The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Suzanne

 

 

Chase A Wild Horse WHN: The Choice
An episode tag for Chase a Wild Horse

“One runs the risk of weeping a little if one allows himself to be tamed.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

 

“Scott, will you keep still.”

“It’s too quiet out there. I don’t like it.” Scott craned his neck to try and see outside from his position on the couch.

Teresa put her hands on her hips and looked down at him, reminding Scott very  much of his old nanny in one of her moods. “I told you, Murdoch’s out there with Johnny.”

He looked at his right arm, no longer encased in his shirt. It wasn’t bleeding now. “It’s just a scrape, Teresa. It’s only creased a couple of layers. It hardly warrants major surgery.”

“I didn’t say it did,” she snapped. “Just lie still while I get some water and a bandage.”

He looked up quickly. There’d been a distinct  waiver in those last few words. “I’m sorry.” And he tried to sound it. He motioned with his head towards the kitchen. “But be quick then.”

He got up and walked to the window as soon as she was gone, the empty sleeve of  his shirt hung loose. But with the curtains and the distance he couldn’t see anything unusual.

Well, at least Johnny was back. And that was something he hadn’t been sure of when he’d left the Red Dog.

Funny thing is he would never have seen Johnny if Hank hadn’t told him a fellow with a foreign accent wanted to meet with Scott in town.

He pressed both hands to his face then rubbed them up and down. Had it been only yesterday?

He’d been intrigued. He knew more than one man with a European accent - supposing that’s what Hank had heard – but none had made their way from Boston to Morro Coyo. Murdoch had him surveying the southern-most corner of Lancer and that meant only a short ride into Morro Coyo, so he’d ridden in to town to see if he could find the man.

And find him he did. ‘Miller’ he said his name was. It didn’t mean anything to Scott, although the waiter at the hotel seemed to be treating  him with some deference. The cut of his suit was excellent and his shoes most likely Italian leather. Mr Miller had expensive tastes all right.

Scott heard him out—just to be polite—then he stood to go without proffering his hand. “Mr Miller, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure to meet you. Good day, sir.”

And that was when he found Johnny.

At least Miller didn’t appear to have offered his deal to Johnny. The mood Johnny was in, he might well have taken it. A man with only a few dollars in his pocket could be tempted to sell just about anything—even a third share of a ranch…

He stood still and listened of a sudden.

Surely that was riders galloping into the yard?

He shrugged his shirt back on and grabbed his gun from the table near the couch as voices started calling out. He knew that shiftless Samuel Stryker wouldn’t give up so easily. He tried to warn Murdoch not to trust him. And where was Johnny? They’d gun him down like a stray dog without turning a hair if...

“Scott, what are you doing?”

He checked his gun, spinning the chamber to ensure it was loaded. “There’s trouble out there, Theresa.”

“Scott, it’s just the work crew returning from the gully.”

Scott stopped and listened some more. He could hear three voices. Perhaps four.

And he knew everyone one of them.

What a relief.

The next moment he was putting a hand on the side table to steady himself. For some reason the room was beginning to tilt.

Teresa put a hand on his arm. “Come back and sit down. You probably hit your head when you fell.”

He let her lead him back over to the couch. “That gully was a stupid place to graze the herd. Not as if there wasn’t a blade of green grass anywhere else on the whole da...whole ranch.”

Teresa wet her cloth in the bowl of water she’d placed on the side table while he slipped his arm out of his shirt again. He clenched his fist a few times. His arm was beginning to feel stiff.

Teresa began dabbing. “I hate those Strykers.”

Scott raised his eyebrows. She didn’t usually speak with such venom. “You and me both. If ever a family was aptly named. What kind of father eggs his son on to shoot someone in the back?”

“I know,” Teresa breathed out. Her eyes were a mixture of terror and thrills. “Johnny must be so fast. They say he turned and drew his gun quicker than lightning.”

“I suppose he is that fast.” He tried to sound as matter-of-fact as possible. He’d heard the talk around the hands as well. Scott was no ghoul but truth be told, considering Johnny’s fame in these parts, it would have been educational to see his brother in action when he shot young Stryker. Of course, he wasn’t going to tell Teresa that.

“You look tired, Teresa.”

A sadness tinged her eyes. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

He’d seen her woebegone face at breakfast. Her eyes looked like they’d shed plenty of tears in the night.

“You’re quite a girl you know,” he told her gently. “I don’t know a single woman in Boston who’d be stoically tending my arm after all this. They’d all be reaching for the smelling salts.”

She started to giggle. “Like Mrs Matheson in town. She carries them in her reticule and calls out for them at the slightest thing. The other day it was because a dog started barking at her.”

Scott laughed, only Mrs Matheson was about as unlike the Boston ladies he had in mind as you could possibly think of.

She started wrapping the bandage around his upper arm. “Murdoch hasn’t been sleeping either, Scott.”

“I know. I heard him pacing the floor at sunrise. But if it makes you feel any better, I don’t think Johnny got any sleep in town.”

“I think there are some things I’d rather not know, Scott.” Her voice sounded very prim, very unlike Teresa.

He looked at her—twice. Her cheeks had gone red.

“I meant he had the look of someone who’d been up all night – drinking,” he hastened to say.

“Oh.”

“Supposedly, he and Wes were having a great time.”

“But maybe he wasn’t?” A flicker of hope lifted her brows.

“You know Johnny. He won’t let anyone see his cards.”

“I hate that Wes. Johnny was happy before Wes came and filled his head with how good their life used to be.”

Scott raised an eyebrow as he looked at her. She wouldn’t meet his gaze—but she coloured again as she ripped the end of the bandage and tied it around his arm. “I didn’t hear much. I walked away when I heard what Wes was saying. He’s not very discreet though, is he. Not like Johnny. He won’t tell me anything about his past or how he lived.”

