Warnings/Spoilers: Alternate Reality
Word Count: around 9,000 total
Disclaimer: This story is based on the characters and premises of many talented people. Essentially, not ours, no profit being made, etc. This is just for fun.
Summary: Sequel to Praeambulus. The Lancers’ first road trip. Follows immediately from where Praeambulus ended.
April 23, 1865
Scott’s first thought was that here was one reason his father didn’t claim him. Murdoch Lancer already had a son, a son that belonged to this untamed, open country.
Dismayed by the bitterness, he pushed it aside to look the youth over. The boy was younger than Scott, and yet, there was something about the dark blue eyes that spoke of a life lived longer than his years indicated. Though Scott felt the pull to understand why, he couldn’t just continue to stare at his brother.
Johnny hadn’t thought about meeting his brother for the first time. Making up happy tales was something he'd given up many years ago, but he wouldn’t have ever imagined running into Scott hard enough to knock them off their feet.
His immediate concern was that he had broken this too thin, fastidiously dressed man, but that was replaced by curiosity when they had both answered to Lancer.
“I’m sorry, I meant Scott Lancer. The stage will leave in ten minutes, sir.”
Johnny heard Scott respond, but the stage no longer mattered. They were here to take Scott home, and after giving him a looking over, Johnny thought Murdoch had every right to his concerns about his brother’s ability to make this trip. A dust devil could take him out.
Even if it was ill-fitting, the suit was expensive and all Johnny’s doubts flooded back. From their dress to their speech, Johnny couldn’t imagine how far their differences extended.
“We’ve been looking for you.” Johnny was nervous, in a way he hadn’t been with Murdoch or anyone else.
His brother may look like he was on his last legs, but he was quick. “Who has been looking for me?”
“Murdoch and me.”
“Who is me?”
Humor took over and his grin widened when he finally introduced himself. “Johnny Lancer, your brother.”
It hurt more than he would admit as dismay crossed Scott’s features, and he felt faintly sick. Should have known better.
“This is… unexpected.”
He wondered if it was normal for Scott to show so much in his expression, or if it was the result of illness that he couldn’t control it. There was the tiniest flash of anger, and Johnny was glad to see it. Anger he could deal with. Disappointment was harder.
Stop. Remember how it was with Murdoch.
“Don’t be presumptuous.” Scott squared his shoulders and met his gaze head on. “Allow me time to make your acquaintance first.”
Johnny straightened his own posture and grinned. “Murdoch should be along in a few minutes. We came to take you home from here.”
“Murdoch, our father?”
“What’s he like?”
Scott wondered at his regression to a ten-year-old.
Eyebrows raised, Johnny toyed with the strings around his neck, pulling his hat up and down on his back. “Oh, he’s somethin’ all right. He takes a little gettin’ used to, but when it comes to knowin’ him? Well, I’ve just started. I’ve known him for all of six months.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My mama left him before I was two. He found me again and brought me home six months ago.”
“Man doesn’t seem to have much success in keeping his sons. Are there any more of us running around?”
With a quick, laugh, Johnny shook his head. “Nope, we’re it. Think we’re probably all the old man can handle.”
Scott returned Johnny’s smile, appreciating the humor.
“Johnny?” A deep voice came from the other side of Scott.
Glancing up, Johnny waved toward Scott. “Hey, Murdoch, I found him.”
The heavy steps halted as Scott turned to see his father for the first time, at least that he remembered. He stood, body stiff and was aware of Johnny gripping his elbow, lending support.
“Scott,” this oh-so-tall man breathed out. “It’s so good to see you.” With brisk, long strides he stood before Scott and held out his hand.
“Nice to meet you, sir.” Scott was grateful for the ingrained etiquette that allowed him a response while at a loss for this situation.
Unwilling to let go, the cool, skeletal feel of the hand he held concerned Murdoch. Scott’s face was colorless, and his eyes weary from more than travel. His clothing hung on his emaciated frame, and seemed inadequate protection against the world.
Murdoch wanted to take this boy home, feed him, and tuck him into bed.
Johnny had triggered the rusty paternal instincts with his injury, but a bullet wound was acute, whereas Scott had chronic issues that wouldn’t heal with bandages and a few weeks of rest. The physical issues he could see in his sons concerned Murdoch, but it was what he couldn’t see that would keep him up at night.
Seeing that his scrutiny was making Scott uncomfortable, he smiled. “You have your mother’s eyes.” Glancing over Scott’s shoulder, he teased, “Watch out for that one; he has his mother’s temper.” Johnny rolled his eyes, and with reluctance, Murdoch released Scott’s hand.
Scott returned the smile, but it was plain to see that he was fatigued, and Johnny, ever observant, steered his brother back to the bench.
“Murdoch, why don’t I get the wagon and bring it around? That’ll give you and Scott time to get his things.”
Sharp boy. “Good idea, we have some miles to put in today.”
Johnny shot a glance at Scott, saying, “Be right back, Boston.” Spinning on a heel, he headed down the street.
Scott was certain that even if he wasn’t exhausted, his new family would still overwhelm him.
“Scott, where’s your luggage?”
Giving himself a mental shake, Scott gestured to the open doorway of the hotel. “Just inside.”
“Easy enough, we’ll grab them when Johnny gets back.” Murdoch settled beside him, at ease with this awkward meeting. Perhaps Murdoch and Johnny had gained experience from their recent introduction that allowed them to handle this one with such aplomb. Scott felt a step or two behind.
“Scott,” Murdoch’s tone was soft. “We are so pleased you’re here.”
