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Fay

 

 

Family Matters

Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the Lancer characters. They are sadly not mine to keep. No money has been made from this story. It was written entirely for fun, relaxation and entertainment, and to share amongst like-minded friends.
I would like to acknowledge KC, who is an invaluable beta trying valiantly to pass on her writing skills to me.
I also wish to thank Nancy Ewankov for providing some Spanish phrases for me.

 

Chapter One

The froth lolled drunkenly to one side of the beer mug to the other, then dribbled down the sides to create little puddles on the counter.

“Drink up, Brother. You deserve it.”

A tanned hand grasped the handle and raised it in a mock salute.

“About time you realized it!”

Johnny drank thirstily. Half the glass disappeared before he paused. He sighed with pleasure.

“Nothing like a glass of cool beer after a day branding them stupid cows.”

“Just don’t forget that those stupid cows just bought you that beer,” Scott reminded him.

“They did?”

“Remember that without them, we wouldn’t have our weekly wage, not to forget a comfortable home and good food on the table.”

“Mostly cow.”

“Mostly cow, I admit, but damned fine cow and Teresa and Maria sure know what to do with it. I am staggered that it never seems to be the same cow reappearing on our dinner plates twice.”

Johnny chuckled and took another sip of his beer.

“Yeah, they do a good job, don’t they?” Johnny agreed.

“The best.” Scott savoured a few sips of his own brew. His sigh said it all. “So, are you going to tell me how you managed it?”

Johnny’s smirk grew as he pondered his answer.

“I guess you could say that a man should be careful not to get caught with his pants down. It can lead to a man doing things he don’t want to do.”

“In other words, blackmail is a useful tool,” Scott prompted him.

“Yeah, I guess you hit the nail right on the head.”

“So, I’ll ask you again, how did you get them to do it, Johnny?”

Johnny laughed softly. “You should have seen them. I caught them both, Terry last Saturday and Steve on Friday. They were both fooling around with Hank Waterman’s girl, Sally Evans. And you know how mean he can get.”

Scott frowned. “I don’t see the connection between that and getting them to come over to our ranch and help out with our branding.”

“Well, I saw Terry on Sunday morning and Steve on Sunday afternoon and told them that I wouldn’t mention a thing to Hank if they came over and helped out with our branding. I told them each that the other had already said he’d help, so they went along with it and turned up just like I suggested.”

“Suggested?”

“Yeah, I just suggested it. I didn’t say that they HAD to, just that if they valued their health it might be a good idea. If Hank found out, he’s got a pretty short fuse, after all.”

“So they’ve come over from the Bar ME to help us out because they were petrified that you would tell Hank.”

“Yeah.”

Scott nodded and took a long pull of his drink.

“I see,” he commented. “So we got all that branding finished that should have taken us at least another day or two.”

“Uh huh.”

“They worked darned well, too. Hard workers, the two of them. They scarcely took a break.”

Johnny agreed.

“And they don’t know that Hank dropped her several weeks ago and is smitten with Mary Matthews?”

“Nope.”

“Sneaky, Johnny. Brilliantly sneaky.”

“Yeah, I thought so.”  Johnny grinned.

“And what about when they find out that Hank has lost interest in Sally?”

“What about then?”

“You’re not just a little bit worried that they might seek some retribution of some sort?”

“Nah! They can’t prove that I knew he’d changed his mind and was keen on Mary now. I can’t be held responsible for his love life.”

Scott looked his younger, cunning brother in the eye. ”You know, Johnny, I’ve got to admire that mind of yours. Ever thought of going to West Point?”

“West Point? What’s that?” Johnny demanded after sculling the remains of his drink.

“It’s an officer training school. Your devious little mind should be part of the curriculum.”

“Sounds painful.”

“Not half as painful as my back. It’s killing me after spending the day bending over our bovine friends.”

“I can think of a few other friends I’d rather bend over,” Johnny muttered as he eyed two of the more voluptuous saloon girls unashamedly flaunting their wares.

“Here, have another drink on me instead, before we head home. You know what Murdoch is like about being punctual for meals.”

Johnny sighed with resignation. “Yeah, don’t I just.”

He picked up his glass, once again filled to the brim with cool beer, and chinked it against Scott’s. “Thanks.”

Scott nodded in reply and drank deeply before clapping his brother on the back and steering him lightly outside and to the waiting supply wagon, loaded to the brim with essential provisions and equipment.

Tomorrow would be another day of ranch duties, but at least they wouldn’t include branding.

 

                                                   **********************************

They stopped the wagon, as was customary, at the lookout which had first offered them a full vista of Lancer – “as far as the eye could see”. Both sat for some moments, drinking it all in.

“Do you remember that first day, Scott?” Johnny asked softly.

“You mean the day that I discovered that the most colourfully dressed gunslinger in the West was my brother?” teased Scott.

Imitating Johnny Madrid’s iciest stare, Johnny drawled his response. “I wouldn’t start on about clothes if I were you, Scott. You mightn’t win that one.”

“Ouch!” Scott grimaced. “My suit was really was something, wasn’t it?”

“It was something, all right,” Johnny confirmed, “But I’m just not sure what.”

A comfortable silence ensued for several minutes, smiles lingering on their faces as they thought back.

“It’s been a good two years, hasn’t it?” Johnny said.

“In more ways than one, Brother, in more ways than one.”

The brothers looked at each other and left the rest unsaid. Their arrival had been a turning point in their lives and one for which they had both been forever grateful, no matter how rocky it had first been.

“And one thing I learned in the past few years is not to piss off the Old Man off by being late for meals.”

“Actually, I don’t know who gets more annoyed, Murdoch or Maria.”

“Good point. So I guess if we want to eat tonight we had better get this wagon home and these supplies unloaded.”

“Gotcha, Johnny!” Scott replied with an exaggerated western twang. 

With that, Scott whipped the reins lightly against the horses’ flanks. The wagon took off, wending its way down the slope to the hacienda.

 

*********************************

 

Murdoch was pleased that all of the supplies they had ordered had arrived. He was even more pleased that several books he had been waiting for were included amongst the ranch provisions collected by Scott and Johnny. Like Scott, he was an avid reader, and of late it had not escaped his notice that Johnny generally had a book of some sort on his bedside table. Johnny had started with books on animals and nature, but Murdoch knew that “Robinson Crusoe” had been read and had been discussed favourably. He could imagine the self sufficient Johnny relating to the actions of Crusoe’s character.

Murdoch had ordered some books, hoping to encourage Johnny to read further by putting some appealing books Johnny’s way. Wanting Johnny to learn a little bit about his Scottish heritage, he had chosen one book about Robert the Bruce and another about the Battle of Culloden.

Murdoch knew better now than to shove books at him. If Murdoch read the books, put them back on the shelf and mentioned in passing how much he had enjoyed the adventure in them, there was more of a chance that Johnny would pick them up of his own volition. It had worked with ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

The boys cleaned up hurriedly, and in no time the family was seated at the dining table. Cutlery scraped on dinner plates as they all sat to enjoy another delectable meal prepared by Teresa and Maria.

Teresa’s pumpkin soup was followed by roast beef, gravy, roast potatoes and onions with boiled carrot rings and buttered beans. To accompany the meal Murdoch had chosen a respectable cabernet sauvignon.

“Cipriano tells me that the branding has been completed ahead of schedule. That’s quite impressive, boys. I’m proud of you for working so hard. You’ve both been such an asset to the ranch since you came here,” Murdoch complimented them.

“Perhaps we have good teachers here, Sir,” suggested Scott.

“And maybe we’re just quick on the uptake, hey, Scott?” bragged Johnny with a cheeky grin.

“Or a combination of both?” Murdoch smiled. “Whatever the reason, our success lies firmly with you boys and I don’t want you to underestimate the contribution you’ve both made to Lancer’s continuing prosperity and to its future in general.”

“You’re not softening us up for some more arms, legs and guts, are you, Old Man?” Johnny teased.

Murdoch laughed. “I don’t think that I could expect any more arms, legs and guts than you have already donated to the cause, Johnny. No, I just want to offer a toast to our future together and as thanks for what you have done to help. Our family has a lot to be grateful for.”

“Here, here, Sir,” chimed in Scott. The family tapped glasses together and drank to their continued happiness and prosperity.

A firm knocking at the door interrupted their relaxed chatter.

“Are you expecting anyone, Murdoch?” Johnny asked as he rose.

“No. Are any of you?”

As his family sat shaking their heads, Johnny collected his gun from the hall stand, checked it and then opened the door.

Standing on the porch was a man of similar age to Scott and Johnny. Just an inch taller than Scott, he held himself in posture similar to Scott’s erect, military bearing. Thick, brown, wavy hair was parted meticulously two thirds of the way on the left side of his head. Sideburns reached to the bottom of his ears, but otherwise he bore no facial hair. While wearing western clothes, they were more for city wear than for general ranch work. His coat was black and longer than habitual down the back, covering part of his charcoal grey trousers which had a satin ribbon strip down the seam of the outside legs. His black string tie and ruffled shirt completed his rather formal appearance.

The man turned his hat in his hands, not out of nervousness, but somehow, it appeared to Johnny, out of a seemingly smug expectation. After allowing Johnny’s blatant appraisal, he finally spoke.

“Is Murdoch Lancer at home?”

“If he is, what’s it to you?” Johnny demanded, more aggressively than would normally be the case.

The man was prevented from answering by the arrival of Murdoch and Scott.

“You wish to see me?” Murdoch asked him.

“Yes, I do.”

He extended his hand to Murdoch. Both men shook hands formally, one smiling broadly, the other frowning in puzzlement.

“My name is Tom Phelps. Hello, Father,” the visitor greeted him.

 

Notes:

1.            Robert the Bruce 1274-1379 (www.Brittania.com)

Robert the Bruce is surely the greatest of all Scottish heroes, yet the Hollywood movie Braveheart gave all the heroics to his compatriot William Wallace, making Bruce out to be nothing more than a self-serving opportunist. However, it was the patience and cunning of Bruce that Scotland needed, not the impetuousness of Wallace, especially facing such formidable enemies as the English, first under Edward I and then under his son and heir Edward II. Bruce bided his time; he first had to establish his authority as King of Scotland. By the time of Bannockburn, he was ready.

Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce was born at Turnberry Castle, Ayrshire, in 1274, of both Norman and Celtic ancestry. Two years before his birth, Edward Plantagenet had become King Edward I of England. The ruthlessness of Edward, who earned the title "the Hammer of the Scots" brought forth the greatness of Bruce whose astonishing victory at Bannockburn in 1314 over the much larger and better-equipped forces of Edward II ensured Scottish freedom from control by the hated English.

2.         The Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746), was the last military clash ever to be fought on British soil, between the forces of the Jacobites, who supported the claim of Charles Edward Stuart (aka "Bonnie Prince Charlie") to the throne; and the Royal Army which supported the Hanoverian sovereign, King George II. Culloden brought the 1745 Jacobite Rising to a close. In fact, the rebellion was small but it had enormous psychological impact upon the Highland Scots, and severe civil penalties thereafter (e.g., it became a criminal offence to wear tartan). Thus, Culloden was a decisive defeat for the Jacobite cause, and Bonnie Prince Charlie left Britain and went to Rome, never to attempt to take the throne again. (wikipedia)

3.         Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s most famous novel was published in 1719 with the full title, The Life and strange and surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. It is based, in fact, upon the experiences of Alexander Selkirk who had run away to sea in 1704 and requested to be left on an uninhabited island to be rescued five years later. Defoe himself was in his late fifties when he wrote the book, which is often considered to be the first English novel.

 

Chapter Two

The three Lancers froze.

Murdoch abruptly dropped the newcomer’s hand as beside him, frowning intensely, Scott drew himself up.  Teresa covered her mouth with her hand, but she couldn’t stop her gasp.

Johnny cocked his gun and aimed it at Mr Tom Phelps’ head.

No one spoke.

It was their unwelcome visitor who finally suggested that they invite him in. Presuming acquiescence, he made a move to do so, but Johnny’s gun suddenly connected with his temple, stopping him in his tracks.

“I don’t think so.”

Phelps looked at Murdoch.

“I am Anne Redshaw’s son,” he offered by way of explanation.

Murdoch tilted his head, stilled, then blanched visibly.

“May I come in?” Phelps repeated.

Murdoch had remained immobile, but he finally nodded his head to Johnny, who reluctantly uncocked his gun. He did not replace it in his holster on the hall stand, however.

Stepping back slightly, Murdoch waved vaguely in the direction of the Great Room.

As Phelps proceeded to the Great Room, Johnny threw Scott a sharp look. It was returned with equal intensity. The two young men then shifted their gaze to their father. Murdoch was rooted to the spot, staring at the interloper with an inscrutable expression on his face.

“Murdoch?” Johnny ventured quietly.

Johnny’s words did not evoke a response, but merely had the effect of pushing Murdoch into motion.

The brothers looked at each other again. They were worried and annoyed.

The Lancers moved into their favourite room, a room that had always been considered a sanctuary after the antagonism of their first meeting had settled. The safety of that sanctuary seemed brittle in the presence of this unwanted guest.

The man in question had placed his hat on the ottoman and stood tall, hands on his lapels as he surveyed the room around him. He bore a neutral expression on his face, but Johnny noticed his gaze flicking around, absorbing the quality furnishings and the general layout of the interior of the hacienda.

All four men stayed standing, leaving the first move to someone else.

In the end, it was Phelps who broke the silence.

“You have a lovely home.”

“We like it,” was all he received from Murdoch.

Phelps’ mouth twitched in amusement. “As it should be. A man’s home is his castle.”

Silence again ensued.

“So this is Johnny and this is Scott?” Tom asked.

“Yes,” Murdoch answered without elaborating. “Drink?” he asked abruptly, seizing on something to do.

Despite the raw tension in the room, Johnny could not help a wry grimace as he thought back to a scene two years ago where Murdoch had hidden behind a need for a drink in order to delay what could not be avoided.

“Thank you. I’ll have a whisky. Make it a double.”

Murdoch paused fractionally mid stride as he took in the imperiously cast order. Reaching the drinks cabinet, he set about pouring the alcohol. Scott joined him, brushing a comforting shoulder against his father, before pouring drinks for himself and Johnny. Murdoch straightened his posture at the contact and he took a moment to meet his son’s eyes before turning to their unexpected guest. No hint was afforded by Murdoch to his sons as to what this was all about.

Murdoch handed the drink over silently. He ran his gaze over the man, sizing him up as his face remained unreadable.

“Thank you,” uttered their guest as he extended his arm to take the glass. He tasted the drink and did not at all appear to be in any hurry to begin.

Murdoch seemed to be in no hurry to prompt the man, either. He finally turned to Teresa, however.

“Teresa, we have some business to discuss if you wouldn’t mind giving us some privacy.”

Good manners prevented her from arguing, particularly in front of a stranger. She shot her ‘brothers’ a searching look before turning to leave. An answering shrug from Johnny signalled his inability to comprehend the situation as well, so she reluctantly left the men to it.

“May I?” requested Phelps as he gestured towards the red brocade settee near the fire.

Murdoch nodded, but did not speak.

Scott perched on the arm of another of the sofas, while Johnny ambled over to the fireplace. After placing his glass on the mantelpiece, he turned his back to it, leaned his shoulder against it and crossed his arms.

Murdoch continued to stand like a granite boulder in the middle of the room.

“Cheers,” offered Phelps. “To family.”

His raised glass received no response, other than impassive stares, from the three Lancer men. He swallowed. The drink seemed to meet his approval.

“You are no doubt wondering why I have come?”

“Damned straight!” growled Johnny.

Phelps contemplated Johnny long and hard before turning to Murdoch. “You remember Anne Redshaw.” The words were a statement spoken with confidence, not a question. “She passed away three months ago.”

Johnny noticed the look of pain on his father’s face before he hastily erased it and uttered the expected words of condolence. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“My mother was married for ten years before the man I called ‘Father’ died. It was suicide, actually. Some disastrous business deals left him destitute. His investments were poor. He borrowed Peter to pay Paul, if you catch my drift. Hence he chose an effective way out of his embarrassment. Coping well with financial ruin was not for him, apparently.”

Phelps took a hefty belt of his whiskey and lowered his head to study the remaining richly gilded liquid. He seemed to find the inspiration to continue his story.

“Unfortunately, he neglected to consider the impact on myself and my mother. The creditors took everything, including our home.”

Phelps looked at all three men before him, gauging their reactions. Seeming to find something which satisfied him, he continued recounting the events he deemed so important to impart to them.

“So my mother was forced to work for a living. Scrubbing floors, cooking, sewing. Whatever came her way, she took it to feed us both and to put a roof over our heads.”

As Phelps drew breath to continue, Scott sighed loudly and thumped his glass on the side table. He stood abruptly, tension rippling through him.

“This is a very sad story, but why do we need to hear it and what has it got to do with us?”

Phelps sat implacably, surveying the occupants of the room.

“Everything.”

“How?”

“Because my mother visited Lancer with her father before she married.”

“And?” Scott’s voice held an unusually high pitched note, already gearing up for the unwelcome revelation to be shortly divulged.

“Because I was born exactly nine months afterwards.”

Scott’s face suffused a deep red. His hands clenched into fists at his sides.

“So what are you implying?”

“My dear Scott, I am not implying anything. I am stating the fact that Murdoch Lancer is my father … in other words that your father is also my father.”

The silence was profound. The grandfather clock ticked methodically away, filling the void that no one else wanted to.

Murdoch was white faced. He uttered no sound and made no movement.

Johnny had stood straighter when Phelps had finally come to the point. The mask of Madrid had descended abruptly. He gave no indication of his thoughts or feelings other than by glaring at the man after his foul claim.

“No!” hissed Scott.

He strode up to Phelps and grabbed him by the lapel and hauled him to his feet. Phelps was shaken thoroughly by an enraged Scott, but the man made no move to defend himself. Scott’s physicality lessened with the reality that he could not shake the words away. Phelps firmly removed Scott’s now unresisting hands from his coat. He straightened his clothes, tugging at his tie and jacket to tidy up his appearance.

“Ask your father. OUR father, I should say.”

Two sets of blue eyes turned to Murdoch, but he remained mute. His agitation was evident, however. His chest was heaving, his nostrils were pinched and his eyes narrowed. But he neither refuted nor accepted the man’s accusation.

“Get off our property.” The low, drawled words had the effect of settling down Scott and also drawing the attention of Phelps.

“I have unfinished business,” declared Phelps.

“Wrong! Your business is over and done with. Finito. Vamos!” Johnny’s voice had taken on a hard edge. “Now!”

“Not until I show you this newspaper clipping.”

The words immobilised both Scott and Johnny. Each looked at the other and then at their unresponsive father.

Phelps opened his jacket pocket and confidently reached in to remove an envelope. Taking his time, stringing them along in their suspense, he took out a folded piece of paper.

Neither of the Lancer sons approached him, so he took several paces forward and held it out to Scott who was mesmerized by it. Scott stared and swallowed painfully, but made no move to take it.

Clomping boots broke the stillness. Johnny approached Phelps and seized the paper.

This broke Scott’s reverie. After a final scathing look at Phelps, he joined his brother and peered at the paper held by him.

“So, you were born on January 19. It don’t mean nothing,” Johnny argued.

Their intruder removed a second piece of paper. He unfolded it and extended it to the brothers.

The brothers took a minute to read and re-read it before turning their eyes to Murdoch. They faced Phelps once more.

Johnny licked his lips. “This is a marriage certificate – a copy from church records. I still don’t get your point.”

Phelps arched an eyebrow. “Oh, come on! My parents were married in June.”

Johnny allowed a particularly insolent smirk to grace his lips.

“So your mama and papa didn’t wait for the preacher? You came all this way to tell us that? You’re a strange man to brag about that … and to rub dirt on your mother’s memory.”

Phelps’ mouth clamped in a thin, straight line. He directed a venomous glare at Johnny.

“You watch your mouth when you talk about my mother!” he growled.

“I’d say it’s you who should watch what you say about your mother,” Johnny snapped back.

Scott took the papers from Johnny and thrust them at Phelps.

“We really aren’t concerned about the circumstances of your birth. Just get out!”

“You ARE concerned, whether you like it or not!”

Phelps turned to Murdoch.

“In April, nine months before my birth, where was my mother?”

Murdoch continued his silence.

“Well! Are you going to answer me?” Phelps voice was raised in his anger, but it had no effect on Murdoch who appeared detached from events in the room. “Well?”

With no answer forthcoming, Phelps supplied one. “She was visiting you here at Lancer with my grandfather, wasn’t she?”

Murdoch swallowed, then slowly nodded his head.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“And you formed a relationship with my mother, didn’t you?”

Murdoch closed his eyes and once more uttered his affirmative reply.

Scott and Johnny swivelled their heads from one to the other. It was Johnny who spoke, his voice low, but demanding. “Are you telling us that this man is your son, Murdoch?”

Murdoch looked at his two sons with bleak eyes. “I don’t know.”

“It is certainly possible, isn’t it?” Phelps zeroed in quickly.

Murdoch painfully tore his gaze from his sons and regarded this man with his unwelcome news.

“Yes,” he agreed.

Johnny looked at Scott, panic rising fast in his chest.

“And you could equally be the result of your mama’s marriage. Depending on your mama’s whims, of course. No one could ever be sure.”

Phelps made a move towards Johnny, but was thwarted by Scott’ rapid blocking of his passage.

“I warned you to mind what you say about my mother!”

“You brought your mama’s morals up, not me!” Johnny retaliated.

Scott’s military training took over.

“Enough! You have interrupted our evening with accusations which are difficult to digest at this time. I suggest that you leave us now and allow us time to discuss the issue.”

Phelps smiled sardonically.

“The issue. An apt choice of pun, Scott. I shall go, by all means.”

He turned to Murdoch. “I invite you to visit me at my hotel in Green River tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, but no,” answered Johnny for the family. “We got a ranch to run.”

“You obviously can’t take a hint. Let me change that to a suggestion rather than an invitation. I have someone you need to meet.”

“Who?” asked Murdoch.

Phelps smiled.

“Someone it is to your advantage to be introduced to. See you at ten in the morning at the El Dorado.” Phelps moved to pick up his hat. “Gentlemen,” he nodded. “I’ll see myself out.”

And Phelps did precisely that.

The three Lancer men stayed where they were, grappling with the news that they had received and trying to assimilate it. Only ragged breathing from all three men, plus the inexorable ticking of the grandfather clock, could be heard.

It was Johnny who raised the situation openly. “Murdoch?” he prompted.

There was no response to his father who had turned to the desk and was leaning heavily on it.

“Murdoch, are you going to tell us what that was all about?” Johnny pursued gently.

Murdoch continued to keep his thoughts to himself and did not react.

Johnny looked at Scott for support, a touch of desperation in his eyes. Scot was about to speak when Murdoch moved to the liquor cabinet. He seized a decanter of whiskey and a clean glass and headed for the stairs.

“Murdoch?” This time it was Scott who tried to reach his father.

“Not now, boys. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Heavy steps trod the stairway as Murdoch lumbered his way slowly upwards without a backward glance at either of his two sons.

 

Chapter Three

Scott and Johnny watched Murdoch’s receding figure. It was Scott who strode to the drinks cabinet and poured a hefty wallop from the whisky bottle, then tossed it down his throat in uncharacteristic bad temper. He poured himself some more, then filled a glass for Johnny. Both men downed the drinks as one. Johnny held his glass out wordlessly to Scott. Another glass was poured, but this was nursed by both men as they sank into silent thought.

Johnny was the first to speak up. ”So this guy is saying that Murdoch had a romance with his mama and that his papa wasn’t his papa, but Murdoch is?”

Scott arched an eyebrow. “Got it in one, brother.”

Both men looked at each other and belatedly winced.

“That makes him our brother, don’t it?”

“Again, you have hit the nail right on the head.”

Johnny wandered over to the sofa by the fire and sat down, elbows on knees and lips pursed as he concentrated.

Scott joined him and unintentionally copied his pose.

“So, Phelps’ mother was here at Lancer? Nine months before he was born?”

Scott nodded, then turned his head to look at his brother. “Murdoch sure isn’t denying it.”

“Then she leaves and up and marries someone else?”

“It appears so.”

“So, she marries someone else because she’s having Murdoch’s baby and she needs a father for it? Or was she already engaged?”

“I don’t know.”

“If she was already engaged, maybe she and her fiancé had already had … relations, you know?”

Scott’s smile softened his face despite the gravity of the situation. “Yes, I know.”

“Or she could have been with any man at that time, not just our father.”

“Yes, she could have, but no other names have been mentioned other than Murdoch’s.”

Johnny rubbed his hand through his hair and groaned.

“So, you saw that newspaper clipping. What do you remember from it?”

“Let me write it down now, before I forget what it said.”

Scott sat at Murdoch’s desk. Picking up a pen, he unscrewed the ink jar, dipped the nib in and wrote in his beautiful copperplate hand: “Phelps, in this city, on Jan19th the wife of Samuel Phelps of a son, Thomas Samuel.”

“The clipping was from the ‘Californian Star’ and it was dated 1848 on the page,” Johnny supplied.”

“Yes,” mulled Scott.

“Let’s get this straight. He’s twenty five, you’re twenty seven and I’m twenty four. You were born on December 19, 1845. A year and a bit later, in April of 1847, his mother comes for a visit. He was born in January, 1848.”

“Yes, that seems to be the way of it,” Scott agreed.

“Then Murdoch meets my mama in early 1848, a year after Tom’s mother’s visit.”

“And you were born on December 23 of that year,” Scott added. “Have you noticed that we were all winter babies?”

“It sort of makes you wonder what gets Murdoch so frisky every spring, don’t it?” Johnny grinned wickedly and his eyes danced at the image of a more lusty side to their father than they had personally witnessed.

Scott looked at his brother askance, but couldn’t help agreeing with him. He also couldn’t help joining his brother in a quiet chuckle as well.

Scott was aware that suddenly Johnny had fallen silent. Tension radiated off his body. “Johnny, are you OK?” asked Scott.

A pause ensued before Johnny nodded once again. He kept his head bowed, however, and didn’t look at Scott.

“Johnny?” Scott called his name gently. “What is it?”

Scott saw his shoulders heave as Johnny drew a deep breath before sighing it out noisily.

He glanced at the earnest face of his brother, then looked away, biting his lip. He sighed again, raked his fingers through his hair, sat up and looked his brother in the eye.

“About my mama and Murdoch,” Johnny ventured, then stopped.

“Yes?” encouraged Scott.

“They didn’t marry until May, late May, of that year.”

Scott considered what he should say. Johnny was obviously concerned about Scott’s reaction to this news.

“Does that make a difference to you?” Scott queried.

“No, I guess not. There are always a lot of ‘early’ babies if you look closely at things.”

Scott took in the figure of his dejected brother. He chose his words carefully.

“I guessed as much by what Murdoch almost, but didn’t quite, say that first day. You know, I’ve seen Murdoch looking at the photo of Maria on his desk when he thinks that no one is looking. He loved her. They may not have waited during their courtship, but I don’t doubt that he loved her and wanted to marry her. I also believe that he was looking forward to being a father a second time. From what little he has said, no one forced him into marriage with your mother. Being born the required nine months after marriage is not the be all and end all. Being loved is.”

Blue eyes lifted to Scott’s. They contained a wealth of love and gratitude.

“Thanks, Scott.” Johnny smiled tentatively. “It don’t worry you none?”

“Yes, it worries me that you think that it might worry me.”

Johnny’s bark of laughter was a welcome moment of levity in the darkened mood of the house since Phelps’ appearance at their door.

“I guess I should know you better, huh?”

“Yes, you should. If Murdoch and your mother had not been so … impulsive … then you would not have been born. They may have had another child later, but that child wouldn’t have been you, so I, for one, am delighted with events as they transpired.”

Johnny’s grin warmed the room and made inroads into dispelling the discomfort of the evening.

He leaned in to Scott and reached to clink glasses with him.

“To us, Brother,” he toasted.

They drank in companionable silence. It was a silence which did not last long.

“So, what do you reckon?” Johnny asked.

“I really don’t know. If Murdoch and Phelps’ mother had relations, then I suppose that it is feasible that he is Murdoch’s son.”

“I don’t want him to be,” Johnny stated simply.

“What we want and what are facts might be mutually exclusive.”

“Yeah, I know. I just don’t like him.”

“Well, you weren’t that keen on me as a sibling to start with.”

Johnny angled his head and looked at his big brother.

“That ain’t so, Scott. I was surprised, even shocked, because it’s the last thing I expected. I’d always wondered if Murdoch had married and had another family, but I always thought of him having a family AFTER I was born. It didn’t enter into my dreams that I would have an older brother. And I sure never expected a Boston bred dandy. THAT was downright amusing.”

Scott laughed, reminiscing at Johnny’s words. He had found the idea of having a half Mexican gunslinger as a brother to be plain ludicrous. Initially it was like some bad joke and he kept waiting for the punch line to be revealed. But it was no joke and within days he was relieved about that. His younger brother had proven to be both irritating and fascinating. Johnny’s wound had allowed Scott to get a little closer to him and to see more of the unguarded man beneath. And he liked what he saw.

“Well, my sense of humour wasn’t as well developed as yours at that time, but I admit that scene at the stage depot was rather humorous when you think about it. I must have looked pretty snobbish that day,” Scott confessed wryly, pulling a face.

“That made it all the more funny, Scott. You should have seen the look of horror stamped all over your face.”

Scott squirmed, suddenly uncomfortable.

“Johnny, I …”

He was interrupted by Johnny, who was suddenly aware of his embarrassment.

“Hell, Scott, if I’d just got off that coach from anywhere, let alone from fancy Boston, I’d have been horrified if I found out I was my own brother! I really didn’t have a lot going for me. There was blood on my hands. I lived rough. I survived where I could and that meant some of my choices weren’t the most civilized. And if I had been Murdoch and had any sense I wouldn’t have welcomed me into a home where there was a teenaged daughter. Murdoch took a risk. It would be natural to cringe from me. But you know something? You weren’t afraid to stand up to me.” Johnny smiled and rubbed his face as he remembered that punch down by the river. “You gave me a chance, you made up your own mind about me based on what you saw, not what other people told you. You looked for the real me underneath and I ain’t never going to forget that.”

Scott smiled in response. “Well, just you don’t forget about all that, because if my little brother gets out of hand again, I can quite easily take him back down to the river and set him straight again.”

Their snorts of laughter rippled through the room.

“But I don’t like him, Scott. And I don’t trust him.” Johnny had abruptly returned to the matter at hand, snapping the laughter like a brittle twig.

Scott rubbed his eyebrow and sighed. ”Maybe we’re jumping the gun. Murdoch has said nothing yet.”

“That’s what worries me. He didn’t protest at all. I just don’t like it.”

“Neither do I, Johnny. Neither do I.”

 

NOTES:

1.         Birth notices
Birth certificates seem rather dodgy in CA in the 19th century, but I discovered this site which has newspaper birth notices from newspapers. I used some latitude and copied the wording of Tom’s birth announcement from a birth notice in the Daily Alta California re the birth of a son to a Samuel Aitken on 15th February, 1856. This newspaper came into publication after Tom’s birth (the newspaper was circulated 1849-1850), so I have used ‘The Californian’ (1847-1848) as the name of the newspaper containing his birth notice. http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/vitals/sfbir.htm

2.         Californian newspapers
http://www.loc.gov/rr/news/bound/us/calbnd.html

http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sf/history/hgnew.htm

 

Chapter Four

Sleep was elusive for all Lancers that night. The grey, filtering light of dawn came as a relief to them all.

Johnny descended the stairs reluctantly, however. He was not rested. His eyes felt like all the grit in the badlands had somehow blown into them. This did not help his humour after his sleepless night and a dull ache was already niggling behind his temples. He did not doubt that he would have a raging headache before the end of the day. He rubbed his eyes and blinked rapidly to help lubricate his rusty eyelids.

Once he was downstairs, he entered the kitchen to find that Scott had beaten him there. His brother was sitting moping. His clothes were uncharacteristically rumpled. One hand propped his head while the other listlessly stirred his coffee.

“John.”

“Scott.”

Neither seemed inclined to speak more. Their desire to avoid conversation matched their desire to avoid eating. They both made only half hearted attempts to eat the copious amounts of food Maria placed in front of them.

All efforts to pretend to eat ceased totally when Murdoch entered the room. He strode in purposefully, uttering a quick “Buenos Dias” to Maria, then turned to the table where his sons sat.  His steps faltered.  Lowering his head, he gave them a muffled greeting, and then he sat, too.

Murdoch accepted his coffee from Maria with thanks, then vigorously attacked the breakfast on the plate set before him. He energetically sliced his bacon and cut the egg yolk to allow it to run over the bacon. His whole attention was focused on massacring his food, then on taking a sip of the strong brew steaming in his cup. But after only one mouthful he seemed to abort the idea of actually eating. He idly swirled the mess on his plate with his fork, sipped some more coffee and finally sighed.

“When you boys have finished eating, could I see you in the Great Room, please?”

It was only then that he raised his eyes to them, albeit briefly, before he slid them away, preventing them from trying to decipher what was going on in his mind.

Murdoch stood abruptly and pushed his chair back noisily. That he actually fled the room was obvious. Maria tisked as she retrieved his plate of still uneaten food.

“You boys have not eaten either!” she scolded them. “You cannot work the range without good food to fill your bellies. Eat up!”

They didn’t. Scott and Johnny rose. Johnny bent to Maria and gave her a peck on the cheek. “Lo siento, Mamacita. I guess we’re not hungry this morning. Sorry you went to all that trouble.”

Scott gave her a pat on the shoulder and also apologized as he made his way after his father. Both men stopped at the doorway, however, and glanced at each other. They were eager to find out the truth, but this eagerness was outweighed by the dread that had kept them awake all night.

“After you, Big Brother,” Johnny indicated with a wave of his hand.

Scott grimaced. “Well, here goes,” he muttered. “Let’s just hope that Murdoch will tell us what is going on.”

“I don’t rate our chances high, Scott. Remember that the past is past according to the Law of Murdoch. He don’t open up too much.”

Scott winced again, remembering back to the brittle atmosphere of their first meeting with their father.

“This time we won’t give him the option, Johnny.”

“Famous last words, Brother!” Johnny grinned as he pushed Scott to get him going.

The two brothers entered their father’s favourite domain. They approached the desk, the epitome of a set of contrasts. One was taller than the other, they had differing complexions and bone structures and they preferred different clothing colours and styles, but they presented the combined force their two halves had forged.

Murdoch was sitting at the desk, elbows on the desk top, head bowed. He was rubbing his left hand with the thumb of his right, seemingly unaware that they had entered the room.

This proved not to be so, however. He stood and faced them, pain and sorrow etched on his face. For the first time since last night he really looked at them and did not avert his eyes. They returned his stare, waiting.

Murdoch then turned to the large window behind his desk, leaving them waiting even longer. His hands moved to the small of his back and he arched his back as he uttered a muted hiss.

“I suppose you two are wondering what this is all about?”

«An understatement» thought Johnny as he pondered his sleepless night and the anxiety coursing through his body.

Scott and Johnny looked at each other.

“We are rather anxious to hear your side of things, Murdoch,” assured Scott.

Murdoch’s immense back blocked most of the view through the window. He ran his hands through his hair, leaving some strands unusually out of place, and began nodding.

“Fair enough.”

But he didn’t oblige them straight away. Fingering the curtain material, he was lost in thought and he appeared to forget that the boys were still waiting.

“The ranch wasn’t like it is now,” he began abruptly and seemingly off topic. “You look out here and you see the fences and the land we cleared for use as pasture. And it goes on as far as the mountains. All Lancer land. This isn’t what your mother and I first encountered, Scott.”

Murdoch turned and his eyes suddenly sought Scott’s.

“We bought a much smaller parcel of land originally, and we have added on to it as land became available or neighbours sold out.”

Johnny looked at Scott, wondering why this was directed at him and why Murdoch was bothering to tell them the obvious.

“One of those neighbours was James Redshaw. He owned a small parcel of land along what was then our northern perimeter. He sold out to Catherine and myself about six months after we had arrived. His wife had not long passed away and he wanted to take his daughter to a new life in San Francisco. He was a good neighbour and a good friend, despite being a good twenty five years older than me.”

Murdoch hung his head for a while, lost in the past.

“Catherine was pregnant with you, Scott, when James left. I worked the land with what labour I could afford, clearing it, breeding cattle, establishing things. Catherine was a good homemaker,” he smiled, “Always finding some way to decorate and put her own stamp on our home.”

This time when he looked up, he included both boys in his gaze. “A year after you were born, Scott, James contacted me. He wanted to come back for old times’ sake and have a look around. He wasn’t well and I don’t think he had all that long left in this world. He wanted to come back to his old property while he could and then see his daughter settled happily. She was due to marry in two months’ time, so he brought her along for company. A farewell holiday with his only child, I suppose. One last time to share experiences.”

The brothers nodded, both relatively certain just where this was leading.

“Anne was his daughter.”

« I already figured that out while you were talking, » Johnny thought impatiently. What he wanted to know was the ‘why’ of it.

Both sons nodded dutifully, not wanting to interrupt now that Murdoch was finally talking about it.

“She had been a friend of Catherine’s and had been here quite often after we arrived. Women were scarce in these parts then, so it was a relief that Catherine had another, albeit unmarried, woman as a companion while I went off working. She occasionally stayed overnight to avoid travelling in the dark.”

Murdoch sucked in a breath and took deliberate measured paces towards Scott, stopping just in front of him.

“I want you to know that at no time did either of us feel anything for each other at that time. I loved Catherine with all of my heart and I had no interest in any other woman at all after I had met her and for the rest of her lifetime. Anne was merely a friend of Catherine’s and a neighbour with whom I exchanged pleasantries. There were never any looks between us or flirting or anything less or more subtle. There was no attraction. There was no relationship.”

Johnny could see where his father was heading and he admired his father for at least clearing up that point before any questions arose regarding exactly when the relationship had begun.

Johnny watched Scott nod in acceptance, but he also noted the tightening along Scott’s mouth and the white lines shooting down to his jaw and out along his pinched nostrils.

“So James came out here to visit over Easter of that year, bringing Anne with him.”

Murdoch paused, then began pacing the room back and forth in front of the desk.

“I enjoyed having him stay. He had been a mentor for me. I had been young and lacking in ranching experience when I arrived in this country. He had offered me many wise words of advice which helped me out of trouble before I even really got there.”

Murdoch glanced over at his sons, then continued his tale and his pacing.

“James spent some time in bed during his stay, so there were times when I was left having to entertain Anne after my chores were out of the way. I’d not had any female company since Catherine had passed away. Anne was funny, warm, refreshing. I don’t know what it was particularly. I’d been lonely, but didn’t realize quite how much, I guess.”

Murdoch stopped in front of his sons again, or in front of Scott to be precise. He was speaking to them both, but Johnny noticed that Murdoch was searching Scott’s face rather than his own.

“Things … er … developed quickly and unexpectedly. Then one day, when we went on a picnic and James stayed at the hacienda, we…,” Murdoch groped, but did not finish the sentence. “It was not planned,” he took up again. “The moment overtook us, I guess you could say.”

Murdoch flushed. He fidgeted with his collar and cleared his throat. “I did not mean to betray your mother’s memory, son.”  Murdoch looked at Scott with pain etched deeply on his face. “I’m sorry.”

Scott was fighting an internal war, Johnny could see. Johnny had not thought of Murdoch betraying Catherine. He had not thought that Murdoch would see his actions in this light. Being the second son, or possibly now the third son, his own mother’s memory had not been betrayed as she had come on the scene after the fact. So he hoped that Scott could come to terms with this, for in Johnny’s opinion there were deeper and darker issues to deal with.

Scott swallowed, a little convulsively. But he nodded, then sucked in his breath.

“My mother had been gone for over a year, Sir. She would not have wanted you living like a monk, I am sure. She would have wanted you to move on with your life.”

Murdoch studied his elder son’s face intently. Apparently satisfied with the sincerity of his words, Murdoch in turn nodded.

“Thank you, Son.”

“So, was this a once off thing?” Johnny couldn’t help asking.

Murdoch grimaced at the directness of it.

“Yes.”

“Why?” Johnny demanded.

“Why?” Murdoch questioned in return.

“Why was it just a single occasion? You regretted it? You were using her? You didn’t love her? Why just the once?”

Scott and Murdoch were shocked at his indelicate questions. Murdoch’s face was flushed a deep red of shame and embarrassment facing the bluntness of Johnny’s interrogation.

“Brother!” cautioned Scott.

“This has to be discussed, Scott. There ain’t no point in putting our heads in the sand. Well, Murdoch?”

Murdoch squirmed in discomfort.

“She was engaged to someone else. The wedding was in two months. I couldn’t ask her to reconsider. Her fiancé was well connected and wealthy. Life was still wild here in those days. Still very uncivilized. Different to what she had got used in the city. I felt like I had led her astray. I was five years older and more experienced in the world. She’d been sheltered. I should have been more responsible. I apologized the next day and told her that it wouldn’t happen again. And I made sure that it didn’t. I didn’t wish to jeopardize her future any more than I had already done so.”

“Did you love her?” asked Johnny softly.

There was a long silence before Murdoch finally answered. “I had very strong feelings for her. Had she not been already engaged perhaps we could have taken our time to get to know each other more thoroughly, to discover what love truly meant. I could have courted her with more chivalry.”

“What was her reaction, Murdoch?”

This came from Scott, who also needed to know the truth.

“When I informed her that our …liaison … could go no further she informed me that I had broken her heart, but I wouldn’t continue the relationship under those circumstances. She wanted to, but I refused.” Murdoch’s voice quavered for an instant. “Perhaps if I had offered her an alternative, we could have come to an arrangement but I didn’t. I didn’t want her to miss out on the security her impending marriage offered her. Cruel experience had taught me the hard way that life on a ranch could be deadly to women.”

Murdoch and Scott both winced as the poor choice of words sunk in. Murdoch glanced at Scott by way of apology. A slight nod in return showed his forgiveness. Murdoch took strength and continued.

“I felt that I was not in the running to offer her something even vaguely resembling the match she had already agreed to undertake. I did not handle my betrayal of her engagement all that well. I felt guilty encroaching on another man’s territory. It was awkward after that and she returned to San Francisco shortly afterwards. I kept in contact with James until his passing some months afterwards, but I had ceased contact with her. I did not want to interfere in her new life. It was not my place. I had already caused enough heartache.”

“So, you had … relations with her and then cut ties?”

Johnny’s succinct appraisal of the situation again caused Murdoch to grimace.

“Yes, but I never knew she was with child.”

Scott suddenly felt the need to sit. He approached one of the couches and wearily sank down, his head in his hands.

“But that’s just it, Murdoch,” Johnny pursued. “How do you know that it was your child she was having?”

“The timing is right, Johnny.”

“But for all you know, you weren’t the only one.”

“Johnny! I will not have you slighting her name!”

Johnny shook his head and wiped his hand across the back of his neck.

“Look, Murdoch, you might have been sweet on the lady, and she might have been sweet on you, but just maybe she might have been with someone else before she came to Lancer? Maybe she jumped the gun with her fiancé?” Johnny implored his father, hoping he would view the situation with more objectivity.

Murdoch flushed red and licked his lips before he answered, not quite meeting Johnny’s eyes. “It was her first time. There was … evidence.”

Murdoch blushed a deeper crimson, walked up to the fireplace and leant his head into his arms.

“Murdoch?” Johnny called tentatively. “You might have been the first, but that don’t make you the only one besides her husband.”

“Johnny, that’s enough! It was obviously me, don’t you see?” Murdoch shouted his frustration back at Johnny.

“No, I don’t see. It seems to me that any woman who would cheat on her fiancé two months before her wedding might just be the flighty type that wouldn’t be too fussy about who else she went with and when, no offence intended.”

“Johnny!” This time it was Scott who chided him.

Johnny sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry, Murdoch. I didn’t mean to cheapen what happened. I’m just trying to present other possibilities.”

“I know, Johnny.” Murdoch’s voice was weary. “I was up all night doing the same thing. All I know is that I can’t come up with any other feasible answer.”

Scott’s head snapped up, his eyes narrowed.

“So you’re admitting responsibility? You’re admitting that this man is your son?”

Murdoch’s face was pained as he looked from one son to the other.

“I guess that I am going to have to.”

Johnny slapped at the back of one of the armchairs in frustration. “Aw, heck, Murdoch! You’re going to ‘have’ to? This man comes out of nowhere and claims to be your son. Would he bother laying claim to your name if you were dirt poor? Maybe it’s the spread more than the relationship he’s chasing, have you thought of that?” Johnny paused, then gestured to the window behind Murdoch’s desk with a mock bow. “All that land that turned your hair grey, Murdoch, holds a mighty pull. I’d say a quarter share would be enough to lure a man from the civilization of San Francisco. It might help him make up a kinship that was more wishful thinking than anything else.”

Murdoch looked at both sons with sad eyes. “I wish that were so, Johnny, but as I said before, the sums add up. He was born nine months after my interlude with his mother. I cut her off. I broke her heart, as she told me to my face, and she was left carrying my child to the altar and into her marriage with her husband. I may not have acted responsibly then, but I can’t let that stop me now, even if it is over twenty years down the track.”

The kick Johnny thumped into the heavy armchair moved it some inches, making the other two men jump at the aggressiveness of it.

“Yeah, well you seem to have made a lifelong habit of not owning up to your responsibilities, of losing your kids and then suddenly waving a magic wand twenty something years later and thinking that you can make up for it all!”

Johnny’s face was irate as he approached his father. “Well, I’m telling you something. It don’t all go away and you can’t just make up for it by offering a piece of dirt as a bribe!”

Scott moved to his brother, reaching out to take his arm and settle him down, but Johnny shrugged it off angrily.

“Boy, you’re really something, you know. All those lectures you’ve given me about being responsible and telling me to think about repercussions before I act. That’s mighty hypocritical thinking, Murdoch!”

Bringing his face to within inches of his father’s, Johnny eyeballed him. He was breathing raggedly and his face contorted with fury and not a little panic. Bringing his index finger to his father’s chest he jabbed it ferociously. “Just how many other offspring can we expect to come out of the woodwork, huh? Are you gonna give us some sort of clue? After all, forewarned is forearmed, so they say. Or maybe you don’t know? Would it be just a stab in the dark, excuse the play on words?”

And Johnny was gone. Abruptly, he swivelled on his heel, grabbed for his holster and hat dangling from the hall stand and bolted through the front door, slamming it on his way out.

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped but contrarily at the same time his face emitted a fierce anger that he had been spoken to in such a way. His very square jaw clenched and his hands bunched into a mass of white knuckles.

Scott looked at him with some sympathy, but he was greeted with a surly “Well?”

Scott swallowed and shrugged.

“What do you want me to say, Murdoch?” Scott shook his head in dismay. “It was hard enough for him getting used to being in this family in the first place. Now, you’re saying that he might have yet another brother that he didn’t know about and that he didn’t grow up with? That he has to start adjusting all over again? And just maybe this man, if he is your son, mightn’t take to having Johnny Madrid as his brother. Johnny feels threatened and with reason, Sir. Don’t go blaming him, whether or not he could have been more politic in stating his case.”

Murdoch moved to the settee near the fireplace and sat heavily, his legs virtually collapsing underneath him.

“I don’t blame him, Scott, but what he said hurts.”

“What may be the true picture hurts him, too, Sir. He doesn’t give trust easily. And don’t forget that any outside force could be lethal to Johnny.” Scott ran his hands through his blonde hair. “He’s hurting. I need to go after him.”

Murdoch nodded. “Just make sure that he comes home safely, all right?”

Scott nodded his promise. He turned then, eager to be away, but was pulled up short by Murdoch’s plaintive comment.

“I handled things badly, didn’t I, Scott?”

Scott paused, gun belt lax in his hand, and sighed deeply.

“You were honest, Sir. I am sure that we both feel that you have told us the truth. But what you must consider is that any outsider can be dangerous to Johnny. The balance is at risk and until he can be sure which way the scales will tilt, he is going to be on edge. And he may have spoken frankly to you, but a lot of that is just hurt and disappointment trying to find a new home.”

Scott fastened his gun belt over his narrow hips, then reached for his hat.

“Scott?”

“Yes, Murdoch?”

“Don’t let him take off, Son.”

“I’ll try.”

 

Chapter Five

Gunfire drew Scott.

He followed the echoes, easing his horse from a gentle lope into a sedate walk.

Barranca was tethered beneath an oak, whose canopy provided an alluring oasis of shade. Scott headed for the cool respite provided by the branches, loosely tied his horse, then dismounted. He sat with his back comfortably leaning into the contours of the oak’s trunk. He tilted his hat slightly forward over his eyes, but did not actually close them as it outwardly seemed.

Instead he watched his little brother. He admired the skill, grace, agility and poise of his former gunfighter brother, but it was the sentiment beneath the façade that he honed into. Johnny was tightly coiled. Energy, in the form of anger, was barely held in check. This was evident in his stance, in the angle of his shoulders and in the staccato clenching and unclenching of his left hand.

So Scott sat placidly and watched his brother empty his anger into round after round of ammunition.

It was some time before Johnny stopped. His gun had yet again been emptied and he stood there with it pointing down at the earth.

Scott had thought that Johnny knew he was there watching, but he began to doubt this and shifted uncomfortably as he eyed the deathly stillness of his brother.

“So what are we going to do, Scott?”

Scott was not sure at first that he had heard the quiet words, but then his brother turned to face him. Johnny’s face was troubled. Scott scrambled to his feet and hastened to his brother.

“We are going to go to town with Murdoch to see what Phelps is up to.”

“And then? After all, Murdoch is already accepting him. He don’t seem to need any ace up his sleeve.”

“I suppose we may need to accept the situation, Johnny. And whatever happens, you will always be my number one brother. You will always be the first and don’t you forget it.”

Johnny’s sad eyes met Scott’s.

“Thanks.” Johnny sighed disconsolately. “I ain’t ready for another brother. I like the one I already got.”

“Me too, Brother, me too,” assured Scott.

Another deep sigh rent the air.

“I wasn’t any too kind to the Old Man, was I?” asked Johnny.

“No, you weren’t, not at all. He’s not a monk, Johnny. Would you really have begrudged him any female companionship? After all, we’ve sought the same often enough. A man has needs and Murdoch’s not dead yet.”

Johnny nodded grimly, but then a twitch pulled at his mouth. “Yeah, Scott, I know I was unfair, but you don’t expect your father to have those same kind of needs if you know what I mean. It’s kinda hard to picture.”

Scott threw his arm around Johnny’s more relaxed frame. “Yes, it is, and I prefer not to go there.”

“Yeah, you’re right. It ain’t a pretty image!”

Johnny hung his head. “I just can’t believe that this is all happening. Things were fine, you know?”

Johnny’s plaintive plea cut through to Scott’s heart. “Yes, things were fine, Johnny, and they still are and still will be. The only thing that we have to worry about is letting this get to us and spoiling what we have worked so hard to achieve. So, in other words, we need to stick together. ‘All for one and one for all’, as the three Musketeers would say.”

Johnny was diverted enough to ask, “Musketeers?”

“King’s soldiers from France, made famous in a French classic novel.  They stuck together and were a more effective force when they worked together rather than when they worked separately or against each other.”

“Uh huh,” Johnny grunted as he chewed his lip. “I guess we had better get to the ranch, then, if we are going to accompany Murdoch to town.”

“An excellent idea, Johnny. Race you!” Scott threw down the challenge as he scrambled for his mount.

Johnny’s smile preceded his mad rush to catch up with his older brother as the two of them bolted in the direction of the Lancer arch.

 

                                                *********************************

 

Both men arrived back at the ranch having enjoyed the exhilaration of a hard gallop. They sobered as they arrived under the arch and their thoughts drifted to the meeting with Phelps in town.

Johnny dismounted with his usual agility and flung the reins over the hitching rail. He paused a moment, waiting for Scott to do the same. He knew he was being cowardly, but he was banking on his brother going in with him. Scott’s presence would help a little.

Scott thumped his brother good naturedly on the shoulder as he drew level. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s get this over and done with!”

Johnny squared his shoulders and blessed his brother with a weak smile.

“Will you watch my back, Boston? Just in case.”

“You know I will, Johnny,” Scott assured him.

“Murdoch’s gun belt was on the rack when we left, wasn’t it?”

Scott sighed, rolling his eyes heavenward. “Why? Are you intending on taking down an unarmed man?”

“No, but I just want to know that temptation is out of his reach as far as he is concerned.”

“I think you are safe, Brother.”

Johnny’s eyes suddenly glinted with some devilish humour at his own expense. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Scott. It seems like Murdoch has sons springing up all over the place. Maybe he could afford to get rid of one or two here and there. It mightn’t make any difference to him.”

This time Scott belted him more forcefully. “Start talking like that and you’ll have me to deal with. I don’t intend to lose my brother. Come on! Let’s get this over and done with.”

The brothers took the veranda step in unison, but it was Johnny who reached for the front door handle to precede his brother through the door.

Murdoch was still in the Great Room, standing at the window staring out at the view of Lancer before him. A moment’s hesitation in Johnny’s stride almost caused Scott to bump into his brother’s back, but Johnny took a deep breath and continued purposefully to Murdoch’s desk, like a small boy summoned to the principal’s office for some infraction.

Murdoch had not acknowledged their arrival, so Johnny waited a few moments before speaking.

“Murdoch?” he called softly to him.

Murdoch’s shoulders slumped visibly as he raised a hand to his eyes and rubbed them wearily. He turned, then, capturing Johnny’s eyes with his.

The sadness there caught at Johnny’s heart, which seemed to hitch and miss a beat.

“I’m sorry, Murdoch. I wish I could take back what I said. It was uncalled for and I was too blunt. It wasn’t that I didn’t think you should have a woman’s company. It’s just the consequences, the unknown consequences. I lashed out when I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.”

“Johnny, there’s no need to apologize …”

“Yes, there is! I shouldn’t have said those words. Things might change around here, and I guess that I thought that I could deny it by taking it out on you. I’m sorry.”

“If things change around here, as you put it, then I will be to blame. I understand your annoyance and dismay, believe me. I understand all too well. I just wish that I had someone else other than myself to take aim at. It might help.” Murdoch looked at Johnny and then at Scott, who had settled on the arm of one of the blue armchairs. “It’s me who’s sorry, boys,” Murdoch confirmed. He shook his head. “Whatever he wants me in town for, I have a feeling that it is only going to get worse, so I apologize for that in advance as well. But …” Murdoch shrugged at a loss. “But if he IS my son, I can’t deny him as my son and your brother. And just maybe later on we will all be grateful for that.”

Murdoch moved around from behind the desk and laid his hand in Johnny’s shoulder. “So if it doesn’t work out, then I truly am sorry, son.”

They stayed that way for several seconds, both acknowledging their joint apologies with a nod of the head.

“Well, you two sorry saps had better get yourselves into the saddle. We haven’t got all day to discuss who is sorrier.”

Both Murdoch and Johnny looked over at Scott, whose pragmatic pronouncement prompted a smile from each.

“You two don’t have to come. He asked for me. And maybe, if it’s more difficult news it might be easier for you to stay here?”

Johnny shook his head adamantly. “Nope. Can’t let you go to town alone. Us three are like the three mouse cat’s ears. All for one and one for all. We work together or not at all. We hear better that way, too.”

Scott had been about to correct him, but caught the joking smirk on Johnny’s lips.

Murdoch also smiled when he realized Johnny’s attempt at levity.

“Come on, you comic. Let’s get this show on the road,” Scott admonished his brother with fondness.

The humour left their faces and was replaced by an anxious rigidity as they headed for the door and the meeting in town.

 

                                                        *****************************

 

The Lancer men did not speak much on the way into town.

They rode steadily and grim faced, wondering what Phelps had up his sleeve.

Johnny stole surreptitious glances at his father, but he was not able to discern what was going on behind the granite mask he had adopted.

Scott was also a blank mask, but Johnny could see the tight lines around his mouth as he tried to keep his feelings in check.

Johnny was not happy. Despite his attempt at humour before they left the hacienda, he was worried. He had the feeling that his family, only acquired two years ago, was going to disintegrate before his very eyes. He couldn’t put his finger on the reason why he thought so, but he didn’t trust Phelps. He did not see a future with this man in their lives. He tried to think back to when he met Scott. He had initially found it laughable to be connected by blood with the Boston dandy he had shared the stage with, but almost immediately, in fact once they had got to the Great Room to meet Murdoch, he had sensed something underneath the stuffy exterior. Something strong, something appealing, something trustworthy. There was an inexplicable tie which he had at first tried to deny to himself, but which had stubbornly remained to nudge him in the right direction.

He felt none of this for this new claimant to Murdoch’s blood. He tried to rationalize that they had only spent a short while together in the hacienda the night before, but deep down he didn’t think that any amount of time would improve his opinion of Phelps. Something jarred.

So the three Lancer men continued on their way, each lost in their own private thoughts. Each considered the possibility that this man could be telling them the truth and that Phelps could actually be a Lancer son. And if so, what would the repercussions be and how would this affect their future? It was here that all three of the men found their thoughts amalgamating into an opaque mass of scenarios, with no light able to enter or shed any clarity onto the situation.

The rhythmic gait of their horses threw their bodies into a reassuring bobbing pattern. This jolting ritual offered some safety by its very familiarity, but it did not assist them to come to grips with the worrying threat to the family unit they had all grown to love and respect.

As the outskirts of the town drew nearer, all horses slowed under the unconscious direction of their riders. But the inevitable could not be delayed any longer.

A rather straggly line of shacks appeared. Most were dusty and miserable looking hovels, but the odd home stood out with pride by its very neatness and cleanliness. Simple dwellings made of adobe or timber, they afforded shelter and a degree of cosiness to the families who lived there. Johnny had lived in far worse and well knew that it didn’t take fine fittings and fancy furnishings to create the safe haven which every home should be. It was what went on inside, the relationships, which counted.

He had found the relationships he had spent his whole life looking for at Lancer with Scott, Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly. The hacienda may be swank and comfortable, but it was the people in it who made it special. They created the silk-like, but strong, threads which wove the web of their family together. And Johnny feared that the pattern would be forever disrupted and marred by the arrival of this outsider who had blithely sauntered into the loving unit they had so carefully and thoughtfully created.

The hotel loomed and was all too soon in front of them. A moment’s rest, which could not be prolonged by any reasonable excuse, was stolen by all three. They loitered, as unobtrusively as possible. Johnny patted Barranca’s neck, then scratched him behind the ears before checking the fit of his gun in his holster. Scott fiddled quite unnecessarily with his clothing. His jacket seemed to need pulling into line and his immaculate shirt was tucked into his belt where it hadn’t even come adrift at all. Murdoch merely hitched his horse and stood idly on the boardwalk, fingering the reins and looking at his sons with a blank expression on his face.

Collectively, they realized that their stalling was over. Three sets of Lancer eyes locked together.

Murdoch gave a slight nod, sighed, dipped his head for an instant and then turned to enter the hotel. Johnny and Scott followed, misery paramount on their faces.

The desk was attended by Francis Slatterly, the obsequious owner of the establishment. The Lancers were as close to royalty as anyone was going to find in the area, so Francis laid it on thick, hoping to attract continued custom from any of their friends who might visit the region.

“Mr Lancer! Boys! How good to see you on this beautiful morning. Pray, Sir, may I be of assistance in any way at all for you?”

“Good morning, Francis. Yes, thank you. Could you please tell me in what room Tom Phelps is staying?”

“Yes, indeed, Sir! They are up on the next floor in room 12. Go straight up the stairs and turn left. It is about four doors down.”

Murdoch thanked the man. Johnny and Scott did likewise as they headed upstairs.

“They?” asked Johnny.

“There is probably quite a simple explanation, Johnny. Let’s see what transpires.”

“We can see what transpires, all right, but I aim to be prepared is all.”

Johnny’s hand already rested on his gun. His tense body assured Scott that he was coiled and ready to strike if need be.

Their boots clattered along the landing, Johnny’s spurs adding a more melodic dimension to the general din. Simultaneously, their steps slowed as their goal loomed. They stopped, but did not remain still. All three of them shuffled uncomfortably. Johnny and Scott waited for Murdoch to make the first move, but he was suddenly statue-like, staring at the door. Taking a gulp of air, he wiped his hand along the back of his neck and sighed.

He jumped slightly as Johnny reached out and placed a hand on his forearm.

A sheepish Murdoch smiled gratefully at him. “I guess I’m being a coward, just hoping the door will be nailed shut.”

“That can be arranged.” Johnny grinned in return.

“Thank you, son, but I don’t suppose that a hammer and some nails will make all of this go away.”

Quick as a flash, Scott looked over at Johnny. “Don’t even suggest that that can be arranged as well, Johnny!”

Johnny merely shrugged, grinning even more evilly.

Suddenly, they sobered and stood deathly still. Murdoch lifted his right hand, poised it in mid air to flex his fingers, then knocked firmly on the door.

They did not need to wait long. Several seconds later Phelps opened the door to them.

“Good day,” he greeted them. “I see you have brought the whole family along. Excellent! Come in!”

He stepped back and waved an arm through the air as a gesture of welcome. Murdoch muttered a good morning, while Scott and Johnny contented themselves with a nod of the head.

The room was standard fare for the town. It was not fancy, but it was clean and comfortable. The bed was neatly made with a patchwork quilt in shades of blue and white sitting wrinkle free on top. Morning light streamed through the chintz curtains and played on the simple furniture, cluttered with only the occasional personal object. The walls were wallpapered with tiny red roses, complementing the two table lamps on either side of the bed, adding a homely touch.

