Third in a series
Disclaimer: These Characters are not mine, I’m just borrowing them.
Warning: Rated PG Some disturbing images and strong language
Murdoch paced once around the large living room. His boots rang as he walked off the throw rug onto the polished wood floor. His nervous energy now under control, he returned to his desk and sat heavily in the chair. He fingered the letter on the desk, both relieved and wary.
He picked up the folded letter and read the single page for the third time. Harlan Garrett’s neat handwriting and flowery script made Murdoch’s teeth set on edge as it always did. The man had practically taken Scott over from the moment he arrived in Boston almost five years ago.
Murdoch didn’t even notice the words blur in front of his eyes as he thought back to his one and only visit to Boston to see his son graduate from Harvard. He thought he’d burst from pride when Scott’s name was called and his tall, straight son made his way to the podium to receive his degree with honors. He was a proud man that day, even though he knew Scott had done all the hard work, he still felt proud.
His mind went back a year and a half ago to that night. He’d heard rumors of unrest in the south and he wanted to help Scott get packed so they could set sail for the long trip home. Sooner the better, he’d thought. He wanted to get his son out from under Garrett’s roof and his influence. Scott still seemed to be his normal self but he’d become more polished and much more worldly from his time in Boston.
Murdoch remembered well the celebration dinner at Harlan’s mansion. He could see that little had changed in the years since he’d been an unwelcome visitor there. Lavish was the word that came to mind as Murdoch could see in his mind’s eye the rich silk wall coverings, thick carpeting and expensive mahogany furniture. Scott seemed at home among the masterpieces on the walls, but he, Murdoch Lancer, felt like a country bumpkin among Harlan’s socialite guests.
Murdoch shook his head thinking about Harlan’s toast that evening. Eloquent in style as always, he shocked no one except Murdoch when he announced Scott’s upcoming grand tour of Europe as his graduation gift. Scott had the good grace to lean over and apologize for not telling him sooner. Murdoch knew it wasn’t really Scott’s fault, he’d arrived just the day before and as it turned out, Harlan had given Scott the tickets a few days before he arrived.
He let him go. Not that he could have stopped him really. He wouldn’t put his needs in front of his sons. He’d done that enough already and he was determined that Scott would be allowed to make his own choices. Murdoch had already learned the folly of changing the course of someone’s life and he vowed never to do it again. Scott was a man and he could make the choice. Still in all, he would have preferred Scott to make the choice to return to Lancer.
So Murdoch returned home without Scott and he waited. He waited for Scott to return from Europe and send word of when he would be returning to California. While he waited he built his ranch and tried not to worry. He added one more brick in the wall around his heart as it was the only way he knew how to protect himself from the devastating hurt that ruled his life.
Five years ago today….He returned with Scott after almost losing him to his own foolishness. They walked shoulder to shoulder into their home only to be greeted by a shattering silence.
Murdoch closed his eyes against the pain of that day. His heart in his stomach as he and Scott searched the house in vain for Maria and Johnny. Murdoch remembered sinking onto Johnny’s bed burying his face in the boy’s wrinkled night shirt. Scott found him sobbing uncontrollably as the shock of Maria’s betrayal hit them both, and Scott turned his back on his father in cold fury.
Murdoch searched for his wife and son, but he found no clue of their whereabouts. No one apparently saw them leave. No horses were missing. Murdoch had to face the fact that she had planned for this betrayal and probably had someone helping her.
Scott’s fury never abated. He was cold and unwilling to talk to Murdoch about his feelings. A door was shut that day and over the months of searching, they’d regained some semblance of civility, that was the best they could do in those early days. That Scott blamed Murdoch for his brother’s disappearance there was no doubt, and Murdoch blamed himself as well.
How he could have fallen for Maria after everything she’d put him through is still a mystery to him. Her betrayal hurt, but it paled in comparison to the devastation she caused by taking Johnny with her. Murdoch worried every day about Johnny. Was he hungry or cold? Did she keep him safe from harm? Did she send him to school? Is Johnny still alive? That was the question that woke him up at night in a cold sweat. Why hadn’t Johnny come home in all these years? If he was alive, what had she told him to keep him from coming home? These questions haunted him and robbed him of his ability to let anyone get close to him again.
Murdoch closed his eyes and blinked away the tears robbing him of vision as he eyes focused once again on Harlan’s letter. He reread the sentence that brought him so much joy and relief as well as sorrow.
has been recovered. By the time you
receive this letter, he should be home safely in Boston.
I’ve been told he is recovering from some injuries and has lost a great
deal of weight, but I shall make sure he receives the best of care to ensure his
The rest of the words were a blur as Murdoch settled back into the leather chair and he allowed the weight of his worry over the last year begin to lift off him. He’d been angry with Scott when he’d sent word that he was going to join General Sheridan. His fear had come true when he got Scott’s letter proudly proclaiming his intention to help fight the battle to keep the states united.
Scott sent only one more letter. He’d been promoted to a junior lieutenant and he was putting his horsemanship and shooting skills to good use. He told a little of the friends he’d made, but the details of battles or horror of war were kept to a minimum. He’d ended the letter as he had every other one asking for word on Johnny and wishing him well. That was the last one until he’d received the short letter from Harlan with the news that Scott had been captured and sent to a southern prison as a prisoner of war.
Murdoch felt helpless as there was truly nothing he could do. Harlan tried to keep him up on whatever he found out. There were rumors that Scott had been moved at least once and even that there was a prison break attempt. No facts, just news that Harlan’s many sources were able to dig up. Harlan had vowed to move heaven and earth to find Scott, but even Garrett’s impressive connections failed him for almost a year. Now as peace had been declared, Scott was free, but what shape was he in?
Murdoch resolved to catch the next clipper to go see his son even though Harlan told him it was unnecessary. He was not going to allow that man to keep him away from his son any longer.
With his new resolve, he made his plans. He figured it would take a week to settle things here at the ranch before he’d be able to leave for the several months he’d be gone. This time Scott was returning home with him and no man would keep him from bringing his son home.
Murdoch strode out of the house two days before he was to leave for Monterey to catch a clipper to Boston. It was going to be a long journey, but all his plans were in place. His foreman knew what needed to be done, and would make sure the spring branding was finished, and all would be ready for the spring drive when he and Scott returned.
He just had a few things to take care of. He needed to make sure the men were paid and money was available for whatever supplies needed to be purchased. He walked across to the barn and stopped to talk to Walt. “Walt, send Stu and Carl to the south pasture to repair that downed section of fence. Also make sure Don gets enough supplies to restock all the line shacks. We need to get them all in shape before the round up.”
“Yes sir Mr. Lancer. We’ll be ready when you get back. You can count on me and the boys.”
“I know Walt. They’re good men.”
“Only the best stayed.” Walt responded as his eyes drifted to the Lancer arch guarding the front entrance. “Rider coming in, Mr. Lancer.”
Murdoch turned and shaded his eyes as he watched the form of a stranger take shape. ‘Young.’ Flashed across his mind as the rider came closer. He admired the easy balance the rider had on his horse.
“Nice animal.” Walt murmured as the stranger came closer.
“Probably another drifter looking for a job.” Murdoch muttered.
“Whole country’s overrun with them, now the wars over.” Walt agreed.
“Send him on his way and then come on in the house.” Murdoch said as he started back to the hacienda.
Walt watched as the boy halted his palomino gelding in front of him. The boy tipped his hat back and Walt was startled to see dark blue eyes intently taking his measure. “You hiring?” the boy asked.
Walt’s eyes quickly assessed the boy. ‘Mexican; half breed anyway.’ He noticed the worn gun belt tied down low and the mocking smile the boy gave him as he caught him looking at his gun. Walt’s instincts told him this boy was trouble and the sooner he got rid of him the better. He didn’t like the cut of this boy.
“We’ve got nothing for the likes of you boy. You better keep riding if you know what’s good for you.”
The boy looked around and drawled, “That’s what I was told the last time I came here lookin’ for a job.”
“We’ll the answer’s the same. We don’t want your kind around here.”
“My kind. Exactly what kind would that be mister?” The words were spoken softly and Walt felt his hackles rise as suddenly this boy seemed to grow right before his very eyes.
Before he could answer, the boy turned his horse toward the house, “Maybe I’ll just have me a talk with old man Lancer. Maybe he’ll have somethin’ I can do.”
“Hold it right there.” Walt commanded pulling his gun only to freeze when he found himself staring down the barrel of Johnny Madrid’s gun.
“That ain’t very polite mister. Could send you on a quick trip to the grave yard. Now you just put that old iron back where it belongs and go about your business. I got me some talking to do to your boss.”
Johnny’s eyes locked with Walt’s and he slowly replaced his gun and with his nerves shrieking turned his back on the young pistolero, and prayed his boss wasn’t going to suffer harm from this young renegade.
Murdoch was growing impatient. He needed to get to town to settle some banking business, but he had some things to go over with Walt first. He turned around at the sound of the door being opened and his features registered first surprise and then anger when he saw who was standing there.
“What do you want?” Murdoch grated. “My foreman told you we weren’t hiring didn’t he?”
The young gunman walked boldly into Murdoch’s domain and picked up an apple out of the basket. His cold blue eyes never left the man and for a moment Murdoch felt like he was a prime beef being sized up by a mountain lion.
The boy casually tossed the apple in the air a couple of times before asking, “So you don’t remember me huh?” He then took a large bite out of the apple and Murdoch noticed the strong even white teeth.
As he watched the boy for another minute, he felt pole axed as he recognized his missing son. “Johnny?’ he croaked.
Johnny took another bite and replaced the partially eaten apple in the bowl. He nodded. “So you do remember me.” He wiped his hands on his studded pants.
Murdoch took a step forward, but that only caused Johnny to move sideways putting the blue chair between them. “Son,,..of course I remember you. I’ve been….” He cleared his throat. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you to come home.”
Johnny looked up at him, “Yeah? Could have fooled me. Way I heard it you were just as glad to get rid of us.”
Murdoch took another step toward his boy only to have Johnny move a step away. He felt like he was in a dance that could only end badly as he realized he wasn’t getting through to the boy. “Please Johnny sit down. Are you hungry? Do you want something to drink.”
“I’d rather stand, but I’ll take a shot of tequila if you’ve got it.”
“Ah…no ….I don’t have any tequila, and you’re too young….” Murdoch ‘s words drifted off sounding inane to his own ears.
Johnny smirked at his father’s expression. “Too young for a lot of things old man, but tequila is not one of them.”
“How about some cool lemonade?” Murdoch suggested and before Johnny could say anything else, he shouted, “Mrs. Ellis! Lemonade please.”
Johnny walked around the living room and Murdoch drank him in. He resisted the urge to rush to his son as he watched Johnny run his hand over the furniture. He traced the rigging of the sailing ship and returned to face him once again when he was in front of the fireplace. “Nothing’s changed.” He stated flatly.
“Some things have changed son, but not my love for you.” Murdoch felt relief. He’d said it. It was out and now it was up to Johnny.
“Love.” He said bitterly. “I don’t believe in love anymore. It don’t last and then you got nothin’.”
“That’s not true son. Love is the only thing that lasts. It stays with you forever. My love for you has always been right here.” He patted his chest over his heart. “All this time we’ve been apart, it’s always been strong for you.” He tried to reassure the hostile young man his boy had turned in to. He was desperate to reach him, to see the loving boy that filled his heart and this home.
Murdoch stopped talking as a middle aged woman entered the room and placed a tray with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses on the coffee table. She set a plate with oatmeal cookies next to it. Murdoch nodded at her in thanks.
“Anything else you need sir?” She asked.
“No not right now. Ah, Mrs. Ellis, this is my youngest son, John. John, Mrs. Ellis cooks for me.”
Murdoch watched in pleasure as the first sign of his boy returned as Johnny gathered his manners together and smiled at the cook. “Nice to meet you ma’am. Thank you for the cookies.” He grinned as he snatched one off the plate and took a step back as Murdoch walked over to pour the lemonade.
Murdoch sighed as he took his glass of lemonade over to a side chair giving Johnny plenty of space to settle on the edge of the couch. He watched the boy over the top of the glass as he sipped the cool liquid.
Johnny reached for another cookie and asked casually, “So where’s Scott. I thought he’d be back from that fancy school by now….or did he get held back a year?” Johnny ducked his head to hide his grin.
“No, your brother graduated from Harvard about a year and a half ago,” he stopped at the look of surprise and raised eye brows from Johnny.
“So where is he?”