“Thank you, sir.” Scott decided he might as well get the most difficult of questions out of the way. “What do I call you? Under the circumstance…”
“Johnny calls me Murdoch. How about you do the same?”
Nodding, Scott looked down the street where Johnny had gone. “A brother?”
His discomfort eased with Murdoch’s smile. “Johnny was more than a little surprised himself.”
“Imagine so.” If his own experience was any indication, Scott had to agree.
The clatter of tack and horses drew their attention when Johnny brought the buckboard around front. Scott’s focus went to the two horses tied to the back. The Palomino was showy and proud, and Scott knew that he belonged to Johnny. The other was larger, beautiful in his way, and meant to carry the larger frame of Murdoch Lancer.
The painful lurch was something he expected and dreaded. He missed riding, the freedom and exhilaration of it.
The back of the buckboard looked well-supplied, if the large tarp covering the items was any indication. The seat was cushioned and well-sprung.
This was all for him, Scott thought with an edge of bitterness for his persistent weakness: A condition that caused all these necessary preparations. However, he was grateful for the consideration that was given to make his final leg of the journey to Lancer more comfortable.
He gazed at the horses and resigned himself to the relative ease of riding in the buckboard.
Johnny watched as Scott shored himself up to leave the bench and walk to the wagon while Murdoch headed into the hotel to pick up Scott’s things.
Standing by the seat, Johnny offered his hand to assist Scott. He kept quiet, and let Scott decide what he needed. Johnny held back the relieved exhale when his older brother took up his offer.
The weight Johnny pulled up was disappointing at best. The man couldn’t weigh more than 120 pounds with his clothes on.
“Thank you.” Once seated, Scott straightened his suit coat and hat.
Acknowledging him with a nod, Johnny leapt out of the buckboard and helped Murdoch load Scott’s trunk and bag.
Scott was pleased to see Johnny mount the Palomino.
“Ready to go, Son?” Murdoch settled in the seat and taking up the reins
Startled by the use of ‘son’, it took Scott a moment to nod. Speech was beyond him for the moment. Why it should affect him so, he didn’t question. The whole situation was strange enough without taking the time to analyze it.
A gentle flick of the reins and Murdoch started the team.
“Sir, how long before we reach your ranch?”
“Around ten days or so.”
Within a couple of weeks, Scott would see the place that he never dared to dream about, knowing he would never see it, or be welcomed there. Scott decided that he’d allow a little dreaming.
Within a couple of hours, it was evident that Scott was unable to hold his head up. Murdoch felt a rush of concern when about thirty minutes later, Scott’s body started to lean into his. Transferring the reins to his left hand, Murdoch moved his right arm around Scott to provide support, and his son’s head shifted to rest on his shoulder.
Riding up beside the buckboard on Scott’s side, Johnny leaned over to get a look at his brother.
“He’s asleep, Murdoch. It’s been comin’ on for awhile.”
With a sense of wonderment, Murdoch grasped the fact that this was the first time he was holding his older son. Noticing Johnny scrutinizing the two of them, Murdoch gave him a questioning look.
“Looks like he belongs there.” Johnny nudged Barranca into a trot. “I’ll find us a place to camp.”
Watching his younger son gallop away, Murdoch was once again at a loss to understand how Johnny managed to say the right thing to brush away Murdoch’s doubts.
An hour later found them setting up camp in a shaded, protected area by running water. Johnny had a fire started by the time Murdoch pulled the wagon in.
Glancing up from feeding sticks into the fire, Johnny watched as Murdoch tied off the reins and set the brake, all without jostling Scott.
Using his jeans to brush off his hands, Johnny headed over to the back of the wagon and unloaded their gear. He collected the thick pallet packed for Scott and a bedroll. Johnny set up Scott’s place before heading back to help Murdoch.
“Do we wake him?”
“We probably will, but if he doesn’t, so much the better.” Murdoch would have preferred to let him be, but thought the pallet was a better place for him.
Hopping up on the wagon wheel, Johnny held Scott while Murdoch climbed down from the other side.
After stretching his back, Murdoch moved to Scott’s side and positioned himself to lift him out of the wagon when his eyes started fluttering. “Scott, are you awake?”
Startled, Scott jerked within Johnny’s hold, disoriented and wary. Murdoch couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for his son to travel this far with strangers for the entire trip, and that included his family.
“Scott, it’s all right. We’ve stopped for the day.” Murdoch rubbed a hand over the bony back. The clothes were not enough to soften the protruding shoulder blades and spine.
“You were asleep.” Murdoch gripped Scott’s arm to steady him.
“Asleep?” Scott appeared confused. “How long?”
“About three hours or so, Boston.” Johnny stood up, bringing Scott with him. “Made it look like such a good idea, I wanted to do the same.”
They helped Scott down, Murdoch taking most of his weight, and Johnny caught his father’s concerned look.
Stubbornness crept into the older man’s expression; one Johnny was familiar with and happy to see. He may not have known Murdoch for long, but he recognized the “you’re going to get better, because I said so” look.
“I apologize. I didn’t realize how tired I was.”
“Not necessary. After we eat, you will go back to sleep,” Murdoch said, as they led an unsteady Scott to his bedroll.
“Will I?” There was that flash of strength and stubbornness Johnny had glimpsed before. Scott didn’t know Murdoch well enough to know that when he was bossy he was worried.
“Think you might’ve bitten off more than you can chew with the two of us, Murdoch.” Johnny tapped their father’s stomach with the back of his hand, and grinned at Scott. “Don’t let him get to ya, he’s all bark and bossy. Now that there’s two of us, we can take him.”