But none of this was appreciated by the Lancer men. Instead, their focus was on the woman seated on a brocade settee near the window.

They ground to a halt.

She looked back at them, smiling a little nervously.

“My dear,” Phelps boomed, “I would like to introduce you to my family.” Johnny shot him a look of antagonism which Phelps blithely ignored. “Gentlemen, this is my wife Gertrude. And Trudy, I am honoured to present my father, Murdoch, and my brothers, Scott and Johnny.”

Murmurings of ‘Ma’am’ were repeated in triplicate, but were hardly offered warmly.

“Call me Trudy. Gertrude is such a stuffy, old fashioned name.”

“Trudy,” Murdoch repeated automatically.

“It is such a pleasure to meet you. Tom has been so excited to be reunited with you,” she gushed.

Her smile waned as she regarded the frostier faces of the younger men who did not appear to share in her husband’s joy.

After the introductions, the Lancers had swiftly moved their attention to the third person in the room. They stared long and hard, faces remaining impassive.

“Oh, and I must introduce you to this little man,” Phelps broke the silence.

Seated next to Trudy was a child of about four or five years of age. He had brown wavy hair and strong facial features, particularly along the chin line. His brown pants and green checked shirt were neat and clean, but he wore no shoes on his stockinged feet. After looking at the men with initial interest, he had returned his attention to the toy soldiers lying on the sofa next to him.

“This is my son, Peter,” Phelps introduced him proudly. “Peter, hop off and come and shake hands with your grandfather.”

 

Chapter Six

None of them moved. The boy’s fingers had stilled as he looked earnestly at the big man in front of him. Scott’s face was tightly controlled. Even Madrid could not prevent Johnny showing his surprise.

That Murdoch was stunned was evident. His shock radiated out from him in a virtual concrete waves. His eyes never left the boy’s and the boy in turn continued to stare silently up at him with big blue eyes.

The lad finally started to fidget and wiggle his way down from his mother’s lap and the confines of her grasp. Walking the several paces on his sturdy legs, he came to a stop in front of Murdoch. His head tilted back as he looked up, his mouth slackly hanging open. A look of wonderment crossed his face.

“You’re a tall man,” he stated in awe.

Murdoch swallowed convulsively.

“Yes. So I’ve been told,” confirmed Murdoch.

The small child suddenly seemed to remember his manners. “Hello,” he finally greeted Murdoch, thrusting forward his tiny hand.

Murdoch’s gaze shifted from the boy’s face to his hand waiting expectantly in mid air. He stared at it, coughed uncomfortably and shook the boy’s hand gravely. His big paw dwarfed the little lad’s as he pumped it up and down gently. They stopped, but Murdoch forgot to release his hand. It was only when Peter began squirming and twisting his wrist that Murdoch realized and suddenly let go.

“Peter, these men are your uncles. This is Uncle Scott and this man here is Uncle John.”

Serious eyes looked at them, then the hand was offered again. Sharing a swift glance, both men shook his hand.

“Pleased to meet you, Peter,” said Scott.

“Hi there,” greeted Johnny.

“Why are they my uncles?” Peter turned to his father and asked.

“Because they are your grandfather’s sons, like me. That makes them my brothers.”

Johnny stiffened. Scott, standing next to him, placed a settling hand on his back.

The boy nodded in acceptance, before adding an observation of his own.

“They don’t look like brothers.”

“Well, none of us look like brothers because we all had different mothers.”

At this explanation, Johnny’s mouth tensed in a straight line. His nostrils flared, white rimmed and angry. Scott’s hand sought his belt, where his left hand wrapped itself around the buckle.

“Different mothers?”

Phelps nodded in affirmation.

The boy turned to Murdoch. “Gosh! You must have been married a lot!”

Murdoch flushed red at the innocent comment and Trudy saved him by calling the child back to his seat and his toys.

“Perhaps you would like some refreshment,” Phelps offered them.

They declined unanimously.

“Why did you want us here?” Murdoch asked woodenly, his eyes fixed on the child.

“I just thought that you should see the whole picture. You need to know that it is not just you and me, but others who are affected by our relationship. I didn’t want you to miss out on one of life’s joys. A grandson is special. It would be criminal of me to hide him from you and deprive you of that special bond a man forms with his oldest grandson.”

“Well, that’s just it. There is no relationship,” Murdoch stated, “Except in your mind. You had a father. The record of your mother’s marriage proves that. There is no point in casting about further. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry that Anne has passed away, but you have your family and I have mine.”

“On the contrary, Father. You know the dates. You will have used basic arithmetic to arrive at the truth. So you would deny my mother in death as well as in life? And you would deny your son and grandson as well?”

“I have no grandson yet!”

Phelps looked at Murdoch, his face confident with self assurance.

“You know. You know deep down that I am right. You can feel it. Otherwise, why would you have come?”

“I came to give you a fair hearing. You have told me nothing more than the conjecture you presented last night. So, I am afraid that we have no more business to discuss.”

Johnny and Scott shared another glance. They read each other’s minds. Murdoch’s bravado sounded hollow. Johnny had that sinking feeling that if push came to shove, Murdoch would feel honour bound to accept Tom and Peter.

“Really? Then perhaps you would like to read this.”

Phelps turned towards the corner of the room where several cases were standing. He opened the top one, reached in and extracted a slim leather bound book embossed in delicate floral patterns. Returning to Murdoch, he stood in front of him, looking pensively at the item in his hand. Phelps then looked gravely at Murdoch.

“This is my mother’s diary. One she had just before she got married. It covers about a year of her life. I think that you might find it interesting. Perhaps you might like to take it with you and read it back at the ranch.”

“Murdoch don’t need no reading material. He’s got enough to do running the ranch and doing the bookwork!” Johnny spat at him.

“Be that as it may, but there is information there which is pertinent to your father. It is right that he knows.”

Phelps turned back to Murdoch. “I just ask that you return it to me when you have finished. It is most precious to me, as you can imagine.”

He held the diary out. It captivated the attention of the room.

Murdoch’s hand moved out slowly. Hesitantly, he took it from Phelps. Once he had it, he didn’t really seem to know what to do with it. He stared at it for some time, then turned it over and pensively ran his finger over the embossed patterns.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Murdoch came out of his reverie to nod a good-bye to Trudy and the boy.

“I’ll see you later,” he promised Phelps. “Come on, boys. Let’s go.”

And Murdoch turned and left.

Before moving, Johnny considered the man before him, then spoke with quiet menace. “If you are playing games with our father, I swear you will pay for it. You’ll have both of us to answer to.” He looked at Trudy and Peter, then back at Phelps. “So I’m warning you. Don’t mess with us!”

He jerked with his head to the door. “Come on, Scott. Let’s get out of here.”

Scott lingered a fraction. “You heard my brother. Take heed!”

He, too, left. Walking swiftly, he hurried to catch up with his brother.

They shared worried looks as they trailed Murdoch out of the building. Murdoch stopped when he got to his horse. He eyed the volume in his hand, fingered it reverently, then placed it in his saddle bags.

“Are you ready, boys?” he asked them.

The question was unnecessary as he did not at all wait for a response. He hoisted himself into the saddle and dallied a moment. Satisfied that they were preparing to mount, he kicked his horse into action and set out.

The journey home was similar to the one heading for town hours earlier. Both brothers flanked Murdoch as they returned to Lancer. Scarcely a word was said. All men found their thoughts centred on the book which Murdoch had placed in his saddle bags. Just what was in there which concerned them? Whatever it was, it divided them into silent voids, each man agonizing over the import of words written a quarter of a century earlier.

A collective sigh of relief heralded the Lancer arch. They picked up speed and urged their mounts forward. Uncharacteristically, Murdoch gave his horse to one of the hands to see to and headed straight into the hacienda.

Knowing that they would still require transport later in the day the boys hitched their steeds to the hitching post near the front veranda and followed their father inside. Murdoch was already making his way to his desk, so they attached themselves to his wake and halted just after he sat down.

They stood expectantly. Johnny shifted weight from one foot to the other, and when that didn’t release enough energy, he picked up a paper weight from the desk and fingered it as he began pacing. Scott remained immobile, concentrating on his father and trying to decipher just what was going through his mind and how he was bearing up.

“Boys, you’ve still got plenty of time to catch up to the work crews. Why don’t you grab a bite to eat in the kitchen and then head out to join them?” he suggested.

Johnny turned on his heel in one fluid action and faced his father. “Murdoch, …”

“Not now, Johnny. I’d like some time alone, please,” Murdoch barked at him.

“But …”

“I’m sorry,” Murdoch answered more gently. “I really need time to think. We’ll talk tonight.”

“Is that a promise?”

“Yes, that’s a promise.”

Johnny nodded curtly. Scott’s smile did not quite succeed. “Right then. Let’s head out, Brother.”

Both men did not immediately translate their intention into action, however. They lingered, stuck to the spot, unwilling to leave their father alone with the potentially disturbing revelations in the journal.

“Boys?” asked Murdoch.

“We’re just going. Come on Johnny,” Scott replied, indicating with a tilt of his head that they should make tracks.

“Yeah. Right. I’m with you.”

Johnny strolled up to the desk, spurs ringing with each step. He carefully put the paperweight where he had found it, then bent over to lean both hands on the waxed surface. He met his father’ gaze. “You remember that we won’t be far away. And don’t believe everything that you read. Sometimes words don’t paint the true picture.”

Johnny tapped him lightly on the shoulder, gave a controlled smile and left his father to it.

The Lancer brothers found Maria in the kitchen. She prepared a fat sandwich with chunks of cold roast beef, tomatoes and chilli for both men, and quickly fixed them some rich coffee to wash it down with.

“Gracias, Maria,” Johnny thanked her as he took his plate and cup.

“De nada,” she replied warmly. “It is never too much trouble to feed el patron’s sons.”

Scott also thanked her, but rather than sit at the kitchen table, he headed out to the courtyard. Johnny joined him on the bench under the olive tree. He began eating with gusto, but six bites later he ceased and merely stared in front of him, the sandwich dangling precariously from his fingers with contents barely contained within the confines of the bread.

“What are you thinking about?” Scott asked.

Johnny turned, an incredulous look on his face.

“Well, let me see, Scott. I’m thinking about what flowers I should pick to put in the vase in the Great Room! Roses or daisies? And would they clash with the colour scheme?” Johnny threw the remains of his sandwich down in frustration. “What the hell do you think that I’m thinking about?”

Scott smiled sheepishly. “Yes, you’re right. That sure was a stupid question.”

Scott laid his sandwich down on his plate, his appetite also having deserted him.

“So, what do you think about things?”

“I think that whether he is Murdoch’s son or not, there will be something in those diaries, fact or fiction, which will support his claim. And I think that he is one shrewd dude. He pulled the grandchild trick to tug at Murdoch’s heart strings. He knows that we don’t have kids, so he produces a child. The oldest grandchild. That’s gonna suck Murdoch in, seeing his life continue on in that kid. It’s kinda hard for a man to turn his back on his son and grandchild. And it’s just as hard if you think they might be your kin, but you ain’t quite sure. You don’t want to shun them just in case. I’d say that he’s got our old man hook, line and sinker.”

Scott nodded in agreement. “I can’t argue with you there, Johnny, but what if he really IS Murdoch’s son? What if he IS our brother? We owe it to ourselves as well as to him not to shut him out.”

Johnny stood abruptly and loomed over his seated brother. “Aw, come on, Scott! You don’t believe all that poppycock, do you?”

Scott’s steadfast gaze did not waver from Johnny’s face. “I think that Murdoch believes it. And I think that whether we like it or not, we might just have to get used to the idea.”

“Well, I ain’t about to get used to it!” Johnny snapped angrily.

“Johnny,” Scott spoke soothingly. “Do you remember when we first met? We were both shocked. That first instant we weren’t particularly thrilled with each other, you know. But having you as a brother is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Maybe we shouldn’t be totally negative. Come on! We agreed to keep an open mind and wait to see what develops.”

Johnny picked up his plate and flung it across the courtyard. It crashed against the adobe wall and scattered pieces of china in all directions. “Well, I don’t have an open mind where this is concerned. And if you think I’m negative, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Johnny snatched at the hat dangling down his back and crushed it onto his head. “I’ll see you later.”

With no more ceremony, he exited the courtyard and headed for Barranca. Seconds later, Scott heard the sounds of hooves thudding into the yard as Johnny galloped off in a mad fury.

 

Chapter Seven

Scott remained there for some minutes after his brother had left. He sighed in misery. The trouble was, he felt just the same as Johnny. He was just trying to put on a brave face, but deep down, he felt that nothing would ever be the same again. Adding another male into the Lancer household just might upset the balance, such as it was.

He didn’t begrudge Murdoch a little romance after his mother’s death. He realized that any man, no matter how self sufficient, desired a woman’s company. He understood the physical need, as well. What man didn’t? But he did wish that Murdoch had shown some restraint in this particular instance. The woman was affianced, after all, and was just two months away from her wedding. What had they both been thinking?

A soft bark of laughter broke from Scott’s lips. He sure as hell knew what they had been thinking. It really didn’t take much imagination. But then he thought again about Murdoch’s apparent rashness, this time with Maria. If Murdoch had not given in to his desires with Maria, there never would have been a Johnny. Johnny, the best thing that had ever happened to him. Scott smiled fondly again at the thought of his little brother.

But his mind wandered back to the problem at hand, and as it did so a frown stamped itself on his forehead. Like Johnny, he was facing with trepidation the thought of having another brother. And he just couldn’t see the same sort of relationship developing with Phelps.

Scott rubbed the back of his neck, then brought his hand to his face and covered his eyes. Heck, that first day he really couldn’t have foreseen the relationship he was going to develop with Johnny, either. Nothing had been further from his mind when Teresa had informed the boys that Murdoch had had two wives. That a dusty, cocky, smirking gun hawk could be his brother had at first seemed unbelievable to Scott. And frightening. And not a little bit disgusting, Scott grimaced at the recollection. Scott Lancer of Boston society could not possibly have been related to the cheeky half Mexican who had hitched a lift on the stage that day.

They really had started with nothing in common other than the same paternity. But the similarities had filtered through. And the differences were what marked each brother as an individual. And those differences had garnered respect from each other as well as from the hands and their neighbours. Could Phelps, different as he was to Scott and Johnny, make a positive contribution to their family? Scott doubted it. But he had also doubted Johnny at the start.

He had quickly grown to like and respect Johnny, and soon after to love him. Would the same happen with Phelps? For some reason Scott did not think so, yet there was no doubt his father was on the path of accepting him as a son.

It was all too hard.

Scott sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

His eyes caught the shards of china at the base of the wall in the courtyard. The plate was smashed into smithereens. The very sight of it made Scott uneasy, as if it was a portent of what the future held for their family. It also reminded him of the wanton destruction and mess Drago had left behind, in particular the shattered wall after the Gattling gun incident. « Best not go there, » he remonstrated with himself.

Swallowing his discomfort and chiding himself for being superstitious, Scott stood up and walked over to the crockery fragments. He stooped and picked up the largest pieces, depositing them carefully on his own plate. He contemplated the mass of pieces, then reached for the rest so that no evidence remained of Johnny’s temper. He regarded them again, resisting the urge to set them out on the bench and glue them together. He had the nagging feeling that trying to repair the dish would be an easier proposition that trying to make his family whole again if Phelps joined the family and by doing so, destroyed it.

He wondered, indeed, if the first cracks had already appeared.

 

*******************************

 

Johnny and Scott arrived home exhausted physically and emotionally in time for supper. Scott had caught up with Johnny and the crew working at repairing the East Ridge fence line.  The brothers had not spoken much and had taken out their uncertainty and worry on any handy fence post or available section of straining wire. It helped to immerse themselves in the monotonous labour, but now they were back at the hacienda and knew that they would be unable to avoid further thought or discussion on the matter.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Their despondency weighted the air down around them. Teresa tried with some bright chatter, but her worry soon surfaced and lined her young forehead. She knew that the dynamics of the family could be irrevocably changed, as would her place in the family.

So they spent the meal going through the motions of enjoying the tender roast beef which Teresa had prepared, but in reality they were just playing with their food and wishing to God that Murdoch would just get on with it and discuss that damned diary. Or more importantly just what that diary contained and just where it left them.

After an adequate amount of time had elapsed since the meal had been served, and after they had all completely ignored the dessert of apple pie placed in front of them, Murdoch finally cleared his throat and announced that he was going to sit in front of the fire with a brandy. A collective sigh of relief arose as they were all thus released from the constraints of dinner table etiquette.

They all rose and made their way into the Great Room proper. Murdoch was already downing a drink by the time that Scott joined him to pour out something for himself and Johnny. He had a feeling that they were going to need some fortification. He passed a drink to Johnny and was about to take a slug of his own when he considered Teresa. She was seated on the sofa and was wringing her hands in trepidation. Scott poured her a generous sherry and walked over to press it into her hand.

 

*********************************

 

Murdoch had not spoken since leaving the table, and he sensed that they were waiting for him, but wouldn’t be content to wait too much longer. Another glass was filled almost to the brim, but this time he sipped it rather than just throwing it down his throat.

Taking a deep, cleansing breath Murdoch turned to his precious family. The family he had never believed could have been possible to see reunited. The family he had yearned for. The past two years had answered his fervent prayers. He had prayed for over twenty years for at least one of his sons to return home. Instead, he had received double barrelled good fortune. The past two years had been better than he could have ever expected, despite any ups and downs they had experienced.

He thought grimly of the way he had misjudged Johnny in the Stryker fiasco. How Murdoch had very nearly been the instrument of breaking up his fledgling family. And he thought of Harlan coming out here to reclaim Scott by any means possible. Foul means as it had turned out.

But the pull of family had won. His sons had shown that this family meant the world to them. There were times when he wondered whether he had demonstrated enough that this family meant the world to him, too. His memories of that first day embarrassed him, as he recalled his gruff rudeness. And what was that nonsense he had sprouted about Lancer meaning more to him than anything else in the whole world? What had possessed him to say something so cruel and stupid? Especially after he had wanted them so desperately to come home. He had spent a small fortune on Pinkerton agents trying to locate Johnny, and then when they did, he had treated him contemptuously. And this was despite the fact that he knew that Johnny had been snatched from in front of a firing squad. Yet he hadn’t even shown that he was thankful.

And who had he thought he was to order Scott to do as he was told? Scott, a former Union army lieutenant. A man who had lived through the horrors of war when he was barely out of boyhood. A man who was used to giving orders himself, expecting others to obey him.

He had his family now, despite the efforts of others, and even himself occasionally, to sabotage it. He thought of Dan Cassidy, Joe Barker and Drago, who had nearly destroyed their hard won family unit. Was what he was about to do to have the effect that no other person had succeeded in doing? Would he be able to keep this family united, or was he to be the instrument of it crumbling around their ankles?

He watched them, his precious sons. They were nervous. Their postures were defensive, prepared for the worst. And he sighed again.

And there was Teresa to consider. He had taken her on as his ward after Paul’s death and tried to provide her with a loving home and stability. He was her father in every sense and he was about to be the instrument for more upheaval in her short life. He had spoken briefly to her today upon their return from town. He had been too embarrassed to speak to her in front of his sons and so he had arranged for a private conversation with her. It had been far from easy, but he needed to be honest with her. She knew what the situation was and her anxiety over dinner had been apparent. After a word with his sons, he would explain to her what he had decided to do.

“Boys, we need to talk.”

He did not miss the looks that passed amongst them. They knew what he was about to say, but he had to say it.

“Teresa, I was wondering if you might leave us for a minute?” Murdoch requested.

Johnny sighed loudly. “Look, Murdoch, she didn’t come down with the last shower of rain. There ain’t no way you can come out of this by protecting her from life’s little indelicacies. It might be just as easy to get it said in front of her rather than leave her to have a conniption fit in the kitchen all by herself.”

Murdoch glanced at Scott and could see that he agreed. Teresa had sat up straighter and was looking Murdoch steadfastly in the eye, daring him to eject her from the proceedings.

Scott gave his support. “Murdoch, the outcome of whatever you say is going to have repercussions for all of us, including Teresa. Let her stay.”

Murdoch looked at his family and swallowed. “Very well.”

He moved to the middle of the room so he could take the floor and capture all their faces. “I read Anne’s diary this afternoon. None of it concerns us except for the last month. She talked about coming here. She discussed our … relationship in some detail, enough that I can do nothing but accept that Phelps is my son.”

“Murdoch, we know that it is POSSIBLE for him to be your son, but that don’t make him your son!” Johnny volleyed back at him.

“Yes, it does, Johnny. Anne mentioned … evidence, in her diary that I can’t refute.”

“What evidence, Murdoch, turns this from a possibility into a fact?”

“She wrote that she …” Murdoch glanced at Teresa and his sons. Blushing, he averted his eyes and completed the sentence. “She said that she was … late … with her monthly courses. She was a week late when the diary ended. This would fit in with the facts. She was feeling a little ill.”

“Did she just stop writing, Murdoch?” Scott asked.

“The diary was full, so maybe she then started a new diary,” Murdoch answered.

“Well, that might make some interesting reading, with the nuptials and all,” commented Johnny bitterly.

Scott shot him a look to tell him to keep his cool. Johnny took the hint and buttoned his lip.

“You see, boys, I have no option. It seems that Tom is my flesh and blood. I can’t ignore that.”

“Just because a woman is a week late, don’t make her pregnant, Murdoch!” Johnny protested.

“True, but everything else fits in.”

“How do you know it’s really her diary?” Scott asked.

“I saw her write in it. She was in the courtyard and she was bent over it, writing away when I came in from the range. She closed it rather hastily when she saw me. I recognize it.”

“So, what does this all mean, Murdoch? What are you going to do about it?”  Johnny asked quietly.

Murdoch cleared his throat. “Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to invite him, Trudy and Peter here for a while, to see how things work out.” Murdoch stopped and contemplated the Lancer ‘L’ over the fireplace.

“And then?” Johnny prompted.

Murdoch swallowed painfully. “It would not be equitable if, after a period of time, I didn’t make some arrangement about the ranch.”

“And just what sort of arrangements would they be, Sir?” Scott enquired in his best Bostonian manners.

“Offer him a partnership.”

“I see,” said Scott.

“Well, you ain’t got a third to spare, so how are you going to work that one out?” Johnny asked bluntly.

“I thought that perhaps we could void the previous contract and offer him a quarter.”

Johnny stood up abruptly and glared at Murdoch. “If I remember rightly, we had to offer our arms, legs and guts before we were acceptable risks. Just what does HE have to offer?”

Murdoch’s face blanched and his mouth tightened. “There is the matter of Peter. My grandson.”

“That ain’t been proven!”

“If I accept Tom as my son, then it follows that Peter is my grandson.”

“So he comes here with this cock and bull story and you just hand over precious property you have spent a lifetime building up. Property that gave you a grey hair for every blade of green grass, I seem to remember.” Johnny’s anger and contempt overflowed as he punctuated his words with a stab in the air to the huge window behind Murdoch’s desk, the very one Murdoch had looked out of at the time of their first meeting.

“We need to find out about him, Johnny. What sort of man he is. If he is here under this roof, then we are better able to evaluate him and get to know him,” Murdoch placated him.

“I’ve already worked that out, Old Man. He’s a gold digger, and it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

Murdoch stilled for a second, then walked up to his youngest son. Placing a hand on each shoulder, he looked him in the eye. “This is hard, John. Hard for us all. It is uncharted territory, but I look back to when you two arrived and we had to get to know each other, to let each other into our lives. We had to learn to share, to give and to take, to compromise and finally to love. In the same way that you and Scott had to accept that you each had a brother, then so you need to give Tom a chance. No relationship can be built overnight. It will take time. Mistakes will be made. We didn’t have a smooth start, but look what we have built up for ourselves. I know that both of you find your lives richer for the presence of each other. Well, just maybe in a year’s time you’ll wonder how you managed without Tom. Maybe his arrival will be a blessing to us all.”

“A blessing, my foot! He’s trouble and I can smell it a mile away.”

“Give him a chance, Johnny. You might find that you change your mind about him.”

“And what if I don’t? What are you going to do then? Get rid of one of us to promote harmony in paradise? The one you don’t get on with the most? The one that rubs you up the wrong way? The one that’s not the blessing? The one that don’t dance to your tune when you give the orders?”

“No, Johnny, it won’t be a case of getting rid of anybody. I am just asking for your co-operation in giving this a chance.”

“Asking? You ain’t giving us any say in the matter. You’ve decided without talking to us all about the repercussions. As usual, you are telling us. You still like calling the tune, don’t you? You still don’t treat us like adults if our opinion doesn’t fit in with yours!” Johnny’s sneer of bitterness had the usual effect of aggravating his father.

“Yes, I still call the tune when either of the men I have come to rely upon slip back into behaving childishly. You are behaving like a spoilt brat who won’t share his toys!”

“I’m being realistic. Your ego is all stoked that you have a third son and a grandchild. You’re letting your common sense be overridden by pride in thinking you’re creating some sort of dynasty”

“Johnny!” Scott reprimanded him. “Settle down and let’s discuss this with a little more level headedness. Let’s discuss the future and the repercussions sensibly.” Scott urged.

“I’m trying, Scott. It’s him who’s not thinking clearly. And what about Teresa? She’s been mistress of this house her whole life. Now she’s gonna have to take a back seat to someone we know nothing about other than she is the mother of Murdoch’s supposed grandson.”

Murdoch looked pointedly at his ward. “Teresa will not be displaced.”

Johnny snorted inelegantly. “Heck, Murdoch, you don’t know much about women, do you? It ain’t gonna work having another woman in the kitchen, gradually feeling her way and taking over bit by bit.”

“It doesn’t have to be a take-over, Johnny.”

“No, it doesn’t, but it will be.”

“Nevertheless, I have made up my mind. I cannot turn my back on him. Imagine if you had discovered I was your father and knew I had a ranch and a family that you weren’t part of. You’d want to come and announce yourselves. You’d expect to be made a part of it.”

Johnny stared at Murdoch, an ironic smile twisting his mouth. “Yeah, come to think of it, I can imagine being in that situation, having nothing and wanting to check out my Old Man and make a claim on my birthright. What about you? Does that ring a bell for you, Scott? Except for the having nothing part, that is.”

“Facetiousness is not helping, Johnny” Murdoch ground out.

“The thing is, Murdoch, you knew you had us two. You knew who we were. We didn’t have to prove who we were. Accepting his word and the diary of a love-sick and let down woman who could have wanted her imaginings to be the real thing just ain’t smart.”

Murdoch swallowed. “I understand, Johnny, believe me I do, but I can’t turn my back on him. I need to get to know him. And I am imploring both of you to get to know him as well.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure that I’ll get to know him all right. I’ll get to know him inside out, but I’m warning you now, I won’t like what I find any more than I do now.”

Johnny let his quietly menacing words sink into the air, then abruptly swivelled on his heel and strode out the nearest French window.

 

Chapter Eight

The morning chill plummeted further as the Lancer men met for breakfast. Johnny’s stiff manner radiated a frost which even the most scalding of coffees could not melt. Murdoch ate a silent breakfast, stoically determined to eat with his sons before he set out for town.

He finished his eggs and bacon, pushed the plate aside and dabbed at his lips with the table napkin. “Have you boys sorted out your jobs for the day?”

“Yes, Murdoch. It’s all under control. We’ll be working the Crooked Creek pasture fenceline,” Scott confirmed.

Murdoch nodded. “And you won’t be late for dinner?”

“No, we won’t be late for dinner.”

While it was Scott who had spoken, Murdoch’s gaze was fixed on Johnny. Looking down at his eggs, Johnny was concentrating on dragging his knife across his plate and manoeuvring the spilt yolk from his eggs into assorted patterns. He had not answered his father.

”Johnny?”

Two piercing blue eyes stabbed into his. “I heard you, Old Man. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t miss this family reunion for all the chilli in Mexico.”

Murdoch nodded in acquiescence. “Good, then. It will be dinner at six as usual.” Murdoch stood, placing his napkin beside his plate. “I’ll get going, then. See you tonight.”

Both men replied as their father left the kitchen.

Johnny threw his napkin down in disgust. “There won’t be anything usual about tonight’s dinner, I’m telling you now!”

“I tend to agree. It should prove interesting all right,” Scott affirmed.

“Not so much interesting, Scott, as downright tragic. He’s being taken for a ride and that little boy is being used as bait to lure him into a trap. It ain’t gonna be pretty when it all comes out.”

“Maybe it won’t all come out, Johnny. Have you thought of that? He just might be our brother wanting to get to know us, wanting a part of our life, wanting his share of his birthright for himself and his children.”

Johnny eyed his brother unwaveringly. “Yeah, he just might be at that.” Johnny pushed his chair back noisily and reached for his hat. “Then again, he might not.”

Jamming his hat roughly on his head, he turned and headed for the barn.

 

                                   ********************************

 

Scott caught up to his brother an hour later. He had not hurried, but decided that allowing Johnny to go for a hard gallop might just help his sibling from exploding. It should also mean that Johnny was in a better frame of mind to work with.

Johnny had his shirt off. The sun kissed his already bronzed torso as he strained to tighten the fence wire. Perspiration ran in rivulets down his face and his chest, causing it to shine in the bright sunlight.

Scott dismounted, tying his mount under the cottonwood next to Barranca. He pulled his yellow leather work gloves from his belt and methodically donned them, pulling the material tautly over each digit.

Wordlessly, he joined his brother in the mindlessly boring and perennial task of fencing. The two worked as a team, each reading the other’s next move and thinking ahead to complete the chore without hold up.

The sun was almost vertical when Johnny finally slowed. He leaned an arm on the fence post and then cradled his forehead in the crook of his elbow. Scott draped his arm around his shoulders and remained that way for several moments, before finally exerting some pressure and leading his brother over to the shade shared by the horses.  Johnny sat on the grass and drew up his knees where he rested his elbows. His mouth was set in a straight line and he had a faraway look in his eyes.

Scott rummaged in his saddle bags and brought out the food Maria had packed. He placed thick beef sandwiches wrapped in a red and white checked cloth in front of Johnny, then fossicked for the raisin biscuits and crisp, red apples she had also insisted he take with him.

Sitting cross legged next to his brother, he unwrapped the sandwiches and deposited the dessert on the spread out cloth. He chose a particularly chunky sandwich which he passed to Johnny. When there was no acknowledgement, he tapped Johnny’s arm and pressed the sandwich into his hand.

Johnny looked at him, a little surprised as if he had not been aware of Scott’s activities. He then looked down at the food, but made no attempt to eat it.

“Go on, Johnny! Worrying yourself sick is not going to help.”

“No, maybe not, but I can’t help myself. This ain’t right. Murdoch is making a mistake. Tom’s bad news. I can feel it in my bones.”

“You’ve been hanging around Jelly for too long.”

“Yeah, well for all the teasing he’s suffered from me, I’m beginning to think that there is something in his aches and pains.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, sometimes it’s better to have the adversary in sight so we can keep an eye on him.”

“The trouble is, once he’s in sight, and that means under our roof, we might never get rid of him.”

“And if he IS our brother, would we really want to get rid of him?”

“He ain’t. I just know it.”

Scott sighed and wiped a hand over his eyes and forehead.

“I’m scared, too, you know.”

There was no response at first. “I know, Scott,” Johnny whispered after a moment.

“I like what we have here. I don’t want things changing either. We’ve worked so damn hard to establish the relationships we have.”

“You got that right,” agreed Johnny.

“Do you remember coming into my bedroom that first morning?”

Johnny started and looked over to Scott. He smirked with remembered humour.

“Yeah. I remember them plaid pants, too.”

Scott smiled in return. “Yes, well they have since been laid to rest.”

“Hallelujah for that!”

Scott snorted at his brother’s irreverence. “Besides commenting on my riding pants, do you remember trying on my hat the wrong way round, sprawling on my bed and discussing my ‘smarted up’ appearance in that photo with General Sheridan?”

“Oh boy, do I ever!”

“In fact, you were being downright irritating.”

Johnny simply smiled broadly with pride.

“And I remember that you made me feel a little left out by telling me that you planned a bit of a one man show. Before, of course, you added that I wouldn’t photograph too well dead in a ditch with ants crawling across my eyeballs!”

“A sad, but true fact, Scott.”

“Yes, it is. It’s also a sad fact that you didn’t come to my assistance in town when I was set upon and I let my fists tell you how annoyed I was at you for that.”

“You know, your fists talk mighty powerfully, too. I can still feel the impact of their words on my jaw, especially when the weather is about to change.” Johnny grinned at Scott and made a show of rubbing his chin.

“Well, when you think about it, we didn’t have the most promising of starts. Neither of us would have believed how important we would become to each other. It wasn’t like it was love at first sight. What I’m trying to say, Johnny, is that while I don’t like this any more than you do at the moment, we need to sit back. We need to watch him, but we also need to give him a break. We have to let him in a little bit or we’ll never find out what truly makes him tick. And just maybe if we don’t give him a chance, we’ll be the losers. If you and me hadn’t resolved our issues and given each other a chance, we’d have both missed out on the best thing in our lives.”

Johnny continued to study the hills in the distance as if he hadn’t heard. It was a full minute before he very softly spoke. “Thanks, Boston.”

“You’re welcome, little brother.”

They both stayed silent a little longer before Scott began speaking. “I would hate to think that we were selfish enough to exclude him and drive him away, when he could just prove to be a positive influence on our lives.” He glanced over at Johnny and continued. “So, we need to welcome his wife, and the boy as well. Let’s just reserve our opinion and let’s try not to make it too hard for them.”

Silence again met his words.

“That’s a tall order,” Johnny finally commented.

“We need to try. And we need to try together, or his arrival could be the one thing which could drive us both apart.”

Johnny started. Eyes narrowed, his gaze pierced Scott’s as if searching his brother’s soul.

“Don’t you worry none. I won’t let him ruin what we got.”

Scott nodded. “So we need to look out for each other, but not ostracize him, just in case he is our brother. And we mustn’t force Murdoch’s hand, either. If he thinks that we are ganging up on Tom, he may feel obliged to support him more than would otherwise be the case. He won’t want to have to choose sides.”

Johnny’s head nodded to an internal rhythm. “I don’t want him to, either. Don’t you worry, Scott, I’ll make you proud.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

Scott clasped him warmly on the shoulder as he grinned at Johnny’s compliance.

“But if he does anything to harm this family, the good Lord above couldn’t save him from me,” Johnny promised coldly, his eyes meeting his brother’s.

“Well, let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that.”

Johnny’s head bobbed again. “Yeah.” He continued staring ahead at nothing in particular, then squirmed to make himself more comfortable. Rubbing the side of his nose with his forefinger, he frowned. “Hey, Scott?”

“Yes?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to share. If he is a Lancer, he has a right to be a part of our family and share what we’ve got. I realize that. And I got more than I ever thought I’d have, anyway – more than enough to share. And you know, since he arrived, I’ve wondered what it would have been like for me if you had already come to Lancer and then I turned up out of the blue and upset the apple cart. I’ve been thinking how hard it would be for you to accept me if I had to prove who I was. But it’s not the sharing. It’s the right of the matter. Does he have a right to be here? Things are looking like he does, but my stomach is telling me a whole other story. And my gut instinct has saved my hide more times than I can recall. I just can’t ignore it.”

“No one is asking you to, Johnny. Just take it easy. Nice and slow. But in the mean time …” Here Scott stopped to grin and dig him in the stomach. “Get some food into that bottomless gut of yours or you’ll fade away to a shadow and have no strength left to break in this new brother of ours.”

Johnny grimaced and did as he was bid, but the sandwich tasted like saddle. His appetite had gone and he did not bother with his usual second helping.

Neither brother ate much as it turned out. Johnny realized that despite Scott’s encouraging and buoyant words, Scott was as churned up as he was.

They headed back to work by mutual silent consent and worked hard to finish the line to the ridge. The manual labour gave them a focus away from events that were happening back at the hacienda. The crest of the hillside was a marker they both felt testified to their intense day’s work, but once reached they wordlessly acknowledged that the time had come to head home, clean up and welcome their ‘guests’.

As they rode home, Johnny could not help clinging to this memory of a fruitful last day’s work with his brother. Like the hillcrest, this seemed to be a marker in his life as well. It was as if the new chapter, which had opened when he and Scott arrived home together at Lancer two years ago, would close the minute he walked into the hacienda and faced his new supposed brother.

So he cherished the final moments together while it was just him and Scott. They didn’t say much, lost as they were in their own private thoughts, but they were acutely aware of the sibling riding alongside.

Too soon, they arrived at the hacienda. They lost themselves in the routine of bedding their mounts down for the night. The removal of saddles, saddle blankets and bits was dragged out longer than necessary, and both horses received a lovingly extended brushing down.

The moment could be put off no longer. By common accord, they both stopped the grooming process and straightened up at the same time.

Closing the stalls behind them, they each took a step and stopped. Dragging their gaze off the barn door, they turned to look at one another. A lopsided, wry grin forced its way across Johnny’s mouth.

“I guess this is it.  No more putting it off, huh?”

“No, I think not.”

“I ain’t going into the Great Room until I’ve had a bath, though. I think I’ll head on up through the kitchen stairs and get cleaned up.”

Scott smiled fondly at him. “One of your better suggestions, Johnny. I’ll go up with you. I’ll be in my room reading, so let me know when you’re finished with the tub, will you?”

“Sure thing, Brother.”

They each pulled a face at Johnny’s term of endearment. Neither took a step forward.

“Come on, Johnny,” Scott urged. “Murdoch’s likely to be a bit tetchy, so let’s get this show on the road and make sure that we get bathed in time for supper.”

Johnny’s look of misery prompted Scott to grab his brother in a friendly headlock and propel him out of the barn and into their new future.

 

***********************************

 

Johnny hung around his room until he figured he had given Scott enough time to clean up and get dressed. He rapped on his door impatiently, anxious to have the support of his brother.

Scott was leaning into his mirror, towel slung over his shoulder when Johnny entered. Johnny watched him complete his shave. Initially he refrained from commenting, but couldn’t resist teasing him.

“You shaved this morning, Scott. What is the point of shaving twice in one day?”

“My face felt rough and looked untidy.”

“Scott, no one can even see your whiskers. Not until you get in the sunlight, that is. That’s when you start glinting like a gold ingot.”

“You’re just jealous that I’ve got the choice to shave twice a day if I feel like it, whereas with your dark stubble you NEED to, even if you don’t bother.”

A cushion from the green brocade armchair launched itself at Scott’s head. Spying it in the mirror, Scott turned and fended it off.

“Jealousy’s a curse, brother,” intoned Scott, “And it also plays havoc with a man’s aim.”

Johnny snorted. “You’re just delaying as much as I want to, Scott. You didn’t need that shave. So wipe that pretty face of yours and get your Boston behind out that door.”

“OK, have it your way,” shrugged Scott as he made for the door.

Johnny sighed deeply as he shook his head. “Here,” he called out to Scott, “Get this on.”

Scott grinned as he caught the clean shirt and pulled it on. “Thanks, mi hermano. How do I look?”

“Clean, but deserty.”

“Deserty? Is that a word?”

“It is now.”

“And what does it mean?”

“It means that you’d blend in with the desert. You’re beige, sandy, pale brown … all those earth colours. Honestly, you need to brighten up your wardrobe some before we lose you out in one of the pastures come summer!”

“You mean I should wear pink like you?”

“Why not?”

“Well, I have no intention of looking like a flamingo for one reason.”

“Flamingo? Don’t you mean ‘flamenco’? And flamenco dancers wear a lot of black and red, but I’ve never seen one wear pink yet.”

“No, I meant ‘flamingo’. It’s a beautiful, tall and elegant waterbird with stunning pink feathers.”

Johnny stood still and appraised his brother. “Yep, you’re right. Put you in pink and you would be kind of tall and elegant. Don’t know so much about the beautiful part of it though!”

Johnny’s cheeky grin earned him a gentle cuff around the ears. Scott grabbed him by his collar and hauled him to the door.

“Enough of this procrastination, Johnny boy, let’s get this evening over and done with!”

Johnny threw him a look of panic, then breathed deeply before squaring his shoulders and falling into step with his brother as they entered the landing and headed, shoulder to shoulder, for the stairs.

 

Chapter Nine

Both men ground to a halt as they reached the bottom of the stairs and turned to face the Great Room. Their father was leaning against the mantle, right elbow resting on the polished wood, left hand nursing a drink.

Tom was standing with his back to the French windows, talking to Murdoch about his studies. Tom was dressed for the occasion, wearing a neatly pressed suit and black string tie contrasting sharply with his crisp white shirt.

Trudy sat on the large red sofa near the fireplace, little Peter by her side browsing at a nature book. She looked every inch the well bred lady in a burgundy velvet gown with cream lace around the square neckline and on her cuffs.

“Boys!” greeted Murdoch. “Come and have a drink before supper. How was your day?”

Scott took it upon himself to answer for the two of them. “Fine, Sir. Good evening, everyone.”

There were murmured choruses of greetings, but Johnny could manage little other than a nod of his head to Tom and a ‘Ma’am’ to Trudy.

“I told you yesterday, it’s Trudy, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded again. “Sorry, Trudy, Ma’am.”

Scott pressed a glass of scotch in his hand, his face bearing a look of restrained exasperation.

“Are you all settled in?” Scott enquired politely.

“Oh, yes, indeed, Scott. We had time to unpack and sort ourselves out. Murdoch has given us the large corner room at the far end of the corridor and Peter’s room is just next door, so we are very cosy.”

« Just don’t get too cosy, » Johnny reflected into his tumbler.

“We look forward to having a look around and to helping out where we can. We don’t want to impose, after all,” smiled Trudy at the Lancer family.

Johnny clenched his teeth together and his fingers around his glass. A retort came to his lips, but one glance at Scott and he swallowed it.

“I’m sure you don’t,” Johnny answered her smoothly with the semblance of a smile.

Trudy smiled back at him, any irony having missed its mark. And then Johnny chided himself for taking his frustration out on her. She did, after all, seem to be a nice lady.

But nevertheless Johnny had been in the room for all of one minute before he felt that he could not deal with the revulsion of it all. He was barely suppressing the fury he felt at Murdoch for allowing these interlopers to make out that they belonged here. He resented their presence and the assumption that they would all play happy families. If Scott had not been in the room, he doubted he could have kept a rein on his emotions. Keeping their earlier conversation in mind and sticking to Scott’s theory that they would catch more flies with honey, he smiled again at Trudy, then sought the furthest armchair from Tom which he could find.

“What were you busy doing today?” Tom asked.

“We were working on one of the fence lines,” Scott answered briefly.

“How far did you get?” Murdoch asked.

“We made it to the crest of Blue Ridge out by Crooked Creek, but intend to load up more supplies and work on tomorrow.”

“Well done, boys! You must have worked fast.”

Scott eyed Johnny, praying he wouldn’t pipe up with a more truthful answer. “We were both feeling energetic, Sir and thought we would make the most of our combined strengths.”

“Well, tomorrow how about I join you and we will be able to go even faster?” Tom suggested.

Johnny didn’t trust himself to speak, so he put his glass in his mouth before his foot got there.

“That would be wonderful. Thank you. As they say, many hands make light work!” Scott ventured a reply.

Murdoch had been listening to the exchange. Johnny had watched a rivulet of perspiration course its way down Murdoch’s forehead as he sweated on his sons’ reactions and words. Johnny did not miss the sigh as Murdoch let his breath out and plastered a beaming smile on his face before commenting on Tom’s suggestion.

“Good idea. One way to find out about ranch work is to start with the basics. If we don’t have fences, we can’t keep the cattle in and we would have no profits. A small, but important detail in this line of work.”

“Have you ever had any large numbers of your cattle break out, Murdoch?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he waited for Murdoch’s response. His hand clutched the glass and his stomach clenched in turn as there was a slight pause. He would not tolerate being made a fool of over past history in front of this impostor.

Murdoch, seeming to sense Johnny’s eyes on him, threw Johnny a brief look. “Er, yes, it can happen. It can take days to get them all back. In the meantime, the cattle can come to harm, mingle with other herds and other jobs get neglected while time is lost relocating them.”

“But how do cattle break out if there are fences, Murdoch?” Trudy asked naively.

“Well, sometimes there can be a stampede. They can become spooked by lightning or by a frightening noise like a gunshot. They can bust down a fence pretty quick when they take off. A man wouldn’t want to get in their way. And if fences are not repaired regularly, a tiny hole can become a gaping chasm once they find an opening,” Murdoch explained patiently.

“I suppose that there have been times when lazy cowhands have fallen short on the mending side of things?” Tom probed.

“That has happened on occasion,” Murdoch admitted, this time keeping his eyes far away from Johnny’s lest he perceive any lingering hurt there.

“I presume you summarily dismiss such men?” Tom continued.

Johnny’s nostrils flared at the remembered pain of that day. Scott, who had come to perch on the armrest of Johnny’s chair, leaned his body in just a little closer to allow some comfort to his suffering sibling.

“Not necessarily. I certainly discuss the issue with the hand concerned. I once made a very poor decision which haunted me, to be frank. I have learned to judge each case by its own merits.”

Murdoch’s glance at his younger son was returned warmly.

Tom frowned at his glass, considering Murdoch’s words. He looked up to meet his eyes. “I didn’t take you for a soft touch. I thought that you would wield your power with quite some decisiveness.”

Murdoch smiled at him. “Wielding one’s power is not all it’s cracked up to be. I hope that I learned as much from that particular mistake as that very much valued hand did.”        

Tom sat looking at Murdoch, clearly puzzled. Johnny contemplated the boot resting on his knee, the ghost of a smile playing at his lips. Scott wiggled his rear end a little to sit more comfortably and in the process nudged his brother’s shoulder. Johnny’s smile grew into a grin which effaced the tension lines which had grown on his face.

It was Teresa who changed the topic of conversation by announcing that supper was ready. She efficiently showed their newcomers to their designated places while the three Lancer men dawdled a little. Johnny cherished the light hand of his father on his back as Murdoch passed him to sit at the head of the table. Noticing the interplay, Scott cast a wink in his direction. Johnny’s grin grew broader.

Teresa had spared no trouble and had provided a succulent roast beef with all the trimmings. Murdoch carved for his extended family and verified that everyone had ample helpings before picking up his knife and fork. Just then Trudy cleared her throat. Murdoch was slicing into his beef, when he realized the attention focussed on him from Tom’s family.

“Perhaps you would care to say grace, Murdoch?”

Johnny smirked at his father’s discomfort from Tom’s veiled rebuke. It pleased him to see Tom get his father off side. He wanted Tom to grate on his father the way he already grated on Johnny merely by breathing.

“Er, certainly.” Murdoch clasped his hands together on the edge of the table. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.’

A chorus of ‘Amens’ preceded the general noise of cutlery scraping on plates as the family began the meal with enthusiasm. Peter was the exception, however. He played with the peas as he rearranged them on his plate. He made no attempt to eat them.

“Eat up, boy!” Tom admonished him. “Either eat up or go to bed now. The choice is yours.”

Johnny watched with interest. The little boy clamped his lips together, but Johnny was sure that he saw a telltale tremble of his chin.

“You don’t like peas either, Peter?” Johnny asked him.

Peter looked up, and threw a quick peep at his father, but did not reply. He glanced again around the table and finally gave an infinitesimal shake of the head.

“Let’s see if I can fix that.”

Johnny hopped up, throwing a defiant look at Tom as Peter’s father opened his mouth to speak. The look quelled him.

A short time later he was back, several bottles and jars in his hands. Johnny plonked them on the table and then showed each one to Peter.

“Now, I don’t like to offend the cooks when I get greens I don’t like, ‘cause otherwise a man could be left to starve. So, it’s important to eat what the ladies work hard to prepare. And I can tell you, they work real hard for us, especially on those really hot days when they have the oven lit up cooking for us. A man mustn’t ever forget that. So, if you don’t like something, try drowning it in one of Maria’s or Teresa’s sauces or pickles. Now, this one is chilli. It’s as hot as midday in the Navajo Desert in high summer, so I don’t suggest you try that or you might find your tongue burnt to a crisp. This one is Teresa’s special green tomato relish. It’s funny that you’d never eat a fresh green tomato or you’d get a belly ache, but put it in this recipe and it is as though your mouth has flown up to heaven for a ride in the clouds. And this fat jar has Maria’s secret pickles in it.”

“If it’s a secret, then how come you know it’s Maria’s pickles?”

“Well, it’s a secret ‘cause no one knows the recipe. She keeps the ingredients secret. Now, I know that there are onions in there because I sneaked up on her once, but I’m not too sure what else is in here.”

Peter laughed at the thought of Johnny creeping up on the cook. It was a happy sound and the first time that Johnny had seen a smile countenance the boy’s face.

“So which one do you want to try?”

“May I try Maria’s, please?” he asked. “Maybe I could work out what she uses to make it.”

“Sure thing. Here you go,” Johnny replied, dolloping some of the pickles out onto the side of the young boy’s plate.

“Thanks, Uncle Johnny,” the little boy remembered his manners.

Johnny froze, caught off guard for a moment. He was forgetting that he was supposed to be the boy’s uncle. He was shocked. He had only ever expected to be an uncle to Scott’s children.

Peter also sat still, staring at the mask that had been Johnny’s face. He then began to squirm, feeling uncomfortable and looking worried. It was then that Johnny realized the effect he was having on the boy and gave himself a mental shake. “You’re welcome,” he finally said, reaching over to tousle the boy’s brown hair in order to take the tension out of the young lad’s demeanour.

He was rewarded with an uncertain smile. Johnny came up trumps, grinning back in return and managing to remove the discomfort the boy had experienced.

Johnny resumed eating his food, but not before he exchanged looks with Tom. A look he couldn’t quite fathom.

“So why don’t you tell us all about yourself, Tom?” Murdoch asked.

“Well, I grew up in San Francisco. I’ve worked in an accountancy firm and also in a bank on the books, and in shipping and importing. It was the legal side of these occupations, the contracts, I enjoyed the most. I completed two years of a law degree.”

“You didn’t finish?” Murdoch asked.

“No, funds ran out.  I needed to earn my keep. There was no money to pursue my studies.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, when my father, my step-father that is, passed away, very little was left. My mother had to work to keep us. Most of my grandfather’s money was left to my mother, but was frittered away by my stepfather who took control of it after their marriage. My mother had squirreled some of it away, but it wasn’t sufficient to pay my way through college.”

“That must have been hard,” Scott remarked. He couldn’t help but reflect that he had the privilege of pursuing his studies at Harvard without any such impediment.

“Indeed. It is extremely difficult to give up a pathway one’s heart has been set upon from an early age.” Tom gave a wry shrug of acceptance. “But one has to adapt, doesn’t one, when circumstances alter our existence? Adapt or perish, I suppose. I chose to survive and prosper.”

Johnny snorted privately. « With Lancer as your target, you’ve found yourself a mighty prosperous place, all right. »

“A wise choice, Tom,” Murdoch approved.

“Times have been hard, but we have managed,” Tom added.

Again, Johnny pondered Tom’s words regarding surviving his tough times. Johnny couldn’t help thinking that he had no idea what survival was compared to Scott’s year in Libby and his childhood in Mexico along the border towns. He swallowed some meat along with the memories and washed them down with a large mouthful of Murdoch’s much favoured cabernet sauvignon.

“What about you, Trudy? How did you meet Tom?” asked Murdoch.

“I was working at the bank assisting the manager with clerical duties. One day Tom escorted me to my carriage. It was raining and Tom held an umbrella to protect me.”

“He’s the chivalrous sort, huh?” drawled Johnny.

“Why, yes, he is. I was drawn to his gentlemanly ways.”

And Johnny snorted privately again.

“They are good qualities to have,” Scott commented.

“And I couldn’t believe my luck in finding such perfection,” Tom complimented his wife.

Trudy blushed with pleasure and ducked her head.

“So you two have not yet met a woman you wish to share your lives with at Lancer?” Tom enquired.

“No, that happy circumstance has eluded us so far. But you never know. Tomorrow may be the fateful day,” Scott answered.

“For both of your sakes, I hope so. I am indeed blessed to have such a fine wife and to have produced such a fine son.”

Johnny became concerned that his grinding teeth would draw negative attention from his father. The gnashing and scraping couldn’t drown out the smug tones liberally dispensed by Tom. So Johnny took another swig of the ruby red wine. He figured that he couldn’t manage the retort he wanted if his mouth was being flooded in some numbing alcohol.

“Yes, you boys will have a bit of catching up to do if you are to produce a child and another heir for Lancer,” Tom urged with barely concealed superiority.

Johnny choked as his drink went down the wrong way. A very fine spray of red wine was not arrested by the table napkin he hastily applied too late to his mouth. Tiny drops of red radiated out from where he sat, forming a fine burgundy spray pattern over the previously immaculate tablecloth.

A water tumbler was passed to him by Scott … by a formidable Scott whose look informed him that he had better keep his thoughts in his head and firmly out of his mouth.

“Sorry,” muttered Johnny.

“Did the wine go down the wrong way?” commiserated Trudy.

“Yeah, it just caught in my throat,” agreed Johnny. The water soothed Johnny’s throat and he nodded his thanks to Scott as he placed the glass next to his plate. “I’m sorry about the tablecloth, Teresa honey. I sure didn’t mean to go coughing that wine all over the place.” He dabbed ineffectually at the stain with his napkin, but soon gave up as he was merely transferring the wine to the napkin as well.

“I know, Johnny. A good soak will get it all out.”

“I doubt it,” declared Tom as he regarded the stains with distaste.

“Goodness, Maria has all sorts of tricks up her sleeve to remove spills. We’ll find something.”

Johnny shot Teresa a grateful smile as Murdoch changed the topic.

“So you’re keen to help the boys out tomorrow?”

“Yes, I think that a little physical exercise will do me good and I am anxious to see the ranch at work, but my real talent is probably with the paperwork. Perhaps I could assist you there?”

“Perhaps, conceded Murdoch. “We can work things out in due course.”

Scott, ever the good host, turned to Trudy. “What do you like to do in your spare time?”

“Well, I don’t really have a lot of spare time with housework and looking after Peter. I enjoy cooking and needlepoint, though. And gardening.”

“Why, so do I!” Teresa exclaimed. “We will have lots in common and perhaps we could swap embroidery ideas and recipes?”

“Oh, I’d love to, Teresa! An excellent idea.”

“And what about you, Peter? What are you good at?” Johnny asked the small boy.

Peter darted a look at Tom as if to seek permission to speak. A slight nod from his father was received.

“Well, I like reading books. I can already read some. And I like animals. Papa said that there might be a spare pony here for me and that I could maybe learn to ride!”

For the first time his face showed some animation. He glanced around the room, his excitement giving colour to his cheeks and a brightness to his eyes.

“That will depend on whether you are a good boy, Peter,” his father admonished him.

The animation faded rapidly from his face. “Yes sir,” he answered glumly.

“Well, I’m sure that we can find something to suit. You’ll need a gentle pony to start with. And I think I know just which one might do,” Johnny reassured the boy.

Scott grinned. “Placido?”

“Got it in one, Brother.”

Peter smiled in anticipation and happily returned to his meal.

The meal continued on, supported by general conversation amongst the adults that had Johnny ready to bust out of his britches in aggravation. His hold on his politeness was fragile to say the least by the time that Teresa announced that she would bring coffee into the Great Room.

Peter was packed off to bed, but not before he bade them all a good night. He started to move off towards the stairs, but then hesitated and, glancing around swiftly, he approached Johnny.

”Thanks again,” he said softly.

“What for?”

“For the pony and for getting me those sauces and such. They worked a treat. The peas weren’t so bad after all.”

Johnny smiled at the boy. “Just remember, that most problems can usually be worked out with a little creativity.”

“Thanks, anyway. Goodnight.”

“You’re welcome and goodnight.”

The little boy gone, his hand held fast in his mother’s, the men settled in for a post dinner drink by the fireside.

Johnny sat next to Scott on the sofa, tense as a coiled spring and hating every second of being confined to the same room as Tom. He was grateful for the calming influence of Scott, but for once it wasn’t quite enough. He felt like they were performing a charade, only he didn’t think that the performance would be over any time soon.

Tom walked the room, studying the furnishings and the placement of furniture. Working out how much everything cost, Johnny surmised. Or maybe working out what changes he would make. Johnny studied his proprietorial manner and was never more convinced that this man was after what he could get in the monetary sense rather than in the spiritual sense of gaining a family.

Tom delicately touched one of the sails on Murdoch’s ship and then strolled over to the blue upholstered armchair and ran his finger over the top of the backrest, following the indentations of the brocade. Next was the Lancer mantelpiece to take his attention. He gazed, transfixed at the large Lancer ‘L’, and then dropped his eyes to a photograph perched on the mantelshelf.

He picked up the solid silver frame, and studied the faces depicted. Murdoch had arranged for the photograph the first Christmas they had all been together. Amid feigned protests Johnny had dressed up along with Scott, Murdoch and Teresa and had sat in the required poses until Murdoch was satisfied. Murdoch had chosen several to keep. The one on display in the Great Room showed a relaxed group laughing and smiling. Just as the photographer had everything set for the perfect family portrait, Johnny had cracked a joke about training the photographer in quick draw procedures to hasten the process up a bit. The result was quite different to the usual glum and stuffy likenesses adorning most parlours. It was a quintessential moment of relaxed happiness in the Lancer family. It was a statement of what they had all worked so hard to achieve.

Tom continued studying the portrait, his jaw line protruding as he clenched his teeth. He finally placed it gently back on the shelf, carefully setting it back at the same angle.

He turned to face the family and the three sets of eyes following his every move.

“That’s a nice photograph,” he commented.

“Yes, we like it. I had it commissioned one Christmas,” Murdoch informed him.

Tom nodded. “I guess having a memento of all your family together at last must have been like the fulfilment of a lifelong dream?”

“Yes. That it was. I never thought that I would see the day.”

Johnny narrowed his eyes and glanced from Murdoch to Tom. His father seemed to have missed the irony of Tom’s words.  He was about to say something when Trudy arrived back in the room after putting Peter to bed. Teresa also bustled in at the same time, a tray of coffee balanced in her hands.

Johnny hopped up, took it from her and placed in down on the table. “There you go.”

“Thank you, Johnny.”

Teresa began handing out the coffee and it wasn’t until everyone had a cup that Tom spoke again.

“I believe that you and Johnny arrived together on the same stagecoach, Scott?”

Scott had been blowing on the hot brew, so he answered without yet taking a sip. “Yes, unbeknownst to the two of us at the time. Johnny hitched a lift on the way to Morro Coyo. We didn’t know we were related until Teresa told us when we arrived.”

“It was so funny,” chimed in Teresa. “I called to Mr Lancer and both of them answered at the same time. I don’t know who was more surprised.”

“But did you know that you each had a brother before your arrival here?” Trudy asked.

Scott and Johnny looked at each other and smiled ruefully.

Murdoch answered for them. “Unfortunately, no, they didn’t.”

“That must have been quite traumatic,” Tom commented, “To suddenly find out that you each had a sibling you knew nothing about.”

“Well, we were certainly a little wary of each other to start with, but we soon got used to the idea,” Scott replied. “In fact, we’ve both got so used to the situation I don’t think we’d trade even if tempted with a bonus thousand dollars thrown into the bargain.”

“What do you say, Johnny?”

Johnny sipped his coffee, thoughtfully. “Nah, I wouldn’t swap you for a thousand dollars, Scott.”

Scott smiled in agreement, but it was a smile which faded rapidly as Johnny continued.

“But I might for old Whittaker’s stud stallion!”

Johnny’s cheeky grin brightened the room and had Teresa swatting him with the back of her hand.

“Oh, Johnny! Don’t tease your brother!” she admonished.

Johnny’s smile disappeared.  “Who said I was joking?” he asked in mock seriousness.

The general laughter subsided as Tom spoke.

“So, from an inauspicious beginning, you have both forged quite some bond of brotherhood?” Tom pressed.

“Yes, we have,” Scott assured him.

“Good,” stated Tom, “Then you should be used to surprises and be aware that from the most unexpected of sources one can indeed build a strong relationship, defying all initial expectation. I look forward to the day when the same applies to the three of us.”

The room fell silent as no one took it on board to answer immediately. Johnny drained his coffee and stood up, his eyes never leaving Tom’s face.

“Don’t hold your breath,” he drawled.

His footsteps were crisp as he strode towards the stairs and mounted them two at a time. The occupants of the room sat immobile until the last of the footsteps faded and Johnny’s bedroom door slammed shut with finality.

 

Chapter Ten

Some time later Scott knocked gently at his brother’s door. There was no response. He knocked again and called softly. “Johnny? Can I come in?”

Receiving no answer, Scott entered anyway, closing the door behind him.

Johnny was lying on his bed with his hands clasped behind his head. The lamp was lit, but the wick was turned down low, casting a dull glow in the gloom of the room.

Scott crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. He said nothing.

After about a minute, Johnny snapped. “You gonna stand there all night breathing in that ‘Why didn’t you keep your temper’ way?”

“No, I need some sleep at some point. But you did promise me, Brother. You said that you would give the man a chance while we all get accustomed to this new order of things.”

“I did give him a chance. He’s still alive, ain’t he?”

Scott smiled wryly. “Yes, he is, but you were just a little provocative before you left.”

“I lasted through the pre-dinner drinks and the meal, didn’t I? But that was all I could stomach of being near the man. I wasn’t gonna let him act all presumptuous as if he had a right to be a part of us, that he belonged here.”

