Measure of Loss by S.

Scott Lancer sat at his father’s desk in the great room. Glancing up at the chiming clock, he gritted his teeth before stretching his slender body to relax the tense muscles which had developed over the past two hours. When Murdoch Lancer had set off for his buying trip south, he had asked his two sons to keep a close eye on the ranch. Johnny had immediately volunteered to make sure all that hands kept to their assigned work so he had ridden out this morning, just as he had done for the last two mornings, leaving Scott to wrestle the books into order. Normally, that was a task that the patriarch reserved for himself, but Scott had proven himself to be quite capable in that area so Johnny had cheerfully handed it over to the blond.

Now that the accounts balanced to the penny, Scott decided that he would visit the kitchen for lunch and then ride out to join Johnny on the north range. Scott definitely felt the need for more exercise than just pushing a pencil around. Before he could even retreat to the kitchen, he was stopped by the sound of a carriage pulling up. Since the easterner was unaware of any potential visitors, he walked cautiously to the door to be met by a rather blustery figure who exuded the smell of liquor and sweat. At a quick glance Scott spotted the rather threadbare nature of the suit that the man wore, plus his hat was of a style not seen in Boston for some years. All in all, the man was not an impressive sight.

His first impressions were not discarded with the man’s initial words. “You Scott Lancer? I got this here letter for you. Name’s Phineas Atterbury, Attorney-at-Law.”

“Uh, well, won’t you come in, Mr. Atterbury. Could I offer you some coffee or something?”

“Wouldn’t say no to a drink a whiskey, if you can spare it. Drove a long way and we got a long way to go.”

“We?”

“That there letter should ‘splain it all. You go ahead ‘n read ‘n I’ll answer any questions if’n I can.”

Scott sat down at the desk to open the letter while Atterbury helped himself to the decanter of whskey. As the blond took in the words, a crease formed between his blue eyes which reflected the bewilderment he felt. Looking up at the flushed face across from him, Scott found himself at a loss for words.

“Now, there Mr. Lancer, I can see that letter is quite a kick in the stomach, but I can promise that if you come with me, you’ll get all your answers.”

A light sheen of sweat broke on Scott’s handsome face. “Mr. Atterbury, if this is a joke at my expense, I can tell you now I do not appreciate it!”

“T’ain’t no joke, Mr. Lancer, but I can see you’re a might baffled.  There’s only one man who can give you what you need to know. Now, the question is, are you willin’ to find out?”

Making his decision, Scott informed the lawyer that he would pack a bag and they could leave as soon as he informed Teresa O’Brien of his
destination.

It was an equally bewildered Teresa O’Brien who questioned Scott about the need for such a quick trip to Sacramento. “Can’t you wait for
Johnny to return and let him go with you?”

“Thanks for your concern, but this my responsibility and Johnny has his here. I’ll try to be back in less than a week. Maybe even before
Murdoch gets back.”

On that note Scott Lancer departed the white hacienda with Phineas Atterbury, leaving behind a concerned Teresa O’Brien. Scott’s terse
answer had certainly not answered any of her questions.

When Johnny returned that evening, he too, was astonished to hear of Scott’s abrupt departure, but decided that there was little he could do at that point. He would just have to trust that his brother’s good judgment would carry him through.

The underlying air of tension that settled over the great ranch seemed to permeate everything so it was with relief that Johnny and Teresa welcomed Murdoch back to the ranch three days later. His craggy face mirrored the displeasure felt by one and all at Scott’s exit, but like his dark-haired son, he realized that little could be done until the older son returned. That, unfortunately, promised to be delayed several more days when a telegram arrived from Sacramento stating just that. Almost growling with frustration, Murdoch Lancer was not a happy man. Deeming it best to keep out of sight, Johnny found an excuse to spend a night at one of the Lancer line shacks, relegating the Scot into Teresa’s capable hands.

Fortuitously for the nerves of all Lancer inhabitants, Scott Lancer did return, just in time for dinner, ten days after his departure. Taking his place at the table, the blond apologized for being away so long, only to be met by one curt statement from the gray-haired man at the head of the table. “I’ll talk to you about it tomorrow. I want to enjoy my dinner in peace.”