“Ah, so that’s the real reason you’ve been looking forward to your brother coming home.”
Johnny ducked his head to avoid more than Murdoch’s languid, retaliatory swipe.
Johnny had looked forward to seeing him? This off balance state was becoming common the longer Scott was around his father and brother.
Was that the way Murdoch thought of Scott’s visit? No matter how he left Boston, he was thinking of returning, wasn’t he? He knew his grandfather would expect him to return.
And yet, Scott couldn’t think about the future. Doing so was a luxury he had given up many months ago. He was still coming to terms with the war and prison, what his grandfather had admitted to him about Murdoch, and dealing with this weak body.
Wherever home was could wait until he was standing on his own two feet, and if that didn’t happen, home wouldn’t matter anyway.
Scott settled down onto the soft bedroll while Murdoch and Johnny puttered about, putting together their campsite for the night. He heard them talking, but didn’t concentrate enough on the words to keep track of their conversation. He let the cadence of their voices and the wildlife sounds relax him to a point he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Maybe there was something to this, ‘going to the country’ to convalesce.
It wasn’t long before Murdoch and Johnny had a stew simmering over the fire and the bread sliced for their meal. Murdoch dished up, handing the first plate to Scott.
Johnny started in on his meal, whereas Scott was slower, like the food wasn’t to his taste or was unusual, which was possible. Troubled, Murdoch didn’t know what types of food Scott liked or disliked, but held off asking to see if Scott would eat.
Scott mimicked Johnny’s style of eating, using the bread to dip into the stew, only with smaller chunks. His eyes widened in surprise at the rich flavor, and he chewed carefully. Johnny was well into his second bowl, while Scott ate about half before setting his bowl down in front of him.
“Not to your liking?” Murdoch asked.
“Actually, I quite enjoyed it.”
Johnny bent over Scott’s knee and twirled his spoon above the leftover food. “You gonna finish that?”
Astonished, Scott handed over the food.
“What?” Johnny grinned. “I’m still growin’ and need feedin’.” He leaned back to look Scott over and gestured with his spoon. “You need to do some growin’ of your own. More to the sides than up.”
Cheeky little brat, Scott thought as he failed to fight off a smile.
Friends and acquaintances in Boston were horrified by his appearance; nevertheless they offered platitudes about his slow recovery. Lies. All of it. If nothing else, Scott had learned patience and to be honest with himself in the last couple of years.
Both those honed skills had been tested once he returned home. The amount of insincerity and intolerance he had come across had him hiding away from the ‘polite’ society.
Hearing his younger brother state the obvious without being cruel, or ignoring his condition, was refreshing.
“Wait until we get back to the ranch.” Johnny took a bite from Scott’s former dinner. “Maria and Consuela know how to put out a meal. Regular meals every day, and always good. You won’t want to miss ‘em.”
“I’m sure I won’t.” Scott absorbed the realization that Johnny hadn’t known regular meals before his return to Lancer. “Besides, Brother, you’ll be there to clean up anything I may leave behind.” And didn’t Brother slip out like it had always been there.
Grinning, Johnny took another bite. “Anythin’ to help you out, Brother.”
“John, not with you’re mouth full.” Murdoch grimaced.
Scott coughed to rid himself of the lump in his throat.
Seeing that Scott was tired, Murdoch urged him to rest.
“We’ll stay here for the night. You could do with more sleep, and Johnny and I had to hurry to make it town to meet up with you before you left on the stage. The horses won’t mind taking a breather.”
“You are not holding us up on my account?” Doubt was clear in Scott’s tone.
Knowing he couldn’t prevaricate with his older son any more than he could with the younger one, Murdoch shook his head. “Your welfare is the most important reason, but not the only one.” Seeing Scott lower his eyes, he wanted to put him at ease. “Scott, you’re still recovering, let’s not jeopardize your health by rushing without a reason.”
“All right, sir.” Murdoch felt he succeeded when Scott met his eyes.
He watched Scott remove his boots, jacket, and tie before sliding into the bedroll, and within five minutes he was sound asleep.
Johnny had occupied himself with settling the horses, but once Scott was asleep he soft-footed it back to Murdoch. Glimpsing paper sticking out of the inner pocket of Scott’s jacket, Johnny easily scooped it up before settling down by the fire. Without hesitation, he glanced over the pages.
“We need information, and he’s not of a mind to tell us anythin’.” Johnny glanced up to a perturbed Murdoch.
“It’s complicated is what it is,” Johnny retorted, undeterred. “Somethin’ about Scott. I can’t read the writin’.” Hopping back up, he brought the letter to Murdoch.
“You’re just itchin’ to read this, and you know it.” Johnny smirked as he handed over the papers, noting that Murdoch didn’t hesitate to take the letter. When it was taking longer than Johnny could stand, he whispered, “What’s it say?”
“Just a moment, my impatient son.” Murdoch shifted closer to the fire. “This contains part of Scott’s recent medical history. Well, we’ve already failed your brother in a couple of ways.”
“How?” Johnny sat down on his heels beside his father.
“Well, it states here that he will only manage the blandest of foods. Porridge, dry toast, milk, and broths in small frequent meals.”
“Dios, no wonder he’s starvin’. I understand the small meals, but why would anyone want to eat that?”
“He’s to avoid sleeping out in the elements.”
Johnny stood, flicking his fingers. “Pfft. Seems to me he does just fine in the elements.” Johnny wanted to walk off his irritation, but worried it would disturb Scott. “Didn’t he seem more surprised than anythin’ that he did sleep?”