Scott sighed and heaved himself off the wall. Approaching the bed, he sat on the edge and put his head in his hands.

“But that’s just it. What if he does have a right to be here? What if he is a part of us? Do we have the right to spurn any chance he has of getting to know us or of fitting in? It may not just be him who ends up being the loser, maybe we will lose out as well.”

“Well, no one really knows if he belongs here. Murdoch might think so, but he doesn’t know so. And I just can’t accept him until I’m sure. And I ain’t sure yet. And I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t trust him as far as I could kick him.”

“We’ve already had this conversation, Johnny. We’ve thrashed it out.”

“And it don’t help none. We could talk about it until all those dumb cows out there learn to brand themselves and organize their own cattle drive, but it ain’t gonna make me like Tom any more or make it all go away.”

“We need to give it time so we can find out more about him.”

Johnny’s ‘phht!’ was the only reaction Scott received.

Scott looked at Johnny. The lamplight cast a mellow glow on his forehead and right cheek, accentuating the dark recesses and hollows of his facial structure. It was a strong face, Scott pondered. A face that had needed to be strong for all that it had endured. But it was also a face of compassion and kindness. It could unexpectedly break out into a blazing, humour filled smile which lit up any room Johnny entered. A series of diverse character traits and personalities made up the whole that was Johnny Madrid Lancer. And Scott blessed the day that this man had become a part of his life. He just prayed that Tom’s arrival would not ruin what they had built together.  He knew that Johnny was afraid of this, too.

“Let’s try to reserve our judgement, Johnny. We don’t have to embrace him with open arms, but we can maybe sit back a bit, give him his head, so to speak and see how things develop.”

“Scott, I tell you I can’t sit back and just wait to see how things turn out. He’s bad news. I can smell it and I can taste it.”

Johnny’s grim words chilled Scott and sent a frisson of worry down his spine. Giving himself a shake, he reached forward to pat his brother on the arm.

“Just remember that I am here. I think we need to work together on this and talk things over. He’s not going to affect what we have together.”

“Don’t be too sure, Scott. He’ll drive a wedge in somehow. He’s already started with Murdoch by offering to do the books.”

“Well, you hate doing the books, so maybe that may work out to be a good thing.”

Johnny rubbed his eyes in anxiety. “I don’t hate doing them enough to let him do them and to let him know all about our business. Our financial affairs are nothing to do with him.”

Scott sighed yet again. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, Brother, but if he really is our brother, then our finances will have everything to do with him.”

“But we don’t know that and he probably isn’t our brother, so all the more reason to keep his nose out of our account books!”

“If it’s any consolation, I can’t see Murdoch showing them to him just yet, let alone allowing him to work on them, so you can probably rest easy on that score at the moment.”

Johnny sat up abruptly, swung his legs off the bed and strode to his window. He leaned on the sill, then threw his head back and breathed in the Lancer air.

“This is ours, Scott. This land, this air, is ours. Yours, mine and Murdoch’s. It ain’t his and I ain’t gonna just sit back and avoid making waves while he settles in and takes over!”

“Well, you need to avoid antagonizing him. Antagonizing him will antagonize Murdoch and alienate you from Murdoch. That will make it easier for him to busy himself getting into Murdoch’s good books. Murdoch feels that he owes Tom a home because he wasn’t there for him while he was growing up. If you make things hard for Tom, if you cut him out, then Murdoch will be more determined to cut Tom in. Think on it, Brother. Play along for a bit while we work him out.”

Johnny slammed the window sill in frustration and turned to Scott. “I don’t need no time to work him out. I just know! I’ve met enough of his kind to know. My life depended on getting people right. To misread someone was usually fatal in my line of work. I’m telling you, don’t trust him, Boston. Don’t let him get too close.”

“I won’t, Johnny. And you remember to keep a rein on your feelings.”

Johnny’s slow predatory smile was not the reaction Scott had hoped for.

“Oh, I will, Scott. I’ll be real careful with my feelings.”

Scott shook his head, exasperation evident in his return smile. “Why does that not give me any confidence, little brother?”

Johnny stepped forward, stopping just in front of Scott. “I don’t know, Scott. Maybe it’s your sneaky, suspicious mind.”

Johnny backhanded Scott suddenly in the belly. “Go on. Get out of here. A man needs his sleep, and preferably without an audience!”

“OK. Goodnight.” Scott turned and made for the door. “Oh, and Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you not thump me in the stomach after dinner? I’ll end up being kept awake with indigestion.”

Johnny snorted. “It won’t be my little tap giving you any indigestion. It’ll more likely be Tom not going down too well.”

“You don’t give up easily, do you?”

Johnny’s reply came with a deadly seriousness. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here now. I’d have died a long time ago.”

Scott went cold with fear. It was a fear for the life his brother had led and a fear for the future lest anything happen to him.

“And I’m glad you didn’t. I guess I should be thankful for that stubbornness.”

Johnny laughed softly. “I’ll remind you of that next time you get mad with me. Good night, Scott.”

“Good night, Brother,” Scott called as he opened the door.

He closed it gently, but didn’t at first move away to his own room. Placing his palm against the wooden panel, he made a small prayer that nothing would happen to the brother he had come to cherish. Now that Johnny was such an intrinsic part of his life, he didn’t know if he could survive if anything happened to him.

 

**********************************

 

The next day saw Johnny and Scott arrive at the breakfast table at the same time.

“Morning, Brother,” greeted Scott, as he reached for the coffee pot Maria had placed in front of him.

“Morning, Scott.” Johnny reached for his cup and watched as Scott poured out some of the steaming brew for him. “It’s gonna be hot today. Make sure you drink plenty this morning.”

“Thanks for the reminder. I will, don’t you worry,” replied a cheerful Scott who was inwardly cringing at the memory of an early bout of sunstroke which he had suffered. He had never forgotten how miserable and disoriented he had been. It was Johnny who had recognized the signs, packed up early for the day and had ridden double to get him home safely. Scott had to be careful in the Californian climate. Johnny’s darker complexion made it a bit easier for his brother to work in the heat of the summer, but Scott needed to cover up and take frequent amounts of water in order to keep going.

Maria gave each man a plate heaped with bacon and eggs. She indicated the biscuits she had placed in the middle of the table and urged them to help themselves.

As they did so, Peter arrived. Dressed in brown pants and a plaid shirt tucked in neatly, he was the picture of a neatly groomed child. Only his wild hair betrayed the fact that he had escaped downstairs before his mother had spotted him.

He stood uncertainly in the doorway, as if his courage in descending the stairs on his own initiative had suddenly failed him.

Scott’s glance took in Johnny, who stopped eating to consider the boy.

“Good morning, Peter,” Scott welcomed him.

“Good morning,” answered Peter, who still did not budge.

“Hi, there! Take a seat,” Johnny urged, pulling out the chair next to him.

Peter shuffled forward and clambered onto the chair which Johnny had indicated.

Once there, he sat quietly, seemingly unsure as to what to do. Maria gave him a plate, and stood hovering over him with her frying pan. “What would you like? Some of these eggs with some bacon?”

He looked at Johnny and Scot for guidance. At their slight nods, he took the courage to reply. “Yes, Ma’am. Thank you.”

Murdoch chose that moment to enter. He halted on seeing the boy, then greeted him heartily.

Peter scramble to his feet out of deference to Murdoch. “Good morning , Sir.”

“Sit down, lad. Thank you for the respect, son, but you don’t need to stand at breakfast. We treat it as an informal meal.”

Peter’s neck was angled sharply to see his grandfather’s face. “Yes, sir,” he acknowledged before taking his seat next to his uncles.

The boy began eating, a little hesitantly. While he seemed to concentrate on pushing the food around between mouthfuls, his eyes darted amongst the three of them.

“Thank you,” Murdoch spoke to Maria as he reached for the sugar to add to his black coffee. Stirring thoughtfully in a clockwise motion, he tapped the spoon on the rim of the cup several times before placing the spoon upside down on the edge of his plate. Maria served out a decent helping to Murdoch, then returned to her workbench as Murdoch studied the young lad.

“So, Peter, what do you intend to do today?” Murdoch asked him kindly.

“I don’t know yet, Sir. I’d like to look at the barn and the corral.”

“Uhuh,” uttered Murdoch. “Just stay clear of the corral, please, unless there is an adult with you. The horses can be dangerous. If you are going to be here for any length of time, I guess we’ll have to draw up a list of chores for you to do and we’ll need to get you going to the local schoolhouse along with some other children on the ranch.”

Johnny’s fork hovered still over his meal. He canted his head to one side and quirked an eyebrow at his brother. Face impassive and mouth set in a tight line, his nostrils flared as he fought to rein in an impending explosion of annoyance.

Scott shot a warning to Johnny to control himself rather than risk provoking Murdoch’s ire, then jumped into the conversation. “A wagon load of children go into town every day, Peter. You’ll have fun meeting them all. The school marm is very kind and well liked by the children.”

Peter nodded in a non committed way, as though it was expected of him, but he demonstrated no joy at the prospect.

His parents came in then. Trudy dropped a kiss on his forehead. “My you’re the early bird today,” she greeted him warmly.

“Son,” was all that Tom offered. “You were talking about school as we came in?”

“Yes, there is a local school in Green River. A wagon load of children from the ranch goes in every day.”

”Children? From the ranch? Which children?” Tom looked at Scott and Johnny for the answer.

“Don’t look at me! Or Johnny, either,” Scott laughed. “The children belong to our workers.”

“Your workers? Wouldn’t they be mostly Mexican?”

Johnny clenched his coffee cup and glared at Tom. “You want to make something of it?”

Tom stared at him, pulled himself together and then spread his hands in a placating gesture. “No, not at all,” he answered smoothly. “I was just thinking that it is rare for ranches to encourage the children of the Mexican workers to go to school.” He looked at Johnny pointedly.  “Nothing more.”

“And you don’t approve of it?” Johnny probed.

“I never said that. I was merely commenting, that’s all.”

“So, Mexicans getting an education just like the gringo population is surprising enough to need commenting on?” pursued Johnny.

Tom looked around the table. Scott and Murdoch were exasperated with Johnny’s forthrightness, but neither had spoken up.

“On the contrary, Johnny. I think it is commendable.”

“Johnny,” warned Murdoch. “I think that we can leave it there, don’t you?”

Johnny breathed deeply and sucked in his cheeks. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Maria will serve breakfast, Tom and Trudy. I’m sure that she has something to your liking.”

“Why, thank you, Murdoch, but I really can’t stay here and expect to be waited on. I hope that Maria will let me help from now on.”

Johnny noticed the look that Maria quickly threw his way before her face turned again to the frying pan she was using.

“Well, Maria is right here, you know. Why don’t you ask her yourself? It sure beats going through a third party.” Johnny pointed with his fork, but his set face belied his jovial words. He looked at his father as if to defy that he had been anything but friendly.

“Oh, yes, of course! Maria, I hope that you will let me help you in your kitchen?”

Maria looked at Johnny, Scott and Murdoch before looking at the guests. “Sì, Seňora, that would be much appreciated. There is always so much to do … and so much to cook when we have all of those hollow bellies to fill.” After an initial hesitation, she had answered warmly enough, but glanced pointedly at Johnny when she got to the word ‘bellies’.

“Good!” exclaimed Trudy. “I’ll start straight after breakfast.”

“Start what?” Teresa asked as she bustled in, a basket of tomatoes on her arm.

“Start helping with the cooking and such,” Trudy responded.

“Well, this morning I’ll show you around a little and then you could help in the afternoon. How does that sound?”

“Fine, thank you, Teresa! I am sure that we will have a lovely day and I can see that we will get along fine.”

Trudy and Tom accepted their breakfast from Maria and began eating with enthusiasm.

“So, Tom, did you sleep well?” Murdoch enquired.

“Yes, indeed. Our room was more than adequate. We all slept well.”

“What about you, Peter?” Murdoch asked.

Peter’s eyes grew big at being drawn into the conversation. “Not really, Sir.”

“Oh, come now, Peter,” his father intervened. “You bed looked perfectly comfortable to me!”

“Yes, it was!” Peter dropped his head a little after his heated response. He then looked up at the adults watching him. “It was fine, honest. You made my room up real good, Miss Teresa. I … it … it was just new to me. It was just hard to get to sleep because I wasn’t used to the room, that’s all.”

Peter looked at Murdoch and then at his uncles, worried that he had said the wrong thing.

Scott took pity on him. “I know what you mean. It’s hard to get to sleep in a new bed in a new room and in a new house.”

“Yeah,” Johnny added, “That’s a fact. I know one way to fix it, though.”

“What’s that?” asked Peter doubtfully.

“We’ll give you so many chores that you’ll be too plumb tuckered out after working in the fresh air to do anything but fall asleep. How’s that for a solution?”

Peter hesitated. “Fine, Sir.” The boy then smiled and added daringly, “But I thought I was supposed to go to school every day?”

“Yeah, you’ll have school every day, but you’ll have plenty of time in the morning and the afternoon to get your chores done. There’ll be just enough daylight left.”

Peter’s smile wavered uncertainly until he realized that Johnny’s lips had hitched themselves up into a teasing smile.

He sighed in relief, and answered respectfully “Yes, Sir.” A small smile followed, acknowledging Johnny’s joshing.

“So, that’s settled then!” Murdoch agreed with a twinkle in his eye. Peter looked up at him to gauge his seriousness, but then visibly relaxed. “What about you, Tom?” Murdoch queried.

“Well, I’d like to do what I said yesterday. I’d like a day getting a feel for the daily routine outdoors, if Johnny and Scott don’t mind my joining them?”

Tom looked at the two men expectantly.

Johnny merely stared back, has face under tight control, but no answer readily visible.

“Sure,” Scott answered for them both. “We could do with the help. Just be ready to discover muscles you didn’t know you had.”

“It sounds challenging,” Tom replied.

Johnny appeared to choke a little as he took a sip from his cup and the liquid went down the wrong way.

“Are you all right, Son?” Murdoch asked him.

Johnny coughed behind his hand and then looked up to see his father’s cold eyes daring him to differ.

“Yeah, the coffee was a bit hot, that’s all.”

“You seem to have quite a bit of trouble coping with liquids.” Tom’s comment dropped heavily into the breakfast table atmosphere as he challenged Johnny.

“Not normally, no,” Johnny answered succinctly. He placed his cup down with exaggerated care on the table surface. “I’ll get the horses ready,” Johnny announced to no one in particular.

There was a brief, strained silence after his departure. “I’d better join him. We’ve got a lot to do today.” Scott gulped the last of his coffee and left swiftly.

Tom arched his eyebrows ands stayed pointedly silent. He turned to his wife. “Well, my dear, I am sure that Teresa and you will have a lovely time today. My day should prove interesting as well. And speaking of which, I had better get started so I can pull my weight with the boys. I’ll leave you to your books then, Murdoch. If you’ll excuse me, I will see you all later.”  Tom stood and bent to kiss his wife’s cheek. “Goodbye, my dear. Peter, you make sure that you behave and do as you are told.” He ruffled Peter’s hair, nodded to Murdoch and left by the back door, trailing Scott.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

Scott found Johnny in the barn already fastening the cinch on Barranca’s saddle, his face a fierce scowl. He drew to a halt and watched his brother for a few seconds, then approached him slowly. “Johnny, settle down.”

Johnny jerked a little hard on the cinch, evoking an annoyed stamp from Barranca. The animal turned his head to glare at him. Johnny straightened, immediately contrite. He patted his horse’s neck and sighed deeply before leaning his head into its neck. He shook his head. “I can’t do this, Scott.”

“Yes, you can. Just you think back to how hard it was for us to start with. Go with it for the moment, Johnny, but don’t push too hard, or you’re going to have Murdoch torn between us all. Let things play out, eh?”

Johnny continued to lean into Barranca, taking some comfort from him. He rested one hand on his horse’s neck and twisted his head around to look at his older brother. “It was different with us. I got a gut feeling about this that I don’t like at all. It just ain’t gonna work.”

“What’s not going to work?”

Tom stood in the doorway to the barn, surveying both men before him. Neither answered him.

“I asked what’s not going to work?”

The silence dragged out for a moment. “Us, if we don’t get on with it before the sun sets,” Johnny replied, his voice clipped. “Cipriano’s saddled that mare over there in the stall for you.”

The three men rode towards the site of their day’s chores. The crew had already departed with a wagon with fencing supplies, so they were able to enjoy the ride on horseback. Scott pointed out all the features of importance as they went, while Johnny remained silent for the most part. Tom was interested and suitably impressed with the size of the ranch and the grandeur of its surroundings.

“This is truly stunning. One doesn’t really appreciate the extent of our father’s holdings merely from the archway and hacienda, imposing though they are.”

Scott detected Johnny’s posture change from the slouch he had been fostering. He spoke swiftly to intercede, sensing an explosion from his sibling.

“Yes, Murdoch bought his original tract of land, but added to the main section whenever the opportunity arose through sales of adjoining properties. It was hard for him. I guess it is difficult for us to realize how little money there was then and how little manpower he had, but he has a canny sense for the right move at the right time. He is nothing if not astute when it comes to business.”

Johnny snorted to himself. « Business, yeah, but sometimes he ain’t so crash hot when it comes to judging people, » Johnny pondered. « And boy, has he got this fella wrong. »

“Yes, so I am beginning to appreciate. You two were lucky to arrive after the ranch had been established and all the main work had been done. You must have felt like all your Christmases had come at once.”

Johnny’s silence snapped. “When we came here, it wasn’t to grab a piece of this property or to gloat over profiting from Murdoch’s work! We came because he wanted to see us. We got nothing from the Old Man until we had earned it. We had no idea what he had in his mind for us.”

Tom seemed unperturbed by the fervour behind Johnny’s voice. “Maybe not, but I don’t see you knocking his wealth back. And I have heard the story of the ‘listening money’, so what you have said about not getting anything until you had earned it is not quite right.” Johnny had bristled at the words, but Tom ploughed right on. “You live more than comfortably and he has given you both equal shares in the property, as well. It’s more than you could ever have dreamed of having, Johnny.”

“Yes, it’s more than I ever dreamed of having, but no less than I am rightfully entitled to,” Johnny answered quietly, but with conviction.

“Indeed it is, Johnny, and long overdue,” Scott quickly offered his endorsement.

Tom fell silent, taking the united rebuff in his stride.

“Johnny deserves his partnership. He works his heart out here, often the last to return here. We both work hard, in fact. Murdoch made it clear that life here was no gravy train. There is no such thing as a free lunch. What rewards we get are earned manyfold,” Scott remarked.

“Ah! It sounds as though I have indeed got it wrong. Thank you for putting me straight, Scott.” Tom paused to look around him. His eye took in the incomplete fence line, some remaining supplies left on the ground after light had faded the previous night and the wagon, driven by one of the hands, lumbering its way over the western ridge. “Well, I guess that I had better start earning my lunch. That is quite a stretch of fencing to finish.”

He hopped off his mount, and led it to an enormous oak tree, the branches of which obligingly provided deep shade for them and their horses.

Scott and Johnny watched him silently for a moment as he saw to his horse.

“So help me Scott,” Johnny whispered, his lips barely moving. “I ain’t gonna last the day with him in my sight and within shooting distance.”

Scott glanced at him with some sympathy. “He’s just trying to fit in, Johnny. Give him some time.”

Johnny looked at his brother. “That’s precisely what I DON”T aim for him to do. I want him gone and out of our lives.”

Scott’s eyes reflected his sadness. “That may not be happening, Brother. I have the distinct impression that our lives are going to take a new direction.” Scott’s mouth tightened. “So maybe we need to just accept it and get on with it. There’s no point in fighting it if he is Murdoch’s son.”

Johnny placed both hands on the pommel and leaned on it to re-adjust his behind on the saddle. “Oh yeah? Well, I don’t aim to just accept it or to get on with it if I can help it. Something ain’t right. I just know it.”

“Well, as I said last night, until we find out what that something is, play along, Johnny. Don’t stir things up without knowing in what direction you are going. You are only going to cause friction with Murdoch and you may make him more defensive as far as Tom is concerned.”

Johnny gave him a devilish grin. “Don’t worry, Boston, I’ll be careful … and I’ll watch your back while I’m about it.”

Johnny kneed Barranca over to the tree and also began to make Barranca comfortable for the day. He poured a little water into his hat after he had unsaddled the horse and tied him loosely to a low hanging branch. Barranca did not waste a drop and licked his hat dry as best he could, thick lips giving the hat’s interior one final wipe out. The horse positively sighed in gratitude and then reached over to nuzzle his head into Johnny’s neck by way of thanks.

“You’re a good fella, ain’t you boy? Well, you make yourself comfortable while I slave away to keep this ranch running so you can have plenty of pasture, tasty oats and a clean stall at night.”

Barranca nickered. Scott even thought he perceived a smirk of self satisfaction on the animal’s lips. With a shake of his head, Scott also headed over to the shady tree. He took some minutes to make sure his mount was comfortable and then set about organizing the materials they would need.

The three men worked alongside each other, with the minimum of words passing their lips. Tom watched and tried to help where he could, but being the novice he was his assistance was sometimes more of a hindrance than anything else.

After about an hour of following terse instructions, Tom dropped the wire stretcher and hissed with pain. The wire had slipped and the slack had curled around, slapping at his wrist. A thin streak of blood oozed along a line across his wrist near the thumb joint. It widened and spread, coalescing to drip down the sides of his wrist. He unwrapped his bandana from around his neck and dabbed at it.

“You need some water on it. Even minor cuts can become infected with lightning speed out here,” Scot advised. “It’s not exactly the cleanest of environments.”

Scott fetched his canteen from the pommel of his saddle. He unscrewed it and poured some over the wound.

“Thanks, Scott.”

Tom wiped it and then wrapped his bandana around the cut. Scott assisted him by tying it off, while Johnny continued his work, eyes darting in Tom’s direction to follow his progress with the injury, a faint smirk gracing his lips.

“How long did it take you two to get used to this kind of work?” Tom asked.

Scott smiled with self deprecation. “Sometimes I think that you never entirely get used to this kind of work.”

“Well, why don’t you let the hands do it? There certainly seems to be enough around here. Plus, the work teams would need direction.”

“If you want respect, you gotta earn it,” Johnny broke in. “The men won’t respect a boss who won’t get his hands dirty.”

“Well, does that matter? It seems to me that they have a choice. They either work for their pay or they move on. It’s not up to them to decide whether they respect their boss or not. They are paid to work. End of story.”

Scott did not reply at first and Johnny beat him to it. His eloquent snort conveyed his thoughts. Scott successfully speared him with a piercing look before answering for the both of them. “It’s not quite like that. You need to rely on the men.”

“Yes, I can see that. And if they are not reliable, you would need to get rid of them.”

“You don’t quite understand,” Scott elaborated with patience. “You need to get the men not to just do their work, but to use their initiative. You need to know that your life may be in their hands on occasion. There are all sorts of dangers out here: ranching accidents, itinerants you can’t trust as far as you could kick them, the weather, nature. A man needs to know that he can trust his men implicitly and that they trust him. A lot of that trust comes from respect. And if we want to earn respect, we need to show it. Plus, there is the economy of the ranch to consider. Productivity is greater if you are fair and if you work with the men. They know that you know what it’s like from their perspective. Believe me, profits would go downhill if we stopped working alongside our employees.”

Tom winced as he held his wrist. “That may not be the case, you know. You might be surprised to see that you can get respect by keeping yourself a rung above the workers. A firm hand from above by someone who doesn’t try to be one of the boys might engender the same respect, and there would be a lower personal cost to you. After all, management needs to have an overall view of things if it is to be effective. That is hard to do if a person is too involved down at base level.”

Scott shook his head slowly. “I had enough of that type of management in Boston. This is not an impersonal company where the profits flow out never to be seen again. The workers live here. Their children are born here. They feel like they have a stake here.”

“But they don’t, in fact, do they? It isn’t their property.”

“No, it isn’t, but they feel like they belong. And any prosperity flows on to them with job security, food on their table, a home to live in and safety for their families. Then likewise back to us. It is a circle which benefits us all.”

Tom looked at Scott. He seemed to reassess and then abruptly back off from the tack he had been pursuing. He picked up the wire stretcher and recommenced work as he spoke. “So, it must have been an adjustment for the two of you to begin this type of work.”

“Yes, I guess you could say that we didn’t know what had struck us. I, for one, discovered muscles that even the cavalry had not identified.”

“Rather than have you working in the open, your father should use you more for the bookwork end of the ranch business. I gather that you did a lot of that in Boston for your grandfather.”

Scott wiped his arm across his brow. “Is that so? And who informed you about that?” Scott asked somewhat coolly.

“I admit to doing a little research before I came. I wanted to know a little bit about my brothers. Is that so wrong?”

“It is when it means poking your nose into other people’s business that ain’t no concern of yours,” Johnny answered for Scott.

“You ARE my business, don’t forget.”

“Oh, believe me, I wish I could,” Johnny commented snidely.

Tom regarded him with his jaw clenched, but then chose to ignore him and returned his attention to Scott.

“I am sure that you can appreciate that I wanted to know something of my family before arriving on your doorstep. If you took that to be intrusive, please forgive me. I did not intend to pry other than to discover the most salient and obvious information. I was not seeking things of a personal matter.”

Scott considered the man’s sincerity, then smiled lightly. “Yes, I can understand that.”

Tom nodded his acceptance of Scott’s words “Thank you. Anyway, I guess I’m just surprised at the amount of manual work you do. I just thought it would make more sense for you to oversee the ranch from the business end.”

“Well, the best way for me to learn about ranching is through a lot of hard work. It is a good teacher. I’ve learnt a lot and I am a better man for it.”

“It must have been a huge adjustment. What about you, Johnny? How did you adapt?”

Johnny paused, his mallet poised in mid air. He gave Tom a quizzical look. “Well, I just kept my mouth shut, looked around to see how everyone else was doing things and got on with it instead of wasting a lot of energy analysing it. A piece of pie. The ranch don’t run itself, so there’s no point in whining over what’s gotta be done.”

The thud of the mallet on the fence post signalled the end of Johnny’s contribution to the conversation.

Tom took the hint. He concentrated on helping in any way that brought him into the least contact with Johnny. When he did speak, it was to converse with Scott. Good breeding and not a little irritation with Johnny’s brusqueness prompted Scott to try to make up for his brother’s shortcomings.

Lunch time didn’t come soon enough for Tom, who was visibly wilting with the strenuous manual labour in the hot sun.

The men took a break under the shade of the oak tree. Dappled light filtered down affording them some reprieve from the sting of the noonday sun. Unwrapping thick crusty sandwiches filled with slabs of cold roast beef, they ate silently. For some moments, the only sounds were their jaws munching and the buzz of the odd fly desperately seeking the cooler air under the oak’s branches.

Tom stopped eating before Scott and Johnny. He suddenly pulled a face and held the sandwich out in front of him, looking at it with disdain. “It’s warm,” he complained.

“That didn’t stop you eating the first half,” Johnny commented with amusement.

“I was hungry,” explained Tom.

“Yeah, well you’ll be a lot hungrier come dinner time if you don’t eat up now. Our work’s not done yet by a long shot.”

Tom glared daggers at him. “I’ll manage,” he ground out.

“See that you do!” growled Johnny.

Scott threw a scowl at Johnny. It shut him up before he added to his comment.

Stirring up Tom was only aggravating Scott into the bargain. Johnny sighed, his sandwich suddenly turning into a soggy, tasteless mass in his mouth. The man had robbed him of his appetite, something he didn’t take kindly to. Disgruntled, he shoved the remnants back in the cloth and rose abruptly to wedge the leftover food back in his saddlebags.

Unlooping the strap of his canteen from the pommel on his saddle, he unscrewed the cap and drank deeply. He removed his hat, turned it upside down and poured some into the well made by the crown. Barranca nudged him, eager for a drink. Johnny chuckled at the horse’s antics. As usual, Barranca had a way of easing his tension. He felt the anger ebb. Sucking in a gulp of air, he relaxed and scratched his horse behind its ear. His mount ceased drinking and butted his head against Johnny’s chest, seeking more attention from his master. Johnny stroked Barranca’s neck with a smile.

Without ceremony, Johnny upended his hat, plonking it firmly in place. Rivulets of water ran down his face and down his neck, dampening the collar and back of his shirt. A quick wipe of his face with his palm and Johnny headed back out into the bright sunlight to continue with his unfinished tasks.

Tom regarded him solemnly. With a deep sigh, he scrambled to his feet and fetched his own canteen. A long swig later, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and joined Johnny. Scott was already digging the next post hole, his forearms shuddering with each thump of the spade as it hit the hard soil. Johnny’s mouth twisted with effort as his arms pulled on the wire strainer. Tom curled his lip in disdain as he noted  that Johnny’s forehead was no longer moist with water from his canteen but from perspiration already beading and coalescing in the horizontal lines above his eyebrows, then running down his temples  and along his cheekbones.

At a loss for something useful to do, Tom grabbed a spare spade and began the slow process of working on the next hole up from Scott. Conversation was limited as the afternoon heat sapped their energy. All three men were glad when the sun began to sink and they ran out of fencing supplies. With relief, they headed for home with a surly Johnny dampening any small talk.

 

Chapter Twelve

Tom was expansive over supper that night. He informed Murdoch, Trudy, Teresa and Peter all about his day, obviously pleased with the assistance he had given.

“I fear that I will be very stiff and sore tomorrow, however. Manual labour is foreign to me. Bookwork and management are more my forte.”

“A ranch don’t run itself on bookwork alone,” Johnny uttered before another forkful of beef and potatoes reached his mouth.

“No, I am aware of that, but the key to success in running a business is finding people’s strong points and using them to one’s advantage. Someone who had brains should have his intelligence fostered. A sensible boss would reserve the labouring jobs to someone who has limited intellectual capacities. Under supervision, of course. Division of the workforce in such a way promotes profits.”

“Is that so?” asked Johnny.

“Yes, indeed it is so. It has been proved time and time again.”

“A man who stays at his desk instead of getting his hands dirty is a fool. Your theory might work in the city, but out here it’s a bit different.”

“I have to agree with Johnny, Tom,” Murdoch commented. “I may not do as much as I used to, but I work with the hands when I can. It keeps me in the loop. I get a better feel for the dynamics of the work parties and it garners me respect amongst the men.”

“Surely their weekly pay packet is enough to encourage their respect.”

“Not always, no.” Murdoch shook his head wryly.

“Well, beggars can’t be choosers. When they don’t get paid they’d soon change their tune.”

“I’m not interested in lip service. I want men whom I can trust implicitly. I have learnt from experience, believe me.”

“That may be, but I have also seen the results when men are placed in jobs they are ill equipped to handle. And someone needs to cope with figuring, contracts, accounts, negotiations.”

“And that would be you with your experience!” Johnny derided. “So, if you put yourself in the brains trust running the accounts just where would you place me? If you were running the show, that is.” Johnny’s voice had dropped to a drawl, challenging him provocatively.

Tom looked at Johnny, his stare scrutinising the man seated opposite him.

“Well, I don’t know you well …”

“No, you don’t,” Johnny interjected.

“But I was impressed with your work ethic in the sun today. Obviously your colouring puts you at an advantage working outdoors. And obviously this climate is harder on Scott’s fairer complexion. If I were in charge, I would give only limited manual jobs to Scott. Plus, he has his Harvard education which shouldn’t be wasted. Someone of your background is not only ideal to work in the sun, but it puts you on a level with the men which your father, Scott and I could not achieve.”

Johnny chewed his mouthful of supper thoughtfully, eyes never leaving Tom’s face. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in the process. Ice blue eyes studied his new brother. His softly uttered words hissed over the dinner table, dangerous and belligerent. “And what level would that be?”

Tom appraised him, appearing unflustered under the onslaught of Johnny’s challenge. He cocked his head to consider the youngest Lancer. “By the men’s side. A liaison with the boss. A go-between who can work with the men and get to know what makes them tick, like Murdoch suggested. You could better decipher who is loafing and shirking their chores.”

“Is that a fact?” An amused smirk draped itself over Johnny’s mouth.

“Yes. You could be an inside man who could stop any rot before it sets in by reporting the unsatisfactory hand and having him fired. Once the men knew that Lancer means business, they would be less inclined to take advantage of the good conditions here.”

Johnny threw his knife and fork down abruptly and surged to his feet.

“The only one I see taking advantage of the good conditions here is YOU! I suggest you take a good whiff of yourself if you want to find that rot you’re talking about!”

Johnny suddenly rose, thumping the backrest of the chair with his fist and causing it to teeter as he stalked out. The whack of the chair legs on tile, as gravity righted it, was stark in the stillness of the room. The door slamming signalled Johnny’s unceremonious exit. The six remaining occupants sat in discomfort, appetites forgotten in the wake of the harsh words.

Tom coughed, then chuckled.

Scott looked at him sharply. “I don’t see the humour in the situation, Tom. Perhaps you could explain it to me?”

“Sorry, Scott. I was just thinking how volatile he is. He has a very Latin temperament. He fires up so easily.”

“Well, maybe there are times when his fire is stoked deliberately. One can expect flames to flare in the face of hot wind!” Carefully dabbing his mouth with his table napkin, Scott stood. “Excuse me.”

Tom appeared unabashed. He nodded his head at Scott. “Certainly.”

But the words missed their mark as Scott had already turned his back and followed his brother out into the night.

 

                                           *************************

 

Scott found Johnny leaning against the corral. His forearms were resting on the top crossbar and his chin was embedded in the back of his hands. Just what Johnny was staring at in the dark escaped Scott, but he suspected that it was nothing in particular.

 

Scott drew level with Johnny and mimicked his stance.

Both brothers remained silent, eyes on the murky nothingness.

“That went well,” murmured Scott dryly.

A deep sigh rippled through the silence after Scott’s remark.

“He gets to me, Scott. I know I promised to watch my mouth, but I wasn’t going to let him keep insulting me.”

A second sigh rent the air.

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, Johnny. I let him have it with both barrels before I left.”

Johnny’s head turned to his brother.

“You did?”

“Yes. He was denigrating you and being patronising and I wasn’t going to put up with it.”

A smile graced Johnny’s lips. “Thanks, Scott, for backing me up. I’m glad that it wasn’t just me thinking that he was having a dig at me.”

“No, it wasn’t just you. It was obvious.”

Two sighs in unison filled the night air. A deep silence followed.

“We’re going to have to be smarter, Johnny. We can’t let him rile us. It gives him the upper hand.”

“You ain’t telling me anything I don’t already know.”

“But we have to work harder at it.”

“Yeah, I know, but I ain’t letting him ride roughshod over me!”

The bitterness touched Scott. He adjusted his arm so he elbow nudged his brother’s along the top of the plank.

The simple act calmed his younger brother.

“I’m not suggesting that you do. However, let’s not provoke him. Remember that you can catch more flies with honey. Be less antagonistic and we might find out what his game is.”

“You speak a lot of sense, Brother.”

“But Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“By the same token, just remember that he just might rightfully belong here.”

Johnny’s head turned to Scott’s in the darkness. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

 

                                              ********************

Scott and Johnny made their way inside, Scott’s arm loosely draped around Johnny’s shoulders both as a mark of affection and as a show of solidarity. They stopped just inside the Great Room, taking in the sight of their father engaged in a game of chess with Tom.

The truth be told, they were both a little put out. The past few weeks had seen a chess tournament develop between the three men. The series was nearing its final stages, but was unresolved. They both felt a petty surge of resentment, as though their place at the chessboard had been usurped.

“Hello, boys!” Murdoch’s forced joviality rang out. “Tom is quite a chess player. We thought we’d get into the swing of it while you boys were outside and Trudy was putting Peter to bed.”

“He sure don’t waste no time,” Johnny muttered half to himself, half to Scott.

“What was that, Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny cleared his throat. “Nothing. I was just thinking that you both didn’t waste the time while we were outside getting the night air. You are making good use of the evening,” Johnny replied innocently.

Murdoch raised an eyebrow at Johnny’s reply, but did not pursue his line of thinking. He settled on an encouraging comment. “It’s obvious that Tom’s got a quick mind. We’re going to find him a worthy challenger in our chess competition.”

“Indeed, I’m sure he will be,” responded Scott.

A surreptitious jab from Scott’s elbow elicited a similar reply from Johnny.

“Indeed.”

 

                                      ****************************

 

Tom accompanied the boys again the next day. Before they mounted, he faced both Lancer brothers by the corral. “I’m sorry if what I said last night was too forceful. You put me in my place, Scott, and Trudy later chided me for being pompous and told me I got what I deserved from you. I hope that there are no hard feelings, Johnny.”

An awkward silence ensued before Scott nodded and accepted the apology.

“Johnny?” Tom asked.

“Don’t reckon your apology is gonna change how you think.” Johnny smiled coolly. “Come on! Day’s a wasting.”

Johnny kept the lead for some minutes before they drew level with him. He did not contribute to the conversation for the rest of the journey and threw himself into the tasks as soon as he could once they arrived at their destination.

Tom did as asked and helped where he could, but the manual work was obviously not up his alley.

“Are you sore?” Scott asked as Tom once more stopped and winced.

“Yes, I sure am. I am not used to using my body like this. I didn’t know that I had so many muscles!”

Scott felt some sympathy for the man. He remembered what it was like when he had first arrived. He had always considered himself fit but once he had arrived at Lancer he realized that he was sadly mistaken. He had been stiff and sorry for himself for several weeks. Not a quitter by nature, he had persevered. Not that he would have been given much choice in the matter. He may have been Murdoch’s son, but it had been made clear that he had to earn his keep.

“Why don’t you take a break while we finish up here?” Scott suggested.

Tom did not get to reply. He was interrupted by a snort from Johnny.

“Have you got something to say, Johnny?” Tom challenged.

Johnny stabbed his spade into the dirt, then leaned his forearms on it. A smile split his face. It was not a jovial smile. “Just that you’ll never be able to earn your keep unless you keep at it. This work don’t go away. It don’t get done if you give up on it.”

Tom glared at him stonily. “Well, as I said the other day, Johnny, I don’t think that this is my strong point. I am more of a thinking man.”

Johnny gave another explosive snort. “Yeah, in your own mind!” He shook his head, as he returned to digging his post hole.

Scott looked from one to the other. “I think that Tom is just being honest, Johnny. That’s how I felt when I first came out here.”

“That may be, Scott, but you didn’t whine about it. You may have been sore. You may have thought that you were meant for better things, but you never let on. You persevered. He’s ready to give up on the second day!”

Johnny made no attempt to hide his contempt, a fact which needled Tom.

“You have never had to use your brains for your living, Johnny, so you would never understand how foreign this is to me!”

Johnny looked at him incredulously. “No, I guess my hands and my gun did my talking and my thinking for me.” Johnny laughed, seeming to find genuine amusement in the situation. “You know, you can be downright amusing!”

The humour suddenly left Johnny’s face. He quickly bowed his head and got on with the job of working the Lancer property.

Scott looked from Johnny to Tom. The former was scowling into the growing hole. The latter was scowling at Johnny as he enlarged the hole. He felt caught in the middle. He did not appreciate the disparaging remark Tom had thrown at Johnny, but he remembered how foreign the manual labour had been to start with.

Scott glanced at Tom, who finally shifted his gaze from Johnny. He was not sure what he read there, but he felt compelled to defend his brother. “I don’t suggest that you underestimate Johnny, Tom. You don’t do what Johnny has done and live to tell the tale without a fast brain.”

“Yes, I guess I must concede that a wily brain would be necessary in the depths of Mexico. I believe that they would shoot a person as quick as look at them down there.”

“You betcha!”

Johnny viciously dispensed with the spade. It skidded on the dusty earth, gouging a trail before coming to a rest against a post hole. He took several strides to Tom, grabbed him by the shirtfront and pulled him closer. Tom’s sharply indrawn breath betrayed his fear as he was pinioned by Johnny’s icy blue stare.

“I don’t trust you, Tom Whoever You Are. You’re up to something. I don’t believe a word you’ve spun to the Old Man. I’m watching you … and I’ll be waiting!”

“Johnny!” Scott called urgently. “Let go!”

Scott pulled on his arm in an effort to get him to loosen his grip, but Johnny did not budge until he was ready to. Johnny pushed Tom away roughly, causing him to stagger backwards. Tom would have fallen over the spade had Scott not steadied him.

Tom kept his mouth shut, but his glare betrayed his anger. So did his heavy breathing and the perspiration on his brow.

“That wasn’t necessary, Johnny! How about we try to get on and try to get to know one another?” Scott both chastised him and pleaded with him.

“I know just about all I need to know. Murdoch ought to run him and his lies off our property!”

“Nobody knows if they are lies, Johnny.” Scott’s quiet words stilled Johnny.

“And for the first time we are in agreement, Johnny. OUR property just about sums it up!” Tom retaliated.

Johnny’s squared his shoulders and raised his chin as Tom’s words hovered in the afternoon heat. Johnny cast a look of betrayal at Scott, and then bolted for Barranca.  A cloud of dust rose up as he spurred the horse over the hillcrest.

                                                                                                                 

                                         ************************** 

Scott sighed. He seemed to be spending a lot of his time looking for Johnny lately. He found him before sunset sitting on a warm boulder on a hilltop overlooking Lancer.

The pensive figure was starkly alone. Just Johnny and the acreage that was Lancer. Even Barranca was out of sight. Scott guessed he was behind the boulder down slope under the grove on trees. Scott’s stomach was in a knot. He felt badly about being caught between Johnny and Tom and the sight of his brother’s solitude cut deeply at Scott. He sighed. He had rebuked Johnny in front of Tom, giving an impression of siding with him, but sadly Johnny had been hell bent on being provocative.

He kicked his horse’s flanks gently. Barranca heard him and whinnied in welcome. There was no greeting from his brother. Securing his mount to a low lying branch, Scott scrambled up the slope to join Johnny.

Scott plonked himself next to his brother, closer than he needed to be so that their shoulders touched. He, too, drew his legs up and rested his elbows on his knees. While Johnny worried at the blue bead bracelet he wore, Scott worked at levering out a small splinter he had acquired at some point during the day. He smiled to himself. Whenever he removed his work gloves and didn’t bother to put them on again, he always paid for it in some way.

Neither man spoke for at least five minutes. Considering the tensions of the day, it was a relatively companionable silence.

It was Johnny who broke the quiet. His sigh was deep and prolonged. He scratched his nose on the side with his index finger and sniffed in to restore some oxygen to his lungs.

“I’m sorry.”

Scott did not think that he had heard right.

“Come again?”

Johnny picked up a pebble from the ground. He rolled it between his thumb and index finger, then threw it up and down, catching it deftly in his hand even though he was not watching. He suddenly hefted it, flicked his wrist and hurled it down the hillside where it pinged a boulder about forty yards below.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for losing my patience with him. I didn’t intend to. I just know that he is going to divide this family. I got a feeling and it is as strong as I’ve ever had in the past. It’s screaming at me and I don’t like it one little bit!”

“And I’m sorry for backing him up against you, Johnny. You gave me no choice. You backed me into a corner because of the way you provoked him. I don’t want to get caught in the middle. I’ve seen that calm façade that Madrid puts on. Use it. You’ve done so in tighter circumstances. Quit needling him!”

Scott was exasperated. He did not like the way that he had been forced to speak to both men today. He had no desire to arbitrate their little scrimmage of words. He had urged both men to exercise restraint. This was only the start. Like Johnny, he had a premonition. The status quo was being challenged and he was not looking forward to the outcome. He was uneasy and nervous about future developments.

The one gift which had been so unexpectedly bestowed on him two years ago was to be cherished. He would not allow his relationship with Johnny to be threatened.

But his compassion and sense of fair play was also stirred. As he had rationalized earlier, just maybe Tom was their brother. And just maybe from inauspicious beginnings something could be forged to rival the strength of the bond he shared with Johnny.

He had not been immediately drawn to Johnny when they had first met, after all. In some ways, Johnny had been less appealing than Tom. He was grubby and brash on the stagecoach. Scott had even felt antagonistic to Johnny, this antagonism developing into fisticuffs down by the river. And later Scott had felt contempt for Johnny that he had not joined him in locating the enemy, engaging him and defeating him. He had originally thought he was a coward who only went up against a single enemy, and preferably from behind.

Well, he had been wrong about Johnny at the start, just as they could be wrong about Tom now. Could he deny Tom the chance of happiness at Lancer? Could he deny him the chance to find out first hand what it was like to have a brother to care for and to be cared for in return? And could he deny him what could be his rightful inheritance?

This reflection was the same one he had been mulling over repeatedly since Tom’s arrival. They both had to give him the benefit of the doubt. If they did not, Johnny and he could be the losers.

Scott swayed in Johnny’s direction and nudged his shoulder. “May I remind you yet again that we agreed on a plan. We need to settle down and let him play his hand, if that is what he is doing. And we need to do it together.”

A silence followed. Johnny had begun nodding his head to himself, as was his habit. A little smile curved his lips.

“I hear ya, Boston. I know. I agree. But damn, it felt good to push him a little!”

Scott smiled wryly. “It may have felt good to you, but it sure didn’t feel good to me. I prefer peace. Speaking of which, if we don’t get our butts seated at the dining table we’ll get no peace from Murdoch.”

Scott hoisted himself to his feet and extended a hand to Johnny. Johnny looked at it a second, then clasped it strongly. His eyes met Scott’s as he was half hauled to his feet.

He grinned.

 

Chapter Thirteen

“Thank you, ladies, that was delicious,” Tom pronounced as he wiped his mouth delicately on his dinner napkin.

“Yes, that stew was a new one to me. Are you trying out some recipes?” Scott asked.

“It was Trudy’s,” Teresa explained. “She did all the work for it, too. Maria and I just did the vegetables and dessert.”

“Teresa,” Johnny spoke softly. “There ain’t no need for a ‘just’. That vegetable bake was done nice and spicy just the way I like it and that peach pie is the best you have made yet!”

Teresa smiled in pleasure. “Why, thank you, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled at the delight she took in his praise, then turned to Tom’s wife. “And Ma’am …”

“Trudy,” Trudy corrected him.

“Trudy, that was a truly appetising dish. A man appreciates something like that after he’s been working hard all day.”

“I’m glad that you enjoyed it. I am also happy to help out in the kitchen with Maria and Teresa, as long as I don’t get in the way, that is.”

“Oh, no!” assured Teresa. “That’s not the case at all. It’s just like having a best friend or a sister to work with!”

It was Trudy’s turn to blush with pleasure. “Thank you, Teresa. Being accepted here makes me extremely happy.”

Scott did not miss the stillness of Johnny’s reaction to her remark, but before he could add anything to the conversation, Peter spoke up. “Johnny, you promised that you would play me at checkers tonight. Can we have a game now?”

Scott would have sworn that he saw the waves on tension undulate down and out of Johnny’s body as his brother turned to the little boy.

Johnny smiled his own little boy smile. “Sure thing. You go set up now and I’ll join you in just a minute.”

Peter made to get up, but then stopped midway as he rose. “May I please leave the table, Pa?”

Tom inclined his head and the boy was off. Johnny downed the last of his milk as the clatter of the checkers rolling out of the container reverberated around the room.

“Let’s go see who’s king of the checker board around here!” he muttered to Scott with a wink.

The boy had a sharp mind and Johnny grew to admire his patience in setting up some quite tenacious moves. Believing that a child should have something to aim for without having the rug pulled completely from under its feet, Johnny finished by defeating the boy after allowing him some minor victories. It was a close match, however, with Johnny occasionally offering his advice and sometimes prompting him to re-think a move which had the potential to be disastrous for the lad.

Peter was pleased with his efforts. He was smiling broadly as Johnny tousled his hair and promised him another game later in the week. He laughed outright when Johnny admitted that Peter kept him on his toes and that he feared that he would not win next time.

Trudy claimed her son, then. The small boy bade everyone a goodnight and clasped his mother’s hand as he made his way to his room, dragging his feet.

“Are you up for a game of chess?” Tom asked Murdoch.

“Well you’ve played both Scott and me, so I guess it is Johnny’s turn,” Murdoch responded.

Taking it for granted that Johnny would acquiesce, Murdoch stood to collect the chess set. He approached Johnny and swapped it for the checkers pieces.

Tom moved to sit opposite Johnny in the seat vacated a short time ago by his son.

Johnny took a pawn of each colour. Holding them behind his back, he juggled them before taking one in each fist. Bringing his arms forward, he held both tightly clenched fists out to Tom. “Choose.”

Tom indicated Johnny’s right hand. Inside was the white pawn, gleaming in contrast to the tan of Johnny’s skin.

Both men quickly set up the board. The attention of the room was focused on the game. Tom was a wily player and a good match for Johnny. In the end he had Johnny’s king trapped and it was checkmate. Johnny conceded defeat graciously.

He packed up in a leisurely fashion, then excused himself to head out to the barn to check on Barranca. Exiting via the kitchen, he rummaged in the pantry until he found a good sized carrot for his compadre.

Scott joined him there some time later where he was having a lazy one sided conversation in Spanish with his four legged friend.

“Hola, Johnny.”

“Hi there, yourself!” Johnny replied in English.

Scott advanced to the palomino. It seemed as if the animal was annoyed at Scott’s intrusion. He stamped his foreleg and snorted indignantly. Contrite, Scott moved up to him and scratched his cheek. Barranca was soon trying to insert his too large a nose into Scott’s too small a pocket. It didn’t work, so Barranca withdrew his nose and butted Scott gently in the chest. Scott laughed at the horse’s cheek.

“All right, then, boy!”

Scott removed the small carrot from his pocket and held it out on the flat of his palm.

The carrot was picked up delicately, but demolished in short order. He received a hot breath of air on his face as thanks.

Both men laughed at the horse’s efforts to suck up to Scott.

“Hey, compadre! Don’t tell me you would forsake me for a teensy weensy carrot like that?” Johnny complained.

Barranca merely nodded.

A comfortable silence ensued.

“So what was that all about?” Scott finally asked.

“Barranca deserting me for a carrot?”

“You know what I mean. That chess game. You could have won and you chose not to. Why?”

Johnny’s face was consumed by a sly, but captivatingly disarming smile.

“It don’t pay to give away everything, Scott. I wanted to see his reaction while he was losing and I wanted to see his reaction while he was winning. You can learn a lot about someone at those times.”

“And did you find what you wanted, Johnny?”

“Some,” confided Johnny.

Scott raised an eyebrow, but his little brother wasn’t ready to elaborate.

Instead, both men gave Barranca a final pat and headed to Apollo’s stall. Apollo had been feeling left out. His head was stretched as far as he could go seeking his master. Once Scott was in range he gave him a playful, but harmless, nip.

Scott’s laughter rang out again. “OK, boy. We hadn’t forgotten you!”

He reached into his hip pocket. The carrot he offered his mount was bigger than the one he had given Barranca.

“Hey, Scott, are you playing favourites?”

“No more than you, Brother!”

Johnny also produced a carrot for Apollo. Like his position in the brotherhood ranking stakes, it was a baby one.

It was getting late, so a final pat for both horses saw the boys leave their mounts for the night. As they returned to the hacienda, a movement from the courtyard caught their attention.

“Just checking on the horses?” Murdoch asked, stepping forward from the shadows.

“More like just buttering them up so that they remember who’s the boss,” Johnny replied.

“Where’s Tom?” asked Scott as he veered off to join his father. He leaned his back against the wall and dropped his head back to look at the sky.

“He hit the sack. He’s worn out.”

“Smart man. That makes two of us. Think I’ll do the same.”

Scott bade them a good night and made for the closest door. Johnny went to follow him, but was called back by his father.

“Wait up, Johnny. Could I speak with you a moment?”

Johnny feared that his groan was uttered out loud. “Sure, Murdoch. What is it?” he nevertheless answered with as much false cheer as he could muster.

“We haven’t had much time alone since Tom arrived. I know that this has been tough on you.”

Johnny nodded, waiting to see what else his father had to say and wondering if Murdoch really had any idea just how hard this whole situation was. He watched as his father uncharacteristically shuffled his feet.

“Do you remember when we first met in the Great Room?”

Johnny’s mouth twitched. “Ain’t likely to forget it.”

“I had spent twenty years wanting my family back together again. Twenty years searching for you in vain. And then, when faced with the reality, I was … scared. Scared it wouldn’t work out, that you wouldn’t want to stay, that I wouldn’t measure up. Heck, scared of so much! So scared that I blew it. I handled our reunion dreadfully. I hardly welcomed you with open arms.”

“Unlike Tom,” Johnny challenged him.

“Yes, unlike Tom,” Murdoch agreed. “I suppose that I am trying to learn from my mistakes. Maybe trying too hard.” Murdoch rubbed the back of his neck, apparently thinking his next words through. “Look, I know that Tom is a bit forward.” Johnny’s snort only gave him a moment’s pause. “I know that he is trying to find a place here and perhaps asserting himself too much, but maybe he is covering up his uncertainty of our acceptance of him. The personality we see may not be the true Tom once he relaxes and feels more comfortable. I need to give him the benefit of the doubt, something I didn’t give you enough of after your return. I need to learn from my past mistakes, Son.”

“But you knew we belonged here, Murdoch. I was born here. You don’t know a damn thing about him or whether he really is what he claims to be.”

“Yes, I knew you and Scott belonged here. That wasn’t in doubt. And maybe because there is a seed of doubt here, I need to tread carefully and not burn my bridges with him before we get a chance to establish a rapport. I couldn’t live with myself if I spurned him and discovered too late that he was, in fact, my son. The evidence is overwhelming, Johnny, so I am acting on it. But I am not stupid, and I will be taking steps next week to get his background checked thoroughly.”

“The Pinks don’t always get it right, Murdoch.”

Murdoch regarded his son sadly. He sighed, then reached up to give Johnny’s shoulder a light squeeze. “I am all too aware of that, Johnny. They didn’t separate the facts from the fiction too well at all in your case, but at least they can give an independent report … hopefully one that’s a bit more objective in Tom’s case compared to yours.”

Johnny studied the pain in his father’s face. “I guess that I can go along with that for the moment, then.”

“Thank you. I know you’ve struggled with this situation and so have I. And I admit that I found your outburst last night difficult to cope with. I can understand the uncertainty you are going through, and maybe I’m not handling things …. Tom … right. Maybe I’m wanting too much for things to go smoothly. And I want so much for the three of you to get along the way you and Scott do. Anyway, I just want you to know that I was proud of you for making a real effort to be nice tonight.”

It was Johnny’s turn to shuffle his feet. “It weren’t nothing, Murdoch.”

“Yes, it was. You complimented Trudy, played checkers with Peter and lost your chess game to Tom with dignity. You went out of your way. I know it cost you, Johnny, but thank you. I appreciate your support, even though the current situation is so nebulous.”

Johnny chuckled and scratched the tip of his nose. “Boy, you do like them strange words. If that means Tom’s past is as clear as mud, then I have to agree with you.”

Murdoch just nodded for want of a better reply.

“I’m trying my best, Murdoch, but just so as you know, it ain’t easy. I don’t know how long I can keep on my best behaviour, but I’m giving it a shot.”

Murdoch gripped Johnny’s upper arm and smiled warmly at him. “That’s all I can ask, Johnny.”

 

                                         *****************************

 

The next day saw Murdoch invite Tom to spend the morning with him. Johnny’s gaze swivelled to Scott. A wink of his left eye told Scott volumes about Johnny’s relief at not being saddled with his new brother for the whole day.

Gobbling his breakfast before Murdoch changed his mind, Johnny thanked the ladies and made a beeline for the barn. Scott followed at a leisurely and more gentlemanly pace, leaving his father and Tom to their day.

Murdoch and Tom took their coffees into the Great Room where Murdoch’s desk was piled with ledgers and several neat stacks of paperwork.

“I see that you are kept busy with the books,” Tom commented.

“Yes, it never seems to stop. We pay one lot of invoices and more arrive to take their place. It’s like they breed before my very eyes!” Murdoch groaned.

“This is a big ranch. Surely the work is too involved for a single person to handle. Perhaps you should employ a proper bookkeeper?”

“No, I did the books myself for a quarter of a century. Scott helps some now. Johnny will do so if pressed, but he is never keen at the prospect. He prefers to be outside.”

“But by looking at your desk it’s not enough. Scott and Johnny are busy doing the manual work and supervising the men. Why don’t you let me help? I did the books for several companies back home. I am up to date with all the modern techniques.”

”So is Scott. He studied some accountancy at Harvard, don’t forget. And he worked with his grandfather. Harlan Garrett is no slouch and would not let him near the books if he were incompetent.”

“I am quite sure that is the case. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t be expected to keep up the pace. Scott has other duties here. I admit that while I managed reasonably well the last few days, I am not at all cut out for the outdoors. I would be best placed here where I could be the most use.”

Murdoch studied Tom. “All in good time, Tom.” He strolled casually to the large picture window, placed his hands on his hips and soaked in the view.

He turned, gesturing to the panorama. “I spent more than twenty five years building up this empire. When Scott and Johnny arrived, they had to prove to me that they were worthy of being partners. They had to earn the right.”

“Oh? And what do I have to do to earn the right?”

Murdoch scratched the side of his nose with his thumbnail. He sighed. “I admit that I haven’t worked that out yet. I just don’t want to rush things. “

Tom snorted. “No, indeed! One could not expect you to rush things! May I remind you, though, that I am in my mid twenties. I have already waited a quarter of a century. I don’t want to wait until I am an old man before I get what is coming to me.”

“What is coming to you?”

“My heritage. My birthright! As much as it is Scott’s and Johnny’s.”

Murdoch could not hold his irritation. “Good things come to those who wait. I can tell you now that I am not rushing into anything. You’ll get your due when I am good and ready!”

Tom smiled faintly. “And when you are sure of yourself … and of me?”

”Precisely.”

The word weighed heavily in the air.

Tom finally offered him a rueful smile and appeared to drop his pushiness. “That makes sound business sense, I guess. In the meantime, let me help you where I can. Give me the chance to show you my worth.”

Murdoch appraised him gravely. “That’s what I intend to do.”

 

                                       ***************************

 

Murdoch poured over the ranch books, trying to balance the figures which were proving to be elusive on this particular afternoon. Receipts, bills, payrolls, income, expenditure could create a living poetry when in sync with each other, yet they were a living nightmare when they warred with disaccord.

After three hours with him, Tom had gone out for a ride hoping to catch up with the boys and Murdoch was beginning to regret letting him go. He ran his fingers through his hair and seriously wondered if it seemed thinner than several hours ago. He prayed for an interruption to relieve him of his frustration.

As if in answer to his prayer, there came a knock at the front door. Not timid, but not peremptory, either.  Murdoch rose, blessing the unknown person for their timely arrival.

Taking a moment to rub the stiffness of his lower back muscles, Murdoch strode to the front door and opened it.

On the porch stood a Catholic priest dressed in the customary dark robes. In his mid forties and slightly greying at the temples, he stood clasping arms across his body, but hidden in the voluminous sleeves of his cassock. He wore a broad, round hat to protect himself from the sun and a large gold cross on a heavy chain about his neck. Waiting silently, he did not greet the rancher.

“Good afternoon,” spoke Murdoch first. “May I help you?”

“Indeed you may, if you are Murdoch Lancer, but perhaps it is more fitting to say that I may be able to help you.”

Murdoch frowned. “I’m sorry, I am not sure that I need any help in spiritual matters, father, although it is kind of you to offer.”

The priest gave the shadow of a smile. “I am not here for religious reasons, but merely wish to speak of your son.”

“My son?”

“Johnny.”

Murdoch frowned and attempted to control the frisson which shot up his spine.

“What about my son?”

The priest looked around. “Not here. Perhaps somewhere more private?”

Murdoch hesitated. He had a bad premonition about this, but his curiosity overrode his qualms.

“Certainly. Come in.”

He stepped to one side and threw the door open wider. Gesturing with his arm, he invited the padre into his domain. The priest looked around him, observing the comfort and wealth of the surroundings.

“You have a lovely home, Mr Lancer.”

“Thank you, but you have an advantage. You are …?”

“My name is Father Domingo. I am on my way to Sacramento from Mexico.”

“I see. And you have detoured specifically to come here?”

“Yes, but my conscience has been bothering me for a good many years. I have prayed and wrestled with the best course of action and the Lord answered me. My trip to Sacramento is providence. I was meant to go near enough to your ranch that it made it impossible for me to ignore an insistent voice in my mind urging me to pay a call.”

Murdoch inhaled and swallowed the impatience surging through him.

“Would you like a drink after your travels?”

“Indeed, that would be most gracious of you.”

Murdoch strode to the drinks cabinet and selected two cut crystal tumblers.

“Whiskey or tequila?”

“Either, but a whiskey would go down well.”

Murdoch sloshed decent wallops into the glasses and turned to hand one to Father Domingo.

“Take a seat,” commanded Murdoch, who sat heavily in the deeply buttoned leather armchair to the left of the fireplace while the priest sat on the brocade sofa.

“What do you want to tell me about my son?” Murdoch prompted, keen to get the conversation over and his growing disquiet calmed.

“Firstly, I would like to pass on my condolences to you.”

“Your condolences?”

“Yes, about his tragic and untimely death. It must have been devastating when you heard about it. Especially seeing you were not present,” Father Dominic commiserated.

Murdoch felt a dagger of ice pierce his heart.

“Father, I think that you have made a mistake. Fortunately, Johnny is very much alive.”

The priest stared at Murdoch, puzzled. “But that cannot be. I gave him the last rites myself just before he passed away.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Murdoch leaned forward in his chair, arms on knees, and snared the padre with his angry gaze. “And I can assure you that you are wrong. He is alive, well and happy. I am sorry for the passing of this man you are talking about, but he is not my son. You have made a mistake, so I thank you for your time and misguided intentions, but suggest that your sympathy is not necessary!”