“He’s in Boston. You see Johnny, he joined the Union army to fight in the war and he was captured. He was a prisoner of war for a year.” He stopped at the stunned look of dismay on Johnny’s face.
“A year…” Johnny intoned.
“Yes, now that the war has ended, he was released and he’s at his grandfather’s recovering.”
Johnny sat silent staring at the untouched glass of lemonade before him. Slowly he turned his eyes to his father and Murdoch had to fight to keep from turning away from those haunted eyes.
Without another word, Johnny suddenly stood up and started for the door. “Got to be going.” He muttered.
Murdoch was right on his heels and this time Johnny didn’t get away from him. He took hold of his son’s shoulder and spun him around. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Look old man. I just stopped in here because I was in the area. I just finished a job and figured I’d stop by. I got places to go and not a lot of time to get there so I’ll see ya.”
Johnny shrugged off Murdoch’s arm and started once again for the door. “Johnny wait! You can’t leave, this is your home.”
Johnny’s dark blue eyes bored into Murdoch’s, “I got no home, old man.” Johnny looked around once at the trappings of wealth in his father’s home, “You don’t want the likes of me around here anyway.”
“What do you mean, I don’t want you around? Explain yourself son.” Murdoch asked softly.
Johnny pulled his gun for the second time that day, but this time he held it up. “Down around the border, people know my name. Johnny Madrid and I’m good at my trade.”
Murdoch stared at the gun in silence for a moment as he tried to meld the image in front of him with the image in his mind of his twelve year old son. This boy shouldn’t have that gun was all he could think. He should be going to church socials and barn dances, not tying down his holster and who knows what else. He shook his head, and said in his sternest voice. “Put it away boy. You’re not going anywhere.”
Johnny tensed and they were locked in a battle of wills Murdoch was determined to win. Johnny stared at him for a moment longer and Murdoch knew he’d won this battle when Johnny sighed and put the gun away.
“Come on son, we need to sit down and talk.” Murdoch led Johnny over to the front door, “Hang your gun belt here.” He watched in relieved satisfaction when Johnny slowly unbuckled his belt and hung it on the coat rack. With that obstacle taken care of, Murdoch walked into in living room and smiled to himself when he heard Johnny’s slow footsteps following him. “Sit down son.” Murdoch said pointing to the couch before settling himself in the chair facing his boy.
“We have a lot to catch up on. If you’re sure you’re not hungry, let’s get started.” He watched as Johnny pulled at a piece of skin on his finger and refused to meet his father’s eyes. Recognizing this habit of Johnny’s when he needed to stall for time, Murdoch waited until those blue eyes met his and he saw they were full of questions.
Murdoch decided to start with what he hoped would be an easy question, “Where’s your mother Johnny?”
Murdoch’s heart sank as he saw the answer in Johnny’s expression, but even then he wasn’t prepared for the flat cold response. “Dead.” Johnny said simply.
‘How and when?’ flashed through Murdoch’s mind, but he caught himself before demanding answers. Instead, he moved over to the couch and put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “I’m sorry son.”
Johnny tried to pull away, but Murdoch held him firm. “Don’t matter. It’s been a long time anyway.”
Murdoch did his best to conceal his surprise, and he had to swallow the lump before he could answer. He struggled to keep his voice even as he fought down both the sadness and rage he felt whenever he thought of Johnny’s mother. “I tried to find you son, I really did.” Was all he could offer in the face of his son’s denial.
“Yeah, right.” Johnny said with scorn. “That ain’t the way I heard it.”
“What did you hear?” Murdoch felt the familiar dread that Maria had again lied to their son.
“Scott left cause of my mother and you made her leave, cause she wasn’t good enough for you!” Johnny accused.
“Who told you that? Your mother?” Murdoch’s voice rose along with his anger.
Johnny started to get up from the couch but his father’s hand on his arm held him down. “No! She loved you! It was that bastard, Andrew Douglas. Your hired gun.” Johnny spat.
Murdoch felt the air being sucked out of his lungs, and for a moment he couldn’t think or even breathe. “The Pinkerton agent?’ He asked with disbelief.
“Those pinks. I hate them.” Johnny said in a cold voice that sent shivers up and down Murdoch’s spine.
“Son, what happened? I need to know.”
“You don’t need to know nothin’! Just your pink hurt my mama…..” Johnny’s head bowed and in a whisper that Murdoch could barely hear, “…..and me.”
Murdoch felt sick to his stomach as he realized his assumptions about Maria may have been wrong. A part of him hoped that was the case, but another part didn’t want to believe that a man he’d hired and trusted, had a hand in Maria and Johnny’s disappearance.
“Tell me what happened son.” He urged gently.
“He…she…” Johnny stopped and Murdoch could feel the tension through Johnny’s body as he fought to collect his thoughts. He waited and was rewarded for his patience. “That night, I was asleep. I woke up when I heard mama scream and I ran to her room. A man was on top of her and she….” Johnny flushed and looked away once again. “Anyway, I ran over and began hitting him. That’s all I remember. I woke up with my head spinning and a black eye. My mama had one too. We were a long way away and I didn’t know where we were.” Johnny shuddered and Murdoch squeezed his arm in support.
“My mama was so scared. She told me to be good and do whatever he said. He kept us prisoners in his house. He’d lock us in and he told me if I tried to leave, he’d kill her. He told her he’d kill me if she didn’t do what he said. He never let us go anywhere together. One of us was always locked up. He called it insurance. He said you didn’t want her no more cause she was a wh…whore.” Johnny said with a shudder that shook his whole frame.
Murdoch was at a complete loss at hearing the terror Johnny and Maria had been through. “Johnny, you have to believe me, I had nothing to do with this. You do believe me son?”
Johnny looked up at his father with tears in his eyes and said softly, “I didn’t want to believe it. Still, you did hire him.” Johnny looked accusingly at his father.
“I did hire him to keep on eye on you and your mother,” Murdoch admitted. “But I never, ever would have allowed him to hurt you or your mother, Johnny.” Murdoch said these words with conviction.
Murdoch waited and hoped he’d gotten through to his son. He could see that Johnny was trying to deal with his conflicting emotions, and he remembered a time when he’d sat on a log with Johnny and they’d worked through his fears and insecurities. Murdoch resolved to do the same again, no matter how long it took.
Finally Johnny spoke, hesitation in his voice causing him to speak slowly, “I knew you loved me, just still in all, I didn’t know if you’d want me back after…” Johnny stopped, looked down, and began chewing his lip.
Murdoch put his large hand over his son’s and squeezed gently, “After what son?”
“After I killed that bastard.” Johnny muttered.
Murdoch swallowed, “Can you tell me about it?”
“What’s there to tell? Your son’s a killer. I shot him down like a dog. He wasn’t even armed. The law would a hung me if they’d caught me, so me and ma ran. We ran as far as we could and I got real good with that gun. Saved my life more than a few times.”
In a voice that Murdoch didn’t even recognize as his, he asked. “How old were you, Johnny?”
“I musta been almost 14.” Johnny replied.
Murdoch felt himself go cold at the shock that settled over him at the knowledge that his son had killed a man before he was 14.
“So old man, what do ya think about having a killer for a son? Still want me to stay around now?” Johnny challenged.
Murdoch knew he still didn’t have the whole story, but what was important right now was making Johnny believe he had a place here with him. “Son, I love you. Together we can get through anything. Tell me what happened so I can help you sort it out.”
“Talkin’ about it won’t change nothin’.”
“True, but talking about it often lightens the load. Let me carry some of it son, that’s what pa’s are for.” Murdoch held his breath as he watched Johnny struggle to make a decision.
In a monotone voice, Johnny related the tragedy that shaped his young life, “He beat us. He’d come home drunk and hurt my ma and if I tried to stop him, me too. He knocked her out one time and I swore I’d never let him to that again. He….he came back one night plastered and he started in on us. He took off his belt and was gonna lay into me again. My mama tried to stop him and he hit her. I lost it. I grabbed his gun and shot him. It happened so fast, I…I don’t even remember thinking about it. Then we ran.”
Murdoch felt the urge to get up and pace, or throw something, or both, but Johnny’s need for contact stopped him from indulging in his own needs. His son needed to know he understood and wasn’t going to reject him.
“Johnny, you did what you had to do to protect yourself and your mother. I’m proud of you son.”
Johnny looked at his father with doubt clouding his features, “You’re proud of me?”
“Yes. You must have been very scared,
but you stood up to him. Where did you go after that?”
“Matamoros. Mama had some family there. We stayed with her relatives.
“Why didn’t you come to me Johnny? I would have protected you.”
“Douglas was working for the pinks. We had to go to Mexico. It was the only safe place.”
Murdoch swallowed as the truth hit him once and for all, “and your mother?”
Johnny was silent for a moment and Murdoch thought he’d have to prod him again for answers, but his patience was rewarded, “Ma got real sick and died two years ago.” Johnny answered sadly. He caught Murdoch’s eye and stated. “I couldn’t just leave her. She needed me.”
“Two years.” Murdoch felt bereft at the lost time. Why didn’t you come home sooner son?”
“I did.” Johnny said so quietly Murdoch almost missed it.
“Oh, about a year and a half ago. You weren’t here. Nobody I knew was here.”
Murdoch’s stomach turned over with the realization that Johnny had come home to an empty house as that would have been when he was visiting Scott. It was Murdoch’s turn to bow his head at the sense of helplessness he felt, “Son, I was back east in Boston about then visiting Scott. Why didn’t you just stay and wait for me.”
“Couldn’t. They run me off. Your hired hands never gave me a chance to tell them who I was. Didn’t tell me where you where either or when you’d be back. Paul was gone too. Where is everybody?
“Paul got married a few years ago. He bought a small spread in Oregon territory and is settled in up there. Cipriano and his family decided to move down south.”
“Oh.” Johnny said in obvious disappointment. He was silent as he absorbed the information. A sly smile graced his lips, “Well I didn’t leave here empty handed. I snuck back that night and took that palomino colt. Figured you owed him to me. He’s outside. I named him Barranca.”
“I always wondered what happened to him. I can’t condone you stealing a horse, but I am glad you have him. The two of you were meant for each other.” Murdoch smiled but it felt hollow.
Johnny smiled, “He’s my amigo. I can always count on him to be on my side.” Johnny made it clear that he had no others he could depend on.
“I’m glad he’s taken such good care of you. Do you suppose he’d let me take over some of the job?” Murdoch smiled at his son’s questioning look and watched as understanding came over Johnny.
At Johnny’s shy smile and nod, Murdoch gave him a slap on the leg, “Let’s get you settled in then. Supper will be ready in an hour and your room’s all ready for you. Welcome home son.”
Johnny had been in the barn for an hour just taking in the sights and smells that almost overwhelmed him. He had spent a lot of time in here the year he’d lived with his father. He’d always sought refuge and comfort from the dark cool building when life closed in on him.
Barranca was safely ensconced in a large box stall and was eagerly nuzzling the fresh grass hay to pick out the sweetest bits. Johnny had just finished brushing him, the shine of his rich coat, a testament to his owner’s good care.
As Johnny stroked Barranca’s neck, he chewed his lip and wondered if he was making the right choice. He’d made so many wrong ones in his life and he didn’t have a lot of confidence in his decision to stay now. He chuckled a bit, ‘some tough gunfighter, you are. Can’t make a simple decision. You’d be long dead right now Johnny boy if you’d hesitated in some of those gun fights.’
Johnny gave Barranca a final pat and closed the stall door firmly. He scuffed the dirt floor with his worn boot before settling on a hay bale. He plucked out a piece of hay, and idly chewed on it as he thought about his life. His father had been reassuring, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready to settle back into his role as son.
When he’d gone up to his old room earlier, so many memories had flooded his senses. Both good and bad, but the horror of that last night drove him down the stairs and back out of the house with a muttered excuse of taking care of his horse, when his father inquired.
Johnny was lost in thought and hadn’t noticed the passing of time until he heard his father’s voice at the barn door.
“Son? Dinner’s ready. Let’s go get washed up.”
Johnny slowly stood and with a final look at Barranca, he followed his father to the side door off the kitchen.
“Here’s some fresh water and a clean towel.” Murdoch directed.
“Thanks.” Johnny smiled as he washed his hands and face, and rubbed the grime off with the towel.
He followed his father into the kitchen and was surprised and somewhat relieved to see they were eating in the kitchen instead of at the large table in the dining room. “Since Scott left for school, I’ve taken to eating in here again most of the time.”
Johnny nodded and sat down for the first meal with his father in a very long time. They ate in silence for the most part, taking the measure of each other. Murdoch wiped his mouth with his napkin before laying it on the table and waited for Johnny to finish his glass of milk. “Come into the living room with me, Johnny.”
