Word count: 4,304
Johnny had been gone for nearly three months. Murdoch had fought his going with all the persuasiveness at his command, but in the end it had been Scott’s words that had proven to be the catalyst to his departure. As a result, tension had developed between the tall rancher and his older son almost from the minute the dark-haired man had left and it was still in evidence a quarter of a year later.
For once Teresa had kept out of the situation. Normally, she would have sided with her guardian’s views, but deep-down she understood why Scott’s comments had made the difference. Not wanting to side with either man she had kept her mouth shut, even though she could see how much Murdoch was hurting. Truthfully, she could also see the doubt in the blond’s blue eyes. All in all, Lancer was not a happy place and was not likely to be so unless Johnny returned.
Part of the animosity between father and his elder son was due to Mother Nature herself. Every ranch had its problems, but during the past three months it seemed as if the elements of nature had decided to vent its wrath solely on Lancer resulting in several injured men, lost cattle, and even more back-breaking work than normal. The two remaining Lancers had been inundated practically from the moment Johnny had galloped away and it hadn’t let up.
Exhaustion made tempers flare and neither Scott nor Murdoch was the type to back down when they believed themselves to be right. Teresa had even been tempted to make a short visit to the Henderson’s for a respite, but had thought better of because she was the only one who might bring some calm to the situation since unfortunately, Jelly had taken it into his head to back up Murdoch’s stand whole-heartedly. He had even taken to taunting Scott about his rash decision to encourage Johnny’s departure. The steel blue eyes did not flicker when the bearded old man ventured his rambling tales of doom and disaster. The easterner merely answered, “We’ll survive.”
Because of all the work, Scott’s day started even earlier than normal and ended just before dinner time when he would walk in, clean up, and then report problems or problems solved to his father in a monotone voice. Murdoch would listen and either make an observation or assign new tasks before the meal was completed in silence. As soon as dinner was over, the younger man would go to his room, read for a few minutes and then go to sleep. Day after day the routine rarely varied. Scott had not visited Morro Coyo or Green River in over three months, leaving the picking up of supplies to either Murdoch or one of the hands. After three months, he had decided it was a good thing that Teresa had elected to remain because he had almost forgotten what a female looked like.
Murdoch, as a sign of his concern, had resigned his position with the Cattlemen’s Association to concentrate on his beloved ranch. Teresa, with Scott’s secret instigation, had tried to delay that decision, but the stubborn Scot had insisted that he was the boss and it was his judgment and his alone that mattered. To that end he had taken to checking up on many of the facets of the ranch which were usually left to Scott and Johnny or Cipriano or the other trusted hands. He became a shadow—a not too welcome shadow—to the men who didn’t understand why their work was under observation from the patrone.
Teresa was ready to shoot both members of her family.
Friday morning began much as the rest of the week had with a blood-red sun on the horizon. By 9 AM shimmers of heat coalesced on the range while riders mopped at their sweating faces. Full canteens were emptied with unprecedented speed while the beeves that were the life’s blood of the great ranch bawled their misery. It was in the middle of the day some restless cows made their break for the nearby stream which promised a momentary relief from the clouds of dust and insects which plagued the bovines. Normally that would not have been a problem except that one of the younger hands had unwisely dismounted his horse. The cows did not care about the man, only about the water.
Knowing the damage that the handful of cows could do to his unprotected body, the young man made a quick decision which saved his life. Firing his 6-shooter at the leading cow, the wrangler breathed a sigh of relief when the horned creature abruptly detoured from his chosen path as the others chose to follow. Unfortunately, what had been a small number of rebels then became a runaway herd as the cows headed en masse for the steep-sided creek.
The gunshots took the senior Lancer by surprise as he kneed his horse into a lope trying to head off the cattle who, in their panic, risked breaking their legs trying to get down the steep sides of the stream to the water.
