Warnings/Spoilers: References bits and pieces of the series. Indulgence of clichés, hurt/comfort, and cute cowboys.
Not ours, no profit, etc. This is just for fun.
Summary: A What Happened Next for the end of the series. Sequel to Waiting.
Thanks to mags_205 for the beta, and the beta, and the beta.:)
“Hey, pretty lady.”
Teresa, wrist deep in bread dough, looked over her shoulder. Lew Marsh, leaning against the doorjamb, the picture of equanimity, grinned when their eyes met.
She blew a stray hair away from her face. “Back already?”
“Already?” He straightened. “I’ve been out to the southwest range since before the sun rose.”
“It’s not even suppertime yet.”
“Lady, you wound me.” Lew’s hand went over his heart. “Toil from sunrise to sunset, and no kind words from one such as yourself.”
Pulling her hands out of the dough, Teresa wiped them on a towel. “Jack’s been reading to you again.”
“Pretty good yarns out of those books, I gotta say.”
Teresa smiled. Jack, with his baritone, made an excellent narrator. “What do you need Lew?”
“Seeing your lovely face is enough.”
“Lew.” Charm and Lew went hand in hand. She admitted that. Nor would she the first to fall for it. Since his arrival, she watched as the newest ranch hand cut a wide swath through the female population, young and old.
The grin reappeared lighting up his handsome features. “Need to run an errand. Won’t be back in time for supper.” He put on a woebegone face. “I’m starving now.”
She laughed. “I’ll pack you a sandwich.”
Half-listening to Lew’s chatter, Teresa made up the sandwich, then watched him ride off to his errand, whistling. She watched until the man and the tune faded in the distance.
Eldersen, Lew decided, was an unsettling sort. He quivered a little when those icy grey eyes turned his way. Didn’t look natural the way he never blinked.
“You have news for me, Mr. Marsh?”
Lew dismounted, cognizant of Eldersen’s dislike of peering up at the help. For the money, Lew could deal with the attitude. He joined his employer by the campfire.
“Lancer’s sons left this morning.”
“Thank you, Mr. Marsh.” Eldersen sipped from the cup then tossed the rest into the fire shaking out the grounds. “Make sure the men are ready. We’re about to have guests. I insist their stay is memorable.”
Curiosity getting the better of him, Lew dared to ask. “What do have against them?”
“They’re just a means to an end.”
Eldersen - a stone cold bastard. No doubt about it.
Murdoch Lancer pounded the metal, the hinge noticeably in worse shape then when he started. His frustration apparent to all the ranch hands, as there wasn’t a man in sight.
“Done makin’ a mess of that yet?”
Murdoch gave a few more bone jarring whacks at the metal with the hope Jelly would leave. Didn’t know why he should ever expect that, though. Jelly Hoskins lacked a crucial amount of self-preservation.
“You more angry that those boys of yours have opinions, or that they match you stubborn for stubborn?”
A strike hard enough to rattle his teeth.
“Kind of quiet around here without ‘em.”
Murdoch tossed the hammer down glaring at the handyman. Jelly merely hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, waiting.
“Jelly, don’t you have something that needs to be done? I recall handing out a list earlier today.” Murdoch’s teeth ground together.
“Phftt. It’ll get done when it gets done. More interestin’ to see you take your mad on some innocent iron.”
Murdoch managed to stop a growl from leaving his throat. Instead, took a deep calming breath to prevent saying anything that would make the situation worse.
Jelly, as usual, took advantage of any silence to fill it. “Boss, you know if you keep this up you’re going to be sore tomorrow. How’s that goin’ to make anythin’ better?”
“Jelly…” Murdoch deflated - hated that the man made sense.
“Come on inside. Teresa’s got some lemonade made.” Jelly’s hands dropped down to his sides. “Reckon you could do with a glass or two about now.”
“I don’t need looking after.”
“You know Teresa doesn’t like it when the family is at odds.” Jelly used that chiding tone that Murdoch could do without. “Might do you all good to ‘member that.”
Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. Jelly visibly wound up again.
“I’m wonderin’ if yer more upset that yer boys are wantin’ to change things or that they teamed up against ya?”
Murdoch fought the urge to punch the man. Some truths he didn’t want to face. This ranked high on the list. The united front his sons had presented irritated him. Yet, he admired these men for whom he had had no part in raising. In all ways they seemed as opposite as their mothers had been, but at the core, similar. He had heard more than once that they were Lancers through and through.
He’d smile at the comment - couldn’t help the inward burst of pride. They were his boys. So why did it bother him so much to see them want more for Lancer? Did he feel threatened? The very idea unsettled him, causing him to wonder if he had fought alone for so long that he didn’t know how to stop.
Even against his sons.
Murdoch followed Jelly into the house, where Teresa greeted him with a bright smile, belied by the concern in her eyes.
He wished for something stronger than lemonade.
“You poach a bottle of Murdoch’s scotch?”
A gloved hand drifted down to pat-pat a saddlebag; Johnny grinned at Scott’s relaxed back.
“You pack a bottle of tequila?”
“With the limes and salt.”
Scott looked over his shoulder with a wide grin, and slowed his mount to allow Johnny to draw alongside.
“I’d say we have it covered.”
“Figured we’d better since we have two nights.” Johnny laughed. “I think the ol’ man was just as ready for us to leave as we were to do the leaving.”
“Only fair given the fact that he lived many years without his offspring. He probably needed the break just as much.”
“I think Angus’ double dealing hit him hard.” Johnny grimaced, recalling Murdoch’s face when he heard of McGovern’s plot to steal Lancer. “Harder than he wants to admit.”
“Understandable.” Scott tipped his hat back, giving Johnny a sideways look. “You might want to ease off on the hands a little. They’re jumpy right now.”
Johnny snorted, shaking his head. “If we weren’t so short handed, I would’ve sent them all packing.”
“I agree, but we do need them. That’s not saying we have to trust them.”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Murdoch holds a reputation for top wages and fair, equal treatment to all hands.”
“Then how is it we tend to lose hands once it gets really tough? Except for a core group, a lot of them are from Murdoch’s original eighteen, we have’em comin’ and goin’. Makes me wonder.”
As Scott looked off to the horizon, Johnny suspected that he hadn’t brought up anything that his brother hadn’t thought of already.
“I don’t know what the answer is. It’s time we looked into it.”
“Fine by me. Are we going to bring this up with Murdoch?” Scott’s face grew pensive. Johnny tilted his head to the side. “Maybe not.”
Scott shook his head. “While these last couple of weeks have been contentious –” he paused at Johnny’s snort. “I don’t feel comfortable keeping our concerns from him.”
“That’ll prove interesting.” Johnny rubbed a hand over his stomach as it let him know that lunch was some time ago. “You’ve been pushing at him kind of hard. Not usually your way.”
“It would have taken very little to bring Lancer to its knees. That’s been proven more times than I’m comfortable with. Murdoch has diversified. We need to do more.”
“Fruit and nut trees? That’ll take some getting used to.”
“Others have done it and with much success.”
“Hey, no argument. I’d just as soon never see that look on Murdoch’s face again. Whatever we can to avoid that has my vote.” He shook the image loose of a man about to lose everything he’d worked years for. “Might do you some good to talk about what’s chewing on you lately.”
“Thought we just did.”
“Some of it. I’m talking about the other something. What happened twenty-some years ago something.”
“Last time I tried, he pushed it aside.”
“Harlan was here then. Murdoch - he might be more willing now.”
“As much as I’d like to set things right with him, I’m not sure this is the time.”
“Don’t think there’s ever a perfect time.”
Scott pushed his hat off his forehead. “True. What about you?”
What about him? “I’m not sure I’ll like the answers.”
Scott gave a humorless laugh. “I’m sure I won’t.”
“Hate to put him through that.”
“Hence the reason we haven’t had this conversation yet.”
“Murdoch may not tell us everything, but we know he doesn’t lie.”
