The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Raian

 

 

Home Again

They came for the horses today. We were ready for them.

Fights His Bear had brought the first news weeks earlier. It was safe to travel out in the open again. Then Antonio rode up from Lancer to let us know Pardee was defeated.

Murdoch Lancer had finally sent for his sons. They had returned in time.

 

Chapter 1

Scott said good morning and thank you when Maria handed him a cup of coffee. He dodged two hands coming to the kitchen to get instructions from Murdoch and sat next to Johnny at the other end of the table. Teresa plunked a plate full of eggs and sausage in front of him, twisting away so quickly Scott's thank you floated into empty air.

He rubbed his forehead and tried to wake up as Cipriano arrived to begin his morning talk with Murdoch.

Johnny looked much less pale than yesterday. His brother had overdone it since Doctor Jenkins gave clearance to go back to work – the wound from Pardee's bullet to the back all but healed. Johnny was not supposed to do any heavy lifting. He had spent the last two mornings out with the hands sent to find cattle. The best of the Lancer herd had been hazed to remote areas not long after Pardee started trouble. Though the most valuable had been kept safe from the pillaging, the rest of the herd had been scattered to hell and gone.

Johnny seemed to relax in the wide open. He had been restless while bedridden, showing his impatience often during Scott's efforts to entertain him with stories of Boston and details of what work was being done on Lancer. Johnny wanted to participate, not hear about things after the fact.

“You ready to ride, Boston?”

“I'm always ready to ride, Brother. Has Murdoch decided what we'll do today?”

“Not sure. Heard a couple things. Riding to town is out. Lawyer isn't back 'til next week.”

Murdoch had been double-timing Scott and the hands: he wanted Lancer back in shape for his new partners. The partnership agreement would have been signed already but for Johnny being laid up. In the aftermath of the fight with Pardee, Scott had jumped in to help — and at times, direct. He learned the layout of Lancer, its operations and people, along with the finer points of working with cattle. It was different from helping to push huge herds along behind an army, which he had occasionally done during the war.

“More chasing cows? More work on fences?”Scott asked.

Johnny, busy chewing, just shrugged and winked. He'd already told Scott it was “cattle,” not “cows,” so Scott couldn't help but tease by using the incorrect term.

He had been fixing fences for the last several days. Ranch work was dirty and often monotonous. Days were long. But no fights to the death, unless fencing with wire could fall into that category. He'd be quite happy to do something else for a while.

Murdoch got the last update from Cipriano. Still no reports of land pirates in the area. “Are you satisfied they've all left, Cip?”

“Si, Patron. We have gathered the cattle, and have enough fences repaired to keep them on good graze for a few weeks.”

Murdoch slapped the table with both hands. “Excellent. It's time to bring our horse herd back to Lancer. I'd like you to go to Aggie's for the buckskin.”

Teresa was pouring more coffee for Johnny. She jerked the pot and managed to right it just in time. Pardee had used the theft of that stallion to lure Murdoch and Teresa's father into an ambush. Aggie Conway had found and hid the horse after Murdoch was shot and Paul killed. Scott patted her hand when Teresa grabbed him on the shoulder for momentary support. She took a deep breath, nodded, and moved to top up Murdoch's cup.

“Send Fox and de Vega to fetch the other two stallions. The boys and Teresa and I will go to Sabina's for the rest of the herd,” Murdoch ordered.

Teresa squealed and almost dropped the coffee pot again. She gave Murdoch a one-armed hug and kiss on the cheek. Johnny mouthed “Sabina” with a questioning look, but Scott could only raise an eyebrow and shrug. This was the first time he'd heard the name.

Scott had not gotten much beyond a stilted, though amicable, style of dialogue with Murdoch, built on bulwarks of the past is past; it's dead and gone. They had not had time for long discussions as it was, with the ranch in such disarray. Murdoch seemed reluctant to press for any kind of personal information from his sons.

However, he and Murdoch could speak about Johnny. That helped diffuse some of the frustration Scott felt about Johnny's reluctance to have a conversation. The attempts Scott had made with Johnny were dodged, redirected. His brother was quick; loved to poke the bear.

Sipping coffee while Cipriano and the hands left with their assignments, Scott wondered if Murdoch and Johnny talked about him. That would allow each of them to avoid talking about himself.

The middle of the table was claimed by Maria. She and Murdoch made lists of what needed to be packed before they left to fetch the herd. It seemed more complicated than just going to bring back the horses.

Johnny finished eating and tried to leave, but Murdoch called him back and gave him a list of light items to find and take to the barn.

Scott single-mindedly shoveled in breakfast, needing to eat before a start on what sounded like another long day. He had gotten in late with the fencing crew last night, and had been too tired to eat after cleaning up.

Regardless of work and his own fatigue, Scott was determined to breach the walls around his father and brother. He knew from experience how difficult a task it could be. It could only be done with help from within the wall – or a blast from without.

He would admit to walls of his own.

 

Chapter 2

Murdoch's announcement of a pack trip unleashed a flurry of activity after breakfast. Teresa flitted back and forth, consulted with Maria about what to send, as Murdoch directed the hands on the best way to pack everything onto mules. Scott carried goods from house and storage to barn, and got a thorough lesson on how to properly load a mule.

Johnny perched on the corral fence, a look of amusement on his face. “Don't bust a gut, Boston.”

“Enjoy it while you can, Brother. Meanwhile, watch and learn.” Johnny gave his crooked smile and went back to chewing on a piece of hay, likely not missing anything going on in the organized chaos.

Teresa had trouble with one of the packs. She was too short. Scott stepped in, freeing her to run back to the house for more. Fox, helping with the mules before he left to fetch one of the stallions, quizzed Scott on the names of the tack they were using – first in Spanish, then Paiute.

Scott turned to the next task, to find Johnny had jumped down and was helping Joshua saddle Barranca.

“Careful, Johnny.” Scott strode over to him. “Unless you'd like another lecture from Murdoch here about not straining your back.”

Johnny spun around, only to see Teresa behind him with yet another armful of material and what looked like medicine bottles. Murdoch was farther down the row of mules and was not looking at Johnny. Scott grabbed the saddle from him and swung it onto Barranca.

“Very funny. I can at least cinch him up.” Johnny shouldered him out of the way. “Hey, Teresa, tell us about this person we're going to see.”

“Well, you'll just love her. She is so good with horses, kind and generous. She's been such a good friend to all of us, ever since she and her husband helped Murdoch get Lancer.”

Scott was sure his face mirrored the questioning look on Johnny's.

 “Sabina was one of the first white women to come here,” Teresa explained while she wrapped bottles and stuffed them into a saddlebag. “She met and married Philip de Leon who owned an estancia bordering what is now Lancer. Murdoch was trying to buy Lancer not long after, and Philip –  unlike many of the other Spanish landowners –  was happy to help Murdoch and others purchase property. He and Sabina made it possible for Murdoch to get the first part of Lancer.”

“First part?” Johnny tightened his latigo knot.