On the other side of the nearly dry creek bed Scott watched in horror at Murdoch’s valiant attempt to turn the thirsty cattle, but nothing would stand in their way as the rancher’s horse reared up to dump his owner on his behind. The embarrassment of the moment was nothing compared to the lethal outcome that awaited the Scot as the single- minded cows bore down on the tall man.
Without hesitation Scott encouraged Waterloo to make the leap over the creek which put him within a few feet of his father. Bounding to his feet, the gray-haired patriarch latched onto Scott’s strong arm and into place behind his son. The bay then moved with all due swiftness to extricate them from the path of the oncoming steers. Unhappily, one of them managed to get close enough to leave a jagged reminder on Murdoch’s thigh as the two men moved away.
As soon as it was safe to do so, Scott stopped to help Murdoch to the ground so that he check out the bloody wound. Relieved to see that his father was not likely to suffer the same fate as Albert Sydney Johnston, the young man made a pad over the wound and secured it with the belt from around his slender hips. Then the two grim-faced men rode to Lancer so that medical help could be secured.
Halting in front of the white hacienda, Scott called out for help from Jelly and one of the other hands. As soon as the big man was in bed, Scott directed the hand to go into town and bring back the doctor since it seemed likely that stitches would be needed and his father’s pallor had definitely deepened.
Leaving Murdoch in Teresa’s competent hands, Scott started to walk out to get his horse when a voice stopped him. “Hey there, boy, where you goin’?”
Slipping his gloves on, Scott patiently replied, “I need to get back to the herd. They must have scattered in every direction. I don’t plan on spending the rest of the day hunting them up in the rocks.”
“But your pa needs you here. That leg don’t look too good.”
“Jelly, I can’t do anything for Murdoch. Teresa can do what needs to be done or you can before the doctor arrives. Tell him. . .tell him I’ll take care of the cattle and I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“Well, I’ll tell him, but I don’t like it. Johnny’d stay with him.”
Whirling furiously, Scott murmured, “Well, I’m not Johnny and I’m doing what I think Murdoch would want me to do!”
The bewhiskered man’s mouth dropped open, but he said nothing as the slim easterner rode out to do his job.
The clock in the great room chimed 10 PM when a dirty, exhausted Scott Lancer entered the house to head for his bedroom. It had taken Scott and the men hours to round up the cattle and some were still at large. Darkness had ended their quest, but it would begin again with daylight.
“Scott?” Teresa emerged from her guardian’s bedroom.
“Oh, Teresa. What. . .what did the doctor say?”
“It’s not bad, but he did have to put in some stitches. He also told Murdoch to stay put for a few days to let the wound knit.”
The weary man snorted at the idea. “He doesn’t know Murdoch very well, does he?”
Teresa shook her head. “He’s already talking about getting up tomorrow, but I slipped some laudanum in his coffee so maybe he’ll sleep through the night at least.”
“The doctor recommended that he use a cane to get around for a few days. I. . .I found the one he used that time Pardee. . . .”
“Good idea although knowing my esteemed father he won’t like admitting he needs it.”
“Scott, did you say something to get Jelly riled up? After the doctor was here, Jelly sat in with Murdoch for a couple of hours. I wanted Murdoch to sleep, but Jelly just kept giving him an earful. Your. . .your name was mentioned several times.”
“Not surprised. Jelly believes I committed the cardinal sin of disloyalty to Murdoch Lancer.”
“I suppose it is laughable in some ways, but I guess it’s not surprising that Jelly sees himself as Murdoch’s one, true friend. They are close in age and Murdoch gave him a place to stay and a job. Gratitude is a powerful bond.”
“I. . .I always thought Johnny was his fav. . .I mean he seems to put up with a lot of Johnny’s shenanigans, even after the Headless Horseman stunt.”
“I suppose it does seem like that, but frankly I think he sees Johnny as a bigger version of those kids he took care of. It satisfies something in him to treat Johnny like a recalcitrant child who needs the counsel of an older man.”