“Yes.” Murdoch continued reading. “Scott’s been ill many times, sometimes severely, since he was released from the Confederate prison. Harlan has ensured that Scott has seen several doctors, many agreeing that Scott had a difficult time with winter in Boston, and would again.” Murdoch looked up while folding the letter. “Boston has a very cold, damp climate with snow for much of the winter season. From what I’ve seen, Scott doesn’t have the stamina to withstand it. We have cold weather, but not to extent that Boston does. There is a list of recommendations for his care. All of them agreed it will take him several months to recover his former health, if he does at all.”
Looking over to the huddled form of his brother, Johnny shrugged. “We’ll do what makes sense, and I think he’ll come out just fine.” Johnny rested his hands on his hips. “Murdoch, we should keep him. Sounds like those Boston folks don’t have any idea on how to take care of ‘im.”
As he watched Johnny put the papers back in Scott’s jacket, Murdoch couldn’t find one good reason to disagree. Not that he searched very hard.
Throughout the night, Johnny and Murdoch took turns checking on Scott, who hadn’t stirred since settling in. There were times Johnny couldn’t help crouching down close to Scott just to be sure he was still breathing.
It was well into the night when Scott became fidgety. Johnny, recalling a difficult time in his past, thought he recognized the cause of his brother’s restless movements. He remembered the comfort of having a friend – or at least not an enemy - at his back. He settled down behind Scott, close enough for his brother to rest against him.
He rested a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Go back to sleep, Boston. Nothin’s comin’ up behind you.”
Whether Scott heard him or felt him it didn’t matter, he settled once again.
“What’s wrong, Johnny?”
“Oh, nothin’, Murdoch. Ol’ Scott just needs somethin’ at his back. In prison, I’m sure he either slept up next to a wall, or had a friend at his back.”
Bitter regrets hit hard with Johnny’s offhand comment. Murdoch spent much of the night staring at the sky and wishing the impossible.
April 24, 1865
Morning was well on its way, when Scott woke even more confused than when he found he had slept in the buckboard. He was stiff from not having shifted throughout the night.
Wary, he looked around to find Murdoch at the fire and Johnny packing up the wagon.
“Good morning, Scott.” Murdoch greeted him with a smile. “Breakfast is ready, and once we’ve eaten, we’ll head out.”
Sitting up, Scott ran his fingers through his coarse hair. “Good morning, sir.” His throat felt dry and scratchy.
“Here, drink this.” Murdoch handed over a tin cup. “It’s a tea Maria and Consuela insist we pack any time we travel. It’s pretty good.”
After a cautious sip, Scott agreed. The brew had a pleasant, sweet flavor that soothed the throat.
“Can we eat?” Johnny approached the fire and grinned at Scott. “Didn’t think you were ever gonna wake up. I’m starvin’.”
“More growing to do?”
“Yep.” Johnny squatted down across the fire from Murdoch and turned to Scott, and asked, “So how was sleeping under the stars in the west? Any different than the east?”
“Oh, there are some differences.” He didn’t want to recall times when he couldn’t see the stars, and the reasons behind it. Shaking it off, he glanced up at the sun to judge the time, and discovered it was later than he thought. He was used to waiting for dawn to catch up to him. The constant state of tiredness had eased off, and he felt rested.
“This seems to suit me.” Scott accepted the tin plate Murdoch handed him.
“Scott, you will no doubt become annoyed with this question, and I’ll no doubt continue asking it anyway, but how do you feel?” Murdoch gave every indication that he would make up his own mind about Scott’s ability to travel. “We can camp here for a day or two. There’s no rush to return.”
Scott had dreaded hearing that question on a daily basis. Sometimes it wasn’t so much the question, but the emotion behind it. How often he wished he could have responded to his grandfather’s hopeful queries with a positive response, and not have it a lie.
Murdoch’s business-like approach made it a little easier.
“Better, sir.” Scott reveled in the fact that it was true.
“Good, good.” Murdoch sounded relieved. “Do you feel up to traveling today?”
“Yes, sir.” Scott was surprised to find he meant it. He was curious to see Lancer. As thankful as he was to discover this final leg of his journey more pleasant than what he had experienced thus far, he looked forward to staying in one place.
Out of the corner of his eye, Murdoch studied Scott and judged him improved from the previous day. Ten hours of solid sleep was no doubt the reason behind it, but this was just the beginning. He knew Scott wouldn’t have the stamina for long days of travel, and they had taken that into consideration when they estimated the trip home.
What was fortunate was Scott’s immediate improvement with rest and taking in nourishment. If he hadn’t been sleeping or eating, Scott was living on his body’s very low reserves.
Johnny started to speak, glanced at Murdoch and swallowed what he was chewing, and tugged at Scott’s sleeve. “We have to get you some new clothes.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Scott looked affronted.
“Well, that just ain’t the style.” Johnny waved a hand at Scott’s outfit.
“As indelicately as your brother put it, he’s right.” The tailored suits wouldn’t find much use on the ranch, and Scott would swelter in the summer months. “You’ll need more durable clothing. We’ll set you up once we arrive at Morro Coyo. No need to worry about it now.”
Mollified, Scott finished his meal. The portion was smaller than what Johnny and Murdoch had eaten, but it was more than Scott had consumed the night before.
After a cold, quick wash up, they packed and were once again on their way.
Scott found traveling by buckboard, with its padded seat, much more comfortable then rattling around in a stage stuffed full with other passengers and belongings that shifted and jolted from one stage stop to the next.
