurious in the world than relaxing in a tub filled with water as hot as you could stand and a mellow glass of brandy or Bordeaux just within reach. Scott sighed, wishing he had that glass of brandy, but satisfied nonetheless with the warm water lapping at his neck. It felt good to soak away the sweat, stink and illness and he slid under the water letting it carry the soap from his hair. He held his breath as long as he could, then popped up and shook his head.
His body still ached with occasional twinges and he felt drained, but it was over and knew he could not have done it alone. Grateful to his family for their help, especially his father, he still couldn’t shake the shame that he had allowed laudanum to take such a hold on him. The physical shock when the drug was withheld was a further humiliation and he hated his family was a witness to it.
The past days were a blur of pain, chills and intense wretchedness. He remembered cursing at his father, flinging a glass of apple juice at his grey head and, thankfully, missing. His pleas for relief seemed to be ignored and he was frustrated with flimsy comfort that offered no release. At one point, thinking his father had failed to lock the door, he bolted across the room only to fold to his knees when the door wouldn’t budge. His father calmly changed the sweat-soaked bedding as Scott clung helplessly to the doorknob. Large hands pulled him up and dragged him back to the bed. Thankfully he blocked out how he came to be wearing fresh underwear, only remembering cool air on his ass. Desperate, he wanted to overpower his family and escape, but had grown too weak and through his miserable haze knew they were trying their best. Finally, finally he slept under the rough stroke of someone’s hand. But it was done.
The cooling water made him shiver but he couldn’t resist trying to catch clumpy suds bobbing across the surface. He smiled, recalled chasing bubbles in the bath at his grandfather’s house. It had been a futile, slippery process and it appeared bubbles were as elusive in California as in Boston. He slapped one more time at a foamy island then hauled himself up from the water and grabbed a towel.
The rough towel, made rougher by hard scrubs across his body, reddened his skin. A ripple sharpened in his belly and he held his breath, fearful of an oncoming spasm. Bunching the towel against the pain, he bowed his head. Another flare edged up his thigh, then spread like sparks from a firecracker, vanishing just as quickly. The doctor said he could experience physical symptoms on and off for days, light but still irritating. Shaky after the tremors, he held onto the side of the tub and stepped out feeling more like a grandmother than a 24 year old man.
Slipping into clean work clothes, his goal was to do some sort of physical task, even if it was just mucking out a stall or two. A few steps across the yard and he realized it wasn’t going to happen today. He was barely able to put one foot in front of the other, let alone pitch urine soaked straw. His father’s advice, as usual, was right. Murdoch had told him he might not feel up to working for a few days. Scott nodded politely with every intention of doing it anyway. He really must learn to listen to his father. He headed back to the house hoping he could make it alone up the stairs to his room. It would be a while before he could bring himself to go into that bedroom where he had been ill, although he promised to white wash the walls. All of them.
A whirlwind knocked him on his butt just outside the front door.
“Crap, Scott. Sorry.” Johnny reached a hand to him. “You ok?”
Scott grabbed the offer and let Johnny pull him up. “I’m fine.” He brushed dust from his trousers and then looked up into a smiling face.
“I think you missed a speck, right there.” Johnny flicked an imaginary piece of dirt from Scott’s shirt. “Gotta be clean when flinging horse crap.”
“Well thank you, Johnny, but the horses will not have the pleasure of my company today.”
“Yeah? How come?” Johnny frowned, stepped back and eyed Scott.
“Our wise father was right, as usual.” Settling hands on hips, Scott grinned. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“I’m guessing the horses won’t care. You, ah, …” Johnny flung his hand in the air and settled it on his gun. “Feeling ok?”
Scott smiled at Johnny’s awkwardness knowing his brother didn’t want to give the impression of a mother hen. Although, at this stage with all that Johnny had done to help him, Scott wasn’t sure why he would be embarrassed. Unless of course … No. Scott didn’t want to go there. It was Murdoch who changed his underclothes, not Johnny. He chased away the sudden frown – and the thought.