They rode in silence until Johnny’s stomach protested, loud enough this time that Scott grinned over at him.
“Can you wait a little longer?”
Looking at the late afternoon sun, Johnny sighed. “I hope the line cabin is in decent shape so we don’t spend hours cleaning before we can eat.”
“Cyrus and Benicio were the last ones there.”
Neither of the two hands was known for their housekeeping skills. At his groan, Scott laughed. Johnny glared. “You want to cook in that mess?”
“We’ll – ” A whip crack of a rifle and the bay exploded with a scream slamming into Barranca. Another shot. Scott pitched off to the right; the panicked bay bolted.
Barranca turned on a dime, powerful muscles bunching underneath Johnny as he lay over his horse’s neck. Scott lunged to his feet, catching Johnny’s outstretched arm around the wrist and propelled himself up and behind Johnny.
A third shot kicked up dust ahead of them causing the palomino to recoil, pivoting to plunge down the nearby arroyo. Scott’s arm tightened around Johnny’s waist as they both fought to keep their seat.
Teeth-rattling, bone-jarring, heads knocking hard enough to see stars, they hung on as Barranca slewed down the steep slope. Johnny’s breath left as Barranca buckled. The stubborn palomino righted himself, finishing by sliding into the arroyo’s sandy bottom.
Scott slid loose limbed from behind to fall to his knees, body hunched over. Blood soaked the white shirt in back at an alarming rate.
Hat gone, blonde hair awry, Scott tilted his head, his look of utter disgust made Johnny blink.
“I have never been shot off a horse as much as I have in California, and this from a Cavalry officer who fought in the War.”
“You must bring it out of folks.” Johnny crouched down to look at the damage, pulling out a handkerchief. “Got you high in the shoulder. Was good you moved when you did.”
“Yes, fortunate.” Scott hissed as Johnny applied pressure to the bleeding wound, packing it with a bandana. “No exit.”
Johnny suspected as much. Blood was noticeable only on Scott’s back. Since he had no doubt who ever shot at them would like to finish the job, they couldn’t stay to deal with digging out a bullet.
“Try for the line cabin?”
Scott nodded, lifting his good arm for assistance. “You make anyone angry lately?”
Johnny ducked under the offered arm and straightened, pulling Scott to his feet. “Too busy for that. Can’t even remember the last time I was in town for something besides business. You?”
“The same. I don’t know of anything Murdoch has done lately that would cause this. Are we dealing with common bushwhackers?” Scott tightened his hold on Johnny’s shoulder.
“Well, if they are, they’re trespassin’.”
“Mention that when we meet up.”
Scott wobbled, but locked his knees steadying himself with a grip on Johnny’s jacket. He glanced over to the palomino. “He looks sound.”
“Yeah, just a bit winded. All the same to you, I think we’ll just walk out of here. We may need him for the distance later.”
Scott nodded, made to take a step - wavered. Johnny stepped in closer, sliding an arm around his waist.
“Let’s find better cover. See what we can do about that hole of yours.” Barranca’s reins in one hand, a fistful of Scott’s shirt in the other, they started their careful way through the rocky arroyo.
“Whoever that was - isn’t done.” Scott kept his voice low. “Could have shot you as well. Easily.”
“Yeah, I thought about that.”
Scott’s deep sigh reverberated through to Johnny. “No ordinary bushwhacker then. We couldn’t do ordinary?”
“We’re extraordinary.” Johnny firmed up his grip around Scott, he quickened their pace, not wanting to give their assailant time for more target practice. Scott kept up with him; his fingers digging into Johnny’s shoulder the only sign that it was getting more difficult for him.
Spotting a game trail working its way up out of the arroyo, Johnny headed for it. Boulders surrounded the trail. While nothing was ideal at this point, it was better than anything he had seen so far. The trail wound its way up the mesa. He’d be able to work his way up enough to possibly spot their bushwhacker.
“Think you can find him?” Scott’s eyes squinted as he looked up the track.
“Like to give it a try.”
They scrabbled up the incline; at the halfway point Scott half fell against a rock face with a grunt. Rummaging in his saddlebags, Johnny yanked out one of his extra shirts, tore it into strips and repacked the wound, securing it. Scott winced, but drew his gun free from the holster.
“Go. I’m fine.” He settled against the rock.
Given the lack better choices, Johnny didn’t waste time arguing. Pulling out his rifle, he checked to see if it was loaded. Scrambling up the trail, his gut warned him that they hadn’t seen the worst of it yet.
Gunfire echoed in the distance. Eldersen lifted his chin, reveling in the satisfaction of months of careful planning coming to fruition. Murdoch Lancer would find no sleep tonight.
The thought made him smile.
Johnny cursed. Bushwhackers. Plural. As in three doing a handy job of corralling Lancers. He sat high enough to see a man on horseback catching up Scott’s mount. His suspicion that this wasn’t about horse stealing confirmed when the man gave the horse a solid whack on the rump, sending the animal in the direction of Lancer.
Bushwhacker number two was about a quarter mile behind them. Johnny figured him for the one who shot Scott. Number three was ahead of them, about the same amount of distance, waiting.
Johnny sidled down the trail back to Scott, who took one look at his face and grimaced.
“I saw three.”
Johnny watched as his brother’s agile mind came to the same conclusions that he had.
“Out of range?”
“Yep. Sent your horse runnin’ back to the ranch.”
Scott’s jaw clenched. Johnny leaned the rifle against the boulder, and checked the wound. Hadn’t bled through; yet. Figured that was just a matter of time. They were being hemmed in, herded, and their attackers wanted them aware of it.
“One of them is in our way?” Scott shifted, wincing at Johnny’s ministrations.
As Johnny gentled his touch, he did the same with his anger. “Yep.”
“Most likely they know where we’re headed.”
Johnny wiped his hands off on his thighs. “Most likely.”
Scott made a frustrated noise in the back of this throat. “This is turning out to be a troublesome day.”
“Well, I don’t intend on making it any easier for them.” Johnny picked up the rifle.
“Even our odds.” Scott reached for the weapon. Johnny hesitated, but handed it over. Scott cradled the rifle in his bad arm, tucking the extra ammunition his shirt pocket.
“Figure that one north of us first. Get ourselves closer. More cover that way at least. I’m going to work myself around. Flush him out. Maybe see if there are more of ‘em.” Johnny ground-tied Barranca, studying his brother.
Scott stopped short of rolling his eyes, pushing off the rock he was leaning against. “Go on. I can get myself in position.”
“There’s a jumble of boulders. You’ll see three piled together. He popped up around ‘em.”
“Good enough. Take care.”
“You too.” Johnny grinned. Scott gave a nod, starting up the trail Johnny had just come down from.
Grin disappearing, Johnny watched Scott’s careful ascent - vowing silently to meet up with the hombre who had made that shot.
Out of breath, shoulder throbbing in time with his heartbeat, Scott reached Johnny’s vantage point. Looking south first, a trail of dust confirmed his former mount was hightailing it back to Lancer. The animal was notorious for running home at the first opportunity, which begged the question of whether their bushwhackers knew of that horse’s particular tendency.
Somehow, he thought they might.
No sign of their attackers. No sign of Johnny either. Not that he expected to see his brother. He’d show when he wanted to.
A faint game trail headed north, Scott followed it. He was good with a rifle, but he wouldn’t mind getting closer to back Johnny, who he knew was edging toward incaution to get them out of this mess.
Well aware that he was moving a little quicker than he should if he wanted to remain unheard, unseen, Johnny ignored discretion. Scott would push himself as hard as he had to. Johnny wouldn’t do less.
With Scott’s horse high-tailin’ it for home, Murdoch would know soon that his sons were in trouble. He’d come running. The last thing Johnny wanted was to have Murdoch right in the middle of this. Whatever this was.
The sound of a boot scraping rock had him twisting, throwing himself behind a boulder as a gun fired. Instinct had Johnny moving up and around the shooter before either of them realized what he planned to do.