“In spite of your feelings on the matter, I think it’s to Johnny’s credit that he’s circumspect in that regard.” He shrugged his sleeve back on and did up the buttons but when he looked up she was still looking troubled. “And don’t you go pestering him on that score, either. Now that he’s back, we want him to stay.”

She knelt back on her heels, keeping her eyes on the hands in her lap. “That’s if he will stay.”

He put a finger beneath her chin and forced her to look up. “I have a feeling there’s something you think I should know.”

“I don’t know if I should tell you or not.” Her fists bunched tight but her gaze into his eyes never wavered. “Johnny might have been killed today because of me.”

At first he was tempted to hush her words as nonsensical but she’d proven more than once in his time here that there was little of the nonsensical in Teresa O’Brien. “Teresa, I think you’d better start at the beginning.”

She took a deep breath. “It was just before you came in from outside. Murdoch was trying to get Johnny to leave before those awful Strykers knew he was here. Oh, Scott...he said the most dreadful things.”

****

Johnny wasn’t inside the hacienda and Scott had already searched the grounds. That left the barn.

He followed a trail of sticky black drops in the dirt on his way. He was damned lucky precious little of his own blood had flowed.

Half a dozen hands were milling around. The older ones talked in monosyllables to the ground while the younger two had fever bright eyes and shrill voices. Hank cuffed one on the back of the head when he saw Scott approaching, his hand continuing upwards in a smooth move as if was always intending to adjust his hat.

Scott stopped in front of them. “I’m looking for Johnny.”

“He’s in the barn,” young Barney said with a jerk of his head in that direction. And that explained why they were all standing this side of the barn door, rather than inside.

Scott nodded. His arm throbbed and he scowled.  “Haven’t you men got some work you’re meant to be doing?”

They shuffled off but Barney’s voice started up again as soon as he turned away. “You seen the way Johnny grabbed one of them Strykers? I thought for sure he was gonna put a bullet in that one’s head. You see that look in his eyes? Like the devil…”

The sound of a whack told Scott it took another cuff, probably from Hank, to shut him up.

Scott paused and looked at the barn. When he walked in he made sure he made plenty of noise as he went. Even then, he still caught Johnny leaning on a stall partition, chin resting on his arms. He made no sign he’d seen Scott but there might have been something a little too controlled in the way Johnny straightened and reached for the brush balancing on the divider.

Scott clamped a hand on Johnny’s arm.“Teresa told me what happened back there…with Murdoch.” Every muscle in Johnny’s arm felt taut and hard.

“T’resa talks too much. How’s your arm doin’?”

“Did you talk to him, Johnny? Teresa told me how it was. He was scared for you. He wanted to get you away from the Strykers.”

“The old man’s out there somewhere. He’s been busy making sure the Strykers left.”

“The things he said…he didn’t mean them.”

A flicker of a smile crossed Johnny’s face. “If I thought he meant them, I wouldn’t be here now, would I.”

“I wouldn’t be here either, if it’s any comfort to you.”

For a second their eyes locked but the next instant Johnny pulled away from his grasp and turned to Barranca. “Anyway, I gotta get Barranca bedded down.”

Scott pressed his lips together,, watching him brush Barranca’s neck. He could feel a familiar frustration rip through him. “Johnny—.”

“Wes is dead.”

“What?” Scott’s mouth fell open. The words had come out of the blue,  spoken in a voice so soft he barely caught what was said.“Wes?” He couldn’t have heard right.

Johnny grabbed a fistful of Barranca’s mane.“That Wes, worst damn horse breaker I ever saw. Never could teach him to take it slow.”

“What happened?”

Johnny stared at Barranca’s neck. “It was right after you left. He took it into his head that he was gonna be the one to break the stallion. I didn’t take him all that seriously, you know? Just figured he was gonna mess with it a bit.”

Johnny stopped, the brush held still in his hands…his eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. “I got there too late.”

Scott grimaced. He knew what ‘too late’ felt like. Damn it. Wes was dead. Cock-sure, answer-for-everything, Wes. From the time he showed up at Lancer, he seemed to have a hold on Johnny that Scott just couldn’t fathom. Johnny, who never seemed to like taking orders from anyone, could be swayed by Wes to go into town when he was dead tired or take all sorts of risks that Scott thought were just plain foolish—all under Wes’s guise of ‘havin’ a bit a’ fun.’

And now he was dead.

And Johnny was clearly hurting.

He half reached out his hand, then dropped it again. “I’m sorry, brother, damned sorry.”

Johnny nodded.

”You want me to finish up here for you?”

“Nope. I can do it.”

Scott stood there for a moment. Wes was dead. It just didn’t seem possible. For a moment, he wasn’t sure of what he should do. Go and find Murdoch, he supposed.

He turned around to go out but…

It was all so much clearer now; Wes dying...then Johnny coming back. The link between the two actions was unmistakeable.

He spun on his heels, back to Johnny. “So that’s why you came back – because of what happened to Wes?” Perhaps he should have tried harder to keep the harshness from his tone but how stupid he’d been to think Johnny had come back because there was something to come back to. That maybe Scott’s words in town had made sense. It looked like Johnny hadn’t learned a thing after all.

Johnny looked up. There was a glint in his eyes. “What are you talking about?”

“I thought you’d come back because...” Damn it, he wanted to say ‘because we meant something to you...because Lancer meant something. “Because...” he waved a hand around, “Because this is the best thing that ever happened to you.”

“It wasn’t just Wes.” Johnny blew out a breath. “Sure, that was part of it but sometimes I’m so stubborn I need a crack on the  head to make me see sense.”