“Murdoch bought other land when he could. When Philip died about fifteen years ago, Sabina sold the majority of the de Leon holdings to Lancer. The income allows her to stay on what's left of her property, and supports others living there when they can't trade for what's needed. Retired ranch hands and their families live there, as well as Indians who sometimes pass through, sometimes stay, along with the orphans she shelters.”

“Is that why we're taking all this? To help the poor orphans?” Johnny wanted to know.

“This is payment for watching over our palomino breed stock and much of the Lancer remuda,” Johnny and Scott startled and turned at Murdoch's deep voice. Neither had noticed his approach.

Murdoch inspected a few of the packs. “Sabina's home place is far from well-traveled roads. Isolation makes it hard for our neighbors to secure what they need, especially lately.” He paused to tip back his hat and wipe sweat off his forehead. “Goods and services have always substituted for cash. Neighbors helping neighbors, even though it might take a half-day's ride or more to reach each other. That's the reason for this mule train, boys. What we're carrying will help pay for assistance rendered.”

“Help pay?” Johnny asked.

“No one expected the range war to drag on as long as it did. I won't know whether we've brought enough until Sabina sees it all.”

Such an inaccurate system would drive Grandfather mad, thought Scott.

Scott asked Johnny to help with the last packs. Indeed, Johnny had watched and listened while on the fence. They completed the task and knots with no fumbles. Manuel checked the result after handing Teresa her saddled horse, and said they did good. Scott slapped Johnny's uninjured shoulder. “Now you can add mule packer to your curriculum vitae.” Johnny blinked at him as Murdoch called out for them to mount.

Scott pulled his gloves tight and adjusted his head mule's lead rope on the saddle horn, then settled in for another long day in the saddle. He got the honor of leading the second string. Johnny followed; was supposed to urge on the mules from behind as needed, just as Teresa would help Murdoch with the first string. Other than the long ride up and back, this was supposed to be a fairly restful few days.

It would be the first time the Lancers had been away from the hacienda together.

 

Chapter 3

The ride to the far skirts of Lancer had Scott feeling the effects of recent long days and lack of sleep. After slowly climbing for hours, the land past Turner's Crossing changed around them, becoming rocky and inhospitable. The trees thinned out and the hills blocked the breeze. Murdoch said they'd skirt the badlands before heading up toward what he called the Paiute Trail.

The horses and mules scrambled over a steep and uneven portion of trail. Despite what Murdoch and Teresa had told them about the inhabitants of the valley, Scott wondered at the difficulties that must go along with living in such a remote area.

The mules kept lagging, and Johnny's frequent remarks about "asses" helped to keep Scott awake. His brother excelled at the art of blasphemy. Johnny had manners – Scott noted he had waited until Teresa was out of earshot before turning the air blue.

"Are we there yet?" Johnny called out to Murdoch, but their father was still too far ahead to hear. More curses as Barranca slipped across the rocks. “Easy, boy. Sorry 'bout that.”

Johnny must be tired too. Likely he was in pain, but Scott doubted he'd admit it.

"When we decide who gets what third, Boston, you or Murdoch can have this part."

"Oh no, Brother, it's share and share alike. One-third of each and every little thing will be yours. One-third of those rocks,” Scott gestured on one side of his horse, then leaned to sweep his arm along the other side, “and of these rocks are yours. One-third of this joy is yours. Soon to be signed and sealed."

First Murdoch and his pack string, then Teresa disappeared over the hill above them. Johnny urged on the mules. Their string curved along a switchback that linked two hills. Scott reached forward for his canteen. Looking up, he froze. The mules came to an untidy halt behind his horse, and Johnny's "What the hell, Boston?" faded into silence.

Below, the land fell away in narrowing, lumpy fingers. Down where they had begun the climb, a hogback reared up across the hills – tall edges buttressed by columns of stone like walls of a castle. Free of trees, the hillside they were on afforded a view through the notch in that high barrier. Lancer spread out green and inviting in the late day sunlight.

Scott felt what he had that first day, on another ridge looking down: a feeling of peace, of belonging, of coming home. This could be home –  this was home.

He glanced back and watched while Johnny stared down toward Lancer. He had the same look on his face as on that first day – this time open and not quickly shuttered away. Scott saw the young man he wanted to get to know – his brother.

Johnny realized Scott was watching him. "Dang, Boston, I've changed my mind. I think I'll take this piece after all." He gave his cheeky grin.

Scott couldn't help but grin back. He took a quick drink, and they got the mules under way again.

Up, over and around the last turn and into a narrow valley; their father waited for them to catch up. Teresa must have ridden on. She had been bursting with excitement over seeing friends she had not seen since the threat of Pardee turned to reality.

Scott felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He glanced at Johnny, who looked uneasy.

Johnny sat back in his saddle, pitched his voice low. "Murdoch..."

"I know, son. No doubt word of our approach has already been sent ahead. The hills are always watched. Even if they weren't, it would be hard to sneak in with this crew."

As they rode farther into the valley, steep sides fell away to reveal a broad sweep of green. Small cabins were tucked away on the edges. In the distance more hills rose, crowned by trees. Farther down around a bend, the vista widened. At least two lakes were visible. An adobe house sat comfortably on the hill flanking the nearest lake.

The mules broke into an ear-splitting chorus, answered by friends visible in a corral farther ahead. Friends laughing because they got to stay home and rest, no doubt.

Ahead, near the house, a group of people awaited their approach. Teresa arrived first, greeted by hugs and happy voices. Murdoch dismounted as a tall, gray-haired woman dressed in pants and a faded shirt stepped forward to shake his hand.

"Good to see you, Murdoch. Please step down, gentlemen."

“Sabina de Leon, I'm proud to introduce my sons. This is Scott.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. de Leon.” He bowed slightly and tipped his hat.

“And Johnny.”

Johnny dipped his head. “Ma'am.”

She returned their greetings with a nod. “Please call me Sabina. I'm very happy to finally meet you, Scott. Johnny, you are much taller than when I saw you last. Welcome to our home. Fire in Morning and Pedro will take your horses. I'll introduce the others as we go along.”

“We can unsaddle,” Johnny interjected. “Looks like you have enough help to unload.”

Murdoch and Sabina pointed out the barn as the others, laughing and exclaiming over the mules' cargo, began undoing the packs. Scott and Johnny grabbed Teresa's and Murdoch's horses and hiked across the meadow, passing two young Indian girls who glanced at them with blank faces. Scott greeted them in Paiute, but they hurried by. Scott wondered if he had mispronounced the words. “I hope I said that right.”

“They're careful around the conquering white man come to town.”

Scott stopped abruptly, forcing Johnny to turn and face him. “Is that what you think of me?”

Johnny goggled, then snapped his mouth shut. “It's what Mex and Indians are used to.”

“I was born here before California became part of the United States. That makes me Mexican. Maybe more Mexican than you.”

Johnny looked nonplussed for a moment, then his face went blank. He shrugged a shoulder.

“Besides, it was Mexicans who subjugated the Indians in this area first. If those ladies were nervous, it was likely due to the both of us.”

