The Escape - WHN
By Wendy K.
Murdoch Lancer heaved a sigh of relief as the Cassidys’ buggy disappeared over the crest of the hill in a cloud of dust. He had never been so glad to see the back of someone in all his days. Dan Cassidy’s misguided obsession with revenge had almost cost an innocent man, Scott, his life. Turning his gaze to his oldest son, his thoughts went from relief to concern.
Scott, gray-faced and sweating, stood slumped against the pillar by the door. His eyes were still focused on the spot where the buggy had gone over the hill. It was obvious that having been shot and on the run for two days had taken a serious toll. The slender blond looked completely done in.
Murdoch tsked softly and moved to stand next to him. “You don’t look so good, Son. Why don’t you go upstairs and lay down?”
The former Bostonian turned his head and blinked dazedly up at his father, the black sling enhancing his pallor even more. He licked his lips and shook his head ever so slightly. “I’m fine.”
“Well, I beg to differ,” Murdoch replied as he herded his stubborn boy into the house. “Johnny, help your brother upstairs. I’m going to go see Maria about some broth.”
Johnny Lancer, who had been hovering worriedly by the door, slipped an arm around his brother’s waist and ushered him slowly up the stairs. The fact that Scott chose not to continue his protests was a sure sign that he felt as bad he looked even if he wouldn’t admit to it.
Within minutes, Johnny and Murdoch had Scott fed, tucked into bed and sleeping soundly. Closing the door behind them, Murdoch turned to Johnny. “Did Scott ever say anything to you about his time in the army? About being a prisoner of war?”
“No,” Johnny replied as he led the way back downstairs to the great room where he poured his father and himself a drink. “He’s never offered and since I haven’t been very chatty about my past as a gunfighter, I never felt it was my place ta ask. Maybe it’s time we do.”
“No,” Murdoch countered with a shake of his head. “It’s in the past. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then we should abide by his wishes.”
“I’m not sure I agree, Murdoch. At least, not anymore,” Johnny said. “But, for now, I’m willin’ to let Scott call the tune on this.”
Murdoch and Johnny watched as time passed and Scott gradually regained his strength. He was once again working the ranch alongside his father and brother but remained quiet and withdrawn. The former cavalry officer tended to spend more time alone, going for long rides or reading in his room. When he did deign to grace his family with his presence, at the dinner table or in the great room, he would focus on his food or stare into the fire, replying only to direct questions.
And then there were the nightmares.
There were many nights where Johnny would be awakened by moans, rustlings or the sound of pacing from his brother’s room next door. The former gunfighter was of two minds regarding his sibling’s nocturnal broodings. He wasn’t sure Scott would appreciate the intrusion but felt the pull to help his brother with the demons that were plaguing his slumber. Johnny knew a lot about those. It was with great reluctance that he ultimately chose to wait.
Things finally came to a head, after a couple weeks, when both Johnny and Murdoch were startled out of a sound sleep by a strangled cry and a heavy, muffled thump from Scott’s room. The two men burst into the chamber, guns drawn, to find the blond in a tangled heap of bedding on the floor.
“Boston, you okay?” Johnny asked as he and his father helped Scott to his feet.
“Yes,” he replied somewhat stiffly as he brushed off his long johns. He was embarrassed that his family should see him in such an awkward situation. “Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“You were dreaming about the war, weren’t you?” Murdoch asked gently. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I’d rather not, Sir.” Scott chose to hide behind formality. The dream had been a particularly bad one this time and he was feeling vulnerable, weak. He hated feeling that way.
“Scott…” Johnny pleaded. “You gotta talk about this. I know you’re not sleepin’. I can hear ya rattlin’ around in here at all hours. This is all Cassidy’s fault. Damn the man!”
Scott couldn’t agree more. Damn him, indeed. He had managed to put all this behind him, had gotten on with his life, had learned not to think about it, had stuffed all the memories down deep and moved forward….and then Dan had shown up and shot his carefully constructed barriers all to hell. All those harrowing memories were now back, bullying their way to the surface, leaving him feeling raw and exposed. There were days when Scott was sure that the evidence of them was plain on his face, there for the whole world to see. Being a fairly private person, in conjunction with his reserved and oh so proper New England upbringing, made him uncomfortable about revealing things. To be forthcoming with such personal details, especially ones as horrific as these, made Scott feel ill.
“I can’t,” Scott whispered thickly as a shudder ran through him. “I just can’t. Every time I even think about it my throat closes up and the words turn to ashes in my mouth.”