Scott only nodded his agreement. Then, after stuffing down a few mouthfuls, he excused himself and headed to his room. After the dinner dishes were cleared from the table, Murdoch settled down to a book and his pipe while Teresa worked on her unending mending.

Johnny sat on the couch, fidgeting endlessly until the tall rancher peered over his glasses, admonishing his younger son, “Why don’t you go talk to him? Then maybe you can quiet down so I can read.”

Johnny needed no further invitation. Walking over to Scott’s door, he knocked and entered. There he found the blond man leaning back on the
bed, writing in his journal.  Scott looked up warily.

For one of the few times in his life, Johnny stood there motionless, unsure of what to say.  Finally, Scott took pity on him, remarking, “Johnny, I understand what you want, but I do not intend to discuss this until I talk to Murdoch first. After that, well, then I’ll tell you about my trip to Sacramento.”

Starting to protest, Johnny stopped. The steel blue of Scott’s eyes brooked no opposition.  “Promise?”

“Yes, Johnny, after I talk to Murdoch, you and I will talk.”

Giving in with little grace, Johnny only muttered, “Okay,” before heading to his bedroom.

Only one of the inhabitants of Lancer slept peacefully that night.

Early in the morning with the barest glow of sunlight peeking above the white-capped mountains, Scott Lancer rose, dressed with care, and headed to the kitchen to wait. Just as expected, it wasn’t long before Murdoch Lancer made his appearance. Stopping with a start at the sight of his older son, the tall man calmly walked over to the stove.  Grimacing at its emptiness, Murdoch shrugged with disappointment.  Obviously, Teresa had not risen yet and he desperately needed the comfort and strength of his morning coffee.

In a steady voice, Scott informed the older man, “I didn’t want to take a chance on missing you, Sir.”

“I see. Well, let’s go outside. We can talk there.” Murdoch Lancer definitely felt the need for the reassurance that Lancer’s mountains always gave him.

The two men walked together for some time. As the conversation continued, the patriarch’s face darkened with anger and pain until he exploded with one telling blow.  Scott made no effort to stop the blow, nor did he attempt to rise after watching the tall man stalk off towards the stable.

When it became apparent that Murdoch would not return, the blond picked himself up, dusting off his jeans before entering the house once again. Heading to his room, Scott took out his carpetbag and began to pack.

Lost in regret for what had just happened, Scott didn’t hear Johnny’s approach until the burst of words from the doorway. “Boston, what the hell are you doing?”

“Packing.”

“I can see that but why. . . .” The brunet paused as he caught a glimpse of the growing bruise on Scott’s face. “Who did that to you?”

“Murdoch. He didn’t like what I had to tell him. I don’t imagine you will either.”

Johnny let out a low whistle. “It must really be something if he did that to you.”

Scott nodded. “Sit down so I can tell you then I have to leave.”

A grim-faced Johnny Madrid sat on the edge of a chair. “Shoot.”

Scott laughed mirthlessly.

“Ten days ago a lawyer brought me a letter from a man named James Starr. In it Starr claimed to be my father.” Johnny gasped but said nothing. “Naturally, I didn’t believe him, but the lawyer persuaded me to accompany him to see the man.” The blond hesitated as he watched the other man’s disbelieving face. “Johnny, after talking to James Starr, I now believe he is what he says he is.”

“Dammit, how can you? You know Murdoch’s your father!”

“Please, just let me tell you what he said. He told me that he knew . . .my mother in Boston. In fact, he said that they were childhood sweethearts, but my grandfather discouraged their friendship. Starr was quite bitter about that, but he didn’t see my mother again until after she met Murdoch. When he found out that she intended to go west with a foreigner, he. . .he convinced her to meet him one last time. My mother slipped out of the house where she found him half-drunk. He admitted that he. . .hurt her.”

“Did you kill him?”

“I wanted to, but it wasn’t possible,” Scott admitted sadly.

Filled with anger for Catherine Lancer, Johnny walked over to the blond man. “Just. . .just because he said that, it don’t mean that you’re. . .that he’s. . . .”

“Believe me, I know that, but then he asked if I had two crossed toes on my left foot.”