The fire still burned inside Scott. “So...?”

“You’re not making this any easier for me, are you.”

“Should I?”

“Hell, Scott, I’ve done plenty of things I’m not proud of. I guess I didn’t want to add to them. I’ve been in more fights than I can count when I knew I couldn’t win.” Johnny fixed his eyes on Barranca’s neck again. “I’ve never run away from a challenge. Guess I’m not about to start now.”

“You made Teresa cry all night long.”

“Did she?” Johnny looked surprised.

“Well, what were you expecting? That you can just walk out of our lives like that? Like you’d never been here?” Scott took a breath and some of that fire inside him died down.

But damn it, he didn’t want Johnny back by default. And he understood now why Murdoch didn’t either. For all Murdoch’s talk about arms, legs and guts that first meeting, what he really wanted was something much harder to give.

“Your words pack a mean punch, brother.” Johnny’s mouth twisted in something of a smile.

“Like you said, sometimes you need a crack on the head.”

“And you think you’re just the man to do it.”

Scott shook his head. “I don’t know. But maybe you’ll get past thirty after all.” He put his hand out. “Welcome home, brother.”

Johnny didn’t hesitate, he took Scott’s hand in that firm grip of his. And it felt a whole lot better than the handshake in the saloon yesterday.

“So where’s Wes now?  I mean, what happened when…?”

The bleak look rose in Johnny’s eyes again. “I left him in town. Sold his horse and tack to pay the undertaker. I already told Murdoch.”

“Rider coming! Rider coming!”

Scott ran outside, with Johnny on his heels. They both gazed towards the Lancer arch. But it wasn’t a rider. It was a man in a buggy and his appearance was so different to the Strykers that there shouldn’t be the least reason to worry.

Hank stopped him as he came to the end of the driveway. Scott could hear him respectfully asking the man what his business might be.

“I’ve come to talk to Murdoch Lancer. On business.”

Now why would Miller be coming to talk to Murdoch? “Have you seen that man before, Johnny?”

“Who, him?” Johnny stared at Miller as he got out of his buggy. He shook his head. “Nope. Who is he?”

Scott felt a rush of relief. “No-one you have to worry about.”

****

Supper was a quiet affair that night. Murdoch scarcely said a word. Teresa looked like she should have been in bed an hour ago and Johnny didn’t even show.

Scott had tried to talk to Murdoch but Miller stayed a good hour and it was time for supper when he left.

He wasn’t sure if Murdoch had had a chance to talk to Johnny. If he had his way he’d lock the two of them in a room together and force them to talk.

Finally, Teresa went to bed and he was alone with Murdoch in the great room. It was too warm for a fire but he wished one was burning there right now. An empty grate was a friendless place.

Murdoch still seemed a million miles away. Scott had poured them both a whisky but Murdoch’s was still untouched in his hand.

Scott put his empty glass down on the side table and stood by the fireplace. “I thought you would have been happy now that Johnny was back.” Not that he’d been all that happy the last few weeks when Johnny had been here.

Murdoch sighed. “I am, Scott. I am.”

“You don’t look it.”

Murdoch stood up and walked across to the window. His normally straight shoulders seemed to droop.

Something began to stir in Scott’s gut. Something wasn’t right. This was more than just worry about Johnny.

“Murdoch, is something wrong? Something other than this business with Johnny and the Strykers.” Oh God. He suddenly went cold. “Murdoch, they won’t hang Johnny for murder will they? There were plenty of witnesses. Surely it was self-defence?”

“What?” Murdoch turned around at last. “No, Scott. It’s nothing like that. But it’s something I should have told you a few weeks ago.”

“Well, I’m standing here now. This seems like a good a time as any.”

“I believe Frederick Miller spoke to you in town.”

Scott nodded. “That’s right, he offered to buy my third of the ranch. Naturally, I turned him down.”

Murdoch lit one of the lamps by the couch. He watched the match burn in his finger for a few seconds before blowing it out. “What you don’t know,” he said heavily, “is that I’ve already sold my third.”

“What?” Scott shook his head and straightened up. This was the second time today he must have heard wrong. It had to be wrong. “You’ve sold your third of Lancer?”

Murdoch blew out a deep breath and stuck his hands in his pocket. It was as if he couldn’t bring himself to look at Scott. “It’s not quite as simple as all that.”

“Then it would be good if you could explain to me what selling a third of the ranch actually means.”

Murdoch turned around and leaned against the edge of his desk. “I won’t lie to you, Scott, we’ve been struggling the last six months thanks to Pardee’s tactics. We haven’t been able to get our beef to market and you saw what Pardee did to our grain harvest.”

“Which explains why those fifty head of beef were especially important.”

“I didn’t even have the two thousand to offer to you and Johnny,” he said, softly.

Scott sat down. It was as if his legs had given out on him. He had a feeling this was going to be bad. “So you borrowed the money?” He tried to keep his voice steady, matter-of-fact.

“Miller came into the valley a few years ago. He’s been buying up properties. His usual angle is offering to buy a share of a ranch, then he gets the other partners to sell to him as well.”

“So you sold your share?”

Murdoch put up his hand. “Not so fast. No I didn’t sell my share but I did take out a mortgage on my share. I was so sure I had time to pay it off. Miller kept saying he wouldn’t foreclose. That he wasn’t interested in owning Lancer.”

“And you believed him?”

“Teresa’s father was dead. I was bedridden with a bullet in my back. I had hands quitting on a daily basis.” Murdoch shook his head. “Desperate men take foolish chances.”

“Well, how much are we talking?”

“Twenty thousand dollars.”

“So that’s what all the surveying and bookwork and fencing has been about?”