“I am feeling good, brother. Where are you heading in such a hurry?” he said, needing to change the subject.
“Murdoch is sending me out to Witch’s Meadow. One of the hands reported a campsite. He wants to know who is on Lancer land.”
“You’re not going alone are you?”
“Nope. Taking Jelly. He’s been fretting that all he gets to do is slop hogs and feed geese.”
“Well, he’s the one who bought the hog for Murdoch. And he’s made such a pet of Dew Drop it’s a wonder the goose isn’t in bed with him.”
“He is. Close anyway. Jelly’s set up straw in a box.”
“The one outside his door?”
“Yup. Brings him in on rainy nights. Or otherwise.”
Scott laughed and shook his head. “Not as tough as what he wants us to think.”
“Nope, but I’d say we’re all that way? Wouldn’t you?”
Scott folded his arms in front of him and took a good, long look at his brother. “I assume you’re referring to me?”
“Take it for what it is, Scott,” Johnny said, shrugging his shoulders and giving Scott a what-the-hell-do-you-think stare.
Now what? Scott knew Johnny was still angry with him, and understood why. Although he wanted to fix that damaged bridge, he didn’t know how. Broken trust took a long time in healing but it was well worth the effort to take that first step.
“I, uh, want to thank you for … well for helping me out.”
“Murdoch needed a break.”
Scott flinched at the cold, hard snap of Johnny’s voice. Was it all just for Murdoch? Scott hoped it was more than that. “Well, thank you anyway. It was difficult, I’m sure.”
The thank you didn’t seem to have softened Johnny at all.
“I also want to apologize.”
That seemed to perk his interest. Johnny relaxed some, tilted a hip without taking his eyes off Scott.
“I mean, I said some pretty stupid … mean things to you. I, ah, just hope you understand I didn’t mean … you know … any of them.”
“What stupid things you talking about?”
“Huh?” Confused, Scott wondered if Johnny was trying to shut out those awful hours in the bedroom.
“What stupid things?”
“Well,” Scott stumbled, “when you sat with me. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, yeah,” Johnny shook his head and snorted. “I remember. Something I won’t be forgetting any time soon. But, no need to apologize for that. Not that.”
“Not that? So I’m assuming I need to apologize for something else?”
Johnny stiffened, fisted his hands and let his arms drop. “You think on it, Scott. When it comes to you, let me know.”
Johnny turned his back and with hard steps, started towards the barn.
Damn, he could be infuriating. “How can you listen when you’re walking away?”
Johnny stopped but kept his back to Scott. “You remembering?”
Of course Scott remembered. All of his lies, the deceit. But he didn’t want to get buried in that grave, not yet. Johnny waited a few seconds, and then continued walking to the barn.
“All right. I’m sorry. Ok?”
Black with anger, Johnny twirled around and pounded the distance between them. “No Scott,” he spat, a stiff finger pointed in Scott’s face. “It’s not all right. And an ‘I’m sorry’ ain’t gonna do it.”
Scott stepped back and held out his hands, unprepared for Johnny’s ferocity and not sure if he would take a swing at him or not. “I don’t know what else to do,” he said softly, “except say I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry, Johnny.”
Taking a deep breath, Johnny seemed to try to control himself. But his glare was just as furious. “And you think that makes everything ok, do you.”
“No, I don’t. You tell me what you want me to do to make up for it.”
“First off, but a name to ‘it’. When you do that, it might be a start.”
“You mean the lies.”
“Hell yes, I mean the lies! How could you, Scott? To me? The old man? What did you think we would do, kick you off Lancer? Make you feel like something we walked through in the hog pen?”
“No, I didn’t think that.”
“Then you tell me why, brother. You’re an educated man, smart, and up until a few weeks ago, an honest one. I, Murdoch, expected more from you.”
“And that’s why.” Those few words explained it all, at least to Scott. But could he make Johnny understand?