The country captivated Scott, and he enjoyed the journey, Jonah’s California soliloquy running through his mind. Jonah hadn’t exaggerated; if anything, he had understated the appeal of the wide-open spaces.
There was room to breathe.
He appreciated that neither Murdoch nor Johnny felt the need to fill the silence.
April 27, 1865
The days took on a routine. They kept at a steady pace, with brief stops for meals and to rest the horses. Only when Scott admitted that he couldn’t go further, did they stop for the night.
Each day they were able to travel longer. Murdoch talked about Lancer and the inhabitants, hoping the knowledge would help Scott to feel at ease once they did arrive.
Barranca and his rider pranced around the wagon, or bolted off in a sprint, burning off excess energy. Murdoch often caught Scott’s eyes riveted on Johnny and the horse. Murdoch would wonder what he was thinking, and questioned whether they would have that familial ease. He had a better understanding of Johnny, but he wasn’t arrogant enough to think he’d even scratched the surface.
Johnny was made up of misdirects and smiles. To Murdoch’s relief, his son seemed to want a relationship with him: At least for now.
Scott, well, Scott remained to be seen. He was full of “yes, sir; no. sir” with a polite way about him, but the tiny glimpses of fire showed he was made up of more than that. Murdoch couldn’t help wondering where his son’s thoughts traveled as he spent much of his time listening, and studying the countryside. There was a natural reserve to him that reminded Murdoch much of Catherine - a reserve that had hidden a wicked, dry sense of humor. He wondered if Scott carried that trait.
Murdoch was grateful Johnny was a part of the ‘making Scott better’ campaign, because if nothing else, Scott was curious about this unexpected younger brother.
Catching his sons studying each other off and on, Murdoch grasped the fact that if having a father after so many years wasn’t enough to keep them at Lancer, having a brother might be. Murdoch wasn’t fussy about how it happened, as long as he gained time to know them. Time was all he needed.
April 29, 1865
“I’ll ride ahead a ways, and find us a place to make camp.” Johnny reined Barranca along side the buckboard.
“Not too far. Stay in sight.”
The look Johnny gave Murdoch was a mix of incredulous, stubborn, and maybe a tinge of humor, like he wasn’t quite sure what to make of Murdoch.
Johnny nodded before galloping off.
It was one of the many little interactions that puzzled Scott, and he continued to mull over the relationship between his father and brother.
He didn’t think his curiosity would be satisfied any time soon.
April 30, 1865
Johnny took a turn in the buckboard with Scott, and they settled into a comfortable silence. Johnny had questions to ask, many in fact, but it didn’t feel right to bombard Scott during the trip. More like the thing to do in front of that big fireplace in the hacienda on a cold night.
He didn’t think Scott could handle even a friendly interrogation before he recovered his health. Scott no longer gave the impression of being halfway through death’s door, but he still wasn’t in any shape to take on more than eating and sleeping.
Likewise, Johnny wasn’t ready to have questions coming back at him. He’d learned early on not to talk about himself, not that it came up a lot, but it was a hard habit to break.
A gust of cool wind, strong enough to sweep his hat off his head and catch on the stampede strap around his neck, shook him out of his musings. Looked like they were in for a storm, and Murdoch was already heading off to a stand of scrubbish trees and rocks.
Nodding, Johnny agreed with riding out the storm in a protected location. Beside him, he could feel Scott huddling into his suit coat.
Murdoch, having dismounted, was waiting as Johnny guided the wagon into the sheltered corner amongst the boulders and pulled out their bedrolls. Looking to a darkening sky, Johnny set the brake, and leapt off the wagon to secure the tarp. Murdoch tossed the bedrolls beneath the wagon and tied down the tarp on his side. Scott reached over the seat to button up the front.
Scott was about to step down from the wagon on Johnny’s side when another strong wind kicked up. It was strong enough to startle the team into jerking the wagon and upsetting Scott’s precarious balance.
Darting to the front of the buckboard, Johnny placed his body to catch his brother as he tumbled out.
This is going to hurt, was Scott’s first resigned thought. Then Johnny was right there and reaching out, vivid blue eyes catching Scott’s own. Concerned. Determined.
Scott found that reassuring, but he could see that this wasn’t going to end well, and he didn’t want to hurt his new-found brother.
The choice was taken from him as another jerk of the wagon had him tripping out of the wagon and heading right for Johnny. They struck foreheads, and Scott saw stars while feeling Johnny’s arms and legs twisting into his own.
The landing knocked the wind out of him.
Grimacing, he blinked his eyes open to see Johnny doing the same. Johnny met his own gaze with such intensity that Scott was taken aback. His brother had an incredible presence for someone so young.
The worried expression changed when Johnny broke into laughter. Reaching out to touch the middle of Scott’s forehead. “I bet I have a matchin’ one.”
Scott understood a second later when he focused on the bright red spot on Johnny’s forehead. The ludicrous situation and Johnny’s contagious laughter startled a laugh out of Scott. Rusty and out of practice, it felt good all the same.
He heard Murdoch saying that they must be all right, and could feel his hesitant hands touching them.
Laughter dying down, Johnny grinned. “You think you can move your bony self offa me?”
Johnny called a spade a spade No pretense that all was well, or the cloying concern that allowed Scott nothing.
He liked his brother.
The storm announced itself with drenching rain, lightening, and thunder.
“Johnny, lay out Scott’s bedroll.” Murdoch’s large frame hovered over Scott to protect him from the worst of the cold rain.