“Well, the fence work we always do but yes, I was planning to sell some land around north mesa. I even had a buyer for it—until Miller told me today the man had backed out and decided not to buy.”

Scott curled his lips. “You mean this Miller persuaded the man not to buy.”

Murdoch simply shrugged. He looked beaten.

“Why didn’t you tell me all this before?”

“I didn’t want to burden you with my problems. It’s not as if any of this was your fault. You both did your part by helping me be rid of Pardee.”

“I suppose Johnny doesn’t know either?”

“No.”

“He needs to be told.”

“Scott, what good would that do? After all that’s happened… I don’t want him blaming himself in any way.”

“Murdoch, a third of a ranch entails a third of the worry—and a third of the problem solving, not to mention a third of the hard work. What was the deal you made with Miller?”

“I had until the end of this month.”

“That’s tomorrow. And then?”

“The money had to be repaid in full.”

“How far short are you?”

“Too much.”

“Murdoch?”

“Ten thousand.”

Scott nodded, careful to appear non-committal.  It wasn’t as large a sum as he’d feared but then trying to raise ten dollars can be a king’s ransom when you have nothing at all.

“So, our coffers are empty?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that but we don’t have the remaining ten thousand.”

Scott thought quickly. It wasn’t a big amount for his grandfather. “I could get a loan from...”

Murdoch thumped the desk with his fist so hard Scott suspected he might have bruised his hand. “Scott I wouldn’t take a single cent from your grandfather if my life depended on it.”

“And you tried...”

“Everything, every banker, every money lender.” Murdoch sighed again. “I suspect Miller has a lot of contacts. Scott, it’s not the end of the world. It’s only a third. I can buy it back. I’m not happy about it of course but...well, I’ve lost land and bought it back before.”

But Scott knew it was more than just the land—now it wouldn’t be the three of them as owners. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference to him and Johnny, but Scott knew Murdoch would feel it keenly. And just how difficult was Miller going to be as a partner? What a damnable mess.

“What about Johnny? When will you tell, him?”

Murdoch was back staring out the window. “Not tonight. He’s got enough to deal with right now.”

****

Scott woke in the night. His nightshirt felt damp and his arm throbbed and the first thought that crashed into his mind was Murdoch selling his share.

He kicked his covers off and stared at the ceiling. What was it his grandfather had prophesied; that he’d be so bored in two months he’d come rushing back to Boston? No chance of that.

He’d lain awake in bed for hours, waiting to hear Johnny come  home. If his brother had come in, he hadn’t heard it.

Well, he might as well give up on sleep. He’d find some fresh cold water in the kitchen. He pulled on his pants and shirt and wandered downstairs.

The kitchen was in darkness but a small amount of moonlight made its way through the window.

Something made Scott stop at the doorway. Sure enough, when he looked in, he saw Johnny alone in the room, sitting at the table with an unopened bottle of Tequila and a glass.

Scott hesitated. Maybe his brother didn’t want company. Not when he was like this.

“Come on in, Scott.”

Johnny didn’t look up, just waved him in.

 “Johnny…” He wanted to apologise but wasn’t quite sure what to say. He felt bad walking in on Johnny like this.

Johnny ran the sleeve of his shirt over his eyes. “It’s okay, Scott. I ain’t embarrassed. It ain’t right for a man to die and no one shed a tear or two for him.”

“It’s the least a man deserves at his passing, Johnny.”

“I just thought I’d have a drink to old Wes. He was a good friend. Had my back more times than I can count.”

“You mind if I take a seat or would you rather...”

“Sure.” Johnny kicked out a chair for Scott with his foot, then leaned across to the sideboard and snagged another glass.

“I never really got to know him but I know he meant a lot to you.”

“Yeah, we had some times together all right. Stupid Wes.”

Scott winced at the burst of anger. But he could understand it.

Finally Johnny opened the bottle, poured two glasses, then passed one to Scott.

He held his glass up as did Scott. “To Wes.”

“To Wes.”

“Worst damn horse breaker in the West.”

****

It was well before noon when Murdoch rode into Morro Coyo the following morning.

Johnny had sold whatever Wes owned to pay the undertaker but his tack was old and the horse wasn’t much better than crowbait.

It would cover the cost of a pine box and the basic undertaker’s work but he had Hank ride into town yesterday afternoon after Johnny had told him in a halting voice what had happened. The boy was miserable with grief. Murdoch had given Hank enough money to give Wes the kind of send-off a man who worked for Lancer deserved.

“You don’t have to do that Murdoch,” Johnny had said. “Wes wasn’t working for Lancer when he died.”

“Lancer always looks after their own, Johnny. And if he’s a friend of yours, then he’s one of ours.”

Johnny nodded. Then they’d both stood by the corral and watched the Strykers ride away. There was only the smallest cloud of dust  in the distance now to show where they’d been and soon that too would disappear. But how long would it take for the damage they caused to be undone?

And would he ever find the right words to talk to Johnny? He could feel Johnny’s presence by his side. The longer the silence lasted, the more awkward it all became.

“Murdoch.” “Johnny.”

They both looked awkwardly at each other with a strained smile. Had it only been yesterday he’d given Johnny the watch? Told him what a fine job he’d been doing?

“Johnny, those things I said...”

“Murdoch, if it’s okay, I don’t feel much like talking right now.”

And he felt something of a coward but he hadn’t pressed any further. They’d have their talk when Johnny was feeling more up to it. The boy looked drained.

Well, he hadn’t had a chance at breakfast and so he’d ridden into Morro Coyo.

He was passing the livery when a voice called, “Howdy, Mr Lancer.”

