The Man In The Middle
By Wendy K.
“Scott, the Old Man’s been pestering me something awful lately. He keeps goin’ on about those brush-filled gullies up on the north range and when am I gonna get around to clearin’ ‘em out. It’s on my list of things to do but the rains aren’t due for at least another month. We got time and there’s other stuff that needs ta be done right away. Do ya think you could maybe talk to him for me?”
“I don’t know, Johnny. Don’t you think it’s time- ”
“Thanks, Boston. I gotta run. There’s a hole in the fence out by the south mesa that needs mendin’.”
“Scott, your brother is driving me to distraction. How many times do I need to tell him to get those gullies cleared before he actually does it? Every time I try to discuss it with him, we wind up yelling at each other. Do you think maybe you could talk to him?”
“Murdoch, I really don’t think…”
“I’ll be in town at the Cattlemen’s Association dinner tonight so that would be a perfect time.”
“Thanks a lot, Son. Don’t wait up.”
“Scott, Johnny’s upset because Amy Hendler said no when he asked her to the dance and now he’s moping around like a wet noodle. Maria is getting annoyed because it’s affecting his appetite. She’s making his favorite tonight and if Johnny doesn’t eat enough of those enchiladas to appease her we’re all going to be eating bread and water for weeks. Maybe you could talk to him?”
“Teresa, why don’t you just-”
“Thanks, Scott. You are such a dear.”
“Scott, the new hand the Patrón hired is not working out. We are very short-handed right now and his lack of skill is making it worse. Someone has to follow behind him and fix what he does when they could be put to better use elsewhere. I know your father is trying to help his friend by hiring her son but this cannot continue. I do not feel comfortable bringing this to him. Perhaps you could speak with the Patrón about this for me?”
“I don’t know, Cipriano. You’re the Segundo. I think-”
“No, no. This is too delicate a matter for me. The Patrón might be unwilling to hear me in regards to his friend’s son but he will listen to you. Gracias, Señor Scott.”
“Señor Scott, you must get Jelly out of my kitchen! Teresa and I are very busy with the canning and the baking for the church bazaar. He is getting underfoot and his tools are everywhere! Fixing the latch on the pantry door can wait but he will not listen. There are plenty of other jobs to keep him busy elsewhere until we are done. You will speak to him for me, yes?”
“No, Maria. Just tell him-”
“Muchas gracias, Senor Scott. I must get back to the canning.”
“Scott, Johnny’s gonna be real steamed at me fer usin’ his shirt to polish them saddles but how was I ta know it was his? It was dark in the tack room and it was just sittin’ there on the work bench, all patched and faded. It just looked like an ol’ rag. Maybe you could talk to him for me? Let him know how sorry I am?”
No, Jelly. You need to-”
“No way, no how. That was one of his favorite shirts. He’ll skin me alive. You’re his brother - blood kin - so I figure you’re safe. Please, Scott?”
“No, Jelly. I’m sorry but-”
“Thanks, Scott. You’re really savin’ my bacon. Gotta run.”
“Jelly, wait…damn it!”
“Hey, Boston. Could you talk to Teresa for me? She keeps putting too much starch in my shirts when she washes ‘em. The darned things practically stand up by themselves and they itch somethin’ fierce. All that scratchin’ is drivin’ me loco. I know if I do it I’ll just wind up saying it wrong. She works so hard cleanin’ up after us and I don’t want ta hurt her feelin’s. You’re much better at this kinda thing.”
“Tell her yourself, Johnny. She won’t be mad and you won’t hurt her feelings. I’m sure she’d rather know so you’re happy with your shirts.”
“I don’t want to risk it, Boston. If I say it wrong and tick her off, she might not bake me any more chocolate cakes. Please, Scott?”
“Thanks, Boston! I knew I could count on you.”
“Johnny, wait….damn it!”
“Scott, can you talk to Teresa for me? I forgot to pick up that green thread she needed to finish her dress for the dance on Saturday. My business at the bank took longer than I thought and I’m afraid it slipped my mind. She’s been going on and on about that dress and if I go in there empty-handed, she’ll have my head on a platter. You’ll break the news to her for me, won’t you?”
“Murdoch, you need to just-”
“I can’t do it, Scott. She’ll look up at me with those big blue eyes all filled with disappointment. I just can’t.”
“Thank you, Son. You’re a real life saver!”
“Murdoch, wait….damn it!!”
Scott, can you please tell Jelly to keep Dewdrop out of my garden? If he keeps this up, there won’t be any vegetables left for us this coming winter. Whenever I try to bring it up with Jelly, he gets all huffy and defensive. You always know just what to say. He’ll listen to you. Tell him that if I catch that gander in there again, we’ll be having roast goose for dinner.