Murdoch stood, towering over the priest to give himself a physical advantage. It did not work, however, as the priest merely remained where he was, sipping his drink.

“Maria was heartbroken,” murmured the priest.

“Maria? You know Maria?” The mention of his former wife was disconcerting. He swallowed with trepidation. “What’s she got to do with this? Would you care to explain yourself?”

“Indeed, I think it is best if I do,” consented Father Domingo.

Murdoch found that his legs took him to the drinks cabinet. If this had anything to do with Maria, it would not be good news. A healthy measure of scotch in his glass gave him the crutch he needed to hear whatever it was the priest felt compelled he must know. He barely made it back to his chair when his legs suddenly lost their stability and he sat with a graceless thump.

“Perhaps you could get on with it,” ordered Murdoch rather rudely. Thoughts of Maria did not promote well being. Murdoch’s stomach was queasy at the thought of what may be coming.

“I spent several years in Sonora amongst the towns I served just south of the border. I met your wife Maria in a township there, in San Luis Rio Colorado. She worked hard to put food on the table and I got to know her mostly through her work cleaning the church. She held other jobs, however, as life is hard for a woman alone. She …” The padre drifted to a stop. He lowered his eyes to the glass in his hand and appeared lost in concentration as he studied it.

Murdoch gave him a short amount of time to consider his words, but then couldn’t prevent himself from urging his visitor on.

“She … what?”

“You must understand that this is difficult for me, as I must not break the confidentiality of the confessional.”

“Yes, I understand that, but as Maria has passed away, perhaps those rules could be loosened a little?”

The Father looked at Murdoch with a raised eyebrow and nodded his head in agreement. “Possibly, just a little.”

He took a sip, which just seemed to prolong the discussion and create more aggravation to Murdoch, who sat, his jaws clamped together.

“Maria told me about how she came to leave you.”

Murdoch lifted his head sharply. “She did? And did she give you the correct version of events or the liberally altered Maria version?”

“Regardless, that is not crucial. She did day that she had regretted leaving you, but didn’t feel that she could go back to you. She also told me your name and roughly where your estancia was located.”

“Go on.” Murdoch was becoming increasingly frustrated at his visitor who was taking his own sweet time in getting to the point.

“Her son … your son … Johnny was often left to his own devices while she worked. He was unsupervised and led his own life from an early age. Sadly, this also had an effect on Luis.”

“Luis?”

The priest coughed discreetly behind his hand. “Ah! A delicate issue I fear.”

“How so?”

“Luis was Johnny’s younger brother.”

Murdoch sat motionless. Even his heartbeat seemed suspended.

“Johnny had a brother?”

“Yes, he was three years younger.” The priest actually blushed a little at the turn the conversation had taken. “Obviously, Maria had had … a relationship with someone after she left you. She was a woman of …spirit, who found it hard to be alone.”

Murdoch read between the lines. His wife obviously couldn’t do without a man to warm her bed. His snort of contempt interrupted the priest. “It was her choice. She didn’t have to be alone. She is the one who left without warning!”

“That may be, but she was the way she was. And she was lonely. A woman alone needs a man’s protection. So she sought companionship, and Luis was the result.”

“Was?”

“Was only because I don’t know where he is now. He and Johnny were inseparable. They looked surprisingly alike given that they were only half brothers, but their personalities were different. Johnny was strong and determined, some would say headstrong. He had to be, growing up as a half caste in that Mexican environment. But he also had a gentle and thoughtful side to him, especially towards his mother or those who were suffering in some way. He kept an eye out for his little brother and you would have been proud to see how seriously he took this responsibility. He was well liked.”

The priest licked his lips and nodded to himself as he considered the people he was describing. “Luis was a different kettle of fish and big for his age, the same size as Johnny.  He was defiant, a ruffian who used others, including his brother who worshipped him, for his own purposes to get what he wanted. He was younger, so very young, in fact, but in a way he was a leader, at least as far as planning trouble was concerned. He could charm others into doing his dirty work … stealing, mostly … but it seemed that he was never around if things went wrong and he never seemed to get caught or to get blamed. He had a knack for doing the wrong thing and Johnny spent a lot of time trying to right his wrongs.”

“Padre, I think that this is enough. I have never heard of this Luis before and don’t need to know any more. Besides, such a young child could hardly be that bad. While I appreciate your good intentions, your trip has been in vain. This is a case of mistaken identity and I really see no point in furthering this discussion. Johnny is alive. He lives here, very happily, in fact. He came home two years ago. End of story.”

The priest continued doggedly. “Maria talked to me as Johnny lay gravely ill. She had no reason to lie about anything as she ministered to her dying son.”

Murdoch thumped the armrest of the chair. “Johnny did NOT die!”

Father Domingo looked at him evenly and unfazed. “I’m sorry, but he did. He contracted typhoid when he was thirteen. I conducted his funeral service and oversaw his burial. I am so sorry if this comes as a shock, but I begged Maria to let you know about his passing. She couldn’t bring herself to do so at the time. The last time I saw her, though, she had had a change of heart. She had regretted keeping the news from you, but had not wanted you turning up then. She didn’t feel like she could face you, but she asked if I could tell you about his passing or about his last days should I ever be in a position to do so. My conscience would not have allowed me to ignore her request.”

“That may be, but you have wasted your time. My son is here at the ranch, working in one of the pastures.”

“That can’t be.”

Murdoch glared at the man, but the padre was not to be dissuaded and plunged on. “So, this man who claims to be Johnny. When did he arrive here?”

“He is not CLAIMING to be Johnny, he IS Johnny and he came back two years ago!”

“How do you know that he is your son? He was only a toddler when he left.”

“He is my son. I would know him anywhere. How dare you suggest otherwise!”

Murdoch stood again, his bulk looming over the man. The priest was unfazed.

“Mr Lancer. This man cannot be your son.”

“He has the same blue eyes, the same smile, the same … charming manner that he had as a child. I would know my son anywhere.”

“You would be surprised at how many other half caste children also inherit blue eyes from their gringo parent. Luis had blue eyes, too, because his father was a gringo like you. Do not let blue eyes in a dark complexioned Mexican face fool you.”

“I am many things, but I am no fool.” Murdoch paused and stared fixedly at him. “But you could be. Maria couldn’t tell the truth to the pope. She couldn’t be trusted to say the truth about anything. Where is this Luis now?”

“Maria was heartbroken when Johnny died. She and Luis left town shortly afterwards. I have no idea where he is now.”

Murdoch was shaking his head. “Just what did you hope to achieve by coming here today, Father? Digging up the past only unveils hurts which have taken a long time to heal. What is your purpose?”

“I have no ulterior motive, if that is what you think. I came here to tell you of the circumstances of your son’s death. I thought you would want to know from someone who was there and who tried to guide him spiritually. If Maria had later sent you a telegram, her information would have been scant, to say the least. I wanted you to know that his soul was at rest and his body lies in consecrated ground. I thought that this information could give you some solace, even so many years after the fact.”

“I don’t need solace from you, Father. My solace for any cruelty life has thrown my way is the pleasure I experience spending time with my sons. I thank you for your time, but I am now asking you to leave.”

“Your sons?”

“Johnny and his brother, Scott. I have an older son by my first wife.”

The priest stood. Suddenly deep in thought, his eyes focused on a point on Murdoch’s shirtfront. Placing one hand in his huge pocket, he frowned. He seemed to come to a decision, but it brought no joy to his face. Sorrowful eyes considered Murdoch.

“Very well. My intentions were only to give you some succour from the bitter twists of life. I am regretful that you do not appreciate my efforts, but am pleased that at least for once I appear to be wrong. I will be on my way, then.”

As the priest stooped to place the glass on the occasional table, boots could be heard clomping along the porch and voices grew in volume. The French windows near the desk opened abruptly to permit three cowboys to enter the room. Scott and Tom entered first and called out a greeting, while Johnny was already turning to focus on closing the door. The two taller men stopped as they noted their father’s guest and the habit he wore. Johnny almost bumped into them as he swivelled to face the room. Stepping around Scott, he spied the priest and stopped abruptly.

The priest visibly stiffened as his eyes locked on Johnny’s.

His body rigid, Johnny’s face paled and nostrils flared as his right hand sought his gun.

“You!” he hissed.

But it was the priest’s whispered reply which echoed eerily around the room.

“Luis!”

The occupants of the room were frozen in confusion, until Johnny advanced on the padre.

The priest took several steps back, fear stamped on his features and in his posture. Johnny reached him in several strides, grabbed his cassock at chest level and brought his gun to the man’s temple. The hammer was cocked in the hovering gun, ready to fall at the slightest bit of pressure from Johnny’s trigger finger.

“No!” three voices shouted in unison. Silence descended again, apart from the rasping breaths of Johnny and the padre.

High pitched female voices, speaking quickly with concern and excitement, invaded the room from the rear. The hubbub of their anxiety died down as they spied the central tableau.

The lethal potential in Johnny’s gun hand was palpable. Both Murdoch and Scott advanced slowly on Johnny. “No, Johnny. Put your gun away.”

The rise and fall of his chest caused by his harsh breathing was his only movement.

“Johnny?” Murdoch asked quietly.

Silence continued to reign.

The priest’s eyes were bulbous. Perspiration poured from his thinning hairline, ran down his forehead and then along the wrinkles of his cheeks. Beads of sweat swelled on his upper lip.

“I told you that if I ever saw you again that I’d blow your brains out and feed them to the vultures!”

Johnny’s threat caused the padre to shrink further away from the gun barrel. He licked his lips trying to moisten the dessicated flesh. His voice came breathlessly. “Calm down, Luis. I mean you no harm.”

“Luis? What are you on about? Who the hell is Luis?”

"Johnny!” Murdoch tried to divert him.

“Just give me a moment, Murdoch, will you?” Johnny replied curtly. “Now, why are you here and just who is this Luis?” Johnny pressed the barrel deeper into the man’s flesh. Skin bulged up around the cylindrical depression.

The priest licked his lips again, willing some moisture to replace that which had evaporated in his terror.

“I am here to offer my condolences.”

“Condolences, huh? About Mama? You’re a bit late, aren’t you? About ten years too late… and she might still be alive if it weren’t for you!”

“How do you work that out? I had no part in her death.”

“Oh, yes you did. As soon as your filthy hands touched her she was a marked woman. You had everything to do with her death!”

“I beg to differ!”

“You’ll be begging all right … for your life!” Johnny drawled the taunt.

“Calm down! Johnny, what’s all this about?”

“That’s what I aim to find out, Scott.” Johnny’s eyes bored into the padre’s. “Well?”

The man swallowed nervously, causing his Adam’s apple to bob prominently. “As I said, I came to offer my condolences.”

“About who?”

“About Johnny’s death.”

Johnny’s chest stopped heaving.

“What?”

“I came to offer my condolences to Johnny’s father about his death.”

Johnny stared at him, dumbfounded. His face was ashen, all trace of his usual tan and recent flush of energy extinguished. He opened his mouth. Not a sound came out.

Teresa’s sharply indrawn breath was audible, while the grandfather clock ticked away, filling in time while everyone’s brain scrambled to make sense of the nonsensical

“Come again?” Scott demanded, shock causing his normally deep voice to rise an octave.

The priest looked at Scott with narrowed eyes. Instead of answering, he asked his own question. “Luis called you Scott? So you are the Scott Lancer Maria told me about?”

“My identity is of no consequence. Get on with your explanation.” Agitation obliterated Scott’s habitual Bostonian politeness.

The padre spoke, addressing himself to Johnny in a stronger, more assured voice.

“I promised your mother years ago that if I came to California, that I would call in on Johnny’s father and explain the circumstances of his death. She hoped that I could at least share my memories of him with his father. Despite your mother’s wild ways, she did occasionally suffer guilt for the impact her leaving had on his father.”

“Is that so? Well, I ain’t dead. I’m very much alive, so how about you stop talking about me as if I ain’t here?” Johnny’s voice changed as he spoke. It started out as menacing, but it finished on a dominant note of puzzlement.

“Yes, I can see that you are alive, Luis, but I have come about Johnny.”

Johnny shook him abruptly. The man’s head lolled at the suddenness of the attack.

“Stop with this Luis shit!”

“Johnny!”

This time both Scott and Murdoch placed a hand each on Johnny’s shoulders, attempting to calm him down.

“Settle down! Holster that weapon, Johnny! Let’s discuss this rationally!” barked Murdoch.

“Rationally? It’s Father Domingo who ain’t rational!”

Murdoch’s bear like paw clamped on Johnny’s wrist. “Stop! Right now!”

The men’s heavy breathing could not hide the frightened whimpering of the women.

It was the metallic click as Johnny uncocked his gun which heralded some calm to the room. Johnny shoved his revolver snugly into its place in his holster.

Scott took advantage of the situation. “Padre, how about you tell us why you are referring to Johnny as Luis?”

“Because he IS Luis!” The priest appraised him.

“I’m not with you.” Scott’s bewilderment was echoed by them all.

“He is Johnny’s younger brother.”

“Pardon?” Scott croaked.

"Liar!”

Scott clutched Johnny’s arm to still him. He looked at Johnny, then at Murdoch, back to Johnny and finally to the priest again.

“Explain yourself.”

“Mr Lancer’s wife …” his voice faded as he glanced at the womenfolk. He coughed delicately. “Mr Lancer’s wife had a liaison with another man. She bore him a son named Luis.”

Johnny exploded. He launched himself at the man, thrusting his fist into the padre’s face. Blood sprayed down over his mouth and teeth and down his cassock.

Murdoch and Tom grabbed one each of Johnny’s arms while Scott ducked his head and heaved his shoulder into Johnny’s chest. Johnny was propelled back by the three of them until his back hit the adobe wall between the two French windows. Johnny struggled violently to get back at the priest who was dripping blood on the floor.

“Settle down!” roared Murdoch.

Johnny suddenly ceased fighting them. “Get that lying bastard out of here!” he ground out.

“I’ve warned you, Johnny. I won’t tolerate that kind of language here,” Murdoch bellowed. “Teresa! Get a damp towel for the padre, please.”

Murdoch threw a glare at Johnny. Satisfied that Scott and Tom had a firm grip on him, he approached the priest. “Sit here,” he directed, indicating one of the pale blue padded armchairs.

Teresa bustled back into the room carrying a bowl of water and two towels. She dampened one and cleaned up the priest’s face, then gave him the clean one to press against his nose and staunch any further blood flow.

“My Mama never had any other babies after me,” Johnny told the room.

Confused looks were passed from one to the other. Murdoch indicated to Tom to let go. Scott did likewise and patted his brother’s shoulder, allowing Johnny to regain some composure and find his natural stance. Stationing himself next to Johnny, Scott stood arms folded, his shoulder touching Johnny’s and lending unspoken support.

“You heard my brother. His mother had no more children after him.”

The priest dabbed at his nose. Removing the towel, he surveyed the blood stains with distaste.

“How right you are. She had no more children after him.”

“But you just said …”

“ … after Luis.”

Scott pressed his mouth into a hard line.

“Well, my brother doesn’t see things the way you do, so what is your game?”

The priest looked at him sadly. He shook his head.

“I am not playing any game. I can assure you that I am deadly serious.”

“You wild accusations are not welcome here. Your nose is no longer bleeding. I suggest that you now get on your way and take your absurd notions with you. We are not going to believe you over my brother.”

“That’s just the point, young man,” their unwelcome visitor chided him gently.

Scott was exasperated with the man’s riddles. “What IS the point, then?”

“That he isn’t.”

Scott’s patience snapped. “He isn’t WHAT?”

The priest canted his head to one side and calmly pronounced the obvious conclusion which had escaped Scott. “This man is not your brother. Maria bore Luis to a man who was not your father, therefore the man you call Johnny is not your brother at all. He is no blood relation to you whatsoever.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

Scott would have sworn that there had been an earthquake. The floor of the Great Room definitely rose, crested and sank into a depression along with his mood. His legs wobbled and his knees started to buckle until he forced some strength into them. The walls moved behind the padre and the light from the fitting in the ceiling seemed to leave a long streak in the air as it wove around the various heads in the room.

Scott gasped for some air.

He felt ill. He really thought he was going to throw up then and there in front of the ladies and onto Murdoch’s rug. The same rug he had seen Teresa sweeping earlier in the week.  He had always admired it, with its pleasing pattern. When he had a problem, he would find it soothing to study the colours as they met, contrasted or blended as the case may be. And why the hell was he thinking about the damned carpet when he wanted to think about his brother?  But he was too scared to think about his brother. He was too scared to contemplate the awful revelation the padre had released like toxic venom into the Lancer Great Room. At least a rattler gave some warning before it struck

Johnny was his brother. He refused to believe otherwise. He had to be flesh and blood. There was no physical similarity, but by God, they thought like twins sometimes. Occasionally he felt like Johnny was a part of his own mind.

He did not believe the padre. He was lying. There could be no truth in it. None whatsoever.

Scott would not let the world he had come to cherish fall asunder around him. He would fight for Johnny. But how could he even start to get past the damage the man had thrown so deliberately into their midst?

Scott was aware of Johnny standing rigidly beside him. He couldn’t take his eyes off the padre, trying to decipher some ulterior motive behind his pronouncement. And everybody else could not take their eyes off Johnny.

This brought Scott up, suddenly, as if a bucket of icy mountain stream water had been doused over his head. He had to protect Johnny. Scott edged even closer to his brother. He had to let him know that this man’s poison would not affect him.

“I am afraid that we do not believe you. Would you kindly leave us? I don’t know what game you are playing, but I’m warning you, man of the cloth or not, do not tangle with me where my brother is concerned.”

Scott felt Johnny throw him a grateful glance and he turned to smile encouragingly at his younger sibling. It was a dismal failure, but Johnny registered his appreciation with the briefest of nods.

“He is lying,” Johnny spoke softly but deliberately. “The same way he lied to Mama. He cheated on her and he hoodwinked a whole town. Don’t believe a word he says.”

“I don’t. Not for one moment!”

Scott’s belligerent face would have frightened most men, but not so the priest who reached into a pocket and withdrew a rectangle wrapped in a creased cloth. He proffered it to Scott. Scott made no move to take it.

The priest jerked it in the air, like a piece of bait. “I have proof. Take a look.”

Scott still refused to budge, as did Murdoch. It was Tom who took several strides and grasped it. Unwrapping it hastily, he stared at it, surprise marking every feature of his face.

“My God!” he whispered.

“What is it?” Murdoch asked.

“A photograph.”

And Tom turned it so that they could all see. It was a photograph all right. A photograph of a tombstone. A tombstone where the words were clearly etched:

    “Aquí reposa John Madrid Lancer Santiago

    Hijo de María y Murdoch Lancer

    Edad - 12 aňos”

No one moved. Their postures were frozen as they all stared in morbid fascination at the words on the photograph. Their brains would not accept what their eyes were reading. Their hearts refused to accept the face value of the words.

“No!” whispered Johnny in denial. He crossed himself, something that Scott had never witnessed him doing.

Still nobody moved. Nobody really knew what to do. This was a gravestone. This was Johnny’s name. Yet this was not Johnny. It wasn’t and it couldn’t be. But how do you disbelieve a gravestone in a cemetery, especially when the evidence is provided by a priest?

“That’s not me!”

It was the padre who responded. “No, it is not you Luis. It is your older brother. Tell these people the truth.”

“I AM telling them the truth!”

“No, you are not. When your brother died, you took on his identity. Knowing you and how manipulative you are, I am just surprised it took you so long. Did you wait for enough time to elapse to make it harder for anyone to gather the correct facts, or were you in jail and forced to wait to make your scheme come to fruition?”

“The only brother I got is Scott!”

“No, you don’t. Scott is not your brother and you know it. How can you string him along like this?”

“I ain’t stringing him along!”

The priest snorted. “I guess that the thought of a third share of this property is a powerful incentive to act nice. At least you’ve been found out before you’ve done too much damage to this family. You certainly caused your mother enough pain and shame.”

 

Johnny launched himself once more at the man, who fell heavily backwards. It took the combined efforts of Murdoch, Scott and Tom to lever him off the prone figure. The padre’s nose was again a bloody mess as a punch landed there before the menfolk could stop Johnny’s lightning fast reflexes.

Johnny twisted in their grasp, his face contorted in rage. “I should have finished you off when I had the chance! You are full of lies. That’s all you know how to do.”

Teresa and Trudy helped the priest up. Teresa again pressed one of the towels into his hand. He dabbed once more at his torn flesh. The towel came away more bloody than before, so he once again applied it to his face. He walked over to where Tom had dropped the photograph on the floor. Picking it up, he regarded it an instant, then turned it around so they could all see it again.

“Pictures don’t lie, Luis. You have been found out. Accept it.”

Neither Scott nor Murdoch could find their tongues. Tom looked from one to the other and back at Johnny who continued to glare savagely at the priest.

“I will be off then.” Father Domingo straightened his shoulders and waited expectantly.

Murdoch made a sound. It was not really a word. He seemed incapable of speaking.

“I am sorry that my intentions of merely offering condolences and bringing you a keepsake of your younger son have brought upheaval to you. When I knew that I was coming so far north, I arranged for the photograph to be taken. I was relieved to be able to fulfil my promise to Maria. Although this has been a shock to you, perhaps, upon reflection, you will one day rejoice that my visit resulted in uncovering Luis’s plot. I am so sorry for your predicament. Once again I offer you my condolences on the passing of your son.”

The priest offered his hand. Murdoch paused, started to reach out after a moment , but abruptly dropped his hand.

The priest got the message. He did not offer his hand to anyone else, but his face muscles tightened as his head angled a haughty glare at the group. “Of course! Once again, I am sorry for the unsettling news I brought to you.”

Inclining his head towards the ladies, he gathered his hat from a side table and exited by the main door. Scott had already preceded him and held it open. He shut it far from gently, holding onto the handle and studying the oak panels with unseeing eyes. He finally lifted them to Johnny, silently pleading with him to continue to refute the priest’s claims.

Johnny stood flanked by Tom and Murdoch. His eyes held their own message: fury and betrayal.

Murdoch stared at nothing in particular. His face was a mask of shock.

And no one moved. Not at first, anyway. It was Tom who made his way to the drinks cabinet and poured a drink for Murdoch. “Here!” he encouraged, offering the drink to Murdoch. This seemed to break the spell. Murdoch reached for it and downed it in one gulp.

“Johnny?” Scott implored.

Johnny looked at him a long moment. “What do you want me to say, Scott? I already told you that he is a liar.”

“But you know him.”

“Oh, yeah. I know him all right!” The bitterness shot off his tongue.

Scott approached Johnny. Their eyes met. “Then tell us.”

Johnny’s nostrils flared as he breathed in sharply. “You heard. Ain’t nothing more to say.”

Murdoch’s face was devastated. He searched Johnny’s face for the answers he wanted. “Please tell us in your own words what this is all about.”

“I got no more to say. Either you believe him or me!” Johnny’s challenge could not hide the hurt.

“Let’s talk, Son. He’s gone. Let’s talk.”

Johnny’s bitterly ironic smile brought no humour to the room. “According to him, I’m not.”

Murdoch’s beleaguered mind did not comprehend. “Not what?”

Johnny’s bitter reply stung the air. “Not your son, remember?”

Scott recognized the fear his proud brother had tried to conceal under his contemptuous needling.

“Murdoch’s right, Johnny. We need to talk and to talk now.”

Arms wrapped tightly around himself, Johnny bowed his head, rock still at first. A faint nodding heralded his agreement.

Johnny’s jaw clenched as his head shot up. “Alone. Not in front of them.” He indicated Tom and Trudy with a jerk of his head. “This is private business.”

Tom squared his shoulders. “I would have thought it was all of our business!”

Johnny’s look spoke volumes. Tom may have been a pustule on society for all Johnny thought of him. “It ain’t none of your business. None whatsoever.” Johnny told him firmly.

The room again fell silent.

“Tom, Trudy, I have a matter to discuss with my sons. If you don’t mind?”

Trudy was the first to act. “Come on, Tom. It’s getting late. Help me with Peter’s bath.”

Tom’s face hardened at his exclusion from the chat with Murdoch’s sons. “If you wish, my dear.”

Teresa looked from one Lancer to the other. A further probing look at Johnny convinced her that it was best if she departed. Her stomach was in knots and she felt ill. “I’ll go back to the kitchen then,” she ventured, her eyes pleading for her world to be put back where it had been earlier in the day.

Her anxiety brought Johnny out of his dark thoughts for a moment. “Thanks, Teresa,” he whispered quietly. His tiny smile in her direction only served to break her resolution. A muffled sob was clearly audible.

She made to scurry away, anxious for them to discuss the issues raised by the priest, but also to resolve them so their life could get back to normal.

“Querida?”

“Yes?” she asked tentatively.

“I’m looking forward to supper. I bet it’ll be real tasty.”

The Johnny she knew looked at her. His smile was a ghost of its normal self, however.

“I hope so,” she answered. She approached him, gave him a peck on the cheek and then she was gone in the wake of Tom and Trudy.

Scott reached for Johnny’s arm and guided him to the large sofa next to the fire.” Sit. I’ll get you a drink.”

Johnny nodded, but his eyes sought his father’s.

“You already made up your mind, Old Man?” he taunted. But even Johnny Madrid could not stop the plea in his eyes and the desperation to be contradicted.

Murdoch shook his head. He was unable to speak and maybe that was just as well.

Johnny accepted the drink offered by Scott, but he didn’t drink it. Murdoch downed his and found his voice in the process.

“Johnny. How do you know that man? And why has he told us this preposterous story.”

“Do you really want to know?” Johnny whispered into the air.

“Both Scott and I need to know, no matter how …,” Murdoch groped for the right word. “…how distasteful it may be.”

“Distasteful don’t even begin to sum it up. Do you really want to know? Because once I’ve said those words, I can’t take them back.”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, tell us the truth.”

Scott sat next to his brother on the couch, close but not quite touching. He didn’t want to crowd Johnny, but wanted his presence felt.

Johnny swallowed hard.

“Mama met him about a year before she died. He was the priest at our local church. He took an interest in her, I guess you could say. She was just as interested in him.” Johnny snorted through his nose and shook his head. “Mama got religion real bad at the time.” His dry comment was full of irony. He looked at Murdoch, his eyes suddenly sorry. “Mama was late in her rent and I went to the church to pass on the message from our landlord. She was in the Confessional.” Johnny smiled bitterly. “She wasn’t doing no confessing ...”

Distressed, he looked up at his father. Shock was firmly planted on Murdoch’s face.

“You surely don’t mean …?”

“I do,” Johnny assured him after a beat.

Murdoch’s shoulders squared. “I see.”

“He used to come and visit her. I used to make myself scarce. People cottoned on.”

Scot looked at him askance. “That must have been hard.”

Johnny accepted the sympathy without backlash. “You don’t know the half of it!”

“So what happened when the villagers found out?”

Johnny smiled sadly in remembrance. “You know, it’s funny that no one challenged Father Domingo. They knew, but they did nothing. And the Church did nothing. They said nothing to him. They just let him go about his usual duties.” Johnny laughed humourlessly. “Duties sure took on a new meaning with him.”

Murdoch and Scott nodded in the absence of anything useful to do.

“The people from the village sort of accepted it from him. Maybe accept is the wrong word. They put up with it because we are all taught that priests are to be respected, sorta like God’s messengers. No one was going to take him to task over it. That would admit the truth of it and make it officially public. And the other priests didn’t want the Church to be publicly disgraced. The people didn’t accept it from Mama, though. We liked it there until he got bored with her, and that was the end of it. She got treated bad. She lost jobs. The other women would ignore her, or wait until she went past and then make a big show of condemning her. The men …” Johnny chanced a look at Murdoch. “The men were like cougars waiting to pounce on some prey. They presumed that she couldn’t be too fussy. They presumed that … that she was anybody’s and if a priest could get some action, then so could they.”

Johnny hung his head. His jawbone worked as he clenched his teeth, delineating the outline of his face more sharply.

“How did you manage when your mother lost her jobs?” Scott probed gently.

“By being inventive,” Johnny smiled. “But it sure wasn’t easy.” The smile disappeared as fast as it had lit up his face.

Johnny dipped his head again. He wrapped his arms around his own body in his typical reflexive manner.

“So what happened?”

“When he dropped her we left. We went to another town much like all the others and we started again. Only this time for some reason our luck didn’t hold out. Mama met up with yet another man who she thought would solve her problems like all the other men were supposed to.”

A bitter twist to Johnny’s mouth reflected the misery of his past as he dredged it up.

“You know the story, Scott. I’ve told you before. He was vicious. He wasn’t the first. She paid for it with her life. And I paid for it, too, in the long run.”

Johnny’s head shot up, eyes dark with anguish. His blue eyes looked from Murdoch to Scott, the deep sadness in them making both men uncomfortable.

“We were doing fine. For the first time we were doing OK. He had no right. No right to spoil things, to use his power and position. If he’d kept his filthy hands off her we would have been safe, we could have had something. But we had to leave. Because of him we had to leave and it was the start of the end.”

Johnny’s head nodded to himself, his mind far away in the past. Murdoch brought it back to the present.

“And Luis? What about Luis?”

Johnny looked up in astonishment. “You gotta be kidding me!”

“Pardon?”

Johnny lurched to his feet and stood over Murdoch. “I told you! There ain’t no Luis! There never was a Luis! He made it up!”

“And he made up that photograph? He’s a man of the cloth. It’s hard not to believe him.”

Johnny chest heaved as he breathed raggedly, fighting for control. “But it’s easy NOT to believe me?”

“No, that’s not what I meant.”

“Well, I guess that it depends on what you want to believe, don’t it?” Johnny challenged him, his drawl pronounced.

Murdoch rose to his feet as well. He towered over Johnny. “I WANT to believe that you are Johnny! I WANT you to be my son! Help us out!”

Johnny froze. And the veneer peeled off his mask of control. Below the surface the notorious gun fighter, the efficient rancher and talented horseman was merely a man seeking love and acceptance. A home. His place in his family.

“But you don’t believe in me, do you? If I need to help you sort this out, then just maybe you’ve always held those doubts.”

Johnny turned to Scott. “How about you? Do you need any help, Scott?”

“I believe in you, Johnny. I know that you are my brother. I just know, but we need to settle this business of the tombstone. And while we are dealing with this, just where did the name Santiago come from? That’s not your name.”

“It is in Mexico, Scott. People take their father’s father’s last name followed by their mother’s father’s name.”

“That sounds confusing. So, what about Madrid?  It’s unusual for a middle name.”

“My mama’s mother’s side of the family. Seeing I had an Anglo first name, she wanted to make sure I was loaded with two Mexican names. And I took it on because I just liked it better for a gunfighter’s name.”

“I see.” Scott nodded at the sense of it all. “Anyway, I guess that your name as written on the gravestone doesn’t matter. What does is why Father Domingo came here.”

“Now you’re thinking. That’s exactly what’s been going through my mind, because I can tell you now that he don’t do nothing unless there’s something in it for him!”

“He’s a priest, for God’s sake, Johnny! Why would he lie?” Murdoch’s voice cracked in despair.

“Being a priest ain’t no guarantee of nothing! Didn’t what I told you make it sink in about what sort of man he is? He’s a liar and a cheat.”

“He said that Maria had two sons.”

“She didn’t.”

“How am I to know the truth?” Murdoch was perplexed and bewilderment gave his speech a plaintive note.

“By believing me, the same as you have for the past two years.” Johnny studied Murdoch. “Or maybe you never did?”

Murdoch drew breath to answer, but he didn’t reply immediately. He seemed to consider what to say. After a pause, he opened his mouth to speak, but Johnny cut him off. Betrayal slashed across Johnny’s face. “I guess what you just didn’t say has said it all, Old Man!”

And Johnny was gone, boots pounding the steps as he took them two at a time.

”Murdoch!” Scott hissed. “What have you done?”

 

Chapter Sixteen

Scott made it to Johnny’s room in time to see his brother slamming the top drawer of his dresser closed. Johnny’s saddlebags lay on his bed, bulging with clothes and items shoved hastily into them. Johnny pushed several boxes of ammunition into the remaining space, then he nimbly fastened the buckles.

He was about to brush past Scott when Scott grabbed his arm. Johnny came to an abrupt standstill. He locked his eyes on his brother and Scott was sick to see the message there. He knew it was a goodbye and he didn’t know how to calm his brother down and rationalize the situation with him.

“Don’t go, Johnny.”

Johnny’s face closed over. “I can’t stay.”

He did brush past him then, bounding down the stairs much the same way he had mounted them.

Scott raced after him and reached him at the front door. As Johnny swung it open, Scott forced all of his weight against the solid oak and slammed it shut.

“You can’t just go!” he implored.

Johnny’s nostrils were flared and he breathed noisily in rasping jerks. “And I just told you I can’t stay!”

“Why not?”

“Ask him!”

Scott looked to Murdoch who had joined them.

“We want you to stay, Johnny. You can’t just walk out on us!” Scott begged him.

“I don’t know that YOUR father agrees with you there!” Johnny sneered.

“Johnny, please. Stay and discuss this.” Murdoch pleaded. “I didn’t mean …”

“Don’t bother, Old Man. Whatever you meant don’t make no difference to me now. It’s too late to try and pretend feelings you ain’t got.”

“Johnny, that’s not true! I’m sorry. I l…”

“Bullshit! Just what are you sorry about? Me eating two years’ worth of your food? Losing a handy fast gun when times get tough? Like I said before, it’s what you didn’t say that matters!”

Murdoch’s face paled in distress. His mouth opened, but no sound was made.

“You’re my brother,” Scott whispered in despair.

Johnny stared at him, a hastily erected bland mask not quite hiding the wretchedness underneath.

“Not according to the sainted Father Domingo, man of the cloth!” Johnny answered snidely. “Besides, you’ve got another brother, remember, who has very conveniently come to light just recently. I’m sure that he’ll be more your type, anyway. He likes the bookwork. The three of you will be able to discuss the merits of the Two Entry system to your hearts’ content. A perfect match for you all.”

“No!” Scott answered with a conviction he suddenly recognized as a truth. “He’s not a perfect match for me by any means. Despite what the padre said and despite what he showed us, I don’t believe him. I believe my gut feelings … and I believe you.”

Johnny drank in one last picture of his brother.

“Well, I guess your gut feelings just wasted two years of your time. And Murdoch here agrees with me, despite his polite little protestations.”

Murdoch did not contradict him. His mournful face was a carved granite statue chiselled to display his despondency but nothing else. As though he had shut down, no hint of any other feeling cracked through the stone surface.

Johnny nodded at the correctness of his assessment, then swiftly turned to leave before the melancholy bile rising in his throat spewed forth all down his shirt.

He was in the barn without knowing how he got there. Barranca was saddled to the tune of Scott’s pleading and then he was through the arch and gone.

In the yard near the corral Scott dropped to his knees in the dirt. Even in Libby, he had never felt so hopeless.

 

                                **********************************

 

Johnny rode. Bitter tears fell down his cheeks. The last time he had felt this alone, this abandoned, had been when his mother died.

He was on his own again. This time, in order to survive, his heart would be twice as hard.

Damn Father Domingo for showing up and ruining his plans for a future at Lancer. Damn him to hell! He would kill the bastard for this. It was something he regretted not doing a long time ago.

 

                               *********************************

 

The next day was disjointed. Neither Scott nor Murdoch knew where it went, but it passed agonisingly slowly one moment then jumped ahead in a staccato burst leaving an hour or so unaccounted for. The day lurched through in this fashion, in a drunken stupor of aimlessness.

Murdoch had hung around the house in the morning, then had taken off before the walls crushed him, following any random trail that presented itself.

Scott was gone before breakfast. He also filled his day in pointlessly. His only plan was to avoid anyone from the family or from amongst the work teams. He wanted to be alone but the solitude merely emphasized his brother’s departure. He was in a pit of despair, with the walls narrowing minute by minute, swallowing him up in the claustrophobia of it all. How could he ever climb those walls and escape without his brother by his side?

Teresa thrashed the life out of the washing, her hot tears mingling with the sudsy laundry water. Again and again she pummelled the same sheets, which mutely suffered her manhandling.

Tom took Trudy and Peter out for a drive in the sulky in the early morning, hoping to remove them from the pall of anguish which hung over the house. But the cloak of misery followed his wife and son, so he returned them to the house by mid morning  before escaping in solitude.

And Jelly for once was silent. No whingeing, no grumbling. His tongue’s energy had left along with Johnny.

The work crews were unsure what had transpired, but news spread like wildfire that Johnny had left the afternoon before. The magnitude of this stifled any efforts to work productively as foreboding and lassitude seeped through the bunkhouse.

It was Val galloping at dusk through the Lancer arch and up to the house who altered the momentum of the day.

Throwing his reins carelessly over the hitching rail, Val pummelled the front door with his fists. “Johnny! Murdoch!”

Scott threw the door open. One look at Val made him forget the etiquette of greeting the sheriff.

“What’s happened?”

Dread clawed at Scott’s stomach.

“Johnny. Where’s Johnny?” Val demanded.

Scott looked at Murdoch. “He’s not here.”

Tom joined the men crowded into the entry as no one thought to invite Val in.

Val searched Scott and Murdoch’s faces. “There’s a rumour in town that he up and left.”

Scott swallowed painfully. “That’s right. Late yesterday afternnon.”

“Why?”

“It’s a long story.”

 “I’d like to hear it. The economical sheriff zeroed in on the basic facts. “What time?”

“At about five o’clock. Why?”

“Did you get any other visitors yesterday? Did Johnny?”

“Yes, a priest visited,” Tom provided.

Scott scowled at him, hoping he would shut up.

“Just tell us what the problem is, Val.”

Val sighed, removed his hat and slapped it against his thigh. When he looked up, his eyes were full of trepidation. “Old Merv Higgins found a body over by Muddy Creek this afternoon.”

Without realizing it, Scott gripped Val’s arm, his fingers biting into the flesh. “Johnny?”

Val winced and withdrew his arm grumpily. “No, it ain’t Johnny.”

Scott’s and Murdoch’s eyes closed in relief.

“But it’s a priest.”

Their eyes widened in shock. A sharply indrawn breath indicated that Teresa had joined them.

“He had a bible on him with his name in it. Father Domingo. And he had a note in his saddle bags.”

“A note? Was it suicide?” Scott asked, puzzlement obvious.

“No such luck. He was back shot,” replied Val grimly.

“And why have you come here, then?” Scott asked, dread clutching at his insides.

“Because of the note.”

No one spoke. They waited for what they knew they wouldn’t want to know.

Val fumbled in his shirt pocket. “Here. Read for yourselves.”

It dangled in front of them. Val’s hand was suspended in the air. Neither Scott nor Murdoch felt compelled to relieve the strain on Val’s arm by taking it.

After a further moment, Scott reluctantly reached for it. He barely suppressed the panic which fought to burst forward from the confines of his willpower.

Murdoch craned his neck to read as Scott unfolded the sheet of paper. Their faces blanched as their eyes took in the words:

« To Whom It May Concern,

Should any harm come to me I ask the authorities to seek out the man passing himself off as Johnny Lancer, of the Lancer Ranch near Morro Coyo. On my way to Sacramento, I called in to the ranch yesterday afternoon on a pastoral visit, intending to give Murdoch Lancer a photograph of Johnny Lancer’s gravesite as a memento. I was stunned to find that Johnny’s younger brother Luis had insinuated himself into the family by claiming to be Johnny.

Luis was a cunning child and I fear that he has become an unprincipled adult past redemption. Upon being unveiled as an imposter, he threatened my life and I do not put it past him to try to kill me.

I am writing this in the very real fear that I will be harmed. I do not want my killer to go unpunished.

Father Domingo,

July, 18th, 1872. »

Scott felt dizzy as all the oxygen seemed to desert his lungs.

“Well!” uttered Tom. “This is a pretty state of affairs.”

Scott found his voice. “Just because he wrote this, doesn’t make it true!”

Murdoch lifted his eyes from the paper to his son. “No, it doesn’t, Scott, but it is nevertheless damning in its own way.” Murdoch shifted his gaze to Val. “Is there any other reason that you know of which could explain his murder?”

“None whatsoever. It sure wasn’t robbery. He had money in his pocket. It just don’t make sense unless someone plain and simply wanted him dead. And who would want a priest dead?”

“When was he killed?”

“Old Merv found him at about three. He’d been dead a couple of hours, so I’d say it happened late morning or early afternoon.”

There was a silence.

“So where did Johnny go?” Val prodded.

A longer silence suffocated the room.

“We don’t know.”

“And he was gone from about five in the afternoon?”

“Yes.”

Val nodded.

“He certainly had the time to get to the padre,” Tom offered.

The men looked at Tom. “So did we all,” Scott offered.

Scott was gratified to see Tom recoil in horror. He just didn’t like anyone pointing a finger at Johnny.

“So, what were your movements, then?” Val asked. “And I got a feeling that you know why the note refers to Johnny as ‘the man passing himself off as Johnny Lancer’.”

Before Scott could answer Val, Murdoch beckoned Val in. “Take a seat, Val. It’s a long story.”

Val sat heavily, leaning his elbows on his thighs and rotating his hat as he mulled over the situation and worried about his friend.

“You’d better tell me that long story,” he urged, “But I don’t think that I’m gonna like it.”

Scott filled him in. At a nod from Murdoch he also introduced Tom. Val whistled in surprise when he heard first hand of Tom’s relationship to Murdoch and Scott. He’d heard rumours around town, but hadn’t seen Johnny to verify them.

“Well, don’t that beat all?”

Silence ensued after his brief remark. “Well, sittin’ here jawin’ ain’t gonna get my job done.” Val looked at Murdoch and Scott regretfully. “I’m gonna have to put out a warrant for his arrest, you know that, don’t you?”

The grim set of the Lancers’ features was all the answer he received.

“And while I think about doin’ that, how about you all help me think of alternative reasons for the priest to be killed? I’ll do my duty, but I won’t like it while suspicion points at Johnny. We all know that he didn’t do this, so for God’s sake give me something to go on.”

“We know, Val, but we don’t know where to start,” Scott confirmed miserably.

“Well stop bein’ so useless and get started. Be a bit creative!” Val fired at him. He observed the only partly masked panic on Scott’s face. Sympathy for him flashed briefly in Val’s veins, but then was dismissed as the full impact of Johnny’s predicament hit him. “Johnny will be relyin’ on you, Scott, even if he don’t know about the padre’s death and what sort of a fix he’s in. Don’t let him down, eh?”

This last was said with a gentleness Scott had never heard from Val before. Scott swallowed and nodded grimly in agreement.

Val left abruptly. Some days doing his duty simply stank.

Scott had trailed him outside, patting the animal’s neck as Val mounted up.

Val stared down at him. “Your horse is just there, still saddled up. Join me for a bit.”

Scott did. They rode down to the river bank. Tears pricked behind Scott’s eyes as he remembered belting his brother that day. He blinked them away and ruefully remembered that he had got as good as he gave. Johnny had belted him in return.

“Coincidental, ain’t it?” Val’s sudden comment jarred him back to the present.

“What’s that?” But Scott knew what was coming next.

“That Murdoch should get a new son turning up about the same time another one leaves.”

Scott nodded, but did not comment.

“Kinda handy.”

“How so?”

“That leaves only three of you who have a claim to Lancer. It kinda opens the way up for your new brother to get his inheritance, don’t it? You and Murdoch would still own thirds. That would give Phelps a third, if Murdoch felt so inclined to re-do the partnership. Sure beats the hell out of a quarter.”

“You’re speaking like you don’t think that Johnny is Johnny!” Scott challenged him, then blushed as he sheepishly realized how stupid his sentence sounded. And then he blushed further in shame for the confused thoughts he himself had at first experienced as he sorted through the information and also questioned the repercussions of the possibility of Johnny not being his brother.

“Johnny and me go way back. I’ve known Johnny since his mid teens. None of us is going to find out the truth unless we can find other witnesses who grew up with Johnny when he was younger.”

Scott agreed and then thought to fill Val in on more details of Tom’s arrival.

Val scratched his groin and stood in the saddle to rearrange his pants as he thought.

“With that newspaper cutting and his mother’s diary, not to forget Murdoch’s confession of his past indiscretion, Tom has evidence enough to show who he is. The priest had evidence to show who Johnny is not,” Val summed it up. “And the padre also provided evidence to show that he expected Johnny to attack him.”

“Yes, it was very thoughtful of him.” The sarcasm was appreciated by Val, whose features lightened in a rare smile.

“Yeah, Scott, I’d say that it was an open and shut case. Sure makes the sheriff’s job easy.”

Scott nodded in dread.

“You know, it must be my nature, but when things are that easy I just get kinda suspicious.”

Scott nodded again. “But how do we prove or disprove anything?”

“That, my friend is the big question.”

Scott ran his fingers through his hair in exasperation with the situation. “A short while ago everything here was perfect.”

“Yeah, well, perfect ain’t permanent.” Val looked carefully at Scott. “What do you reckon about this Luis business?”

Scott hung his head as he thought. Val was struck at the similarity of the mannerism to Johnny’s.

“Johnny can’t be Luis. I’d have known. We shared too much. If it was an act, he’d have dropped his guard at some stage. And …”

When the sentence was left hanging, Val gently prompted. “And?”

“And Johnny was a big part of the reason I stayed. The biggest part. He just wasn’t the conniving son of a bitch that the padre described to Murdoch. Johnny’s not cold like that. I’d have sensed something wasn’t quite right. He isn’t Luis.”

Val nodded. “Yeah, I know.” He sighed in despair. “But Murdoch described what the padre said and he said that Luis was a person driven to get what he wanted. A con man, in other words. A man who could mask his true feelings. A person with a different personality depending on what he wanted … much like Johnny Madrid in action.”

“You don’t mean that, Val! Johnny is your friend,” Scott reminded him.

“Yes, he is. I also know that we wouldn’t be the first ones in the world to be hoodwinked by a clever tongue and a smooth smile.”

Scott was shocked. “Come off it, Val!”

Val looked at him. “You just told me that you’d have known if Johnny wasn’t who he claimed to be. Are you sure that a part of that answer ain’t just pride and wishful thinking? Maybe you were taken for a ride.” Val closed his eyes. “Maybe I was, too.”

Scott’s face was just as miserable as Val’s. “No, I can’t believe that.” He shook his head more vehemently. “I don’t believe that. I want Johnny back here where he belongs.”

Neither man added to that for some moments.

“You know, pride is a bad thing. Can cause a lot of misery. But I pride myself on recognizing evil when I see it. Johnny can’t be this Luis, and not just because that would mean that our judgments about his character wouldn’t be worth jack shit. Johnny can’t be this Luis. We know him too well.”

Scott smiled grimly in agreement.

“And, aw, hell. If Johnny was this Luis, then Luis can’t be the man you were told about by that priest. Ain’t no way in hell. He ain’t a bad man. In fact sometimes I think he’s aiming at sainthood with all his good works he’s got underway in the valley!”

Scott’s smiled deepened in amusement, as he considered all the times Johnny would help out those in need. And very often, it wasn’t Johnny who was the source of information. Scott only heard about Johnny’s activities from others. A casual word dropped into a conversation while he was in town would often prove extremely enlightening about his brother’s kindness to others.

The grin slewed to a halt.

“The trouble is, Val, even if Luis exists and he has been here all this time instead of Johnny, his being a good man or not doesn’t really matter one iota.”

“Why not?” Val was intrigued.

“Because he wouldn’t be my brother.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Scott entered the Great Room with leaden feet. He felt ill.

The whole way back from his ride with Val, his mind had been going around in circles mulling over the situation.

His world had been turned upside down and even if he managed to right it, he didn’t know if the same way would be up any more. He wanted to put everything back the way it was and he didn’t know if it was even possible, let alone where to start.

He removed his hat and came face to face with his family. Or maybe it wasn’t his family. Was he really sure any more? Just what made up his family now? Only one part of the group was definitely his family: Murdoch. Teresa was like an honorary sister and he had no problem with that.

But Tom. Did he want Tom to be his brother?

But as he had tried to explain to Johnny beforehand, that was how the two of them had felt about the other at first. They had stepped warily around each other, and had each thrust boasts in the other’s face. Much like two males of the animal kingdom intent on sorting out the pecking order, they had circled around each and tried to stamp some superiority over the other from the outset. The confident Johnny, wanting to emphasize his nonchalance and thus his control over his destiny, bragged about sleeping well. And he had done so bare-chested, more than happy to demonstrate the muscled physique of an outdoorsman to the rank beginner eastern dandy. He had wanted to rile. And he had done a good job of it. And Scott, pettily, but with great satisfaction, proved he was a man to be reckoned with underneath the cover of his derided clothes. He had flaunted his equestrian skills, flinging them down like a gauntlet into the dust. And then he had rubbed his proud cavalry history into the mix.

From this inauspicious start they had grown on each other and come to admire each other’s qualities. Perhaps the same would happen with Tom?

He may have no say in Tom’s presence, but he did want a say in Johnny being a part of their family unit once again.

But what if Johnny was not his flesh and blood after all? Was Johnny actually Luis? How much did that matter?

Could he convince Johnny to stay whether or not he was a Lancer? How did Murdoch really feel? He had been less than convincing when talking to Johnny.

And if Johnny were really Luis, then why the subterfuge? Was it a mercenary act to get the thousand dollars listening money, to get his hands on a share of Lancer? He wouldn’t have known beforehand when the listening money was offered that Murdoch would give him a share, though. It had come as a surprise to them both. Maybe that’s why he had stayed after the required listening time was up. Then again, he might have expected it after a period of time had passed. Or maybe he had come intending to bide his time and Murdoch had jumped the gun? And so he had stayed.

And if the padre’s story was correct, and if Luis existed at all, then Luis had assumed Johnny’s identity many years ago. Why?

And why would the padre come here fulfilling Maria’s wish so many years after her death? Maybe he had made a promise to her and honour was involved. Scott guessed it was a priest-like thing to do, and it was roughly on his way to Sacramento, after all.

Why couldn’t he get his rambling thoughts into some sort of order? Scott was a decisive man, uncomfortable with the uncertainty.

Why the hell did Scott’s world have to be ruined?

And what was he going to do about it?

He was going to get a drink to start with.

Tom got up and poured him a drink before Scott had even got half way across the floor of the Great Room. Scott hesitated before taking it. Innate good manners resurfaced and he thanked him. All this mess wasn’t Tom’s fault and he shouldn’t take it out on him.

“Scott, what else did Val have to say?” Anxiety was etched into his father’s weather worn features.

Scott took a belt of the liquor and felt a moment’s peace as it warmed his gullet.

He sighed. “Just that he would have to put a warrant out for Johnny, but nevertheless just because the priest thought that Johnny might attack him didn’t mean to say that he did in actual fact shoot him.” Scott shook his head. “He’s confused and worried like the rest of us.”

“Come and sit down, Son. We’ve been discussing what to do.”

“Which is?”

“That’s just it. We don’t really know yet. We need to locate Johnny.”

“Yes, we do, but what will you do when you find him?” Tom quizzed them. “By now he will be wanted. If you go out there to find him yourselves, you may save bounty hunters getting trigger happy, but what will you solve in the long run? You will be bringing him in for the gallows.”

Scott thumped his glass down on the table next to the sofa. Surprisingly, the fragile looking crystal cut tumbler was stronger than it appeared and stayed intact, unlike its china cousin of several days ago.

“You’re pre-empting things, Tom. That’s not certain!”

“No, it’s not,” Tom conceded, “But it’s as good as. That priest’s note is going to hang him. It’s as good as an eye witness account. It might have been written before the fact, but people don’t hold with sheriffs or clergy being gunned down. Punishment will be swift.”

Scott dropped his face to his hands. “I know!” he whispered into his palms.

“Maybe …” Tom did not finish what he was about to say. He looked away from them at the wall, his focus centring the Lancer ‘L” over the mantelpiece. “… Never mind.”

“Never mind what?” Murdoch asked brusquely, the situation making his tongue more abrasive then usual.

“Maybe we are best not to pursue Johnny. To find him is ultimately going to be his downfall. If you have come to love him, even if he is Luis, then letting him go is the best thing you could do. If you find him you would be bound to turn him over to let justice take its course. If he disappears of his own free will, at least you have the solace of knowing that he is alive somewhere. It may not be at Lancer, but he would be making a new life for himself. Locate him and you would be responsible for his death at the end of the hangman’s noose.”

Tom’s prediction hung heavily in the air like a gravity defying boulder. It seemed as if any miscalculated action on their part could have it come down on them, squashing them and Johnny’s future into the bargain. The tension was palpable as they fought in their minds for the best thing to do which would have the least dangerous implications and the least possibility of crushing their family into annihilation.

Scott’s whiskey threatened to regurgitate itself over his shirtfront. The image of Johnny in jail, in shackles, and worst of all with a noose around his neck, left him nauseous. With a twist of his mouth he swallowed down the bile.

“Tom, you have obviously thought about this, but there is something you missed. You are presuming that Johnny did this. You are not even contemplating the fact that someone else could have done it. I can tell you now, Johnny wouldn’t do this!”

“Precisely! But it sounds like this Luis would!”

“Enough of this Luis!” Scott shouted, simultaneously leaping for Tom.

Murdoch’s bulk intervened, bringing Scott up short and halting him a few paces before Tom.

Murdoch was staring at him morosely. His grip on Scott’s arm, originally to still him, loosened, then squeezed in support.

“I can’t abandon him. I won’t!”

“I know, Son. Neither can I.”

“If memory serves me correctly, Johnny abandoned you!” With uncanny precision, Tom cut to the unsavoury fact of Johnny’s desertion.

In that instant, Scott hated Tom for being right. Scott felt abandoned by Johnny. It was as if their brotherhood had not meant enough to Johnny to fight for.

And what if Scott tracked Johnny down? Would he then ultimately be responsible for his death? He could not believe that Johnny would shoot anyone in the back. Johnny had a highly developed set of ethics, even if he was a former gunslinger. Johnny believed in giving a man a chance.

None of this made sense and Scott’s brain, which normally liked a challenge, was not functioning the way it should.

“No, you are wrong. He didn’t abandon us. We abandoned him by not listening enough to him. He sensed our doubt about his identity. He wasn’t going to stay where he wasn’t wanted. He had enough of that as a child.” And Scott felt the guilt that he hadn’t done enough to watch his little brother’s back. He hadn’t been there when Johnny was a boy and he wasn’t there now. He would rectify that.

“I’m going after him.”

Murdoch looked at Scott, both relief and worry radiating from his face. “And if you find him?”

“I’ll face that when I locate him. At least he’ll know that I cared enough to want to find him.”

Murdoch nodded. “When do you plan on leaving?”

“Tomorrow.”

Murdoch nodded again. “I’ll make sure that Maria and Teresa have plenty of trail food packed for you.

Tom had remained silent. “You know that if he is Luis, you could be playing with fire.”

Scott studied Tom’s face. He smiled. “I’ll be playing with fire anyway. Val knew Johnny in his Johnny Madrid days, in his late teens. If Luis became Johnny, it was before then. Both, therefore, are Johnny Madrid. He’s a formidable opponent, but I think that I can handle him.”

Scott smiled more broadly, relieved to have made up his mind. “I’m going to pack.”

 

                                      *********************************

 

Scott was gone the next morning before the sun’s rays had barely begun prising open the new day’s eyelids.

He was moody and tired. He had not slept well. He had spent all night mulling over which way to go and he had decided on south. Johnny could lose himself easier there. Scott also had a separate mission in that direction. He just prayed that he could find the answers he was looking for. Hopefully he had pumped Murdoch for enough details to help him succeed in his plans.

The familiar Lancer landscape left him with an ache in his heart. Every crest, every paddock, every track, every fence line shrieked memories of his brother. Of his brother who was no longer there to share them.

His departure from the area was necessarily delayed as he first checked out Morro Coyo, Spanish Wells and Green River. The circuitous route cost him the day, and he finished empty handed as he had expected. If Johnny did not want to be found, Scott really didn’t expect to be able to do so. If he did not find Johnny, he hoped to find out at least some answers to the riddles which had been thrown at them thick and fast.

He camped when he could no longer see where he was going. He wasn’t all that far south of Lancer, having called into the three townships, but he expected to pick up the pace from then on.

Apollo was given a nosebag and Scott settled for re-heated beef and beans with a coffee to follow.

The silence of the campsite was deafening in its emptiness. The first time he had camped out amongst the stars had been as a soldier. He had both happy and sad memories of those days. There were nights of cheerful camaraderie, youthful voices vying to be heard in the hubbub, but this mask of bravado often slipped to reveal a quiet sombreness with the stealthy, ever present terror shadowing their every move.

Since he had moved to Lancer, it had been Johnny who was his usual camping companion. They had shared stories, hesitatingly at first, and even some secrets as they grew more comfortable with each other. Some of what they had shared had affected Scott deeply. And some of Johnny’s anecdotes had been simply outrageous. But that was his brother: mercurial, moody and mischievous.

Despite the misery of his loneliness and despite missing his brother so much, Scott had to smile as he remembered some of Johnny’s antics. Like the time he had decanted Murdoch’s whiskey into Maria’s half empty malt vinegar jug. The whiskey had been replaced with tequila coloured with some cold black tea. The look on Murdoch’s face as he choked through the shock of the large belt of Mexican alcohol hitting his innards had left Johnny boneless with hilarity. And the corned beef the next night, cooked in Maria’s vinegar with a few spoonfuls of sugar, had promoted the mellowest of moods in the Great Room after supper.

Johnny was a many-faceted, complex human being. Cocky one minute, shy the next. Contemplative or communicative, or downright cheeky, Johnny was a presence. And it was a presence which had previously provided a buffer from the cold emptiness of the dark night hours under the remote stars. It was a presence he sorely missed.

Not for long, if Scott had any say in it.

 

                               ***********************************

 

The same night sky hovered over Johnny. He had grimly fixed himself a meal of jerky, hardtack and coffee, supplies of which he kept out of habit in his saddlebags.

He had chewed mechanically, not because he wanted to, but because he had to in order to have the strength to keep traveling away from Lancer. He was hungry, but the food tasted like boot leather

All that time. All that time he had felt like he had made himself a home. They had let him in and while he had originally had no intentions of staying, especially after he had come face to face with Murdoch’s brusque and cold gruffness that first day in the Great Room, stay he did.

And he had got to like it.

But it had not been easy. They didn’t take to him at first. They hadn’t trusted him, even more so after he had not lifted a finger to help Scott in town. They had expected a public show of solidarity, but he hadn’t owed Scott anything. Not then. If anything, he had owed Day Pardee. If anything, his alliances had been more with Day.

But things had changed. He had come to expect challenges in life. Even come to like them. A challenge gave him something to focus on and to keep his thoughts away from the cruelty of the hand of fate which seemed to regularly swing down and slap him in the face. Occasionally it was hard enough to knock him off his feet, right onto his rear end. And occasionally he would be left winded in the dirt. But he had learned early that no one was going to help him unless he helped himself. Some people might say it was character building.

So he had applied that philosophy to building up Johnny Madrid’s character and reputation.

And then he had applied it to settling in at Lancer. He had needed to use his wiles in the beginning. He couldn’t let his guard down and allow too much to slip, nor could he allow them to pry too much.

But, goddamn it, he had himself got suckered in! It had got easier and he had enjoyed the way of life. The work was hard, but it was honest. He felt like he was contributing something positive and it felt good. He had helped to maintain that huge spread. He had helped to make it thrive. It didn’t involve killing. It involved creation. And it was damned satisfying.

His mind had baulked at thinking of the main issue which was relentlessly hounding him. It had skirted around his true feelings all day and all the previous night as he had ridden hard, wanting to put some miles between himself and his downfall. The downfall of Johnny Lancer had been inevitable. For a while he thought he could ward it off, but experience should have warned him that it would not be possible. Sooner or later the fairytale would end.

Sooner or later he had expected to lose the family he had stupidly come to call his own. He should not have allowed himself to become so attached to them. He should not have allowed himself to love.

Everything he loved died. He was like a walking curse.

But Dios, he missed them already.

Two days out and he was barely surviving. Physically, yes, but inside he was all torn up as though he had swallowed barbed wire with his supper. His gut burned and his heart ached.

That would teach him to trust.

He wouldn’t be doing that again in a hurry. Murdoch’s hesitation had permitted Johnny to see it how it was. After two years, Murdoch had not been sure. He had not been sure enough of him to commit. He had doubts.

Scott had been more steadfast in his support. Johnny had come to expect that of this Boston bred gentleman who defied his elegant looks to show himself to be one tough bird underneath.

Johnny had to smile as he thought of Scott. Debonair and fastidious, he was a real dazzler with the local girls. But get past the Boston outer trimmings and you got more than soft cream pie. Scott had guts and a hard determination. He’d also been the brother that Johnny had craved. And after a sluggish start, they had both made up for lost time.

Johnny remembered back to just last month on a stinking hot day. It had surprisingly been meticulous Scott who had suggested the break in the middle of the day and who had led an all too willing Johnny to the stream. Scott had been a formidable opponent during their water skirmishes in the rock pool. They had played hard and laughed hard, before drying out companionably on the grass bank. They had lain side by side. Tanned skin next to much fairer skin ringed with sunburn lines around his neck and forearms. Scarcely two peas in a pod, but closer than most brothers normally got.

And Johnny treasured the recollection.

He shut his memories off with a snap. There was no point in wanting what could no longer be his. That was a surefire way to make a man all maudlin. It had a way of stopping a man from doing what had to be done.