Johnny lowered his head, then proceeded on to the barn. “You sure are something, Boston – but I'm not sure what.”

Scott felt he should apologize for snapping at Johnny. He knew being too tired to think straight was no excuse, but the events at Gaspar's farm just before the fight with Pardee were too recent. The memories of the atrocities of war they evoked still had him on edge.

Not much else was said as they took care of the horses. Scott made sure Johnny did not pick up anything heavier than saddlebags, and Johnny did not object.

 

Chapter 4

The silence was broken by a mule's call.

“Yes, my dearest Blanco, you shall receive your hay.”

Scott and Johnny stopped what they were doing, to see Sabina had brought several of the mules to a corral next to the barn. Johnny was nearest and he jumped to get hay from the stack, but she got there first.

Easily as tall as Johnny, she pulled down hay to toss over the fence to the mules. “Thank you, Johnny, but I hear you are not supposed to be lifting your arms above your head until that wound is checked.”

“What? Who said that?” Johnny's fingers tapped against the buttons of his calzonera, and he looked annoyed.

“Your father, who else? Something about no heavy-duty work.” Sabina brushed loose hay from her shirt and pants. “Or perhaps it was no heavy lifting, not 'no lifting arms.' Regardless, he's worried you've overdone it today. Have you finished with the horses? I can see you have. Come, we'll check on Rio on the way back to the house.”

Swept along, Scott and Johnny grabbed saddlebags and followed Sabina out to another corral. A small gelding watched them approach. He seemed to be having trouble standing upright, and pinned his ears at Johnny's attempt to pet him through the fence.

“What's wrong with him?” Johnny brought his arm back out and used it to lean against the fence.

“Old age, young man. No matter what we do, it comes to us all. He's too stubborn to give up yet, but he'll soon get tired of dealing with discomfort and pain.”

Scott moved closer, kept his arms at his side, and Rio brought his ears forward. Scott had never seen a horse with markings like that – colored like a deer, with black mane and tail and stripes of black on the edges of his ears, on his face, neck, withers, legs and one long stripe down his spine. “I'd call him buckskin, but with all those stripes...what kind of horse is he?”

“Just a regular one –  a dun –  though that many stripes is rare. He was valued for being  unique when young, but ill-used by those who couldn't deal with his personality. For that I'm glad, otherwise I'd never have met him or been able to buy him.”

“Maybe some of that medicine Teresa brought up will help him,” Johnny suggested.

“That's for the Paiutes. Rio keeps going through sheer strength of will. An inspiration to us all.”

“If that goes to the Paiutes, did we bring enough for what Murdoch says we owe you?” Scott asked.

“We'll know by tomorrow night.”

“How many people live here?” Johnny wanted to know. Scott did too; it did not seem two mule trains could carry enough for all the people they'd already seen.

“Number comes and goes. Quite a few helped watch over your horses. I'm sure you brought enough. We'll get the obligations straightened out.”

“Obligations?”

“What your father owes me, what I owe to those who helped watch your horses, and what they owe me for what I have done for them in the meantime. We'll get it to balance.”

Scott thought about Grandfather again. “That must get complicated.”

“Not really. Not when you're used to thinking about it. Everyone keeps track. We're usually able to agree and compensate right away. Some obligations are met more easily than others, of course.”

“How so?”

“Cash money may be accepted, especially for material items. Or someone could make you a shirt if you provide enough material for them to keep. Or, for instance, Fights His Bear brought news we needed. I valued it highly, but he was happy to settle for some food.”

“Surely everyone can't participate.” Scott thought of the older faces he'd seen in the group. He guessed Sabina was older than Murdoch, though he would not guess by how much. The long braid hanging over her shoulder was solid gray, and lines cascaded from the corners of her eyes down over her cheekbones and below. She moved like a younger person, though. Not like Murdoch, whose back always looked stiff and who still limped after too much exercise.

“We all support the young and old. I provide shelter, protection and food for those who need it, and they help maintain those shelters and help watch trails – or help by doing whatever they do best, like raising chickens or crops, or teaching the youngsters to read and write. Even the youngest can gather eggs or help fetch and carry, though their main job is to play and laugh and remind us there is still good in this world.” She reached over to scratch Rio's neck, and he leaned into the contact. “The land pirates slowed down our normal trading outside the valley, as they always do.”

“Seems like it would be easy to take advantage of you nice folks.” Johnny tapped his right thigh.

Sabina smiled slowly. “We have ways of discouraging that. Cadgers and loafers do not stay long. Though protection could be something we trade for, so far we've done fine policing ourselves and those who would like to live here.”

Johnny ducked his head, hiding a sly smile. Scott supposed Sabina would know about Johnny's former profession.

“You brought a lot. Things we haven't been able to get for awhile. I'd say it is enough.” She grabbed the saddlebags Johnny had set down and started herding him toward the house. “If you want supper, I need to check that wound.”

“Says who?” Johnny folded his arms and put on his stubborn look.

“Says your father. He's in the kitchen now getting potatoes ready for supper in return for me doctoring you.” She slapped the saddlebags against Johnny's leg, which made him laugh and dance out of range.

Scott swung his and Teresa's saddlebags over his shoulder, delighted with his brother's laughter and the thought of Murdoch up to his elbows in potato peelings.

Without turning around, Sabina said, “No laughs from you, Scott. Murdoch will be washing dishes tonight to make sure you eat well and get to bed early. No trade was necessary, you are our guests, but he insisted. You do look like you've been dragged through brambles backwards. No need to tell me it's been too long since you ate or slept properly. He's right to be concerned.”

Scott almost did laugh when Johnny craned around Sabina, looking him up and down. It was as though Johnny had never seen him before.

 

Chapter 5

Teresa showed Scott to a small but comfortably-appointed bedroom on the second floor. It was heaven to wash up. He wandered back downstairs, followed the sound of voices
and smells of supper to the kitchen.

Murdoch was seated near the head of a long table in the kitchen, and Scott had to mask his surprise. He was entertaining the children seated alongside with a story Scott recognized, one he had read as a child. A larger group than had greeted them earlier was out on the patio. It seemed the elders had found seats there. The patio door opened, and young men and women flowed around each other as they grabbed plates to carry food to others and then for themselves, laughing and teasing as they found a place to settle and eat.

Scott was overwhelmed. He was sure they were all speaking English, but the noise and many voices turned speech into an unintelligible babble. Try as he might, he could not pick out more than the occasional word. He folded his arms and leaned against the door frame.

Teresa came across the room. “Oh Scott, you look so tired. Come with me.” Slipping her arm in his, she led him back through the house, down a long hall and through a library. Scott got the impression of many books and comfortable chairs. He inhaled a wonderful mix of leather and wood, ink and paper before they exited out onto a portico. “Here, sit down.” She propped the door open. “I'll bring you something to eat.”

Scott collapsed into a chair. Teresa returned with a long tray which rested perfectly across the chair's wide arms, then left him to his supper.