Murdoch looked around to see who it was. “Dan Spencer, isn’t it? How’s business been going since you took over the livery from old Ben?”

“Oh, not bad. Not bad. Course we had a bit of excitement here th’other day. Sad state of affairs.”

Murdoch nodded, barely slowing his stride as he walked past the livery stable on his way to the undertakers.

“That boy a’yours can sure ride!”

Murdoch’s ears pricked and he stopped, half turning. “My son? Scott?”

“Loco, that’s what it was, gettin’ on the back of an animal like that. Plumb crazy. Still, I reckon that’s what he was in his head—seein’ his friend get killed that way an’all.”

“Johnny?” Murdoch breathed out.

“Yup, musta shook him up pretty bad. I thought fer sure he was gonna blow the stallion’s brains out. He sure looked mad enough. He had killin’ in his eyes all right.”

Murdoch turned fully now—his attention fixed on the livery owner. “What’s that you’re saying?”

“But I wasn’t trying to take advantage of him none, if that’s what you’re thinking. I gave him a good price for the watch in the first place.”

Murdoch stood still. “The watch?”

“Yeah, that old gold watch of his. It weren’t new or anything. I gave him fifteen dollars for it. Counted the money into his hand myself.”

Something heavy dropped in Murdoch’s stomach and settled there. “He sold it?”

“That’s what I’m telling you but…”

Murdoch turned away. There was no reason Johnny should be sentimental about the watch. He’d never told Johnny where it came from—that his father had given it to him the day he set sail from Inverness. And he gave it to Johnny with no strings attached. It was foolish of him to think it would stay in the family. It was just a watch. It shouldn’t matter what happened to it.

“Thanks for telling me, Dan.”

“Something wrong, Mr Lancer?”

“No. Nothing.”

Except that he almost got run down by a passing wagon as he crossed the road.

His feet found their own way to the undertakers and managed to avoid any more wagons, which was provident, and he went inside.

Miles O’Riley smiled a great deal for a man who dealt with people who weren’t likely to smile back—neither the living nor the dead.

“Mr Lancer. Top o’ the mornin’ to you, sir.”

“You have a friend of my son’s in your care. I’m here to see he gets the treatment he deserves.”

“And what treatment would th’at be?”

Murdoch stared at him. “The treatment he deserves as a friend of my son.”

“Oh, aye. Indeed. That treatment.” He winked at Murdoch then the humour dropped from his face, he straightened the front of his vest and lowered his chin to his chest. “And did you want to be seeing the young fellow, sir?”

He blinked the once. “Yes.”

O’Riley lifted an eyebrow and then that smile swarmed across his face again. “T’would be a pity if no-one saw all me fine work, that it would.”

He held out his hand for Murdoch to precede him through the door behind the front counter but Murdoch gave him a curt nod. “After you.”

One of the rooms out back was covered in sawdust and pieces of wood. Murdoch caught site of a sideboard with some detailed carvings. O’Brien was known to be an excellent cabinetmaker even if he was a first class swindler. Murdoch knew he’d paid more for the coffin and O’Brien’s services than need be, but it was a well-known fact most undertakers  took advantage of a grieving soul.

O’Riley beamed and opened the door. “Here he is, sir. And t’was a sad ending for one so young. As my good father used to say, thirst is the end of drinking and sorrow is the end of drunkenness. And my father should know.”

“He’s dead?”

“Never combed a grey hair because of his drinking.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh, don’t be, Mr Lancer, my father was bald as a badger in any case.” O’Riley winked, then slipped back into his undertaker’s voice, “I’ll be leaving you to it. You might want to say a prayer for the poor laddie.”

Murdoch turned back to Wes.

Wes.

He didn’t even know the man’s surname. In death he looked even less like a man who needed one than he did when he was alive.

He supposed he should say a prayer but he could only think of one thing to say.

“Thank you, Lord, that it isn’t my Johnny lying here.”

****

Murdoch had just rounded the corner and was about to step up on the boardwalk when someone grabbed his arm and hauled him into the alley way.

“Aggie…” he began to splutter but got no further than that because she clamped her hand over his mouth.

“Hush, Murdoch. He’ll hear you.”

She took her hand away so Murdoch followed her lead and peered around the corner. There was only one person in clear view—a nattily dressed gentleman in a derby and suit, carrying a brown leather case.

“Just look at him, Murdoch, darned primped up popinjay. Did you ever see anyone look more ridiculous.”

“To be fair, he looks like most other lawyers I’ve come across.”

“Fiddlesticks. The man’s nothing but a…a…” Aggie stamped her foot. “A flannel-mouthed mush-head.”

Murdoch bit the corner of his mouth to try and hold back his smile. “No doubt he’ll be a smooth talker, but it’s unlikely the man will be a fool.”

“Hush, he’s coming this way.”

Murdoch watched the man with more than a little interest. Right now, his entire future probably rested in the leather case the man carried. Good God. A clutch of despair gripped his heart.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Aggie bend down but it wasn’t until she drew her arm back that he realised what she was doing. And by then it was too late.

Aggie had always been blessed with a good aim. The pebble hit the man just under his right ear, going by the way he put his hand up to his neck as if he’d had a sudden bite.

Aggie was chortling with glee and Murdoch only pulled her back just in time when the man looked in their direction. “Come with me, young lady.” Murdoch grabbed Aggie by the hand and hurried her down the alley. After a near run-in with a growling three-legged dog and numerous chickens pecking at the odd tufts of grass and various food scraps, they entered Rosita’s Café a few doors down, via the back door. If Rosita, thought their entrance via this route a trifle unusual, she didn’t say anything. Her welcome was as cheerful as ever as Murdoch and Aggie followed her to one of the dining alcoves away from the front windows.