Alarmed, the shooter dived for better cover, only to be distracted by Scott’s rifle shot pinging a hair’s breath away from his head. Johnny didn’t waste his advantage, taking grim satisfaction watching the bushwhacker reel off the side of the mesa.
Handy to have a sharpshooter for a brother.
Scott’s vision grayed, nausea hitting him hard. For a panic-stricken moment, he feared passing out, and prayed the bullet wouldn’t shift again. Knees wanting to give, he hardly registered his stumbling trek back to Barranca. Their enemies would converge on them fast. Meeting up with Johnny and finding better cover was paramount given Scott’s inadequate coverage for Johnny. He couldn’t fire a rifle again.
A shadow shifted by Barranca.
Johnny ran full out. Scott had given his position away. They both knew it would happen if he fired. Not the best plan, nor did they have the luxury of coming up with a better one.
They didn’t know near enough. His fear that once they did it would be far too late to do anything about it. So he ran, muscles straining as he pounded over the mesa. Gunfire caused him to stumble - it wasn’t Scott’s rifle.
A shadow moved, coalescing into a figure. Scott dropped barreling into the man’s legs. He paid for his desperation when the deafening crack of the weapon by his ear sent his head spinning.
Cursing, his assailant had gone head over heels and now scrambled to his feet. Scott twisted on his back, bringing his rifle to bear on his opponent. Bracing the stock between his elbow and side, Scott fired. With a yelp, the man fell back.
Too late, Scott saw another’s boot coming at him. The kick plowed into his wounded shoulder, pain erupted, weakening every muscle. His attacker ripped the rifle from his numb hands.
Then Johnny was there, throwing himself on the second attacker. Scott struggled to his feet, fighting to stay conscious.
Johnny’s momentum propelled him right into the figure aiming a rifle down at Scott. He bent low tackling the man around the waist. They hit the ground hard. Johnny had seen three. He heard one moaning, rolling around on the ground. Another dead. Johnny grabbed a fistful of the third man’s hair, slamming his head into the ground.
Knew there was at least one more when pain exploded in the back of his skull. He toppled face first into the dirt, tasting dust.
“Dammit, this one’s wounded. You couldn’t bring him down without getting shot?!” a voice growled. “Of all the incompetent…”
Murdoch knew the rest of the day was due to follow his less than stellar morning when he heard shouting. He looked out the French doors to see a couple of hands attempting to catch the horse he saw Scott ride out on this morning.
The note stating that it was ‘his turn to know loss’ only clinched it. He crumpled the paper within his fist.
Loss was an old, despised friend.
Johnny woke to darkness. So dark, he didn’t know his location. Feeling around, he encountered wood, and more wood walls until his left hand swept over the floor to bump into cloth and bare skin. Fumbling, Johnny recognized the wrist his fingers wrapped around.
Shunting aside panic, he spread his hand over Scott’s chest willing it to move. Sagged with relief at the steady rise and fall beneath his palm.
Beyond the dark, Johnny heard voices. A soft murmur or two, but couldn’t identify words. His head throbbed while his ears rang. Couldn’t focus; couldn’t even sit up, knowing he’d vomit if he did. Dizzy, he curled up, resting his head on his arm. Listening to Scott’s soft breathing beside him, Johnny fell asleep.
Teresa remained by the doorway, watching her guardian stare out into the night. Past midnight, she knew Murdoch wouldn’t sleep. He wouldn’t until Scott and Johnny were home. There wasn’t anything anyone could say or do to change it. She always wondered how one was suppose to do that anyway. Her own mind whirled with unwanted possibilities and much wanted hopes. Hope had failed her in the past. She would like it to stand this time.
Murdoch glanced down as she sidled up to him. Without a word he wrapped his arm around her. Teresa was grateful for the lack of platitudes. Murdoch knew she had heard them all and had no use for them. On that, they were in perfect agreement.
Beside Johnny, Scott moved restlessly. While sitting in the dark with only his own troubled thoughts for company made him twitchy, Johnny couldn’t help but wish Scott would remain unconscious. Their accommodations were less than ideal for a wounded man. Johnny had explored their surroundings as much as his head would allow. His big finds were a water bucket and a dented tin cup.
The murmur of voices outside their prison didn’t bode well for Lancers either.
Keeping his tone soft to avoid alerting their attackers that he was awake, Johnny whispered Scott’s name. No response. A few gentle shakes achieved what speaking hadn’t when he heard a soft groan.
“Hey, hey, quiet now. Bad guys are here.”
Silence, then. “Where’s here?”
“Don’t know. Too dark to tell.” Johnny dipped the cup into the water bucket.
“You all right?”
“Came to a while ago. Head aches some, otherwise fine. You?”
“Everything aches some.” Johnny heard Scott’s boots scuff the rough floor and helped him to lean against the wall. “Can’t do much help to you, Johnny.”
Thankful for the dark, Johnny didn’t hide his grimace, pressing the cup into Scott’s hand.
“Drink. You still bleedin’?”
He heard Scott gulp the water down, then a rustling sound - Scott’s arm brushed Johnny’s leg.
“No, but I did plenty earlier. Messy by the feel of it. Still damp so we haven’t been out long.” Scott voice took on a sardonic edge. “Looks like our hosts want us alive. Someone removed the bullet and bandaged me up.”
“Not much of a comfort.” Johnny shifted to his knees. “Like to know where we are. Place feels like I should know."
“There’s a wall beside me.”
“Yeah, small place.” Scent memory gave him the answer.” We’re in the storage room at the line shack. Always smelled like that molasses Vic dumped all over the floor.” The cup pressed against Johnny’s stomach. He dipped it into the bucket.
“They cleared it out for us. Thoughtful.”
“There’s more than three.” Johnny returned the cup to Scott’s hands. “One’s dead, one wounded. There are two others that I know of.”
“I’m flattered. Must have heard we were extraordinary.”
Johnny grinned at the very dry remark, but sobered. “Murdoch will come.”
“I’d just as soon he didn’t have to save the day.”
“They’ve set up a meeting at Lawson’s creek. Not sure what time, but it sounds like one of ‘em left for it. Murdoch is to wait there until someone arrives. Didn’t catch the name.”
“Lawson’s creek? That’s at least a couple hours from here. Any plans about us?”
“None that I heard.”
“If we were to make to that meeting wouldn’t we be moving by now? Dawn can’t be that far off.”
“Don’t think it is. From the sounds of it, Murdoch’s already on his way.”
Johnny stiffened hearing a noise from beyond their small prison, feeling Scott tense beside him. The door swung open. While Johnny’s eyes adjusted to the light two men shouldered their way into the storage room.
A tall, beanpole of a man covered them with a gun while a shorter man entered. “Feelin’ better? A little buckin’ and gaggin’ - ” Shorty grinned, a mess of blackened and missing teeth. He held out his hands, rope and small poles dangling from dirty fingers.
Scott exploded beside Johnny. His leg shot up catching the short bastard right in the cajones. Shorty let out a strangled squawk before tumbling into Beanpole.
Johnny lunged at the distracted gunman, wrenching the pistol from his hand, heard the snap of breaking fingers. An elbow to his mouth cut off the agonized howl as Johnny drove them both into the outer room.
Lady luck picked that moment to like Lancers, because stumbling over skinny legs saved Johnny from taking the bullet in the head. Splinters from the doorframe stung his face. Twisting, Johnny returned fire, shattering the man’s elbow before he could shoot again. Screams mixed with gunfire and breaking furniture.
A swift kick to Beanpole’s head, followed with another to the third man took them out of their bloodied misery.
Eerie in his silence, Scott straddled Shorty. His bloodied hand gripping Shorty’s face, he pounded the dazed man’s head into the floor.
“Hey, hey, hey.” Johnny blocked the fist aimed for his head, eyes locking with terror-filled gray-blue ones, exposing a Scott he didn’t know. Yanking him to his feet, Johnny propelled them outside as he snatched up another pistol.