Johnny scrambled underneath and pawed through their travel gear. Murdoch waited just long enough for the bedroll to be unrolled before he hustled Scott underneath the wagon. Scott crawled into the waiting warmth as Murdoch followed alongside. His six-foot-five frame didn’t care for the cramped quarters, but he propped himself up behind Scott’s back while Johnny shook out a blanket.
Feeling his son shiver, Murdoch reached across to catch up one side of the blanket and drape it over Scott. Johnny edged closer as Scott drew his legs up to his chest. Familiar with Johnny’s aversion to the cold, Murdoch made certain his younger son was covered as well.
Scott had looked over his shoulder, startled when Murdoch added his own blanket to the mix.
“No, sir, you’ll need it.”
Finished with arranging the blanket, he moved in close to Scott’s back to buffer him even further from the cold.
“My jacket is enough.” Murdoch tugged Johnny in closer. “Just… humor me.”
The words were mild, but with some indefinable emotion. Scott looked away only to meet Johnny’s conflicted gaze. Scott raised his brows, and gave a mental shrug. Johnny must have picked up on it as his own expression eased.
“Might as well take a siesta, Boston.” Johnny wiggled to get comfortable and tucked the blanket under his chin. “We’re not goin’ anywhere for few hours.”
Scott smiled, felt Murdoch’s warmth behind him, and decided this visit was so much more than he had expected when he had run away from Boston.
A siesta sounded fine, and Scott dropped his head to rest on an arm not his own. The noise of the storm seemed far away, and that was the last he heard as he drifted off into a deep sleep.
Johnny thought of puppies he had seen long ago. They’d play and play and just stop, dropping to sleep wherever they had landed. He wondered if Scott was always like this or if it was caused by his poor health.
His brother did know how to laugh, and remembering Scott’s deep, unrestrained laugh from before, he was a man that should do it often. There was something there, covered up by politeness, that Johnny suspected hid the brother he should have grown up with. He’d like to meet him, and for that brief moment, Johnny thought he had. Kinda scared him. It was one thing to be curious and want to meet his brother, but he hadn’t thought ahead to what it would be like. He had worried about Scott’s reaction to him, but not the other way around.
He couldn’t make sense of it.
He watched Murdoch use his large hand to brush Scott’s hair off of his forehead, and recalled near awakening moments when he felt that same hand.
Johnny looked so young.
“It was good to hear him laugh.” Murdoch smiled, smoothing out the blanket. “You’re good at bringing laughter out in people, Johnny, and I think Scott’s had too little of it.”
Johnny ducked his head down, and Murdoch’s smile grew. This son wasn’t use to praise, but Murdoch would see to it that Johnny had plenty of practice.
Murdoch and Johnny dosed off and on when the rain settled into a gentle, steady pace.
Watching Johnny sleep brought Murdoch back to days long ago when he would sit in his baby’s room to watch him sleep. After a hard day, he could relax and know that this was the reason for the long hours and the rough work of building the ranch. During those nights, he’d also dream of bringing his older son home to take his rightful place as Johnny’s big brother.
How strange that he’d come close to that dream under a buckboard in a rainstorm. Murdoch wasn’t picky how it was achieved; he had hope that his sons would come to love Lancer and what it represented as much as he did.
Scott woke with start, coming out a troubling dream. He’d had it before, and it was one that always left him feeling off balance. Never really remembering it when he woke, he was left with the feeling of anxiety and that he was failing in some way.
He became aware that someone was speaking to him.
“You’re safe, Scott. Are you awake?”
A hand was running through his hair, and he was acutely aware that even his hair was brittle and coarse. If it hadn’t felt so good, he would have pushed the hand away.
Blinking, he focused on his father’s face. “I’m all right, sir.”
That was even true. He felt toasty warm and rested. The rain had stopped and the air smelled fresh and clean. Looking around, he noticed that Johnny was no longer under the wagon.
“Johnny’s taking care of the horses and tack. If you’re up to it, we’ll head out soon.”
Easing himself up, Scott nodded. “I’m ready.”
“We’ll eat as we ride.” Murdoch looked as if he was about to say something else, but hesitated.
“What is on your mind, sir?”
Murdoch studied his face, for what Scott had no idea, but he seemed to come to a decision.
“I want to get you home. We’re in for more weather like this, and I would prefer not to see you in it. You’ve already improved, Scott, and I don’t want to lose what ground you’ve gained.”
Seeing where this was going, Scott nodded. “You want to ride through.”
“Yes. We’ll make the needed stops, but they’ll be kept to minimum. If we do this, we can be back at Lancer in a few days.”
Craving the idea of his long journey coming to an end, Scott was willing to forgo the stops. “I’d like that, sir.”
With the gentle smile that was now familiar to Scott, Murdoch rested a hand on his shoulder. “Good. However, if you’re not feeling well, I expect you to tell me. ”
So much had changed in a few weeks, and he wanted to push away the more troubling thoughts and conserve his energy for the physical demands during the trip. But it was difficult to ignore his grandfather’s revelation that his father had wanted him.
Too many years believing his father blamed him for his mother’s death was hard to give up. Part of him wanted to ask Murdoch about his mother, but wasn’t sure he was ready for the answer.
No, he had to let that go for now. When he was well, and for the first time in a long time, he thought that was possible, then he would ask those questions. If he didn’t like the answers, he would be physically capable of leaving and the choice was his alone.
“Ready, Brother?” Scott realized he had been so lost in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed Johnny’s approach.