“But shouldn’t that be Murdoch’s job?”
“Maybe it should, but with the history between Murdoch and Johnny, just how likely is it that my younger brother is going to ask Murdoch for advice or appreciate being patronized? Jelly is safe. Johnny can humor him and both of them get what they want.”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I think they both need Jelly’s loyalty and I can see why he’s perturbed, but it really doesn’t concern me. If I were worried about what someone thinks of me, I certainly wouldn’t have made that long journey to California.”
“I don’t believe that. You. . .you care about what Murdoch thinks.”
“Do I? Maybe not as much as you believe. Now, if you don’t mind, dawn will be here before you know it and I need to get some sleep.”
“Good night, Scott. See you at breakfast.”
A quick wash and then the blond fell into bed and was immediately asleep.
With the dawn Scott entered the kitchen which was warm with the heat of the day and newly baked biscuits that Teresa had left on the table. Buttering up three, Scott wolfed them down, knowing that it was unlikely that he would have much time to stop for food before dinner. After gulping down a cup of coffee, Scott walked back to his room to pick up his hat and gun when the door to Murdoch’s room opened.
“Scott, I’m glad I caught you. Murdoch wants to see you before you leave,” Teresa informed him.
Inwardly, the young man groaned. He had hoped to leave before the older man awakened. “All right, I just have to make a quick stop in my room and then I’ll be in.”
Picking up his saddlebags, holster and hat, Scott prepared to face the wounded lion.
After making a polite knock on his father’s door, Scott entered to find the older man finishing up his breakfast. Standing almost at attention, the blond waited for Murdoch to acknowledge his presence.
Wiping his mouth with a napkin, the rancher took that few extra seconds to peruse the dark smudges under his son’s blue eyes. “Teresa said you weren’t able to find all the cows last night?”
“No sir, but Cipriano told me he would have the men get on it first thing this morning.”
“Good man, Cipriano, loyal and trustworthy. He’s been my right hand since Paul O’Brien died.”
“I know. I’m sure you can count on him and the others.”
Murdoch continued on almost as if he hadn’t heard Scott’s words. “Fool doctor wants me to stay flat on my back for another couple of days. Does he think this ranch runs itself?” Scott didn’t bother to answer. “Teresa found my cane so I’ll be up later. Have the books to do anyway. Be sure to have one of the men ride back when you’ve found all the cows that are missing.”
“I’ll do that, but couldn’t the books wait one more day? Your leg. . . .”
“. . .is fine. With all the troubles we’ve had the past three months, I’m not going to leave anything to chance. I’ll take it easy today and by tomorrow I’ll be back in the saddle. Just . . .just wish Johnny was here instead of off making a fool of himself. Enough work for both of you.”
“Yes, sir.” There was no denying that. “But Johnny needed this time away from Lancer.”
“So you say.” The tall man rubbed one hand through his mussed gray hair. “Scott, I’ve been talking with Jelly. He seems to think you should have stayed here with me yesterday.”
“Do you think that?”
“Actually, no, I don’t. I’m pleased that you realized the seriousness of the situation and took appropriate steps. I told him that, but well, I don’t believe he sees it the same way.”
“Perhaps because his loyalty is to you, not the ranch or the cattle.”
For a long moment Murdoch said nothing. “I suppose that could be true. We are of the same generation and do see eye-to-eye on most things, but I think he does feel some loyalty to Lancer. Leastways, I cannot imagine that he’d consider leaving.”
“No, sir. I’m sure he wouldn’t.”
“Good thing he wised up about that woman. Didn’t think he was the type to fall into a siren’s trap, but I guess when it comes to women, none of us are immune. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there now. Lancer’s survival is the only important thing.”
“And Johnny’s return, surely?”
The rancher’s penetrating gaze took in the slim figure. “You’d know more about that than me. You’re the one who encouraged him to go!”
“He made the decision. I just supported it.”