Johnny started to wipe his mouth with his shirt sleeve when he caught the look from his father and used the napkin instead. He smiled ruefully as he realized he was going to have to brush up on his manners or he’d probably be seeing that look quite a lot.
Murdoch was settled at his desk and he pointed to the chair in front of him, so Johnny sat down and tried to get comfortable in the straight backed chair. Fidgeting until he was slouched down a bit, he waited for his father to get his pipe lit.
Johnny watched in fascination as his father puffed on the pipe and smoke billowed out into the room. Once the pipe was drawing to his father’s satisfaction, he placed it in the ash tray.
“Son, I wanted to talk to you about your brother. As I told you earlier, he spent a year as a prisoner of war. He’s staying with his grandfather in Boston and from what I’ve been told is recovering from some injuries…”
“Injuries? Is Scott going to be okay?” Johnny interrupted.
“None of them are life threatening. As much as anything, he’s malnourished and suffering from trauma.”
“Oh.” Johnny was at a loss, not sure he understood his father’s meaning but not wanting to sound stupid, he refrained from asking.
“His grandfather will make sure he gets the best of care. He should gain his weight back with good food, but the horror of being a prisoner will be the hardest thing we’ll have to deal with.”
“So when is he coming back home?”
Murdoch sighed and shook his head in frustration, “I’m not sure exactly. I haven’t heard from him directly. In fact, I was getting ready to leave for Boston the day after tomorrow.”
Johnny felt like he’d been hit by a blow to the gut. He kept his head bowed and fought to keep his emotions in check. He’d been very disappointed to find his brother gone, but this was doubly hard. He found himself feeling unnerved at the idea his father was leaving so soon as well.
Finding his voice, he met his father’s steady gaze, “You need to go get him and bring him home.”
“I don’t want to leave you son.”
“How long do ya think you’ll be gone?”
“It’s hard to say. I was planning to take 3 months, but if Scott is able to travel right away, it could be much less.”
Johnny’s heart began to beat faster, “Okay…..” He once again bowed his head to try to hide his disappointment.
“Son, I can’t leave you here alone. I thought….”
“I can take care of myself. I’ve been doin’ it long enough.” Johnny asserted.
“That’s out of the question. I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, so hear me out.”
Johnny looked up into his father’s eyes and nodded his agreement, so Murdoch continued. “The way I see it, we have two choices. I can enroll you in school in Sacramento. You remember, the same school Scott went to…”
Murdoch stopped when he saw the dismay flash across Johnny’s features, and he held up his hand, “or, you can come with me to Boston.”
“Go to Boston?” Johnny hadn’t even thought of that. His shook his head and came up with a third option, “How bout if you go to Boston and I take the job I have waitin’ for me, down round Pajaro.”
“What kind of job?” Murdoch questioned suspicion ringing with every word.
Johnny shrugged, “Range war brewing and they’re hirin’ guns.”
Murdoch stood up and towered over Johnny. “No! Absolutely not! You get that right out of your head this instant. You may have been able to get away with that before, but from now on, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll mind me Johnny or you’ll find yourself to be a very unhappy young man.”
Johnny flinched as his father’s wrath cascaded upon his head and he felt his own temper heating up in defiance of his father’s words. “You can’t tell me what to do. I been takin’ care of myself for a long time and I don’t need you now.” His words rang with challenge.
Johnny held his father’s gaze as he watched his father’s face turn red. Before he could react, Murdoch grabbed his arms and yanked him out of the chair and gave him a shake. “You will do as I say Boy! I am your father and I know what’s best for you. I will not have you waste you’re life like that.” Murdoch softened his voice, “Son, your brother and I need you. Don’t throw this chance away. I know you’ve had it hard, but give us a chance. Please?”
Johnny felt the defiance drain from his body as his father’s words buffeted him and he once again felt protected and cared for, by the boundaries his father was setting. Johnny nodded and Murdoch released him.
“So what do we do?” Johnny asked sitting down in the chair. He watched as Murdoch sat down and picked up his pipe again.
“If you don’t want to go to school, I guess you’re coming with me to Boston. I have a few things to do tomorrow in town and then we leave. I’ll take you with me tomorrow so we can get a few supplies, and we’ll get some clothes for you before we leave Monterey.”
“What’s wrong with my clothes?” Johnny asked.
“Nothing, but for the trip you’ll need some more clothes and a warm coat. We’ll get what we need for the trip and then pick up a few other things in Boston.”
Johnny wasn’t sure he liked the sound of this but arguing with his father never worked in the past and he figured nothing had changed, especially in light of the recent example. Better to give in, he figured. “Okay. I guess I’ll turn in then.”
“Good night son. It’s good to have you home.”
With that Johnny walked up the stairs and started down the hall toward his bedroom. As he walked past the door of the guest room, he closed his eyes as painful memories descended on him and he hurried to the shelter of his own room.
Murdoch walked down the board walk in Green River and tipped his hat to Mrs. Carson as he went by. He felt a spring in his step that he hadn’t felt since….he couldn’t remember when. He’d hardly slept at all last night with the excitement he felt at Johnny returning home.
He smiled at his recent memory of Johnny trying on a pair of trousers and his discomfort when Senora Baldermero walked in. She began fussing over him, pulling at the waistband and marking the pants for alterations. She assured them she’d have them done by the time they were ready to leave town.
With that chore taken care of, he’d sent Johnny to the blacksmith to get the horses shod. He figured that a new set of shoes for Johnny’s horse and a reset for his, would take about an hour, so he’d have plenty of time to go to the bank and stop to see Sam Jenkins.
As he walked up the steps to the doctor’s office, he couldn’t help the grin that broke out on his face as he anticipated telling his good friend the news. He reached up to knock just as the door swung open and Murdoch’s grin got wider at the look of surprise on Sam’s face.
“Murdoch!” Sam burst out and noticing his friend’s smile figured all was well with the big rancher. “What brings you here this morning? I thought you were leaving for Boston soon.”
“Let’s go back inside a minute, Sam. Do you have a few minutes?” Murdoch suggested as he saw a couple of interested glances thrown their way from passing townsfolk.
“Sure, Murdoch. I was just going to make my rounds, but there’s nothing urgent right now. What’s going on? Is it Scott?”
Sam was looking at him as if he’d gone loco, so Murdoch decided he better tell it quick. “Johnny’s come home.”
Murdoch watched as the play of emotion washed over Sam’s craggy face. He was quickly rewarded with the same goofy smile he’d been wearing all morning. “Johnny’s home! That’s wonderful news! Where is he Murdoch?” Sam looked at him with anticipation.
“He’s over at the livery stable getting the horses shod.’
“Well let’s just get on down there. I want to see that boy…”
“Hold on a minute Sam.” Murdoch held out a restraining arm. “I don’t know how to put this…” He stopped, unsure how to describe Johnny.
“What is it Murdoch?” Sam said gently.
“Johnny’s been through a lot. His mother died two years ago and he’s been on his own since then. He’s probably been on his own for a lot longer than that, if I am reading between the lines right.”
Murdoch watched as Sam sank deeper into the arm chair and waited for him to go on. “Sam, he’s just a kid, but he’s been making his living as a gun fighter. He’s Johnny Madrid.” Murdoch waited to see if the name meant anything to his old friend.
“Johnny Madrid.” Sam drew the name out slowly and puckered his lips and narrowed his eyes in thought. “I’ve heard that name. He’s an up and coming pistolero down around the border.” Sam’s pale blue eyes met Murdoch’s in confusion, “But he can’t be your Johnny! He just can’t.”
“I know Sam. I feel the same way, but I’m afraid it’s true. Maria and I have a lot to atone for when it comes to that boy….” Murdoch couldn’t find the words to complete the sentence.
“Maria.” Sam ground out. “What happened to her?”
“Johnny said she died two years ago.”
“Two years.” He repeated slowly. “Did he say what happened to them? Where she took them?”
Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “It’s a long story Sam. So many things happen in life that you just can’t count on. I hired the Pinkerton Agency to find Maria and Johnny and keep an eye on him. One of the agents, evidentially was obsessed with Maria, and….well….I trusted him. He kidnapped Maria and Johnny from Lancer.”
Murdoch heard the muffled gasp from Sam and shook his head. “That bastard hurt my wife and son. He kept them prisoner. He raped and beat my wife and did lord only knows what to Johnny.” Murdoch felt himself start to shake at the stark emotions the retelling of the events that changed their lives was doing to him.
Sam got up suddenly and poured them both whisky and handed it to Murdoch. “Drink.” He ordered.
Murdoch nodded gratefully and took a fortifying gulp of the strong drink. He grit his teeth as it burned its way down his throat and set his stomach afire. “There’s more Sam. Much more. Johnny told me that Douglas attacked them one day and Johnny shot and killed him. He and his mother fled to Mexico. They ended up in Matamoros with some of Maria’s relatives.”
“Why didn’t they come to you? She must have known you’d protect them.”
“I thought about that all last night. I don’t know. Johnny says it’s because Mexico was the only place they’d be safe as Douglas’ friends were after them. I can’t help but wonder if Maria just used that as an excuse. I’ve been so angry with her for so long, I just can’t set it aside. I trusted her and then all these years, I thought she’d betrayed me again. I just can’t help but wonder why she didn’t sit Johnny down and make sure he knew the truth and that he was to find his way home to me.”
“How do you know she didn’t?” Sam asked.
“I don’t know anything for sure.” Murdoch took another sip of whisky, more cautious this time. “Just something he said, left me wondering.” He looked at his old friend and shook his head, “I wonder if she told him, I wouldn’t want them back after….”
“Would you have? You were willing to forgive her past indiscretions, but knowing she’d….” Sam left the sentence unfinished.
Murdoch drained the glass and stood up, “I’d like to think I would be understanding and supportive, but it’s so hard to think of another man with her….it make’s me so angry, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Sam laid his hand on Murdoch’s arm and offered, “You’re a good man Murdoch Lancer, you would have done the right thing. Now let’s go see that boy of yours.”
“Hold on a minute Sam. Just a couple of other things you should know. Johnny came home to me when he was 15, a few months after Maria died. I was in Boston for Scott’s graduation so he left.” Murdoch stopped at seeing his friend’s dropped jaw. “I know, I know. I could have had him back. Anyway, I’m taking him to Boston with me. It will give us time to get to get to know each other.”
“Good idea. “How old is he now, 16?”
“17. He just turned 17.” Murdoch corrected.
Sam shook his head, stood, and made for the door, “Let’s get over to see him.”
Johnny stood holding Barranca’s reins as the blacksmith finished tacking on the last hind shoe. Barranca had been fidgeting for the last ten minutes, trying to grab the rein in his mouth and when that didn’t work, he nibbled at Johnny’s fingers.
“Ow!” Johnny jerked his hand back and shook it as he glared at his horse. “Be more careful.” He admonished.
“Hold em still.” The blacksmith warned as he waited for the gelding to once again relax his hind leg and rest it on his large leather covered thigh.
“Sorry.” Johnny muttered both for himself and his horse. He breathed a sigh of relief when the blacksmith announced he was done as he dropped the gelding’s leg. As the man stepped away to gather his tools, Barranca let one fly and Johnny had his hands full as he simultaneously tried to calm his horse and the angry blacksmith who narrowly missed being kicked.
“Get that devil outta here!” The man roared at Johnny.
“What’s going on here!” Murdoch’s voice demanded.
Johnny turned to see his father just inside the barn door along with an older man. Before he could say anything, he heard the blacksmith’s angry words. “You don’t be bringin this devil around here no more, Mr. Lancer.”
“What are you talking about Charlie?”
“He didn’t do nuthin’ wrong. He’s just particular on who handles him.” Johnny quickly defended.
“We’ll he can be particular with someone else. I ain’t shoein’ him again!”
“Fine by me!” Johnny said as he led Barranca from the barn and past the other men.
Johnny was angrily tightening the cinch when Murdoch caught up with him. He stood listening for a moment as Johnny berated his horse in Spanish for getting them into trouble. He was telling Barranca that he couldn’t take him anywhere in polite company and if he wasn’t careful he’d end up as dog food right quick. Johnny looked up at his father just as he finished scolding his horse.
Johnny could have sworn he caught his father hiding a smile, but his attention quickly turned to the other man. He looked at him carefully and a smile broke out on Johnny’s face as he realized just who this was. “Doctor Jenkins!”
“Well, hello there Johnny. Your father told me you came home and I just had to see for myself.” The doctor reached out and shook Johnny’s hand. “Still getting into trouble, I see.”