Nodding, Scott climbed into the buckboard. Everything was damp and the cushion that had been on the seat was sitting in the back to dry off. But one of the blankets was folded up to offer some comfort against the hard wood. Murdoch handed out jerky for all of them before he sat down beside Scott.
Swinging up on Barranca, Johnny was riding bareback while the saddles sat in the back of the buckboard to dry out. With a “whoop” his brother and Barranca were off kicking up clods of earth, both exhilarated by the thrill of the run.
Jerky forgotten, Scott was enthralled as he watched the two of them for long minutes. For wondrous seconds he was back in time when he and his mount were flying over stretches of green.
It brought him back to the bitter memory of the last time he was on horse, and the loss was as painful as it was over a year ago. He wanted to change his last memory of riding to something joyous and pain free.
Taking a deep breath, he blew it out slowly and settled into that place of patience that kept him sane.
He’d feel that again one day.
The following hours ran together for Scott. They stopped when they needed to, but kept going through the day and night. The weather was cooler and he kept one of the blankets wrapped around him to ward off the chill.
Murdoch was always beside him whenever he was tired, and more than once he woke to find the man’s arm holding him. Scott just accepted that he was going to sleep when his body wanted it, which was better than the insomnia he had suffered in the past.
They traveled in silence, only speaking when needed. Scott could see that both Murdoch and Johnny were ready to be home.
May 2, 1865
In spite of the storm, they made steady progress, and stopped just before sunset.
Sitting with his back against a rock, Scott had watched as the sun had finished its descent. Jonah hadn’t exaggerated when he had spoken of the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets tangling with the distant mountains and hills.
Scott would never take such things for granted ever again. There was something to be said for having the freedom to walk outside at any point to look at the sky.
“Scott, food’s ready.” If it wasn’t for the spurs Johnny wore, Scott was sure he wouldn’t hear him coming.
“Thank you, Johnny.” Scott accepted his brother’s offered hand and was pulled to his feet. He felt stronger these days, but his muscles still had a way of stiffening whenever he was immobile for any length of time.
“I did some of the cookin’ so you may want to wait with your thanks.”
Glancing at his brother, Scott smiled. “I have a feeling you do just fine.”
Ducking his head, Johnny murmured, “Maybe, but I’m out of practice since Murdoch has folks that take of the cookin’ and the hacienda.” Looking up, he grinned. “Spoils a body havin’ things done for ‘em.”
Thinking of how his grandfather had raised him, Scott had no doubt that Johnny would surmise that Scott had been ‘spoiled’ throughout his childhood. It made him wonder, not for the first time, what Johnny’s life was like before Murdoch had brought him to Lancer.
Murdoch was already dishing out the food when they sat down at the fire. As usual, he handed Scott his plate first.
The scent of the food wafted up to his nose.
Murdoch was handing Johnny his plate, when even with the poor light of the fire, he saw Scott blanch and drop his plate before scrambling away to retch behind some scrub bushes.
With both of them still gripping Johnny’s plate, they exchanged troubled and confused looks before Johnny said, “I thought he’d at least taste my cookin’ before gettin’ sick.”
The humor couldn’t hide Johnny’s concern from Murdoch, and of accord, they set the plate down before hurrying to Scott’s side.
Scott was bent at the waist, gripping a rock to stay on his feet even as he finished, but Murdoch wrapped a supporting arm around his middle anyway. Johnny hovered close by.
“It’s completely different,” Scott kept repeating .
“Scott?” Murdoch kept his tone soft as used his free hand to rub his son’s trembling back.
Scott stiffened in his hold and with visible effort gathered himself.
“I’m sorry.” Scott wouldn’t look at either of them.
“Are you ill?” Murdoch knew even as he asked it didn’t quite ring true.
“No, sir.” Scott’s voice shook.
They guided Scott back to the fire, but he balked when they moved closer.
“Johnny, move the food away.” Murdoch tightened his hold around Scott’s waist.
Without a word at the strange request, Johnny moved their supper well away from the fire. He poured some water into one of the tin cups before heading back to them.
“Here, swish.” Johnny handed the cup to Scott.
With an unsteady hand, Scott accepted the cup and took a large swallow to rinse out his mouth before spitting it out in the dust behind them. He did it a second time before he let them bring him back to the fire to sit down.
“Scott?” Murdoch wanted an explanation, but wasn’t sure how to ask for one.
“I’m fine now, sir.”
That wasn’t convincing. Murdoch was at loss as to how to help his son, or how to encourage him to reveal what had caused this adverse reaction to the food.
Johnny didn’t have the same problem.
“Fine doesn’t have you heavin’ in the bushes.” He crossed his arms. “I’m goin’ to feel all insulted that my cookin’ caused this.”
Scott turned his head to look at his brother. “No, please don’t think that. It was just…” He stopped.
“It was just what?”
“It’s completely different.” Scott scowled as he looked away again, but Murdoch was sure it wasn’t from Johnny’s question.
Johnny shared a helpless look with Murdoch.
Murdoch felt Scott drift away even as he spoke. “We had mix of corn and corn cob every day, made it into what I would term generously as bread. I know it is completely different from the…”
“Tortillas.” Johnny sat down on his heels.
“It seems that I am not ready to face corn in any form yet.”
“Alright, no corn.” Johnny shrugged it off.
No, no corn, Murdoch thought. “Scott, is there other food that you might find… unpalatable?”
Sighing, Scott met his eyes for the first time since this started. “No, I don’t believe so. The variety of foodstuffs was minimal, and I haven’t come across spoiled food since I returned.”