Saddled horses hitched at the corral - Barranca among them.
Scott stumbled, falling to one knee. Johnny hauled him up, dragging him to the horses. “Can you ride?”
It wasn’t graceful - Johnny all but shoved Scott in the saddle. His brother did the rest with a white-knuckled grip on the pommel.
Another nod. Johnny gathered Scott’s mount’s reins, urging Barranca into a swift trot. He didn’t know what waited for them out there, but it had to be better than what they left behind.
Murdoch rode, face grim, with a temper and fear he did his best to tamp down. Another note had arrived, a sheet of paper pierced by a knife, stuck in the front door.
The theatrics involved with his sons’ kidnapping worried Murdoch as much as it angered him. Flamboyant. Like taking his sons wasn’t enough. Why? Murdoch hoped he would have the presence of mind to ask before he was driven to kill whoever was behind this.
Johnny reined Barranca to a stop, desperate to get his bearings. They needed to cut Murdoch off before he reached Lawson’s creek while eluding any possibility of pursuit. Couldn’t keep haring off the way they were doing even if every instinct drove them to do so.
Johnny looked over at his brother. Scott, hands clutching the pommel hard enough to turn white, stared at Johnny’s leg.
“Johnny, you’re bleeding.”
Just like that pain flared up in his right leg, stealing his breath.
Blood soaked his thigh, dripping down Barranca’s side.
Leaving a trail.
Johnny shook his head to clear it, startling when his brother, closer than he thought, tore off the ruined sleeve of his own shirt.
“Help me. We’ve got to stop the bleeding.” Scott demanded in a not quite Scott voice.
What happened back there?
Scott laid the makeshift bandage over the wound while Johnny twisted it around his thigh tying it off with a grimace.
“Johnny?” Scott listed in the saddle.
“Yeah, I’m good.” The bandage would hold for now. “Let’s go.”
Jelly nattered in the background, advising caution. Murdoch had all he could take of caution. Caution – in his experience - produced the exact opposite of what he wanted. He had sent Catherine away as a precaution, to avoid his wife getting hurt in the struggle with Haney.
Maria, he indulged, making sure she was happy throughout her pregnancy. After Johnny was born healthy and whole, Murdoch had worked from sun up to sun down to provide for them. A precaution that should anything happen to him, they would be provided for.
She left. Worse she had taken Johnny.
Caution had won out with Harlan Garrett, leaving him with empty years without his first-born.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Boss, this isn’t the way to go about this. Goin’ rushin’ off to parts unknown - ”
“Jelly, shut up.” Murdoch didn’t raise his voice, didn’t turn around. Jelly’s teeth clacked together. He allowed himself a small smile at the subsequent peace.
About an hour later, Johnny spotted a defensible location, giving them a view that would allow them to see someone coming before they were seen. The scrub managing to live out the rock provided meager shade and would shield the horses.
Johnny would have laughed at the absurd picture they made if he’d had the energy. He limped with Scott’s good arm around his waist and it was questionable who supported or did the supporting. Scott fell against the rough surface, sliding down to the ground.
Johnny eased down beside Scott, keeping all his weight on his good leg and using the rock face for balance. Resting his head against the hard surface he rolled it to the side.
“You wanna tell me what happened back there?” He said, laying a hand over the blood soaked bandage covering his wound.
Unease swept over Johnny, watching the obvious struggle for Scott to understand his question - even more so when a shudder wracked through Scott when it did.
Scott didn’t turn away, but his eyes took on a faraway look and it sure wasn’t Johnny he was seeing. “That’s a tale where a couple of glasses of scotch would make it easier.”
“Couple of glasses of scotch would make a lot of things easier right now. Give me the short version.”
“Bucking and gagging is used as punishment in the military. Both sides used it. It’s an uncomfortable way to spend time.”
“Happen to you?”
“Once … as prisoner of war.”
“Once was enough.”
“More than enough.”
“I bet ol’ Beanpole and Shorty are thinking the same thing, if they’re thinking at all.”
Scott’s smile wasn’t much, but it wiped away the haunted look. Johnny didn’t count on hearing the entire story. They both had things in the past that sharing wouldn’t make any better.
Lew watched from the back door while Teresa and the cook made tortillas. A pretty girl, Teresa. Sweet. No two ways about it. Lew experienced a brief twinge of guilt.
Thinking on the money he was owed removed any discomfort. He shrugged off thoughts of Teresa, focusing on his plans for San Francisco. There were pretty girls there who’d like a man who could spend some money on them.
Murdoch looked up at the sky, accepting the very real possibility that his sons wouldn’t be at Lawson’s creek. They would know soon enough, but he couldn’t shake the suspicion that this was too easy. Lancer hands knew the terrain, holding the advantage. Whoever orchestrated this had to know that.
Was this a distraction?
There was nothing to be done, but play it out.
“We can’t stay here long.” Scott pressed the makeshift bandage over the leg wound.
“No doubt about that.” Johnny hissed, tearing off his faded shirtsleeve. “We’re running out of clothes.”
“Teresa will sew a duplicate of your shirt. She likes that color on you.” Scott held the bandage in place as Johnny tied the sleeve over it.
“The girl does have opinions –” teeth gritted “and she’s usually right.”
“That she is.” Scott watched as Johnny’s tanned face paled. When Johnny looked up searching his face, he smiled ruefully. Scott wouldn’t be surprised if his own complexion matched the gray his shirt had become.
Johnny gave a half-smile in return and studied his leg. “Looks good.”
“All right then.” Scott used the rock face to pull himself to his feet. “Shall we see if we can prevent our father from walking into an ambush?”
“He probably knows.” Johnny took Scott’s offered hand, waited until Scott had himself braced, then hauled himself to his feet.
Every muscle in Scott’s body protested the action. “I wouldn’t mind showing up just in case.”
Except getting on their horses proved a near insurmountable problem. Blood loss, lack of food and water had weakened them both. Scott’s muscles had liquefied. Watching Johnny’s hand tremble as he reached for the saddle pommel told its own story.
Scott spied a mid-shin-high boulder and closed his eyes to the indignity of what he was about to do.
“Not a word, Johnny.”
“Huh… oh.” There it was. A choked off laugh, still hinted at in his brother’s tone when he spoke next. “Good idea.”
On shaky legs, Scott led his horse over to the rock, using it as a stepping-stone to manage the most graceless mount ever - counting the time he’d been shot in the head. Catching his breath and wanting nothing better than to slide right off again, Scott glared at his brother.
“No one’s to hear of this.”
“Are you kidding?” Johnny limped, leading Barranca to the stone. “Dios.”
Johnny’s face turned a few shades paler once he was astride his horse. He met Scott’s gaze with a wry one of his own. “Don’t want to have to do that again. Might not find a handy rock.”
Lew helped Banks take a seat at the campfire. That was as far as his support went. He moved well away from the group, but still close enough to watch the show. Eldersen eyed Banks while blowing on his cup of coffee to cool it.
Banks struggled a bit to stay upright. No doubt his wounded arm was paining him something awful.
“The fact that you are sitting at my fire says enough, however I would like to hear it in your words.”
“Lancer’s sons got away.” Banks started to shake. Lew didn’t think it was all from blood loss. “I came into it, didn’t see what happened. The rest are dead.”
“And where did they go?”
“Don’t know, Mr. Eldersen. Too dark to tell.” Banks coughed, his next words coming out raspy. “I came as quick as I could.”
“To tell me of failure rather than going after them?” Eldersen stilled, then he hurled the scorching coffee at Banks’ face.
Banks screamed like nothing Lew had ever come out of a man. Eldersen stood, ignoring Banks’ frantic attempts wipe his face.
“Mr. Marsh, please see to the finding Lancer’s boys. Take a couple of men with you.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll head out now.”
Lew pointed to a couple others he knew better than strangers, who had cautious way about them. They came quick and soon the three of them were riding out at a gallop.