Johnny smiled at the doctor’s good natured teasing. “It’s good to see ya Doc. I met a few doctors here and there, but none as good as you.”
Sam smiled at Johnny’s compliment and added, “I hope I don’t have to treat you as often now as I did when you were twelve.” Abruptly changing the subject, “I hear you’re going to Boston with your father to see Scott.”
“Yeah, I am. We’re leaving tomorrow, but we’re not just going to see Scott, we’re bringing him home with us.” Johnny’s tone of finality left no doubt as to his intentions, and the two older men just smiled and nodded.
“Let’s go then. We just need to stop and get your new clothes and we’ll be on our way.”
“It’s sure good to see ya Doc.” Johnny said as he mounted Barranca.
“Stop in with your brother when you get home, boy. It’s good to have you back.”
Johnny turned Barranca to face the doctor, “Thanks Doc. Good to be back too.”
Johnny watched as his father packed everything for him once again in his valise. He had very few belongings as he always traveled light so it was a new experience for him. He’d thrown everything his father had bought him along with his own gear into the valise, but just now when his father had come to check on his progress, he’d dumped everything out on the bed to start over.
“If you just stuff everything in Johnny, it’ll all wrinkle. You have to fold it just so, and then it’ll look half way decent when you put it on. We’ll have to buy a few more things for both of us when we get there.”
Johnny lay back on the bed and watched as his father methodically folded the new shirts and trousers. He stuffed several pairs of socks and two new night shirts into the bag. “I don’t wear them things.” Johnny pointed out.
“We’re sharing a room, so you will wear a night shirt.” Murdoch said with such finality, Johnny wasn’t going to argue.
Murdoch looked over at the dresser where Johnny had placed the new brush and razor Murdoch had bought for him. “Tomorrow, just pack those at the last minute before we leave. How often do you shave anyway?”
Johnny started to say every day, but figured his father would figure it out pretty quick so he answered truthfully, “Every couple a days or so, why?”
“No reason. I just wondered as you didn’t have a razor.”
“Just used my knife. Never needed anything fancy before.”
Murdoch looked once around the room, “You’re all packed for now. Why don’t you come down stairs and I’ll show you the map of where we’re going.”
Murdoch spread the map on the dining room table and put salt and pepper shakers on the corners to hold down two of the edges. He felt a real closeness to Johnny as his son bent over the map, their heads almost touching.
“We leave from here, and it’s 4 to 5 days down to here.” Murdoch used his finger to trace the route. “Then we pick up the train and it’s a one day trip to here.”
Johnny took a step back, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You didn’t say nothing about going by boat.”
“Ship. We’re going by ship.”
“But I thought we was taking a stage and maybe a train. I ain’t never been on a train.”
Murdoch looked at his son and crossed his arms. “Johnny it would take too long overland. It would be too tough a trip also. There are high riders and outlaws everywhere, not to mention Indian uprisings. No son. We’re going by ship.”
Murdoch watched as Johnny chewed his lip as he thought about this wrinkle. “It will be fine son.” Murdoch remembered that Johnny had at least one unpleasant experience on a ship, perhaps two, so he sought to assure his son. “I’ll be with you son. Did you get sick the last time?”
Johnny slowly shook his head, yes.
“We’re traveling first class Johnny. Our stateroom should be pretty stable, but if you get sick, I’ll have the shipboard doctor treat you. It won’t be so bad and by the time we get to Boston, you’ll be an old sea dog.”
Murdoch chuckled as he watched the play of emotions on Johnny’s face, leaving him no doubt, his son had no intention of becoming a sea dog.
Departure day saw the sun bright and crisp. Murdoch was giving last minute instructions to Frank. “You can wire me if you need anything. Send it in care of the Mr. Harper. I’ve left all the details on my desk if you need them. I’ll send a wire as soon as I know when we’ll we starting back.” He watched Frank nod in understanding, “Now where did that boy go off to?”
“I saw him head for the barn. He was going to turn that horse of his out in the south pasture.”
“I don’t want anyone trying to ride him while were gone. Leave him alone unless we get a real bad storm, then put him in the barn…if he’ll let you. If he gives you any trouble, just leave him be. I don’t want anyone getting hurt by him, and I don’t want anything to happen to my son’s horse.”
“Yes sir.” Frank replied as he watched his boss head for the barn.
Murdoch wasn’t surprised to see Johnny grooming his horse one last time before they left. “Time to go son. Turn him out.”
Johnny reluctantly led the palomino out of the barn and through the gate leading to the south pasture. Murdoch watched as Johnny slipped off the halter and gave the golden neck a hug. Johnny closed the gate in the face of the affectionate horse as Barranca tried to follow him. “Go on boy. Mind what I told ya and stay out of trouble.”
Murdoch threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulder as they watched the palomino gallop off tossing his head and bucking. “Come on son, he’ll be fine. Let’s go get your brother.”
“Yes! It’s the rule. I told you to leave it home.”
“Johnny, The ship line forbids passengers to carry weapons of any kind. I told you that before we left the ranch, and you disobeyed me. Now hand your gun over. They’ll lock it up and give it back when we reach Panama.”
Johnny reluctantly handed the gun and belt to the ship’s second officer and began fastening up the valise. He didn’t think they’d search everyone’s baggage but his weapon had been found right away wrapped in one of his shirts and from the look on his father’s face, he was going to be hearing about this in more detail.”
“Sorry sir. Since the war, we have to be more diligent as we’ve had more than one ship held hostage for its cargo. We have to take precautions. It’s the law.”
“No problem. I’ll retrieve my son’s gun when we disembark. Come on Johnny, let’s get settled in.” Murdoch started down the passage way following the porter carrying their bags.
“Here we are sir. The porter said as he held open the mahogany door. Murdoch ducked his head as he went sideways though the narrow door.
Johnny whistled as he took in his surroundings. “This is sure somethin’, ain’t it?” He immediately walked across the small stateroom and looked out the porthole trying to see through the fogged glass.
Murdoch tipped the porter and inquired as to dinner time. “Seven O’clock sir in the grand ball room, upstairs. The dress is formal sir.” The porter added.
Murdoch gave the man a tip and closed the door firmly. He turned to watch as his son explored their new surroundings, opening cupboards and drawers in fascination. Murdoch crossed his arms and cleared his throat and waited.
At the sound of his father clearing his throat, Johnny’s eyes slowly rose until he was looking at the angry face of his father. Johnny waited for his father to start, and when he was not forthcoming, Johnny flushed and tried to come up with something to diffuse his father’s anger. “What’re ya so mad about Ol….I mean Pa?” He gave his father his best look of innocence and when he saw his father was not buying it, he changed tact. “It’s not like I was gonna shoot the place up or nothing. It’s just that a man gets used to havin’ it around. I don’t feel right without it, and I want it back. I don’t care about no law.”
In two steps Murdoch was in front of Johnny and towering over him. Johnny had learned early to hide fear from any man, but his father’s size and obvious anger almost undid him. Mustering every bit of resolve, he swallowed hard and stood up straight ready to go toe to toe with his father. Before he could say another word, he felt himself being pushed to sit down on the bed behind him.
“You sit right there and don’t move.” Murdoch ordered. “Not another word out of you until you listen to what I have to say and listen hard. You will do as I say Johnny. I know you’re not used to following orders, but that is going to change right here and now. I am your father and you are still a boy no matter how long you’ve been on your own. We are going to be traveling together for a long time, and I will not put up with your bad behavior. If you plan to throw a temper tantrum every time you don’t get your own way, you will be a very sorry young man. Do you understand me?”
Johnny felt his own anger rise and tried to stand up only to be pushed back down by his father’s large hand. “I ain’t a little kid no more so stop treating me like one!”
“Johnny, I know you’re not a child, but you’re not a man yet and in order to keep you out of trouble on this trip, you need to mind me.” Murdoch stopped talking and Johnny chanced a look up at his father’s stern face.
Johnny watched as a change seemed to come over his father, he seemed softer and heck, just not nearly as mad as when the officer had discovered Johnny’s gun hidden away in the valise.
“Son, I’ll make you a deal. You behave like a man and I will treat you like a man. If you behave like a child, you’ll be in trouble so fast it will make your head spin.” Murdoch offered his right hand. “Deal?”
“Guess I ain’t got no choice.” Johnny muttered under his breath.
“What did you say?” Murdoch said sharply.
“Nothin’ I didn’t say nothin’. We got us a deal.” Johnny shook his father’s hand.
Murdoch smiled a little at him and he felt slightly better until he felt the ship roll and he heard his father say, “We’re getting under way. Let’s go topside and watch as the tugs pull us out of port.”
Johnny feeling green around the gills at the thought followed his father to the upper deck without a word.
Johnny looked at the other guests at the round table and felt decidedly out of place. He wore the suit that had been quickly sized to fit him and he was not looking forward to his father’s promise of having a proper suit made when they got to Boston. He once again resisted the urge to tug at his tie, sure his father had tied it too tight. He looked at their fellow passengers and noted the red cheeks on the men and thought maybe they all needed to loosen their ties just a mite.
For the third time, he shot a smile across the table at the only other person under 30. He caught her eyes on him and he tried to remember her name. The ships purser had introduced all of them quickly and he hadn’t been able to hang on to a single name.
His father was engaged in a discussion with the man on his left about the upcoming election and Johnny had answered a few questions to the portly woman on his right. She seemed to start up with more questions whenever Johnny tried to make eye contact with the young woman across the table.
“Dear.” She tapped him on the arm.
Johnny turned his eyes to her and tried to figure out what she wanted. At his obvious confusion, she asked again, “Are you going to Boston to go to Harvard?”
Johnny smiled slightly at the thought, “No ma’am. I’m going to see my brother.”
“What does your brother do in Boston?” She said fishing.
“Ah, I don’t really know. He just got out of the war and me and my pa are going to bring him home.” Johnny quickly took a sip of water as that was the longest sentence he’d said since sitting down at the elegant table.
The lady, wiped her mouth with the white linen napkin, “Oh my. I hope he wasn’t injured too badly. He wasn’t disfigured was he?”
Confusion swept over Johnny as he was totally unprepared for this line of questioning, “I…um…I don’t know. I sure hope not.”
“You don’t know?”
“See, I ain’t seen my brother for five years and I didn’t even know he was in a war. Last I heard, he was goin’ to school at Harvard not fightin’ in a war.”
“I think that’s enough questions for now.” Murdoch’s voice cut in and rescued Johnny.
“My son and I are going to take a stroll around the deck before we turn in. Goodnight.”
Johnny gratefully followed his father out of the dining room, but one young voice caught his attention as he left. “Good night Johnny. Sleep well.”
Scott tossed and turned in his bed as he tried to find a comfortable position. As hard as he tried, sleep just would not come. He threw the covers off and went over to the window and pushed it open. The crisp winter air hit him in a shocking wave, but he relished it as it dulled his senses.
Distantly, he heard the clock chime from the Commons. ‘One in the morning’, he thought. He knew he needed to get to sleep, but for what? He didn’t have anywhere to go tomorrow or even any reason to get up. All his needs were being met and there were days, when it was just much easier to pull the covers over his head to block out the images and thoughts that plagued him.
Maybe I’ll take my grandfather up on his offer of another trip to Europe. Maybe he’s right, getting away may be just what I need to put this whole thing behind me. He thought briefly of returning to California to be with his father, but there was nothing there that drew him anymore. He still felt the familiar pain of his disappointment and disillusionment that his father was not the man he thought he was.
With a sigh, he closed the window and returned to his bed rubbing his cold hands together. He pulled the blankets over himself and settled into the feather pillows with his hands behind his head. He looked at the shadows on the ceiling made by the street lamps and thought back to the session today with the doctor his grandfather had hired to treat him.
I am not crazy. Scott thought with an amused grin. Well, maybe I am a little, if I have to reassure myself I’m not. He frowned as he thought about what the man had said about finding a happy time in his life he could concentrate on. More and more, Scott kept returning to those summer months with his brother. It felt so real at times, he could feel the horse straining under his thighs as he raced his brother through the meadow.
He smiled in memory as he remembered wrestling with Johnny in the pig pen and then getting scolded by their father when they came to the house all muddy. So many good memories. He suddenly frowned as the overriding memory turned to fear and the familiar panic set in as he once again thought that his brother was out there somewhere. Hurting maybe or afraid. Cold, hungry and alone. Scott had to blink back tears that came unbidden and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. He’d thought about Johnny a lot when he’d been a prisoner of war. He tried to draw inner strength from the thought that he needed to find Johnny when he was free. His brother needed him and that was the thought that gave Scott the strength to go on and survive the horror of war.