Taking a deep breath, Johnny blurted out, “How’d he know ’bout that?”

“Because he has the same thing on his left foot. He said all the males in his family have them. And. . .and he’s the image of how I’ll probably look in another twenty-five years.”  Scott closed his eyes, desperately trying to keep the moisture from overflowing.

“God!”

Scott gave the younger man a brief hug. “It’s all right. We may not be brothers, but I’ll always be your friend.”

As Johnny realized what Scott had just said, he grabbed the other man’s arm. “Is that why you’re leaving?”

“Johnny, I’m not entitled to any part of Lancer. I can’t take your heritage.”

The sapphire eyes stared at the other man who had suddenly turned into a stranger.  “What the hell are you talking about? I don’t need more land. I got plenty.”

“Johnny, please don’t make this harder than it is. I have enough money of my own. I. . .I thought maybe I’d buy a small place near here. That way I could see you and Teresa sometimes.”

“What about Murdoch?”

“He’s upset and confused. I don’t blame him. No man likes to hear that his fiancée was. . .attacked and that she produced a child that wasn’t his.”

“Scott, you’ve got to give him time. He’ll come round. He’s got a temper, but. . .but I don’t think he’ll want you to leave.”

Johnny could see in the cerulean depths that Scott wanted to believe him. “Please, Scott, just give him a chance–for me.”

“You’re not above a little emotional blackmail, are you, Br. . .Johnny?” inquired the exhausted man.

“What’s that mean?”

“Nothing except that I’ll wait for him to return so we can talk.”

Johnny gave him a broad grin. “Great. Now, let’s go see if Teresa has made any coffee and biscuits.”

Teresa stifled the horrified gasp she started to emit at the sight of Scott’s bruise when she saw Johnny’s frantic shake of the head.  Stopping, she poured three mugs of coffee and produced a basket of hot biscuits instead. For the next half-hour the three young people talked about innocuous topics, waiting for the tell-tale sounds of Murdoch Lancer’s return.

Fifteen minutes later, Murdoch Lancer entered the kitchen through the back door. Wincing at the sight of Scott’s bruised face, the rancher quietly asked the blond man to join him outside.

Scott immediately stood up to follow the man, he once believed to be his father. He knew that as soon as they were outside, Johnny would tell Teresa what had happened. Scott could only hope the brown-haired girl would understand.

After twenty minutes, Johnny smiled at the white-faced girl. She had taken the brutal facts stoically, only commenting on how much Scott must be hurting. Still, it was obvious that she, too, was scared as her hands clenched and unclenched nervously. Both looked up uneasily at the entrance of Scott Lancer. There was a slight smile on his face.

“Murdoch has agreed that it would be in order for me to stay here, however, I will be moving into one of the outbuildings like Jelly has. I’ll draw wages just like any other hand. . .and he will rip up my copy of the deed.”

Teresa and Johnny sat there speechlessly until Scott walked over to put his arms around their shoulders. “Don’t look so stunned. This is the best way. I can still be a part of Lancer and be near the both of you. Murdoch also feels it would be best if I continue to go by the name of Lancer since legally he would be considered my father. But,” he paused, “Murdoch’s going to need you too. He’s hurting and it’s not going to be easy for him to talk about it. I’m counting on both of you to help him get through this. Now, I’m going to ride out to the south range and get started on the fencing. When I get back, I’ll move to the new place. Any help will be gratefully appreciated.”  Allowing no further talk, Scott walked out the door to the stable to collect his horse.

One week later Johnny and Scott took the buckboard into town for supplies. After much awkwardness, the routine of ranch life had settled in. Scott had even joined the others for dinner once or twice. The tension had been overpowering, but everyone had made an effort to be civil.

As soon as they entered town, Johnny had made straight for Mary Lou’s house while Scott stopped at the general store to get the supplies .  While waiting for their order to be filled, Scott stopped by the post office to pick up the Sacramento paper that he had ordered. Rolling it up under his arm, Scott made his way to the saloon for a cold beer. After taking a seat at one table, the blond unfolded the paper. There on the front page in large print was what he had been seeking: MURDERER JAMES STARR EXECUTED BY HANGING AT SACRAMENTO STATE PRISON.


 THE END

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