Aggie let Murdoch push her chair in as she sat. “You know you’re no fun at all sometimes.” When he didn’t answer immediately her eyes filled with concern. “Oh, Murdoch, is it as bad as all that?”

He took his seat slowly. He felt very old of a sudden. “Aggie, I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my head above water this time.”

“Murdoch, you’ve got to. Now that the boys are back and Pardee’s gone…”

“I’m finding it a little hard to appreciate the irony of the situation right now. Pardee tries to steal my ranch, we defeat him, only to have a third of it snatched from me by a fellow rancher.”

“I heard about what happened.”

“You mean the Stryker boy?”

She nodded.

Murdoch pressed his lips together. “As usual, good news travels fast. I suppose everyone’s bleating about my having a hired killer on my ranch.”

Aggie’s eyes sparkled. “They might be but I rather fancy most of the people I talked to were disappointed they hadn’t been there to witness it.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows shot up.

“After all, it’s not every day a person gets to see a famed pistolero at work. And besides, those Strykers have been causing trouble for months. My foreman had to run them off my ranch after they insisted four of my new calves had escaped from their non-existent herd.”

“That sounds like them all right. The old man had more hide than a buffalo.”

Aggie started to giggle. “Oh Murdoch, you should have seen him insisting they were part of a drive.”

“I’d say the only thing they knew about cattle was how to skin and cook them.”

“If they ever got near a herd, the smell of those boys would be enough to start a stampede.”

Rosita brought them their pie and coffee. Aggie had two mouthfuls and a sip of her coffee then put her fork down. “

“Do the boys know how tight things are?”

“I didn’t want to worry them but it’s come to a head and I’ve told Scott.”

“Oh, Murdoch. They both need to know.”

Murdoch pushed his pie around his plate. His stomach was too twisted to eat. “I’m losing them, Aggie.”

“Murdoch?”

“Johnny left. It’s probably only a matter of time before Scott leaves as well.”

“Not Johnny.”

He heard the hurt in her voice. When he looked up she had tears in her eyes.

He quickly put a hand over hers. “He came back this morning. But for how long? Every time I look at him I can’t help but see…”

“Murdoch, Johnny is not Maria. You have to stop torturing yourself with this.”

“When he told me he was going I almost felt relieved—relieved that the thing I’ve been dreading all these months had finally happened.”

“But you asked him to stay, didn’t you? Didn’t you tell him how much you needed him? How much you loved him?” she added, softly.

Murdoch closed his eyes. He could remember every single word of that conversation with Johnny. Remembered how he had to clench his arm to stop his hand from shaking as he handed Johnny his wages. “I made that mistake with Maria. I couldn’t make the same mistake with my son.”

“Murdoch, I don’t understand.”

“Scott didn’t understand either.” He sighed and took a gulp of coffee. “Is it right if someone only stays because they feel trapped? I stayed at home a year longer than I wanted to, regretting every single sunset because it meant another day that I wasn’t fulfilling my dream. I’d watch the train steam past from the top of our hill and I started to hate my father. I’ve thought about him a lot these last few days. Funny how love can look like a cage. I didn’t want that for Johnny. If he’s ever going to put his past behind him, it has to be his choice. His will. I don’t want to break him into something he’s not.”

Aggie squeezed his hand. “There’s nothing sadder than a wild bird beating against its cage.”

“But what a joy in the bird that takes to the sky then returns to its perch because it wants to.”

“But Johnny came back.”

Yes, and he damn near drove him away again. And how could he explain all that to Johnny? That all he could see was Johnny lying dead on the dirt like the Stryker boy? That he’d panicked. He couldn’t remember being so scared. Was he going to lose his son all over again?

“Murdoch, what is it?”

He shook his head. “I’m not very good at this business of being a father.”

“You’ll learn. Give yourself time.”

“Aggie, I think time is the one thing I don’t have. Miller is foreclosing tomorrow.”

Aggie put both hands to her mouth. “You tried every bank?”

“From here to San Francisco. Once Bueller backed out of the deal to sell those acres by north mesa, I was in trouble. And Miller knows it.”

Aggie jabbed the last of her pie with her fork, clearly hoping it was Miller on her plate. “I hate that man.”

“He’s a clever business man, all right. He’ll be owning half the valley in a few years’ time.”

“He’s a thief and a swindler.”

“Remember it’s only a third of the ranch.” He tried to smile. Truth was losing that third was going to make it very difficult to run the rest of the ranch, not to mention having to deal with Miller’s intervention. Damn the man.

“And that’s a third too much,” she snapped. “If only I had the money I’d give it to you myself.”

“Times are lean. I know that. Well, I’ll just have to make the best of things, won’t I.”

She pushed her half-eaten pie away. “I hate having to make the best of things.”

 

****

They buried Wes on Lancer—on Johnny’s ‘third’ of the ranch. Murdoch couldn’t help but think this might be the last event held at Lancer with him as owner. A funeral felt apt.

All the hands showed up for the burial, even some of the girls from town came dressed in their Sunday clothes. A few of them sniffled their way through the bible reading.

Scott wore a tie but Johnny was in his usual clothes, his hat pulled low over his eyes.

“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”

It wasn’t a very comforting scripture, to say the least. No wonder the girls cried. Even Teresa shed a tear. He put his arm around her. He was feeling strangely moved himself, and he’d never really taken to Wes. He was a scoundrel, likeable enough in his own way but clearly a man of few scruples.

He noticed Scott watching Johnny. Perhaps he was feeling like Murdoch; that it was all too close for comfort. It could have been Johnny they were lowering into the ground while the birds tweeted in the trees above them and Teresa cried.

Once the priest had finished his prayer, they all moved off. Only Johnny stood there for a few moments more with his head bowed.