Slowing down once they were out of sight, Lew glanced at his silent companions.
“If my father had met Mr. Eldersen, he would’ve said, ‘See that, son? That man there is as likely to turn on a friend as an enemy. You stay away from the likes of him.’ I’m thinking he’s right.” Attention gained, Lew gestured to his left. “How’s about we head further west a ways? See some sights and avoid anything Lancer…or Eldersen?”
With a couple of nods, they were quit of Mr. Eldersen. Money was only good if you were around to spend it.
Murdoch reined his horse to a halt, studying the landscape, a group of seven men in all ranging around him. Jelly, with the supply wagon, remained a mile or so back. Murdoch prayed they wouldn’t need those supplies. If worst came to worst, someone would ride back to fetch him, but the wagon slowed them down. Walt and Jorge stayed with Jelly as a precaution. Murdoch, well aware that his own frustration at the pace would make him careless, thought this the best compromise.
His boys couldn’t afford a father making mistakes.
Scott’s shoulder felt hot to the touch - he didn’t need to look to know it was inflamed. He watched as Johnny pressed his palm against his leg as if to push the pain away.
They were a half-mile out from Lawson’s. What they would do once they arrived was anyone’s guess. Given the shape they were in, it didn’t bode well for Murdoch’s well-being.
Murdoch would take precautions. He had to know what awaited him. In his father’s place, Scott knew he’d make the same choice given the lack of other options. Most of all, Scott despised that he and Johnny were the leverage putting Murdoch in such an untenable position.
Wind whipped hair stung his eyes as Johnny did made his habitual check to see if Scott was still with him, still in the saddle. He shouldn’t worry. Scott would stay that way -unless someone shot him off again.
With only two guns, one with two bullets, the other with one, Johnny wasn’t sure what they could accomplish. They needed to reach Lawson’s Creek. Johnny had the feeling this had nothing to do Scott or himself. This was all to get at Murdoch. It brought back unwanted memories of the time Charlie had bushwhacked Murdock, leaving him for dead beside the creek.
A few weeks without someone gunning for Lancer or Murdoch would’ve been nice.
Lawson’s Creek was peaceful when Murdoch rode alone into the proposed clearing for the rendezvous. He wasn’t fooled by nature’s sounds. Chances were high that the men waiting around the area had settled in long enough for the birds to start chirping again. Murdoch knew they watched as he dismounted, leading his horse to the water. He let his mount drink its fill while he studied the landscape around him.
The area was riddled with hiding places. Murdoch led his horse over a tree with good grass and shade while he continued to survey the area. His suspicions were confirmed when a lone rider came out of a copse of trees towards him. Looping the reins around a low hanging branch, Murdoch left his mount to graze turning to meet his sons’ kidnapper.
Disappointment flared as Murdoch accepted that he dealing with a hired man, not the one who was behind his sons’ abductions. However, this man would have information. If Murdoch had to wring it out of him, he would.
He’d enjoy it.
As much as it hurt to ride a horse, walking hurt far worse. Johnny limped, his energy depleting in the effort to remain silent. They weren’t moving all that fast to begin with. Scott kept upright for the most part, knees giving a couple of times.
Johnny didn’t have the faintest idea what they would do if they did see the enemy. Neither of them had the strength to fight anyone.
Movement out of the corner of his eye drove Johnny down behind some waist high boulders - Scott all but falling in beside him with a look of ‘what?’ on his face.
Holding up a finger, Johnny twisted around to peer through a gap between the rocks. Scott did the same at another opening.
They had found the meeting place. Down in the clearing they saw a rider dismount to approach the unmistakable figure of their father.
With a nonchalance that made Murdoch grit his teeth, the rider dismounted, but remained by his horse. “Good afternoon, Mr. Lancer.” The voice was precise, cultured, his features fine-boned, average.
“Where are my sons?”
“All in good time. We have business to discuss first.”
“My sons are the only business I am interested in.” Murdoch kept his tone flat with effort, his hands stiff at his sides. “Where are they?”
“Surely, Mr. Lancer, you can see that you are not in charge here.” A negligible wave brought gunmen out into the open, scattered amongst the terrain. “Please, do not think I believe you came alone. I’m not a fool.”
“I’m certain our opinions would differ on many things.” Murdoch stamped down hard on the hatred welling up, well aware that he was minutes away from killing the man in front of him - gunmen be damned. They’d better aim for his head. “Where is your employer?”
“You will deal with me, Mr. Lancer. As of now my men have yours surrounded. Keep this up and you will reduce your number of employees. Let’s discuss details. Your sons are fine where they are. For now.”
Murdoch absorbed the implied threat - resigned himself to yet another scheme to play out. He wondered if his boys were as tired of them as he was.
They each let out a curse when the gunmen surrounded Murdoch.
“Hope the ol’ man has a good plan, because this sure isn’t looking good.” Johnny shifted and pulled the borrowed gun from his belt, checking the chamber.
“Murdoch wouldn’t ride into this without one.” Frowning, Scott scanned the area. “If I set something like this up, I‘d have a sniper or two watching over that clearing.”
“Yeah, Murdoch as the target.” Johnny looked back to see their father crossing his arms. “I don’t think Murdoch is in the frame of mind to listen. He has that look he’s had with us lately.”
Scott chanced a quick look, agreeing with his brother. “The difference is we won’t shoot him.”
“We only think about it on occasion.”
Johnny’s macabre humor had a way of settling his jangled nerves, enough so that he could think rationally about sniper positions. He spotted a barrel of a rifle jutting between some rocks - a clear line of sight straight to their father. Scott tapped on Johnny’s arm to point him out.
A soft laugh escaped Johnny as he spied a stealthy figure creeping up behind the sniper.
“That’s Frank, isn’t it?” Scott squinted against the sun, watching with a deep sense of satisfaction as the ranch hand slugged the assailant over the head with his rifle butt. “I thought he was out with a crew in the southwest pasture.”
“Murdoch has a plan.”
“I’ll return your sons once I’ve received payment of five thousand dollars.”
Murdoch stepped close enough to the stranger to be within striking distance. “This is about money? How can I trust that once you’re paid you’ll honor your part?”
“No harm will come to them if you pay.” The stranger shrugged. “It’s just business, Mr. Lancer. A debt paid if you – urgh!”
Scott had seen Murdoch fight – a brawl like fight. Murdoch choking the life out of the outlaw showed something a different. The brawl Murdoch had enjoyed.
Johnny hmphed. “Guess Murdoch’s done talking.”
Johnny spun around, a gun in hand. Scott registered the faint footfall approaching them. He fell back against the rock - blinked seeing a figure holding up his hands in surrender, speaking rapid, quiet Spanish. Another blink, recognized Cipriano. He tried to greet the Segundo.
Johnny caught Scott’s head before it struck rock. Figured that was the last thing he needed. Cipriano rushed over to help ease Scott’s lax body to the ground.
Seeing the Segundo went a long way in lessening the tension Johnny carried.
“Johnny, look.” Cipriano grin was wide. He jutted his chin toward the clearing. Sliding his hand out from under Scott’s head, Johnny watched, sagging against their rock barrier.
Lancer hands emerged from the landscape, weapons trained on the strangers.
Murdoch squeezed - enough to show he meant it – not kill him. He could hold off finishing until he had his sons back.
A shout from the bluff caught his attention. Cipriano waved, his grin easy to see in spite of the distance.
The Segundo had found his boys.
They couldn’t maneuver a wagon up the ridge, so Frank joined them, hefting Scott over his shoulder while Cipriano helped Johnny down to the clearing.
Johnny was glad Scott was unconscious. Slung over Frank’s shoulder looked uncomfortable - painful for his wounded shoulder. Scott would chaff at the indignity of it.
Something Johnny remembered all too well.