Compassion mixed with Murdoch’s horror at what his son had endured. He had theorized, prayed, that Scott’s loss of weight had to do with illness, only to discover that his son had spent a year starving to death. He shuddered at how close they had come to Scott never making it home.
“I believe I’ll retire for the evening. I’m more tired than I thought.” Scott sounded more like himself, but brittle.
With regret, Murdoch concluded that there were memories that would haunt Scott, and as a father he didn’t know how to help. In the short time he had known Scott, Murdoch knew his son was a private individual who wasn’t going to offer up difficult information.
“Johnny, go eat,” Murdoch urged, once Scott had drifted off.
“Murdoch…” Johnny turned away, and Murdoch squeezed his shoulder.
“I know. Come on.”
“Ain’t gonna taste too good now, is it?”
“Afraid not.” Murdoch ruffled Johnny’s hair, and was given a half-hearted swat in return. But the blue eyes were lighter, and Murdoch counted it a small victory.
May 3, 1865
Johnny was impatient to return home. He had an unreasonable, and he knew it was unreasonable, expectation that Lancer would fix Scott. Figured Lancer had filled in a few holes and cracks that Johnny carried, maybe it would work the same with his brother.
To work off the impatience, he and Barranca ranged ahead, checked their route, and then returned back to the buckboard to make routing decisions with Murdoch. His father must have felt the same way since he didn’t call Johnny back or suggest he stay close.
Scott? Well, Scott was lost in his thoughts and memories, and not good ones. Oh, he did the usual chit-chat, enough so a body might think that he was fine, but Johnny knew a put on when he saw one, and Scott was putting one on.
His brother brought a heap of questions with him that neither Murdoch nor Johnny could ask yet.
Didn’t mean Johnny didn’t plan on asking them later.
May 4, 1865
Scott remembered long ago days when he believed his father would come to visit, and how he imagined that meeting would go. He had created several scenarios, but was certain he had left out falling asleep at the drop of a hat and heaving in the vegetation.
He could now claim to have left his mark in the West.
Grandfather would be proud.
May 5, 1865
He was bringing his sons home.
The accumulation of over a decade of dreams, plans, and hopes, Murdoch repeated that simple statement over in his mind. He’d never tire of it.
Barring any unforeseen difficulties, they would arrive home tomorrow. Murdoch pondered on Johnny’s behavior until he finally comprehended that Johnny was eager to return home. There were many times in the past several months that he doubted Johnny would stay at Lancer, much less look forward to returning.
All the frustration and worry, as an out of practice father, dimmed in his memory after this discovery. Oh, he knew his younger son would continue to surprise him, and there were other hard days ahead, but bad or good he would take it and enjoy every single moment.
Glancing to Scott, huddled next to him, the worry and concern flooded back. The last few days of travel had worn his son down, and though Scott never complained or asked for any consideration, Murdoch suspected Scott was holding on by stubbornness alone.
Troubled, Murdoch speculated that compared to what his older son had survived in the last couple of years, this hardly ranked as discomfort.
Murdoch wanted to talk with Scott about his experiences and help in any way he could, but was certain that any details his son provided would occur only by happenstance. Scott and Johnny shared that trait, and if Murdoch was honest, he was guilty of the same.
Already he had a list of things to do to promote Scott’s health and well-being. He needed Sam to assume Scott’s medical care, and the doctor’s counsel on what to expect. Consuela and Maria would also be involved to plan simple meals, and to watch for any other triggers like corn. He would talk with Paul about creating a comfortable outdoor space to allow Scott to convalesce in fresh air, but away from curious eyes.
And Johnny. The brothers needed time to become just that. There were fifteen years missing as siblings that they would never make up, but Murdoch believed it was possible for them to form a relationship.
It was already clear that Johnny had an unobtrusive way of handling Scott that Murdoch wouldn’t share. They had a clean slate, and there was enough curiosity on both sides to move beyond strangers.
With Murdoch, they each had to work through discarding the lies they had been told by their respective guardians to learn who their father truly was. Johnny still struggled with Maria’s dishonesty.
And what had Harlan told Scott?
Years of letters and small gifts had gone unacknowledged. Were they received and ignored? Why had Scott responded to Murdoch’s invitation this time?
His relationship with his older son was tenuous at best. Murdoch forced his impatience aside to wait until Scott was physically and mentally able to work through their convoluted kinship.
Taking in a deep breath, Murdoch relaxed his mind and concentrated on the pleasure of traveling this last day with his sons. There was time to work on the rest later.
He was bringing his sons home.
May 6, 1865
The sun was setting when Johnny rode ahead to the hill overlooking Lancer. He’d seen this sight before, but it was different now with the hope that Scott would see it like Johnny did.
Waiting for the buckboard to come up beside him, Johnny exchanged a quick glance with Murdoch. Appeared he wasn’t the only one who felt there was a lot riding on Scott’s first impression of Lancer.
Murdoch set the brake, and Scott rose, the forgotten blanket sliding from his shoulders. Johnny figured Scott had forgotten about the two of them.
After a minute or two, Murdoch said, “Teresa calls this the most beautiful place in the whole wide world. I’ve always agreed.”
Johnny had never admitted it, but he thought so too.
Scott registered Murdoch’s words, as he studied the large white house and smaller outbuildings nestled in the thriving valley. He couldn’t speak; Lancer was beautiful and different from anything he had seen before.
Conflicted, he struggled to identify the pull the place had on him. He wasn’t ready to put it to words yet; scared to do so, but that didn’t stop the thought from racing through his mind.
Continues in Concludere