Maybe that’s what he’d do. Find Johnny. His mind began planning as he wrestled with the logistics of such an endeavor, and he finally fell asleep as the first streaks of light brightened the sky.
Johnny looked with disinterest out the train window as it chugged through the Panamian countryside. The thrill of his first train ride had worn off hours ago and he was tired and irritable. He looked across at his father who was trying to doze, much to Johnny’s relief as he was just plain tired of the man telling him what to do. ‘Sit still Johnny, Be quiet Johnny’ or even worse, *the look* telling him to mind his manners.
He felt grumpy and the fact that his father had confiscated his gun when they arrived back in port didn’t make matters any better. He was wondering what his father meant when he said he’d give it back when it was time for him to have it back. That just grated on him. He’d learned right quick not to argue with his father in public, but it seemed they never had any real privacy so far on this trip.
Johnny once more focused on the scenery and couldn’t help but marvel at how much like parts of Mexico it was. Jungle and valleys topped by rocky ridges. Some areas green with life, others dry as a desert. It made him feel homesick and he had to force himself to draw his mind away from that thought.
He glanced at his father and was tempted to swipe at a large fly that had landed on the old man’s nose, but thought better of it. He amused himself for a while watching the fly work its way across his father’s whisker laden cheek. He grinned, as his father in sleep, tried to brush the fly away, only to have it settle once again. As his father lazily swiped at the offending fly, a large smile settled on Johnny’s lips. Way too soon, the fly lost interest and moved on to bother someone else, but Johnny felt his spirits lifted a bit from the encounter.
He thought back to the trip down on the ship with fondness. He was surprised he hadn’t felt sick; not once. Traveling first class was the way to go, he thought. The stateroom was quite large, but still cramped with the two of them together, so unless they were sleeping, they spent a lot of their time on deck. It was nothing like the last time, he thought with relief.
His father had spent most of his time with a couple of Brazilian cattlemen, absorbed in the price of cattle and the merits of crossing Herefords with Longhorns. Johnny had grown bored and wandered off to amuse himself by watching the shipmen work. The captain had noticed his interest and he’d invited him into the pilot house, where he spent as much time as he could. He learned about navigation using the stars as a compass, and even how to read some of the many charts that were rolled and ready for use at a moments notice.
He found himself most interested in the topography of the ocean as the captain explained that the oceans depth changed dramatically especially along the South American coastline. As they entered port, they had to follow a trough in order to avoid the reef protecting them. While he wasn’t ready to run off to the sea, he felt much better about being on a ship after getting to know the workings better.
Another thought brought a smile to his lips, ‘Caroline, that was her name. Such a beautiful name for a beautiful girl. Woman.’ Johnny corrected himself. He could practically feel her lips pressing against his as they sought out each other in a sheltered alcove on the ship. They had teased each other for the first two days, and by the third night, they had an unspoken agreement.
Johnny slipped out of the stateroom and met her in the shadows of the smoke stack. They laughingly thought briefly of climbing into one of the lifeboats, but instead found a quiet place to get to know each other better. While Johnny wasn’t innocent by any means, this night of passion had left him with a new awareness and respect for the pleasure of a woman.
He glanced once more at his father and frowned. ‘Boy, the old man really yelled, when he’d found out.’ Johnny shrugged, ‘how was I to know she was 25 and married?’ They hadn’t really talked all that much. Now he knew she was on her way to Peru to meet her husband who was a missionary. Johnny smiled at the irony, and wished Caroline well.
Scott awoke and quickly covered his eyes. The sun was streaming into his room from the open window. Boston in January on a cold crisp day almost rivaled the brisk mornings at the ranch. *Almost* Scott thought. Here in the winter, the air was filled with smoke from coal stoves. The air at the ranch had a freshness, Scott couldn’t remember experiencing anywhere else.
A part of him knew he’d go back. Someday, anyway. He still loved his father deeply, but their disagreement had caused a rift that had raised a wall between them. Scott felt it the last time he saw his father and he’d seen it in the letters since then.
Perhaps if his father had located Johnny, they could have found a way to be a family again. No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t let go of his anger toward his father for allowing Johnny to be kidnapped by Maria. He still couldn’t understand what made his father believe he could trust her.
He knew his father had been looking for his younger son. Of that he was as sure, as sure as he was of his own name. Just something Johnny said once, made him think. Johnny had mentioned living in Matamoros once with his mother when he was small and they’d been taken in by relatives.
He knew his father had looked there in the past and he was sure he’d had someone look again, but it wasn’t the same as going in person. What would it hurt? He asked himself. If I can’t find out anything, I could at least leave word for him. It’s better than sitting around here anyway.
His mind made up, he swung out of bed and got dressed. He shaved very carefully and dressed in the business suit appropriate for confronting his grandfather. *Confronting* Scott thought with a frown. Sad word, but it fits. His grandfather had given him so much. Not only a first class education, but he’d made sure he was set for life financially.
The only thing his grandfather was unable to give him was trust. Trust that Scott could take care of himself and make his own decisions. Well, maybe he was somewhat right to be worried. His grandfather had strenuously objected when Scott told him he was joining the Army. He’d gone so far as to forbid it, and when he saw Scott was determined, he’d tried to block his enlistment.
Scott had to push and his grandfather had finally given in. He’d had him placed with General Sheridan’s unit and he would have played a token part in the war. Fate and Scott’s own sense of adventure stepped in and he was sent to the front of battle after proving himself to be a marksman with a rifle. All those years of practice at the ranch paid off, Scott thought ruefully. He shivered as he an image of that prison came to him, and he forcefully pushed the thought from his mind.
With a quick brush to his hair, Scott practically ran down the stairs feeling younger and more energetic than he had in a year. He stopped at the front door only long enough to slip into his wool overcoat and wrap a wool scarf around his neck.
“Sir, your breakfast is waiting.”
“No thank you, Grayson. I have a few errands to take care of today.”
“When should I tell Mr. Garrett, you’ll be returning?”
“I’ll tell him myself. He’s one of my errands.” Scott said with a smile as he placed his hat on his head and left the warmth of his grandfather’s house.
Murdoch awoke with a start as a billow of black smoke came through the open window. He coughed a moment and eyed his grinning son.
“Seems we’re climbin’ again. I’ll tell you, this country’s sure’s nothing but ups and downs.” Johnny remarked.
“Did you get any sleep?” Murdoch inquired.
“Naw. Couldn’t. Too bumpy. You sure slept anyway, almost had your lunch too.” Johnny smiled.
Murdoch raised one eyebrow, but decided not to comment. He sat up straight and reached into his pocket for his watch. “We should be there in about an hour anyway. I won’t miss this old bucket.”
“We’re gonna spend a night on a bed that’s not moving, right?”
Murdoch nodded and agreed with Johnny. A night in a regular bed will feel good. “Yes, one night in the hotel and then back on a ship.”
“How much longer, till we get to Boston?”
“Five or six days, depending on the weather.”
“Do ya think Scott will come home with us?”
Murdoch found himself almost gasping at the sudden change in conversation, but it was the one nagging question he had, so he shouldn’t be too surprised that Johnny brought it up. “I sure hope so son. I want nothing more than to have both of you home with me.”
Murdoch watched as a slow smile crept up Johnny’s face, and he felt hope that he would finally have his family back together once and for all forever.
Johnny stood on the deck of the ship and faced into the wind as he watched the green of the island as it came closer and closer. The wind in his hair and the stark breeze on his face was as close as he was going to get to the feeling of riding Barranca at a gallop. He felt a wave of homesickness for his friend and hoped he was being well treated at his father’s ranch.”
He found himself at the rail for hours on end fascinated by the sea. The colors of the ocean drew him and he now understood that the depth of the ocean, the tide and weather all worked together to make the water shine and swirl.
“Johnny.” He almost jumped out of his skin when Murdoch suddenly placed a large hand on his shoulder. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, son.”
Johnny took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s okay. I wasn’t paying attention.”
“The ocean is mesmerizing, isn’t it?”
Johnny looked at him and raised his eyebrows. Murdoch answered his unspoken question, “It captures your attention and draws you in.” He explained.
“Yeah it does that.”
“I talked to the first mate, and he mentioned we would take on supplies and off load materials in Cuba, then we’ll head north around Florida and up the coast. He mentioned stopping in Virginia, then we’ll have one long stretch to Boston.” Murdoch explained as they both watched the horizon.
“It’s an island several hundred miles north east of here. We actually sail right between several small islands before we make our way into the Atlantic and up the coast.” Murdoch watched the expression on Johnny’s face and could tell more questions were coming. He didn’t have to wait long.
“How come we can’t just get off in Virginia and ride to Boston?”
“Johnny, that would take too long. Besides, the hostilities are still present and it would be too dangerous.”
“Oh.” Johnny said in disappointment.
“We’ll be in Havana about a day and a half. I thought we might look around and see some of the countryside. What do you think?”
“Sure. Have you been there before?”
“Actually, yes. Scott’s mother and I stopped over here when we were coming out to California. In those days the trip was a lot longer because we had to go clear around the tip of South America. That pass through Panama really shortens the trip.”
Johnny looked down at the ocean and watched the ship cut through the water before asking, “Do they speak English or Spanish or what there?”
Murdoch chuckled, “Both, all. Mainly Spanish, but they also have their own dialect. I‘m sure we’ll be able to understand them fine.”
Before he could elaborate further the ships bell rang signaling the passengers to lunch. “Come on son. I don’t know about you, but all this sea air makes me hungry.”
Johnny chuckled, “Me too. Hope they got somethin’ good. I’m getting’ kinda tired of that fish stew they’ve been making up.”
Murdoch smiled at Johnny’s expression, “I’ll tell you what, when we get to Cuba, I’ll buy you the biggest steak we can find. How does that sound?”
“Sounds good, but maybe they’ll have tamales and beans too.” Johnny sighed and Murdoch had to fight to keep from chuckling at the expression on his son’s face.
“Maybe so, you never know.” Murdoch threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulders and they made their way into the dining room feeling at ease with each other. Murdoch once again felt hope stirring that the nightmare he’d been living for the last several years would be at an end.
Scott followed the dour man dressed in a dark suit into his grandfather’s expansive office. Scott waited just inside the door while his grandfather’s aide waited to be dismissed.
“Ah Scotty.” Harlan Garrett looked up from his massive cherry wood desk. “Carl, bring fresh coffee for my grandson.”
Scott waited while the man left, and his grandfather motioned him to a chair. “Good morning Grandfather. Thank you for seeing me so quickly.”
“I have a few minutes before my next meeting. Perhaps you’d like to join us? You may find it instructive.”
Scott sat in the upright chair in front of his grand father’s desk and stiffened his resolve. “No sir, thank you. I wanted to talk to you about some travel plans.”
Scott watched as his grandfather smiled, “Scotty, I’m so pleased. I’ll arrange passage to London and make sure you have the proper introductions.”
Scott held up his hand, “No sir. I’m going to Mexico.” He stopped at the deep frown that appeared on his grand father’s face. “I’m going to look for my brother.”
Scott was startled as his grand father suddenly stood and shouted, “No! Absolutely not! I forbid you to even consider such a foolish scheme. You’re father may have wasted most of his life looking for that boy, but I will not allow you to do the same.”
Scott’s mind formed the words of outrage, but he stifled them to try to reason with his grandfather. “Sir, I’ve made up my mind, and I wish to respectfully remind you that *that boy* is my brother, and I intend to look for him.”
“Half brother.” Harlan enunciated clearly and Scott felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
“It makes no difference to me, sir. He’s my brother. My brother.” Scott said forcefully as he rose. “I’m going to arrange passage as soon as possible and I’d hoped you’d wish me well.”
Two sets of similar blues eyes, one of youth and determination; one of experience and cunning; locked together. Neither willing to look away, until a soft knock on the door ended the moment as Carl carried the heavy tray into the office. “Sir, Mister McMillian and Mister Edwards have arrived.”
Harlan tore his eyes away from his grandson, “Tell them I will be just a moment, my grandson is just leaving.” Harlan turned his back on Scott and Scott knew he’d been dismissed.
Scott raised his eyebrows and headed with long strides to the door, “Good bye grandfather. I’ll keep in touch.” His words were met with cold silence and Scott picked up his coat and slipped out the door.