“What? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Scott bowed his head, wanting to put the right words to his jumbled thoughts. The warmth from the sun helped ease his sudden chill, brought comfort and calm. Enough that he could attempt to explain to Johnny the ultimate why.
“You remember when we were coming back from the range … it seems long ago now but, oh, maybe a bit over a week, ten days ago. I asked about forgiveness?” He glanced up at Johnny, could tell he was listening. “You remember that day?”
“Well, there was a reason I asked that question.” Scott walked a few steps away and brushed a finger across a flowering vine. “But you probably know that now.”
A jaybird spouted a raucous call and Scott jumped, his nerves edgy from flashes of the lingering withdrawals. He winced as a jolt snaked up his leg, bit down, then moved on. Not only was Johnny reminding him of his stupidity, but his own body seemed to take pleasure in it. He swore softly to himself then glanced Johnny’s way wondering if he noticed. There seemed to be a slight give in his shoulders, or was that only Scott’s imagination? No matter.
“You knocked my hat off after you called me your perfect yellow-haired brother.”
“What’s that go to do with it?”
“It’s hard to live up to perfection.”
“You sayin’ it’s my fault?”
“No, no. Not at all. It’s just…” Scott swept fingers through his hair, frustrated at his inability to say what he was feeling. This conversation was just as hard as he thought it would be, and he was so tired. He took a deep breath and tried again.
“When I came here, I came without baggage, at least as far as Murdoch was concerned. I was an empty page, and I could write whatever I wanted. No weaknesses, bad habits, or history.”
“Not like me, huh?”
There was no bitterness in Johnny’s voice and Scott dared a glance. Johnny’s head was tilted in that way he had of making you think he was looking into your very soul. “No,” Scott said sadly, “not like you.”
Johnny just shook his head. “Go on.”
“There was an expectation that I never did anything wrong. The peacemaker, the reasonable one, the calm one. The only flaw I had was being a complete fool where women were concerned.”
“Let me tell you brother, that’s not the only one.”
Scott took heart in the light words. Maybe he could make it through this after all. “When this happened, the, ah, laudanum, I mean.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Well, it seems I couldn’t bring myself to disappoint Murdoch … or anyone else. So.” Scott shrugged his shoulders and stared at the tip of his boots.
“So you kept quiet.”
Scott nodded his head.
“You’re an idiot, you know that?”
Dirt puffed as Johnny paced the ground in front of Scott. “Jesus. You could have died!” Johnny paced some more and Scott kept quiet, hoping the action would calm his brother. “I’m getting all worked up just thinking about it.”
“Don’t think about it.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
Scott looked at him and smiled. “You’ve got a few empty spaces in your brain. Go there.”
“It ain’t funny.”
“I know, Johnny. But it’s done and I want to … move on.”
Johnny huffed and put his hands on his hips. “Oh, brother. That might not be as easy as it sounds.”
“Murdoch told me that the past could die if we let it.” Was it only a few weeks ago that he had confronted Murdoch about being left in Boston? That was Murdoch’s answer. Scott thought his father was avoiding the issue. How could he expect Johnny to think anything else now?
“Scott.” Johnny whispered the name with a tenderness that pulled at Scott’s heart. “I’m gonna tell you, I want to trust you again, but those lies sure put a hole in that target.”
“I wasn’t aiming to hurt you, Johnny.”
“Doesn’t matter. The deeds done.” Johnny took a few steps away and lifted his head to the sky. “But I guess we have to start somewhere.” He turned to Scott. “But you lie to me again, even one little fib, and I’m gonna dump you on your ass.”
“Seems to me you already have.”
“Humph. Not near enough.” He stretched his back and cracked it. “Well, I’d best get to Jelly or he’ll be complaining I’m taking too long.”
Scott wanted to say more, something to tell his brother how grateful he was for his help – for Johnny just being Johnny. But it would sound too sappy and he smiled inwardly at the look his brother would give him. So he settled.
“Keep Jelly in hand. Remember, he’s not as tough as he wants us to think.”
“Back to that are we?” Johnny lifted an eyebrow and grinned. “Could be dangerous.”