And he had things to do. And he wasn’t about to let anything interfere with his mission.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The landscape got drier, if that were possible, the further south Scott travelled. He expected it, but he still was surprised by it. He had grown up far from the heat and aridity of this part of the world, and he thought he had adjusted to it. Maybe he thought wrong.

He had travelled the length of the San Joaquin Valley, through Modesto, Merced and the outskirts of Fresno and through to Bakersfield. He had skirted the Mojave Desert before hitting the growing city limits of Los Angeles, so by the time he reached Escondido, just north of the San Diego area, he was exhausted, but also quite relieved to be nearing his target.

Scott was drowning in dust as well. The further south Apollo took him, the more dirt those hooves kicked up. It swirled up behind the pair, hovered momentarily, then seemed to lunge at his back, sticking there in an ever increasing layer. It caked the insides of his nostrils and throat. His tongue appeared to swell as it absorbed the powdery residue. Licking his lips and swallowing did not seem to help. It just seemed to push the muck further down his gullet.

After the fourth day he finally passed the border at Tecate, then angled sharply east in the direction of Mexicali.

That his brother had grown up here in Mexico seemed unbelievable to him. That anyone could grow up here seemed unbelievable.

He managed to find a reasonable route through the northern tip of the Sierra de Juarez and then continued in an easterly direction. The villages and townships spelt poverty.

He was struck by the neglected state of the buildings. The hard times showed in the dilapidated homes and rundown fences. An atmosphere of despair heightened his senses. California was bursting with progress. While some people undoubtedly went bust, others profited by their industriousness. But this enthusiasm was missing south of the border.  There was a languidness which pervaded the people and the animals. Both the townships and the countryside appeared to be waiting for something better to occur. Anything to occur, for that matter. But the wait was uneasy. Scott was perplexed by this foreign land and not a little disquieted.

The increasing lawlessness sent shivers of apprehension down his spine. The communities were disorderly. He was regarded with suspicion by everyone he passed. Women clutched their scarves or their children’s hands tighter. Men lounged against doorways, hands brushing against the guns at their hips, teasing a little, trying to provoke some sort of reaction. Scott even had the fleeting thought that he could see where Johnny had learnt some of his annoying little habits.

While he had travelled close to the border before, he had never crossed over it. The farthest south he had ridden had been to the San Diego area, and at that time he had had Johnny for company. To be quite frank, he had had Johnny for protection. Johnny knew how the border areas worked. Johnny was in tune to this land and its customs. And Scott missed him dreadfully.

The Mexicali Valley was one step closer to his goal. While the homes appeared to be made of  the common adobe, he remembered that Johnny had told him that the locals used plants, Cachanillas if Scott’s encyclopaedic memory served him correctly, combined with mud in order to construct the walls of their homes. How effective they were in shielding the occupants from the vagaries of the weather, Scott was unsure. The intense heat was a force to be reckoned with but Scott supposed that anything which provided some shade was to be welcomed.

San Luis Rio Colorado was in his sights. After nearly a week in the saddle, he welcomed that last difficult stage of his journey. He knew that Johnny had moved on to Sonoyta and Nogales at some stage after his stay at San Luis, but he hoped that he could find what he wanted in San Luis. He snorted at the coincidence of the names.

He aimed to find out if Luis existed. He was also determined to discover if the Johnny he knew was Father Domingo’s Luis. And he still had to sort out in his mind whether it mattered or not.

He decided that he would stay in a hotel of reasonable quality in the classiest area he could find. Without his brother to watch his back, he didn’t want to risk staying in the less salubrious parts of town. It would be hard enough to remain alert during the day, but he could hardly protect himself while he was asleep. He needed to know that he could be assured of relative safety at night time when he let his defences down.

He found what he wanted on the western edge of the city. Carpet muffled the sound of his spurs as he approached the reception counter. The manager did not need to say that he found Scott’s appearance offensive. His disdainful gaze was enough. Money worked wonders, however, as it seemed to in most countries and most cultures. A short time after his arrival, Scott was soaking the weary miles away in a tub in his own room. He let his mind drift to the gentle support of the water and it was a full hour later that he woke up, cold and prune-like after a nap he was lucky did not drown him.

Tomorrow he would start the real investigation. He just prayed that he would find what he hoped.

To return to Lancer with no answers did not bear thinking about.

 

                                      *********************************

A mission. Johnny had a mission, he had told himself days ago. So why the hell was he still in the San Joaquin although a good deal further south than Lancer? Why was he staying put in this makeshift camp with no plan hatched and no desire to even contemplate where he was heading both distance and direction wise?

He had originally convinced himself that he would leave Lancer, leave the area and never look back. His mission was to make a new life which erased all memory pertaining to Lancer. But in reality he had no mission. He had to face it. He was directionless. He was numb and he found that he couldn’t even bear to think about what had transpired. So he spent his days hunting for food and even making traps, rather than using his rifle, in order to prevent himself thinking about the unthinkable. Skinning, gutting and cooking his prey was also blissfully time consuming. He found himself doing anything to occupy his hands and stop making decisions. Making decisions meant he had to make choices. He would have to act. He didn’t know if he wanted to do so.

Making a decision meant either he had to give up on having a family forever or he had to fight for them. But did he want to if this family wasn’t the one he had got to know? Would this family be his family if Tom was in it? And he didn’t even know if he wanted it with or without Tom thrown into the mix. Murdoch sure hadn’t been too effusive in refuting the existence of Luis. He hadn’t been too keen to accept Johnny’s side of the story, either. Johnny sure hadn’t meant too much to Murdoch at all, it appeared.

Murdoch’s hesitation had cut deeply. Johnny had taken it as a rejection. Just maybe the old man didn’t care one way or the other if Johnny was his son. Maybe if he had Tom, he didn’t need Johnny. That still gave him two sons. It also still gave Murdoch a third share of Lancer. Just strike Johnny’s name off the deed and give it to Tom. Easy as pie. Easy come, easy go. Sure seemed to be that way with Murdoch’s women. Maybe it applied to sons as well?

Johnny grimaced bitterly as he whittled the stick he had found. He swiped heftily with his pocket knife and then cursed as the knife hit a small knot in the wood, bounced over it and slid into his flesh. “Mierda!”

He sucked on the cut. It wasn’t deep, but it stung. He hoisted himself to his feet and made his way to the nearby creek bed bubbling down the embankment on the far side of a cluster of boulders. He knelt on the grassy platform and let the water flow over his wound, making sure it was clean. It was only when his hand felt cold and wrinkled that Johnny withdrew it. His mind had been elsewhere as his eyes had stared unfocused at the current flowing over his hand.

He shook the excess water off his hands, then wiped them on his pants. A rueful smile broke out as he chastised himself for bothering to wash a wound if he was just going to then smother it in the filth on his britches. With one hand he loosened his bandana and bound up his hand.

Yep, he had done it again. Taken an age to do something which could have been done in minutes.

He was in the doldrums, not wanting to face the future.

Could he really give them all up? Life had been good there. For the first time in his life, he had enjoyed living.

 

                                        ***************************

Scott was surprised at how refreshed he felt after a night in a proper, clean bed with a feather pillow. The previous evening the dining room had filled his hungry stomach with good quality, albeit rather spicy, food. He had then retired to his room and slept soundly until sunup. He had not realized just how exhausted he was.

Over the many miles, he had considered what he had to do. Now he was here, he just prayed that he would have success … and that it could be a success he could live with.

He was in the restaurant for breakfast as soon as it opened. The fare was once again spicier than he would prefer, particularly so early in the morning, but he wolfed it down. It brought him fond memories of Johnny’s appetite for foods with inbuilt fire. Scott’s palate had altered since his arrival out west. He was now able to cope with most Mexican dishes and had even acquired a certain appetite for them … in moderation, though. He still needed a large drink to wash them down, but was not sure if the strong Mexican coffee was the way to go.

He had decided that he would investigate every church and cemetery in the town and then in the adjoining villages, working his way from west to east. Consequently, after breakfast he approached the reception desk and enquired after the location of the closest churches.

There were more than he expected on the western end of town, but he made a list and wrote down the directions. He was going to keep track of every possibility and leave no stone unturned.

He fetched his horse from the livery and was pleased to note that he had been freshly brushed. Apollo’s coat was gleaming and he seemed surprisingly eager to get going even though he had been worked hard for over a week.

Scott would have preferred to have walked and stretch his legs. His derrière also needed  the break from the hard leather of the saddle, but if one lead proved to be a possibility he was better off having his transport with him. So, he set off at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenes around him and getting a feel for the place.

He felt like a Union soldier isolated from his regiment but in full view of a Confederate community. He was being appraised overtly and from the shadows. He was not comfortable in this southern country any more that he would have been alone in the southern states during the war. His clothes and colouring identified him an outsider. There was simply no way he could blend in. Even if he bought an outlandish outfit in the style favoured by his brother and his compatriots, there was no hiding his blond hair and pale skin. He fleetingly thought of rubbing some charcoal in his hair and maybe some sort of clothing dye over his face. The streaks that would occur the minute he started perspiring, though, would just make his efforts seem ridiculous and his subterfuge all the more suspicious, he suspected. And he knew that his blue-grey eyes would mark him as different as much as Johnny’s sapphire blue eyes had marked him as not quite belonging in the Mexico of his upbringing.

Scott sighed and concentrated on focusing those eyes in the back of his head. He wished he had Johnny with him.

He located the first church, San Angelo’s, without much difficulty, but he already felt tired and sticky when he got there. It was a hot day and his anxiety seemed to fuel the sun’s rays hitting him as well as the heat radiating off his body. He was sweaty and the church looked as hot as he felt. It stood in the dirt. The same dirt clung to the walls like a dusty coat. It looked dowdy and neglected. If a building could be miserable, this one was it.

He was used to New England’s tall and graceful steeples reaching into the heavens for a connection with God. This bell tower, an angular affair which did not rise all that much higher than the building itself, was functional but hardly aesthetic. Maybe the heat had sapped its energy and stunted its growth, Scott mused sourly.

Scott shook off his uncharitable thoughts, reined in his horse and tied it to an olive tree affording some shade to the right of the entrance. Removing his hat, he climbed the two steps and entered. He was surprised at the interior. It seemed clean and welcoming compared to the uninviting exterior. The pews were highly polished from the rears of its flock and the floors were swept. Candles burned below a crucifix, lending a not unpleasant fragrance to the air and helping to brighten the dim interior. A small confessional lay to his right and a font with a shallow pool of water to his left. The calming peace washed over Scott as if he had taken a bath and washed away the heat, grime and frustration of his whole journey.

The only sign of life was a woman kneeling to one side, her eyes closed in concentration as her lips moved in silent prayer. She did not look up at him as his footsteps echoed in the silence and Scott was loath to interrupt her.

He sat down instead and contemplated the church. It was different to the churches he was used to. He and his grandfather had regularly attended the Old North Church in Boston. With its individual family boxes along the pews, it was remarkably different from most other places of worship he had seen.

The smaller chapels he occasionally visited while away from home had smelt of beeswax and fresh flower fragrances. The roofs soared steeply, plaques on the wall were ornately inscribed and Biblical paintings sombrely reminded the parishioners why they were there. The altar was always bedecked in crisp, white cloths, with laced edges and embroidered motifs. In all, quite a contrast to the simplicity surrounding him now.

One similarity with this Mexican church, however, was the awesome crucifix which always seemed to dominate the front wall, providing a backdrop to the pastor up on his pulpit as he droned the morning’s lesson. So many times had the message been lost to him in the monotony of its delivery. He wondered if Catholic priests were as boring as the ministers he had listened to over the years.

One church which had always been a pleasure to attend had been the one attended by his aunt in Concord. Scott had loved the blue and red stained glass windows which had coloured the air as the sun had streaked in from behind them, so unlike here where everything seemed washed out and beige in colour.

He snorted silently to himself. Maybe that was why Johnny wore such vibrant colours? Any contrast from the dirt and the sand was a declaration of life. And that was Johnny, full of life. Exhilarating in his verve and audacity. Loud in his clothes. Quiet in his soft drawl. Moody and reflective at times, too. Johnny was a man who stood out and apart. Maybe his clothes helped him achieve that. And just maybe it was the inner strength and integrity of the man underneath those clothes.

So Scott sat and absorbed the feeling of this alien church. In his mind he pictured a younger Johnny attending this or similar churches. He tried to grasp an elusive image, vainly hoping to mould a concrete Johnny out of his thoughts, but he remained frustrated and disappointed. He leaned his elbows on his knees and hung his head, pensive as he considered what his search might yield.

Slow and measured footsteps interrupted him and drew his attention. Lifting his head, he noted an elderly priest approaching. The man held his hands clasped in front of his corpulent belly. He was smiling, but the smile did not reach his eyes. This may have had something to do with the scar that puckered his left eyebrow, skewing the eyelid into a drooping hood.

“I am Father Fernando. May I help you, my son?” he asked in English.

Scott stood and appraised him, wondering what had caused the man’s injury. He took in the stained cassock. Perspiration ran down the man’s neck, creating a darker rim where it had soaked into the folds of material. Whether it was the unkempt appearance or the coldness of his eyes beneath the scar, Scott was not sure, but he took an immediate dislike to the man. He nevertheless mustered up his good breeding and nodded in greeting.

“Yes, Padre, I’m hoping you can.”

”In what way?”

“I am searching for a gravestone.”

A thin, humourless smile greeted this statement. “In that case, this is a good starting point. What are the particulars?”

Scot swallowed, uncomfortable at voicing the words. “It is of a boy. He was aged thirteen.”

“I am sorry to hear that. Sadly, it is not uncommon to hear of young children cut down before their time.”

The lump in Scott’s throat seemed to cut off the air to his lungs. He did not want to say the words which just might make this nightmare true.

“His name was John Felipe Lancer. His mother was Maria and …” Scott tried to swallow the lump with a spurt of saliva. It didn’t work very well at all. “… And he passed away about eleven years ago aged about thirteen. Perhaps you remember him and his mother, as they lived around here on and off.”

“Goodness, there are so many deaths and so many Maria’s! No, I do not remember them. I am sorry.”

“Johnny had blue eyes. Very blues eyes, with black hair. The eyes really stood out,” Scott persisted.

“They would not be the only blue eyes I have seen, my son. We may be in Mexico, but there are a surprising amount of children from …um, moments of abandon, shall we say, or mixed marriages. And the surname is not Spanish. I am sure that I would remember a name as Anglo as that.”

Scott opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it. What could he say?

“What was he to you?”

Scott did not need to hesitate. “My brother.”

Father Fernando could not hide the surprise. He studied Scott’s blond hair. “I see,” was all he offered.

“Are you sure that you don’t know him?”

“Yes, I’m sure, but why are you looking for his grave now after so many years?”

Scott regarded him intently. He tried to swallow that damn lump again. “I want to pay my respects.”

The priest nodded.

And then Scott betrayed Johnny by uttering the words. “And I want to see if I can find his younger brother, Luis.”

The priest’s eyes narrowed. “HIS younger brother?”

“Yes,” Scott answered, not bothering to elaborate.

“I see.” The priest added no more, but he did not need to. Scott could see his brain working overtime and drawing its own conclusions. Conclusions which did not seem to please the man. Distaste dripped off his features.

“Are you sure you can’t help?”

“I told you that I don’t know of him.” The abruptness of his answer confirmed that in Scott’s view he would not help if he could, anyway. Thin lips pursed in annoyance, deep grooves sprouting prominently. Scott was being dismissed.

“If you remember anything, my name is Scott Lancer and I am staying at the Rio Colorado Hotel.”

“Certainly.” That one word, supposedly a positive response, was made to sound unconvincing.

“I guess I’ll keep looking then.”

“Yes. You do that.”

“Do you mind if I wander around the cemetery outside?”

“No, of course not, as long as your respect the dead. Respect their souls and their last resting place.”

Scott dipped his head in acquiescence.

“Goodbye.”

“Adios, Seňor.”

Sweaty palms and a dry mouth betrayed Scott’s disappointment. His hopes had been stupidly raised by his arrival at his destination, but the destination itself was going to be a rabbit warren of false leads and dead ends, he suspected. He ran his hands around the rim of his hat, rammed it on his head as he exited, then clenched his fists. His trouser legs absorbed some of the perspiration as he hastily swiped his hands down his thighs. Something he learned from Johnny was to expect trouble and to be prepared. And wet hands could not handle a gun as well as dry ones.

So he ran his right hand over the butt of his revolver, the caress settling his nerves and steeling his resolve. He could not expect to hit the jackpot immediately. He would press on and press on methodically.

He knew that the priest’s eyes followed him as he entered the graveyard, but he pushed his unease aside and concentrated on his task. Before him lay the graves of several hundred people, more than he would have at first expected from the size of the church. Headstones and crosses, either made of stone or wood, marked the graves. Many were angled as subsidence or weather played havoc with original intentions. Legibility seemed to depend on the expense of the grave marker, the deeper and bolder markings in the solid stone leaving a more permanent reminder of the person who was gone forever.

Scott walked up and down, looking at the names and wondering at the life story of each and the reasons for their deaths. He finally had seen them all. Johnny’s grave was not here. He breathed a sigh of relief, but then caught himself pondering that just because he hadn’t found it here, it did not mean that it wasn’t anywhere else.

He swallowed hard, set his mouth and headed for his horse. There was another church several miles to the south-east, he had been told. Before mounting, he took out a piece of paper and placed a line through this first church. He had more listed, but he also knew that there would be others his enquiries had not yet revealed.

He untied his horse, mounted and headed off, all the while aware that Father Fernando was watching him from the top step of the church, missing nothing from his misshapen left eye.

 

******************************

Decent sleep eluded Johnny again. Snatched moments were full of images of Scott and Murdoch. Not just the first day and the last day, but the many in between. The jousting. The arguments. The acceptance. The moments that make up a family’s life.

The cold seeped up from the ground under his bedroll and invaded his mind as well as his bones. He opened his eyes to the grey morning which offered him no more hope than the previous week. With a groan of misery he pulled back the blanket and worked at stoking up the fire.

No, he could not go back to Lancer. Nor could he bring himself to go back down south again. He didn’t want to dredge up that life again. If he did, it would be all the harder having known the life he still could have been leading if the priest had not interfered. West was out of the question. That was San Francisco way and he didn’t like big cities. North meant it would be colder. So he decided on heading north-east towards Nevada. Why, he didn’t really know. It only held bad memories from the time that Teresa had been kidnapped. Nevada nevertheless became his mission.

He made good time in reaching the lower slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The air was crisper and had a bite to it not evident down in the valley. He pulled his jacket closer. He should have brought along the wool lined jacket Scott had bought him last Christmas, but out of pettiness he had left it hanging in the wardrobe. How stupid could a man be? He should have taken what he needed. He sure as hell was owed it for services rendered. He had told his father that first day that Murdoch might have offered ‘listening money’ as the bait, but what he was demanding of them was ‘gun money’. Gun money he had been glad NOT to see. It sort of made his position at the ranch clean. He had a status he could be proud of, untainted by mercenary funds.

And he had thought that he had so much more. Things you couldn’t put a price tag on. Like a home. Love. A family. All that mushy stuff he had previously resolutely kept at a distance. That stuff reserved for other people … until Scott and Murdoch had taught him otherwise.

Shit, why the hell hadn’t he just gone dead north to start with! It was just as cold in the foothills!

Barranca had come to a stand still. Lazily cropping some fresh grass, he seemed to be stating his case that he had had enough of aimless destinations.

And Johnny berated himself for the cowardice he had exhibited for nearly two weeks. He had been going around in virtual circles like a dog which hadn’t yet decided to lie down or not. Suddenly Johnny made up his mind. He was going to fight for Lancer and fight for the truth about Tom. He wasn’t going to let that impostor get the share that had been signed over to him. The past two years just couldn’t be erased that easily.

Johnny reached down and patted his mount’s strong neck. “Yeah, I know, mi amigo. I don’t want to go up into the mountains, either.”

Johnny just didn’t want to give up on his family. It was as simple as that. Johnny pulled the reins to one side and turned west, back down slope towards the far away coast. Towards San Francisco. Towards information about Tom in particular.

 

Chapter Nineteen

Murdoch sat at his desk, just as he had done for over twenty years, head bent over his ledgers. Today and just as they had for over a week, though, the figures refused to do his bidding. Call the tune as he might, none of the numbers fell into order as he commanded. They bucked at his will and fought him at every turn much like the wild broncos fending off the unwelcome weight of the Lancer hands on their backs for the first time.

Or one particular hand. He sighed so deeply, his chest was on the brink of cleaving. More than a hand, Murdoch’s partner. More than a partner, his son. His gut instinct, so conspicuously absent when it should have led his mouth and his actions, had been working on overtime since that disastrous day. Visions of Johnny assailed him at night in his nightmares as well as during the day. He couldn’t turn his mind off. Johnny’s face swam before his eyes at every turn. Johnny’s initial surliness, his cockiness in telling Murdoch that he indeed faced a whole heap of trouble in Pardee, his distress at the slaughter of Maria and her husband that first day, his antagonism to Jeff Dane, his discomfort near Marcy Dane.

These were intertwined with other memories, especially those of the boys together. Johnny and Scott arm wrestling with intense concentration in the kitchen, the boys settling a puzzling debt at the other end of the dining table, Scott catching Johnny over his shoulder before he collapsed into the dirt, blond and black hair meeting over the chess board on the veranda, his sons at the horse auction only barely hiding their amusement when he was outbid for the horses he wanted.

And that expressive face. Murdoch had wanted to pick him up and cradle him after Maddie had left. He had wanted to do anything to remove the devastation from his son’s face. And he recalled Johnny’s proud smile when he presented him with the matching pair to Zanzibar. Until realization struck, that was. The earnestness in his eyes accompanying that light tap on his belly after Johnny had sent Buck Addison on his way and promised that they would handle things together, all of them. As a family, is what Johnny implied.

And so many images of that flashing smile tugged as much at his heartstrings now as they had when Johnny had been a toddler. It was the same smile. An adult version of the toddler’s vibrant grin. He was sure of it.

Firm footsteps intruded on his thoughts. How different to Scott’s light tread and Johnny’s many idiosyncratic styles. Johnny seemed to have a trademark footstep for every mood. Lazy soles languidly scuffing the floor, jingling spurs defining the purposefulness of his stride or catlike stealth, all these shaped a man for all seasons and all intent.

He sighed again. The footsteps approaching were not the ones he ached to hear.

“Hello, Father.”

Murdoch grimaced inwardly, but gave a small smile.

“Hello, Tom. I thought you were out with Cipriano?”

“Yes, we were over by Crazy Creek. It’s been cleared out and the crew is working on the fencing. They are making good time.”

“They’d be making better time if you were working with them.”

Tom stiffened visibly at the reprimand. “There were plenty of hands available. I seemed to be surplus to requirements, so I thought I would come back and keep you company.”

Murdoch digested this. Johnny had once left a fencing job unfinished with disastrous results, but apart from that one time he couldn’t remember him ever leaving the hands to complete a job he had time to help out with. He would have stayed until it was time for them all to pack it in.

“Your consideration is appreciated, but you were down to help out there and you should have stayed until the job was completed.”

“That was totally unnecessary. They will do fine without me. Plus, you have been moping since Scott left. I know you are missing your son.”

Murdoch snapped. He surged to his feet, thumping the desk in his frustration. “SONS! I miss my sons! Both of them!”

“No, Father, you are deluding yourself. What you want is not always what you get, and don’t I well know that! You may not have Scott with you at the moment, but you do have another son here, and I am eager to help you get over this situation.”

Murdoch drew himself up and sucked in a deep breath in a desperate attempt to speak calmly. He wanted his meaning to be loud and clear. “I am NEVER going to get over it. This situation, as you call it, is the loss of a son. It is my betrayal. I showed him no faith. I can NEVER rewind the clock and do it again right. And I will pay for it for the rest of my life. And Scott will pay for it and Johnny will pay for it!”

“You have a son and a grandson here. Surely that should be enough to help ease your pain?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Tom, you really don’t understand. You can’t trade sons. You can’t replace one for another. Each is exquisitely different. If you and Trudy were ever to be blessed with another child you would understand.”

“What I will never understand is how you are clinging to Johnny’s lie. Johnny is gone. And he had no right to be here in the first place, tricking you all with his subterfuge. He was never really here, anyway. He is Luis, Father. He was never your son to love in the first place!”

Murdoch leaned in real close, barely inches from Tom’s nose. He spoke in measured tones barely concealing his fury. “Don’t ever repeat that again in my presence.”

Tom flinched and blanched at the menace dripping from the words.

“And another thing. You grew up with a man you called ‘Father’. You are a bit too old to start calling me ‘Father’, now, don’t you think? Why don’t you call me ‘Murdoch’ like the other boys do?”

Tom’s nostrils flared in anger at the rebuff. Turning abruptly on his heel, he stalked out.

« What have I done ? » Murdoch wondered for the thousandth time since Johnny’s departure.

 

                            ************************************

 

As Scott arrived at yet another adobe structure, a small gust swept heat up at his face and sucked the stuffing out of him. He had had enough. Crosses from the cemetery shimmered in the haze, mocking his attempts to find his brother’s marker. The names on the crosses had long before merged as one Spanish name which could substitute for another. And this cemetery had merely blended into an amalgam of all the others he had seen.

Despondency pushed him onto a low bench near the doorway.

Head hung low, Scott bent forward with his elbows on his thighs and his fingers hanging lax.

For several days he had been searching one churchyard after another. He was sick of the sameness of it.

He studied the dust coating his battered boots and the dry retching caught him by surprise. Several empty heaves later he sat up and wiped the saliva from his mouth on his shirtsleeve. « A very Johnny thing to do, » he thought morosely.

Here he was, disheartened because he couldn’t find his brother’s grave. What was the matter with him? He should be celebrating … shouldn’t he? He really didn’t know any more.

Scott thought about the last telegram he had received from his father. There had still been no word from Johnny at Lancer.

Would this emptiness ever go away?

He sighed and hoisted himself to his feet with a renewed determination to find some information to try to sort out this mess.

He began his methodical search. The routine didn’t vary. He entered the church yard, he inspected the rows of graves just as he had inspected his troops in another low point in his life.  Then he made his enquiries and left both elated and disappointed. Elated that he could not pronounce Johnny dead with certainty, but disappointed that enquiries about his brother brought him no information. It was a closed shop. For the hundredth time, he wondered if he should have brought Cipriano along on this most personal of missions. Cipriano’s presence may just have broken down the barriers erected against his gringo heritage and lack of fluent Spanish.

One more port of call and he would call it quits for the day.

“Did you find what you wanted, Seňor?”

Scott started and shifted the brim of his hat back from his forehead.

“Buenos Dias!” He tipped his hat as he replied. “No, I did not find what I was looking for.”

The woman nodded in response to his manners. “And what might that be?”

“A grave. My little brother’s grave.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Seňor. When did this happen?”

“About ten or eleven years ago.”

“And it happened here?”

“I believe so.”

“But you do not know this?”

“I didn’t live with my brother when we were young. It’s complicated, but I desperately want to find his last resting place.”

“And you did not find his grave here?” She crossed herself in compassion for his suffering. Her empathy caused his raw stomach to clench once again in misery.

“No,” he confirmed simply.

She regarded him pensively. “Sadly for you, I do not think that the local people will remember American travellers passing through.”

“My brother lived here. His mother was Mexican. She lived and worked in the area. They did move around, but he wasn’t gringo in appearance like me.”

“I have not lived here long, but you should try the mission over the bridge. The nuns or the father may know of him. Many of them have been here for years.

Scott thanked her for her kindness and headed for Apollo, who appeared to be dozing off in the shade. A drowsy eye met Scott’s and a sigh of resignation puffed out warm air on Scott’s face, enough to lift some strands of hair not slicked down by sweat.

And so the war continued. A small glimmer of hope that he might find out some information clashed with a big chunk of dread that what he found out might forever banish the image of Johnny holding his Lancer head high returning home from a day’s work on the range. On his range. On their range. Jointly shared, jointly worked, jointly owned.

The mission was just another copy of all the others he had seen and visited. Dusty adobe covered all surfaces, but it was not particularly rundown. The door was surprisingly clean as though someone had wiped away the dust from the panels and grooves not a minute before.

The heavy knocker fell with a loud thump against the solid oak. Scott started with surprise when it opened on well oiled hinges. He had not heard a footfall on the other side. Hope, expectation and fear smothered him. He swallowed them all and trotted out his mannerly smile.

“Buenos Dias.”

The nun replied in kind, enquiring eyes refusing to be subdued by the shadow of her cowl.

“How may I help you?”

“I am looking for my brother … well, my brother’s gravesite to be precise.”

“I am sorry for your loss, but we have no Anglo children here. Only Mexican and Indian.”

His spiel was again repeated. God he was sick of it! “My brother and I don’t resemble each other. His mother was Mexican and he favoured her. It seems he passed away about ten or eleven years ago and spent some time in this area.”

“It seems?”

“We did not grow up together.”

The nun openly contemplated the earnest young man in the doorway before offering him a suggestion. “I see. I was not here then. Perhaps Father Pablo could help you. He has been here about twenty years. His mind is still as sharp as it has always been. He may remember your brother.”

“Thank you. That would be helpful.”

“Come this way.”

Her long habit swished as she quietly led him down a long corridor and then out under a row of arches surrounding a courtyard. It was a different world. Roses scented the air and erased the dusty heat. Scott felt tangibly cooler. Maybe it was the greenery of the garden beds and the terra cotta pots mostly hidden by cascading green tendrils. Shade was afforded not just by the long verandas and colonnades on three sides of the rectangle, but by an ancient oak tree in the centre of the yard and four smaller, less sturdy, but just as refreshing, trees of some indeterminate species in each corner.

Under the oak on a sagging bench sat a priest bent over a book. A bible, Scott presumed. The man was intent on his page and did not bother to swat at the fly buzzing incessantly around his face.

The nun moved forwards, with Scott a mere step behind. The crunch of a pebble under Scott’s boot as he descended the single stone step to the courtyard did interrupt the priest’s concentration, however. He looked up, enquiry etched on his forehead.

“Sister Elena?”

“Please excuse the interruption, Father. This man is looking for his brother.” The good sister’s arm gestured to him and reminded Scott that he had been rude not to introduce himself by name.

“My name is Lancer. Scott Lancer.”

Scott tensed. Did he see a flicker in the older man’s eyes?

The priest did not move at first, but studied him intently. Scott’s stomach balled into a rock as massive as those he had passed at the bases of the many mesas dotting his journey. Perspiration soaked his armpits and annoyed his skin as it began trickling down his torso, teasing an itchy path under his grubby shirt. Scott felt at a disadvantage. He also felt that whatever was said in the next few minutes might just hold a key to the door which had been locked tightly on the Lancer family’s happiness since Father Domingo had crossed their threshold.

“I will bring you both some refreshments.” The whisper of Sister Elena’s habit receded and still Scott and the priest regarded each other.

“Take a seat.”

The bench was warm, but not unpleasantly so. Dappled sunlight found gaps in the clusters of leaves from above, but the shade tempered any sting from the rays. Scott embraced the serenity of the garden, but damned the birds to hell for their incessant chatter while he groped with the right words to get the priest to open up and set his world to rights.

“You have come from afar?”

“Yes, from the northern San Joaquin Valley in California. My father has a ranch there?”

“Your father?”

“Murdoch Lancer.”

A slight nod was all Scott received. Then nothing.

“He built his ranch up from scratch.”

The priest regarded him, eyes unwavering.

“It must have been reassuring for him to have his sons working the land by his side.”

A perfectly innocent assumption. So why did Scott feel like the priest knew that this was not the case?

“I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Boston with my mother’s family after her death.”

“But you returned?”

“Yes, two years ago.”

“Why did it take you so long?” he was bluntly asked.

Skirting around the hub of what mattered most to Scott was irritating, but he swallowed his aggravation. What did it matter to the priest? But for now he went along with the conversation as directed by Father Pablo.

“My father wanted to see me. He also needed my help. I was at a crossroads in my life after the war, so it seemed a good thing to do at the time.”

“You have regrets?”

Scott canted his head and gave a small smile. “None whatsoever.”

“What sort of man is your father?”

“Honourable. Hardworking. Fair.” Scott’s frown eased as he decided on two more suitable adjectives. “And big and bossy.”

The faint smile which flitted over the priest’s lips lent him a less austere image. “Bossy?”

“He likes to call the tune.”

“It is often difficult to share the reins when one is used to steering the wagon and choosing which path to take.”

“Indeed it is, but sometimes taking another path can still get you to the same destination.”

“But the experiences along the way are not the same.”

“No, they are not. Nor can they ever be. And no man should expect to dictate in which direction another heads, either.”

The priest was smiling openly now, years falling off his face in the process. “You are a wise man for one so young,” he complimented Scott.

Father Pablo breathed deeply, contemplating a bird busily extracting nectar from a blood red rose. Scott’s attention drifted from the man’s now serious expression to the uplifting sight of the darting bird. The question, when it came so unexpectedly, jolted him from his reverie and left him uncomfortable with the sudden weight of memories he had spent the past few years neatly compacting into a sealed package in a rarely visited section of his brain. “But you mentioned the war. Was it possible that YOU were required to dictate the fate of others at that time?”

The battlefield bile stung his mouth yet again. He swallowed the bitterness, angered that he was having a conversation he didn’t want or need. This was not helping him find out the truth about Johnny.

But he answered anyway. How could he not when he didn’t know where this was going?

“Yes.”

“That is a heavy burden to bear.”

Scott clamped his mouth shut in a straight line. He didn’t trust himself to start on this subject. A faint nod would do.

Apparently it was sufficient to satisfy the priest, for he steered away from the raw topic.

“And so you resent your father for the same thing? How did you put it, for being ‘bossy’? For bossing you, a grown man, when you grew up unprotected from his wing?”

The bird analogy tickled Scott’s fancy and also took the pressure off his own private hell which had started to simmer too strongly during the course of the conversation. He grinned.

“At times, yes,” he answered frankly, “But mostly I’ve come to respect his authority. And just occasionally,” he confessed, “I even like it.”

Scott blinked. It wasn’t the glare of the sun. Realization hit him that he DID sometimes like to know that his father was looking over his shoulder and trying to use his own hard won experience to direct his sons. In short, doing some fathering. It was what fathers did. And he suspected that Johnny had mostly come to accept that Murdoch could not help himself. He was protecting his empire for his sons and found it difficult to give these mature men the control they wanted.

Just when Scott thought that the serpentine conversation had deviated too far from his purpose, the priest spoke again.

“So your brother grew up with you or with your father?”

The man knew. Scott knew he knew. So why was he being teased with questions seemingly off the tangent? With too much to lose he played along, following the padre’s lead.

“With neither of us. He grew up in Mexico. He was born on the ranch, but his mother took him away when he was two. She was my father’s second wife.”

“I see. Why would a mother do that?”

“I don’t know. I never met the woman. Maybe she didn’t put her son’s needs above her own?”

The padre lifted an eyebrow in response to Scott’s dry tone. This was given consideration. “Possibly. So you are older and you are looking for your little hermano, this boy you have never met?”

“Oh, I’ve met him all right. He came back to the ranch at the same time that I did. On the very same coach, much to our mutual surprise.”

”Surprise or shock?”

“Definitely a bit of both. I don’t know who was more shocked!” Scott’s smile was infectious. The priest answered it in kind.

Swishing skirts and rattling glasses heralded the arrival of their refreshments. The sister had brought them cool lemonade in a tall jug covered by a bead edged cloth to keep the flies out. She set the tray between them, filled up their glasses and gestured to the plate of cheese, ragged bread slices and fat figs oozing with juice.

Their thanks were greeted with a warm smile and then she was gone as quickly as she had reappeared, taking her whispering habit with her.

“If he came home, then why are you looking for him here?”

The question stopped Scott in the act of sipping his lemonade. Just how did he answer that?

The weight of worry and weariness slammed down on him. He rubbed his forehead and eyes, hoping for some clarity as he wondered indeed why the hell he had coming looking for Johnny in this Mexican wasteland.

“That’s a long and complicated story.”

Scott sucked some air into his lungs and pressed his lips together on his uncertainty before all the anguish came tumbling out.

“It often is. I cannot imagine that you undertook this journey lightly, so what pressed you to do so?”

“We were told recently that my brother died ten or so years ago and that his gravestone may be in the vicinity.”

“If that is the case, then who is the man you said came home with you on the same stage?”

Scott swallowed painfully. “My brother. I know he’s my brother, but a few weeks ago a…” Scott paused and took in Father Paolo’s robes. “…a priest came to our ranch, claiming that the man I had come to know as my brother was really his younger brother Luis, and that Johnny was buried in a grave in these parts. He had a photograph to prove it.”

Scott’s words hung in the air. There was no response to them.

“Can you help me find the truth, Father?”

Sharp eyes considered the younger man as he rubbed his chin. “I could ask you to pray for revelation. It can work, my Son. And I should ask you to look into your heart for it is there that you will find the truth.” The priest stopped to study the effect of his words, but then continued matter of factly. “But there are times when a man craves physical evidence that black is black and white is white and that no grey exists in between, wouldn’t you agree?”

Scott lips curled up in appreciation of his frankness. “Indeed. Much less worrisome.”

“But I don’t know if I can help you. You have come all this way for proof you really may not want to find. If I found such proof that the man you call your brother is in actual fact NOT your brother, you may not choose to believe it.”

Nodding miserably at the words, Scott had to admit he agreed. He needed to see the gravestone in the photo, but once he found it, all he would be doing is proving that he and Johnny had no blood ties. And Scott damned Father Domingo for eternity for invading the Lancer hacienda with his unwelcome accusations.

“Well, Mr Lancer, you have told me that you have been informed that your brother is not your brother. I don’t think that you have told me all of it. Don’t you think that you should tell me the WHOLE story? It might help you to talk about it. Surely your family did not take the accusation lightly, yet why would a priest feel compelled to share this news and bring evidence with him? I am perplexed.”

“You’re not the only one, Father.”

A deep sigh from Scott heralded his story. He recounted what he knew and what he suspected. It took some time and he was surprised the find the lemonade jug empty when he reached over to pour himself yet another refreshing drink to soothe his parched throat.

Silence followed his last words. Father Paolo rested both hands in the opposite sleeves while his eyes focused pensively on the jasmine entangled on the lattice of the far wall.

Scott’s mouth felt sour. The re-telling had reinforced in his mind his betrayal of Johnny. What did this say about himself when one considered the very fact that he was here looking for Johnny’s grave stone?

The priest read his thoughts. “And what would be the benefit of finding this headstone?” he nudged Scott with his words.

Scott didn’t know if he could voice the depths of his inner turmoil. He had glossed over some of his emotions during his explanation to the priest.

He yet again pondered the question which had been plaguing him the whole trip. But then he spoke before he had a chance to phrase sentences which would come out as eloquent, but not from the heart.

“I had to follow up on the priest’s story. If I don’t find out the truth, then I’ll never be able to convince Johnny that I want to continue to be involved in his life. I can’t have him thinking that I am hedging my bets because I just don’t know. I need to know the truth. I can’t move forward without knowing if we are brothers or not. I want him to be, but if he is not, then at least I know how the land lies and I can start at re-working at some sort of relationship with him.”

“And what does your brother want?”

“Johnny wants to be wanted. He wants to be a part of our family but he is too pigheaded to admit it! I know that if he thinks that we are unsure about his blood ties, then he won’t impose.” Scott snorted softly. “He is very noble, my brother. Chivalrous, in fact. I often think that he is a leftover from the days of knights in shining armour rescuing people, damsels and animals, in distress.”

The priest smiled in understanding. “He sounds like a rare man.”

Scott’s serious eyes met the padre’s. “Yes, he is. He has a way of touching people’s lives. And that is also why I know that he can’t be this Luis. He has to be exactly who he has claimed to be these past two years. And that means that he didn’t kill Father Domingo. He is no murderer and I aim to prove it!”

“But if he is not Johnny, then he must have lied to you,” the priest reasoned.

Scott shook his head adamantly. “Not knowingly!” He raised his voice in exasperation and thumped the bench with his fist. Immediately, he was contrite. “I’m sorry, Father.” He took several; deep breaths. “Look, I have been trying to sort out what I need to do first. The way I see it, I need to establish whether there is any truth in what Father Domingo said. My gut feeling tells me that there was something strange about the whole story and I intend to discount it. Once I have more information, I’ll be in a better position to find out exactly who murdered Father Domingo and get the law off Johnny’s back. Then, I might have a hope of setting everything to rights with Johnny. If I ever find him, that is. If he wants to stay out of sight, then invisible he will be.”

“Ah, that is a difficult issue, especially if you don’t know his whereabouts! Rewinding the clock, undoing the harm and the hurt feelings will not be easy.”

Scott’s eyes fixed on him. “I don’t expect it to be. It never really is when Johnny’s concerned, but he’s worth it!”

“And is your new brother … Tom … is he worth it?”

Leaning forward, Scott bowed his head into his hands. He dug his fingers through his hair, almost gouging furrows along his scalp.

“I haven’t quite got that far,” he sighed in answer. “I want to sort this out with Johnny first before I deal with Tom.”

“What if the two are inextricably linked?”

“Pardon?”

“What if you can’t deal with one without knowing your loyalty to the other?”

Perhaps the priest had a valid point, but the conversation had allowed Scott to know for certain where his efforts should lie for the present. “I need to find out about Johnny. I need some answers here. Then I can move on to tackle Johnny himself. I have a feeling that whatever I uncover will have some bearing on the charges against him. I’ll deal with Tom where and when it’s necessary. I’ve got to sort this mess out first.”

Father Pablo did not respond immediately.

Scott suddenly realized that the father was standing over him, his body blocking the filtered sunlight. He had not seen him stand, so immersed was he in his thoughts. Scott looked up at the face which loomed over his. The hand gestured for him to rise.

“I am not usually wrong in my summation of my fellow man. I detect that you are a man of integrity. I needed to be sure in my mind and heart that I could tell you of things best kept quiet. Come. I wish to show you something.”

The priest had already turned and he was receding steadily down the veranda.

Almost in panic, Scott realized that the grey robes were about to turn the corner out of sight. He lurched to his feet and jogged to catch up, breathless from the strain of possibly discovering at last what he really didn’t want to know.

They passed wordlessly through a long hall. A refectory of some sort, the neat rows of spotless tables and benches would have seen countless meals provided for grateful mouths, Scott surmised.

Exiting through a solid oak doorway, they descended stone steps and strode along a stony track under the windows of the building to a stone wall. A wooden gate, no longer quite at right angles, barred their path. The gate, however, seemed unnecessary as the wall was low and parts of it had fallen into disrepair. Piles of rocks spewed intermittently where the wall had been breeched by the effects of weather or shoddy workmanship.

The gate screeched open under Father Pablo’s hand.

Scott hesitated. His lungs felt tight with anxiety, as if he had held his breath under water and had poorly gauged how much air to keep in reserve.

Behind the padre Scott could see rows of graves. Some had fanciful headstones with statues and ornaments. Others were basic in style and inscription. Still more had markers with the writing erased, the owner of the resting place no longer legible with the passage of time.

Scott found his legs following the padre.

At the far end of the cemetery, the priest came to a stop then beckoned Scott down a slight slope.

“Here,” Father Pablo whispered.

The place that was indicated was a refuse site of sorts. There was no household waste, but there were other items strewn around.

Scott’s eyes locked on the block of stone indicated. It was lopsided, resting at an angle against an old broken barrel and what looked like misshapen wagon wheel.

The words ‘Aquí reposa John Madrid Lancer Santiago, Hijo de María y Murdoch Lancer, Edad - 12 aňos’ nearly pole-axed him.

 

 

Chapter Twenty

Scott sank to his knees, gasping for some sort of breathable air. The more he stared at the words, the more they taunted him. But this was what he had been searching for after all, wasn’t it?

The words on the gravestone seared his eyes as the world in his peripheral vision spun out of control. A compassionate hand on his shoulder settled him down a little, however, giving him an anchor to draw strength from.

“Come! Sit here,” commanded father Paolo. Scott was guided to a tree trunk long since felled and partly covered in sand and weeds.

Scott wiped his face with his hands and hoped that his world would soon stop wobbling. He didn’t feel too well. He didn’t know if he’d ever feel well again.

“This has caused you great pain. Let me explain as best I can.”

Scott only vaguely heard the padre begin speaking. His head in his shaking hands, he fought back the tears stinging his eyes.

“I knew Johnny as a child. I knew his mother as well.”

This got his attention. He swiped at his eyes and sniffed.

“Johnny was an ebullient child. Spontaneous and wilful, but with an inner core of kindness which I could but admire. He did not have an easy time of it with his mixed race. Those eyes of his meant that he could never gloss over the truth of his heritage.”

 

Scott’s own eyes had suddenly focused and were fixed on the priest’s.

“His mother was well known. She was … fickle, I think the word is. She was mercurial in temper and liable to change her mind about things with no notice. You never really knew what made her happy. I don’t think she knew, either. She was lonely, being a single mother. She … sought men to ease the loneliness and share the burden. You alluded to this, so it is not news to you. You mentioned Father Domingo coming to your home to offer his condolences and you mentioned that afterwards Johnny told you that his mother and Father Domingo had had a liaison.

“Yes.”

“This is awkward for the Church, Mr Lancer. I would ask you not to share this indiscriminately, but I cannot but feel a measure of guilt here. I knew what was going on between them. So did others. We did not know how to handle it, so we ignored their behaviour, hoping it would go away. In doing so we did Johnny a great disservice.”

Scott nodded, his mind racing.

“Father Domingo did not like Johnny and saw him as an impediment to his own ends. He did not treat him well. He did not treat Maria well. He did not treat his vows well.”

Scott watched the padre’s mouth set in a firm line and the sinews in his neck bunch up as he clenched his jaw.

“Oh.” Scott chided himself. Is that all he could think of to say when he was told that his brother was maltreated as a child? “Just how did he mistreat Johnny?” he asked.

“He always found fault with him for being the kind of boy he was.”

“And what kind of boy was he?”

The father smiled, his eyes crinkling in fond remembrance. “He was rambunctious, but never a mean or nasty child. He was a survivor. He had to be.”

Not for the first time Scott compared his childhood with Johnny’s. And not for the first time he recoiled in contemplating Johnny’s hardships when growing up.

“Father Domingo even found excuses to blame him at will for any random problem. And he exacted what he deemed to be just punishments. Extra chores … or corporal punishment.”

Anger surged through Scott. “So Johnny suffered at his foul hands and nobody stepped into protect him! You knew and did nothing?”

“No, that is not the case. I did what I could. He was hardly the only child in the township to be walloped for misdemeanours. Most adults followed the credo of ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ and they still do.  I offered Johnny sanctuary if he needed to make himself scarce. Maria did not always appreciate my efforts, though, and accused me of encouraging him to defy her. She was not an easy woman to deal with, although strangely, she loved the boy in her own way. Her lifestyle may not have been the most wholesome, but there was a genuine affection between her and her son.”

“But that affection did not prevent her having relationships which were detrimental to Johnny’s welfare, did it? Johnny was mistreated by Father Domingo and then man had the gall to come to our home and to offer his commiserations!”

“This particular priest was short on ethics. There were … anomalies … with the poor box, general funds and even with our artefacts.”

“Go on.”

“I suspected him of this wrongdoing.”

Father Pablo gazed at Scott to decipher his reaction. He chose to continue, deliberately choosing his words. “Maria Lancer’s position became untenable in this village a result of this affair. She was a pariah. Young Juanito had already had a time of it. When the good father chose another woman to while away his time with, Maria had to leave. People no longer held back their disgust for her. Before, even though no one approved of the situation, she had been protected by his position in the church. No one dared speak up until after he was finished with her. Women then ostracized her and men sought her out to take advantage of her. She ended up leaving, taking Juanito with her. I heard that she died a year or so later.”

Surprised, Scott jumped in. “Wait! She took Johnny with her? Then why is this gravestone here and why isn’t it in the cemetery proper anyway?”

The priest held out is hand to calm Scott’s urgency. “Let me continue and you will find out.”

Scott wanted to scream that he could not bear waiting any longer, but he clenched his teeth and gave a not of consent.

“Now, where was I? Yes, she left a little while after their sordid affair ended. The final straw was when she confronted Father Domingo’s new paramour and there was a nasty public fight.”

“How could she behave like that?” Scott wondered out loud. “Especially when she had a child to consider.”

“Life can be cruel for a woman, Seňor Lancer. A man is not always able to understand the difficulties a woman faces without a husband to fend for her.”

Scott felt chastened. He realized that the priest was right. “But how could a priest break his vows in such an offensive manner? Surely one liaison lasting some time, let alone two, would have borne heavily on his conscience?”

“Indeed, it would … normally. But not with this man, I fear. He stayed here as bold as brass for another two years. He moved on to another mission then and things were going well here until he returned last year. He had not changed his ways. Still as despicable as ever!”

Father Pablo’s face had become animated and a clenched fist struck his own thigh.

“I could not live with myself standing back and protecting him any longer. Several months ago I travelled to Mexico City to instigate steps for his removal from our church. The Church must not continue to protect vermin like that. I discovered that there had been complaints against him elsewhere, but no action had been taken.”

Scott considered the damage a man in his position could do and he cringed inwardly.

“You understand that this is not something I would normally speak of?”

“Yes, I understand that,” Scott assured him solemnly.

“I owe it to Juanito to tell you what I discovered when I got back. I arrived back from Mexico City earlier than expected. I walked through the cemetery as I often do and I discovered Juanito’s headstone. It had not been there before I left."

Scott felt as lost as a ship tossed on storm enraged seas, buffeted by too much from all sides.

“So someone erected a tomb stone in Johnny’s memory? But you said he left with Maria and Father Dominic said he died about ten years ago. Why would someone suddenly organize a headstone now?”

“Exactly. Take a look at it carefully, Mr Lancer. Although new, the stone work has been aged with dirt and some of the edges have been damaged. Deliberately so is my guess, maybe with a chisel, to make it look like it had been there for some time.”

Scott was perplexed, but he felt some light dawning in the dark tunnel which he felt had trapped him since Johnny had departed. He wanted confirmation of his growing suspicions, so he asked the question.

“And who do you think did that, Father?”

The old man shook his head sadly. “I don’t think. I know. My investigations informed me that Father Domingo had organized for a photograph to be taken of the grave. He had tried to do so on the quiet, but he did not bargain for the villagers who had taken it upon themselves to keep an eye out while I was gone. He also had intended removing it before my return. I knew he was up to some sort of skulduggery, but I did not understand his purpose. Your arrival here today has solved my riddle, I am saddened to say.”

Scott’s brain had been working to piece it all together. The only logical conclusion is that the priest had come to their home deliberately hoping to fool them into believing that Johnny was dead and using the photograph as his indisputable proof.

“So this was a set up by Father Dominic?”

“Yes, a set up as you say. Johnny is alive. There is no grave. You said that Juanito became Johnny Madrid. I can vouch for that. I followed his ‘career’ as best I could. I ran into him at Nogales when I was visiting the church there. He had come to pray and we had quite a chat and shared a meal. I later heard about his imprisonment and had been reliably informed that he had finally reunited with his father on the ranch after his escape.”

“So our Johnny is your Juanito, you believe? He IS my brother?”

“Yes, if the man who arrived at your ranch is confirmed as Johnny Madrid, then this is so.”

“Yes, his identity has been confirmed many times over, none the least by our local sheriff.” Scott breathed some invigorating air. “And Luis?”

“There is no Luis. There never was a Luis. He is a figment of Father Domingo’s despicable imagination. I will swear it on a holy bible.”

Scott needed to hear this. How he had been hoping to be told what he had wanted to believe. He drew his shoulders back and straightened with the ease of one no longer burdened by grief.

“But why would the padre do this? It all seems so … elaborate.”

Wise eyes locked with his. “I think that he found out the reason for my trip to Mexico City. I thought that I had not let anything slip, but he is a cunning man. My guess is that he could see that he would not have long to enjoy his role as priest. He could see that the Church was not likely to protect him for much longer. Often, too much is hidden from the public eye so as not to destroy the Church’s reputation. The bishops had had enough, though, and he knew that my information would hasten the end. I think, too, that he was concerned that there could be charges over the years of missing funds and objects of value. He feared prison. This was his last ditch effort before he fled last month.

“But what did he hope to gain, other than destroying our family? What was in it for him?”

”He asked for no money?”

“No, none at all.”

Conversation ceased for a moment as both men tried to figure out Father Domingo’s angle. Scott’s mind was working furiously as he worked through one theory and then the next. And then he reverted to earlier theories, examining them more thoroughly.

One idea kept surfacing. It seemed far-fetched, but no more so than the events of the past few weeks.

Feeling Father Pablo’s eyes were regarding him intently, he looked up. The enormity of his conclusion sapped his lungs of breath for a moment. And then he saw it. Confirmation. The priest’s had also arrived at the same junction.

 

                                         ***************************

Johnny arrived in San Francisco with renewed zest now that he had a goal.

For too long he had drifted and pretended he was happy being carefree, making camp or breaking camp as he desired. He had hunted for food as necessary and had taken too long about it in order to fill up the longs days of isolation. He had no dumb cows to wrestle, no fences to fix, no orders to follow, no schedule to keep. And he hated it more each day.

But now he was invigorated by his quest. He had walked miles as he noted the busy firms in the central business district and he was left scratching his head as to where to start. In Morro Coyo he could stand on the boardwalk, look around and see all the businesses without moving one single step. This was a different kettle of fish. There was a lot more ground to cover. This did not mean, however, that news of his enquiries would not travel fast if he were not careful.

He had been to San Francisco the previous year with Scott and Murdoch. He didn’t like the city much and less so now without them for company. It was too big for him. Scott had told him that it was thought to be the tenth biggest city in America. Big sure didn’t make it beautiful or better.

It was bustling with hotels, restaurants, parks, churches, schools, libraries and academies. It even had synagogues. Scott had explained the buildings to Johnny when he had commented on them. You learned something new every day with Scott around, Johnny surmised. Scott had also explained the origin of the unusual green boats at Fisherman’s Wharf. Johnny consequently discovered that the Italian immigrant fisherman constructed these feluccas based on the small fishing boats used in their home land and were putting them to good use in San Francisco’s choppy bay.

And that had been an eye opener for Johnny. Even along the border towns he had never seen so many nationalities. He didn’t think that he had ever seen an Italian before visiting the wharf with Scott one morning. Despite the foreign language shouted from one to the other as catches were unloaded, Johnny had felt an affinity for this race. Something about their looks and their language had reminded him of the Spanish part of his ancestry.

San Francisco was a city busting to be cultured, all right, but it had a long way to go.

Decent women were scarce where he had grown up, but there was a dearth of women of most kinds in this city. Once again, he hardly saw any women on the streets. What women there were usually came out at nights and not in the more respectable areas of town.

 

Scott and Johnny had visited the Barbary Coast. The roughness and bawdiness of the Mexican shanty border towns had nothing on this section of San Francisco. It was like a foreign town with its own brand of threatening lawlessness. Johnny had not felt comfortable there. Danger had been lurking, sending him signals he could not ignore. Despite the attentions of some of the French saloon girls with their exotic and sultry accents, he had wanted an early night alone in his own hotel room. Scott had needed no urging to call it quits, either.

Scott. There he was again. Memories connected to Scott had accompanied his whole trip westwards from Lancer. And Scott was what made the memories special.

Yet here he was alone. And it looked like he just might have to get used to it.

And rather than wonder about what could have been and what might be, he had work to occupy himself.

He pondered the best way to logically undertake his investigations. Tom had said that he had worked mostly in banking, accounting, shipping and importing. He gave the impression of being a bit of an accountant for these firms, while dabbling in law, contracts and settlements on the side. Should he start at Fisherman’s Wharf, or should he go to Market Street where many other businesses were located? In the end Johnny decided to search for Tom’s workplace closer to the port. Johnny began at one end of the wharf and continued parallel to the shore. He then began radiating away and upward from the port. Johnny Madrid had needed to be methodical when he was looking for something. Johnny Lancer had even more to lose and endeavoured to make sure he missed nothing.

 

The business offices resembled in no way the residences in the city. Many of the homes were like peas in a pod. Mostly grey or black, they had a uniformity about them that was not displeasing owing to the slightly different decorations on each. They all seemed to have steep roofs, with tall, often bay, windows. Little windows servicing attics were located at the top. They seemed very skinny to Johnny after the more sprawling nature of the hacienda.  They also had no space around them. They had common walls with their neighbours and no yards at all. To Johnny’s mind they looked like a whole congregation of worshippers in church on a particularly busy Sunday morning, each jostling for some elbow room in the pew. Steep, narrow steps led up to each porch, which made him think that San Franciscans must get mighty tired of all those hills, leading to all those steps and all those three storey staircases inside.

The businesses occupied entirely different premises. Some were in fine, proud stone buildings, but most were straggling wooden structures which lacked the neatness of the houses. Some were spruced up ready to face the future with optimism, while others were severely rundown, with loose planks hanging sadly on their scarred walls. While he suspected that Tom had worked for one of the more affluent firms, he nevertheless kept his eyes and ears open.

Several days were spent exploring the city and port, reading back issues of newspapers in the library, and getting a feel for the place before making specific enquiries. Some snippets of information could be of help, but overall this proved to be a disheartening experience. The various business owners he had approached didn’t know Tom, lied about knowing him or plainly didn’t care.

Johnny would not be dissuaded, however. He set out again in the early morning fog. True to form it lifted not long afterwards as he stopped in front of yet another establishment. He had extracted a strong lead from a talkative and very pretty secretary at the bank around the corner, and he hoped that her willingness to help meant that her information was reliable.

This was a solid stone structure, with a symmetrical façade. Nearly a dozen steps, bordered by stone balustrades, led to the main entrance. Panelled double doors headed the steps and on the side of each doorway was a narrow leadlight window with diamond shaped blue, red and opaque glass pieces which lessened the austerity of the brown stone. Two large handles protruded from the shiny brass plates where both sides of the doors met in the middle of the entrance. Not a finger mark marred the mirror finish. Johnny made sure he remedied that.

Not thinking that Murdoch would be too willing to spill the beans too soon on the Lancer family’s messy private affairs, he decided to keep the true need for his investigations quiet. Some truth would be necessary, however. In the past, a doctored form of the truth had often been his most effective way of getting the information he wanted. So it was Johnny Lancer who entered ready to spin his own brand of truth. He just made sure that the fibs were not too outrageous.

“May I help you?” a man aged in his mid forties asked. His beaming smile was trotted out self confidently, but the client pleaser was marred by crooked front teeth

“I hope so,” Johnny replied. “Allow me to introduce myself. The name’s Johnny Lancer from the northern San Joaquin Valley. And you might be?”

“Anthony Waters. I’m a partner here at Maddison and Waters. How do you do?”

“Howdy,” Johnny replied as he extended his arm to shake the proffered hand.

“And what can I do to assist you?”

“My family is looking to expand. We own a ranch, but frankly we’re looking to add to our business interests. Spread our wealth to create more wealth, you might say. We don’t want to put all our eggs into one basket, or in our case put all our cattle in one paddock.” Johnny paused, noticing that his lame sense of humour was not appreciated. “We had some very good advice from an acquaintance who said that he had worked for you in importing.”

“And who was this acquaintance who recommended us?”

“Tom Phelps.”

The flicker in the eyes was there.

“Tom Phelps?”

“Yeah. Tall guy. Just over six feet. Mid twenties.”

“Where did you meet him?”

Johnny recognized hedging when he met it. Johnny did his own hedging around the truth with a white lie. “My father met him while at a meeting at Stockton.”

“I see.”

At any other time Johnny might have been amused at the obvious signs of ‘delay before deciding’. The knowledge that he was going to be fed some sort of garbage before being dismissed hardened his resolve.

“That’s right. I believe that he worked for you?”

“The name seems familiar. I’m just trying to place him.”

Johnny looked around. The entry foyer at the top of the stairs was small. The reception area of the office was delineated from it by one of those useless thigh high timber fences, similar to balustrades. The sort of little barriers with a small gate you pushed open to enter the premises properly. It might keep well behaved people out, but you need not bother with at all if you just stepped over it, Johnny decided.

The reception area had a huge window with a view down the hill to the harbour. Johnny could see ships starkly spotted against the blue water through the transparent, and surprisingly, feminine lace curtains. Several feet away and under the window, but facing it in an arc, were three armchairs. Expensive ones made of genuine burgundy leather with deep diamond studs. Their colour added a richness to the room, proclaiming a sense of prosperity.

There was a large desk to one side with two straight backed chairs with velvet padded seats for clients. A man worked here, all attention on the letters before him. Three trays on the edge of his desk were filled with paperwork. They were so neat that Johnny wondered if Scott had been there before him. Two other doors led from the office space. Each was labelled with a name.

Johnny really did not think that a former employee could be forgotten in such a compact, albeit well appointed, office. He sighed. A prompt was necessary. The man had been given long enough to think.

“It don’t look like a man could get lost in the crowds up here.”

“Well, we have a subsidiary company located down on the waterfront.”

« Damn! » Johnny had missed that.

“That so?”

“It trades as ‘Oriental Imports’.”

“Uh huh.” Johnny found his head nodding while he thought about this.

Mr Waters did not comment or attempt to encourage the conversation. His forehead seemed glossier than when Johnny had arrived. Some of the sheen formed outright droplets on his skin at his temples and along with upper lip. In Johnny’s opinion, though, it wasn’t hot enough to account for his discomfort. The man’s white handkerchief was pulled from its elegant arrangement in the breast pocket of his jacket and used to soak up some of the moisture. When it was hastily returned to its original resting place, it peeked out limp and sodden, all sense of class erased by the man’s damp perspiration.