Scott sat for a moment, enjoying the feel of a seat which was not in motion, then dug in. The meal was simple, but had wonderful flavor and was filling. The something-or-other with blueberries was delicious. He set the tray on a nearby table, and stretched out his legs with a satisfied sigh.

The view was magnificent. The sun set in a brilliant crimson sky, below what looked like rain clouds. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The sounds of laughter and high-pitched voices floated to him from the other side of the house.

 

Chapter 6

Startled awake by screams and the roar of cannon fire, Scott lurched forward. It was dark. A flash of lightning showed the figure of a man beside him. He was halfway to his feet ready to defend himself before he realized who it was. Sinking down, he gripped the chair to anchor himself back in the present.

“Hey, whoa there, Boston.” Johnny had taken a few steps back, spurs jangling. Thunder rumbled and Scott could not control a flinch. “You seem kinda” – the Johnny-shadow rubbed the side of its nose – “kinda jumpy.”

Nightmares did not visit as often as they used to but they still left Scott flayed. A few deep breaths helped calm his heart, gave him time to make sure his voice was steady. “I'm fine. You startled me.”

“Yeah, sure, sure.” Dim light glinted off a tin cup as Johnny held it out. “Teresa thought you'd like some more coffee.”

“I'll be sure to thank Teresa when I see her.”

“You just missed her. She brought in your tray and sent me out with the coffee.” Johnny picked up a cup from the table, then settled onto a bench. “Hope you don't mind company. Was getting too close in there with all those folks.”

“Did you get a clean bill of health from Sabina?”

“Oh yeah. She says everything's still healing up fine.”

Scott wrapped his palms firmly around the coffee cup. The heat felt good on chilled fingers. Another flash of lightning and he tensed, waited for the thunder.

“Hey Boston, no need to be afraid of thunder, ya know,” Johnny drawled.

Scott took another deep breath, let it shudder free as thunder rolled and windows rattled. He did not want to bring up the war, did not want to share that part of his life with his new family yet – not beyond the fact he had been a soldier. Not now, not ever for some parts of it. But how could he expect Johnny to open up to him if he never shared anything personal? “It sounds like artillery fire,” he admitted.

“Yeah, I guess it does at that.” Johnny slowly sipped his coffee. “You must have heard cannon when you worked for that Sheridan fella.”

“I fought alongside my men.”

“I'd think cavalry could outrun cannons.”

“We did our share of dismounted fighting.” Scott scrubbed his forehead with his left palm, enjoying the warmth against clammy skin. The wind freshened, brought the smell of rain.

“That must've been hard.” Johnny's tone had softened.

“It was.”

It was also hard to get a civilian to understand the scale of it. Artillery bombardments that could last for hours, followed by tens of thousands of men fighting, sometimes for days. Thousands dead, many thousands more wounded. The screams of men and animals, the smells of battle and blood, scenes of death. He was sure he would never shake the memory of those distorted bodies. Friends and comrades gone.

“I was in the Mexican army for a time.” Scott looked toward him, surprised, but Johnny was hidden in the shadows. “Saw some fightin'. But I heard about your war. How bad it got.”

Scott felt something calm and solid settle inside him.

“Range wars can get mean. But killing a man's killing a man, I guess.”

“Yes. It's never easy to see the faces of the dead... I guess the storm brought on a nightmare.”

Scott heard Johnny exhale. “Yeah.”

Scott closed his eyes. Johnny put on a good show but when he dropped the brash, cold face of a loner, he revealed his youth and uncertainty. Scott understood what it was like to be thrown into the company of older, hardened men. You had to grow a thick skin, become caustic and tough, prove you had the right to be there – prove you were to be taken seriously, or you would not survive. He wondered how young Johnny had been when he'd learned those hard lessons. He knew the hard choices Johnny must have had to make when he worked with the likes of Pardee.

Johnny shifted on the bench. “Say, Scott, I...”

A light appeared in the doorway –  Teresa with a small lantern. “Oh there you are, Johnny. Murdoch thought you'd gone to bed.”

“He still wantin' to tell me when to sleep?”

Teresa slapped Johnny's arm. “No, silly. You know he's worried about you. You too, Scott. Murdoch checked on you earlier and saw you'd nodded off. He thinks you've been working too hard and not getting enough rest. You both should be in bed.”

Scott was surprised Murdoch felt the need to check on him. They had all been working hard.

Johnny got up and stretched. “It has been a long day.”

“Are you coming in, Scott?” Teresa asked.

“After I finish my coffee. Thank you for sending it out.”

“All right. Don't be too long, or Murdoch will come looking for you again.”

“'Night,” Johnny said softly as he followed her inside and closed the door.

Not “sleep well,” Scott noted. The rain started to fall. Scott held onto his cooling cup. Hidden by darkness and masked by rain, he thought of lost friends. The grief and guilt, once constant companions, were no longer so deep.

 

Chapter 7

Scott had slept well.

He woke in the morning to silence, though he was sure he had heard more rain at some point during the night. He felt rested and enjoyed a slow stretch in the comfortable bed, then dozed while he waited for others to rouse so he could get up and join them. The curtains moved gently and he relished the cool breeze.

The house stayed quiet.

With eyes open, the sunlight seemed too loud for it to be early morning. He got up to check his watch: he had overslept. Out one window, there was a piece of the lake but no one nearby. Out the other window he saw Sabina down by the barn. Rio stood in his corral, front half leaning one way, back half the other.

Scott dressed quickly and went downstairs. The house seemed empty. It was a strange feeling after weeks of being on a schedule, to not know what he was supposed to be doing at this moment.

In the kitchen the smell of breakfast lingered, but all had been cleared away except for a pot of coffee on the back of the stove and a few biscuits in a basket on the table. He grabbed a biscuit and a cup of coffee, skipped adding cream and sugar as they were nowhere in sight, and went outside.

The air was clear and fresh. There were a few people visible across the valley but he could see no real activity except down by the barn. He trekked in that direction.

Sabina was cleaning Rio's corral. A donkey cart sat to the side, laden with wooden lids and empty water buckets which must have been used to haul water for the stock tank. No donkey or helpers were in sight. Sabina, hair in two braids this morning, wore pants again. He supposed Teresa could have picked a worse role model out here in the wild, wild west. The clothing was more practical for ranch work than bloomers or a riding skirt.

"Good morning," A smile lit up Sabina's face. "You must be ready for breakfast. I'm almost done here."

“I apologize for oversleeping.”

Sabina waved away the apology. “There were more than enough volunteers to go after the horses. More than necessary for the task, but everyone enjoys a break from routine. Murdoch said you were dead to the world when he checked on you. You must have needed it.”

“So you said yesterday, but I could have helped this morning.”

Sabina moved the wheelbarrow to the next manure pile. “Remember, you don't need to. You are my guests. Your father has always liked to get into the spirit of the thing when he visits. He never did understand I don't mind my world shrinking, especially since Philip died.”

“Teresa said you had sold Murdoch part of your land.”

“Yes. It was important to him to build Lancer, since he couldn't have what he really wanted.”