“Know something, Johnny. You’re getting to be as wise as our old man.”
A slow chuckle was his only response. “Get some rest, Boston,” he said and nudged Scott as he walked by. “Look like you could use some.”
“Always am,” and he lifted a hand in reply.
“Johnny,” Scott called as he watched his brother saunter away.
Johnny turned to look his way.
“Just,” he stumbled. “Thank you.”
Johnny gazed at him for a few seconds, then with a light grin, disappeared into the barn.
It was a step, a small one, but at least a hope that the relationship could be repaired. Scott understood it was mostly up to him and he would do everything in his power to win back his brother’s trust. Now he just had to deal with his father. Consequences – there were always costs involved in mistakes. And no one should understand that better than his father.
Chapter Thirteen – Challenges
Since his sons had come home, Murdoch found himself becoming a sneak. He enjoyed observing them through windows and doorways as they interacted with one another, worked or just walked across the room. There were times he still found it difficult to realize they were home, in flesh and blood. Then he’d try to get physically close – a light nudge as he passed one of them, a quick hand on a shoulder, adjusting Johnny’s string tie he’d put on for church. Johnny would fuss but, unless Murdoch was mistaken, seemed to enjoy the interaction. Scott would lift his eyebrow and smile knowingly. It was those times that Murdoch felt a happiness he hadn’t known in years.
As he watched now from the great room window, he felt unease as Johnny stormed back to his brother. Murdoch flexed his leg, took a step forward, then stopped. No. He trusted his son – trusted Johnny enough to know that he would not hurt his brother in the weakened state he was in. Scott raised his hands and stepped back, obviously not as sure as Murdoch was. Murdoch’s trust paid off. The dust puffed in Johnny’s wake as he stomped back and forth in front of Scott with lowered fists.
Bowing his head, he mumbled a thank you. The coming days and weeks would be challenging enough to sort out without another shot to Scott’s jaw, although Murdoch admitted he understood Johnny’s frustration. He’d been tempted more than once to take his son in hand and thrash him for endangering his life, for not seeking help, not trusting his family with his problem.
But it was done. Difficult, difficult days were behind them and even though he wanted to block them out, it was too soon. Just over a day ago an exhausted Scott had fallen into an easy slumber. Sixteen hours later, his son woke up, hungry and requesting a bath. Although he still looked like a hungover saddle tramp, Murdoch smiled and rounded up some food. When he asked Scott if he needed help to the bathhouse, the old quirked eyebrow appeared followed by a soft, ‘no sir. That won’t be necessary.’ It was good to see the familiar haughty expression. Still, Murdoch made sure, again on the sly, that Scott made it safely to the bathhouse.
With the pain that Scott had been in, Murdoch was surprised there hadn’t been more physical aggression on his son’s part. Oh, Scott’s tongue had been acrid, dripping poison that could have melted a hole in the floor, but he’d not taken a swing at his father even when there was opportunity. Just once Scott had thrown a glass of apple juice wide of his target, namely Murdoch, and it crashed against and splattered down the wall. Murdoch shuddered, remembering the cause.
Murdoch had turned his back to get fresh linens when suddenly Scott leaped from the bed and scrambled to the door. His son wrenched on the knob and when it didn’t budge, folded to his knees and groaned out a half-choked sob. Murdoch concentrated on making the bed trying to block out the sounds coming from across the room. As he approached his son to get him back to bed, Scott looked at him over his shoulder, eyes wide and haunted, then turned his face into the door and shivered. Murdoch stuffed back an overpowering desire to run for laudanum to ease his son’s misery – and his own.
Stubborn fingers refused to let go of the doorknob. When Murdoch pulled Scott up, he went limp, refusing to budge, until Murdoch picked him up bodily and settled him back in the bed. A pathetic comfort, but the apple juice was all that Murdoch had to offer. The glass shattered, and something in Murdoch broke at the same time. He’d clutched his head, gripping his hair until his fingers were full of grey strands. That was the pinnacle, the worst, the hardest moments when he desperately tried to block out the curses and cries of his son. Oh God. Murdoch shook himself, blotting out the horrible vision, willing the memories to fall to the floor like dust to be swept away.