“Oriental Imports?” Johnny feigned nonchalance.

The man nodded. “Most of our workforce is down there. My partner and I, with an assistant or two, work here.”

Johnny grinned. “I guess it’s a bit more impressive for new clients up here.”

Mister Waters smiled in acknowledgement.

There was another silence. Johnny merely stood there. He wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and certainly not until he had some information. His gut told him that he had hit jackpot. He just couldn’t yet work out what that jackpot was.

Waiting and watching could be interesting. Sometimes Murdoch seemed to think that Johnny was impatient and rash. Murdoch had never seemed to realize that when Johnny behaved spontaneously it was merely a backlash, a reaction to all the times when he hadn’t been able to be impulsive. There was some irony in that he carefully chose those times to let his head go. But most of the time the Johnny Madrid in him couldn’t let him rush things. Patience was something he had cultivated in order to survive. Murdoch just didn’t seem to appreciate this.

Murdoch! Hell, did Murdoch even appreciate anything about him at all? He sure was ready to accept Tom in a hurry. And he was sure quick to show indecision about Johnny’s place in the family and at Lancer.

Be damned if it wasn’t Murdoch who was the rash one.

Thoughts of Murdoch suddenly took the fun away from toying with the man in front of him. He wanted facts and he wanted them now.

“So, we were talking about Tom,” Johnny nudged.

“Yes, I think I remember. He worked for us last year for a while. I didn’t have much to do with him at the time as I was ill with pneumonia. He worked in the office here at that time, so I didn’t actually work with him for that long. And when I recovered I was spending some time on my election campaign.”

“Election campaign?”

“For Mayor.”

“Oh? Good luck in the elections, then.”

”Thank you.”

“I thought he worked with your company for about a year.”

“I wouldn’t have thought it was that long, but one month can slide into another before you know it.”

“Ain’t that a fact.”

The man coughed into his bunched fist. Johnny thought that the action was more a time filler to give him something to do than serving any useful purpose. So Johnny waited, wondering how long before the man’s curiosity initiated more conversation. Johnny had his own time fillers. Hooking his hands into his belt and just slouching was one of them.

Mister Waters did not have Johnny’s patience. “So, what do you want?” he suddenly barked in an unbusinesslike way. Johnny did not think that his manner would have customer appeal.

“So, Tom thought you might have some ideas for the expansion of our interests. He said that you act as a sort of broker and help people set up their affairs. Is that the case?”

“Well, our role is varied. We give advice to our customers. We help with the accounting, transfers and the settlements.”

“But you also trade as well down on the waterfront?”

“Er, that is so.”

“So what does this ‘Oriental Imports’ import?”

”Oriental things.”

Johnny laughed. “Obviously!” he commented dryly. “Such as?” On the surface he retained his charm. Underneath he was fed up with this cat and mouse game … and intrigued as to why this man was so reluctant to say anything at all.

“Oh, furniture, statues, china, vases, spices, materials. There is a ready market here from both the Chinese population as well as the European citizens who find an exotic allure in these products.”

“It’s a profitable market, eh?”

“There is no point in being in business if one doesn’t make money.”

“I couldn’t agree more. So how do you suggest that I do likewise? Tom said that this was a stable firm with a lot of prestige. You can’t trust everyone with your money, you know.”

The beads of perspiration were back with a vengeance. Johnny wondered if the man could have any more water in his system left at all. But more to the point, just why was he so edgy?

“No, indeed.”

“He said that you would see me right … maybe let me in on a winner. Perhaps give me an inside tip that you wouldn’t tell everybody.”

The man’s reticence intrigued Johnny was more than ever.

“So, what do you reckon?” Johnny drawled in his lazy way.

“I am pleased that Mr Phelps has such faith in us, but there are other companies who could perhaps put some ideas your way.”

Johnny enjoyed erasing his hopefulness.

“Nah! I don’t like doing business without a referral. It’s safer that way, if you catch my drift.”

“Yes perfectly, Mr Lancer. Perhaps if I dwell on this and consider the best option for you, rather than rush in and get your hopes up over something unsuitable?”

“That would be mighty fine of you, Mr Waters. How about I call in on you later in the week?”

“Excellent! I’ll give it some thought. Allow me to show you out.”

Johnny left Mr Waters in the foyer after shaking the man’s slimy hand. Once outside he wiped the wetness off on his pants with distaste.

Johnny was on to something, but he was clueless to define it. A return to the waterfront in the vicinity of ‘Oriental Imports’ was required, but perhaps a decent meal might help him decipher just what the hell he seemed to have stumbled on.

 

Chapter Twenty One

Johnny found a small restaurant run by an Italian family and settled gratefully into the seat he was shown. The range of dishes was a mystery to him, so he asked the owner to choose for him. The waiter cheerfully obliged, setting before him a dish of whitish clumps smothered in tomato. Johnny looked up enquiringly.

”It’s ravioli.” Johnny’s face must have remained blank. Further comment was deemed necessary. “It is very good. You will enjoy it.”

And it had been, although not as spicy as he liked. It had filled his empty belly and given him renewed energy to get his thoughts into motion.

The waterfront, and Oriental Imports in particular, seemed like his next best move. Mr Waters was hiding something, but Johnny was mystified by whatever that something might be. Hopefully he could poke around a bit and pry some information out of somebody who might know something. Johnny snorted silently to himself. It was mighty hard to ask questions when you didn’t know what exactly you were looking for in the first place.

He thanked his ebullient waiter and set off, determination etched on his face. The closer he got, his features became grimmer with the challenge ahead. His family unit had been blown apart with Tom’s visit and if he could find anything suspect about Tom he was hell bent on getting it.

The waterfront both fascinated him with its liveliness and also cautioned him with its seediness. His senses were on alert as he scanned all around him and made sure that he wasn’t crowded in a potentially lethal situation.

Johnny prowled the warehouses and dilapidated offices, eyes searching for any detail he may have missed last time. And he finally found it. A slanting porch shielded a deeply recessed doorway and shop front located between a saloon and what could only be a brothel. Johnny smirked. He sure couldn’t think of another logical reason for the sudden abundance of women and in daringly low cut dresses at that.

A display of Asian goods cluttered the shop front and caught his attention. Not quite Baldemero’s, but the interesting variety of articles was probably enough to entice some passers-by to the premises. Johnny had the feeling that the firm was probably more reliant on regular customers than on passing trade, though.

He walked around the block, reconnoitring the area. A mixture of all the expected businesses and filthy alleyways provided no surprises. He made his way back slowly to his starting point. A drink was in order, he decided.

The saloon was rowdy, the drink flowing and the women plentiful. He had no sooner approached the bar and leaned his elbows on the counter than a curvaceous woman joined him, pressing her ample bosom against his arm.

“You look thirsty,” she purred.

“I am,” Johnny replied.

“George!”

Her strident call rang in his ears and echoed long after her mouth had closed on the one syllable.

“I’m comin’, Henrietta! Don’t get those fancy pantaloons of yours in a pucker!”

George, all two hundred and fifty pounds of him, waddled over. “What’ll it be, mister?”

“You got whiskey?”

“This is a saloon, ain’t it?” George did not seem to expect an answer. He reached for a bottle from the shelf behind him and slopped some of its contents into a surprisingly clean looking glass. It slid the short distance, stopping snugly in Johnny’s grasp.

Flesh pressed harder against Johnny. He glanced at Henrietta. Her pout was masterful.

“And one for the lady here,” Johnny amended his order.

Her face was transformed as she smiled in thanks. She, too, fielded a glass which slid unceremoniously towards her.

Johnny nodded to the barman and dropped some coins on the bar.

George made haste to collect them. “Much obliged.”

No change was offered. George turned to serve other customers as Henrietta tapped her glass against Johnny’s. “I can tell a gentleman when I see one.”

Johnny nodded and sipped his drink.

“Have you worked here long?”

She smiled, not unprettily. “Why, how do you know that I’m not just on an outing from home?”

Johnny glanced at her attire, her cleavage drawing more of his attention than was seemly. “Ma’am, with all due respects, not too many respectable women would go out and about in that outfit.”

She looked him in the eye, seemed to think about being outraged, but then just laughed.

“I’ve been here for about eighteen months. It keeps me busy. Sure beats the last dump I was in back in Nevada.” She sipped, deep in memories. “Before that I used to run a boarding house,” she suddenly offered with some pride, “But it burnt down and I lost everything.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Things must have been tough.”

“Tough doesn’t cover it! My husband died in that fire.”

“My condolences, Ma’am. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for you. Do you live around here?”

“Yeah, I got me a place I share with another ...friend. You looking for a bed for the night?”

“No,” Johnny disappointed her. “I got me a hotel room.”

“I could keep you company.”

“Thanks, but I don’t need none.”

The pout returned. “A man can get lonely in a hotel room all by himself.”

“A man can also get a good night’s sleep.” He grinned.

She grinned readily in return, accepting the knock back in good humour. “Most men don’t come here just to get a drink,” she commented.

Johnny took another sip. “I ain’t most men.”

“I can see that,” she announced as she perused his body unashamedly.

“You said that this work keeps you busy,” Johnny took up her earlier comment. “Are there lots of regulars?”

“Yes and no. We get strangers and we get workers from the nearby businesses stop in for a ‘drink’ on the way home.”

Johnny wondered how long some of them might spend on their ‘drinks’ before they finally made it over their own threshold.

“Do the local businesses change a lot?”

She contemplated her answer. “Most of the offices and warehouses in this end of the street have been going for longer than I have been here, but there was a fire at the eastern end last year. It put a few places out of business and new ones opened up after the rebuilding.”

“What sort of businesses?”

“Well, everything is based on the port to some extent.”

“There must be a lot of cargo coming in and out of the port.”

“There sure is. All sorts of stuff. And people seem to buy it all up, too.”

“Yeah, I noticed a few importers in this street. Makes you wonder how they know what people want to buy, don’t it?”

“I guess so, but maybe people will buy anything if it’s put out in front of them and if they’ve got the money.”

“I saw that Oriental place next door.”

“Oriental Imports?” she supplied.

“Yeah. I wonder what they bring in that people would want? Seems to me like it would be a limited market. The Chinese don’t have too much money to spend. Most of them are too busy trying to keep their families or make enough to send back home.”

“I’ve seen them unloading the boxes. Tea, material, ornaments and statues. Chinese things.”

Johnny nodded sagely at her summation.

“The materials are pretty, but them statues are darned ugly things. One day when I was walking past they was unloading the crates and one dropped. The statues were mostly all smashed to smithereens, except one or two. What a mess. But, boy, did they get all in a knot when they realized that I had I seen them. I dunno whether they thought I was gonna tell their boss or something, but they let fly at me. I was just taking a short cut down the alley near their back entrance. It wasn’t like I was gonna steal nothing. They got all angry. Started yelling and such.”

“Did they hurt you?”

“No, but they were mean faced cusses if ever I seen any. One of them grabbed me. He had that look in his eye. I got real scared, gave him a kick where it hurts and got out of there fast. They are just like all the men I meet. They think they can rough me up and boss me around.” She looked up at Johnny, then gave a look that was immediately contrite. “I reckon that you’re different, though.”

“That so?”

“Yeah, you are. A lot different from the men I meet here.”

Her gaze remained hopefully locked on his.

Johnny felt the weight of her unspoken plea. “Well, you take care. I gotta be going.”

Johnny hoisted himself to his feet in one nimble action. He stood over his companion and placed a few coins on the table in front of her. “Thanks for the company. Buy yourself a drink.”

Her eyes widened when she saw the coins. “This will buy me more than a drink.”

Johnny’s smile acknowledged her. “Well, you spend it how you like, all right? Buy yourself a pretty hat, if you want.”

She smiled genuinely in return. “With this kind of money in my purse, I wouldn’t need to work tonight. Why don’t you let me see to you? Make sure you have a memorable night? On the house.”

Her wistfulness did not escape him, but he was in no mood for complications. “Sorry, but I can’t tonight.”

“There’s always tomorrow if you are in town.”

His voice remained gentle, but was firmer as he again refused her offer. “No, I got me some business I gotta finish.”

Her crestfallen face tugged at the compassion in his heart, pulling it askew so it didn’t fit comfortably. And he knew it wouldn’t unless he made a gesture which would both mollify her yet have a ring of finality to it.

“Hey!” The silky voice of his whisper wrapped itself cosily around her and took away the sting of his rebuff. “This business I gotta attend to is real important. I wouldn’t be able to give you the attention you deserve. It wouldn’t be very fair to you if my mind was off on a gallop instead of concentrating on you and all your charms, now would it?”

Her sudden grin showed her acceptance of his apology. “I guess not, Mister.”

“Johnny.

“Johnny, then.”

He stooped and captured her hand in his, brushing the back of her hand with his lips.

“Adios.”

“Goodnight,” she sighed.

Her eyes followed his actions as he pulled his hat up from where it had been hanging around his neck by the stampede strings. He tilted his head back, forcing the hair off his forehead, then he trapped his hair firmly in place with the rim around the crown of the hat. The fluid movements spoke of a self assuredness that she had rarely witnessed. They also emphasized that her brief dalliance with this charmer had come to an end. The finality peeved her a little and made the other prospects scattered around the room appear even more tarnished than usual. The gold coin Johnny had included amongst the other loose change he had placed in front of her glimmered in the brash artificial light of the saloon. As he made his way to the door, she felt bereft. The only bright spot in her life over the past few months was receding into the murky shadows outside.

She sighed again, this time decidedly lacking in the tingling delight she had experienced just a moment before.

The stench of stale sweat jolted her out of her regret. A large man sat in Johnny’s barely cooled chair. Stubbly skin slashed open with an amiable smile. Kind eyes peered from the friendly, but unprepossessing, face.

“What’ll it be, love?”

“A beer,” she answered out of habit.

She trotted out her best smile in return and drowned the rising bile in the cool drink he placed in front of her. Maybe she’d be able to close her eyes later and dream of another man in his place. It’s all pretend, she reminded herself. Pretending is all she could ever remember doing. But it didn’t make the doing any easier.

 

                                         *****************************

 

The wearing of his hat was totally unnecessary in the night’s darkness, but was nearly a lifetime’s habit. A hat on the head left two hands free for protection. Bare fists or guns operated best when unencumbered. That was a lesson Johnny had discovered at a very early age. It was a lesson he learnt well from bitter experience.

Johnny made his way down the street away from the sporadic lanterns lighting the boardwalk. His senses were on alert for anything out of the ordinary and he couldn’t help but relate this seedy and shady part of town to the many border towns he had grown up in. Low lives seem to breed in the dingy alleys behind saloons and cantinas both north and south of the border, he surmised. One felt as stale and sordid as the other. He longed for the freshness of Lancer. He longed for the honest dirt of the place, not this squalid stinking staggering mess of buildings with common walls propping each other up and trying to hide a multitude of sins behind the lying façades.

He went round the block, checking his surroundings and verifying that he wasn’t followed. Finally ducking into an alleyway, he waited for a moment to be certain that he was alone and that he had not aroused the suspicions of anyone in the vicinity.

The building which interested him gave no outward clue as to its purpose. Its back windows were opaque with grime.

It was dark, but with enough moonlight to guide his nefarious activities. From his coat pocket, he withdrew a small piece of wire several inches long. Concentrating fiercely, he inserted it into the lock and wiggled it until he heard the satisfying click of the lock turning. Johnny waited and listened, straining to hear any movements outside or from inside the building. Easing the door open a crack he peered in, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the murky interior. He slipped his gun from his holster and stayed stock still. Nothing seemed to be moving. No danger shrieked at his senses.

He stealthily opened the door further. The rusty protest from the hinges caused him to stiffen and stare into the gloom. Lungs frozen, he held his breath, fearful that it could disguise any menace aimed at him.

Nothing. Nothing threatened him.

He ducked through the door and darted down low and to one side. No response whined its way to impact into his flesh. Gratefully, he breathed again.

Johnny spent some moments crouching patiently in order to assess the potential danger and to allow his eyes to adjust to the murkiness. Reassured, he stood up and scanned the room which comprised the rear of the premises. Warehouse would probably be a better description for it, he thought. He could make out the oblong shapes of boxes, crates and trunks to one side, but the other side of the room appeared empty.

He scouted the edges of the room and in one corner, behind some crates stacked haphazardly, he was rewarded with the discovery of a doorway. A heavy bolt kept the stout door closed and an open padlock hung from a looped metal fixture. Johnny took out his gun, cocked it and eased the bolt open. The door opened easily, but Johnny acted on the side of caution. His gun preceded him as he descended some steep stairs which led into a cellar. Straining his eyes, he tried to decipher what was in the room.

A box sat in the centre. Moving over to the box, he felt the lamp on it. It was cold. Another two lamps hung from beams overhead and a light touch confirmed that none of them had been lit for some time. Lighting one of the lamp, he hoped any light from the cellar would not be too visible.

The room was empty of anything large scale, but he discerned several items scattered around. His foot brushed something soft. Puzzled, he bent down. His hand picked up the prickly softness of a woollen blanket. Glancing around, he found further evidence of bed linen. Cushions and rugs lay haphazardly against the far wall. Several bowls and cups stood on a wooden crate and the scant remains of cold food lay congealed in a pot on the floor.

Something caught his eye. Paper rustled to his touch as he removed it from between the cushions. Johnny guessed it to be a Chinese newspaper of some sort. He examined it, trying to work out which end was the up, but gave up bothering. There was nothing on it to make him any the wiser as to whatever it was that this room was used for in particular, but something was happening here. He just wished to heck he knew what it was.

His frustrated sigh was loud in the night stillness.

Johnny blew out the lamp and mounted the stairs. He closed the door behind him and slid the bolt closed the way it was when he had found it.

Only the vaguest of light, moonlight and the furthest tentacles from a street lamp filtered in from the outside. It was enough to highlight the shapes in the room. The boxes next drew his attention. Squatting on his haunches and withdrawing his knife from his boot sheath, he slipped the blade under the lid of the nearest crate. He worked the knife, loosening the nails’ grip and levering up the panel.

Material, rich in bright stunning colours even in the dim light, filled the crate. Motifs of birds and leaves became animated as they slid through his fingers. The vibrant silken fabric drew a response from him. It reminded him of the lively Mexican colours he had grown up with. The colours had been draped over walls, beds and chairs, or been moulded to the bodies of the women in the village. This Chinese material seemed to have a life of its own, however. It was striking, yet more subtle than the materials he had grown up with. The colours were richer, yet deceptively soft. His mind could picture the fabric hugging the contours of a few women of his acquaintance, but he hastily shrugged the thought away after a knowing smirk. He had business to attend to.

The next crate revealed statues. All sorts and all colours packed in straw.

The third contained yet a different cargo. Pipes. Not tobacco pipes like Murdoch’s, though. Long stemmed pipes. Opium pipes. He had seen these in his travels, but he had always endeavoured to steer clear of the opium dens and the fiends inside who smoked their souls away. His gut clenched as he thought of the misery produced by this drug. It was a contaminant which was not fussy about whom it destroyed. He hefted a black lacquered pipe and stared at it.

Who was he kidding? Opium wasn’t the only tool for self destruction. Alcohol could wreak the same havoc. He had seen enough damage done to families, relationships and work ethic by men who couldn’t control their liquor consumption. Whatever the demon, both liquor and opium could be catastrophic in their effects. And there wasn’t any law stopping damn fools from drinking alcohol or smoking opium as far as he knew.

So, where did this leave him in his efforts to find out about Tom? Out on a limb?

He sighed deeply yet again.

He didn’t really want to be diverted by any stray red herrings. He wanted to concentrate on his task. Quite simply he wanted to discover some muck about Tom and have some ammunition he could use.

But ammunition for what purpose?

Could he really condemn Murdoch for not wanting to reject a son? Whether Tom was only possibly a son or whether he was probably a son, at the moment that was still to be proven. But Murdoch had not turned his back on Tom and Johnny should really be proud of him for that fact. Murdoch had given Tom the benefit if the doubt. Yet what was it with Murdoch? He had nevertheless as good as rejected Johnny, the son he did know, through his hesitation. 

Johnny just didn’t get it.

And he just didn’t want to have another brother, possible or probable. He had one definite brother. The perfect brother. The perfect fit. At times a stark contrast, at times a mirror image, but Scott would always be his other half.

Tom did not fit. He never would.

Johnny rationalized that he was being petty. Scott had not impressed him, either, at the first instance. Not in the stage coach, anyway. Johnny found himself grinning. It hadn’t taken long for Scott to surprise him, though. Johnny could still recall the insolent “Will I?” delivered in Scott’s best officer voice. The backbone his brother had shown in bucking their father’s orders had surprised both other men in the Great Room that day. It was the first time, but not the last time, that Scott had shown guts. Somehow Johnny could not see that Tom would ever show the same sort of guts. He would never surprise Johnny in a way to be admired. Johnny just knew. Instinct? Maybe. But that instinct had seen Johnny right so far in his life and he wasn’t about to second guess it now.

Johnny gave himself a mental shake. Statues and ornaments. Opium pipes in boxes. Oriental material. Signs of someone staying in the cellar. Did any of it matter? Did he even care? None of this had any connection to Tom. And it was Tom he wanted to find out about.

Johnny pursed his lips and sucked in his cheeks. He was tired, dammit, and this was getting him nowhere.

He placed the lids down carefully where they belonged on the boxes, but for fear of drawing attention to his activities he did not nail them down. Leaning on the lids, he pressed the shaft of his knife flat down against the nail heads, hoping to fit them back into their original holes.

He made for the front section, but doubted anything so visible to customers would have anything to interest him. Sure enough, there was a functional office to one side. It held a desk piled with papers, several chairs, a cabinet and a coat stand and looked like any other office a person would find near the waterfront. Riffling through the paperwork he found nothing that didn’t look like it shouldn’t be there.

The other side of the front room was laden with a display of items which almost rivalled Baldemero’s. Statues of ugly fat men, chimes, materials and fancy bowls abounded, but Johnny could not see any logical order to the display.

‘Logic’. Scott was real keen on this word. They had had some interesting discussions about the word. It was strange how they could often arrive at the same end point, even if their logic in getting there didn’t always match.

And Johnny thought that if Scott were there he’d be itching to tidy up and instil some order in his own logical way.

But Scott wasn’t there and never would be.

Anger and regret soured any inclination to proceed further that night.

He looked around again. His thoughts were as cluttered as the warehouse he stood in. He had drawn a blank and he needed some sleep. There was nothing else he could do tonight so he decided to head back to his hotel room. A feather pillow and thick mattress might give him the rest he needed to think a little clearer. He snorted. Since when did Johnny Madrid Lancer need all the comforts of home to think clearly? He had gone soft.

One last look and he headed for the door. He eased it open. The dim light outside merged with the dull interior, swamping him in darker thoughts and a vague unease. Everything was quiet and as it should be, though.

Or so he thought until he rounded the corner of the boardwalk.

 

Chapter Twenty Two

San Francisco was Scott’s destination. He had stayed one night at the mission, discussing the situation with Father Pablo and obtaining a sworn and witnessed statement from him. And from the father he learned just a bit more about his little brother.

It didn’t sit well with him. It never had. Thoughts of his life of privilege literally made him gag. The memories rode tandem with him, the whole way to San Francisco. He had always been disconcerted that the trappings of his wealth had contrasted so sharply with Johnny’s deprived childhood, but since his visit to the mission, discomfiting images would not leave him alone.

Food. There had always been so much food. He had been a rather fussy eater as a young boy, although his grandfather would not always accommodate his particular likes. If he was sent to his room for a certain transgression and missed a meal as a result, it was no great hardship. He was hardly likely to starve and his next meal certainly made up for it.

His mind roved to the early days with Johnny. Johnny had gulped his food at the start. Shovelled it in, to be frank. He often leant on one arm, relentlessly stoking up his engines with the fork in the other. He could put it way, all right! When he had first arrived, Johnny had eaten with a single minded purpose. What Scott had at first put down to lack of etiquette, Scott had come soon to realize was just self preservation. ‘Eat while the going was good’ seemed to be Johnny’s motto. Johnny was on a good thing and was going to literally savour every moment of it. Scott understood. His incarceration in Libby ensured that, but it had only lasted one year. A year that had at the time been an eternity to Scott, admittedly, but it appeared as though Johnny had been deprived for most of his life.

Scott had talked long into the night with the padre and had had a word with Senora Montoya, a cook at the mission who remembered Johnny well. She had confirmed that there had been no Luis. He was a carefully manufactured character from Father Dominic’s too vivid imagination. She had nothing good to say about the father, but Scott felt reassured that she had at least she kept watch over Johnny within the community, slipping him leftover food and just being there for him when he had copped the padre’s ire on his little shoulders. It appeared that Johnny had had few people to watch over him. His mother could certainly not be classed as vigilant. Scott’s insight into Johnny’s past had been widened after his visit. He now felt that he understood where his brother came from just that much more … but it didn’t make it easier to handle.

But would he ever get to put this enlightenment to any use?

Delving into Johnny’s past had been more distressing than he had expected, but he knew that Johnny would not thank him for his investigations. He was a proud man and Scott surmised that those seeds of pride had been sown since early childhood. Scott just wished he could have been there for him.

Scott now had further investigations to complete. Now, it wasn’t just Johnny, but Tom who was the object of his research. To return to some stability in his life, Scott needed to find out about Tom. Just what was his background? And just what form would any discoveries take? Scott didn’t know and wasn’t sure he was up to it.

But he had to be for Johnny.

 

                                                *************************

 

Scott made good time. Just the thought of returning northwards lifted his spirits and somehow Apollo seemed to detect this, hooves diligently slogging away with some verve at the miles. The distance shrank under this urgency to get to San Francisco as quickly as he could.

When he had set out on his journey south, he was driven to discover the truth behind Father Domingo’s claim, but his eagerness had been tempered with a distress and dread for what he would find. He also knew that tracking the old trail left by Johnny and his errant mother so many years ago would be a daunting task. There had been a tightly reined desperation on his part.

Suddenly Scott felt liberated.

Johnny was his brother. There was no Luis. There never had been.

Unlike his trip to Mexico, the northbound miles of musings seemed to lope past, mirroring his hopeful anticipation.

His mind worked overtime the whole way, however. He struggled with strategies to investigate Tom. And then there was Johnny. Just where had he gone? Was he still in the state even? He didn’t think he had a hope in hell of finding Johnny unless Johnny wanted to be seen and heard … or unless Johnny returned to the life of Madrid and unwelcome news hit the rumour mill.  He had kept his eyes alert and had asked around south of the border, but had discovered no news regarding his brother’s current whereabouts.

He was going to concentrate on Tom, and just maybe, just the remotest maybe, Johnny had also had the same thought.

His vague plan formed as the distance to the city lessened. A man like Tom, a San Franciscan who, by his own account, had lived his life there, would have to leave substantial traces. Scott thought back to the information gleaned from Tom. He was not an unassuming man. Rather proud and boastful would be more apt. But just maybe in the same situation he himself would be aggressive and attention seeking if he had a family which had not acknowledged him, Scott reasoned.

Scott caught himself smiling wryly. There were parallels, indeed. Scott had not personally known his father, nor corresponded with him prior to his arrival. Did that make him unacknowledged? Scott recognized that this was exactly how he had felt before his arrival. He had soon discovered that circumstances, namely his grandfather, had prevented him being aware that Murdoch had sought to bring Scott home to Lancer, but it still niggled with Scott that Murdoch had backed down too easily in his view. Whenever Scott got to this point in his past reminiscences, he had to remind himself that it was easier to consider taking on Harlan Garrett when you had his type of resources. Murdoch did not, period. It had taken Scott some time to accept that Murdoch’s wealth, while quite grand compared to many in the San Joaquin, was but a spit in the ocean compared to Garrett enterprises. And Scott had to consider that the personalities of the men were quite different. Harlan had a ruthlessness which Murdoch, for all his business acumen, had not once displayed since Scott’s arrival. They were different types of men and for that Scott was grateful.

Scott compared Tom to Johnny. Both men had displayed a brashness upon their arrival at Lancer.  And neither offered apologies for this. Unlike Scott, they had not had the security wealth can provide. They were hurt and felt denied.

Johnny had found that what he had believed all those years was wrong. It had taken him a while to warm to the idea, to accept that his take on the true events of the past had been coloured with inventive manipulations and more than a few blatant lies from his dear departed mother.

If Tom’s story were true, then he, too, had been manipulated, or at least the truth had been withheld. So maybe he had a right to stamp his claim with firmness.

Scott’s heavy sigh was loud enough to smother the clip clop of the hooves bouncing up at him off the compacted earthen track.

Were the three of them all victims of the machinations of others? Or was it just Scott and Johnny who had that privilege? More importantly, were there two or three rightful heirs to Lancer?

Scott was not sure, but he would find out. Either Tom would be exposed as a fraud, or he would be embraced as a Lancer by blood.

And he hoped to God that he would find clues leading to Johnny. If Tom were his brother, he didn’t think that he could ever stay on at Lancer and get to forge this new relationship unless Johnny was found and agreed to be part of the bargain. Lancer could still be Lancer with Tom, but it could never be home again without Johnny.

 

                                          *****************************

 

For some reason, Johnny’s head was trapped under an enormous boulder. Why he didn’t know. What he did know was that any movement was excruciating. He even wondered if his brain was going to batter its way out of his skull, so hard was it throbbing.

He prised his eyes open. White glare dazzled him, razoring into his eyeballs.

In an act of sheer self preservation he closed them again. Just maybe he could do something with them in the near future, but it sure wasn’t going to be now.

So he lay there, certain that his head was squashed forever more and thinking that he probably couldn’t do much about it if that were the case.

Words suddenly attacked him. They came out of nowhere, swarmed around him and chipped sharply away at the dense shell cocooning his senses. He then realized that his head was not weighted down, but merely too throbbingly sore to lift.

He cracked an eyelid open to give him some idea of his situation. Two men were arguing heatedly. One had the other by the lapel and was shaking him. That was fine by Johnny, just as long as they didn’t start with him. He didn’t think his head would stay on if treated to any rough stuff.

“You fool! You goddamned fool! What possessed you to hit him on the head like that?”

“He was coming out of the warehouse!”

“So? Sure, he was trespassing, but there’s nothing too much here. He’s after Phelps. Phelps is out of our lives now. If you’d let things be, he’d have been out of our lives in a day or two as well.”

“I thought he might have found something, the way he sneaked out of here.”

“I don’t pay you to think, you moron! Now you’ve got us in a helluva pickle!”

The shorter man was shoved back vigorously, his back hitting against an upright pole with a thwack.

Johnny grimaced at the mere thought of the jolt, closed his eyes and then steeled his face to hide his facial expressions from reflecting his furiously reawakening brain.

Footsteps approached and stopped by his head. Johnny could smell the boot polish not inches from his nose, but he lay still. He was in no condition to fight at the moment, but he quietly mustered his strength in case the choice was taken out of his hands.

 

His body rocked as it was nudged, not viciously, by one of the boots. Johnny tensed, waiting to react if need be, but there was no assault.

“He’s still out cold. Let’s leave him locked up here for the moment while we decide what the hell to do with him.”

Footsteps retreated, a door clanged shut, a lock rattled all too obviously and Johnny was left alone. He was tied up at the wrists and the ankles, however, with a gag in his mouth to prevent him calling out for help. He had no energy to work the bindings loose, so he allowed himself to drift into the pain-free relief of sleep.

A tickle on his arm woke him. He jerked his arms to and felt the fur. Rats! He swiped more viciously at the dark air and struggled to sit up. Be damned if he was going to be supper for any stray rodent looking for a feed!

His skull rebelled at the sudden movement and just for a moment Johnny felt sure that his stomach was going to rebel, too. He sat, gulping air and swallowing the potential puke rising in his gullet.

He wasn’t really sure how long he sat with his back leaning against the wall. Several minutes or an hour could have passed. He finally felt that his vision was back on an even keel. The room stopped tilting and he wasn’t shaking so much. While his head ached dully, it lacked the persistent agony of beforehand.

Once his breathing was under control, he looked around. Cloying darkness, suffocatingly so, nearly panicked him. He couldn’t see much so he shuffled around on his behind and felt with his hands. Sure enough, he was in the cellar he had only just recently vacated.

He found his way to the steps. Slowly and painfully he climbed the stairs, hoisting his butt backwards up one step at a time by propelling himself with his feet on each step. He reached the top, but the door was not going to budge despite several thrusts with his shoulder. All he succeeded in doing was giving himself a sore shoulder along with a sore head.

He descended the stairs even less gracefully than he had mounted them. He had been hoping for a window in the room, but this was not his day. So, being of practical nature, he gathered the cushions and blanket together with his feet and made himself comfortable so he could start thinking about just why he had been knocked out and kidnapped.

He tried to sort through the facts. People had been staying in the cellar. There was a Chinese newspaper of some kind. There was no law against Chinese people staying in a cellar, but he thought long and hard about that strong lock. The slave trade was alive and well. Last time he and Scott had been in San Francisco they had been discussing the many Chinese coming to California and wondering just how many were doing so voluntarily. Both had heard stories of Chinese being kept as virtual slaves, indentured whether they liked it or not. They were blackmailed through fear of reprisals against their families either here or back in their homeland.

Scott had been quite distressed as if he were taking it personally. When Johnny probed further, Scott had explained that he had gone to war to end slavery. He had endured hardships and horrors. The fact that his misery had all been for a cause had made it endurable … but only barely. The continuing Chinese slave trade was like a slap in the face for all his comrades who had suffered and fallen.

So, Johnny presumed he had stumbled on a Coolie trade operation. He had had a tough time growing up as a half Mexican. He knew what it was like to be excluded. He knew what it was like to be victimized, but he nevertheless felt that that Asians had it tougher. He had seen them treated like some sub-human species, and it did not renew his faith in his fellow man.

Then there was the crate of pipes. Opium was not against the law, however. Johnny had an aversion to opium dens and the way they insidiously sucked the soul and will out of their victims. He shuddered. He had seen opium fiends in his time and it was not pretty. Life was for living, not throwing away in a mindless fog of smoke and haze and nothingness. Like most men, Johnny had got stuck into more tequila or whisky than was good for him. He had at times got drunk with the best of them, so drunk he had been legless. And he had seen men who couldn’t get through a day without the crutch found at the bottom of a whisky bottle. But opium was a different matter. And he deplored the bastards who peddled the stuff.

Presumably his little foray into the warehouse had prompted a swift reprisal. He was locked up good and proper. Now all he had to do was to work out how to get the upper hand next time they visited him … if they did!

 

                                     ****************************

 

Scott thought about the differences between this and his last visit to San Francisco. Last time he had been with Johnny. They had conducted business with all the decorum Murdoch expected of them and then they had let their hair down with abandon in their free time. Johnny’s exuberance had always been intoxicating. Scott had found his natural tendency to be stiffer in the big city surroundings evaporate in the company of his mischievous younger brother.

He swallowed. There would be no revelry this time. It was all business.

He found a decent enough hotel on Van Ness Avenue after having stabled Apollo at a conveniently located livery just two blocks away. First requirement was a bath, a long bath. He soaked in it for over an hour, pulling out the plug after a bit and refilling the tub with hot water as it cooled. Scott languished in the water, wishing he could wash away the trauma of the past few weeks along with the trail dust. His skin was glowing a bright pink by the time he decided to call it quits. Inserting his toe into the loop on the plug, he succeeded in removing it without too much effort. Water streamed off his lean back as he stood. The thick towel soon dried the remaining moisture from his skin.

Dressed in clean clothes from his saddle bags, he felt like a new man. Food was his next aim. The hotel restaurant offered a range of hearty meals which appealed to him. Settling for stewed steak, boiled new potatoes, green beans and carrots drowned in gravy, he stuck in and ate with gusto. Trail food and cantina food were not to his liking at the best of times, but several weeks of it had worn thin. He followed his main course with a mighty serving of apple pie doused in fresh cream, with a rich coffee to chase it down. And as he ate, he longed to be back at Lancer where Maria’s cooking could rival this fare every night and sate them all after a day’s hard work on the range.

The hotel’s amenities had given him some respite from his worries and the plumbing certainly reminded him just where Lancer could do with some refurbishment, but with his ablutions and meal completed, Scott settled in his room with some whisky to facilitate some hard thinking.

He felt confident that Tom’s recent work and residential history could be traced, but it was his earlier history that Scott thought would be the most difficult aspect of his enquiries.

Weariness and a filling meal, coupled with several glasses of fine malt whisky, prompted him to hit the sack early by city standards. The soft bed cradled him gently in its depths as his head hit the pillow and lulled him to sleep almost instantaneously.

 

Chapter Twenty Three

Scott thought back to the conversations he had had with Tom. Basing his investigations on the snippets he remembered, he decided to be methodical. He obtained a street map from a bookstore and decided that he would mark a grid and work it. This he did, starting from the hotel and working southwards along Van Ness towards the Market Street intersection, then veering left down the busy thoroughfare.

He entered building after building from the most ostentatious to the less imposing and after several hours he struck pay dirt. Tom was remembered by a worker in a brokerage firm. The employee had not had business dealings with him and did not know precisely where he had worked, but remembered him from social functions. Encouraged by this, Scott got the bit between his teeth and persevered.

He made his way along Market Street nearly to the bay, calling into businesses and probing for information along the way. He then cut left and followed California Street. He stopped in front of the Wells Fargo and Company building where he mounted the steps. After entering, he made his way to the counter.

The interior was clean and business-like with a high counter allowing customers to lean comfortably on their elbows while transacting their business. A set of pigeon holes, with a variety of paperwork placed inside them, lined a wall behind one counter. Light from the window shone on the curved belly of an unlit, cast iron stove which stood in the middle of the floor, and adding some cheer to the room.

Puffed up with self importance, a stocky man at one counter was making transactions of some sort and being vocal in his demands. At another counter stood an elderly lady. The bench top, at comfortable elbow height for most people, came up to her chin. She stood on tip toes to hand over some bank notes and take her receipt. Folding the paper, she reached up for her bag sitting on the counter, retrieved a purse from within and carefully placed the paper inside. A polite farewell concluded her business, and, bag firmly clutched under her armpit, she shuffled to the door. Scott reached it first and opened it for her with an elegant bow. She chuckled at his gallantry as she passed by, her diminutive stature dwarfed by his height.

After closing the door on her retreating figure, he approached the counter she had vacated. Behind it was a man of about the same age as Scott, but not as tall or as fair. The scratching of his pen on paper did not halt until Scott gave a discreet cough. It aggravated Scott to do so, for he well knew that the employee was aware that he stood there waiting.

“May I be of assistance, Sir?”

« Damn straight, » thought Scott. He swallowed his annoyance at the deliberate delay in serving him and just got on with it.

“Hello, I’m from back east and I’m looking for a man who used to work around here.”

“There are lots of men who work around here, Sir.”

Scott noted the touch of haughtiness. He persevered.

“His name is Phelps. Tom Phelps. I believe he used to work for either an accountancy firm or with a trading company of some sort.”

“Well, there are lots of those around here, too. Why do you want to see him so badly?”

“I want to renew my acquaintance with him. We go way back. I’ve come all this way and I’d hate to be disappointed.”

There was no immediate answer from the man, identified as Mr Walter Bates by the wooden name plate on the bench dividing them.

Mr Walter Bates frowned deeply, splitting his forehead with deep cracks. One ink stained finger scratched at his ear, but that was all that was forthcoming.

“Here,” Scott encouraged. “I think that I may have a calling card.”

He opened his leather bill fold, flicked through the contents and sighed as he closed it. Wallet back in his jacket pocket, he continued speaking without being fazed by the note which had fallen out to flutter silently to the bench top.

“Apparently not.”

His eyes locked on Mr Bates who studiously avoided looking at the five dollar National Gold bank note lying by his left elbow. A beat later his memory cleared. “Yes, I remember now. He worked for Maddison and Waters, over on Montgomery Street near the Market Street end, but I think he’s since left.”

“How long ago?”

A shrug badly disguised the hand movement which swept the money off the counter and into Mr Bates’ pocket. “That I’m not sure about. Some months, maybe longer.”

“Where did he go?”

“That’s a mystery. He was there one minute and gone the next.”

“You’ve no idea why he went?”

“I wasn’t that close to him, or that interested.”

“You must have heard some talk.”

“Only that there was some falling out with his bosses.”

“You don’t know what it was about?”

“No. He used to come in here sometimes. I had met him a few times socially, is all. We weren’t what you’d call friends.”

Scott fingered his hat thoughtfully. “Well, I suppose that if I don’t find out what I want I can always come back here later.”

Scott lifted his hat. A deliberate tug and his hat was snugly placed on his head. “Of course, next time I might just leave my manners and my wallet back at the hotel.” Steel grey eyes cut to Mr Bates. “And I hate wasting my time.” The steel from Scott’s eyes transferred to his voice.

Walter shrank back a step. His Adam’s apple jumped up and down convulsively as he swallowed.

“We wouldn’t want that, would we?” Scott almost purred.

“No. No, of course not! I am sure that you are a busy man. Um, let me think.” Walter made a pretence of being struck by enlightenment. “That’s it! I remember now. I heard something about some bad blood between him and his employers.”

“So you’ve already said. What was it about precisely?” Scott persisted.

“Look, Mister, I really don’t know. I just heard that maybe they paid him hush money. What for, I don’t really know, but perhaps if you ask around, you might find out. When I dealt with him, I didn’t like him all that much. Superior-like. He thought he really was something. It was like he felt he was owed by everyone else. I really didn’t take that much interest, but I was sort of glad he was gone.”

Scott searched the man’s face and realized that this was all he was going to get. It was food for thought, however.

“Thank you.” He nodded.

Scott left. He contemplated Tom. Just what did he hope to find out? Whether Tom was bona fide or some sort of impostor bent on a scam, Scott was determined that he would resolve the issue.

Waiting on the side of the street for several carriages to pass, he thought momentarily of another busy street in another large American city on the other side of the country. Boston hardly seemed to belong to his life any more. All that mattered was his life out here that he shared with Johnny and Murdoch.

He crossed the road, dodging between several carriages going at too fast a clip, and stepped into a small restaurant. A meal and a coffee were needed before he made the next move.

A filling and very late lunch consisting of a meat stew topped in a layer of fluffy pastry was demolished before he realized it. It was good, darned good, but he didn’t give it the attention it deserved. His thoughts were on Tom. Until he settled whatever the hell it was with Tom he couldn’t track down Johnny and sort out the mess of their relationship. He simply didn’t know where they stood and it was eating at him.

No more delay was acceptable. Coffee heavily laden with cream was chugged hastily down after his meal. The linen napkin was applied to his lips and money with a decent tip was placed on the bill trapped by the salt cellar.

Scott was off for business.

He had originally intended asking around further to get a greater picture of the man, but for some reason a niggling desperation had set in.

He stopped out front of the impressive building on Montgomery Street. The entryway of Maddison and Waters could have been at home in Boston, he decided, but just possibly it seemed ostentatious in the more informal west. The corners of his mouth turned upwards as he grinned at himself. He had well and truly been converted to a country boy since his arrival in California. The pretensions of Boston held little appeal now. Johnny had made sure he had knocked any airs and graces out of him.

« Damn! » How could it hurt so much? He swallowed his distress and mounted the steps, ready for action.

He surveyed the foyer of Maddison and Waters. He noted the neatly kept desk. Murdoch would be impressed with the organized paperwork. The leather armchairs were solid. They were the sort which oozed class, but were not necessarily all that comfortable. The view from the window was quite lovely, but it merely reminded him of another window, a much larger one, where the view would simply take his breath away every time he glanced at it.

And the annoying partition reminded him of stunted cattle pens. Just what was the point of a dwarf wall half the size of a man’s leg? Again he caught himself smiling at another memory of an exceedingly pissed off Johnny simply striding over one such barrier to grab an exceedingly condescending bank manager by the shirt collar.

« Damn again! »

He’d known Johnny only two short years in all and every time he seemed to have a recollection of some sort, Johnny was entwined along with it. The vibrancy of the memories just made Johnny’s absence all the more defined and Scott’s heart all the more hollow.

He gripped the hat he had removed from his head, distorting the line of the brim which he was going to have a difficult time getting back into shape. Drawing in a strengthening breath, he opened the little gate and walked through, resisting the urge to mimic his brother and simply step over the darned thing.

The man at the desk looked up at Scott over his spectacles. He was dressed in a conservative suit, a perfectly neat bow tie and in a dazzling white shirt. His collar seemed to be not just starched, but buoyed up stiffly by some sort of invisible metal. It pressed into his skin, causing several folds of flesh to swell out and cascade over the rim.

“My name is Percy Andrews. May I help you, Sir?”

“Indeed I hope so. My name is Scott Garrett.” It slipped out before Scott even considered not giving his real name. “I’m looking for a Tom Phelps.”

The man before him made no effort to act dumb.

“He’s a popular fellow, it seems.”

“Pardon?”

“You’re the second man to ask after him in the past few days.”

“Oh? I am?”

“Yes, a man came in here a few days ago, but he didn’t speak to me. He spoke to Mr. Waters.”

“Could I do the same then?”

“Sure,” the gentleman answered obligingly. “But not now. Mr. Waters and Mr. Maddison are both out. Mr. Waters is at his other business and Mr. Maddison is at a meeting at the bank.

Scott frowned in annoyance.

“But maybe I can help you out. They spoke right here. He didn’t invite the man into his office to sit and chat, him being a Mex and all.”

Not only his jaw muscles, but Scott’s knuckles clenched as he listened to the blithe racism. Those very knuckles of his fist longed to smash their way into the man’s insensitive face, but the thought of being deprived of some useful information held him back. He couldn’t let it pass, however.

“Just maybe the Mexican gentleman was glad not to sully his clothes on furniture where he was not welcome.”

The slight twitch at the corner of the man’s mouth surprised Scott. Maybe the man had just passed on Mr. Waters’ viewpoint and not at all his own, Scott reasoned.

“Whatever, Sir, I am just stating the facts.”

“What did this Mexican man look like?”

“Mexican.”

Scott feared he would have no teeth left if he continued like this, but it didn’t stop him gritting them tightly together. He willed himself to be patient with this so far talkative employee.

“Perhaps you could be so good as to be more specific?” he clipped.

“His hair was almost black and he wore flashy Mexican clothes. You know how they like those bright colours. He had on a pair of those leather pants with buttons all down the side.”

“Conchos,” Scott corrected him.

“Yes, conchos, that’s the word. And would you believe that he wore a pink shirt? He was sure making some sort of fashion statement, but it wasn’t what most self respecting men would consider normal. And his eyes were blue, which was really strange for a Mexican.”

Scott latched onto the description. So Johnny had been there. And only a few days previously. Scott’s heart rate quickened at this.

 “What did they talk about?”

“Well, how about you tell me first why you want to know?”

“That is my business. It’s private.”

“Can’t be too private if the world and his wife seem to have connections to Tom all of a sudden.”

“It’s to do with an inheritance,” Scott supplied, which wasn’t too far from the truth.

“It seems rather coincidental that two men should walk into this office asking about Tom in the space of a few days.”

“Well, I can assure you that my reasons are legitimate and it involves the inheritance of an estate.”

He didn’t need much pressing. Mr. Andrews shrugged his shoulders. “I guess it makes no difference to me.”

“So what was discussed?”

“They talked about the fact that the man knew Tom and that he had worked here, and that the caller wanted help with some business dealings.”

“I see. How well did you know Tom?”

“Not well. He just worked here. I think he was hoping to become a partner. He was all right sometimes, but at others he could have a nasty streak in him. Very pushy.”

“Why did he leave?”

“My bosses had a falling out with him.”

“Over what?”

“There was something irregular, both here and at the other office.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed at the man’s inflection. “Which is?”

“Oriental Imports.”

“And where is this business located?

“Down near the waterfront. Mr. Lancer and Mr. Waters were talking about it.”

“Have you seen Mr. Lancer since then?” Scott had to bite the name ‘Johnny’ which had automatically formed on his tongue.

“No, I haven’t. Mr. Waters told him to come back later in the week and he might have some business information he could use in his new venture.”

“New venture?”

“Yes, he said that the family business was branching out. Tom had directed him to our office here.”

“I see,” Scott ruminated, biting back a grin at Johnny’s strategy. “And this Mr. Waters is at the other business at the moment?”

“Yes.”

“Can you give me the address?”

“Sure. Brannon Street. Pretty well near the wharf. You won’t miss it.”

“Thank you.” Scott nodded, glanced around one more time and headed out the door.

He took a carriage to the wharf area and wandered around for a while, reconnoitering the area. Busy, vibrant, seedy. All of those images came to mind. It didn’t take long to find Oriental Imports, but he didn’t go in immediately. He scouted around the alleyways and studied the surrounding businesses, from the warehouses to the freight companies … and to the nearby bordello, if Scott didn’t miss his guess. The immediate area was distinguished by a plethora of women by San Franciscan standards, some scarcely managing to drape their assets in enough material. And suddenly he could see Johnny’s wicked smirk and hear his smart mouthed quips. For Johnny would have had something to say. Some anecdote would have rolled off his tongue in relation to saloon girls and brothel madams, and a priest or a few cowboys wouldn’t be far out of the picture, either. And then his grin of remembrance distorted into a grimace. God, he missed his little brother, smart mouth and sense of humour into the bargain.

Scott breathed in some fog free air and aimed for a meeting with Mr. Waters hidden somewhere behind the lopsided awning.

The boardwalk creaked under his crisp footsteps as he mounted the step and crossed the planks. He glanced in the shop front, pausing to take in the variety of materials, vases and statues on display.  A bell tinkled as he opened the door, announcing his arrival to the young man unpacking some rice bowls.

Scott smiled pleasantly at the Chinese lad who straightened, but then bowed out of respect for this wealthy looking client.

“Good day, Sir. May I help you?” He spoke in a melodic, but staccato, Asian accent.

“Yes, I hope so.” Scott smiled again. “I was hoping to see Mr. Waters.”

“Certainly, I will see if he is still here. He was out the back earlier. May I give him your name?” It may have been accented English, but it was perfectly fluent. He could only admire the man’s fluency in a foreign tongue. It was certainly better than his French on which he prided himself. He was able to sustain a conversation in the language, but he knew that he often sounded stilted to the native ear. And it was miles better than his Spanish, which he was still learning.

“Yes, my name is Scott Garrett. He won’t recognize the name, however.”

The man nodded. “Please take a seat.” He indicated the office area to one side before leaving Scott to head into the back of the premises.

He heard the Chinese man talking to another person. The voices were muffled, and Scott could not make out the conversation. The Chinese man returned to the front of the store, bade Scott goodbye and left the building. Scott stood and moved a little to get a better view of the rear section of the building.

It was only a minute before Scott heard the clunking of a bolt being drawn. He narrowed his eyes. In the dimness he could make out a man locking a door he had not previously noticed in the far wall. A man approached him. He was alone. Scott stood and shook hands, sizing the man up.

“Good afternoon and thank you for seeing me.”

“I am Anthony Waters. Sze En told me you are Mr. Garrett, is that right?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why Tom Phelps left your employ and where he went.”

The directness of the question made the man jump. He blanched. His neatly manicured hand gripped onto his own lapel in fright.

“I’m sorry. I can’t be of assistance. I am a busy man. Good day to you, Sir.”

Normally more circumspect, Scott wasn’t in the mood for pussyfooting around.

“I don’t buy that.” His impatience was evident.

“Whether you do or not, is not my concern!”

Scott leaned in to the man’s face. “Oh, I assure you, it IS my concern!” Mr. Waters cringed at the aggressiveness, but Scott merely leaned in further. “Now, how’d you like to tell me before I get mean?”

And Scott silently thanked Johnny for his tutelage in the art of intimidation.

Mr. Waters eyes widened further as Scott’s left hand grabbed his collar, twisting it tightly until it ate into his neck. His white pallor swiftly became red as he gasped through fear and lack of oxygen.

“All right!” he croaked.

Scott loosened his grip, but did not let go.

“Well?”

“I sacked him. He had a thirst for the high life. Gambling,” he gasped. “He … he wanted more money for his debts. Goods went missing. Accounts weren’t right. I called him on it.”

Scott contemplated the information. “Why didn’t you have him charged by the police?”

“I didn’t want my customers to know. If they knew what Tom had done to some of the accounts at the other office and how he had covered his tracks, clients might distrust our security. Our prestige would be called into question. It was better to suffer the monetary loss in the short term than to press charges and admit publicly that he had got away with it for so long. It would have affected out reputation for some time.”

Scott continued to consider the man’s statement. It made sense. He abruptly let him go with a small shove.

Mr. Waters coughed several times and rearranged his collar and tie. Rapid breathing accompanied his distress.

“Now, I want you to tell me about Tom. Where did he live and what do you know about his past?”

Mr. Waters swallowed painfully. “He and his wife lived up on Clementina Street. He has a boy. His mother used to live with them until her passing.”

“Anything else?”

“He had worked mostly in the city and I believe that he was born here.”

“Has anyone else been looking for him?”

Mr. Waters jumped and his eyes darted to the door as if seeking escape.

Scott took a step forward and leaned in again, right into the man’s face, virtually nose to nose. “If you don’t tell me the truth on this, you will regret the day you were born!”

“All right!” His tongue moistened his lips and he wiped his forehead with his hand. “No, no one came looking for him, but a man came here looking for some business advice. A Mexican. He said his family was seeking to diversify and that Tom had referred us. He wasn’t looking for Tom. He just mentioned him.”

“And did this man have a name?” Scott knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it.

“Yes, Johnny Lancer.”

This pleased Scott that Johnny had stuck by the Lancer name. Maybe he still wanted to be a Lancer, and just maybe if Scott could locate him, it would be easier to talk him into coming back home.

Mr. Waters’ face registered some surprise at the calmer manner Scott exhibited.

“How long ago was this?”

“Just a few days ago.”

Scott was relieved to have this confirmed. Johnny’s trail was hot then, even if Tom’s seemed as dead as the bleached bones scattered around Lancer.

“Did he say where he was going?”

“He was going to come back for an interview to investigate some options, but he hasn’t turned up yet. Maybe he changed his mind or went with another broker? Do you want me to contact you if he arrives?”

Scott nodded and gave him the details he needed. ”I don’t suppose you know where he is staying, do you?”

“No. No idea. I just thought it was a local hotel somewhere here in town.”

Leaning forward he shrugged Mr. Waters’ coat back into shape for him.

“Thank you, Sir. It is a pleasure doing business with you.”

And Scott left, his mind focused on the information and his next step. Really he had learnt very little other than Johnny had been to Maddison and Waters on a trumped up excuse to investigate Tom.

But Johnny was nowhere to be seen. He could have left town and be miles away now for all Scott knew.

Scott had some thinking to do.

He left the building, a little more positive than when he had arrived in San Francisco.  Johnny had been around not so long ago. He had not expected this. With his trip to Mexico in the intervening time, he had expected Johnny to be long gone and a long way away.

The afternoon was drawing to a close, giving way to evening. He shivered and pulled his coat closer around him. The air was much cooler and maybe there would be more fog tonight.

His dry mouth turned his feet to the less than salubrious saloon next door.

Pushing the door open, he glanced around the interior. « Not exactly the Boston Gentleman’s Club! » he thought wryly to himself. He could see no overt threat, so he made his way to the bar, bought a beer and found himself a small table along the wall. He dropped his hat onto the chair next to him, and sat down wearily, elbows on the table in contravention of his grandfather’s strict code of table manners.

« Damn it! » He had been so close to bumping into Johnny. He had lost his chance, he was convinced of it.

He lifted his glass and sculled half of it. It didn’t help, though, and Johnny was no closer. Nor did he feel closer to finding out what made Tom tick.

His morose stare lifted from the froth on the top of the beer glass to the room, which was just another bar in just another dump.

Then he saw it and gasped aloud with shock.

 

Chapter Twenty Four

Scott’s unsteady legs took him to the other side of the room where a couple sat sipping at their drinks. The man looked up at Scott as he approached.

“Buzz off, Mister! This one’s taken!”

“How much will it be for her to become untaken for the next few minutes?”

The man on the stool looked from Scott to the woman. “Twenty dollars.”

Scott pulled out his billfold. He flipped it open. “Fifteen is all I have.”

The man looked at the wallet. He knew a gift horse when he saw one. And he wasn’t about to look it in the mouth.

“Fifteen it’ll have to be, then.” Whipping the money from the billfold, he vacated the chair and moved on to another saloon girl, slimmer but older, sitting at the bar.

“May I?” Scott enquired indicating the now empty chair.

“I guess I can’t stop you, but you just spent all your money, Mister.” Her statement could not hide the interest in her voice, however.

Scott smiled lightly and sat next to her. He watched her take a sip of her drink.

“Forgive me for saying so, but your hat doesn’t exactly match your outfit.”

Puzzled brows drew together. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Then why aren’t you wearing something a bit more feminine with a bit of gauze or some feathers to decorate it?”

“Yeah, well I got my own hat behind the counter. What’s it to you, Mister?”

She was becoming annoyed with him, it was obvious.

“Just wondering why you would wear a man’s hat.”

“Wondering enough to pay fifteen dollars? That’s mighty strange, Mister.”

“Whose hat is it?”

“I don’t know that it’s any of your business, Mister.”

“How did you get it?”

“Like I said, it ain’t none of your business.”

Scott sighed. It was a long and weary sigh. He bit the bullet.

“I know someone who has a hat the same as that.” He did not hide the wistfulness. He did not want her to think that he was an enemy.

She cocked her head, thinking hard, but said nothing.

Scott thought about all the times Johnny used his charisma to win over women. All sorts of women from all sorts of backgrounds. He took a punt.

“I can’t imagine Johnny giving you his hat, no matter how much he liked you.”

The words just hung there between them. She was deciding, but Scott didn’t know which way she would go.

“How do you know Johnny?”

Partial success. She was interested, he decided, so he went the whole hog.

“Johnny’s my brother.”

She snorted at that. “Yeah, and I’m the Queen of England!”

Scott smiled at her skepticism. “Different mothers,” he explained succinctly. “Look, I really need to find him. We … we had a falling out. I need to put things right between us!”

His genuine distress seemed to get through.

“How do I know you ain’t wanting to find him to hurt him?”

Scott grinned broadly at that. “Oh, I’ll hurt him all right. As big brother I get to box him around the ears and knock some sense into him!”

She laughed at that. His playful truthfulness seemed to have set her at her ease and mark him as sincere, so Scott asked again.

“So, how did you get his hat?”

“He was in here the night before last. We had a couple of drinks together.”

“And after?”

“There weren’t no ‘after’!” she pouted.

Scott smiled in sympathy at her hurt rejection.

“He didn’t want … my company for the night, so he just went.”

“He just went?”

“Yes.” Her eyes dropped for a brief moment. “After he paid me some money.”

She lifted her eyes to Scott’s. He was surprised to see that they were teary. “I didn’t even have to earn it. He was real kind. A real gentleman.” She swallowed suddenly. “He said I could keep it, do what I wanted with it, buy myself a pretty hat!”

Scott rushed to soothe her worry. “If he gave you money, then he wanted you to have it. Don’t worry, I won’t be asking for it back.”

Her sigh of relief was substantial.

“So he left without his hat? That’s not like my brother.”

“No, he left with his hat, but later on the way home I came across it.”

Scott tensed and leaned forward, his hand involuntarily reaching for her arm. “Where was it?”

“On the ground, in amongst some crates near the mouth to an alleyway.”

“Could you show me where?”

“How do I know that you ain’t gonna hurt me none when you get me out there in the dark?”

Scott wondered just how many unsavoury men she had blithely ventured into the dark with before he had entered the saloon.

“Because I’m Johnny’s brother. We don’t hurt women. It’s in our blood.”

The pride in his voice seemed to console her, but she was still hesitant.

“How do I know you’re Johnny’s brother?”

“You don’t, I suppose, because there’s no way I can confirm that at the moment, but if you don’t believe me, then Johnny could be in danger. I don’t think you’d like that and I sure as heck don’t like the way my stomach is churning over from worry right now.”

She stilled, a look of anxiety clouding her face. “Do you really think something has happened to him?”

“That’s what I want to find out,” he confirmed.

“I sure hope not. He’s a real fine fella!”

Scott had to agree that her words were perfect for his wayward brother.

Propelled by an urgency which had not been there before, she stood up and almost left Scott in her wake as she bustled energetically to the door.

 

                                          *************************

 

She led him confidently around the building and to the back, some yards down the alleyway.

“Here!” she indicated. “It caught my attention. The silvery bits on the hat band were shining in the moonlight.”

Scott looked. The hat had landed against a wall, near crates, as she had suggested, just around the corner and in the dark of the alleyway.

Johnny would never leave his hat unless he was incapable of picking it up.

What had happened to Johnny?

Scott looked around. Not far from Oriental Imports. Just around the corner, in fact. Had Johnny visited there and had his visit provoked an attack? Or had he been set upon in an entirely unrelated assault? Scott’s heart thudded in his chest. He was sure that something had happened to Johnny. And it had happened right where he stood.

Out of the blue, a thought came to him. “Do you know the owners of Oriental Imports?”

He did not miss her shudder.

“Not personally, but the men working for the company are rough. Typical wharf workers.”

“Oh?”

“And that Waters man has got tickets on himself.”

“In what way?”

“He thinks he’s going to run for Senate. Fat chance!”

“Why is that?”