He wanted to lie down. He wanted a drink. He just plain wanted home - that was a good few hours off. Cipriano, a sturdy presence by his side, made it possible for Johnny to manage the hill in a hobbled stagger. Ahead, Scott’s head swung to the rhythm of Frank’s footfalls as he picked his way down the slope. Johnny watched his feet to avoid seeing Scott’s head lolling about like a dead man’s.
They crossed the ankle deep creek, Cipriano gripped Johnny’s belt, lugging Johnny up the bank. Heaviness took over his body as the need to do fell away. Still too keyed up to acknowledge any sense of relief, his body nevertheless demanded rest.
Johnny wanted to oblige.
He looked up, straight into his father’s face - aged since the last he saw him. Johnny almost recoiled from the feverish look in his eyes, then blinked as a mask fell over Murdoch’s face, an expressionless stranger remaining.
“Just a graze.”
“Your brother?” Murdoch nodded at Frank who headed towards the wagon Jelly navigated into the clearing.
“More than a graze.” Johnny saw Murdoch’s features tighten even more. “Need some time is all.”
“Who did it?” Murdoch glanced down at the man lying at his feet.
“Not him. Scott took care of it. We took out few of them. Don’t have any idea who’s behind this.” Johnny waved at the stranger. “Is it him?”
“I doubt it. I plan to find out.”
Johnny shuddered internally at the cold, harsh tone.
Jelly’s voice called from the other side of the clearing. “Cip, bring Johnny over here.”
Johnny managed one last glance at his father before Cipriano grabbed him by the belt again, toting him to the wagon. Breathless, he landed beside Scott.
“Boss, let’s get the boys home.” Jelly turned in the seat to look down at Johnny. “We’ve been all over this dang country lookin’ for the two of you. Everyone’s been worried plenty.”
Worried? Johnny didn’t doubt that. However, what he saw in Murdoch didn’t look as simple as worry.
Cipriano tossed a blanket over Johnny. Leaving a canteen, he headed off to help tie up the outlaws.
Johnny glanced at Scott before returning his gaze back to Murdoch’s rigid frame. Beside him, propped on bedrolls, Scott dozed.
The throbbing in Johnny’s leg grew worse. He day-dreamed of falling into a bed that didn’t move. Traveling in a wagon bed bumped his every ache and pain. Exhausted, Johnny thought he would drop off to sleep like Scott. Instead, he nodded off only to startle awake, feeling hunted. It didn’t change in spite of being surrounded by the Lancer hands.
Hours later as they neared the ranch the sensation intensified.
Something in Murdoch’s movements, a shift in his saddle, alerted Johnny to the stranger waiting as they reached the hacienda. The well-dressed man watched their approach.
Johnny felt Scott shift beside him, his shoulder brushing against his own. His brother’s eyes opened; his body tensed.
Johnny, propping his hands by his hips, pushed himself up. “We’re home. Relax.”
“So, why don’t you?”
Scott frowned noting the stranger. “Johnny?”
The man tied his horse’s reins to the hitching post. “Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch reined in and dismounted. “Yes.”
“Charles Eldersen.” He held out his hand to shake, looked past Murdoch to nod towards the back of wagon. “You’ve had some trouble.”
Murdoch shook his hand and stepped back. “Mr. Eldersen, my apologies. This isn’t a good time.”
“This is precisely the right time.”
Rifles seemed to come out from all directions along with a half dozen men. Johnny heard a soft thunk as Scott dropped his head back, looking heavenward.
Johnny sympathized. That soft, unmoving bed waited still.
Scott heard Murdoch and he darted a look at their father. Stricken, didn’t begin to cover his expression. Eldersen gave Murdoch an annoyed look.
“I do not wage violence upon women. Your ward and cook are safe in the kitchen and will remain that way.”
That was something of a relief, even with a dozen rifles pointed their way. It didn’t have a lasting reassurance.
Scott, aware that his mind wasn’t clear, the dullness of a fever overtaking him. He didn’t believe himself so far into the grip of it that when Murdoch’s stance relaxed he knew something was off.
Scott shot a look over to Johnny who mouthed, ‘Cip, Frank?’
Hands were missing. Back at Lawson’s creak, seven had shown up with Jelly. Jelly who sat in front, silent, with three hands ranged around the wagon with a sense of readiness that sent the hair rising on Scott’s neck.
It felt like the beginnings of a thunderstorm.
“Eldersen, what do you want?”
“My boy left because of you.” Eldersen’s plain face took on the ugliness of hate. “I want you to know what that’s like.”
Eldersen shouldn’t have taken his eyes off Murdoch -- whose fist hammered into the side of Eldersen’s head.
As if that was the signal, missing ranch hands and then some came out hiding. There were far too many rifles pointing for comfort, but the Lancer vaqueros outnumbered Eldersen’s men two to one.
Jelly had his own gun out. “Even you lot can see how this will go if shootin’ starts.”
Showing some wisdom, the invaders set down their weapons. With a surprising lack of violence or conversation, Lancer hands herded the gunmen to the guardhouse. Cipriano and Frank remained.
Murdoch reached down to haul the dazed man to his feet, giving Eldersen a hard shake.
“What is this about?”
“You bastard, this is your fault. You destroyed me.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” Murdoch gave Eldersen another bone-rattling shake, If not for the fire in his shoulder, Scott might have held an iota of sympathy for Eldersen.
“Hey, boss. Eldersen?” Jelly climbed down off the wagon. “Wasn’t he the one who overgrazed his land and went to the Cattle Association for help? Daniel Holmes told me about it. Happened ‘bout three years ago, if I ‘member correct. You weren’t there for that meetin’, but Dan was sayin’ how Eldersen didn’t listen to nobody.”
Scott didn’t make the connection. From the looks of it neither did Johnny. Murdoch, however, was another story.
“Eldersen. You were given sound advice to sell off your herd. You refused.”
“You all wanted me to fail. You had plenty of grazing land. My herd could’ve been saved. My son wouldn’t have left!”
“Is he – ?” Scott couldn’t finish because it didn’t make any sense.
“Loco,” Johnny said.
Murdoch stared at Eldersen in disbelief. “You did this to get even for something I didn’t have a part in? My sons - ”
Scott didn’t think he had ever seen Murdoch in such a rage. More disconcerting was witnessing that fury dissipate along with all other emotion.
“Eldersen, I’ve lost my sons before. I’ve come close to losing them again in the past few years. I’ve not had them long enough to take them for granted. I’ve learned from the experience. I doubt you’ll be given the same opportunity.”
“Murdoch - ”
Their father’s hand came up silencing whatever Johnny planned to say; Murdoch’s focus remained on Eldersen.
“The men you had watching the hacienda and those who followed us here are locked in the guard house or dead. I’m working on which would be the best for you.” He shoved Eldersen in Cipriano’s direction. Eldersen, who must have had some sanity remaining, didn’t say another word.
Murdoch turned in time to catch up Teresa when she reached him. Another worry he could let go.
Teresa slipped out of his arms to rush to the wagon. “You’re hurt.”
“We’re all right, Teresa.” Johnny reached out a hand to pat the one she had gripping the wagon side.
Murdoch had his doubts about that.
Stepping back from the wagon, Teresa glanced over her shoulder to the men headed for the guardhouse. “Lew never came back.”
The hard, cold look didn’t wear well on her face.
“I didn’t see him.” Murdoch had wondered if he’d come across the traitorous ranch hand.
“He met with one of Eldersen’s men three times that I know of since Scott and Johnny were taken.”
Murdoch sifted that through his mind. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Lew figured out that his boss wasn’t good for his future and rode off to save his own skin.”
Teresa glanced over to the wagon. “Maria and I will get things ready for Scott and Johnny.” She rushed back to the inside.
Johnny met Scott’s tired, somewhat amused gaze shaking his head. He wondered at the old man’s remoteness. Johnny sure wanted to know what caused it. He hadn’t seen Murdoch like that since the day they first met.