He glanced back out the window. Johnny was no longer pacing in front of Scott, but was looking out from the barn door, smiling. He disappeared into the building with a small salute. It seemed his youngest was appeased, at least for now.
Scott stood still, gazed at the barn door for a few minutes, then walked towards the house. Murdoch was relieved that Scott decided not to do any work. It would take more than a few hours of sleep for Scott to get back all of his physical strength. However, Murdoch worried about the pull that the drug may still have mentally on his son.
Opium was common on the wharves of London. A country boy, he was shocked by its usage when he made his way from the Scottish Highlands to the docks of the largest city he’d ever known. Grim sailors would drop a pill in their beer and soon become heady with joy. He followed a friend one night to a smoke-filled opium den filled with miserable folk layered on filthy beds. Their eyes were empty, drooling mouths agape, dreaming of what hell Murdoch could only imagine. He didn’t know such horror existed and ran from the dank house, the laughter of his companion following him down the street.
He shunned offers from ship mates, enduring their scorn at his youthful ways. “Murry,” they would shout, “it takes away your ills. You can be as light as a drop from the ocean. No one can touch you when the good smoke settles in your mind.”
Aye, joyful they could be, but wanting more and more when the dream wore off and they were still filthy devils at the mercy of their captain, first mate, second mate, or whoever had a lift above them. No, Murdoch would have none of it and kept an eye on his ale in case a stray pill dropped into it. He worried and prayed that his son was strong enough to stand away from that deceptive happiness.
The oak door creaked and Scott appeared in the entrance. He didn’t look Murdoch’s way and headed straight for the stairs. His movement was slow and deliberate, his shoulders hunched. It appeared he didn’t know his father was at the desk.
He jumped a bit, confirming Murdoch’s guess that Scott was unaware of his presence.
“Murdoch, I thought you were down at the vineyard.”
“I was. Didn’t take long. The grapes are coming very well.”
He stood, eyes shadowed with tired, wavering on unsteady legs.
“No stalls today, son?”
“Maybe tomorrow.” Scott’s mouth slipped into a light grin. “You were right.”
“I am, now and then.” Murdoch smiled back, thinking those stalls weren’t going to be cleaned tomorrow either. At least not by Scott. “You need anything, Scott? Are you hungry?”
“No,” he chuckled. “Not after the plateful of food Maria made for me. I think I’ll just, ah, well,” he motioned to the stairs. “Go to my room for a bit.”
“Good idea. If you’re not down by supper, I’ll get something up to you.”
“Not necessary. I’ll be down.”
The way his son looked, Murdoch wasn’t so sure of that. But he’d give him the thought. Scott moved towards the stairs, then turned back to his father.
“Is there something else?”
“I just wanted to thank you, Murdoch. For helping me.”
“No need for thanks. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Yes, well.” Scott bowed his head and took a few steps towards Murdoch. “Regardless, I was pretty … difficult. I wanted you to know that I appreciate what you did.” He hooked his long fingers into his belt and lifted his eyes to Murdoch. “I couldn’t have done it alone.”
“I’m not sure anyone could do something like that alone.”
“Yes. Yes.” Scott scanned the room and sighed, as if he were searching for something he’d lost.
“Son?” Murdoch prodded, not sure what the problem was.
“I’m sorry,” Scott blurted out. “I’m sorry for the lies, for sneaking around, for pilfering laudanum. I’m …” He plunged a hand through his hair. “I’m just sorry and wish I could make up for all of the trouble I’ve caused.”
Surprised by the sudden outburst, Murdoch watched as remorse and shame played across his son’s face. Indeed, Scott should feel all of those things, and apologize, but with the condition he was in, Murdoch wasn’t sure now was the time for discussion.
“Scott, you’re tired. I’m tired. Perhaps we should talk about this later.”