“What was that?”

“His lost boys. He wanted to leave something for you and your brother, something you could be proud of. A focus on the ranch was a way to channel his energy and frustrations when he could not have you both there.”

Scott considered the concept. If asked, he could have come to Lancer at any time, but Johnny had certainly been lost. Scott balked at the idea Murdoch had wanted him all along. The day was too beautiful to consider reasons why Murdoch had never come to Boston to claim him.

Scott sipped his coffee and looked at Rio with a critical eye. Rio looked back at him in much the same way. It was disconcerting. The corral dirt was filled with drag marks; loops and circles, twining chains made by Rio's feet in his unsteady progress. Rio watched him take a bite of biscuit and shuffled over. Scott broke off a piece and reached through the corral bars.

“Mind your fingers.” Sabina leaned on the manure fork and watched. “He doesn't bite like he used to, but he can still grab an apple out of a water trough like nobody's business. None of the other horses even come close to matching his speed and determination.”

Rio grabbed the piece of biscuit with his teeth. Scott was used to horses that used lips to pick up offered treats. "Teresa was telling us on the trip up how you rehabilitate difficult horses. Rio was one of those?"

"Yes. He's made mighty progress through the years, though it can still be hard for him to let down his guard."

“His guard?”

“You'll rarely see him snoozing if people are around. What would send most horses into a happy doze will make him start to relax, but then he'll snap back to full alert.”

"That sounds as though it could be dangerous."

"I suppose so. You couldn't have paid me enough to ride him when I first got him, but he isn't a naturally aggressive horse. Life taught him to protect himself. His innate personality is to be cooperative. He is extremely intelligent and a hard worker. It was humans who changed that for the worse."

“What did they do to him?”

“I don't know for sure, but I'd guess he was punished unfairly. The physical damage you see is likely a consequence of overwork when he was young, with demands of perfection before he had fully mastered a lesson or was physically able to do it. His training probably wasn't consistent. He went through at least seven owners before me.”

Sabina touched one of Rio's rear feet with the fork as she scooped up a pile of manure. Rio tensed and snatched his foot away, then relaxed and set the foot back down. Scott released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He thought Rio would kick in retaliation. Sabina went on working as if nothing had happened.

“He anticipated punishment and got aggressive, and that did get him more punishment. That burned his fears deep. He would turn to anger immediately to get your attention. No warnings. He learned he better get you before you got him.”

Scott thought that sounded too familiar. "How did you start to change him?"

"By showing I would out-stubborn him, could wait out his anger. That I wouldn't be angry or afraid, that I loved him despite all he was doing. I didn't react the way he was used to. We humans are supposed to be the smart ones... but we tend to fall into patterns and our own fears make us react to anger with our own anger."

"Wouldn't you like to know what happened to cause him to be this way?"

"Not really. It's a waste of time. I can't change the past and it's too easy to get caught up in loss, regrets and 'what ifs.' What I could do was offer him a different, better way forward. To keep my promise to always be kind and patient."

Past is in the past seemed to be a common mantra in California. Scott tossed out the dregs of his coffee, and leaned against a corral post. "I don't recall ever hearing of a horse that angry. I've certainly never run across one."

"It's how he handled his fear. It is unusual – most horses will get scared, and then more scared when their fear doesn't diminish. Rio channeled his fears into aggression."

Scott thought of  men he had known and of himself. “Unfortunately, I think I can understand that. If you don't or can't get away, you need to have enough strength of will to destroy what you fear. Or you will freeze, and be destroyed.”

Sabina nodded as she pushed the wheelbarrow to the corral gate. "Fear is our most basic emotion. The strongest, the most necessary. What you fear –  what hurts you – is to be avoided. Those lessons get driven deep. Lessons burned in acid across the brain. They are almost impossible to forget. Rio was young when it started. Lessons learned early in life make a deep impression."

Scott moved to open the gate for her, but Sabina returned to fuss with Rio. "It was hard for him to let go. Now his fears are mostly groundless and unnecessary. But you can't stop feeling. It's humbling and gratifying to know how far he has come – how much he's changed because I asked him to. He can mostly recognize emotions coming up now, and if the fear isn't necessary, knows how to control it and let it go, instead of expressing it through anger.”

"I've always felt horses are much like humans."

"We all have fears. Basic fears, dealing with survival. Sometimes less tangible, nameless  fears. Fears will drive us, just as they drive the animals. It's easy for others to do as they will to us, when we fear and turn over our power."

Sabina threw an arm over Rio's neck. "It took a long time to prove to Rio I wasn't like the others he'd interacted with. No matter how much he prodded and goaded me. I had to change the pattern. He was looking for a fight. When I refused, he had to learn a new way to live."

"That couldn't have been easy."

"No, it was not. He can be very scary. If you tried to be bigger and scarier than he was trying to be, he would follow through rather than submit. He came into my life when much of my life revolved around fears. The fear of loss. The fear of failure. We confronted our fears together."

Sabina gave Rio's neck a squeeze. "You are precious, Old Man."

Scott choked down laughter at a vision of Johnny doing and saying the same to Murdoch, and would have sworn Rio rolled his eyes.

Sabina picked up two empty buckets. Scott opened the gate and took them from her, added them to the pile on the cart while she wheeled out the barrow and latched the corral gate behind her. "He is uncomfortable. We'll see him on his way to greener pastures soon."

"How will you know it's time?"

Sabina shrugged. "I just will."

Scott wished all knowledge came that easily.

 

Chapter 8

Sabina said she would make breakfast for both of them. She hadn't eaten yet either. Scott protested and insisted he could make it.

"Give me a treat, Scott. It's been years since I've cooked for only myself and a handsome young man.”

Scott felt his cheeks redden, but Sabina had turned to the stove.

“Don't worry, I can manage breakfast just fine. This morning it's pancakes and eggs."

Scott realized he was very hungry. A feeling sometimes lost in the rush of work to save a ranch. A good long sleep had refreshed him.

Sabina brought the laden plates to the table and sat across from him. He bit into a forkful of flapjacks and his eyes widened – maple syrup.

Sabina smiled. "I thought you might like that."

Scott savored the taste. It was childhood: New England fall, ice skating, vacations away from the city. “Teresa said you were from back east. You never wanted to return?"

"Never. I knew right away this was home. Things like maple syrup I did miss. Now it's an indulgence."

"And the books in your library?"

"Mine and Philip's. He was an inveterate reader and researcher – loved the classics, poetry, anything we could get our hands on. The library is a great help for teaching the young people."

“These eggs are perfect.”

“That was a guess. Your mother liked them that way.”

“You knew my mother?”

“Of course I did. We spent many fine hours together. She and Murdoch were very supportive of the work Philip was trying to do. We all tried to make our ranches a good place to live and work for all of our hands. Of course there are others in the valley who think the same, but we're closest to Lancer.”

Scott was glad Lancer still followed that philosophy. “My mother did like it here? Would you tell me about her?”

“I would be telling tales out of school. Haven't you talked to Murdoch about her?”