“Bless you, Scott. I really appreciate this.”
“Teresa, wait….God damn it!!”
“Hey, Big Brother?....”
The Lancer clan sat down for dinner just as Maria set the last of the platters on the table. There was, however, one member notably absent.
“Has anyone seen Scott??” Murdoch asked, curiously. “It’s not like him to be late.”
“Last time I saw him was just before lunch,” Johnny answered as he reached for a biscuit. “He was checking the Crystal Creek Bridge for loose boards.”
“But that was hours ago,” Teresa exclaimed, worriedly. “He should have been back by now.”
“He is back. I talked to him in the barn ‘round about half past three,” Jelly supplied. “I, uh, had somethin’ I needed ta discuss with him. After we was done, he headed into the house.”
“What did you need to talk to him about?” Johnny asked through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“I asked him ta…Never you mind what,” Jelly huffily replied. “It was personal….and don’t talk with yer mouth full. It’s bad manners.”
Just then, Maria emerged from the kitchen carrying a pitcher of milk which she placed at Johnny’s left elbow.
“Maria, did you see Scott this afternoon?” Murdoch asked.
“Señor Scott? Si,” she replied as she wiped her hands on her apron. “I spoke with him about two hours ago and then he went upstairs.”
“Well, he must have gone back out because his hat and gun aren’t on the rack by the door,” Teresa surmised.
“Oh, that don’t mean anything,” Johnny said, brushing off Teresa’s theory. “Sometimes, he takes ‘em off upstairs. He could be up there napping. He looked tired when I talked to him earlier and he seemed kinda cranky.”
“Yeah,” Jelly agreed with an emphatic nod of his whickered chin. “He was a might crotchety at that.”
With an aggravated sigh, Murdoch stood and headed for the stairs. “I’ll go get him.”
Many long minutes later he was back, alone, with a letter in his hand and a flabbergasted expression on his face. He opened his mouth and then closed it again, apparently at a loss for words.
“What is it, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, quickly becoming concerned.
Murdoch thrust the letter at Johnny, still speechless.
The youngest Lancer quickly scanned the missive, taking in his brother’s neat handwriting, and felt his jaw drop.
“Dang it, Johnny, what IS it??” Jelly asked.
“Well…” Johnny said, slowly. “It would appear that Scott has run away from home.”
“Run away from home?!?!” Teresa cried. “But why?”
In answer, Johnny read the letter aloud:
I know this may seem like a drastic measure but I am at my wit’s end. I’ve tried to discuss this subject with all of you on numerous occasions but my pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
You have all gotten into the very bad habit of putting me in the middle and I just can’t do it anymore. If there’s bad news to impart, have Scott do it. If you need someone cheered up, have Scott do it. If you need someone reprimanded, have Scott do it. If you can’t come up with the right words without hurting someone’s feelings, have Scott do it.
Well, Scott doesn’t want to do it any more.
I’m sorry but I will no longer be doing your dirty work for you. You’re all relying on me like some sort of crutch and it needs to stop. Until you can all learn to speak up for yourselves, I will be residing at the Widow Swenson’s boarding house in Green River.
When Johnny finished, there were a several minutes of stunned silence after which, Jelly cleared his throat.
“We don’t do that!” he protested hotly. “….do we?”
“Well,” Teresa answered as she fiddled with her napkin. “I know that, on occasion, I’ve asked to him speak to J- um, several people about different things for me. But it’s not very often, really. Maybe two or three…times a week. Oh dear. That is fairly often, isn’t it?”
“I have also requested Scott’s help on several occasions,” Maria sheepishly added as she rubbed at a nonexistent spot on the table. “And I know that mi esposo has done so as well.”
“But it’s just that he’s so darned good at,” Jelly defended. “He always knows the right thing to say and…well….it’s just easier to have him do it.”
Johnny and Murdoch stared at each other for a few awkward seconds before guiltily looking away, both silently calculating the number of times they had begged Scott to play go-between for them. The tallies were quite extensive.
“Hmm, yes...well…” Murdoch rumbled. “Perhaps we have gotten a bit lazy about handling our own issues and been a little too reliant on Scott. But why didn’t he just say something? Why did he feel the need to pull such a stunt?”
“Well, you have to admit,” Johnny said ruefully as he ran a hand through his thick, dark hair. “It certainly got our attention.”
Scott Lancer sat on the front porch of Agnes Swenson’s boarding house and contemplated the stars. It was late and the town was quiet. He had come to Green River to escape his family for a while. The blond Bostonian felt somewhat embarrassed for having taken off the way he had, it was such an immature and undignified thing to do. The last time he had run away from home had been at the tender age of six when his grandfather had refused to let him have a dog. He’d hidden in the gardener’s tool shed at the back of the property for about three hours before hunger and the cold February temperatures had compelled him to return to the house. His grandfather hadn’t even realized he’d been gone.