“A person hears things around here. He’s a bit of a weasel, but he butters up the rich folks. They don’t seem none the wiser. There’s something about him. He don’t seem to realize that other people vote, too, not just the rich people. Anyway, whoever gets in, it doesn’t make any difference to us.”

Scott nodded. He understood. He had seen enough of the hoi polloi in Boston. The poor didn’t exist for the politicians who ingratiated themselves only with the wealthy.

“I’m sorry to say that you are mostly right.” Scott sighed and brought the discussion back to more pressing needs. “So, you said that Johnny had a drink with you, left, and then some time later you found his hat here on the ground while you were heading home?”

“That’s right.”

Scott bit the inside of his cheek. He looked again in the direction of Oriental Imports. He didn’t believe in these sorts of coincidences.

“Come on, I’ll see you home.” A thought suddenly hit him. “What’s your name?”

“Henrietta.”

“Thank you, Henrietta, for helping me out.”

She smiled at him, purring at the way he charmed her name out of his lips.

“Perhaps you might like to stay for a while?”

Scott smiled gently at her. “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able, but Johnny and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Her sigh of disappointment was not lost on him.

“Do you brothers always leave womenfolk disappointed?”

Scott’s broad grin mollified his vain response. “Ma’am, one thing Johnny and I pride ourselves on is NEVER disappointing the ladies!”

She laughed aloud at the audaciousness of his reply. “No, on second thoughts I can’t imagine that either of you do! It’s all right, Scott. I don’t think I’ll go home yet. I’d rather head on back to the saloon.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am.”

Scott reached for his billfold, extracting several notes. “Here,” he proffered. “This is a thank you from Johnny and me.”

She looked at him oddly. “But your wallet was empty earlier!”

Scott shook his head. “I keep two billfolds when I travel. If I get held up, the robbers just might be satisfied with the slim pickings in the companion wallet.”

“And there’s something else you two’ve got in common.”

“And what might that be?”

“You’re both smart and generous!”

Scott laughed, took her elbow and led her back the way they had come. Just outside the saloon, she removed the hat she had been wearing all along. “Here. You’d better take his hat to give him when you find him.”

Scott reached for it. “Thank you. Just one more thing. Just why were you wearing Johnny’s hat?”

Henrietta looked at her hands clasped one in the other. “I was hoping he’d come back. If he saw his hat, he might have come back to me for a chat and spent some time with me. I know he could afford a new hat, but men like hats they’ve broken in and I was hoping he’d come back looking for it. I just had a feeling he might be partial to it.”

“Yes, he is. And he’ll thank you for keeping it safe for him.”

She smiled as she looked back up. “I hope you find him.” A nod of her head preceded her abrupt departure for the seedy depths of the saloon.

Scott was left standing without a clear plan of how to proceed. It was early evening and getting darker by the second.

Johnny would not have left his hat behind unless he was injured or prevented from picking it up. There was a third reason, but Scott refused to contemplate that possibility. So, if his hat was found at that alleyway, then Johnny must have passed through there. Henrietta put it at two nights ago.

That nagging coincidence that Scott didn’t believe in kept niggling away at his brain. It was just too much of a stretch. Something had happened to Johnny and it had to do with Oriental Imports. But why? Tom was the connection to the business and he was at Lancer. It just didn’t make sense. Scott needed to do some investigating and he needed to do it now under cover of darkness.

Retracing his steps, he took his time thoroughly checking out the buildings along the block, the alleyways and the rear entrances. Everything was shut for the night. Oriental Imports was now quiet and deserted. Scott wondered just what he would find.

Hugging the wall as tightly as he could, he slunk towards the back doorway. It was locked, as was expected. A phantom grin graced his lips as he remembered Johnny lecturing him that locks only kept innocent people out. He took out his small pocket knife and inserted it in the keyhole. The grin became real as the lock clicked. Johnny had taught him well.

Scott surveyed the warehouse part of the building perfunctorily, then satisfied himself that the front of the premises was indeed empty. He returned to concentrate on the rear section. Boxes were everywhere, and the unpleasant thought struck him suddenly that Johnny could be in one. He saw nothing obviously amiss, so that would mean he would need to check the larger crates to reassure himself that Johnny was not there. But first, he would go investigate that door he had seen Mr. Waters use earlier.

The bolt was padlocked into place and he wondered what needed more security than that already provided for the boxes in the room with him. He rattled the padlock in the ridiculous hope that it would spring open. It didn’t. Forcing entry seemed to be the only solution.

He thought about shooting the lock to smithereens, but opted for a quieter method instead. His pocket knife worked no magic this time, so picking up a crowbar from the top of a nearby crate, he inserted it under the bolt and levered hard, trying to loosen the screws holding the lock in place.  He levered backwards and forwards until the screws worked their way out from the wood. Once he had made some headway, they loosened quite rapidly. With one final heave, he yanked on the tool. Wood splintered as the lock pulled free to hang crazily at a useless angle.

Scott’s gun was in his hand in a flash. He had made a heck of a din and he wondered if anyone passing by would have heard. Breathing fast, he flattened himself against the wall and listened.

No one arrived to investigate, so sucking in a steadying breath he entered the door and descended the steps, allowing his toes to gently examine each step before he proceeded.

When he hit the bottom, he stopped and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark murkiness. After several moments he still could not see distinctly, so he pulled a packet of matches from his pocket and struck one on his boot. It flared and provided him with sufficient light.

The sight before him struck him like a fist to the abdomen.

 

Chapter Twenty Five

In the wavering light of his match, Scott took in the clump in front of him. The clothes were disheveled, but definitely recognizable. The dark hair topping the unmoving figure was even more disheveled.

He had begun to doubt he would ever see those blue eyes again. But there they were fixed on him, squinting in the sudden light, the piercing blue undimmed.

“Johnny!”

After a swift look around for trouble, Scott was at his brother’s side. He eased the gag from his mouth and was rewarded with a grin bright enough to see by, just moments before Johnny retched and spat the foul taste of the gag from his mouth.

A lamp sputtered into life as Scott lit it with another match. It gave him the light he needed to untie Johnny and assess his condition.

Scott’s pocket knife whipped through the bonds, freeing Johnny’s ankles and wrists. Johnny groaned as the new found freedom gave him a rush of pain. He flexed stiff limbs and rubbed his wrists to get the circulation going.

“You’re the last person I expected to see here, Scott. How the hell did you find me?”

Scott had been unable to speak after his initial greeting. His eyes took in his brother’s actions as he worked at restoring his circulation. He checked over his face and tried to assess any possible injuries to his body. It so far looked as though Johnny was unscathed apart from a small gash on his head marked by some dried blood matting his hair. Scott breathed a heartfelt prayer of thanks, then finally found his voice.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, Johnny. I guess I owe my little brother for teaching me a few tricks.”

Johnny stilled. The muscles of his jaw worked, but otherwise he was motionless. His head, which had seconds before been bowed as he rubbed his aching limbs, suddenly tilted up.

“You mean Tom?” he accused.

Scott was nonplussed. “You know I mean you.”

“But I ain’t your brother no more, remember? Go ask Murdoch.”

Scott swallowed.

“I don’t mean to be ungrateful, Scott, but you shouldn’t have come after me. There’s no point.”

The gaze was steady. Icy eyes stared at Scott’s. No, not icy, Scott decided. Eyes that were trying to be icy. Eyes that were trying to fool him. The bluff did not convince Scott and he would call it.

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong, Brother. On two counts.”

Johnny held Scott’s gaze. “I ain’t interested in no made up story trying to get me to stay, Scott. I know how Murdoch felt. He don’t believe I’m his son and I ain’t interested in being where I’m not wanted. I was there most of my life. And I don’t want to be there no more.”

“You’re wanted all right, Johnny. I just wish you trusted us enough to know how much.”

“Trust! Well, don’t that beat all. How about you teach Murdoch that little word?”

Scott damned Murdoch for letting the situation overwhelm him, giving Johnny the impression that he doubted him.

“I’ve got things to tell you, Johnny, but we need to get out of here.”

“Scott, I ain’t interested.”

“You’re not interested? So why are you here? And you don’t want to hear about Father Pablo and Father Domingo?”

Johnny lost the battle in trying not to appear interested. He hesitated. “Father Pablo? How do you know about him?”

“I went to Mexico, Johnny.”

Johnny stopped and frowned. Scott could see the war within.

“I know you are my brother! And I know that Luis never existed. I have proof.”

“Oh, yeah, and just how does that change things?”

“Johnny, this is no place for this argument. Come back to my hotel and we’ll discuss it there.”

Johnny gave no response, but the fact that he was still there in there in the room told Scott volumes about Johnny’s yearning to know more.

“Please. I have some things to tell you about Father Domingo, but you have to promise me you won’t take off.”

Johnny regarded him silently.

“No promise and I’ll just tie you back up and leave you here!”

The hardened look lost some of its intent. “All right.” He finally nodded. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

                                                     ************************

 

At the hotel, Scott refused to talk things over until Johnny had had a bath and been given a decent hot meal. He then insisted on checking the wound on Johnny’s head. The blood had washed away in the bath, but Scott was determined to clean the cut up with several liberal dabs of the whiskey he had stashed in his room.

Scott knew he was delaying things. He was just so petrified that Johnny would hear what he had to say and then up and leave.

Johnny was now sitting on the edge of the second bed in Scott’s room. He was worrying at the toggle on the cuff of his shirt, mindlessly pushing it through the hole and then undoing it, seemingly unwilling to start the conversation.

Scott secretly hoped that Johnny was delaying as well. Just maybe that meant he was looking for a reason to come back to Lancer. But Scott had to start somewhere so he took a steadying breath and plunged on in.

“Tom’s still at Lancer,” Scott started.

Johnny looked over at him, one eyebrow cocked. “Winning over the Old Man, huh?”

“Well, until Murdoch finds out one way or the other, Tom can hardly be sent packing.”

Johnny snorted. “Didn’t worry him none sending me packing!”

“Johnny, he did not send you packing! You chose to go because your nose was out of joint about Tom’s arrival!”

“You bet it was out of joint, an impostor arriving claiming he’s our brother as if he’s got a right to our land!” Johnny’s face contorted with anger as he jabbed at the air.

“You didn’t give Murdoch a chance to answer. You stormed off in a huff because you couldn’t cope. You were like a sulky boy who didn’t want to share … Lancer, Murdoch or me! Take some responsibility, Johnny.”

“Me take some responsibility? What about Murdoch? His irresponsibility is what started all this!” Johnny jumped to his feet, gesticulating in his distress.

“Yes, Murdoch was irresponsible, just the same as we have been in the past. He wasn’t married, so what he did was no worse than what we have done many times over. But get over it, Johnny! Murdoch is fallible. He’s no saint. You might argue with him and tell him he’s wrong about so many things, but you know what, I think that you were just disappointed in him to find out that he isn’t perfect. And I don’t think that you liked to accept that.”

“I know he ain’t perfect, Scott, not the way he pretends to be! Do you take me for a fool?”

“No, but you have him on a pedestal, even if you won’t admit it to yourself.”

“I didn’t stay around to hear this crap, Scott. If you ain’t got nothing better to say, I’ll be going.”

“So, you are going to continue with your childish tantrum without any thought for how much you hurt us … and how much you are hurting yourself?”

Johnny marched over to Scott and grabbed his shirtfront in his fist. “I AIN’T having a tantrum!” he yelled into his face.

The two men stayed stock still, inches from each other’s face. Simultaneously, both of them found their lips twitching and the corners of their mouths curved into the beginnings of a smile. Johnny let go of Scott’s shirt. He hung his head, thinking for a moment, then reached up and smoothed the wrinkles out of Scott’s shirt fabric.

“Shit, Scott, why do you always have to be right?”

“Because I am older and wiser.”

Johnny sighed.

“You’re not the only one who is unhappy about the events, Johnny, but you were cowardly to run off. That’s not the behaviour of the Johnny I know. You’re avoiding facing up to it. You found an excuse to leave. That’s all it was, an excuse, because the new order of things is all too hard.”

Scott’s reasonable and soothing voice seemed to have worked in placating his stubborn brother.

“But I liked the old order, Scott” Johnny whispered forlornly.

“Same here, Johnny.” Scott grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and shook him gently. “Not everything has to change, though. We don’t have to change everything because there is a new person in the picture.”

“But he sure spoils things.”

“Well, we’ll deal with it together, Johnny, because that’s what families do. None of this disappearing stuff.” Scott shook him again gently. “Please?” he pleaded softly.

“It ain’t gonna work, Scott, if we’re never gonna know where we stand with the Old Man.” Johnny’s voice was rough with emotion which he quickly coughed away.

“Look, Johnny, let’s talk about Tom later. For the moment, just realize that Murdoch is biding his time until he finds out the truth about Tom. It is just possible that Tom is his son, and Murdoch is being eaten up by the guilt of thinking he may have a third son denied the right of growing up at Lancer. He could never live with himself if he threw him off and found out that Tom was indeed his son and Peter his grandson. Surely, you can’t criticize him for this?”

Johnny turned abruptly and punched the air. “It just sticks in my gut, Scott! I could see his brain thinking it over. He was really wondering about me and MY right to be there! I got shot in the back for Lancer, and he hesitated about ME!”

“It wasn’t hesitation over you. It was over not wanting to spurn Tom if he was telling the truth. It was over his place at Lancer. Maybe us having to share Lancer with him! He was searching for the right words so as not to alienate you, and you are condemning him for taking that time! And you stormed off, which is exactly what he was trying to avoid!” Scott threw back at him.

Johnny sat suddenly, his head falling into his hands. “I really don’t know what to think any more, Scott,” he groaned.

Scott sat next to him.

“Maybe you need to stop thinking so hard and just accept the family we have,” Scott suggested, “Warts and all.”

Johnny snorted. “Warts and all is about right, Scott.”

Before Johnny could react, Scott’s arm was draped around Johnny’s shoulder and he was given a rough hug. Not wanting to crowd him, Scott then gave him a brotherly push. “Let’s put Tom in the too hard basket for the moment and get down to the nitty gritty over other matters, such as Father Domingo’s murder”

Johnny’s tan faded to whitewash. “Come again?”

“Father Domingo was found dead after you left Lancer. The next day in fact.”

“Who did it?”

“You seem to be the prime suspect.”

Johnny searched his eyes, looking for accusation. It wasn’t there.

“We know it wasn’t you, so we might want to think about who it could have been, because at the moment there is a warrant out for your arrest.”

Johnny was quiet a long time. “You got any ideas?” he asked softly.

“Not especially.”

Johnny continued to hold his brother’s eyes, relief evident that his brother had not asked him if he had done it.

“It’s kinda coincidental that Father Domingo turns up with this Luis shit and then gets himself killed.” Johnny’s statement begged a response.

“Yep, but I don’t have too much faith in coincidences.”

“Well, he didn’t know anyone else in the area except me.”

“That we know of, Johnny,” Scott chided him. “And there is the matter of the note found on him.”

“Note?”

“Yes. He wrote a note saying that if anything happened to him, the man known as Johnny Lancer would be the prime suspect. He explained that he had gone to Lancer to offer long overdue commiserations about your death, that he discovered you were an impostor, and that you were likely to wreak revenge on him for betraying your little scheme.”

“Kinda tidy, ain’t it?”

“Uhuh. Val thought it was a bit too tidy.”

Johnny couldn’t help but grin. “Val and tidy don’t usually go together in the same breath.”

The corners of Scott’s mouth twitched in amusement at Johnny’s humour.

Johnny rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, what Val thinks ain’t gonna matter a whole heap. Everyone else is going to draw their own conclusions if they haven’t done so already.”

“True. Then we have this ‘Luis shit’, to use your eloquence.”

Johnny smiled despite himself. The language did not suit his mannerly brother.

“I went to Mexico.”

Some trepidation marked Johnny’s countenance. “So you said. Who with?”

“By myself.”

Johnny jumped up and turned to lean over his brother, prodding him in the shoulder. “Are you mad! What possessed you to be so stupid?”

“My desire to get my brother back, with or without the Luis shit.” Scott’s grin was infectious.

Johnny gave him a shove in the shoulder, before returning a weaker smile.

“Sit, Brother.”

Johnny rejoined him on the bed.

“So, I went down south, over the border and I visited one dry and dusty town after another until I found the one where you had lived and where you had got to know Father Domingo.” Scott noticed Johnny grab a handful of the blanket. No words came out of his brother’s tightly closed lips, however. “And I met Father Pablo.” Johnny stiffened a bit, waiting for what his older brother was about to say. “He remembered you well … and your mother,” Scott added softly.

Johnny did not glance at him, but continued to stare into space.

“And he knew Father Domingo. He also knew what a bastard he was.”

That did get Johnny’s attention. “What did he say?”

Scott had considered all through the return journey what he would say to his brother, but now that the time had come, he suddenly felt his mouth go dry. He took a steadying breath, met his brother’s eyes and confirmed the truth Johnny had divulged back at Lancer.

“Well, he told me how Father Domingo tended to use women such as your mother. He didn’t seem to care too much for his vows or for the situation he left several women in.”

“You got that right.”

“And Father Pablo suspected him of pilfering the church’s funds and relics, to the extent that he couldn’t turn a blind eye any longer. He had just been to Mexico City to register an official complaint against him.”

”Did Father Domingo know?”

“Father Pablo thinks that Father Domingo worked it out.”

“So he knew his time in the priesthood was coming to an end,” Johnny ruminated.

“Yes. He was becoming desperate, I think, to get what he could and to go.”

Johnny picked up that there was more. “And?”

“And he was the one who set up that photograph from the cemetery.”

Johnny frowned at that. “I guessed as much, but why go to all that trouble and why do it in the first place?”

“He went to some trouble, all right. And expense. He …,” Scott swallowed painfully. “He ordered a headstone from the stonemason’s and then hired a photographer to take a photo of it.”

Johnny merely stared at Scott for some time before he, too, swallowed awkwardly. Talk of his own gravestone sent unpleasant frissons down his back.

“I don’t get it, Scott.”

“Neither do I entirely, but at least Father Pablo confirmed that there never was a Luis.”

Johnny looked at Scott in the eye. “And you had to go to Mexico to hear that? I seem to remember telling you and Murdoch the same thing. Over and over. And I was right there in the same room as you. My word can’t have been too convincing.”

Scott reflected on the pain in his brother’s voice and rose to the challenge.

“Yes, I needed to go to Mexico, because I thought that was where you had gone and I wanted to haul your sorry ass back to Lancer! I needed independent proof that you weren’t Luis and that Luis didn’t exist so that the case against you murdering Father Domingo didn’t hold water. I needed to discredit him and his Luis theory so his note accusing you meant nothing. I had good reason to go down there, Johnny, and it wasn’t because I didn’t believe you! I needed to find evidence that it was Father Domingo whose word was not to be trusted!”

Scott had become quite heated as he rebuffed Johnny’s accusation. His face had reddened and he was breathing a little fast as though having run some distance.

“Does any of that have any merit, Johnny, or are you going to continue insinuating that I checked up on you because I didn’t accept YOUR word?”

Johnny suddenly bowed his head in embarrassment at doubting Scott. He took a restorative breath. “I guess that your line of thinking does have merit, after all, Scott. I’m sorry for doubting you. I’ve been on edge, I suppose.”

Scott folded his arms. “We’ve ALL been on edge, Johnny.”

Johnny simply nodded.

“Now can we move on or do you still have problems with me checking up on you in Mexico? If so, speak up and let’s clear the air now.”

Johnny held up a hand to ward Scott’s suggestion off. “No, I got no problems. You’ve got the floor, so tell me what else you found out.”

Scott thought for a second. “I met Senora Montoya.”

“Dang! Is she still working in the kitchen at the mission?”

“She is. And she asked me to send on her best wishes. It seems that she had a soft spot for you.”

Johnny blushed at the compliment. “She was good to me, Scott. She gave me food. She deliberately saved me extra servings. And it wasn’t just food she was going to throw out. I owe her.”

“If that’s the case, you owe her to return to your life at Lancer. It’s what she always wanted for you.”

Johnny sighed and scratched his ear in frustration. “It’s just such a helluva long way to come to show that photo to Murdoch and invent that Luis shit just to try to disrupt my life. He had no time for me all those years ago, so why bother taking all that time and making all that effort to get at me now?”

“Well, I guess it would be totally inexplicable if it weren’t for one thing,” Scott commented.

“That one thing wouldn’t be called Tom, would it?”

“I guess that brings us back to the coincidences I don’t believe in, Johnny.”

Johnny abandoned the handful of crumpled blanket and bolted up onto his two feet. He paced the room and ran his hands through his hair.

“So, did Tom put Father Domingo up to this or did Father Domingo put Tom up to it?”

“Precisely, Johnny. And did you know that Tom was definitely in San Luis Rio Colorado? I think that Tom arranged this to get you out of the picture. Whether he met Father Domingo by accident or design, though, I don’t know. There were enough people there who remember you fondly, little Brother. And they confirmed Tom’s visit. If we sort this out, we can sort out the mess at Lancer, too, not to forget the matter of a murder and an outstanding arrest warrant for you!”

Johnny winced. He couldn’t go back to prison. Before, it had been hard. An abyss had swallowed him up, but in some ways he hadn’t cared enough about his life to get as down as some of the other prisoners had. He niggled at the guards and masochistically hoped one day they would end it for him. Now was a different matter. He had experienced a family and all the comforts and beauty of life at Lancer. He couldn’t cope with prison this time. He wouldn’t.

“So, I have a plan, Brother!”

Johnny couldn’t help but smile at his military brother’s fondness for plans.

“Find the enemy? Engage him? Defeat him?”

Both men grinned broadly at the memory, despite the tension of the desperate situation.

“Exactly! I think we need to see why you were imprisoned by Waters. What did your enquiry about Tom stir up? And what were the exact circumstances of Tom’s birth?”

Johnny leaned his frame against the wall, crossing his arms casually. “Oh, I’m way ahead of you there, Brother.”

“You are?”

“Yep. I did me some investigating before I got bushwhacked and I found out the name of the doctor who delivered him. Seems the old boy is still alive and living locally.”

“Well done, Johnny! It appears as though you missed your calling. Those Pinkertons should have put you on the payroll!”

“Well, don’t speak too soon. We don’t know yet if we’re gonna get any useful information.”

Scott stood to face his brother. “No we don’t.”

Scott’s grin spread like a flash flood across his lips.

“What?” asked Johnny a little puzzled at Scott’s glee.

“You did say ‘we’. Does that mean we’re partners?”

The quiet in the room lasted for some moments before Johnny dipped his head and acquiesced. “I guess we are at that.”

Johnny had barely finished speaking before he was grabbed in a head hold and his hair ruffled enthusiastically. They scuffled for a minute, the pain and uncertainty fleeing for the time being, before a couple of solid shoulder slaps finished the physicality of their tomfoolery.

Then both men settled back down to earnest discussions about how they would proceed.

 

Chapter Twenty Six

Morning came all too soon after too few hour’s sleep and after Johnny had enjoyed an all too brief idyllic interlude shared with a feather pillow and soft mattress. This had been paradise compared to his two nights spent trussed up on the cold, hard floor of the basement.

A solid breakfast of ham, eggs, fresh bread and coffee gave them the fuel they were going to need for what could be a strenuous day to come. They were on a mission and they aimed to finish it and restore some order in their lives.

First off, the boys called in to Johnny’s hotel where Johnny washed up and changed his filthy clothes. His blue floral shirt was the first thing his hand came upon in his saddle bags. He dragged it out, gave it a flick to iron out the wrinkles and shrugged it on. After returning to Scott’s hotel, he threw his gear on the bed and headed out again on Scott’s heels.

Maddison and Waters did not take long to reach. The steps were devoured two at a time and neither let the silly little barricade keep them out. They strode over the midget wall, past the empty outer office and entered Mr. Waters’ office without bothering to knock.

Mr. Anthony Waters was lifted bodily out of his chair and hoisted against the wall behind his desk. Johnny’s revolver clicked loudly through his startled cries just a fraction of a second before it was pressed hard into the flesh of his neck.

“I’m back, Mr. Waters, although somehow I don’t think that you expected me to turn up for that meeting we had planned,” Johnny sneered.

Whimpering, the shaking man would have slid down the wall like a mudslide down a hill had the Lancer brothers not held him up.

“I got a thing about being locked up, Mr. Waters. I get real mad if I’m restricted in any way. It makes me all twitchy, don’t it, Scott?”

“Most definitely.”

“Especially in my trigger finger,” Johnny drawled lazily and chillingly. “It gets all sensitive like. When people lie to me, it sorta jerks in aggravation.”

Johnny chuckled sadistically as the man went green. Scott was less amused, taking half a step back in case their victim puked up over both of them into the bargain.

“Now, you’re gonna tell me just why I was slugged on the head and tied up like a pig on a spit.” Johnny moved the gun from Mr. Waters’ neck and pressed it against his mouth. “And don’t give me no bullshit, or they’ll be the last words you speak!” Johnny rotated the gun slightly, inserting it partly into the petrified man’s lips.

“You were asking after Tom,” he croaked. Johnny eased up on the barrel and moved it to rest on the man’s temple.

“What’s that got to do with the price of beef?”

“Tom was sacked, but … I had paid him off.”

“Why?”

“Politics. Because I’m running for government, hoping for Senate.”

Johnny was well versed in the seedy side of life. He twigged straight away. “So he had dirt on you. What was it?”

Mr. Waters squirmed. “Nothing firm.”

“Nothing firm? Well that may mean it is hard to prove it in a court of law, but it tells me that what he found was correct, so how about you tell me, eh? WHAT did he blackmail you with? And don’t give me no malarkey.”

“There wasn’t really anything. Honest!”

Johnny sniggered. “Yeah. I bet you’d even swear that on a bible. Scott, I think we got a liar on our hands. You know how that makes me react. You might wanna step back a bit further so you don’t get blood and brains all over that pretty coat you’re wearing.”

“Why, thank you for the warning, Johnny. Blood stains are so hard to remove. You are considerate as always.”

Scott stepped to one side. “Ready when you are.”

Perspiration popped out of the pores on Mr. Water’s face. The beads bulged, then coalesced. The weight was all too much for gravity. Tracks of sweat poured down his face in rivulets, either flooding into his shirt collar or dripping off his chin.

Johnny grinned evilly.

“No!” his victim screeched. “All right! I’ll tell you!”

Johnny eased up just a little to give him some thinking space.

The man gulped in great mouthfuls of air. Johnny gave him a moment, then began prodding. “We’re waiting, and we’re in a hurry,” he warned.

“He found out that I had been bringing in Chinese workers as slave labour. He threatened to go to the papers and write letters. My political aspirations would have been ruined. I had been campaigning to clean up this practice as part of my platform. In the end, I paid him off. I paid for his silence. He took the money and he left. I haven’t seen him since.”

“Slave labour. Charming. You really are a fine specimen of humanity.” Scott’s voice dripped sarcasm. “And what about what you told me? What about Tom mishandling clients’ accounts?”

“There was that as well. I called him on the accounts, then he called me on the Coolies. It could have been a Mexican stand-off, but it boiled down to my having more to lose. I couldn’t afford to lose clients who might question our practices if they discovered why he had been dismissed. And I certainly couldn’t afford for him to go to the papers about the Chinese labour I employed.”

Scott snorted. “‘Employed’, is that what you call it?”

Mr. Waters merely swallowed.

“And what about the opium?”

Mr. Waters’ eyes nearly popped out of their sockets at Johnny’s question. “It ain’t illegal! Well, not yet, it’s not.” he whined.

“It’s morally illegal!” Scott threw back at him. “Although I guess you don’t know too much about morals.”

“Perfect for politics.” Johnny’s contempt summed up his feelings.

Mr. Waters looked from one to the other, wary of the next question to be thrown his way.

“And he never came back to ask for more?” Johnny was skeptical. Past experience flagged the fact that most blackmailers came back to their easy source of revenue.

“No, he didn’t. I had heard that he had gambling debts. I believe that he paid them off with the cash. He would have had a decent sum left over, though. The last time I saw him, he said something about having a bigger fish to fry with a more permanent source of income and he was determined to make sure that he muscled in on it.”

“And what did he mean by that?”

Mr. Waters looked from one to the other.

“I really don’t know. Honest. I was just relieved that he was going to leave me alone. He seemed to think that he could become a fixture somewhere that would assure him of big bucks. It was out of town and that suited me just fine. I think … I think he was going to take up farming.”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other in comprehension. Lancer was no doubt Tom’s new goal.

“Trust a city slicker not to know the difference between farming and ranching.”

Mr. Waters merely looked puzzled at the seemingly random comment from Johnny.

“How much did you pay him?”

A snake like tongue moistened dry lips. “Twenty thousand dollars.”

The whistle from Johnny’s mouth made Mr.Waters jump. He hiccupped in fright.

“Boy, you must want to be a politician real bad!”

“I’m sure you’ll be in good company, Mr. Waters,” Scott commented with disdain.

“Well, Mr. Waters, I guess that we’ll go check out your story, but you seem to have dug yourself a mighty deep grave.”

Scott took up the conversation from his brother. “At least six feet deep,” Scott agreed. “But seeing we are fair minded souls, we’ll give you options”

“Which is more than you gave me the other night!” Johnny reminded him.

“You can continue with the election race. In such a case we will be running to the newspapers and the police with a first hand account of your slave trade activities and opium importing.”

Johnny smiled broadly as he listened to Scott’s conditions. “That’s a good start, Scott.” Johnny encouraged him with his praise.

“So you can pursue public office or, if you have any smarts, you will withdraw. We are going to give you a week to free your Chinese workers, give them their papers to show that they are free of indenture, and find them jobs. We want a list. If we are not happy, we will get the authorities on to you. We come to San Francisco regularly. We will check up on you. If we hear a whisper of anything untoward, and if I can restrain Johnny from inflicting physical harm on you, then we will see to it that you are behind bars for the kidnapping of my brother … amongst other things.”

“Hey, Scott, sounds like you’re gonna be spoiling all my fun!” Johnny whinged.

Scott merely graced him with a smile of apology. “And finally, you will build a safe house for Chinese immigrants to help get them on their feet. Either they get the welcome centre or YOU will get behind bars.”

Mr. Water’s eyes were huge as he tried to cope with the ramifications of Scott’s conditions.

“Is that about it, Johnny?”

“Not quite, just let me get this straight. So, Mr. Waters, you knocked me out and kidnapped me because I might have discovered the truth about your activities from Tom. And then I might have spoilt your political intentions by gabbing away about these unethical activities?”

“Yes,” he gasped in confirmation.

“You know something, mister?” Johnny took no heed of his shake of the head, merely continuing on. “You picked the wrong man to mess with! And I got a long memory!”

Johnny watched the naked fear with disgust before jerking his head at Scott and heading out the door.

 

********************************

They headed to their next destination. Neither man was interested in any delay. They needed to sort out the mess that Tom had created. And they needed to sort it out fast. The longer they were away, the longer Tom had to work on Murdoch … and the longer Murdoch might have to get used to the idea of being a grandfather. They had both been absent for long enough.

“Are you sure that he is the right person?” Scott asked.

“I’m sure all right, Scott. I made enough enquiries. And you won’t believe where he lives.”

Scott was puzzled. He was also puffed. This was a damned hilly place.

“Well, why don’t you tell me so I don’t have to waste oxygen thinking about it?”

Johnny chuckled. God, he had missed his brother.

“Harlan Place!”

Scott stopped. Johnny had moved on several steps and needed to turn around to face him.

“You’re kidding me?”

“Not at all. It’s just off Grant Street. Take a look at the sign when we get there.”

Scott shook his head in amazement. “I knew that Grandfather had influence, but this is ridiculous,” he joked.

“Yep, it is ridiculous. They got more sense in this city than to name anything after him!” Johnny informed him cheekily. “It was named after some guy who led an overland party out here about fifteen or sixteen years ago. He brought his wife and family with him.”

“You never cease to stun me, Johnny. Just how did you find that out?”

Johnny had the grace to look sheepish. “It was such a coincidence, while I was at the library I found me a lady who was really fascinated with history. She told me all about him … and about a dozen other landmarks before I was able to make up a half reasonable excuse to escape.”

“You know, Johnny, just maybe all those years being on the fringe of the wrong side of the law were wasted. You’d have made a mighty fine policeman.”

Johnny’s blazing grin flashed with even, white teeth as he enjoyed his brother’s compliment. “I somehow don’t think that my methods would go down all that well, Scott.”

“Yes, well, come to think of it I do seem to remember someone once saying that ‘being legal don’t get the job done’.”

“You’re learning, Brother, you’re learning!”

 

                                        ********************************

 

Dr Nathaniel Westlake lived in a narrow three story home. Geraniums blossomed in pots on the front veranda, bright baubles against the grey walls of the house. The well kept appearance was further emphasized by the fresh white paint on the door and window frames.

At the base of the steps, both Lancers drew to a sudden halt. They looked at each other, not knowing if they really wanted to hear what Dr Westlake might tell them. And they both recognized their reluctance.

“Well, into the fray, Johnny. We’ve come this far. Let’s not drag it out any further.”

In mirror actions, they both straightened their shoulders and stepped upwards, right foot first.

Scott knocked. At first, they thought that no one was home, but then footfalls could be heard approaching the door. It opened to reveal a grey haired gentleman in his late sixties. Spectacles perched precariously on his nose and a newspaper hung limply from his left hand.

“Good day, gentlemen. May I help you?”

The boys had decided to be forthright and honest, but it was much harder to launch into what was a private and essentially delicate business than they had realized.

“Well?”

The man was impatient that neither had answered his first query.

“Dr Westlake?”

“Yes. Do I know you?”

“No, you don’t. My name is Scott Lancer and this is my brother Johnny. We are here regarding a private matter. And we were hoping that you could help us.”

The doctor nodded at Johnny and then moved his gaze back to Scott. “Don’t see how I can when I don’t know you.”

“But do you know a man named Tom Phelps?”

Narrowed eyes seemed to indicate that he did.

“And if I did?”

“Then we would be grateful if you could answer a few questions for us.  I don’t suppose we could come in and deal with this privately, could we?”

“No, I don’t suppose you could. I’m not in the habit of inviting strangers inside.”

Scott bit his cheek. He didn’t know if he could bring himself to divulge secrets about Lancer dirty linen to a man he had just met.

Johnny had no such qualms.

“This here Tom Phelps says that he is our brother. We own property, Sir. We just want to make sure he is our brother before signing over a share to him. I guess you could say that his existence took us by surprise.”

The doctor was studying Johnny intently when Scott took his brother’s lead.

“And it’s not just us, Sir. Our father’s welfare is at stake.”

A beat later and the door was opened wider. “Come in gentlemen. The parlour is to the right.”

Hats in hand they filed past the man and entered the parlour. A neat room, it had few knick knacks, but reading material abounded on the bookshelf and occasional tables.

“A drink, gentlemen?”

“No, thank you, Sir.”

“Take a seat.”

The boys settled onto a sofa, leaving the brocade armchair for Dr Westlake.

“Perhaps you might like to tell me all about it.”

A glance was shared and Johnny nodded to his older sibling. Scott began.

“We have a ranch in the northern San Joaquin Valley. There is just our father and us.”

The doctor’s raised eyebrow prompted Johnny to jump in. “We have different mothers, but they’ve both passed away.”

“Go on.”

“Well, about a month ago, this Tom Phelps arrived at our door. He said that he was our father’s son.”

The doctor nodded as he assimilated this information. “And who does he say his mother was?”

“She was the daughter of an ex-neighbour of our father’s.”

“And what does your father say to this?”

Scott locked glanced with Johnny. A barely perceptible nod assured him that he should continue.

“He says that it is possible that he is indeed his father.”

“So, what do you want from me? You are shocked at having to accept a brother or to share your property? Is it too difficult a concept to cope with that your father strayed? I must admit that I find his candour to be rather refreshing.”

Johnny jumped in quickly. “He didn’t ‘stray’ as you put it, Sir. Scott’ mother had passed away and he hadn’t yet met mine. He was as free as a bird to have a romance.”

Scott also interceded “Johnny’s right. We don’t have a problem with our father … exercising his desires for female company.”

“You may say that, but do you feel that?”

“Yes, Sir. We don’t expect him to have lived as a monk.”

“I have my doubts that deep down inside you really accept that. But lets’ move on. You have a man claiming to be your brother and a father admitting he probably IS the father of this man. Yet you two want more certainty. It really sounds like you both have some adjusting to do if you are going to accept what your father is telling you. I really can’t see that I can help you in any way. Now if you would be so good as to leave me to my day’s activities!”

”You know Tom Phelps, or you wouldn’t have let us in.”

“My knowing him does not change the circumstances of your tangled family relationships. I don’t see how I can help you. Now, good day, gentlemen.”

“We don’t believe that he is our brother, Sir.”

“Of course you don’t. You don’t want to believe it!”

“Can you at least confirm this birth notice from this newspaper?”

Scott held out the clipping he had purloined from Murdoch’s desk before his departure.

The doctor read the announcement. “Yes, I remember his birth. If you are saying that she tricked her husband into believing he was the father, well it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. Both parents were overjoyed at the birth, though, and that is the main thing.”

“From our investigations, he was born about seven months after Anne Redshaw’s wedding. That makes his birth somewhat early in the cheme of things.”

“I believe that is the case, yes.”

Scott sighed in disappointment. He really didn’t know what they had hoped to achieve. The doctor had merely confirmed that all details matched Tom’s information.”

“Come on, Scott. Let’s skip it. I guess that Tom and I have something in common, after all.”

Scott frowned. “And that would be?”

“Oh, that he and I were both nine month babies born seven months after our mother’s weddings.” He grinned ruefully with self deprecation and shrugged his shoulders.

Sobering, he stood and held his hand out to the doctor. “We’re sorry for taking your time, doc. I guess it was just wishful thinking that you might be able to help us.”

Scott followed his brother’s lead and both men headed to the door.

“Wait!”

Booted heels swiveled to face the doctor.

“What you just said. He was no nine month baby. He was born seven months after his parents’ wedding and he was definitely a seven month baby.”

“Pardon?” Scott asked, not daring to get excited yet.

“He wasn’t full term. He was early, very early. I have never seen such a small and early baby survive, to be frank. He was sickly infant, but he became more robust after his first birthday. I didn’t think he’d live, let alone thrive at a later age.”

Scott and Johnny stood shoulder to shoulder by the door. They were stunned at what they heard and at first neither was capable of speaking.

"So, he was a small baby?” Scott knew it was a stupid thing to ask after the details the doctor had just given them.

The doctor did not seem to think he was being stupid, however. “That is correct. He was small. While being small doesn’t always equate to being an early baby, in this case it does. A doctor can tell a premature baby. He was most definitely pre-term.”

Like Scott, Johnny wanted to make sure that he had the facts right. “So, doc, are you saying, if you’ll excuse me, that he was a honeymoon baby? He was conceived about the time they got married?”

“Yes.”

“That means he couldn’t have been conceived in April?”

“Most definitely not. He was born in January, but he should have been born in March.”

 “You would have delivered so many babies over the years. How can you remember this one? How do we know that you are not getting mixed up with someone else?”

“Two reasons. I was a friend of both Anne and her father. And secondly, upon arriving home after delivering him, I received news that my dear younger sister had passed away in childbirth in Chicago. I can never forget that day.”

“I’m sorry,” both men offered sincerely.

“Thank you. The main thing is, though, that you know the truth.”

“Yes, indeed.”

“I am rather shocked that it appears that he has invented this charade. As Anne’s son, I have kept an ear out for information about him. While I knew he was a glib talker, I did not expect this of him. And I most certainly would not like you to lose a share of your inheritance through the actions of an impostor. But I do feel sorry for his wife. I have heard that she is a good woman. A good woman married to a slick talker with a history of gambling. Gossip is that she has had a tough time with him and his shiftless ways.”

The Lancer boys shook the doctor’s hand warmly.

“Thank you for your honesty, Sir”

“Yes, we owe you, doctor!” Johnny agreed.

“Just do me a favour and keep your tempers in check and your guns in your holsters when you confront him. I would not like to feel guilty for having given you information which could lead to violent excesses.”

“We’ll do our best,” was Johnny’s weak promise. Scott’s response was also just as vague as they headed out the door.

 

NOTE:

There is indeed a Harlan Place in San Francisco. Try Mapquest or Multimap and check it out!

 

Chapter Twenty Seven

The boys wasted little time in leaving San Francisco. After their visit to Mr. Waters they had readied themselves by hastily gathering together enough provisions for the trip in order to avoid any unnecessary interruption to their journey. After a brief stop, they headed out that afternoon, wanting to get as far as they could that day.

They were been subdued during their return. The relief they felt that the family they knew and loved would remain the status quo, was overshadowed by anxiety over their father’s and Teresa’s welfare. Just how were things back at the ranch? Were they safe? Or perhaps events had evolved in some way just as difficult to deal with. How much had their father and this imposter forged a bond of sorts? And just how much had Murdoch fallen under the spell of a little boy and the age old desire to have a grandson and see one’s self replicated for generations to come?

The brothers had been away for weeks. A lot of damage could be done in that time. Irreparable damage.

As it was, a lot of damage had already been inflicted on their family unit. Scott was pensive as they put some distance between themselves and San Francisco. Their haste to front Waters and also to investigate the circumstances of Tom’s birth had taken priority and had prevented him having a heart to heart with his brother about his own part in the disastrous series of affairs. Scott decided that he needed to have that talk when they settled in for the night.

They rode as late as they dared. Not wanting to compromise the safety of their mounts, they stopped by mutual consent at a grove off the main road and beside a bubbling stream. Each set about making camp for the night, following an efficient routine they had developed over the two years since their arrival at Lancer.

It was only after they had eaten and were resting against their saddles nursing whiskey laced coffee that Scott broached what was on his mind.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, Johnny.”

“Don’t want to overdo it, Brother. You might strain yourself.”

Scott could hear the smirk in his brother’s voice. Trust Johnny not to ask the obvious question.

“I’ve been thinking about how we all reacted when Tom arrived.” Scott waited for Johnny to acknowledge his comment, but nothing was said. “None of us liked the change in our family. We’d worked so hard to establish our relationships and it was hard to accept Tom, knowing it could end up being a permanent arrangement.”

Johnny’s snort was loud in the still night air, interrupting his brother. “Boy, that ain’t the half of it!”

“You kept saying that you didn’t think you could accept him and I was trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, not wanting to make it too hard for Murdoch if Tom really was his son, wanting to try to get it to work, whether I liked it or not. I couldn’t hold it against Murdoch if he had fathered Tom and I felt bound to try to make it as easy as possible for the man to fit in, you know?”

Scott paused and was given a tired, ‘Yeah, I know, Scott.”

“I tried to be fair, to be overly fair, in fact, because if he was Murdoch’s son I couldn’t do anything about it and also because, frankly, I didn’t really like him. I didn’t take to him and I found I was giving him too much leeway to make up for his annoying manner … and to make up for what I was concerned was my own pettiness. Overcompensation, I suppose you could call it.”

“Yeah, that’s one thing you could call it.” Johnny’s voice drawled softly into the night.

Scott swallowed and after a pause and a glance in Johnny’s direction, continued on. “But in doing that, in trying to be nice and mannerly, I let him get away with some unforgivable comments. I hardly reacted to his nonsense about playing the boss and lording it over the ranch hands, his bigoted remarks about our Mexican workers and most of all his put downs to you. Rather than create a confrontation and cause ill will, I let too much of this go. And by not taking a stand with him and not putting him in his place, I tacitly encouraged him. In other words, I let you down.”

“I get it, Scott. I could see what he was doing and the effect he was having.”

Scott shrugged disconsolately. “It was so different when I first met you. You were prickly to deal with, but I felt an allegiance to you, even if I didn’t immediately recognize it. There was something there. I didn’t feel like that with Tom, so I can’t even come to terms with my treading so lightly around him … in reality putting him first and consequently not supporting you.”

Again Johnny was not predictable. He latched onto the unexpected. “You felt back then an allegiance to me? Come off it, Scott. You were in denial that I could possibly be related to you! Remember when we met Teresa at the stage? You were disgusted!”

Scott felt bad about that. What could he say? He kicked Johnny’s foot lightly seeing his torso was too far away to give it a jab. “I am ashamed to say that I was horrified, little Brother. You were aggravating. And you seemed to deliberately lean into me in that cooped up stage coach so that my last few miles were even more uncomfortable and smelly than the previous ones.”

Johnny laughed, but did not argue the point.

“But apparently, according to Teresa, you were my little brother.” Scott looked sideways at Johnny’s face, delineated in the dark by the flickering flames of their campfire. “As much as my brain was telling me that I couldn’t possibly be related to you, there was something tugging away at me. Inside, I was rather pleased at the idea of being a big brother.”

“You might have been pleased at the idea of being a big brother, Scott, but you can’t honestly say that you were happy that I was the little brother of your dreams.”

Johnny may have been giving a statement, but it begged a response. Scott smiled into his fortified coffee.

“No, you were not the brother I dreamed of. And make no mistake, I dreamed my whole life of having a brother!” Scott confirmed. “My brother was supposed to be blond, tall and aristocratic.”

“In other words, he was your replica!” Johnny’s accusation was accompanied by some mirth.

“Spot on, Johnny! He was me.  But … but you weren’t me. You were exotic in your foreignness and an enigma, and deep down during that buggy ride with Teresa I was struggling with how to deal with my brother who was so different from the ideal of my dreams.”

“It musta been more like a nightmare, Scott.”

“Well, it should have been. Remember the way you apologized to me about getting my suit all dusty? I was furious, and you knew it, but you had to make a big insincere show of being sorry just to get under my skin. And when Teresa said that Murdoch had had two wives and two sons, I could see your smirking cockiness. Where was the perfect little brother I had always wanted to nurture? Surely not you? But you know something? By the time we got to the arch, I felt I just had to get to know you better. I wanted to know you better. I wanted a brother. If you were it, then that was going to be a challenge to get to know you, but one I was prepared to meet. When you made a deal of counting Murdoch’s money that day, you showed some mettle in thumbing your nose at Murdoch’s honesty. After his gruff manner in greeting us, he deserved it. I was impressed with you, but I wasn’t fooled for a minute. I didn’t believe that the money was the only reason you came to Lancer.”

“Why not? Because it sure was at the time! I had been rescued from prison and was broke. I needed that cash.”

“You can’t tell me that the thousand dollars listening money is all you wanted?”

“Yeah, it was,”

“I don’t believe that and I never will.”

”Well, you should. That was a fortune to me and I wasn’t about to give it up.”

“That’s a fair enough reason to come to Lancer, but why did you stay?”

Johnny chuckled away and after a moment he added, “I couldn’t believe how ornery the Old Man was. He was a challenge. I wanted to get under his skin.”

“And I also saw that look you gave him when we first stepped into the great room. Your face said everything, Johnny. You quickly shut down that yearning look and became all businesslike, counting out the money to annoy him and then relishing Murdoch’s predicament when you found out it was Day Pardee who was behind the raiding. But that look you gave him told me a hell of a lot more about you.”

Johnny’s feet moved restlessly in the dust.

“You’re imagining things, Boston.”

“No, I’m not. You were putting on a front, but there was lot more going on under the surface. And I wasn’t taken in by that visit you paid me in my room.”

Johnny feigned incomprehension. “Weren’t nothing to be taken in by. Just seeing if you were up and about so you wouldn’t miss your first breakfast. City people don’t get up as early as country people.”

“Nonsense! You were trying to put me at a disadvantage like I’ve seen you do when you face off with an opponent. You deliberately put your shirt on as you entered my room, then left it unbuttoned. You wanted the soft city dandy to see the muscled body of the West. You were trying to show how at ease you were lounging all over my bed. You were trying to show your strength to the fair skinned weakling newcomer. And you were trying to find out about me by checking out my gear and poking your nose through my things!”

Johnny barked with laughter. “Was I that obvious? I thought I was being sneaky and subtle.”

“You were sneaky all right, but about as subtle as a hay bale dropped on my head from the barn pulley! You were having trouble coming to terms with me as your brother.”

“Ain’t that a fact!  I couldn’t believe that I could possibly be related to you. You were too … pretty!”

Scott chuckled , remembering that moment last year when Johnny had found him primping in front of that mirror.

“You know something, Scott?”

“No, what?”

“I was just as dumbfounded as you were. The brother I always wanted was dark haired and he sure didn’t wear your style of fancy clothes, but …”

“But what?” Scott prompted when Johnny’s voice stalled.

“There was something ‘bout you, too. Oh, boy, the way you spoke to the Old Man that first day, I nearly cheered. ‘Will I?”. I can still hear you saying it. I bet the Old Man hadn’t had anyone challenging his orders for a long time. I nearly split my britches laughing! The look on his face! He sure wasn’t used to people arguing with him.”

“I suppose not.”

“You were the surprising one, Scott. You were the first one to challenge the Old Man. You threw your cavalry training in my face at the corral, too, … and you sure made me pay for what happened in town that first day. I don’t often get taken by surprise, but your fine manners sure sucked me in!” Johnny rubbed his chin dramatically. “I can still feel that bruising, you know.”

“Yes, well, that wasn’t planned. I was mad and you happened to stop by the river.”

“Planned or not, it sure showed that you had gumption. I shouldn’t have been surprised by it after the way you spoke to the Old Man, but I was. And you had good reason.”

“I had reason at the time, because I didn’t know what you were planning with your one man show, but the point is, even though you seemed to be doing so much wrong then, I had a feeling about you.”

“Aggravation?”

Scott chuckled. “That, too. There wasn’t much I was sure about where you were concerned, but I had a feeling about you. I had a feeling that it would be worth getting to know you. But I never felt that way about Tom. And it seemed like the more I didn’t feel that way about him, the more I allowed him too much latitude, trying to make up for my skepticism of him. Until we had proof telling us the truth of the situation, I felt I had to make it easy for him. If things had got nasty and he turned out to really be my brother, I couldn’t have wound back the clock and started again, so I was ‘nice’… And I was wrong. I’d never been so wrong. I’m sorry.”

“It ain’t worth beating yourself up over, Scott. It’s done. It can’t be changed now and it ain’t the end of the world.”

“But I am beating myself up over it because I can’t believe that I let him get away with so many snide comments. By not nipping it in the bud, I tacitly encouraged him. I allowed him to be bolder with his remarks. I was weak! And that meant that he was, in effect, pushing you onto the outer. He was attempting to marginalize you, to drive a wedge in between us, and I didn’t stop him.”

“Aw, hell, Scott! What do you want me to say? That I expected better from you than that? That I was hurt?”

In agitation, Scott threw the dregs of his coffee on the fire. “If you’re honest, yes.”

“All right, then. I was hurt and I was jealous because I didn’t like him, but I could see your motivation, Scott. I truly could. I didn’t like it much, but I understood.” Johnny looked hard at his brother. “I could always slug you on the chin. We’d be even, then.”

Johnny’s levity angered Scott. “This isn’t something to joke about, Johnny.”

“Who said I was joking?”

Scott rested both his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. “I didn’t support you enough, Johnny. I wasn’t watching your back.”

“Hell, Scott. Everything you said, I understand. I understood then. No, I didn’t like it and I was trying not to explode too much and trying not to play into his hands, but I’m not stupid. I could see what it was doing to you. I could see that you were trying so hard to give him the benefit of the doubt and that you didn’t like it one little bit. If it helps, I forgive you, but I don’t think that there was anything really to forgive. Just do me a favour. Lighten up and forgive yourself!”

Scott lifted his face and looked over at Johnny. “I felt like a traitor to you.”

“I think you’re making too much of this, Scott. I was annoyed. Angry at times even, but I could see how you were battling over your feelings towards this guy.” Johnny stopped and rubbed his forehead. “I’m just relieved, you know? Relieved we don’t have to pretend any more or put up with him any more.”

“So am I. But what if we had found out he was our brother, after all? Murdoch and I had let him establish himself in his own way without setting out the parameters. He was too condescending and patronizing. What if we were heading home now and he was going to be a fixture? I just couldn’t accept living with him and his prejudice.”

“Well, I guess as big brother, it would fall upon you to take him down by the river and sort him out the way you showed me that you weren’t going to take any disloyalty from me!”

Scott smiled tightly. “That’s the difference. You were worth sorting out. I don’t think he would ever have been worth it.”

“It ain’t worth letting it eat you up, Scott. If you keep feeling bad about trying too hard to be polite to the man, you’ll let him have a victory because we’ll never get back to what we’ve always had.”

Scott nodded in agreement. “There’s another difference. I couldn’t ever see him that willing to move on.”

“That’s because he don’t know how much YOU’RE worth it, Scott.”

Scott felt his insides glow. “Thank you, Little Brother.” He picked up a stick and started drawing in the dirt. “And what about Murdoch, Johnny? Is he worth it?”

Johnny’s sigh was loud. “We got ourselves some talking to do,” he conceded.

“Are you going to be able to forgive him, too, or will it just eat you up until you can’t stand it any more and take off?”

“I don’t know.” Johnny also found a stick and started poking it idly in the dirt at his feet.

“If we can’t sort all this out, and I don’t just mean get rid of Tom, it’s going to spoil everything we’ve achieved. And what we’ve achieved has been done together.”

Johnny read between the lines. “And you won’t be staying on if I don’t stay?”

“I don’t know that I could. I’d feel guilty for having been a part of it, but mostly we need you, Johnny. We all do. I know I sure do ...”

“But …?” Johnny picked up on Scott’s unfinished statement.

“But do you need us? Do you want to be with us and will you be able to trust us when we let you down so badly?”

Johnny snorted. “Boy, that’s a world of difference from what you said when you found me in San Francisco. You even told me that I was partly to blame with my temper tantrum, have you forgotten that?”

“I haven’t forgotten and I still think I am partly right, but I was scared you were going to disappear on me once I got you out of there. I wasn’t above rough tactics. If I could make you think it wasn’t all Murdoch’s and my fault, then maybe I had a chance of you coming back with me and sorting things out … and somehow making up for it, if that’s possible.”

“Well, I ain’t making no promises about me and Murdoch, Scott. What went on with Tom is one thing, but Murdoch’s reaction to Father Domingo’s accusation is another. Murdoch and I need to sort that out. You and me are good, though. Just drop the guilt shit, will you, or we never will get over it. OK?”

Scott looked hard at Johnny and extended his hand.

“You want to shake hands on it?”

“If you don’t, I’m going to hug you. Your choice.”

“Ain’t much of a choice, is it?” Johnny deadpanned as he reached over.

That settled, they both got up to visit the bushes, then organize their bedrolls. As Scott bent over his, he was tackled from behind by two strong arms which squeezed him around the torso then pushed him indelicately to the ground. Johnny stood over him, arms crossed. “Sack in, Boston, we got ourselves an early start in the morning.”

“That’s what I was intending to do, Brother,” Scott complained with mock petulance.

A brotherly kick in the boot and a laugh was all he got in reply. And Scott felt like he was in heaven.

 

Chapter 28

Scott and Johnny did not linger the next morning. They had a quick breakfast and headed out as soon as they had broken camp. Electing to only stop where necessary to give the horses a breather and a drink, they pressed on. It was dusk when they reached Lancer.

Their horses picked up the pace as they approached the rise, as if they had sensed the quickening heartbeats of their riders. They knew they were very nearly home and needed no urging to hurry up about it.

The view from the crest reassured both brothers. All seemed well, at least on the outside.

Johnny swallowed, hot tears pricking at the insides of his eyelids and threatening to fall down right there and then in front of his older brother. He had thought that he would never see his home again. He had thought that he would never WANT to see his home again, but he had been kidding himself. Twice now he had walked away from his birthright. He had been hurt, and each time he had left rather than stay around to work through his problems. He felt that Murdoch’s lack of faith in him was partly to blame, but what Scott had said also held an element of truth. Perhaps he had been too quick to take umbrage at Murdoch’s seeming lack of support and too quick to judge his father, which was ironic when Johnny considered he fled both times because he had been unhappy with the way that Murdoch had judged him.

Scott had offered some explanation for Murdoch’s behaviour, but Johnny needed to have it out with his father. He needed to sort it out to his own satisfaction, for if he made no headway in that goal, then sooner or later he would indeed be going. He had had enough of being where he wasn’t wanted and respected.

He chanced a look at Scott and was shocked, but strangely pleased, to witness his brother’s reaction. Scott had taken the opportunity to wipe his eyes on his sleeve while he thought that his brother was preoccupied with his own thoughts, but stopped on realizing that he had an audience. He had missed a spot near his chin where a tear had slid down and moistened his skin.

“It kinda gets to you, don’t it?” Johnny offered in understanding. “I understand the Old Man a bit better now. Remember our joyous family reunion?” Johnny saw by the smirk on Scott’s face that his brother had no trouble in recalling that extraordinary day. “Remember when he gave us all that ‘I’ve got a grey hair for every green blade of grass’ bullshit?”

Scott nodded. “I very nearly told him ‘Up yours!’ and I was itching to walk out there and then. And when he commented that Lancer meant more to him than anything else in the whole world, I wanted to tell him that he could shove his damned ranch up his rear end!”

Johnny grinned wickedly. “You ain’t alone. I even thought about getting out there and grabbing a handful of the pasture and shoving it up his broad butt myself!”

Scott laughed softly. “And I’d have been glad to help you do it!”

“But now I sorta see where he was coming from.” Johnny paused and Scott nodded in agreement at Johnny’s comment. “But as much as I love the place, it ain’t worth shit without our family.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Brother, so let’s get on with this and sort out once and for all just what our family does consist of.”

“Yeah, it’s time, Scott.”

 

                                       ***************************

 

As they rode into the yard they were greeted by Jelly and a recently hired young hand named Seb, who eagerly took their horses’ reins.

“Hey, Johnny, it’s good to see you back.”

Johnny felt a blast of pleasure at the young boy’s enthusiastic greeting. “Hey, Seb. How you been? I hope that you’ve been listening to Jelly and learning some while I’ve been gone. He knows all there is to know about ranching and livestock.”

While Seb took this in earnestly, Jelly recognized the teasing. “Of course he’s been listenin’! I done made sure of that! No point in workin’ with the likes of me and not bein’ better off for it!”

Jelly puffed out his chest as he hooked his thumbs under his braces with all the Jellylike bravado he could muster. He waited a moment for Seb to lead the horses away, then removed his thumbs and gave both boys a rough slap on the shoulders.

“You were gone too long,” he chided. “Get on in there and see your pa. He’s been pinin’ somethin’ dreadful.”

And Jelly shoved them both on the back to get them going into the house and back into conflict.

The boys shared a raised eyebrow at Jelly’s emotion, but did as he bade them. They were anxious to sort this mess out.

 

                                   ******************************

 

Johnny and Scott had discussed how to go about things upon their return. They had originally thought it would be best to get Murdoch aside and talk to him first, but they didn’t trust what Tom could get up to if left to his own devices, so in the end they had decided to broach the issues immediately upon their return. The surprise element might work best in their favour.

So it was that their entrance took those in the room by surprise. Everyone paused in their actions. Tom was by the liquor cabinet pouring himself a drink, while Trudy was on the sofa doing some embroidery. At a corner of their father’s desk sat Peter, engrossed in a drawing.

Johnny took this all in with his peripheral vision as he sought out the man that mattered most to him. He didn’t want to miss a nuance of Murdoch’s reaction.

The next few seconds did not go according to the plan Johnny had scripted in his head.

He had expected to control events immediately upon going inside the home. But as soon as Johnny’s gaze met Murdoch’s, wondering just what he would find, the control he expected to wield was momentarily stripped from him. He felt the embrace projected through his father’s eyes even before the big man was able to speak or move.

“Boys!” The joy was unmistakable. And suddenly Murdoch was in front of Johnny, his large strides having effortlessly eaten up the distance between them. “Johnny!” Murdoch breathed his name more privately. But there was nothing private about his actions as Johnny was grabbed in a tight hug. “Thank God you’re back! Thank God you’re safe!” Then the pressure was gone, but the enormous hands still held his shoulders. Murdoch smiled wanly. “Thank you for coming back, Johnny …. We have some talking to do.”

Johnny did not trust his voice. He nodded. Even if he had wanted to answer his father, he would have been unable to at that particular moment. Beside him, Scott was suddenly seized in a similar grip. Murdoch’s voice was muffled behind Scott’s ear, but Johnny distinguished the words of thanks for bringing his younger son safely home.

Johnny’s gaze travelled from Scott to Tom. Whatever look he had surprised there, it was quickly hidden.

The next thing Johnny knew, he was knocked back a pace by the rush of another body hitting his. Teresa’s high pitched squeal stung his ears as she hugged him tightly.  “We missed you so much!” She stood back from him then, tears streaming down her face, and then she thumped his shoulder hard. “Don’t you EVER do that to us again! You hear me?”

His gentle voice soothed her frayed nerves and his index finger wiped the teardrops away from her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Teresa, and I promise I won’t be doing anything more to endanger my shoulders.” He then rubbed his left shoulder, grinning brilliantly, but ruefully, at her. “You pack a powerful punch, young lady! You been practising punching them cows?” She giggled and he was surprised at how good that sounded. “I’m back now.”

The last words were said as he once again glanced at Tom. Tom did not seem as happy to see Johnny as Teresa was, that was for certain.

Trudy had also appeared at his side. “Good to see you safe, Johnny. Hello, Scott. You both must be tired and very hungry. I’ll go help in the kitchen.” With a warm smile washing over them both she headed off with Teresa, taking an unwilling Peter by one hand while he furiously waved the other and called out a greeting to them.

The four men suddenly found themselves alone in the room. Tom had not yet offered them a greeting. “Tom,” Johnny murmured, his right hand lingering on the right side of his gun belt. Tom did not miss the action.