Scott dropped his head and focused on preparing another bite. “No. We've been too busy for me to ask.” He looked up to find Sabina studying him closely.

“Murdoch should be the one to tell you.”

“He's like you: the past is in the past.”

Sabina raised her eyebrows, cocked her head and gave him a look that made him shrink, until he reminded himself he was a grown man. Looks like that should not affect him anymore.

“All right. You are her son. You deserve to hear what I know... Katherine fell in love with your father, then with Lancer, and threw herself into the ranch. Murdoch gave her what she longed for: an adventurous life, support for her dreams and finally love shown openly. We saw a different side of Murdoch when she was around.

“Your mother and I used to have long talks. She was complex, profound. Loved her life here deeply. Loved you deeply: first the thought of you, then the real you before you were born. She could handle the fact your father was driven, focused on the ranch and spending time to build it up for his soon-to-be family. He wanted a beautiful, successful, secure home for her and you, and any more children who might come along.

“She was tall and slim, but with a core like an oak, able to give with the storms and come back stronger. Even so, when danger threatened just before you were born, your father wanted to protect her. She left to appease Murdoch, so he could focus totally on saving their home. Her father was supposed to meet her part way and help escort her to safety. You know the rest, surely?”

Scott, eyes damp, nodded.

Sabina refilled their coffee cups. "Unlike your mother, I am shallow. Ankle-deep or less. I can easily live in the moment, overlook others, find contentment in my own company and interests."

"But you see the fear and need in the world, and try to help."

"That is your own goodness, thinking I am as noble as your mother – or my husband. I can see it in animals – they could see it in people. I have people sheltering here because they help me. I'm able to stay here because of them. It's really to my advantage."

Scott thought she was not as callous as she made out, and said so.

"Philip was open and showed emotions with ease, was happy and loving,” Sabina replied. “He always had a project, someone he wanted to help – as he helped your parents get Lancer." She studied the table for a minute, running a finger along one of the cracks in the wood. "I did learn from him. Any good qualities I have rubbed off from him, or people like your mother and father. I had to find parts missing in myself. Because I will admit I'm very selfish. It's hard to put others ahead of yourself."

Scott wondered what Sabina knew about Johnny's mother. It wasn't his place to ask. “You said you saw a new side to Murdoch when my mother was with him. What do you mean?”

“Katherine saw Murdoch as a soft-boiled egg. Just crack the shell a little and it's all warm, soft and gooey inside.”

"Gooey?" Scott gave a deep laugh that shook off the melancholia brought by thoughts of a mother he would never know.

"You doubt me?" Sabina seemed pleased by his reaction. "It's true." She paused, wiped up some syrup with a last piece of flapjack. "Teresa thinks you are a lot like him, you know. A sensitive soul who has built armor, growing up as you did. Hiding behind that Boston veneer. But you care, and care deeply."

Scott sat still, head down, not sure what to say.

"I say enough talk.” Sabina set her coffee mug down with a thump. “You are you. You do what you will, because you want to do it. All this thinking about why and wherefore makes my head ache. Now excuse me while I waste not a drop of this wonderful syrup." She picked up her plate and proceeded to lick it with gusto.

Scott, momentarily shocked, followed suit. He'd always wanted to as a child, but Grandfather never turned his back long enough.

 

Chapter 9

Scott went to the barn after the late breakfast. A start had been made on chores before everyone left to help bring in the horses. He finished up, raked and tidied the barn aisle, set feed out ready for his family's horses and went out to get his own horse. Someone had turned the gelding out with a few mules and some hay for company. Bringing him back to his stall, Scott started to groom him. The familiar routine always soothed.

Grandfather never could understand how such simple things mattered –  how they had helped Scott recover his equilibrium after returning from war. Grandfather was happy to be in his office all day, herding numbers with no regard to how they affected people's lives. Scott had tried to fit into the role Harlan wanted for him, but even as a child knew it would never work. Escapes to the barn, the garden, the forest and the ocean became his lifelines.

Off in the distance there were shouts and whistles and hoof beats. A few minutes later Scott heard Johnny's rhythmic walk, spurs jingling.

He breezed in, Barranca in tow. “Hey, Scott, you sure missed some fun.”

Murdoch, limping slightly, hesitated when he saw Scott, then hurried in the rest of the way and left his horse in the aisle when he saw Johnny untacking Barranca.

“Wait, son, let me do that.” Johnny made a noise, but moved to allow Murdoch to remove the saddle. Meanwhile, Scott led Murdoch's horse to a stall and began to untack him.

Murdoch carried Johnny's saddle to the rack. “Scott, no need for you to do that.”

“I've already started, sir. Take the saddle, if you wish.”

Murdoch scrutinized him. “You look much better today.”

“Thank you, sir. I feel much better. Several pounds of potatoes and bucket loads of dishes better, actually.”

Murdoch looked surprised. “Oh, that. Well... I... you see...” He cleared his throat and carried his saddle to the rack. “Sabina is a unique woman.”

“I'll say.” Johnny was smiling as he pulled pieces of weed from Barranca's tail.

“I'd agree.” Scott hung Murdoch's bridle outside the stall.

“Well, if you don't mind finishing up, I am ready for a sit-down before dinner after all the riding we've done.”

Murdoch put on his tune-caller face. “Our horses will stay on the home pasture overnight. We'll leave after breakfast tomorrow. Johnny, you'll be in front with the herd's lead mare. She's Barranca's mother, so you'll get along fine.”

Johnny stared wide-eyed at Murdoch, but Murdoch did not notice as he continued to give orders. “Scott, I'd like you to take charge of any pack horses we might need to carry what's sent back with us. Teresa and I will keep the rest of the herd lined up and moving.”

"Yes, sir."

"Don't be long, boys. We can help set up for dinner."

"Sure, Murdoch." Johnny returned to grooming Barranca as Murdoch left the barn.

Scott picked out Murdoch's horse's feet. “How did the horses look?”

“A herd of beauts.” Johnny smiled from ear to ear. “You should ride out to see the babies. Long-legged little things. Look like spiders dancing around. Murdoch called 'em 'one of Lancer's treasures.'”

Scott chuckled at Johnny's Murdoch imitation. “Very good. Can you do my voice as well?”

“Maybe.” Johnny stopped brushing to grin at him. “You sure been talking at me enough the last couple weeks.”

“Did you pick out your third of the herd?”

Johnny smirked. “Oh yeah, I did. Murdoch can feed, I'll ride, and you can muck.”

Scott snickered. “I think we'll need to rotate duties to make things fair.” He went back to his own horse's stall to finish grooming him.

“We'll see what the tune-caller says about that," Johnny replied, then crooned to Barranca. “Yeah, you're a good fella. I bet you can't wait to see your mama.”

“If Barranca got his temper from his mother, that mare will be a treat,” Scott remarked.

"Maybe all he got was her eyes." Johnny joined in the chuckles those comments brought. It felt good to Scott, the start of what other brothers had, something they could laugh at together.