Johnny said Wes always liked a party so they were having one tonight with the hands, even though every hour closer to tomorrow made Murdoch feel sick.

It would be more than a party for Wes. It would signal the end of Murdoch’s dream for his sons.

But Teresa could wear one of her pretty dresses and dance and clap and for one night she’d be happy.

And when she’d gone to bed, they’d tell Johnny.

 

****

“I’d like to beat his brains in.”

Murdoch couldn’t help smiling, despite how tired he felt. “No Johnny. That might be the way in border towns but here we try to follow the law.”

Teresa had said her goodnights. The party had been good for her. And most of the hands came up to Johnny and shook his hand or had a joke to share about Wes. It was touching to see their thoughtfulness towards Johnny. He didn’t dance but he told Murdoch he wanted everyone to have a good time for Wes; and if he seemed to be standing by the pillar alone for a lot of the night, he didn’t look unhappy.

Tired as Murdoch felt, he’d been hoping their impromptu party wouldn’t end. He hadn’t looked forward to this discussion.

“Murdoch, about those fifty head of cattle...”

“We didn’t lose them all. The boys were able to rescue more than half from the sand gully. And it wouldn’t have made any difference in the long run.”

“You were pushing me because of all this stuff with Miller, huh.”

“I should have told you boys earlier. I thought I had it all under control, only Bueller backed out of the land deal and...well, what’s done is done. I don’t want you to feel like any of this is your fault.”

Johnny had  his head almost buried beneath his outstretched arm as he stared into the fireplace.

“Johnny.”

“I hear you, Murdoch. I just wish I coulda done something to help.”

Scott walked in. “I think Wes would have enjoyed himself tonight.”

Johnny lifted his head. “Oh yeah, Wes would have had himself a fun time all right.”

“Well, that’s the last. Everything’s been put away and the hands are in the bunkhouse.” Scott looked at Murdoch. “You told Johnny?”

“I did. And we’re going to get through this together. It might mean a few changes but Lancer will survive.”

“One thing I’ve been wondering is where does Miller come from? His accent says French or German but his name is neither.”

“I don’t care where he comes from,” Johnny murmured.

“He told me his father married in Germany and they lived there for some years.”

Johnny put his head up again. “Hey, Scott, I suppose this means we won’t have to spend a couple of weeks clearing that creek. It’s on Miller’s third of the ranch.”

But none of them laughed.

****

Frederick Miller arrived right on time.

Murdoch had spent the morning in town trying everything he could to raise the last ten thousand but everyone was hurting from Pardee’s  raids. Aggie had insisted on giving him two thousand but Miller had said it had to be ten or nothing.

It had rained overnight and the roads were muddy. It was petty, he knew, but Murdoch was happy to see Miller’s usual natty attire speckled with globs of mud.

The boys stood by the fireplace. Silent. Watching.

Miller walked in and looked around like he was taking stock of everything.

“The house isn’t part of your claim, Miller.”

Miller didn’t look too perturbed by the grit in Murdoch’s voice. “Not now  it isn’t, Murdoch, but one day...you just never know.”

Johnny made a move  as if he was going to pounce but Scott grabbed his arm. Johnny shook it off and went back to chewing the stampede string on his hat. Murdoch didn’t know what he’d been doing all morning but he’d appeared as soon as Miller drove up to the hacienda.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we Murdoch.” Miller produced a sheaf of papers from his bag. “Do you want me to read over the various clauses, Murdoch?”

Murdoch took a cursory glance. It was exactly what he’d signed eight months ago. To think it had come to this.

Miller had brought his own pen with him. Murdoch looked him straight in the eye, then took the pen as Miller held it to him. “I would have thought you’d have your secretary doing this, Miller.”

“No, I always like to do zis part personally. It’s important now that we’re going to be partners.” He looked around to Scott and Johnny. “Or I should say, with you boys.”

“If you think we’re going to do this amiably, you’ve got another thing coming,” Scott said. “If I’d had more time I would have had every lawyer in Boston checking this agreement.”

Murdoch took the pen and scratched out his signature. He could still remember his optimism when he’d signed eight months ago. He’d bring his sons home once and for all. Whatever it took. One thousand dollars a’piece for each of them. If he just got them back here, he was sure the minute they saw Lancer, they’d want to stay.

Miller was shrugging at Scott. “You’re entitled to, even now. But for ze moment, I’d like both of you to come over and sign.”

Scott took the quill first. He looked at Murdoch, glanced at the document, which was the same as the one Murdoch had showed him last night, and signed his name.

“Your turn, Johnny.”

Johnny glowered at Miller but he came forward with a chink of his spurs. He took the quill and put the nib on the paper, only to take it off again and scratch the back of his neck.

“Sign here, please,” Miller said, pointing to the line next to Johnny’s name.

Johnny put the pen on the paper and started to write his J but then he stopped writing a second time and took a step back.

Murdoch could feel himself getting angry. This thing was hard enough as it was without Johnny being difficult. “Johnny, will you please just sign so that we can be finished all this.”

“Murdoch, when did I get here?”

“It was June. It’s now early September. Now please sign. We can talk about this later.”

“That ain’t what I mean. What year is it?”

“What does it matter, will you just sign the document.”

Murdoch looked at Miller. He was starting to look flustered.

Scott said, “The year is 1870, Johnny.”

Johnny nodded. “So if it’s 1870, why does this one,” and he pointed to the date on the document, “say 1871.”

“What?” Murdoch looked to where Johnny’s finger was pointing. So did Scott.

“This is nonsense.” Miller took out an eyeglass and stared at the document. “You know full well we agreed to September, 1870, or I would foreclose.”