“Johnny. Scott. I see that you two met up on the way,” he commented unnecessarily.

“Yeah, we did.”

“You must be parched. How about a drink?” Murdoch interrupted.

Johnny smiled at his father, remembering another time and at another reunion when the same question had been asked. At that time his response had been surly and designed to inflict pain on his previously absent father.

“Sure.”

“So what have you and Murdoch been up to while we’ve been gone?” Johnny asked of Tom.

“Murdoch has been showing me more about the workings of the ranch and I’ve been meeting some of the locals. There’s a lot to learn and I’m sure that I could do more to help, if given the opportunity.”

“I guess there is if you have dreams of taking over one day.”

Tom’s mouth twisted in distaste at Johnny’s needling. “It is only common sense. One man cannot run this operation alone. Murdoch could fall ill and need someone reliable to take over the running of the operations.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s a fact. It ain’t like he’s got anyone else worth a lick to take over the reins,” Johnny continued deceptively smoothly.

“I meant no disregard for Scott.”

Johnny felt a drink pressed into his hand as he was about to reply. He glanced at his father, who made to speak, but it was Scott who picked up the conversation first. “And what about Johnny?”

“Well, I was referring to kin.”

“Johnny IS kin.” Scott’s words were menacing.

Murdoch jumped in, reprimanding Tom. “No matter what that priest said, Tom, Johnny IS my son! It may have taken his absence to make me fully realize the truth of it, but I am hoping that it is better late than never. He has been a better son to me than I could ever have hoped for … or than I deserve. I want him by my side running this ranch. He will be accepted as my son and if anyone finds that they can’t do that then they can pack the hell up and leave now!”

The ticking of the grandfather clock was loud in the silence following Murdoch’s powerful endorsement.

Johnny was struck again by memories of that other reunion. There had been no declarations of allegiance then, but merely a demand for arms, legs and guts sewn up with a thousand dollar carrot and a partnership sweetener. And the only love expressed had not been for them or their long dead mothers, but for those damned dumb cows and green blades of grass.

Murdoch was going out on a limb here, Johnny realized. Knowing that Tom could intercept a telegram, they had not forwarded any word about their discoveries and so Murdoch did not know the truth about Johnny or about Tom.

And Johnny felt some gratitude to his old man for trying to right the wrong which had occurred last month. He also felt humble. Murdoch was offering it all back, it seemed, despite what Murdoch could believe was Johnny’s precarious legal status.

Johnny picked up on the smirk on Scott’s lips. Scott was enjoying the normally reticent Murdoch wearing his heart on the sleeve.

Tom was not. His back bristled with anger at the turn of events.

“You are no doubt pleased to see Johnny back, Murdoch, but you shouldn’t get carried away by sentiment when you have the legacy of these substantial holdings to consider.”

“Are you telling me how to feel?” Murdoch blasted his indignation Tom’s way.

“No, I am merely advising precaution. After all, don’t forget that Johnny is a wanted man. We should be calling the sheriff.”

“We won’t be calling any sheriff,” Murdoch informed Tom brusquely.

“Are you so blinded that you are going to harbour a criminal?”

“There is no evidence of Johnny having killed Father Domingo.”

“But Johnny knew him.”

“If it comes to that, all of us in this room did,” Murdoch interrupted him.

Tom was determined to continue, however. “The priest exposed Johnny’s charade. He had that letter naming him as a threat. I know that you are having a hard time adjusting to the fact that you and Scott were manipulated by him, but don’t let pride get in the way of common sense. Remember what the priest said.”

“I’m not interested in what the priest said,” Murdoch informed Tom. “I have Johnny’s word. That is good enough for me.”

Johnny felt a rush of warmth envelop him in wake of Murdoch’s conviction

“Oh, yeah, the dead priest. Kinda coincidental how he died as soon as he had played his part here at Lancer,” Johnny commented slowly as if ruminating over the thought.

“Played his part?” Tom challenged.

“Sure. Seems to me like he came right out of his way to mess up our lives. Once he had sown the seed of doubt, he left and was killed. Now why would he have bothered coming here? His story didn’t really make much sense. If he had a message from my mother, why didn’t he deliver it all those years ago? Yeah, I know he said that he promised to visit in person only if he came this way, and it may have taken him ten years before he had any business up here, but more likely he was put up to it and had served his purpose.”

“Of course you are going to say that! He revealed you for the cunning impostor you are and he winds up dead less than a day later. Coincidental, all right. He brought that photo. Pictures don’t lie, Johnny. People do!” The heat of Tom’s words evaporated in a self-satisfied smirk.

“Ah!” Scott left the word hanging and said no more. Both Tom and Murdoch frowned in puzzlement when he did not at first expound on his exclamation.

Scott savoured a sip of his drink. “That photo. Now there’s a story. Funny you should say that about pictures not lying. They can, you know.”

Scott’s steel grey eyes lifted to meet Tom’s. His gaze was measured and confident.

“Scott?” Murdoch prompted him.

Scott took another slow sip. Tom could wait just that bit longer to hear just how much had been discovered.

“A picture can lie under certain circumstances. Normally a photograph is an exact representation of people or places, so it reflects the truth. But, of course, if a person sets a photograph up and manipulates the content, then the photograph lies.”

Tom threw him a poisonous look and swept a dismissive hand through the air in his general direction. “That sounds like a lot of effort, Scott. Why would the priest have bothered?”

“He might have for a decent sum of money, such as that a partner in this ranch might hope to have access to.”

“I wasn’t aware that Father Domingo was claiming a share of the property.” Sarcasm dripped off Tom’s tongue.

“No, he wasn’t,” Scott supplied, “But he was paving the way for you to do so.”

“What rubbish! I didn’t even know the man!” Tom’s poise was thrown by Scott’s accusation. He glanced at Murdoch to assess the damage done. “I’ve had enough!”

Johnny’s grin was slow and knowing.

”Oh, boy! We ain’t even started yet!”

Tom began to protest, but Scott talked over him. “I went to Mexico, Tom. I spoke to Father Pablo. I spoke to the workers in the area. I spoke to plenty of other people. And you know what? It’s funny how all their stories match. How a guy fitting your description was seen having talks with Father Domingo. The hotel manager confirmed your identity. I spoke to the stonemason. We know it all.”

“There is nothing to know.”

“No, on the contrary, there is everything to know.”

“You are trying to frame me.”

“Like you did to Johnny?” Scott rebutted.

Murdoch had been turning his head from one to the other, bewilderment and dread plastered over his face. “Scott, please explain what you found out,” he pleaded.

“Tom went to Mexico. He met Father Domingo there. Apparently Tom got Father Domingo to organize a headstone in Johnny’s name and to have a photograph taken of it so that you’d be convinced that the real Johnny was dead and that our Johnny was the famously fictitious Luis. Tom wanted a wedge driven into our family to make it easier for him to get what he wanted.”

“Lies!”

Tom leapt forward and made to grab Scott’s shirt. The clicking of the hammer on Johnny’s gun halted his progress and he stopped short a pace from Scott.

He seemed mesmerized by the barrel of the gun, but he finally sucked in a breath, squared his shoulders and turned to face Murdoch.

“Maybe you should look closer at Johnny. He’s not going to give up this goldmine he has discovered. He’s a man who has had nothing all his life and you think he’s going to share any more than he has to? Do you remember telling me about that rock fall that hit Scott a few months ago? You told me that a ranch is a dangerous place. Ever thought to investigate how that rock fall came to occur? Scott had been alone, he came to with Johnny leaning over him, which was how Cipriano found them. Just maybe Johnny had been lying in wait and was about to finish Scott off when Cipriano arrived and wrecked his plans? Did you ever think of that?”

Murdoch stared at him. “No, I never thought of that. It never occurred to me.”

Murdoch then turned to Johnny. He examined his face, then smiled proudly at him. “It never occurred to me because Scott and I trust Johnny with our lives. Johnny saved Scott’s life that day by stemming the bleeding. I have never given any thought to Johnny hurting us.” A slight dip of his head in recognition of his son and he once again turned to face Tom. “I wouldn’t waste the energy contemplating it.”

“These two are clutching at straws! They don’t want to share the ranch with me!”

“That’s right, Tom. We don’t.” Johnny drawled, with a grin etched languidly on his lips. Seeing no imminent danger, he uncocked his revolver and and holstered it.

“Just why would I go to Mexico and then get Father Domingo to come up here?” Tom argued. “Why would he do that even if I asked? It’s ludicrous. I suggest, Murdoch, that you seriously contemplate what plot these two have hatched to keep Lancer. And maybe you might need to guard your own back. Johnny’s already killed Father Domingo for attempting to ruin his plans.”

Johnny’s grin grew wider. “He’s got kinda fanciful ideas, ain’t he, Brother?”

“Very.”

“You see we know it was YOU who killed him!” Johnny informed Tom.

“Rubbish! I had no motive!”

“Oh, yes, you did! You killed him to make sure that he never breathed a word of your plan and his part in it. You also killed him to save yourself the money you had promised him for coming here and trotting out that ‘Johnny in the grave’ photo and ‘Luis the evil brother’ malarkey.”

“That’s nonsense! Murdoch, can’t you see that they’re setting me up?” The previously controlled face was now infected with a cancerous desperation. “As if a priest is going to be lured by money! Can’t you see that they are lying to keep the ranch for themselves?”

“No, Tom, I can’t see that. I have never met more truthful men in my life than these two, Tom. They don’t lie.

“They want to exclude me. They don’t want me getting close to you. They don’t like you having a grandson they didn’t provide you with. They’re jealous!”

“Well, that brings us to another matter.” Johnny’s controlled voice was a sharp contrast to the increasingly frantic denials from Tom.

Tom stood there, suddenly quiet. Apprehension projected from his very pores.

“We ain’t jealous at all, are we, Scott?”

“No, little Brother, not at all.”

“We don’t have a thing to be jealous about. You see, Tom, to be jealous, we’d have to think that Murdoch was neglecting us in favour of his newest son. We’d have to feel left out.”

If anyone was excluded at that moment, it was Murdoch. “Where is this going, Johnny?”

Johnny looked at his father. “Very simply, we ain’t jealous because we ain’t got another brother we have to share with. Tom ain’t your son.”

“Liar!”

“No, Tom. We have proof,” Scoot deep voice assured him.

“How can you have proof? My mother told me. And Murdoch admits he was romancing my mother at the time!”

Johnny observed his reaction. There was no doubt about it. Little beads of sweat, like the rapid spread of the pox, were swelling on Tom’s forehead as he watched.

“Well, we got more reliable information than your mother’s.”

“What could be more reliable than my mother’s diary?”

“We spoke to the doctor who delivered you, Tom,” Scott took up the explanation.

“What is his name?”

“Dr Nathaniel Westlake. Or are you going to claim that we got it wrong?”

“No, he delivered me, and he will have confirmed that I was born early, seven months after my mother’s wedding and nine months after Murdoch’s affair with her!”

“Yes, he did confirm that.”

Tom was suddenly triumphant. “See! What more do you want?” His eyes were alight with glee as his place here in this family seemed now to be indisputable.

Murdoch glanced from Tom’s excited countenance to Scott’s seriousness and then to Johnny’s smirk. The boys had something up their sleeve. They were playing with the prey until the time had come to pounce. And that time had come.

“You see, Tom, he said that you were born seven months after your mama’s wedding all right, but the doctor said that you were an early baby in every sense. You were tiny. Premature, he said. He said that you were born two months before your time. You were sickly and he was surprised you survived.”

Tom had gone pale. “That’s his word against mine.” His eyes narrowed, as his brain calculated a new thought. “How much did you bribe him?”

“That’s not how we go about things, Tom,” Scott assured him.

“So you were conceived at about the time of your mother’s wedding, not two months before. At the time of the marriage, Murdoch had not left the San Joaquin for months and your mother had been back in San Francisco for about two months,” Johnny summed up the evidence.

“And you knew.” Scott added. “Dr Westlake had kept in touch with your mother and had run into you from time to time. He told us that there had even been a bit of a standing joke between your mother and him that such a tiny, early baby could grow so tall.”

 

“In other words, the game’s up, Tom!”

“You’ve both got it wrong. I belong here!” Tom claimed wildly.

Skipping footsteps broke into the silence which had followed Tom’s desperate plea. “Uncle Johnny! Uncle Scott! Aunt Teresa said to tell you that dinner is ready. She said to wash up and be quick about it or your dinner will be cold and she won’t be very happy!”

Peter suddenly realized that the room was quiet and that something was not quite right. He looked around at the adults, his little face perplexed. Before he could ask a question, Tom grabbed his son. Simultaneously he produced a derringer which he held to his son’s neck.

 

Chapter 29

Peter gasped in fright at the rough handling, then whimpered when he spied the gun.

Johnny cursed a steady stream in Spanish under his breath, berating himself for having holstered his weapon.

“Drop your guns!”

After a moment’s hesitation and a quick glance at each other, both Scott and Johnny unbuckled their holsters and let them slide gently to the floor. Johnny was kicking himself for having been so stupid. He had not considered for one moment that Tom would use Peter as a shield.

“Why couldn’t I be your son and Peter your grandson?” Tom begged Murdoch as he jabbed at Peter’s neck with the gun to emphasize his reference to the boy. The Lancer men collectively felt a frisson of fear for the boy’s safety.

“Because you are not Murdoch’s son,” Scott reminded him. “And therefore Peter is not his grandson.”

“Tom! Let Peter go. We can’t risk him getting hurt,” Murdoch attempted to reason with agitated man.

“Why couldn’t I share in all this?” Tom ignored him. Murdoch’s words did not seem to sink in. “My mother told me that she had wished I was your child. She loved you, Murdoch. And if she had married you, she could have had all this. I could have had all this! Instead she married my father. He was a loser. What money he had when he married my mother was soon frittered away. He let her down, just like you let her down and he let me down. If she’d stayed here, she wouldn’t have had to go out to work. I could have had a different life. Why can’t I claim a bit of that now? My mother wanted me to be your son. She knew I was too premature to be yours but she always thought of you when she looked at me. She always wondered what sort of baby you and she could have had together. Don’t you see? I belong here. If she hadn’t been engaged and if you hadn’t been so stubborn, she could have got you to ask for her hand. She could have avoided the biggest mistake she made in her life. She could have avoided the baby she didn’t want. I always reminded her of what she had missed out on. I wasn’t your baby. I was never good enough!”

He stopped as suddenly as he had begun. The convoluted ramblings, justifying his actions, had tumbled hastily out of his mouth and then run out of momentum.

“I’m sure that your mother loved you, no matter what went on in her marriage. Parents don’t stop loving a child because things don’t work out the way that they had hoped after their wedding vows,” Murdoch soothed him.

“You’re wrong, Murdoch. Parents do exactly that. I had a right to get back a little of the love I should have had. I had the right to have a family. I had a right for things to be put right.”

This time it was Johnny who told him a few home truths. “And your family had a right to have a father who loved them. You’ve done to your family what you say your mama did to you. You’re saying to them that they aren’t good enough for you, that you want more, that you’re not satisfied with what you got. You’ve used Peter like a pawn in a chess game. And now you’ve lost that game. Was it worth sacrificing their happiness to try to steal something that was never yours to have in the first place? You had your mama and your papa for more than half of your life. It’s more than WE had!” Johnny indicated himself and Scott while he stopped for breath. Not normally verbose, Tom’s selfish and manipulative desires galled Johnny no end and prodded him to continue. “You lied to your family, you lied to us and you’ve lied to yourself. And just where have those lies got you? You’re looking at the hangman’s noose for the murder of Father Domingo!”

“Well, it all didn’t quite work out the way I wanted, but don’t think I’m going down for Father Domingo’s death. He got greedy. Once he’d seen your hacienda, he wanted more of the cut. He was going to spoil all my plans, but God wanted me to succeed. When I started to check you boys out and when I went to Mexico to find out what I could about Johnny, God put Father Domingo in my path. He gave me the idea about the photograph. Father Domingo knew that they were going to kick him out of the church. He had nothing to lose. He was happy to help. He could get his own back on Johnny for spoiling his relationship with his mother and he could get some money to set himself up in a life away from the Church. It was a perfect solution for all of us. God works in mysterious ways. This was a sure sign to me that God approved and that I should go ahead with it. I had His blessing!” Tom’s eyes were glazed with fervour.

It was clear to the Lancer men that Tom had somewhere along the line become quite unhinged. Murdoch nevertheless felt compelled to try to reason with him. “God didn’t want you to lie and to destroy both our families. He wouldn’t have wanted the priest killed.”

“Don’t be too sure about that. Father Domingo was unprincipled and the Church was going to sack him. He was an embarrassment to them. Maybe God killed him to save the Church having to publicly announce why they were defrocking him? It’s not my fault he got killed. He grabbed at my gun. God was there, making sure that Father Domingo didn’t kill me. God did it for me.”

The Lancers blanched. They were appalled. Tom had lost touch well and truly with reality.

“I want a horse. A good horse. With supplies in the saddle bags. Organize it,” Tom ordered.

“We’ll get you a horse if you leave Peter here unharmed,” Murdoch bartered.

Tom cocked his head. He considered the offer. “It wouldn’t really work with him tagging along, I suppose, but I don’t want him to suffer the way I did. He’s better off dead than living a life he shouldn’t have had.”

The matter-of-fact intention assaulted all men with a sickening thump. The time had come to force a result. There would be no reasoning with this man. They had to act.

Before they could do so, Tom suddenly changed tactics. He moved the gun from Peter’s neck and aimed it at Johnny. “And you! You didn’t want to share your land! You didn’t want me around your precious brother. You wanted to keep him for yourself. Well, I’ve got news for you. Scott doesn’t want your half breed carcass around him any more than I do.”

“Nooo!” Murdoch’s roar reverberated around the room as he launched himself at Tom. Simultaneously, the gun discharged. Murdoch faltered, but did not stop. By the time he reached Tom, Johnny and Scott were beside him adding their own muscle in order to quell the now desperately struggling man.

It was at this point that another voice joined the general din. “Quit thrashin’ around or I’ll plug ya!” Either the unknown voice or the threat seemed to work. Tom’s arms and legs stilled, pinned under the weight of a Lancer son on each shoulder. Murdoch rolled off his legs and sat hunched, one hand pressed firmly to his upper arm. Val tossed the handcuffs to Johnny who caught them deftly while Scott made short work of levering Tom onto one shoulder and forcing his arms back so he could be securely cuffed.

 

Val kept his gun trained on his prisoner during the brief proceedings and only relaxed after Tom was trussed up to his satisfaction.

Tom lay on the floor squirming and crying. “No, you can’t do this to me!”

“Well, we can and we have!” Val assured him dryly.

“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work out!” he wailed.

“It usually ain’t,” Johnny informed him. He reached for the boy, huddled next to the sofa and picked him up. Pressing Peter’s face into his shoulder, away from the awful sight of his father on the ground, Johnny rocked him as Peter sobbed wetly into his shirt.

It was then that the men folk took in the two women standing in the doorway. Teresa had her arm draped around Trudy’s shoulder. Trudy was white and immobile. Her face reflected her horror at the scene before her. Wordlessly, she held out her arms for her son.

“Murdoch, move your hand!” Scott commanded, as he urgently sought to minister to his father’s wound. He was joined by Teresa who darted forward to check on her guardian’s welfare.

“I’m fine, Honey,” Murdoch assured her. A hiss of pain belied his words as he reached a bloodied hand to stroke her cheek. “It’s only a flesh wound. Nothing major. It just stings a little.”

“Stay still!” she ordered him. Satisfied that it did seem to be relatively minor, she gave him a tentative, rueful smile. “We heard it all, Murdoch,” Teresa commented. “Val came in through the kitchen and told us that Johnny and Scott had left a message for him to come to Lancer as soon as he could because something was amiss. We could hear everything he said.”

Murdoch nodded and then looked over at the still silent Trudy. “I’m sorry,” he offered.

Tears were falling silently down her shocked face. On her knees, she was hugging her whimpering son who had his arms wrapped around her neck. She shushed him softly as she rocked the small boy in the safety of her arms, but over his head, her eyes remained riveted on her husband’s prone form.

As she watched, Val hoisted Tom to his feet with Johnny’s assistance.

“They spoilt everything. I wanted you to have all this!” Tom explained to Trudy.

Trudy stood, clutching her son and pressing him to her hip. “But I didn’t want all of this, Tom. I just wanted you.”

“But we could have been a family here, don’t you see?”

“We WERE a family!” she cried. “Being a family isn’t dependant on location.” She sucked in a great breath, but her voice trembled as she continued “How can you talk about family? Family obviously means nothing to you. You were quite happy to barge in on this family and split them all up irrevocably. You tried to get rid of Johnny just so you could have less opposition and more of the property for yourself. And Peter … you used him … you used him to snare Murdoch and then he became expendable, like he didn’t matter to you at all. Something you could just discard once he’d served his purpose. And you were happy to commit murder to obtain the family you had no right to be a part of. ” Her voice quavered to a halt before she was able to compose herself enough to continue. “You committed murder. I don’t know you any more,” she whispered. The anguish of this truth was etched in her face.

No one spoke for a moment, sympathy for Trudy’s predicament evident. It was Val who broke the silence. “Come on! You’re comin’ with me.”

Scott rose to help Val and Johnny escort a suddenly struggling Tom from the room. “No, I belong here! My mother wanted me to be Murdoch’s son. I have a right!”

His shouts became muffled and died out as he was unceremoniously hauled from the room and out of ear shot.

Murdoch tried to stand with Teresa’s help, but did not get far. More dizzy than he anticipated, he sank back down onto his rear end where he stayed until Scott and Johnny hurried back into the room. Both men then carefully helped him to the sofa. The boys fussed found, Johnny inserting a soft cushion under his head and Scott easing off his boots, while the ever practical Teresa ran to fetch clean water and bandages.

“I am so sorry, Trudy,” Murdoch again told her gently.

“It’s me who is sorry. Our arrival nearly wrecked your lives. You have been so good to us, too.” She approached the sofa so she could reach for his arm and look him in the eye. “I didn’t know. Honestly. When his mother died, he told me that she had confessed that Tom was really your son. Because he was born only seven months after the wedding, it was possible. Logical, even. I wasn’t happy with coming here and disrupting your lives, but I also thought that Tom should have a right to know his real father. You weren’t married, so it wasn’t like we were going to cause a divorce through the revelations. And when Tom said he had two brothers, I didn’t see the harm in him getting to know them. If I had known the truth, I would never have been a party to coming here.”

The sincerity of her words struck as true with Murdoch. During her stay he couldn’t have faulted her dignity or comportment. “I believe you, Trudy.”

“What will happen to him, Murdoch?”

“I guess that Val will take him to the jail and he will have to wait for the circuit judge. I …,” Murdoch’s voice faded to silence, unsure how to continue. He cleared his throat and plunged back in. “I think you should prepare yourself for the worst. He will be facing the gallows for the murder of Father Domingo.”

Her face was pale as she nodded her head. “We were happy enough,” she whispered. “Why did he have to do this?  Why wasn’t what we had good enough?”

“I don’t know, Trudy.”

“Where did I let him down?”

“Don’t think that way. For some people what they have is never enough. The grass is always greener on the other side. This was not to do with you. It was Tom. He couldn’t get over his father’s debts and suicide. His father let him down and I suppose he had been harbouring resentment all this time. Maybe he thought he could fix that by convincing himself that he had a different father? Perhaps he saw those signs of weakness in his own father and thought that if he had a different father then he wouldn’t inherit those traits, too? I guess we will never know what truly motivated him. Some people’s minds don’t work logically. Just know that we will do what we can to help you.”

“Thank you, Murdoch, but my problems aren’t yours any more. Does it hurt very much?” she asked, changing the subject.

“Only when these two prod and poke,” he answered with a smile, his eyes on his sons.

“Yeah, well we wouldn’t be prodding and poking,” complained Johnny as he pressed two wads of material on the entry and exit wounds in the fleshy part of Murdoch’s upper arm, “If we didn’t have such a stupid father!”

Scott picked up a bandage Teresa had placed on the coffee table and began to wind it around the arm. “Johnny has a point. That was not the smartest thing I have seen you do, Murdoch. A derringer can kill at close range.”

Murdoch held his younger son’s eyes as he replied. “I’m well aware of that, Scott. Tom was aiming at Johnny’s heart. There was simply no choice.”

“Well I didn’t come back here, Murdoch, to have you take dumb risks as soon as I walk in the door! You got a death wish, Old Man?” Johnny admonished, glaring at him in agitation.

“No, Son. I don’t, but if there is ever a choice a father has to make between his own life and his son’s, the son’s life will always win out. One day when you are a father yourself, you will understand.”

The agitation Johnny had been feeling diminished and became something he could not quite put his finger on..

“Something that Tom obviously did not understand at all,” Trudy commented with a sad grimace. Giving herself a shake and straightening her shoulders, she made a request. “While you are being tended to, do you mind if I ask some hands to organize a buggy to take Peter and me into town?”

Murdoch squirmed a little to try to become more comfortable. “Stay a few days, Trudy. Collect yourself. Peter can be looked after here while you visit Tom, which I’m sure you’ll want to do. There is no rush.”

She looked at him gratefully. “You know something? It’s such a shame that you are not Peter’s real grandfather … and my father-in-law.”

Murdoch blushed red at the praise. “Why, thank you, Trudy. I am sorry as well.”

A twinkle appeared suddenly in Trudy’s eyes. “Well, I am sure that those boys of yours will find the right lady one day and be happy to provide you with the grandchildren you richly deserve.”

“Don’t hold your breath!” Johnny muttered as he fashioned a sling for Murdoch.

Murdoch laughed softly. “So far they have been unlucky in love, but maybe that’s because the right girl is still out there.”

“I am sure that you are right, Murdoch.” She sighed deeply. “You need to rest. I’ll leave you in peace while I go to my room and lie down for a while.”

“Of course, Trudy.”

Murdoch turned awkwardly so that he was facing Peter directly. He smiled at the boy and rubbed his shoulder. “You must have been very frightened. Do you understand what happened here tonight?” he asked gently.

Peter nodded his head and sniffed. “Yeah, I think so. Pa isn’t your son, so I guess you’re not my grandpa.”

“That’s right.”

“I wanted to be,” the boy stated simply.

“I know, Peter, and I wanted it, too. I’m sorry. Maybe your mother can bring you to visit some time, though. Scott and Johnny may not be your real uncles, but they sure do like you and would love to see you again. So, in the mean time, you be a good boy for your mother and do what you are told, because this has been hard for her, too. Understand?”

“Yes, Sir,” answered the boy. He hesitated and then wriggled out of his mother’s grasp to fling himself at Murdoch. Murdoch wrapped one arm around Peter as the boy’s breathing hitched in an effort to control his sobs. Murdoch rocked him gently and patted his back to a litany of soothing words. Peter finally gave one big sniff, loosened his grip on Murdoch’s neck and wiped his face and nose on his sleeve.

“Come on, darling, let’s go upstairs.”

Peter nodded solemnly and reached for his mother’s hand. With a wan smile at Murdoch and his sons she gracefully exited the room and mounted the stairs.

 

Chapter 30

Johnny stood at his father’s bedroom door, studying the man asleep on his back. He had never been able to discern any resemblance between his father and himself, nor between himself and Scott, either, if the truth be told. So what else was there to bind a person to a relative? Love and respect were high on the list, but Johnny’s faith in both these attributes had been severely shaken since Tom’s arrival. So why was he so darned happy just to be in the same room as the man?

“Are you going to stand there all day staring at me, or are you going to come in?”

His father’s voice took him by surprise. He could have sworn that his Old Man had been soundly out of it.

“I thought you were asleep.” Johnny accused.

“I was, until you opened the door. I’ve been meaning to oil the hinges for weeks.”

“Well, I guess that you deserve to pay for your laziness, then.”

Murdoch was too busy sniffing the air to reply. “Is that coffee I smell?”

“Sure is.”

“Any for me?”

Johnny looked at both his hands. In each was a steaming cup of the brew, straight from the pot on the stove. “Guess I could spare one.” Johnny started to walk towards the bed. “Just keep it a secret between you and me. Teresa is getting some willow bark tea ready for you.”

“But I’m not ill!” protested Murdoch.

“You got shot,” Johnny reminded him. “The bullet went in you, it travelled through you and when it exited it made a bigger hole in your skin than the entry wound. Now, to a woman, that means that you are ill and that you need some molly coddling. That also means invalid food and invalid drinks. If you want any more forbidden food from me, just make sure that you don’t let on to Teresa and Maria about this.”

“That’s a deal, Son.” Johnny’s heart beat irregularly for a moment. Just what the hell was a son to Murdoch?

Johnny passed his father a cup of the steaming beverage then poked a foot under the nearby chair to drag it closer to the bed. He sat down and leaned back comfortably, placing both feet on the bed frame under the mattress.

“In the absence of something stronger, cheers,” Murdoch proposed.

Johnny leaned forward and tapped his mug against his father’s.  “Cheers!” he responded.

They sipped in companionable silence for several moments.

“Are you feeling OK?” Johnny asked.

“Johnny, I haven’t been feeling OK at all since you left. Now, you tell me. Are things OK? Are they going to be OK?”

Johnny clutched the cup with both hands and stared into the contents as if looking for the answer.

“I dunno.”

“I let you down, Johnny, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I wish I could wind the clock back and change my actions to make the nightmare all go away.”

“Well, you can’t Murdoch. It happened.”

Murdoch’s face was crestfallen. He nodded his head in acknowledgement. “Yes, it did and due to my mistakes.”

Johnny did not reply. Nodding, his eyes were still focused on his coffee cup. “I just don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“The difference between Tom’s arrival and ours’. You invited Scott and me to come. You paid us to come. You were expecting us to come, even if you didn’t know we were going to arrive together. And then you were plain rude to us. Tom was a surprise, yet you invited him to stay with no real evidence to back up his claims. None of it made sense.”

“No, it doesn’t make much sense to me either, now I look back. I don’t think my explanation will help much or take away the hurt, but will you let me try?”

Johnny looked at Murdoch square in the eyes. “You can try, but I can’t promise you that I’ll understand.”

Murdoch breathed out, placed his cup on the bedside table and smiled briefly at Johnny. “Thank you, Son, for giving me the chance. You know when I look back to that first day with you and Scott, anything I say is only going to sound feeble even to my own ears. I had spent both your lifetimes wanting you both by my side and finally I was going to get my wish. I was so excited to think that I was finally going to see you again. Then when you arrived, I suddenly felt unsure about myself. I had raised neither of you.” Murdoch swallowed the memory painfully. “I wanted you both to know that I was a man in control, a man to be reckoned with. I was scared that I wouldn’t match whatever image you had built up in your minds about me. I was scared that you would find me wanting, so I wanted you to know that I had built up this ranch single handedly with my vision and my brawn. I wanted you to be proud of me.”

“Boy, you had a funny way of thinking, Old Man.”

“It sounds weak even to me, John. But that wasn’t all. There were a whole lot of other conflicting thoughts going round in my mind, too. I couldn’t allow myself to show any emotion because, to be quite frank, I didn’t think that I would be able to control myself in front of you. If I kept things on a business level, I thought I could keep my feelings at bay. And maybe then if you turned me down or if you only stayed a short while, I wouldn’t feel gutted all over again if you left.”

Johnny considered his father’s words. He had never really pondered the impact of their arrival and the turmoil of Murdoch’s emotions, especially Murdoch’s fear that his high hopes could have been dashed cruelly if he and Scott had chosen to leave.

Murdoch took a deep breath and continued. “And I had put my soul into this land. It was all I had for twenty years and it probably saved me from going mad. And I needed you to know that, so that when I offered you the partnership you would know that it wasn’t a step I had taken lightly.”

“So that day was all about you being scared of your feelings and you wanting us to know how successful you were?”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“So we got a bad tempered reception and Tom got the welcoming smile and the fine china?”

Murdoch winced at Johnny’s frankness.

“Yes, as absurd as it seems.”

“It sure don’t make a lot of sense to me. Tom wasn’t nothing to you. Why did he get the royal treatment? You didn’t even know if his story checked out.”

Murdoch ran a hand across his face, which was creased in misery. “It was all so stupid of me. I kept comparing and thinking about all my mistakes. In an effort to learn from those very mistakes I made with you and Scott, I committed even more monumental blunders. I was surprised you stayed, to be honest.”

“So am I. I wasn’t going to,” Johnny confessed, “But I really couldn’t believe I was related to that Boston dude, so I guess you could say that I was curious … and then there was Maria’s murder.” Johnny finished with a shrug as he grimaced in memory.

“Yes, poor Maria.” Murdoch face showed the pain of the memory. “She was a fine woman.”

“I’m sure she was.”

“Anyway, I didn’t want to give Tom the cold shoulder in case he really was my son. And I was eaten with the guilt that just possibly here was another son I had not raised. And if … if Anne had … become pregnant as a result of our affair, then I had done a horrendous thing to her in leaving her to deal with the situation as she chose. I failed Catherine by not being with her when she gave birth to Scott, I failed your mother in that she fled rather than live with me, and it seemed I had left Anne to face her future husband carrying someone else’s child. Every time I meet a good woman, things turn out disastrously. I am not proud of my record and I was deluding myself if I thought that I could make up for it in any way.”

“Well, I don’t think you can blame yourself about Catherine’s death, Murdoch. You weren’t to know what would happen. You were trying to keep her safe. And Mama … well, Mama was never happy for long. Sooner or later, usually sooner, she’d take it in her head to move on. She never could settle. It was just the way she was and you probably couldn’t have done anything about that. And with Anne, she wasn’t pregnant after all, so there’s no point in beating yourself up over that.”

“No, she wasn’t, but it seems like our … relationship had a major effect on her and coloured her attitude to Tom. It twisted her mind and poisoned his upbringing, then succeeded in pushing him over the edge.”

“A mama saying things like that sure could damage a person, but just maybe there is a streak of madness in the family. Tom and his mama both seemed to have a few loose tumbleweeds rolling around inside their heads.”

Murdoch smiled lightly at Johnny’s expression. “True, and I thank you for trying to bolster my feelings, Johnny, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a measure of responsibility for what happened.”

“And so you should.” Murdoch pressed his lips together and nodded at Johnny’s curt frankness. “Especially when you didn’t even check him out.”

“But I did make arrangements to do so, Johnny, but not in the first few days. Everything was so hectic. It was like being caught in a cattle stampede. It happened so fast and whichever way I went, it seemed I was run over and trampled on before I could adjust or think logically about what was happening. I had sent some telegrams to the Pinkertons the day before Padre Domingo arrived.”

“Why the big secret? You never told us.”

“Another of my mistakes, Johnny. I was going to tell you, but you were having enough trouble dealing with Tom, … and rightly so. The right moment of privacy didn’t happen.”

Johnny stared intently at his father.  “You said rightly so. What did you mean by that?”

Murdoch looked down and fidgeted with the edge of the sheet folded over the blanket. “I let you down badly, Johnny. I was not blind and deaf to his comments to you. I didn’t do enough. No, I didn’t do anything to stop him insulting you and your heritage.”

“Why not?”

Murdoch shook his head in agitation. “You and he were clashing. I stupidly thought that he was needling you to try create a niche for himself in this family, the way some shy people can try to hide their shyness and lack of security by being loud, pushy and generally overbearing. I was trying to smooth things over by ignoring this and diverting him to other trains of thought. I was trying to avoid a physical clash between you by playing down his derogatory remarks.” Murdoch ran his fingers through his hair, then clenched the back of his neck. “I have to confess that looking at the situation in the plain light of day, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I just know that I failed you.” Murdoch gestured uselessly in the air. “I seem to do that a lot.”

Johnny stood, turned his back on his father and approached the window. Leaning against the window frame, he stared with unfocussed eyes at the landscape.

“Yeah,” he confirmed, his back still to his father. He leaned his head into his arm and continued to stare outside. “And what if Tom had proven to really be your son, were you going to let him continue behaving like that?” Johnny turned, then, to watch his father’s expression.

Murdoch looked him in the eye. “No, Johnny. His put-downs should never have happened in the first place and they should certainly never have been repeated, but I had made up my mind the very day that Father Domingo arrived that the situation was untenable and I needed to set very firm ground rules with Tom if there was going to be any thought of him continuing to live here. I just couldn’t allow him to make you feel uncomfortable in your own home anymore.”

“That a fact?” Johnny’s voice was icy. “Well, you know something, Murdoch? Tom being nasty to me didn’t hurt nearly as much as you turning your back on me!”

Murdoch’s jaw bunched as he tried to compose himself. “I can only imagine, Johnny. I have been replaying in my mind every scene that took place since Tom’s arrival, and every time I find myself wanting more and more. I should have protected you the way I never got a chance to do when you were growing up. I should have ensured your safety while you were under my roof. I didn’t and I compounded my faults when Father Domingo arrived with his lies about ‘Luis’.”

Johnny walked over to stand next to Murdoch’s bed and hooked his thumbs into his belt.

“I was wondering is you were gonna have the balls to bring that up. Saved the best till last, did you Old Man?”

“Oh, I thought about avoiding the topic, I can assure you. I sure wanted to. It’s painful for us both.”

“That so? I don’t recall you having your identity called into question. I didn’t see anyone claiming that you were a liar! I didn’t see anyone telling YOU that you didn’t belong at Lancer and that you were here under false pretenses!”

Murdoch hung his head. His hands were limp in his lap.

“Well? What have you got to say?”

Murdoch looked at him, eyes a shade filmy. “What can I say? I betrayed you.” His voice cracked with misery.

“We’d already established that. I want to know the why of it.”

“Oh, Johnny, if only I could justify it to myself! I hope you never feel the self-loathing I have been experiencing since that day! I don’t know where to start explaining it.”

Johnny kept his face neutral, but he flinched inwardly. There were indeed times when he had felt loathing for things he had done. He himself was not above reproach, but by the same token, he had never let family down the way Murdoch had let him down.

“Try.”

Murdoch’s sigh was heartfelt. He rubbed his eyes slowly.

“Father Domingo came here with ridiculous claims, and he did sow a seed of doubt, I admit. What if you were not my Johnny and my Johnny was somewhere, alone, in dire straits, in prison, unloved and needing help? What if all the time you had been here, my Johnny was elsewhere? What if he hadn’t been brought home as I thought? I did feel a flash of guilt, Johnny, that I might have welcomed you while my son was toughing it out in some godforsaken hole. What if I had unknowingly turned my back on my son because I thought he had been found?”

Murdoch stopped for a moment and looked at Johnny to gauge his reaction. He then took a deep breath and continued. “And there was you. I wanted you to be Johnny. I loved you and I respected you. We have clashed at times, but you are a good man and you are the perfect son. And I felt a stab of guilt over that, too. For all I knew I loved the wrong person at my real son’s expense.”

“There’s a lot of guilt flying around here. You never let it get in your way about anything before. ”

Murdoch threw a steely glare Johnny’s way. “The stakes were never as high before! This was about the veracity of my family, of my sons … of you. I had all these accusations thrown at me and I admit it threw me! I’m human for God’s sake! You looked like my Johnny, you even acted like my Johnny did as a little toddler and I wanted YOU to be my son! ... But what if you weren’t?”

“But you were prepared to believe the priest. Priests don’t lie, you said. You believed him over me!” Johnny stabbed the air with emotion.

“No, Johnny, I didn’t believe him. His accusations certainly got me thinking of other possibilities, but when I asked you why would a priest lie, I did not mean that I swallowed everything he was saying. I was hoping you would know of a reason why he would want you disinherited.”

“I told you he wasn’t high on ethics. Maybe he didn’t need a reason?”

“Reason or not, he let loose a bundle of uncertainties aimed at destabilizing our family relationships. I’m not proud of myself for wondering, especially when I saw that photograph, but I would have done a disservice to my son Johnny if I had not dwelt for even a second on his claims! What if he had come here and said that Scott were not your brother, but an imposter?”

“I'd have shot his lying mouth off!”

“And what would that have proved? What if he had been right and that your real brother was somewhere else? No matter how much you wanted Scott to be your brother, you could have been rejecting your own blood kin by continuing to accept Scott because that’s what you wanted, that’s what you liked, that’s what you were used to.”

“I wouldn’t have turned my back on Scott!”

“But that’s just it, by accepting the Scott living here without entertaining the idea that you had a true brother elsewhere, you could have been turning your back on the real Scott. And why? Because you wanted things to stay the same, because you had built up a bond with Scott, because you loved him and you couldn’t imagine living without him being your brother.”

Johnny glared at his father for some seconds. Both men were now breathing hard in the face if this uncomfortable subject. He turned suddenly, striding to the window and throwing it open further. It made a protesting thwack as it thumped with force into the adobe wall on either side. Placing both hands on the sill, he leaned forward and remained silent, hoping the pure Lancer air would cleanse him of the distress he was feeling. It was some time before sighed and spoke. “You play dirty, Murdoch.”

“I’m just trying to get you to realize what was going through my mind. I couldn’t come to grips with what he was claiming. I had had no time to absorb it and think about it. I wanted the family I had left alone as it was and I wanted the claims to go away, but what if I were wrong to want that?”

Abruptly, Johnny turned away from the window and strode back to the bed. “And was I wrong to want you to believe me about ‘Luis’ and to believe that Mama never had any more children after me?”

“That’s just it. Despite all this confusion, my gut instinct … and my heart… was to believe you. You had to be my son. I just felt it to be true. That meant that there was no Luis and no grave, but why did he come here claiming Maria had more children after you? I was trying to work out how to say that I believed you, but that we needed to investigate these allegations. They needed to be absolutely discredited in order to discover the sinister reason behind them in the first place. I was trying to word it right so you didn’t take umbrage, but if you remember, you cut me off. I never got the chance to say what I intended. Then when you came back downstairs I tried to speak once more. You cut me off again and I just froze. Our world, which had been what I had spent twenty years dreaming about and hoping for, had been shattered with Father Domingo’s accusations. Everything was tumbling down around us.”

Johnny stood, mulling over everything his father had said. Murdoch broke into his thoughts.

“And so I let you down badly. I didn’t fight hard enough to get you to listen to me nor did I give you the impression that I supported you. I didn’t get you alone and sort things out. I failed you just as I did by not finding you twenty years earlier, just as I did when I invited Joe Barker into our home and just like I did when those cows escaped while you and Wes were rounding up those horses. My track record is not too great, Johnny, and it’s a heavy burden to bear.”

Johnny pinched the bridge of his nose. The sigh which followed was heavy in the still of the room.

His father lay on the bed looking steadfastly at him. Murdoch was leaving it up to Johnny to decide in which direction they would head now.

“I was hurt, Murdoch.” Murdoch nodded as Johnny paced the room and tapped his thigh with his fingers. “Aw, hell!” Johnny arrived back at the starting point and looked his father in the eye. “What you said sort of makes sense, especially when you brought Scott into it. I could see it better that way. But at the time it felt like I was being dropped like a too hot frying pan in your hand.” Johnny smiled tentatively. “That feeling don’t go away over night, Murdoch.”

“Yes, I understand, Son.”

“But I guess I don’t need a whole lot of words when I got you jumping around taking bullets meant for me.”

Murdoch looked at his son through serious eyes. “And I’d do it again at the drop of a hat.”

“See that you don’t!” Johnny reprimanded him. “I only got one father and I aim to keep him for a while.”

 

Chapter 31 - Epilogue

The brothers breathed in the Lancer night air.

“It sure feels good to be back, Scott.”

“Yes, it does. And it feels right. There’s something about this place.” Scott sipped his drink before tilting his head to look at Johnny. “Were you really prepared to give it all up, Johnny, just like that?”

The silence was prolonged before Johnny spoke softly. “I was hurting, Scott. I thought that I could prove to myself that I could survive the way I used to, that I didn’t need Murdoch or anyone else and that I didn’t need Lancer. But I couldn’t. Before, I could live free as an alley cat, but that was when I had nothing and no one else. It don’t work that way after you’ve known this.” Johnny gestured with his glass at the night air obscuring their view of Lancer. “And it don’t work after you known what being in a family means.”

“Family life isn’t always smooth sailing, Johnny. None of us are perfect and we all do and say things we regret, or not say what we should say at the right time. Sometimes you just have to ride out the rough patches. Just like when you break those horses. The ride might be bumpy, but it’s worth it in the end.”

Johnny laughed softly at Scott’s analogy. “You gettin’ all poetic on me?”

Scott did not answer. He grinned into his glass as he took yet another sip of the fine whiskey. Johnny’s continued chuckling made him look over at his younger brother again.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, I was just thinking that people often say that you can choose your friends, but not your relatives. I guess that Tom didn’t know that.”

“Well, regardless of that saying, if you’d turned out not to be my brother by blood, you’d still be my brother in my mind.” Scott jabbed him in the arm with his elbow to emphasize the depth of his feelings. “But as far as Tom goes, maybe we should be flattered that he wanted us as his kin?” Scott suggested without real conviction.

“You and Murdoch might be flattered, but remember that he tried to get rid of me. I guess even he drew the line at having a gunfighter for a brother!”

Scott swatted Johnny’s shoulder. “Maybe he was scared that you were too much of a threat to him? Or perhaps he was jealous of your skill? Sibling rivalry and all that?”

“I don’t think that his puny derringer would rival my Colt, but be damned if it sure did the trick in stopping us in our tracks.”

“Us and Murdoch both.”

The brothers shuddered over the dangerous situation Peter had been in and at Murdoch’s wound. They had both felt so helpless.

“Or just maybe he wanted a bigger share of Lancer than he would have got with two brothers?” Scott continued his previous train of thought. “My life was easily documented, your early life was not. It was easier to discredit you and he thought he was just going to get a bigger portion of the pie. And that would make him the baby of the family. The youngest are notoriously spoiled as you well know, little Brother.”

Johnny snorted. “Is that why Murdoch has me working all the tough jobs in the sun while he regularly brings you into the cool shade of the hacienda and within reach of Teresa’s lemonade?”

Scott was quick to reply to his teasing. “And you would rather be hogtied to that desk doing all the bookwork with Murdoch hovering over you instead of being in the fresh air out on the range? I don’t think so, Johnny. The current arrangements suit you just fine and you know it!”

The brothers laughed at the thought of Johnny spending more than a token effort on the books. He was perfectly capable of doing them as they had all discovered and he did a fine job, but it was like torture to see him inside on a beautiful day. The man would positively wilt within the confines of the great room. Put him back outside and he would blossom as though the sun and air were his lifeblood.

“I wonder how Henrietta’s getting along?” Johnny mused suddenly.

“She said she’d keep us up to date. We should be getting a telegram any day soon.”

Johnny snorted in admiration. “I have the feeling she’ll get Mr. Anthony Waters sorted out and running ragged setting up that half way house in no time flat.”

“It was a good idea of yours, Johnny. She deserves better than what life’s dished up for her and my guess is she’ll blossom running her boarding house. She’s a helpful soul.”

“Ain’t that the truth! I sure wouldn’t be here if she weren’t!”

Their silent contemplation was disturbed by footsteps on the veranda. Both turned their heads in welcome. “Take a load off, Murdoch,” Johnny invited as he hooked his foot under the spare chair and hoiked it out into a more favourable alignment for conversation.

“Boys,” Murdoch greeted them. He sat down heavily and wordlessly offered the empty glass he had brought with him to Scott, who filled it from the bottle he had placed on the ground at his feet.

“Ah!” he exclaimed in appreciation. “I guessed you two had purloined my best sipping whisky.”

“And it never tasted so good!” Johnny assured him. He leaned over and chinked glasses with his father and brother. “To us!” he toasted solemnly.

The toast was repeated solemnly as all three men tasted the liquor.

“So what are you doing downstairs and out of bed?” Scott asked.

“I escaped. I’ve been lolling around all day. Is there anything wrong with a man wanting to share a drink with his sons?”

Scott shook his head. “Not at all, but you only got shot yesterday. If you get woozy on us you’re too big to lug back upstairs, plus if you get found out, don’t expect us to protect you from Maria and Teresa!”

Murdoch gave a rare grin. “It’s OK, Scott. I realize I’m on my own on that score. I wouldn’t dare risk your rations.”

“See that you don’t!” Johnny ordered. A backhanded pat to his father’s stomach softened the command. “Scott and me have been on the trail for weeks and we don’t want to miss out on any of that good grub coming up that I heard them talking about today.”

“How are things inside?” Scott asked.

“They are all in bed. Trudy’s tuckered out with the worry of it all. To think that Tom had told her that his mother had confessed to him on her deathbed that he was my son! Trudy just didn’t know the truth, poor thing.”

“It’s going to be hard for her,” Johnny commented.

“Yes, that’s a fact, but after a few days she’ll have a better idea about what she intends to do.”

“I guess they’ll hang Tom for the Father’s murder.”

“I expect so, Scott. The law takes a very dim view of sheriffs and priests being killed.” There was a pause in the conversation as the three men contemplated Tom’s brief future.

“Did you have time read the Pinkerton report that Jelly brought home from town today?” Murdoch asked.

“Yes, but there wasn’t anything there we didn’t discover for ourselves,” Scott commented as he topped up his glass.

“I can’t agree with you more, Scott. It appears they found out nothing untoward about Tom in San Francisco and didn’t think or didn’t get around to speaking with the doctor who delivered him.”

“Maybe they thought the dates spoke for themselves and they thought that the validity of the dates was the important issue?” suggested Scott.

“It could be, but it seems that when I telegrammed again asking for information about Father Domingo, they decided to pursue that lead and set off for Mexico.” Murdoch sighed. “They did a good enough job, but it wasn’t as thorough as I would have liked. I can’t help thinking that maybe they weren’t as thorough as I thought when they were looking for Johnny.

“Told you before, Old Man, you wasted your money. You got fed a mixture of truths, half truths and downright bullshit. They bled you dry for years.”

Murdoch grimaced at Johnny’s observation. His misery prompted Johnny to add a little more. “Then again, Mama sure didn’t make it easy. We were on the move more often than not.”

Having achieved his aim in calming Murdoch a little, Johnny ventured another comment. “Hey, Scott, if times get hard and this ranching don’t work out for us, how about we set ourselves up a detective agency? We made a pretty good team. We sure beat the Pinks.”

Scott leaned sideways and bumped his shoulder. “Ranching will do me fine, thank you very much! And it will do you fine, too, if you know what’s good for you!”

“Settle down! You made me spill some of my whiskey! You know how the Old Man don’t like any waste!” Johnny grinned cheekily at his father and grasped the whiskey bottle to remedy the spill. Murdoch held his glass out as Johnny held the bottle up, letting the liquor do the asking.

“Thank you, Son,” Murdoch murmured. He took a breath and launched into a tangent which had the distinct possibilities of breaking the cosiness of the atmosphere on the veranda.

“You know, the past month has been equal to the worst of my life,” Murdoch confessed out of the blue. “It was as bad as when Catherine died and when Maria took off with Johnny.”

Johnny and Scott looked at him. Murdoch was not one to speak of personal experiences and he had their attention well and truly.

“I have made so many mistakes in my life. I apologized to Johnny this morning and I need to apologize to you, too, Scott. My actions and inactions were as much to blame as Tom and Father Domingo for splitting us up. For what it’s worth, I swear it won’t happen again.”

His two sons studied him. He did not squirm under their scrutiny.

“I know you’ve had a talk with Johnny, Murdoch, but I’ve only been guessing what was going on in your head. How about you share with me just where you were coming from?”

Murdoch pressed his lips together wryly in recollection. “I wish I knew myself, Scott. I’ve been asking myself the same question.” Murdoch scratched his nose and sniffed prior to continuing. “I was thinking about how I nearly closed the door to Johnny and you back at our reunion, even though I was the one to ask you to come. I was thinking that what if I hadn’t offered the listening money, what if the Pinkertons hadn’t found Johnny, but that he turned up out of the blue, saying he was my son but without any proof other than a few stories which he could have heard from the real Johnny? What if I decided that he couldn’t be my true son? What if I had turned my back on him before being really certain? What if I had turned my back on him because I was too scared to find out?”

“I don’t quite follow. The Pinkertons DID find him!”

“Yes, and my life has been all the richer for it. But if he had come unexpectedly and I had turned him away, then we would never have had him in our lives. You would never have met your brother. What I was thinking was what if Tom were my son and I was too scared to find out? I had living with me the two sons my wives had given me, but what if he were my son as well, albeit my illegitimate son? What if I didn’t give him a chance to settle in and get to know us? Then maybe we all would have missed out on something special. I would have missed out on a son and you would have missed out on a brother.”

“Well, may I remind you that while you were busy with all this wondering and ‘what iffing’, you nearly ended up with no sons, Sir.”

Murdoch swallowed with difficulty. “I’m well aware of that, Scott. But I was overwhelmed. Did I have two sons or three? I had messed up again and while I was frightened of ruining everything we had built up, and I was also frightened of making a mistake in spurning Tom. There was so much I should have done, and so little I did do that was right. I should also have nipped his derogatory comments in the bud. But I didn’t. And all the while there was the thought that, for all I knew, Tom could turn out to be a blessing for this family for which we would all later be grateful.”

“He sure weren’t no blessing!” Johnny commented with a loud snort.

“That he wasn’t, John”, Murdoch agreed. He rubbed his hand wearily over his face. “I’m just so sorry to you both for what I put you through. And it got worse when the priest came. I wondered how I could ever have stood it if my little Johnny had died. I kept seeing that grave stone in my head and I wanted to be sick. And for some reason I didn’t say the one thing I should have said straight away to you, Johnny, to let you know that I believed in you. Too much about you felt too right for our relationship to be wrong.”

“That may be, Murdoch, but I wasn’t going to come back,” Johnny whispered. “Not ever. I couldn’t stand to be disappointed in you again. And I couldn’t stand to be found wanting again.”

Murdoch reached for Johnny’s shoulder. His voice was gravelly with emotion. “I don’t find you wanting, Johnny. These days I’m thinking that it is myself who is coming up wanting.” He smiled tentatively at his sons before continuing. “I am just counting my blessings that you are willing to give me one last chance.”

“Well, just make sure, then, that it doesn’t happen again,” Scott remonstrated.

“That’s a promise, Scott,” Murdoch assured him, raising his glass in a toast as he spoke.

“You know, Murdoch, it was Scott who convinced me to return.” Johnny’s voice was soft in the still night.

“Thank God for that!”

Johnny hung his head examining his boots. “Yeah.” Johnny flashed him a smile. “You know, I wanted to believe him, but I guess I was scared, too, that I would come back and that things wouldn’t be the same again. We’re now back to square one with Tom out of the picture, but I can’t help thinking of that day when Father Domingo came back into my life and screwed it up again for me. I felt like you were a party to it because you couldn’t just give me a straight answer … and I needed a straight answer. I needed you to believe me. I couldn’t bear to think of Father Domingo having tainted what we had with his lies.”

”He was very convincing, Johnny. And he was playing on the fact that people have faith in men of the cloth. He frightened me with his story and I felt like my world had been turned upside down again, but I couldn’t believe that what you, Scott and I had built up amounted to nothing. Yet I said nothing right.” Murdoch shook his head in self disgust, then looked from Johnny to Scott. “You know, it’s me who should be grateful to you both for standing by me. It can’t have been easy for you to hear about your father behaving in such an undisciplined manner with regard to a woman who should have been out of bounds. Your support has meant everything to me. I am a lucky man.”

“We’re all lucky. We could have been stuck with Tom forever.”

“That’s a depressing thought. He was hard work,” agreed Scott.

“You boys don’t know the half of it!” Murdoch broke in. “A couple of days in his company and I was ready to drop him down one of those disused mine shafts on Rocky Ridge!”

Johnny suddenly grinned, lighting up the veranda with his pearl white teeth and his twinkling eyes. “And I’d have helped you. What more do you need, anyway? You got two perfect specimens of sons and you got all them women hankering for your body!”

“Pardon?” Murdoch was startled.

“Well, after Tom came here, me and Scott got to talking. I guess we were a bit nervous, wondering who else might come knocking on our door claiming to be kin.”

Scott weighed into the conversation. “Yes, when we really thought about it, it seems as though women have been throwing themselves at you forever. It goes without saying that our own mothers thought you were special. And we know about Anne Redshaw. But there was Mrs. Dane, too.”

“Yeah. You told me she could have been my mother, so you must have been pretty serious about each other,” Johnny reminded him. “Then there was Mrs. Normile. She was eyeing you off when she realized that I was a lost cause for Lucrece. And let’s not forget about Aggie Conway. The whole town knows she married Buck because she couldn’t reel you in!”

“Johnny! That’s not true. I told you before not to listen to that gossip.”

“And we all heard about you removing a certain lady’s corset!” Scott only just finished the sentence before he broke into chortles of laughter. The thought of Murdoch manhandling a woman in this way boggled his mind in ways he should not be exploring.

Johnny choked on his whisky, coughing through his laughter. “And boy, you got mighty pally with Lizzie in a short space of time when you realized that you were both available.”

“It wasn’t like that! We had been friends for years!” The red of Murdoch’s face was quite clearly visible even in the dim light.

“Yeah, like with Aggie. And we’re both still wondering exactly what happened in Blessing. We reckon there was a woman somewhere in the mix.”

“Add up all those ladies and possible offspring, we were thinking it might save a lot of heartache if we got it all sorted out now,” Scott summed it up seriously.

“Honestly, boys, I really don’t think you need to fear any more claims on Lancer!” Murdoch tried to pacify them.

“Yeah, well you didn’t ever think there would be any issues with Anne Redshaw,” Johnny reminded him solemnly. “So we took matters into our own hands.”

“You did?”

“Yes, Sir. We put an advertisement in the San Francisco Examiner asking for any offspring of any women romanced by you to come forward and we would work out an equitable division of Lancer. If we gave a six month’s moratorium, we thought that we could get Lancer subdivided in one hit and then get on with ranching whatever minuscule parcel of land we were left with.” Scott held his father’s eyes, waiting for his reaction.

Murdoch was numb. He finally tore his eyes away from Scott to seek confirmation from Johnny. His younger son had become Madrid. Dispassionate eyes surveyed him.

Murdoch’s face blanched, but not for long. The raucous sound of his sons’ laughter brought his thoughts back to the veranda. Johnny had collapsed against Scott, tears of mirth flowing freely from his eyes. Scott grabbed his brother around the neck and roughed up his hair before Johnny managed to use the weight of his body to pull Scott into a roll which saw him tumble from his seat. Scott hit the ground hard, sandwiched between the adobe veranda floor and a surprisingly heavy Johnny. He grunted as the air was squeezed out of him for a moment, but a short time later he was giggling along with Johnny, holding his sore ribs and wiping his eyes.

Their laughter finally diminished, but their grins remained plastered on their faces. They lay side by side on the ground, not quite willing to get up again.

“Whooee, Murdoch, your expression was worth bottling!”

Murdoch looked down at them both lying next to each other, neither apparently having a desire to hoist themselves to their feet. “Have you two concluded your little joke?”

Scott and Johnny looked at each other and then back at Murdoch.

“Joke?” Johnny asked. “It weren’t no joke.”

Murdoch stared at both sons. Two could play at this game. He smiled and offered both boys a hand up.

“I’m glad you two raised this topic. I had been putting it off for some time,” Murdoch told them in a suddenly serious voice as he placed an arm around each of their shoulders. “Now, about Jeff Dane …”

 

~end~
May 2008

 

Below are a few interesting facts / sites I found when researching:

1.         Premature Births: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premature_birth
Historical figures who were born prematurely include Johannes Kepler (born in 1571 at 7 months gestation), Isaac Newton (born in 1643, small enough to fit into a quart mug, according to his mother), Winston Churchill (born in 1874 at 7 months gestation), and Anna Pavlova (born in 1885 at 7 months gestation).

2.         Chinese Immigrants into the USA 1867-1870 : http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/roughingit/map/chiharper.html

3.         Opium in San Francisco
Wikipedia: There were no legal restrictions on the importation or use of opium in the United States until a San Francisco, California ordinance which banned the smoking of opium in opium dens in 1875. The Opium Exclusion Act of 1909 prohibited its importation.

4.         A Timeline of San Francisco History : http://www.zpub.com/sf/history/sfh2.html
By 1870 San Francisco had become the tenth largest city in the United States. Everywhere one looked -- hotels, restaurants, parks, churches, synagogues, schools, libraries, academies -- there were signs that the United States now enjoyed a flourishing urban center thousands of miles in advance of the frontier. One sure sign of this developing urbanism was a maturing taste for art and the presence in the city of a growing number of artists.

5.            Fisherman’s Wharf, 1870-1930 : http://www.nps.gov/archive/safr/local/wharf.html and http://www.fishermanswharf.org/History.htm
= Chinese, Italians late 60’s feluccas
They (the Italians) also built fishing boats in the tradition of their native land, called "silenas" by the fishermen, but later more widely known as "San Francisco feluccas." The seaworthiness of these small, lateen-rigged vessels was a perfect match for the rugged waters of the San Francisco Bay and contributed to the success of their skilled owners. The felucca quickly became the principal vessel in the fishing fleets moored along the San Francisco waterfront.

6.            Working Women in 1870 in San Francisco : http://www.shapingsf.org/ezine/womens/gndr1850/main.html
 There were two women for every three men in San Francisco in 1870! This tells the interesting fact that in 1870 only 5 manufacturers employed women in San Francisco. The rest of working women were mostly prostitutes. The French prostitutes commanded the highest prices.

 7.         Historic Victorian Homes in San Francisco : http://www.inetours.com/Pages/SFNbrhds/Victorian_Homes.html and http://www.artist-at-large.com/sfvictorians.htm

 

 

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