“Come downstairs and have a drink with us,” Murdoch cajoled as he wrapped the quilt from the bed around his shivering son. “A little liquid courage to help ease the way. Johnny and I will be right there with you.”
“Yeah, Brother,” Johnny teased as he gently prodded Scott towards the door. “We’ll get you all liquored up and those words will just flow right on out.”
Scott gave a watery chuckle and gathered the edges of the quilt closer as if it had the power to ward off the memories.
“Okay,” he sighed heavily. “I’ll give it a shot. But it’s going to take quite a bit of your best scotch, Murdoch.”
“I’ll consider myself warned,” his father dryly replied. “I guess it’s a good thing I just got a shipment in from Glasgow.”
The three men headed quietly down the stairs and into the great room where Murdoch stirred the embers in the fireplace and tossed in a couple of logs. Soon there was a merry blaze casting a soft golden light in the area around the hearth, the rest of the room in deep shadow. Scott sat huddled on the sofa, still wrapped in his quilt, and stared into the flames. Johnny handed him a glass of scotch and he took a large swallow, grimaced slightly and took another.
For the better part of an hour, no one spoke. Scott continued to gaze at the flames while either Murdoch or Johnny periodically refilled his glass.
The clock in the hall chimed twelve times and Scott smiled.
“The witching hour,” he whispered. “Seems like an appropriate time to start.”
Both Murdoch and Johnny leaned forward in their seats and waited expectantly. They both seemed to realize that Scott needed to get this out at his own pace and that asking questions would break the mood.
“I joined up when I was seventeen,” he began slowly. “Grandfather was furious…”
Scott talked for hours. He found that once he’d started, he couldn’t stop. The words just spewed out, like the puss from a badly infected wound, while Johnny and Murdoch hung on every syllable.
“…an ungodly stench. Swollen, bloated corpses rotting in the summer heat…”
“…cries for pity, for loved ones, for God to end their pain…”
“…I crouched behind a wall of our dead and tried not to hear the bullets thudding into the bodies of my friends...”
“….pinned down for the rest of the day and the one following…”
“…I shoved the bodies of two dead men to either side and settled down between them. Using the chest of a third soldier as a pillow, I pulled the flap of his coat over me and tried to sleep…”
“…bodies all around us. Ghastly heaps of dead men, armless, legless…”
“…A great tide of glittering steel and Confederate gray swept over us…”
“….The casualties were staggering, a total of twenty three thousand men in one day’s fighting…”
“….a bristling forest of bayonets gleaming in the sun…”
“…The heavy rains had unearthed corpses from previous battles, exposing skull, bone and rotted bits of cloth to our numb gaze…”
“….the death screams of dying horses and their riders…”
“….The ground was soaked with blood, in some places standing in puddles….”
“…All was chaos, shells exploding on every side…”
“….The air was alive with lead. Some men were hit by so many bullets that their bodies literally fell apart….”
“….captured at Yellow Tavern….”
“….scurvy, diphtheria, dysentery, influenza…wasted figures burning with fever….”
“….The stench was unbearable…”
“….lice, filth and unceasing hunger…..”
“….silent, shambling scarecrows more alive than dead…”
“….When I was captured, I figure I weighed roughly one hundred sixty-five pounds. When I got out, I weighed only one hundred and five.…”
“….It was hell on earth and I would have welcomed death…”
“…and then it was over.”
The sky was a pearly gray, heralding the dawn, when Scott tossed back the last of the amber liquid in his glass and sighed deeply. He felt….cleansed, lighter than air. It was as if a great burden, that he didn’t even realize he’d been carrying, was suddenly gone.
Johnny reached out with the bottle and made as if to pour but Scott shook his head and put the empty tumbler down on the table next to the sofa.
“What happened next?” Murdoch asked quietly. He was leaning forward in his chair, elbows on knees and hands clenched together so tightly that his knuckles were white. The big man wanted desperately to reach out and hug his oldest child but he didn’t know if Scott would welcome the gesture. The young man tended to be reserved and stand-offish when he was feeling distressed or vulnerable. “How did you get home?”