He wondered if his family had noticed his absence yet. Since it was well past dinner time, he was fairly certain they had. Murdoch was a stickler about everyone sitting down together at the end of the day. What had their reaction been to the letter he’d left? Had they been angry? Had they laughed? Had they denied being guilty of the things he’d accused them of?
When he’d first arrived in California, he hadn’t minded playing go-between. They were all strangers to one another and, as a result, things had been tense and fairly awkward. They had needed someone to put into words what they were thinking and feeling - Someone to facilitate. The idea of three very independent adults attempting to become a family had been pretty intimidating and the journey had been a rocky one. There was too much history and personal baggage for things to fall into place over night. Scott knew they would need to help to become the warm and loving family he was certain they could be.
But somewhere along the way that had changed. Everyone had gotten a little lazy and simply found it easier to continue letting Scott speak for them. Easier and less burdensome….for everyone but Scott.
Well, no more.
Unlike when he was six, Scott was prepared to stick it out. This time, there would be no slinking back after only a few hours with nothing resolved. This time, he would wait for them to come to him. He desperately needed for them to realize how difficult they were making things for him. To always be the helper, the mediator, the reconciler. The pressure to always come up with the right thing to say was wearing him down mentally and physically. He was tired of being put in the middle.
Scott stood and stretched his lean frame. It had been a long day and Agnes was keeping a meal warm for him on the stove. He wasn’t particularly hungry but he figured he should eat something.
The handsome blond entered the little house and smiled at Agnes who was sitting by the fireplace, knitting something pink. Her son and daughter-in-law, who lived in San Jose, had just had a baby girl. Their first.
“I think I’ll go have that dinner now, Agnes.”
The elderly widow smiled and set aside her knitting. “Wonderful. I’ll just-“
“No, no.” Scott rushed to interrupt. “I can get it myself. You keep on with your knitting.”
“Are you sure??”
“I’ll be fine.” He chuckled softly and headed into the kitchen which was down the hall, at the back of the house. There, sitting on the stove, was a plate heaped with a generous portion of roasted chicken, potatoes and fresh green beans. Scott gathered up the hefty platter and placed it on the table where cutlery, a linen napkin and another plate with a slice of cherry pie waited. There was also a pitcher of fresh lemonade and a glass. How Agnes thought he would be able to eat all of this was a mystery.
Not wanting to offend his motherly host, Scott picked up his fork and dove in, prepared to give it his best shot. He hadn’t taken more than a few bites when Agnes appeared in the doorway.
“Scott, dear,” she said with a small grin. “There are some folks here to see you. They’re waiting in the parlor.”
Scott had a pretty good idea who was waiting and he looked at Agnes with trepidation.
“I’m not sure I’m ready to talk to them yet,” He replied slowly.
Agnes gently removed the fork from his hand and patted his shoulder. “I have found, with these types of things, that it’s best not to put it off. They do seem awfully anxious to see you. Go and talk to them.”
Scott hadn’t been forthcoming about why he was renting a room from her but the Widow Swenson was a smart lady with children of her own. He was fairly certain, if that grin on her face was any indication, that she had a pretty good idea what was going on.
Rising slowly from his chair, Scott headed out of the kitchen and back down the hall towards the parlor. He found Murdoch, Johnny, Teresa and Jelly all waiting for him, with contrite expressions on their faces.
“Scott...” Murdoch began, as he fiddled with the hat in his hands.
When it became obvious that he wasn’t able to continue, Johnny gave it a try. “You see, Boston, it’s like this…..”
And then Teresa tried. She chimed in with “We, um….”
“Dang it,” Jelly griped. “Why is this so hard?”
Scott stood, arms crossed, and continued to watch his family flounder. Their feeble attempts to come up with the right words were validation for all his complaints. In the past, he might have been tempted to fill in the blanks for them but that was what had gotten them to this point in the first place.
“We’re sorry!” Johnny finally managed to blurt out, looking extraordinarily pleased with himself for having finally spewed forth a complete, if somewhat short, sentence.
“Do you even know,” Scott asked somewhat diffidently, “What it is that you’re all sorry for?”
“I think,” Murdoch offered with a bashful smile. “The fact that none of us seems capable of articulating a simple apology is pretty strong evidence of what the problem is.”
He moved to stand in front of his eldest son and placed a gentle hand on Scott’s shoulder. “We’ve been laying a pretty heavy burden at your feet for quite a while now, Son, and we’re sorry.”
“We all feel just awful about this, Scott,” Teresa pleaded. “Please come home.”