"The Old Man sure was something that first day."

"I can't disagree. Can't even think of a word better than 'something.'"

“I finally made you speechless, huh? Rack one up for me."

Brushing the horses, they shared a companionable silence. Scott moved to stand with his back to Johnny. He hoped Johnny's current ease would make him open to more of an exchange, especially if no one was looking at him. "Did your mother tell you Murdoch had kicked you both out?"

There was a long pause. About the time Scott was certain Johnny would not answer, he said "No. My stepfather did, but Mama never said any different.”

Scott tried to brush his horse nonchalantly as Johnny went on. “She never told me much. Just Murdoch's name, when we were yellin' at each other one day. Said I was just as bad as he was."

Scott peeked between the stall's boards at Johnny. He was busy rubbing a spot on Barranca's shoulder which looked perfectly clean.

“She never told me about you,” Johnny almost whispered.

Scott turned to cross his arms over the top of the stall wall next to Johnny, brush dangling from his right hand. “Grandfather never told me Murdoch had gotten remarried. Never told me about you.”

“You think he knew?”

“I have no idea.” Harlan twisted the truth, used misinformation. Never anything overtly illegal in his affairs, but those were often his modes of operation. Scott did not want to believe Grandfather had known about Johnny. He studied the brush in his hand. He had grown up thinking Murdoch did not want him. Questions and more questions. Some made him feel ill.

"Why did you come out here?"

Scott looked up, almost in shock. This was the first direct, personal question Johnny had asked. He preferred remarks, innuendo.

Johnny stopped brushing and caught his gaze. Scott didn't see any evidence of a cold or mocking face – only curiosity. The settled feeling from last night on the porch returned.

“There was nothing to hold me in Boston. I wanted to meet Murdoch, to see the mud hut Grandfather said he lived in.”

“Your Grandpa said that? He sure never saw Lancer.”

“As far as I know, he never has.” Scott tapped the brush against the stall wall. “Thank you for telling me about your mother."

"You sure got a lot of questions."

"You can always say you'd rather not answer."

"I never was sure why you wanted to talk to me in the first place, after working all day."

"I want to get to know you. That's how I do it. If you have anything you'd like to know, just ask."

"That's an awful lot of work. Sounds like too much talking."

Scott barked out a laugh. "Conversations should be interactive. It's how you get to know someone."

"Not used to that. If I want to be active, I'll do more than flap my jaw."

Scott pressed lips together and shook his head. "I think you know what I mean. You can practice by talking to me."

"Sure, sure."

If Johnny did have his mother's temper – which Scott assumed meant an emotional way of expressing herself – he had certainly learned to tamp it down. "We all have things we'd rather not discuss. You can say so. I would prefer you say so, rather than say nothing."

Johnny put on his emotionless look. Scott smiled again. "No silence. I am determined to get to know you."

Johnny shook his head. "You sure aren't scared of much. Only I don't see why a man like you wants to get to know me."

"You're my brother. Fate has brought us together, given us another chance. We aren't that different, you and I."

Johnny made a rude noise.

"We're the same in ways that matter. We have a chance to make something new and better for ourselves. I want the family we should have had since day one. That's my plan, and my plan involves having you in my life from now on."

"Well, you have your plan..." Johnny dropped his head, looked up at him through a fall of hair. One side of his mouth lifted.

Scott grinned. "Whatever your plan is, little brother, I do hope it's better thought out than your last one. Which ended with you getting yourself shot."

"Yeah, yeah.” Johnny shrugged, and his lopsided grin widened. “Maybe it would work better if we made a plan together."

"My thoughts exactly."

 

Chapter 10

People gathered, bringing items to share. Scott offered to help but was shooed away. Bypassing the porch where he'd eaten dinner the previous night, Scott climbed the hill beside the house. Sun-warmed rocks provided a view over the lake. He let the peace of the scene sink into him – a comforting sense of place. For the first time in a long while, he felt he was back on track toward a useful life – one where he could help others, be part of a ripple spreading out from Lancer.

Scott had reached the goal of meeting his father. The goal of family was the next step. He wanted to make a place at Lancer for himself and Johnny. The desire to reach out and connect with another person overwhelmed him, battered against the walls of constraint and civility built from childhood and reinforced to guard against more hurt and loss.

Be a man. Wasn't that what Johnny had tried to do? What Murdoch had done, declaring independence from whatever might have held him to his homeland? What he himself had done by turning his back on Boston? At sea, the urge to sail to old familiar ground was strong. He would overcome it –  must overcome it – dare to love again. To show he loved, and perhaps be loved in return, to accept the chance to fill that empty place in himself.

Jingling spurs broke the reverie. The noise stopped when Scott turned.

"Hey, Scott. OK if I join you?"

"Did they chase you off too?"

"Yeah, yeah. Not sneaky enough to get away with a taste of anything. These folks have eyes in the backs of their heads."

Scott patted the rock. "Have a seat."

Johnny hesitated, then settled down. Shoulders almost touching, they admired the view and watched the activity down by the lakeshore. The noise of splashes, laughter and shrieks sounded from the shallows where the children were playing.

"What do you make of these folks?” Johnny gestured to the people setting up for dinner.

"How do you mean?"

"They're all so different. I've never seen this many different people together, getting along. Makes me think the world got tipped on its head.”

“Down the rabbit hole.”

Johnny peered at him from under his hat brim. “Just when I think you're starting to make sense, there you go again.”

“I'll explain later. Let's start over.”

"OK. What do you think of this place?”

"A fair trade is something to admire."

"What I got to trade ain't wanted. These people are loco. First Pardee that makes it up here will wipe them out."

"I wouldn't be so sure. They seem more than ready to defend themselves. I rather admire their attempt at Utopia."

Seeing Johnny's confused look, Scott explained. "Paradise, a perfect place. Where what you know and how you can contribute are more important than what you look like or who your family is. A true heaven on earth."

"Couldn't get all to agree to what's in heaven. Those on top of the pile don't ever want to cut it down to share."

"Think of the possibility, if you could start with a blank slate. A choice to be who you want to be, to learn and make use of skills that suit you. To know you won't be taken advantage of – what you offer to do is your choice. The rest of society supports and defends you. I can't see such being successful on a grand scale, perhaps, but revolutions have started from less."

"Revolutions.... pfffft. There's always those wanting to take too much."

"Not if sharing of resources was truly equal. Some effective way for all as a group to enforce the rules, settle disputes. It would be a miracle. But what if people were given a choice from a young age? To grow up knowing everyone as an individual is valued and cherished? Not just for what you do, but for who you are? That everyone would pitch in to help? That the best you can do in life is help others, by doing what you love? To be safe knowing the only thing on the table is what you yourself want to share, not what someone wants to take from you?"

"There you go, asking more questions." Johnny fell silent.

Scott glanced at his brother, but Johnny had withdrawn. He chewed on his hat string while Scott thought about assumptions and anger, options and obligations. And second chances.