Johnny stood looking out at the ocean. The breeze blew his hair and he leaned into it with relish. He’d left his shirt unbuttoned and his troubled mind tried to grapple with the feelings of repulsion he’d felt throughout the day. His father came into the room and he turned his head slightly before turning back to the view.
“Are you still thinking about it son?”
Johnny was quiet for a moment, then hung his head, “so much beauty in such an ugly place.”
“I’m sorry you had to witness that today, Johnny. It was hard to take, I know.”
Johnny turned to face his father and shook his head, “I just don’t understand it, that’s all. I mean…..how could they treat men like that?”
Johnny turned to his father for answers where there were none. Murdoch leaned against the door jam, “I don’t know Johnny. Slavery is beyond me. Thank goodness it’s been outlawed since the war. I’ve heard that to men who keep slaves, they don’t think of them as human, but I think that’s just an excuse to try to excuse themselves.”
“When Indians take slaves, they treat them better than that. Some savages huh?” Johnny replied as he once again lost himself in the horror of the runaway slaves’ treatment in the public square. Johnny shook his head, “I can’t wait to get out of here tomorrow. I don’t want to come back this way either.”
“I don’t know if we have any choice, but I’ll look into it. How about you finish getting ready for bed, now. We leave early in the morning.”
Johnny turned to his valise, stripped off his shirt and sat down in the slatted back chair to pull off his boots and socks. He stripped off his pants and pulled out his night shirt. Giving it a shake, he reluctantly pulled it on and smoothed his unruly hair down.
He turned back to the window once more and heard his father pour himself a measure of the rum he’d bought earlier in the day. He heard the chair squeak as his father settled into it. Turning slightly, he saw that he was absorbed in his book. Johnny stood like that watching the sun sink into the horizon to the west and his thoughts drifted to the future.
He wanted this trip to be over soon and they weren’t even half way. He felt the familiar flutter of excitement he felt whenever he thought about seeing Scott again. He hoped Scott would want to come home with them. He didn’t know what he’d do if Scott didn’t want to come back. He’d just have to, that’s all. Johnny reasoned.
As darkness settled over the port city of Havana, Johnny made his way to his bed and pulled the top covers off. Even though it was January, it was warm enough to sleep with just a sheet and the window open. He pulled the sheet over him and turned his head to watch his father read. He watched and memorized the lines and expressions until his eyelids became too heavy to keep open and he drifted to sleep.
Murdoch smiled when he looked at Johnny sound asleep. He looked young. Younger even than his 17 years. The boy was curled up on his left side facing him. Murdoch stifled an urge to push the dark hair out of his eyes. He wondered if it would be worth the fight to get him to a barber in Boston when they had a new suit made. He’d already decided he’d pick and chose his fights with this son, but maybe a trim wouldn’t be an all out battle.
His smile turned to sadness at the events earlier in the day in the city square. He’d tried to pull Johnny out of the crowd, but all the pushing and shoving caused them to become separated. He’d frantically searched for Johnny among the dark faces and brightly colored attire. He’d been stunned at the spectacle that awaited him. Three slaves were being punished. A man standing on a platform announced that they were runaways and they were going to be whipped. Two would receive 100 lashes. One, an older man with a multitude of scars on his back, was sentenced to 200 lashes, as he had run before.
As they started, Murdoch closed his eyes, but his ears could hear what his eyes could not see. The crack of the whip followed by the splat of the lash drawing across defenseless backs, and the crowd’s murmur as the slaves groaned and screamed.
He’d turned and stumbled back through the crowd calling frantically to Johnny. After what seemed to be an eternity, he’d found him. He’d almost walked right by the boy. Johnny was sitting on the ground with his back to a wall. Knees pulled to his chest and dark head bowed. When Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder, Johnny looked at him with eyes full of pain. “Why? Why are they doing this?” Johnny’s voice was low and quiet.
Murdoch felt inadequate when he shook his head, “I don’t know son. I don’t know. Come on, let’s get out of here.” His offered hand was accepted and he led Johnny away from another example of man’s inhumanity to man.
As Murdoch got ready for bed, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to sleep himself as his restless mind kept replaying the days events. It was going to bother them both for a long time to come, and there was no way either would forget what they’d witnessed.
Murdoch awoke with a start and tried to figure out what woke him. He was mildly surprised that he’d been asleep. The moon was streaming though the window and other than the usual night sounds, it was quiet. He rolled over and closed his eyes when he heard it again. He sat upright and looked closer at Johnny in the next bed.
Johnny had kicked off the sheet and his pillow was no where to be found. The nightshirt was twisted around him and had to be confining and uncomfortable. Murdoch got out of bed and padded across to look more closely. He heard it again, this time he knew it was coming from Johnny. ‘A whimper?’ he thought. He saw it then. The flushed cheeks and tears?
“No! Leave her alone!” Johnny cried as he struggled to turn over, only twisting the nightshirt more tightly around him.
“Johnny, wake up. Son, wake up.” Murdoch soothed in a gentle voice. He started to turn Johnny over.
Johnny sat bolt upright and yelled, “Mama! Get back! No mama, por favor. Lo siento, I’ll be good. I’ll take care of you.”
“It’s okay Johnny. I’ve got you, come on lay back down.” Murdoch said the words as he realized Johnny was still asleep and caught in a nightmare. He held Johnny as the boy tried to struggle out of his grip.
As soon as he could, he carefully slapped Johnny’s cheek and waited. He held his breath as Johnny took two ragged breaths and his eyes blinked at him in confusion. “What happened?” Johnny slurred.
“You had a nightmare, son.” Murdoch could feel Johnny’s heart racing through the thin night shirt. “Lay back down, Johnny.” Murdoch straightened the sheet, found the pillow, and pulled the blankets over his son. He turned to pour a small amount of rum into a glass.
“Drink this. Sip it slowly.” Murdoch cautioned.
Johnny sat up against the pillows and held the glass with a trembling hand to his lips and carefully took a sip of the powerful drink. He made a grimace as it burned down his throat and took a second sip which went down better. The third steadied his shattered nerves and he offered the almost empty glass back to his father. “Thanks….I needed that.”
Murdoch watched as Johnny composed himself and he polished off the rest of the rum in one gulp. “I think we need to talk about that nightmare son.”
Johnny shook his head and played with a piece of thread coming loose from the hem on the sheet. “Naw. Won’t help nothin’”
“I think you’re wrong son. Tell me what happened.” Murdoch encouraged gently.
Murdoch held his breath as he watched the emotions play out across Johnny face. Finally Johnny shrugged and recited in a monotone voice. “Douglas, well he treated my mama and me real mean sometimes. He’d come home drunk, in a real bad way and start pushin’ us around. He’d hit her and me too. He used to use a big old belt on me and if mama tried to stop him, he’d smile at her and tell her she’d get hers later. I remember hearin’ her crying at night.” Johnny sat up straighter and pulled his knees to his chest and hugged them with his arms. He shook his head, “I tried to stop him, but he was too strong. In the morning, we both looked a sight.” Johnny shook his head and chuckled grimly. “Black eyes and could hardly walk….or sit.” Johnny’s intense blue eyes fixed his father with a chilling stare, “It was bad. Real bad.”
Murdoch was at a loss and felt as close to utter devastation as he ever had. Before he could respond, he leaned in to hear Johnny’s next words. “She didn’t mean to do it, you know. She loved us….she loved me.” Johnny looked intently into Murdoch’s eyes. “You believe me don’t you?” he asked.
Murdoch reached over and squeezed Johnny’s arm in a gesture meant to reassure. “I do. I know she loved you, son.” Murdoch whispered.
Johnny nodded once and sighed. He yawned and rubbed his eyes and sank deeper into the bed. Rolling back onto his side, he muttered. “I’m all talked out. Night.”
Murdoch reached over and pulled the blankets back over his son and leaned in to kiss the top of his head, “good night son.”
He waited until he heard Johnny’s breathing slow down before standing. He stretched out his back muscles and walked to the window to look out over the moon lit bay and blew air out through his teeth in a hiss as sorrow and pain cascaded upon him as he tried to deal with the devastation caused by his son’s words.
Could he believe Johnny’s version of his life with Maria? One part of him wanted to believe she had been trying to change her life, but another part cautioned him that Johnny had only been a young child and perhaps he didn’t have the whole story. The thought that Maria could have actually had feelings for Douglas chilled him. As much as he hated the thought of Maria and Johnny being abused by anyone, he favored Johnny’s story, if only because in believing it, he could believe she had really loved him. What kind of a man would be comforted by the thought that his family had suffered? He asked himself with disgust. His thoughts echoed back at him and the silence mocked him, as he found no answers, and no comfort that early morning.
Johnny and Murdoch waited impatiently in line with the rest of the passengers to disembark the ship. The weather had been stormy for the last two days and the sky and seas turned gray and angry. With a final clank the gang plank was secured and the line began moving. Murdoch had his hand firmly on Johnny’s shoulder as the mass of passengers pushed their way down to the dock.
“Turn right here, Johnny.” Murdoch instructed, hoping to get clear of the crowd.
“So this is Virginia? We’re almost there.” The relief in Johnny’s voice evident. He’d been wound tighter than a watch spring since leaving Cuba and Murdoch was just as relieved to return to the United States as Johnny was. The tensions they felt in Cuba had settled on both of them making them feel edgy and uncertain.
“This is it. Just a few more days and we’ll be in Boston. Let’s go someplace to warm up and have something to eat. We leave at dawn tomorrow.” Murdoch propelled Johnny once more into the crowd. He held onto his arm so they wouldn’t get separated among the throng.
As they stumbled their way away from the dock, he felt Johnny jerk away as his son shouted, “Scott!” and disappeared among the mass of strangers.
“Johnny no! Come back here!” He ordered. Wondering what on earth Johnny thought he was doing, he started pushing people aside in a fury to catch up with his son. His height was the only advantage he had in keeping sight of the dark hair as his son darted back and forth amid the crowd.
“Johnny!” Murdoch bellowed once more and swore under his breath when he lost sight of his son. Frantic he started pushing people aside without care until he made it to the corner where Johnny had disappeared. He ran at that point, his long legs covering the ground. He sped around another corner only to draw up at the sight of Johnny standing there all alone looking lost.
“He was right there.” Johnny looked up at his father with troubled eyes. “I saw him right there.” He pointed, his hand shaking.
“Who was right there?”
“Scott,” Johnny said head bowed as he gulped in great breaths of air.
Murdoch stared at him for a moment, “No Johnny. You were mistaken.” He pulled on Johnny’s arm. “Come on son.” Johnny hesitated and then trailed his father slowly, looking back over his shoulder, before finally following his father obediently to their hotel.
Later that night, Murdoch sat reading and glanced at Johnny. The boy wasn’t asleep, he knew. He had been staring at the ceiling in silence for over an hour. He’d hardly touched his dinner and spent most of the time pushing the food around on his plate until Murdoch had called a halt and sent him to bed.
Murdoch regretted the scolding he’d given Johnny for running off like that, even if the boy deserved it. Try as he might, he hadn’t been able to convince Johnny he’d been wrong. It couldn’t have been Scott that Johnny saw. It had been five years since Johnny had even seen Scott, but Johnny was adamant that it was his brother.
With a snap, he closed the book and turned down the lamp, getting undressed in the flickering light.
“Good night son.” He said as snuffed out the light and climbed into bed. The only answering sound was his son turning over with his back to him. He sighed to himself thinking they would be arriving in Boston none too soon to suit both of them.
Murdoch left Johnny in their room getting dressed and shaved while he went downstairs and ordered them a filling breakfast. Johnny sat down in his chair just as the waitress brought their food and Murdoch was on his second cup of coffee.
“What’ll ya have to drink sweetie?” The waitress drawled as she smiled at her young customer.
Johnny smiled back at the older woman and answered, “Milk?”
“You bet darlin’ I’ll bring you back a nice…. big…. cool glass of milk.” She eyed Johnny up and down and purred, “Anything else you’d like?”
Before Johnny could answer, Murdoch cut in. “No ma’am, just the milk.”
The waitress gave Murdoch the once over and winked at him before walking away, “anything you say handsome.”
Johnny laughed and Murdoch felt himself blushing just slightly, “Eat your breakfast, and don’t get smart.” Murdoch chuckled as he covered his lapse.
They dug into their eggs, smoke cured ham, and pancakes with gusto as neither had eaten much the night before. Murdoch was relieved to find that Johnny was back in good spirits this morning. The last few days had been a strain on both of them.
Murdoch sat back in his chair to savor his coffee as he watched Johnny polish off the last of his meal. Johnny took a large gulp of milk and started to wipe his mouth on his sleeve. Murdoch raised his eyebrows and fought off a smile when he saw the slightly guilty look on his son’s face as he used his napkin.