“Yeah, Boston,” Johnny added. “We’ll do better. Honest!”
Scott continued to look doubtful.
“I’m not sure about this,” he said as he shook off his father’s touch. “Do you have any idea what a difficult situation you kept putting me in over and over again? How do I know that you really mean it? That you aren’t just saying these things to get me to come home with you?”
“Then you just speak up the next time we forget and start dumpin’ things on ya,” Jelly suggested.
Scott shook his head. “I’m afraid that’s not good enough. I tried speaking up before and none of you listened.”
“Well then just whack us upside the head with a big stick. That should get our attention.” Johnny suggested, giving Scott his best puppy dog look. “Just…just don’t leave again.”
“Please, Son,” Murdoch chimed in as well. “It’s gotten so I can’t sleep if you or your brother are away from home. It just doesn’t feel right when-”
“Oh, and I want a dog, too.” Scott blurted out and then bit his lip, looking somewhat embarrassed. He wasn’t quite sure where that particular demand had come from but he wasn’t going to take it back. He DID want a dog.
Murdoch blinked but decided to roll with the rather unusual change in topic. “Okaaaayy.”
“I-I’ve always wanted one,” Scott tried to explain. “Grandfather never let me….”
“Oh, a dog would be great,” Johnny exclaimed, latching on to the idea. “Can we, Murdoch?”
“Yes, we can get a dog,” the Lancer patriarch answered with a roll of his eyes. At this point he was willing to promise anything if it would get Scott back at Lancer where he belonged. “Now, will you please come home?”
“Yeah,” Jelly added. “We really are sorry.”
“Please, Scott.” entreated Teresa.
Scott knew there really wasn’t anything else his family could say. There was no other way for them to prove their sincerity. They had apologized. They had promised to do better. He was going to have to have faith in them…and he realized that he did.
“Okay,” the blond relented with an affectionate smile at his younger brother. “I’ll come home. I’ll be there first thing tomorrow morning.”
“What? Why not now?” Asked Murdoch, a look of dismay on his face.
“It’s late and Hannibal is over at the livery stable which is locked up tight. I don’t want to wake up Gus to get him out.”
“We can come back for him in the morning,” Teresa suggested. “There’s room for you in the buggy. Please Scott?”
“Okay, honey,” The blond agreed with a smile for his little “sister”. He found himself just as eager to return home as his family was to have him there.
“Excellent!” Murdoch said, with a relieved sigh as he gave his eldest boy a pat on the back. “Now how about we get everyone back in the buggy and head for home. It’s late and it’s a long ride. Besides, I’m sure Agnes would like to lock up and go to bed.”
“Its fine,” the elderly woman assured them from her spot by the door. She had been hovering discreetly in the hallway just in case a mediator had been required. Scott had looked very lost and forlorn when he had arrived. She was determined that, whatever the issue that had brought him here, he would get to have his say. “Scott, you can pick up your things tomorrow when you come back for Hannibal. I’ll make sure everything is packed up for you.”
“Thank you, Agnes,” Scott replied, gratefully.
“Yes. Thank you, Agnes,” Murdoch added as he herded his brood out the door.
As Agnes closed and locked the door, she could hear Scott and Johnny enthusiastically discussing the type of dog they wanted and what they would name it.
Epilogue: Three weeks later…
It was a warm summer evening, dinner was over, and Scott and Johnny were playing a game of “fetch the stick” with their new dog, Bandit. They hadn’t been playing all that long when Johnny turned to his brother. “Hey, Scott, do you think you could talk to Murdoch for me? He’s been-”
The former gunfighter got no further than that before Scott took the stick he was holding and thwapped his brother sharply on the arm.
“Ow! What was that for?” Johnny whined as he rubbed at the spot where the stick had made contact.
“Just reminding you of our deal, Little Brother,” Scott replied smugly. “You said that any time you forgot and asked to me to do your talking for you to just hit you with a stick.”
“I said that?” Johnny asked dubiously.
“Actually, you suggested that I hit you in the head.”
“Well, I guess I should be thankful that you just hit me on the arm ‘cause that hurt!”
“Yes, but it got your attention, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, yeah…I’ll talk to Murdoch on my own.” Johnny groused. “But don’t blame me when the fur starts to fly.”
“You’ll do fine,” Scott soothed. “I’ll come with you and sit in the room. But remember, I’ll be there strictly for moral support. I’m not going to say a word.”
“Nuthin’ at all?”
“”Nope,” Scott remained firm.
“Okay, okay” Johnny sighed. “Thanks, Brother.”
“You’re welcome, Brother.”
With that, the two men entered the hacienda, Bandit trotting contentedly at their heels, and closed the door.