 

Chapter 11

Someone rang the dinner bell. Murdoch scouted them out as they came down the hill, and they grabbed plates and joined Murdoch and Teresa in the line moving past the loaded tables.

Dinner was well worth the wait, though he wouldn't have interrupted his talks with Johnny if they'd been called earlier. Johnny was right, talk was hard work. Scott was very hungry again. He couldn't remember a time when he'd had so many choices, so many different flavors.

After eating, the others drifted off. Scott was content to sit and watch the crowd as the daylight waned.

Later, Johnny called Scott over. He was sitting with an elderly gentleman dressed as a vaquero.

"Look at this." Johnny handed Scott a headstall.

Braiding was a skill practiced by many of the hands on Lancer. It was a point of pride to make tack from rawhide, leather and your own horse's hair. Scott had seen headstalls like it, but not any made this well.

"Pancho makes 'em. Sells 'em. How he supports himself and his family, does his part to pitch in. But he said he's having more and more trouble getting town folk to look. They usually chase him off. If they do look, what they want to pay isn't worth his time anymore."

Another talent wasted, more prejudice. Scott supposed he should feel angry, but he only felt sad. So much knowledge, so many traditions dying out. "I could take them,” he offered. “I could sell them for him. I would not accept less than a decent price."

Johnny grinned. "Maybe it ain't so bad, having a gringo in the family," he teased. Scott grimaced and back-handed Johnny's shoulder. Johnny ducked his head, then launched into rapid talk with Pancho, proposing the idea, discussing options.

Scott shook his head. The price the man wanted was too low. He let the Spanish wash over him as he calculated a more appropriate one. Pancho should be paid not just for the tack, but for his time and effort to make it. For the years spent learning and perfecting his craft.

The headstall was utilitarian, but a work of art. The braiding so even and tight, individual parts were seamless in the dim light. Created to honor one's self and one's horse. It was a shame to use it when it was a masterpiece rating space in a gallery. He hoped Pancho had found someone who wanted to learn the method. He started to ask and saw Johnny and Pancho looking at him expectantly.

He must have missed a question from one of them. "Pardon?"

"Well, what do you think of it?" Johnny indicated the bridle and the other pieces within view with a sweep of his hand.

Scott looked down, turning the headstall with reverence. He searched for the Spanish word he wanted to say but didn't know it for sure. Likely it was close to the Latin, but he could not remember it being on any required vocabulary list. He hoped a guess from French would prove close. “Exquis-o.”

“Exquisito,” Johnny corrected. Scott nodded and echoed the word.

Pancho peered at him, then gave a toothy grin, eyes sparkling. "¿Quién eres tú?"

Before Scott could answer, Johnny grabbed him round the shoulders and patted him firmly on the chest. "Esto es Scott, él es mi hermano."

Chapter 12

Breakfast the next morning was quiet. Johnny and Scott had both slept in, though not as late as yesterday. Teresa and Murdoch had already eaten and were off somewhere getting ready to leave. Others were doing chores, which included getting two pack horses loaded with items to send to friends and family at Lancer, as well as Pancho's collection of tack for Scott.

Murdoch poked his head in the door. "Saddle up, boys. We'll leave as soon as you're ready. We'll say our good-byes when we meet up with everyone out at the horse herd."

Scott and Johnny quick-stepped to the barn and made short work of following the order. Scott secured his saddlebags and led his horse toward the barn door, only to find his way blocked by his brother.

Johnny looked him up and down. Scott cocked an eyebrow.

"You sure have changed, Scott. You're not the same man as that Fancy Dan on the stage."

"And you, John, are much less irritating than I would ever have thought possible, after running into that seat-hogging stranger on the stage."

Johnny beamed. "We sure are a pair."

"That we are."

"You think we can get this family thing figured out?"

Scott grinned back. "I'd say so. We are two astute and canny men."

"Someday you'll have to tell me what all those twenty-dollar words mean."

"Lancer has shelves of books with words I'd like to share with you, including the one about rabbit holes."

"Don't suppose there's anything I could teach a smart man like you."

"Actually, there is. I was hoping you would introduce me to that great Western institution: our local saloon."

"What? You mean you ain't been to town yet?"

"Haven't had the time. Been too busy repairing our property."

"We'll take time."

They left the barn side-by-side, horses trailing behind. "We've missed out on more than twenty years. That's a lot of time to make up."

"You mean by the time we do, I'll get to call you Old Man." A cheeky grin, and Johnny punched his arm.

"Oh no, little brother." Scott flung an arm tight around Johnny's neck. “It means you'll be dancing to my tune.”

Johnny squawked, then grabbed back, almost unbalancing Scott. "I like dancing to my own tune, big brother."

They pushed and shoved as they made their way toward where Murdoch waited.

The memory of holding Johnny over his shoulder, dead weight and bleeding, faded. Scott preferred this live, boisterous, annoying, elbowing... well, maybe not elbowing...

"Boys." The voice cut through, stopped Scott short – their father, impossibly large on horseback.

Scott straightened his hat and looked up at Murdoch, apology for his behavior coming automatically. "Sir..."

Johnny let go, hair wild and shirt untucked. "Hey, Murdoch." Irrepressible, Johnny pulled his hat back on, jammed his shirttail in where it belonged and swung up onto Barranca. "Let's go home."

Murdoch watched Johnny ride away. The craggy face contorted, creaked, shifted.

Scott watched in fascination, illogically worried something would crack as muscles tried to remember their job. He had never seen Murdoch with a smile that... vast.

Murdoch swung to Scott. They locked gazes for what seemed an eternity. "Let's go home, son."

Shaken and blinking rapidly, Scott turned away and mounted his horse.

He'd seen that look in other fathers' eyes, for their sons. A strange mixture of exasperation, happiness and... love?

                                                       ===========

Rio sank gracefully to the ground as the gunshot echoed back from the cliffs. Death has come again, so much a part of life it is hard to feel grief – only relief for reaching the expected and planned loss of one who is ready to depart.

Pelicans circle overhead. Odd, that. I don't recall seeing pelicans here before.

A surge of love for this place, these people, fills me.

 

 

~end~
October 2017

A/N: All characters except those who appear in the Lancer series are figments of my imagination. Except for Rio. He was real. Pelicans did appear at his death. Afterwards, I looked in Ted Andrew's “Animal-Speak” which said in part: “Emotions often weigh us down. The pelican teaches how not to be overcome by them.”
Searching for more about pelicans while writing this story, I found: “Pelican speaks of the group dynamic, shared responsibilities, and making the most of what we have been given. The spirit of cooperation ensures abundance for all.” http://spiritcaat.com/spiritcaatblog/animal-spirit-guide-pelican
A tip of the hat to Eric Frank Russell's “The Great Explosion.”
Many thanks to NokuMarieDeux for being so sure I could write, and planting the first seed. Thanks to Starlit Drifter for kick-starting my muse, for the beta and invaluable conversations. Thanks to StarGzer who not only beta'd but also gave useful and sage advice. Thanks to NokuMarieDeux and JyaGhost who gave the almost-final draft a once-over.

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