Murdoch couldn’t believe his eyes. The date of foreclosure was clearly September the first, 1871. A bubble of excitement started in his chest. “No, it looks like foreclosure is a year from now, Miller. Sign the document, Johnny.”

“Zis is preposterous. It cannot be.”

For a moment Murdoch thought Miller was going to pull the papers away from Johnny but in the end he watched it being signed with straight lips. “I must apologise for zis mistake, gentleman,” he said stiffly. “I shall have to speak to my secretary.”

“You’re welcome to speak to your secretary every day for an entire week, for all we care. But this document is legal.”

Scott’s grin was matching Murdoch’s. Johnny had stopped chewing the stampede strings. He looked at Scott and Murdoch, then at Miller. “So this means Murdoch’s got another whole year to give you the money?”

Miller looked like he’d swallowed a case of lemons. “Yes. Yes eet does.” He scooped up his papers, his movements jerky and agitated. “Well, my congratulations, gentleman.”

Murdoch was starting to feel light-headed. For the moment he thought his knees were about to give way.

“Perhaps you can see me to ze door, Murdoch.”

Miller didn’t look like he was doing too well himself. He seemed to be gritting his teeth as he clutched his briefcase to his chest. Murdoch could see the muscle in his jaw working. He pitied the secretary when Miller got back to town.

Murdoch walked him down the steps to where his buggy was waiting out front.

****

“Well, it looks like I’ll be seeing you in a year, Miller.”

“It would appear so.”

Miller stowed the satchel with his papers under the seat. “You have two fine boys zere, Murdoch. That younger one of yours, he is very good with a horse.”

Murdoch’s head was spinning. It took him a moment for Miller’s words to even penetrate his brain. And why was it that everywhere he went lately, people were commenting on Johnny’s horse skills? Had the entire valley been watching in town that day? It was damned annoying.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone nearly kill himself for an old gold, watch. I suppose it must have been important to him, yes?”

“A watch?” Miller had Murdoch’s attention now. A watch?

Miller got into his buggy and took the reins but Murdoch grabbed hold of the side of the seat. “Wait a minute. You said my son broke that stallion to get a watch?”

“I saw ze whole thing; the young man got killed by ze horse and then your son, he rode it like he was riding ze devil himself. It was a magnificent stallion.” He looked sideways at Murdoch. “Who would have thought an old watch would be worth so much more?”

His father’s watch. Johnny still had it. And all this time he’d thought—

“I think perhaps you gave zis watch to your young son?  This prodigal son of yours who has returned home?”

Murdoch started looking closely at Miller. Why had he taken such an interest in Johnny’s behaviour? No doubt it had been the talk of the town but...something wasn’t adding up. Or maybe it was. Murdoch started frowning. “The change of date on the agreement—it was no accident, was it?”

“No...no...my secretary had a sudden headache the other day, just behind his right ear.” There was a definite twinkle in Miller’s eyes. “It must have addled his brain a little.” He shrugged, holding out one hand while the other held the reins.

“Mr Miller, I think I underestimated you. And you should be on the stage. Your talents are clearly being wasted.”

Miller smiled and patted his chest. It was a funny gesture, as if he were pleased with himself. “No, I assure you I’m simply a business man.” But then his tone changed. “I’m also a father. Three sons. Two of them I lost at Gettysburg. I know the pain of losing.” He put a hand over his heart. “But I saw something in zat boy of yours the other day. I saw it in his eyes. He made a decision. I just hope it was the right one.”

Murdoch scrubbed a hand down his face. He just didn’t know what to say. “I have to thank you, Miller.”

“No.” He looked around, as did Murdoch. The sun was beginning to shine after a dull grey morning. “This is a fine ranch, but too big for my  needs, I think. Enjoy your sons, Lancer.”

Murdoch watched his buggy move off. He didn’t quite understand it, but after all that had happened the last few days, somehow he had Johnny to thank for saving Murdoch’s third of the ranch.

When he went back inside, he found Johnny and Scott laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“Johnny’s complaining that since it’s still ours, we’ll have to spend a week clearing that creek bed.”

“You and me both, brother.” Johnny tucked his hand into his waistband. “And we’ll be up bright and early.” He opened the watch. “When the big hand’s on the twelve and the little hand is on the six.”

Murdoch put a hand on the shoulder of each of them. “But first you’ve got a fence to finish, Johnny. And Scott, you’ve got that surveying to finish. Things have been very lax around her lately.” He gave each of them a bit of a shake.

Johnny groaned and the smile fell from Scott’s face.

“But first, we celebrate—by taking the day off.”

Both boys looked at him, disbelief all over their faces.

Johnny finally asked, “Really?”

“Really. You can go to town—do whatever you’d like.”

Scott rubbed his hands together, clearly with several ideas running through his mind. “What are you going to do, Murdoch?”

“I’m going to choose a book, sit in that chair, and not move all afternoon. I might even snore a little.”

“Well, you do that every night.” Johnny grinned.

“What about you boys?”

“Green River?” Scott suggested.

Johnny made a face. “Nope. Water hole?”

“It’s not hot enough for a swim.”

They both looked at each other.

“Checkers.” The word came out of their mouths at the same time.

“Let’s light the fire,” Scott said, gathering up some logs by the side of the fireplace.

“Yeah, it sure is cold today. I’ll go get us some coffee.”

Some time later, Murdoch looked up from his book. After three noisy games of checkers, Johnny was now stretched out on the couch asleep and Scott was in the chair opposite Murdoch, rather sleepily reading a book.

Murdoch smiled to himself. He was beginning to feel a peace he hadn’t felt for many years.

Just maybe, they could be a family, after all.

 

 

~end~
September 2018

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