“Yeah…” Johnny drawled slowly. “I just wish we could….” He stopped and looked uncertain.
Murdoch put the money on the table and looked up at Johnny, “What son?”
Johnny sighed, “It just looked so much like Scott.”
“Johnny, I wired Scott two weeks ago to let him know I was coming. He’d have absolutely no reason to be here. I have no doubt he’s waiting in Boston, and he’s going to be very surprised and happy to see you. Now let’s go. We have a boat to catch.”
Scott stood at the rail of the ship and barely noticed the chill in the air as the wind whipped his blonde hair, momentarily blinding him. He heard that a storm was coming in and by the bite of the wind, he didn’t doubt they would be in for some rough seas ahead.
He braced himself against the railing as the ship rolled when another wave hit her broadside. “Ya better head in sir. There’s a front coming in and it’s apt to get a mite rough real soon.”
“I’d thought I’d stay out a bit longer.” Scott replied.
The seaman shrugged, “suit yourself,” and he went back to his duties.
Another wave crashed into the ship and water sprayed Scott, not quite soaking him through. ‘Another one like that, and I better get inside,’ he thought and no sooner did he complete the thought when another bigger wave smacked the ship causing it to rise and then drop with sickening force.
Scott held on until it gamely rose back up and he turned to make his way inside holding onto anything he could use to stay upright.
A very wet and cold Johnny and Murdoch made their way from the docks carrying their baggage. Their steps were slow as they leaned into the ever greater force of the wind and any words they tried to say were blown away unheard.
Murdoch led the way to the hotel recommended by the innkeeper. The one they stayed at before was full, so they were trudging in the storm to one down the street. He pulled open the door and found himself struggling with it as the door was caught by the wind and it took both himself and Johnny to slam it closed.
Murdoch wiped his wet face and smoothed down his rain soaked hair as he walked over to the desk clerk. “My son and I need a room. We headed out on the Riley yesterday only to be turned back by the storm.”
The clerk looked up at Murdoch through his wire rim glasses. “Yes sir. What a shame. We’ll get you fixed up right away. Mister?”
“Lancer. Murdoch Lancer and this is my son John.”
“Lancer.” The clerk said slowly. He had a puzzled look, but he recovered quickly. “I have a room with two beds. Will that do?”
“That will be fine. Could you arrange baths for both of us? We want to get warmed up.”
“Yes sir, Mr. Lancer. We have a bath room on the lower floor. Two doors down on your right. After you get settled upstairs, just come on down and your baths will be ready.”
“Front” He called as he rang a silver bell on the desk.
Johnny and Murdoch followed the bell hop upstairs. “Real accommodating.” Johnny remarked.
“If this storm keeps up any longer, we’ll be lucky to have a room to ourselves. I heard that two other ships that left yesterday will be returning…if they can.”
“Do ya think this is gonna turn into a hurricane, or maybe one of them twisters. I saw one of them in Texas once. Picked up a whole house and set it down a mile away. Folks said the breakfast dishes were still sittin’ on the table when they found it.”
Murdoch chuckled at the idea. “I don’t know son. I’m just glad we’re not out in it anymore. I feel a lot better being on solid ground in something like this.” Murdoch tossed his valise on the bed and pulled out dry clothes and Johnny did the same. “Let’s go get those baths and then we’ll get something to eat.”
Scott’s legs felt weak as he stepped off the battered ship onto the dock he’d only left the day before. It had been rough out there and there were several times when he was afraid they weren’t going to make it back.
He was cold and soaked all the way through as he finally made it back to the hotel. He rang the bell at the desk and smiled at the clerk. “Hello. I stayed here the other day and I need a room again. You may remember me, Scott Lancer?”
“I’m sorry sir. We’re full up. All the ships turning back and none leaving today, have all the rooms taken.”
“So you have nothing?” Scott questioned feeling like this was the last straw.
“I’m sorry sir. Ah…. Lancer did you say?” The clerk looked at him.
“Oh sorry sir. We do have your room. Room 109.”
“Thank you. What are the chances of getting a bath?” Scott inquired as he signed in.
“We can have one ready for you in an hour sir. Other guests are using it right now.”
“An hour is fine.” Scott replied as he headed for the stairs. Before the bell hop could be called he added. “I can find my own way.”
Scott found the room with no problem and eased open the door. He breathed a sigh of relief at seeing the large room with 2 large beds. He tossed his bag on a chair and sat on the bed intending to pull off his soggy boots. His eyes roamed around the familiar interior when they settled on two opened valises.
He jumped up in surprise and went to investigate. ‘There must be some mistake.’ He thought. He resigned himself to go back downstairs and get his room straightened out when he heard the door being opened.
Scott tensed as the door swung inward and his eyes opened wide in shock at seeing his father filling the door way.
“Scott!” Murdoch cried as he rushed forward and enveloped Scott in a bear hug.
“Pa.” Scott croaked out as his head was crushed into his father’s chest.
Scott and Murdoch both tried to talk at the same time. “What are you doing here?”
“I was coming to see you.” Murdoch answered in a heartbeat.
Scott felt Murdoch push him away just a bit and his eyes locked in welcome relief on his father’s face. Scott’s eyes looked over his father’s shoulder and he froze at the sight of his grinning brother leaning in the doorway.
“Look who’s here.” Murdoch said in delight.
“Johnny!” Scott exclaimed as he stumbled past Murdoch and grabbed his brother in a death grip. “Johnny, Johnny. I can’t believe it’s you.” Scott said over an over. “You’ve grown up boy.” Scott said as he pushed Johnny back.
Johnny took a step back and grinned. “Hey Scott. It’s good to see you too, but for a minute there, I thought you was gonna strangle me.”
Scott grabbed Johnny again and rubbed his wet hair mussing it up. “I can’t believe you’re here. That’s all.”
Murdoch closed the door and couldn’t help the silly grin on his face. His mind was full of questions, but for now he just drank in the sight of his two sons. How they all happened to be here would come later, for now they were all together and that’s all that mattered.
Rousing himself, he realized that Scott was sopping wet. “Scott, you should change out of those wet clothes.”
Scott looked at his soaked clothes, and smiled wryly, “I was going to go take a bath, but other guests were using it. You two were the *other guests*, I presume?”
“Looks like it brother. How bout if you go get your bath and I’ll come watch you?”
Scott arched his eyebrow and burst out laughing, “How bout you don’t and we’ll say nothing more about it?” Seeing the disappointed look on his brother’s face, he relented. “Come on. You can keep me company.”
“You two go on and I’ll order room service.”
“I’m starvin’, I could eat a whole cow.”
“Make that two. Rare.” Scott added.
Murdoch shook his head as he watched his two sons practically run out of the room and he could hear them as they ran down the stairs. The memory of the two of them together at Lancer brought tears to his eyes.
Scott stripped off his wet clothes as his brother stood with his back to him as ordered. He knew he had a silly smile on his face that he just couldn’t seem to get rid of, and he didn’t care. As he slipped into the steaming water, he called, “You can turn around now.”
Johnny practically bounded across the room in a manner that reminded Scott of an eager puppy. He sat in the nearest chair and scooted it closer to the tub with a scrape of the legs across the tile floor.
Both were silent as they felt awkward with each other after all this time apart. Scott’s mind was so filled with questions, for a moment he couldn’t arrange his thoughts. Finally he formed one most on his mind. “Where have you been Johnny?”
“Here and there. A little bit of everywhere Scott. Mostly Mexico and Texas,” Johnny sighed, “It’s a long story.”
“Why’d you join the war?” Johnny asked.
“I believed in the cause and I felt it was the right thing to do.” Scott answered.
“Even after being a prisoner?”
Scott was taken back a bit by that question so to give himself some time, he vigorously soaped and scrubbed his chest and arms. He took a big breath of air, and dunked under the water. He scrubbed his hair, and dunked back under before shaking his head.
“Hey! Watch it. I’ve already had my bath, thank you very much.” Johnny protested as water sprayed his way.
“You wanted to watch.” Scott reminded him. “In answer to your question, yes it was still worth it. A man has to stand for something Johnny.”
Scott watched Johnny chew his lip for a moment and then he found himself looking into his brother’s dark blue eyes. “Kinda like Pa, huh Scott?”
Scott felt it wasn’t his place to disillusion his little brother and answered slowly, “Yes brother. Kind of like Pa.”
The water was starting to cool and Scott shivered, he was getting ready to get out of the tub when Johnny’s next words chilled him further. “I got somethin’ to tell you Scott. Pa already knows and ….well…you see….” Johnny halted and bowed his head.
“Go on Johnny. What do you want to tell me.” Scott urged gently.
“I’m not the same brother I used to be Scott. I’ve done some real bad things. See I got real good with my gun. It comes easy to me, and well there’s no easy way to say it Scott. I been sellin’ my gun.” Johnny waited with bowed head for his brother’s reaction.
Scott looked at the boy sitting in front of him and he couldn’t picture the words with the boy. “You are a…a…”
Johnny raised his head and stared with defiance at his brother, “A pistolero, gun hawk, gun fighter. Go on Scott you can say it. The fires of hell ain’t gonna get you.” Johnny’s words rang with anger.
“Johnny! I don’t know what to say. How? Why?”
“I got my reasons Scott. Mainly to stay alive among other things.” Johnny stood, “Look your bath’s getting’ cold. I’ll go check to see if those steaks are ready.”
Scott sat there opened mouthed as his brother left the room.
Murdoch waited with anticipation for his sons to return. His mind was churning with questions, but the one most pressing was, what on earth was Scott doing in Norfolk? He couldn’t believe that his son hadn’t cared to wait for his arrival. He knew Scott wouldn’t be that cruel and unthinking. He was sure there was another explanation and the more the thought about it, he was sure he knew what, or who it was.
Harlan Garrett, his father in law, had never been outright hostile to his son in law. Murdoch’s mouth turned up slightly at the thought, well at least not after he realized his only daughter intended to marry the foreigner from Scotland and go with him to the wilds of California. He’d been hostile for several weeks before becoming resigned to the fact that his headstrong daughter was determined to have her own way.
From that time, the two men had a polite relationship. Neither was willing to make the first move to gain an understanding with each other. Murdoch well remembered Harlan’s doubt when Murdoch had shown up to claim Scott when he was five years old. For a short period of time, he thought Harlan intended to give him trouble, but he’d relented and allowed Scott to leave with his father.
Since then, Harlan had kept in touch with letters and presents to Scott on his birthday and Christmas and had provided him with a first class education. The presents were generally extravagant and he’d always had the feeling Harlan was trying to show him up in his son’s eyes. Murdoch felt strongly that Harlan had planned to influence Scott into staying in Boston as an adult to run one of Harlan’s many businesses.
He suspected Scott was leaning toward staying as well due to the rift between father and son. He’d hoped to convince Scott to come home and give them another try. Now that Johnny had returned, he felt confident Scott would come with them. Murdoch smiled grimly as he realized, Johnny was the key. His disappearance was one reason Scott left so hastily and also for the bad feelings between them. Now Murdoch hoped that Johnny’s return would be the key to opening the door for Scott and himself to resolve their differences.
Murdoch turned at the sound of the door opening and he waited expectantly for his son’s to come bounding back into the room.
Scott walked in alone carrying his damp clothes draped over one arm. His wet hair was hastily arranged and he had a puzzled look on his face.
“What’s wrong son?” Murdoch said growing concerned by the presence of just one son.
“What do you mean, where’s Johnny? Isn’t he with you?”
Scott came all the way in the room and arranged his damp clothes to dry over the backs of the chairs. He slowly turned to face his father and replied, “He left a few minutes before me. I thought he was coming back upstairs, but he must have gone for a walk.”
Murdoch saw right away that Scott had something more to say. His direct and upstanding son rarely spoke without making eye contact, but right now he was looking everywhere except at his father. “What’s wrong Scott? Did you and Johnny have an argument?”
“No…yes….I don’t really know.” Scott sighed in frustration and sat on the edge of the bed facing the window.
“What happened, son?” Murdoch probed gently.
“Everything was fine, we were just talking. Then out of the blue he tells me he’s a gun fighter! Then he gets mad and storms out before I have a chance to even take it all in.”
Murdoch walked around the bed and sat next to his son. “It’s a shock I know. Things have happened in Johnny’s life, things that he had no control over that led him down that path. He’s come home and now he needs to put that life behind him.”
“How many times does he need to come home before he stays home?” Scott asked with an edge to his voice.
“What are you trying to say Scott?”