Frank came up on Scott’s side to assist him out of the wagon. A tap on Johnny’s good leg let him know Walt waited to help him. The way his leg had stiffened, he had to use his hands to move his leg over the edge of the wagon box. He jarred it against the side.
Next thing he knew, Walt had Johnny’s arm over his shoulders, supporting him until Johnny’s world stopped spinning.
“Yeah, just get me inside so I can fall on something soft.”
Walt shot him a crooked grin. “Will do. Glad you boys are home.”
“Me too, Walt.”
Frank settled Scott down on the couch. Scott had the appearance of a man not willing to move from it for a week. Given the instant comfort, Johnny didn’t blame him. As he sank into the chair, Johnny thought a week might be enough. Walt arranged the footstool to elevate his wounded leg. Made the ache almost tolerable.
Scott shifted, looking over at Murdoch. “You pulled the hands from the north pasture. How did you know?”
“I’ve given up on believing in coincidences.” Murdoch took a deep breath, letting it out in an explosive rush. “Since you boys have come home, this hacienda has been invaded beyond reason. I’m not taking any chances.”
“Wonder why his son left?”
Johnny glanced at Scott then straight on to Murdoch. “Probably because his ol’ man didn’t listen.”
Scott gave Johnny a disbelieving, ‘we’re doing this now? ‘ look. Murdoch, on the other hand, shut down hard and fierce.
“We are not having this discussion now.” Each word bit out clear, precise.
“Why not? We can’t put up much of a fight.”
Scott’s eyes widened. “Johnny - ”
“Nah, come on. We’re down. Tell us again why we can’t help Lancer grow, Murdoch.”
Their father’s expression went quickly from remote to consternation. “No, that’s not it - ”
Johnny heaved himself to his feet, gripping the couch to maintain balance. “Then why don’t you tell us what it is, ‘cause from our side that’s what it looks like.”
“We can’t afford to expand.”
“Murdoch, we are well aware of our finances.” Scott swiped a filthy hand over his face, revealing his irritation. “We know it will take some time. You also know that I’m not without my own funds. What I don’t understand is why you won’t even consider the ideas.”
“Lancer needs time. We’ve barely recovered from McGovern’s machinations. That’s only occurred in the past few weeks. You both know it and here we are again.” Lesser men would have been cowed by the thunderous expression sweeping over Murdoch’s face.
Johnny took an unsteady step forward, tired of it all: The arguments, Scott’s dissatisfaction, his own. He didn’t fight the anger down. “We want more for Lancer! The next time a McGovern or even an Addison comes around it’ll discourage them from taking what’s yours.”
“Mine?” Murdoch bellowed. “Still? After two years you don’t understand. What happens when we get those fruit trees, grapes, irrigation systems, the breeding stock and I’m left with managing it all when you leave?”
When you leave.
Johnny froze. Scott stared. Murdoch closed his eyes.
He hadn’t known.
When you leave.
Hadn’t known he carried that inside him. Hadn’t known that he believed his sons would leave one day because everyone did: Either through death or the crueler way without a good-bye or explanation.
Maybe they would grace him with both. They’d still be gone. He’d be a bitter old man left without any hope at all.
Johnny stared at Murdoch, hoping he could figure out what their father was thinking, what he thought the last two years had meant to them. They had a couple of rough spots that first year when Johnny and Murdoch hadn’t worked things out yet. They had strong opinions that didn’t always meet up.
Did Murdoch expect to wake up one morning and find them gone?
As his mother had done?
Johnny wobbled. Scott reached out to catch his brother by the wrist, tugging him on to the couch.
Bleak. That was the first word that came to Scott’s mind. Their father looked bleak, washed out.
“Murdoch, we’re staying.” Scott wished he could make the words come out stronger. Any strength he had left was fading fast.
“But you don’t know.” Murdoch eased down on the coffee table with all the appearance of a man who had been too close to a cannon strike. “You don’t know everything yet.”
Scott’s stomach twisted. More had to be said, but Sam Jenkins arrived with Jelly dogging his heels, informing the doctor of their injuries. The moment lost.
Johnny woke with a gasp. Placing his surroundings, he breathed deeply. Home. His bedroom. His bed. Scent of molasses only a memory.
His heart hadn’t quite caught up with reality. He willed it to slow down. Took longer than he would’ve like, but it did get there. The same couldn’t be said for falling back to sleep. Taking hold of the cane propped by his bed stand, he shuffled his way out into the hall, the murmur of voices drawing him to Scott’s room.
The lamp’s wick was low, leaving just enough for the occupants to see. Murdoch fussed with pillows to prop Scott up. Johnny saw the sheen of perspiration on his brother’s face, knew the inevitable fever had taken hold.
“Johnny, what are you doing up?” Murdoch handed a cup of water to Scott. Johnny caught just a hint of a smirk on his brother’s face over the rim of the cup.
“Woke up. Couldn’t settle in again.” His leg had been numb - the walk across the hall wore that off.
“Sit down.” Murdoch wore that don’t argue face; Johnny didn’t bother pretending that he didn’t hurt. Grateful, he took the chair that had been pulled up close to Scott’s bed, propping his leg up near his brother’s feet.
“Come right in. Make yourself comfortable.” Scott’s voice may have been hoarse, but there was no mistaking the dryness of the comment or the history behind it.
Those early days…
Murdoch frowned. “Johnny, are you running a fever?”
“Nothing much. I’ll tell you if it gets worse.”
“I’ll hold you to it. Drink this.” Murdoch had a teapot of all things and poured a cup. Johnny recognized the scent of willow bark and resigned himself to the bitter tea. No arguing that it worked. He didn’t need to look at Scott to know he wore a grin. When he did, Scott lifted his own cup in a toast. Comfortable silence settled in the dim light, Murdoch fussing with something on the other small table in the room. Johnny had slipped into a comfortable half-doze when Scott’s voice startled him out of it
“Murdoch, what happened?”
Their father froze at Scott’s question; then his whole body seemed to sigh. “Are you sure you want to hear this now?”
Scott twirled the empty cup with his good hand in his lap. “No, but it’s been long enough.”
“That’s a matter of perspective.” Murdoch’s tone was wry. He carried another chair near the bed and sat.
“Grandfather lied about a great many things, didn’t he?” As openings went, Scott couldn’t have done much better. Johnny saw relief skitter across Murdoch’s face.
Scott grimaced, closing his hand over the top of the cup. “How bad?”
“I don’t know. Did he describe Catherine as delicate?”
Scott looked bemused. “Yes.”
Murdoch, to Johnny’s and likely Scott’s surprise, grinned. “She wasn’t. Think of her as the female version of Harlan Garrett. You’ll have a good idea of your mother.”
Johnny’s mind scrabbled to put together that image. Scott on the other hand, laughed.
“She may have looked delicate, but she couldn’t have survived out here if she was. In fact, Catherine thrived.” Murdoch leaned forward in the chair, elbows on knees, hands clasped between them. “She died after child birth because there were complications - bleeding.”
Murdoch took a shaky breath; the warm lassitude left Johnny. Whatever their father hesitated to say it wouldn’t be easy for him to tell or Scott to hear. Johnny suspected it was more what Scott would hear that worried Murdoch.
Scott for his part just waited, playing with the cup on his leg.
“I didn’t follow Harlan right away.” Murdoch looked down at his hands. “I just couldn’t leave Catherine in that unmarked grave. I worried I wouldn’t find the location of it again.”
Scott looked puzzled. Johnny’s stomach twisted, anticipating the question Scott would ask.
“Grandfather didn’t make arrangements for one?”
There it was, but from the blank, careful look on Scott’s face, he must of have known what was coming.
Murdoch’s head came up and he swallowed a few times before answering. “He did, but Harlan didn’t stay for the burial. The midwife showed me where Catherine was buried. She told me the arrangements had been made.”
Scott’s grip on the cup tightened. “Grandfather took me and left?”
Murdoch gave a nod. “I couldn’t follow right away. I didn’t have the money. My reasoning at the time was questionable.”