“I spent some time in a military hospital in Richmond,” Scott replied. “trying to gain a little weight and enough strength to handle the trip back to Boston. I was thin, frail and I tired easily. I also got sick at the drop of a hat and the illnesses tended to linger. Grandfather came and stayed in a nearby hotel. The look on his face when he first saw me…”
Scott smiled wistfully at the memory. Harlan Garrett, legendary among his business associates for his poker face during negotiations, had been appalled and dismayed at the condition of his beloved grandson and there had been no hiding it. The young man had been nothing but skin and bones, lying in that hospital bed all gaunt and hollow-eyed. Due to the lice, his blond hair had been cropped quite close, to within an inch of his head, which made his blue-grey eyes appear enormous in his deathly thin face.
“It was a little over two months before we finally got back to Boston – seven weeks in the hospital and then two weeks of travel. We took the journey in small stages, resting frequently. It was a whole year more before I was back to my pre-war health and stamina.”
“What about mentally?” Johnny prodded gently, greatly shaken by what his brother had been through. “It couldn’t have been easy to just go back to your old life.”
“It wasn’t,” Scott replied softly. “That took….longer. A lot longer. Grandfather helped as best he could but it was hard for him. He just wanted to forget it ever happened….he wasn’t the only one.”
“Do you think…” Murdoch asked hesitantly. “Do you think this helped? Talking to us?”
“Yes,” Scott regarded his father and brother with a calm, steady gaze. “I wasn’t sure it would but….yes. I don’t think I’m magically going to be all better now. I know from experience that that’s not how it works. But I do feel that this was a step in the right direction.”
“Do you think you could sleep now?” Johnny asked.
Before Scott could answer, a rooster began crowing out in the yard. He chuckled. “I guess that answers that. I didn’t realize we had been talking for so long. I guess any more sleep will have to wait until tonight.”
“Well, I happen to know the man who calls the tune around here,” Murdoch said with a small grin. “And I think he can be persuaded to give all of us the day off. After this, I’d say we deserved it. You boys go on back to bed. I’m going to do the same as soon as I let Maria know not to bother fixing breakfast and give Cipriano the instructions for the day.”
Scott stood and stretched before fixing his father and brother with a look. He was almost overwhelmed by the feelings of love and gratitude he had for them but managed to stammer out: “I-I want to thank you both. I-I can’t begin to tell you how much-“
“No thanks needed, Hermano,” Johnny interrupted as he also stood and stretched, like a sleepy cat, his shirt riding up to expose his flat stomach. “It’s what families do, right Murdoch?”
“Absolutely,” Murdoch stood and gathered his oldest son in a hug, surprising the younger man. Scott stiffened slightly and then relaxed into his father’s embrace.
“I love you, Son,” the older man whispered fiercely into Scott’s ear, voice soft and thick with emotion.
Scott blinked back tears and answered softly in kind. “I love you too…Father.”
With one final squeeze, Murdoch turned Scott lose and Johnny also gave his brother a quick, bashful hug. “Get some rest, Boston. I’ll be along in a minute. I just want to check on Barranca first.”
With a weary smile, Scott gathered up his quilt and went upstairs. As soon as Johnny and Murdoch heard his door shut, they turned and stared at each other.
“Dios, Murdoch,” Johnny breathed. “Did you have any idea?”
“No,” Murdoch replied as he sank slowly back down onto the nearest chair. “None at all. I remember reading the newspaper reports and the lists of casualties but the details were so detached and clinical.”
“In Mexico, it meant nuthin’ to me,” Johnny added as he poured two more drinks and handed one to his father before settling into another chair. “When Scott mentioned that he’d fought in a war and I saw that picture of him all duded up in that spiffy blue uniform, I figured he had a cushy job in some headquarters somewhere. I imagined him riding his horse and waving his saber at the head of a parade or some fancy regiment. I never dreamed….”
“Me either,” Murdoch said as he rubbed his hand over his face. “But your brother is an amazingly strong man. He had the will to survive and succeeded admirably against unbelievable odds. He overcame it all before and he will again. Cassidy just threw him for a bit of a loop. I really think this helped. We just need to keep being there for him, supporting him.”
“Yeah,” the dark haired man agreed as he stood and headed toward to French doors. “I suppose I really should go check on Barranca before I go upstairs. Don’t want to be lying to my big brother.”
“And I really should tell Maria that we won’t be needing any breakfast. I should check in with Cipriano, too. Pleasant dreams, son.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Johnny asked with a raised brow. “Pleasant dreams after listening to that? Not any time soon, Murdoch, not any time soon.”
With that, he was out the door and on his way to the barn. Murdoch watched him go and then headed towards the kitchen where he could already hear Maria rattling pots and pans.
“No,” he agreed in a soft murmur. “Not any time soon.”