Scott turned to look at him directly. His blue eyes pinned his father with an angry glare. “I’m talking about you. If you hadn’t trusted *that woman* and allowed her into our house….our home, Johnny would have been safe and protected instead of put into the position of being a killer!”
Murdoch stood suddenly and yanked Scott up to face him, “Your brother is not a killer!” Murdoch desperately tried to control his sudden anger. He swallowed a couple of times as he grappled with his emotions. “I’m sorry Scott. I didn’t mean to lose my temper. I have to admit it is shocking to think of what he’s been doing with his life for the last few years. He even has quite a reputation as a fast gun. He’s been going by the name, Johnny Madrid.”
“Madrid? He hasn’t been using Lancer?”
Murdoch could see Scott was not mollified and still had grit in his craw. “Let’s get it all out son. You’ve been angry with me for a long time over Maria. I was angry with myself, and bitter to think she fooled me again. You just have to understand…”
“Understand what? That bitch kidnapped my brother! Your son! How can you understand or even forgive her?”
Before either man could say another word, Scott was knocked flat by Johnny launching himself over the bed and taking his brother to the floor. Murdoch was frozen for just a moment as he realized Johnny had overheard and was now pummeling his brother as they rolled around on the floor.
He reached down and tried to separate the two of them before they destroyed the hotel room or one of them got hurt. “Stop it boys!” One chair fell and hit him painfully on the shin. “All right that’s enough!” He was able to grab hold of one of Johnny’s arms and Scott’s shirt collar.
“Enough! I said.” He managed to pull them apart. While Scott got himself together on the floor, he dragged Johnny to his feet and to the bed across the room. Johnny began wiping the back of his hand across his bloody nose. Murdoch fished out his handkerchief and shoved it in Johnny’s direction. “Here.”
He turned back to Scott and pointed to the other bed. “You. There.” He commanded in a no nonsense tone that both boys knew meant trouble.
He looked at his two disheveled son’s in disgust. “All right. Enough of this fighting. Scott, I want you to apologize to Johnny for what you said about his mother. Now!”
“No sir, I will not. She took him away again and turned him into a gunfighter.”
“You shut up about my mother! You don’t know nothin’!”
Johnny started to get up from the bed, but Murdoch anticipated his move and blocked him easily. “Stay there.”
Johnny glowered at him before turning to Scott. “That ain’t true. My mama had no choice in leavin’. No morein’ me.” His dark eyes smoldered with anger as he looked at Murdoch for support. “You tell him.”
Murdoch nodded and turned to Scott, “Son. Johnny told me that he and his mother were taken that day by the Pinkerton agent I’d hired. He treated them very badly Scott, and they survived as best they could.”
Murdoch glanced back at Johnny and saw his son sitting on the bed, shoulders slumped and head bowed as he listened to his father’s recitation.
Scott’s voice caught his attention, “Do you believe that?”
Murdoch laid a hand of comfort on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed, “Yes, I believe that.”
Scott was silent for a moment, then asked. “Because you want to believe it. Why didn’t she get them away, or get word to you somehow? If she was really there against her will you’d think she would have found a way.”
“She tried. We both tried Scott. My mama was raped and we were both beaten. We tried to run, but he brought us back and taught us a lesson.” Johnny’s words were harsh.
Johnny took a deep breath and quietly continued, still looking down, “It got so bad that I killed him.” Johnny raised his head and looked at his brother. “I guess you’re right Scott, your brother is a killer cause I killed that man in cold blood with his own gun. He was beatin’ on my Ma and she couldn’t take no more. He turned to start in on me and I picked up his gun and shot him. We both had to run.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “I was thirteen, and if I had to, I’d do it again.”
Again silence from Scott, and Murdoch began to feel concerned for his oldest as he watched him try to deal with Johnny’s words. “Why didn’t you come home, or at least get word to Pa?”
“We tried, but there was a posse after us. We ran to Mexico and just kept going. Mama wrote a letter, but I guess ya never got it?” Johnny’s head was once again bowed.
“No son, I never got it. I would have come for you both, you’ve got to believe that.”
Johnny smiled slightly and nodded. “I do. I know that now.”
“That still doesn’t explain why it took you so long to come home Johnny. Why didn’t your mother send you back even if she didn’t want to return?”
“She had her reasons Scott. I didn’t want to leave her, I couldn’t.”
“And her reasons were?” Scott questioned.
Before Johnny could answer, they were interrupted by a knock on the door and the bell boy came into the room carrying a try laden with their dinner. Murdoch walked over and righted the fallen chair and gestured to the table. “Put everything right there. We….ah….clumsy of me, I ah….tripped over the chair.”
The bell boy rolled his eyes, but said nothing as he set the food on the table and quickly left the room with a generous tip in his hand.
Murdoch moved the table in front of Scott so he could stay seated on the bed and moved the two chairs in position. “Johnny? Come on over here son, and eat while it’s still hot. We can finish our conversation after dinner.”
Scott’s mind was in turmoil as he picked at his meal. He risked a glance at his brother and saw he didn’t have much appetite either. His next glance was at his father and from the expression on his face, Scott knew he was angry. He took a deep breath and said simply, “I’m sorry Johnny. If what you said about your mother is true than I guess neither of you had any choice.”
Johnny looked up at him, “You doubtin’ me Scott?”
“I believe you believe what you said, brother. It just doesn’t add up. If your mother left unwillingly why didn’t she return?” Scott tried to keep his voice as even as he could so he didn’t provoke Johnny again, and he held his breath as he waited for his brother’s reaction.
“It’s the truth Scott, that’s all I can tell you. It’s the truth. I was there. I know what happened.”
Scott nodded and took another bite of steak. As soon as he swallowed, he pointed his fork at his brother’s plate, “if you’re not going to be eating any of that, I’ll take it as soon as I’m done with mine.”
“I’m still eatin’ it.” Johnny said quickly as he popped a piece of the meat into his mouth.
Scott smiled and he saw his father relax a bit as his two sons finished their dinner.
Their meal finished, and the dishes cleared away allowed the family to get back to pressing matters. Murdoch poured himself a glass of the excellent rum he’d acquired in Havana and offered some to Scott. At Scott’s nod, he poured and handed him a glass.
Johnny was staring out the window at the sheets of rain blowing almost sideways pounding the window. A little water was leaking in under the sill and the bell boy had left a towel to soak it up.
Murdoch relaxed into the arm chair and stretched his long legs out in front of him as he sipped the rum. Without preamble he launched into the question he’d been holding back ever since meeting up with Scott in this most unlikely of places. “Scott, I sent you a wire weeks ago letting you know I was coming to Boston. Didn’t you get it?”
Scott raised his eyebrows, “No sir. I never got anything from you. I wrote a couple letters…” He trailed off.
“I got your letters and sent my own back. I take it you didn’t receive any of them?”
“No. Perhaps they got lost.” Scott replied slowly.
“Lost. Yeah right, they got lost or someone kept em from you.” Johnny scoffed.
“Are you saying my grandfather would deliberately intercept my mail?”
“If intercept means keep it from you, then yeah that’s what I’m sayin’.”
“Johnny, I can’t believe he’d do something like that. I know he didn’t want me to leave but, I don’t think he’d go that far.”
“You were coming home?” Murdoch asked hopefully.
Scott blushed, “Ah ….no. Actually, I was going to look for Johnny.”
“Me? Now how were you gonna do that?”
“I was going to Matamoros to talk to your Aunt and Uncle to see if they knew where you were.”
“Scott! Matamoros is a big place, and Mexico is even bigger. How did you expect to find me?” Johnny looked amazed at his older brother’s naiveté. Johnny shook his head, “Scott, a gringo in that part of Mexico is askin’ to get hisself killed.”
“I can handle myself. I’m not a greenhorn, even if I have been living in the east for a few years. I learned a few things about survival during the war, not to mention I was raised on the ranch.” Scott reminded both of them.
“Well we're all here now.” Murdoch pointed out. “Come back with us Scott. When this storm clears, we could be home in just over a week. We can start again, the way it should have been. Please son, won’t you consider it?”
Scott looked at the father he loved dearly, then at his brother more precious to him than life, and he felt a wave of homesickness flood over him. He knew what was right for him, for all of them. They still had a lot of talking to do, lots of explaining, but they’d made a good start. Scott was resolved to get to the bottom of his brother’s past but he knew enough to satisfy himself for now. With a smile, he suggested. “Let’s go home.”
Johnny let out a yell and he found himself being squeezed practically to death by both his brother and father and Scott couldn’t help but smile. ‘Yes this is the way it should have been and will be forever.’
Later that night, Scott tossed and turned as his restless mind wouldn’t allow his body to relax. He managed to kick his brother for the second time as they both tried to get much needed sleep. “Sorry.” He murmured aware his brother was awake.
“It’s okay.” Johnny whispered back. “Can’t sleep anyway.”
Scott was silent for a moment, then he whispered, “I’m really sorry Johnny.”
He could feel his brother turn and look at him in the dark, “what are you sorry about?”
“I’m sorry for how I acted today. The things I said hurt you I know.”
He could hear Johnny take a large breath of air and let it out slowly. “I didn’t know you felt that way about my mother.”
“You had no way of knowing Johnny. You were pretty young and when I came back, you were gone.” Scott hesitated, “I blamed Pa for all of it. When I found you both gone again, I blamed him for trusting her.”
“I guess I understand. But do you understand why I couldn’t just leave her and come back?”
“Not really, no. You were safe at the ranch. I just don’t understand why you’d want to live that life, Johnny.” Scott was at a loss and hoped his brother would help him understand.
“She needed me Scott. We were so poor and I couldn’t let her….well I just needed to take care of her.”
“She was the adult, you were the child. She should have taken care of you, not the other way around.” Scott pointed out.
“She couldn’t Scott. That’s all. We needed money and this man heard I was pretty good with a gun so he made me a bargain. He’d pay me 10 pesos a week to guard his silver shipment. One time some bandidos tried to rob us and I shot them all. Next thing I knew, I was offered another job for more money, and well, it just went on from there. I could take care of my family. They had a roof over their head, food and clothes. Don’t you see Scott, they needed me more than Pa did?”
“But what did you need? Did you ever think of that Johnny?”
Scott could feel Johnny staring at him and he thought he wasn’t going to respond, until he finally heard, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t help them out. It would have been all for nothing’ Scott and I couldn’t let that happen.”
“What would have been all for nothing?”
“All of it. The pain, giving up my father and brother, everything.”
“When did your mother die?” Scott hoped he wasn’t causing a new rift between them, but suddenly it seemed important.
“Just a few months before I turned 15.”
“Why didn’t you come home then?”
“I stopped by the ranch, but Pa was gone. He was back east visiting you.”
“So you just left.” Scott stated.
“Yeah. I had a job waiting for me.”
“After your mother died, couldn’t you just stop. I mean why continue brother?”
The silence was deafening as Scott waited to find out the reason why his brother continued to sell his gun and his soul. Finally his patience was rewarded, “I made a promise to my mother, Scott.”
“A promise to be a gunfighter?” Scott asked in disbelief.
“No….A promise to take care of my little sister.”
“What? You have a sister?” Scott tried to keep his voice down so as not to wake their father.
“Yeah. She’s 4. She lives with our Aunt and Uncle. They’re takin’ good care of her, but they’re poor Scott. I send them whatever money I can, so they’ll give her the best life they can.”
“Does Pa know?” Was all Scott could think to say at the moment.
“No. I don’t want him to know Scott. It would hurt him. That’s why she wouldn’t come back. How could she come back with another man’s child? It wouldn’t have worked.” Johnny’s voice wavered as he expressed this last thought.
Scott reached over and gave his brother’s arm a squeeze and assured him, “I think you should tell pa. I know he’d want to help.” He felt Johnny tense, “I’ll keep your secret, and we’ll work something out so your sister will be taken care of. Don’t worry.”
Scott felt Johnny relax, “Thanks Scott. Thank you for understanding.”
Murdoch closed his eyes as pain washed over him from his son’s words. Now he knew and could finally understand, but it didn’t stop the pain of what they had all endured.
While Johnny might not want to tell him about this part of his life, he vowed to encourage his son to trust him so he could help Johnny’s little sister. He felt proud of his two sons and intended to make sure he showed them every day how much they meant to him.
They were going home. That was all that mattered. As the storm raged outside, the Lancer family was safely inside, together. Lancer takes care of its own, the patriarch thought. What should have been was in the past. This family was together now and Murdoch pledged to himself and his sons to never again allow misunderstanding and hurt drive them apart.