Johnny appreciated the matter-of-fact way Murdoch relayed old history. He knew Scott would do better with the facts, without the emotion behind it. The facts hit hard enough.
“I returned here, tending to injuries, repairing the damage. I don’t remember much of it. A month passed before I gave thought of traveling to Boston.” Murdoch rubbed the side of his face. “I didn’t have the funds. I wrote Harlan to find out if you had survived. Six months later I received a reply.”
Murdoch looked straight at Scott then, smiling. “You lived, grew strong. Your name was Scott Garrett Lancer. Catherine’s choice for your name.”
Johnny didn’t move as the two other men in the room stared at each other.
“Haney’s attacks almost bankrupted me. The responsibility I had to the people who stayed through it all prevented me from giving up. It took a few years for Lancer to show a reliable income. Once it did, I made plans for Boston. I had hoped to travel there in the next year or so.” Murdoch looked over to Johnny. “Then I met your Mother.”
Palm over his nervous stomach, Johnny had the certainty that his history was as littered with lies as Scott’s. These last two years he had learned a few things about his father. The one thing he had reconciled: Murdoch Lancer told the truth.
“Maria was so alive. I had been numb for so long. We married, you were born; I discovered the joy in fatherhood.”
His leg throbbed when his body tensed, Johnny breathed to release it. He had to ask. Could see Murdoch waiting, but by the minute shake of his father’s head he didn’t want him to ask. Johnny did anyway.
“What did my mother do?”
Murdoch closed his eyes.
The silence dragged. When Murdoch spoke, his words came out a hint above a whisper.
“Maria set up a meeting two months after she left. If I agreed to sign an annulment she would leave you with me.” Murdoch hands gripped his knees, eyes meeting Johnny’s. “I signed.”
His head rang with the blow, reeling with the implications.
Mama, did you ever tell the truth?
A warm calloused hand closed over his own.
“Johnny, listen. Your mother loved you. If nothing else, you need to remember that.”
Any strength gone, Johnny sagged back into the chair. “That’ll have to come later. I can’t…”
Murdoch’s hand tightened on his own.
“She’s gone. I never told you. She died almost seven years ago.” Seemed important to tell his father that. Why, he couldn’t say.
“Was she happy?”
Nodding, Johnny took a deep, shaky breath. “Yeah, she lived a good, if short life. My stepfather didn’t last long after we lost her. A good man; he did his best for both of us.”
The stark relief on his father’s face told him all he’d ever need to know about Murdoch Lancer.
“Good, that’s good.”
Scott watched the visible effort Johnny used to pull himself together, quirked a wry grin at the stricken look Johnny sent his way.
“You said we needed to set things right, Brother.”
“Yeah, I know… Dios.” He waved a hand. “Didn’t think – ”
Murdoch’s hand moved up to give Johnny’s shoulder a squeeze. “I saw you on your fifth birthday, Scott.”
Fifth – Murdoch was there?
Vague childhood memories - one teased at the edge of his mind.
“The tall man.” Scott’s eyes widened. “You’re the tall man.”
Johnny snorted. “Well, you sure got that right.”
“You remember?” Murdoch sounded surprised. Scott fought to make the memory clearer.
“I remember someone very tall. Taller than I had ever seen before.” Scott shook his head. “That’s all.”
“I’d gone there to bring you home.”
How long had he waited to hear those words? Back when he met his friends’ parents, realized they had something he didn’t. A difference he questioned his grandfather about. Why he didn’t have any?
Murdoch had come.
Scott sighed. “What did he threaten you with?”
“He’d make you go through all the court proceedings if I fought his guardianship.”
Harlan Garrett would do it, too. He’d make it sound necessary. Call Scott his brave boy; nothing would prevent him from stopping Murdoch Lancer.
“He hated you that much.” Scott rolled the empty cup between his palms, unable to look at his family. “I’ve always wondered if he blamed me for my mother’s death.”
“Scott – ”
“Murdoch, you know it’s possible.” Scott half-smiled. “I don’t think he’s always rational when it comes to Catherine.”
“No, I don’t believe so, but I’ve never – ”
“I know.” He did. Whatever else he learned tonight, Murdoch would never blame a child. His father had wanted him. Always had.
“I returned home--demoralized. I had promised Johnny I’d bring his big brother home. I arrived, Maria had taken Johnny and disappeared.”
Two years ago, he and Johnny had come to Lancer. Met a hard, cold Murdoch Lancer. Through those two years Scott realized that wasn’t the true nature of the man, but Murdoch was a man to keep the past in the past. Despite the way it had a habit of rearing up into the present.
Johnny muttered something, slumping further into the chair. Disillusionment hung heavy in the air. Every word spoken, old angers and impotencies were revealed.
Murdoch appeared to brace himself. Scott did the same. Nothing had been easy to hear so far. Guaranteed the rest wouldn’t be better.
“Scott, you were safe. I knew that much. I didn’t know about Johnny. I only knew that Maria had disappeared down into the border towns. She had run off with a gambler I was told, but I had no idea what sort of man he was, whether he could provide for you – I…”
“You had to make a choice.”
It was Murdoch’s turn to sag back in the chair. Scott was aware of Johnny’s appalled look in his direction.
“Murdoch.” Scott waited until his father looked at him. “I would have done the same.”
Scott did his best to let go of the anger he felt when Murdoch raised his hands to rub over his face. They were shaking. Best that his grandfather had returned to Boston - alone.
Not hard to guess why Murdoch hadn’t said anything when his grandfather had visited.
Johnny looked away. “Murdoch, you should’ve just told us.”
“When?” Scott liked the helpless look on Murdoch’s face even less. “When you first came? You had every right to your anger.”
“We wouldn’t have listened.” Scott wouldn’t have. “Why protect Grandfather? You could have told me the truth after he returned home.”
“To serve what purpose? Scott, Harlan had blackmailed you. You left to protect me, which I appreciate more than I can say, but you had made your peace with him when he left. I didn’t want to destroy that or burden you with more of his deceit.”
“I would have known the whole truth. Instead of living this strange limbo for the past year.” Scott refrained from throwing the cup across the room with effort. “We’re old enough to handle it. We deserve to know.”
Murdoch let out this helpless kind of laugh that made Scott wince. “That’s a matter of perspective. I know you are grown capable men, but you are still my sons. It’s very difficult to shatter your child’s illusions. Nor could I take the risk that you would leave. I finally had you both home. I wanted you to know who I was first, get to know you both.”
That took the air out of Scott’s lungs. Because of all the revelations this one hit the hardest. It wasn’t any easier the second time around. Murdoch was afraid. Johnny must have come to the same conclusion since he was staring at Murdoch like he had the first day they met.
Scott’s body informed him that he held himself bow-string tight. He relaxed into the pillows.
“Leaving Lancer would feel like cutting off a limb at this point.” Scott held the cup out for Murdoch to take.
“You aren’t happy, Scott.” Murdoch took the cup, a searching look on his face.
“We are our father’s sons. Were you content to follow in your father’s footsteps?”
Murdoch set the cup on the nightstand absorbing Scott’s question. No he hadn’t. Left Inverness, left his family to make his own mark in the world.
Scott, eyes closed, sank further down into the bed. Johnny propped his elbow on the arm of the chair resting his chin in his hand, eyes half-mast.
Murdoch wasn’t fooled by either one of them.
“Don’t need that.” Johnny lifted his head. “Where do we go from here?”
Murdoch wondered how this could feel like leaping off a cliff. He felt raw, brittle, but his sons were waiting. Truth was, they had waited long enough.
“I listen. We move forward.”
Smiling, Scott opened his eyes.
Johnny knuckle-tapped Murdoch’s arm. “We’ll make it work.”
Murdoch settled back into his chair, his decision resting comfortable and solid. Decades old fears released their grip, leaving room for a future worth dreaming about. For the first time, Murdoch truly believed more held Lancer together than three signatures on a piece of paper.