“I’m sorry. Of course you’re tired. I shouldn’t have …” He mumbled something about being thoughtless and backed away.
“No, son,” Murdoch replied, not intending to add another layer of guilt on Scott. “That’s not what I meant. You look beat.”
“But I’d like to leave this all behind me and apologizing would help.”
“Scott.” Murdoch stepped closer, wanting to help his son, but knowing everything wasn’t as easy as a few words said. “Do you think it will be that easy to forget? I’m not saying that we don’t need to move forward, but son, it will take time.”
Scott bowed his head and nodded. “Johnny said the same thing.” He looked up at Murdoch and shrugged. “I guess it will.”
Sensing Scott’s discouragement, Murdoch sought to give him some reassurance that things would get better. But, dealing with his own feelings of how easily Scott deceived everyone, he knew trusting Scott fully wouldn’t happen overnight.
“Son, I won’t lie to you. It will take effort but there’s something we all have on our side - the same goal. To be able to tie ourselves together as a family, help one another when needed, and look to the future, not the past.”
“Seems to me I’ve heard that from you before, sir.” Scott grinned, some of the stress disappearing from his face. “At the time I didn’t think the comment … well, let’s just say I thought you were evading the past.”
“And I was.” Murdoch motioned to the sofa. “Please, sit down before you fall down. We might as well get comfortable.”
They settled into the sofa. Well, Murdoch settled. Scott appeared to melt. Murdoch eyed the bottle of Scotch on the sideboard, but didn’t think alcohol would be the best for Scott at this point. He drew his gaze back to Scott.
“We are, all of us, broken. I’ve done things I wish I could change. Your brother has. And I’m thinking this isn’t the first time you’ve done something you’ve regretted. We learn, pick ourselves up and go on.”
“And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“I understand that. But sometimes what we’ve done carries consequences that don’t quickly disappear. The after-effects can be felt for a long time. I’ve carried them, Johnny does as well. It’s something we have to live with.”
“I know, I know.” Scott rested his head back on the sofa and closed his eyes. “But I thought I was better than that.” A sigh slipped between his lips. He opened his eyes and stared at Murdoch. “I’ve been through a war, Murdoch. Imprisoned under horrible conditions and survived without turning to any sort of – crutch. But one visit from Grandfather seemed to negate all of that. The laudanum not only took away the physical pain, but …” He grabbed the side of the couch and sprang to his feet.
“But what, Scott?” Murdoch urged, concerned by Scott’s reaction but knowing there was more than fleshly comfort involved with laudanum.
Stricken, Scott strode to the liquor cart.
“Son. I don’t think alcohol is the wisest choice right now. Do you?”
Long fingers stroked the crystal stopper, lingered, then pulled away. “No. Probably not.”
“Scott.” Murdoch pulled himself up from the couch and stood by Scott. “I’m sorry your grandfather’s visit was disastrous. But his actions were not your fault.”
“No. I’m not blaming myself for what he did.”
Murdoch pursed his lips, wondering if he should continue. “Then what do you blame yourself for?”
A bitter chuckle burst out. “Isn’t it obvious? For being so weak that I became no better than the drunk wallowing in the mud.”
“You’re not that drunk, are you? And there’s no need to think you will be.”
“But I could be.” He ran a hand through his hair and gazed at his father. “Laudanum gave me a feeling of such peace. It made me strong, untroubled and …”
“And it was false, Scott. You know that.”
“Yes.” He nodded in agreement and bowed his head. “But that didn’t make it any less alluring.”
“Which is why it will take time for all of us to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
A muscle jumped in his jaw and Scott fisted his hands. “It will not happen again. I promise you.”
“Fine, Scott.” Murdoch laid a settling hand on his shoulder. “But you need to give your brother, and honestly, me, allowances to make sure.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“Think about it. Given what’s happened, would you?”
Scott stared into his father’s eyes, resentment quickly being replaced by understanding. “No sir. I guess I wouldn’t.”
“That’s not to say that trust won’t happen. You need to be patient, son. Not only with us, but with yourself. And …” Murdoch pressed a little harder into his shoulder and shook him gently. “Come to me if you need help. With anything. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir.” His lips curved into a small smile. “I will.”
“Good. Now, go upstairs and get some rest. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Murdoch watched as he made his way to the stairs. He paused before ascending and looked back at his father. “I can make it, sir. No need to worry.”
“I’ve learned part of fatherhood is worry. So get used to it.”
Scott chuckled, grabbed the railing and slowly climbed the steps, disappearing as he made his way across the upstairs landing.
Murdoch stood for a few moments and contemplated the empty space where his son had been. He had meant to broach the subject of the key Scott still had for the cabinet that held the laudanum. Perhaps it would be better to just move the laudanum to another secure place – not tell Scott. But that would be an evasion and there had been all too many of those in the past. No. He’d have to find the right time and words to ask Scott for the key. It would be the honest thing to do and after preaching trust, he needed to follow his own advice.
Murdoch yawned, his back cracking as he stretched his arms high above his head. He bent at his waist to the right, then left, trying to realign bones too long twisted from saddles, cows and occasional broncs. A sharp tug reminded him that some things were just not going back to the way they were. Well, at least he could take comfort in his large, welcoming bed. After trying to snatch a bit of sleep on the laughable bed downstairs, he appreciated his oversized mattress more than ever.
Dinner had been pleasant. Scott did manage to make it down, although he barely made it through the meal before he excused himself. Johnny was relaxed, his smile quick and easy to come. And the food was delicious. Maybe it was especially good because they were all together again around the table. He loved those times after a full day of work. His sons with him, the reason he built this ranch.
Johnny had joined Murdoch in the great room for an after-dinner brandy. Small talk of chores and the ever engaging cattle were discussed, until Johnny finally asked about the thing that was most prominent in their minds – Scott. When could he return to work? How would they keep him clear of Cross Creek? Could they have him work alone? And the impossible question - how long would it be before they could trust him? There were no clear-cut answers to any of these questions. They both knew that but saying them out loud allowed them to voice their concerns.
When Murdoch mentioned the ranch’s supply of laudanum, Johnny informed him he had already moved the small bottle in the tack cupboard to Jelly’s room. Jelly was usually around if it was needed. Should they tell Scott? Johnny would leave that up to Murdoch but his comment ‘don’t give a crook keys to his own cell’ pretty much summed up his feelings. He knew Johnny didn’t mean to be as harsh as it sounded, but he wasn’t one to sidestep anything with pretty words. Murdoch decided to move the larger bottle to his room until he could talk to Scott about the key.
The moon was rising and light poured into the bedroom. He opened his mouth wide once more in a jaw-breaking yawn, then blinked several times, focusing on getting into a night shirt before he fell asleep in his clothes. This was only the second full night he’d slept in his bed since Scott’s illness, and Murdoch found he was still exhausted from the ordeal. Ah, he sighed, the older you get, the older you get. He smiled and walked to the dresser to empty his pockets.
The wallet slipped from his fingers as he gazed at the small key that lay on the top of the dresser. He swallowed and touched the little piece of metal. His son had surrendered the key of his own accord, likely after dinner as it wasn’t on the dresser when Murdoch cleaned up for the meal.
He thought of Scott, in his quiet way, trying to make up for all the stress he had caused his family. Slipping into his father’s room, leaving the key on the bureau, knowing that it hadn’t been forgotten.
“Scott, Scott,” he murmured, folding the key into his large hand. He grabbed a nightshirt from the top drawer, and set the key on his nightstand. Quickly undressing, he slid into bed thinking of his golden haired son sleeping just down the hall.
They weakened him, these sons, but gave him strength at the same time. How could that be, these complicated contradictions? He closed his eyes, knowing that the challenges ahead would not be easy but could be overcome. And he would not allow one disastrous visit from Harlan Garret to destroy his family. By God, even if he had to pull them along with his bare hands, they would always be together.