“Despite my objections! Dammit, you knew that this is a busy time for the ranch. He had no business running off like that!”
Biting back a snap answer at the sight of Murdoch’s flushed face filled with pain, Scott merely replied, “I apologize for all my sins. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go take care of business.”
Scott resisted the temptation to slam the door on the way out.
That night Cipriano brought back word that all the steers had been found and also that Scott had decided to spend the night at a line shack rather than return since he wanted to have an early start with the trampled fences.
The next week’s routine varied only slightly. Work, work, and more work but to the relief of all, the oppressive heat lessened to a degree. Clouds of dust still lingered but the coming of autumn would surely break the drought that had plagued the great ranch or at least that pleasant thought lingered at the back of the owner’s mind as he hobbled around his domain.
A week later the heavens opened up in a torrent. When it did not stop after a few hours, Teresa bundled up all the clothes she had been saving for washing. At last there would be enough water to do a big laundry. The next day she even indulged in a hot tub bath with the water up to her chin. She had missed that simple pleasure.
Of course, the sheets of rain did not mean that the ranch hands could sit back and smoke or play cards in their bunk house. There was still work to be done and always the danger of fire from lightning, but it was obvious that the distress of the last three months had been washed away.
That Sunday Teresa served up the first huge meal in many weeks. She had managed to make do with smaller meals due to the heat and Johnny’s departure. Now, it was time to celebrate so the table in the great room was full of mouth-watering food.
Murdoch limped over to take his place at the head of the table. He no longer needed the cane, but there was still a tell-tale limp when he was tired. His first visit to church in weeks had taxed him more than he cared to admit.
Before the first bite of the chicken and noodles could be consumed, a yell from outside sent Scott and Teresa to the door. To their surprise they could see a familiar figure, holding reins in one hand, marching up the road to Lancer.
Behind the two young people could be heard Murdoch’s startled gasp, “Johnny!”
Running out, with her apron flapping, Teresa rushed up to the dark-haired man, “You’re just in time. We’re having chicken and noodles for dinner.”
Neither Scott nor Murdoch could hear the young man’s answer, but his glance toward the house spoke volumes. Handing the horse over to one of the hands, he quickly followed Teresa into the house.
“Sure smells good in here. Food was kinda plain on the train.”
“Fill up your plate, Johnny. I made plenty,” Teresa reassured him.
“We’re glad to see you back, son, but why were you walking?”
“Horse I borrowed from the livery stable got a stone in his hoof couple of miles back. Had to. Sure am glad to be home. Anything happen while I was gone?”
“Been dry. Finally got rain several days ago,” the rancher replied.
“That how you hurt your leg—in the mud? Noticed you were limpin’.”
“Just a little run-in with an ornery cow. Nothing to it, isn’t that right, Scott?”
The blond nodded, “Whatever you say, Murdoch.”
Johnny glanced over at his brother’s closed face. “Bet you’re glad I’m back, Boston . Hope you didn’t leave all the work for me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, brother. By the way. . . .”
Before Scott could finish his remark, Jelly Hoskins burst into the room. “Johnny boy, glad to see you back in one piece!”
A grin filled the dark face. “Wasn’t in much danger, Jelly. Pull up a chair and dig in. Teresa made lots.”
“Don’t mind if I do. T’ain’t much of a cook myself ‘though I’ve had my chances.”
For the next few minutes those at the table were regaled with an accounting of Jelly’s sojourn as a cook with a cattle drive on the Sedalia Trail, but that ended when Murdoch stiffly rose to his feet to announce that he intended to lie down for a few minutes. Jelly quickly popped to his feet to help the boss into his bedroom. Johnny also followed the two men, helping to get the tall rancher settled. To the surprise of all, it was Jelly who returned to the table to dig into Teresa’s dinner again. “Johnny wanted ta talk to the boss. Concerned ’bout the leg,” he explained with an innocent look on his face.
When the meal was over, Scott helped Teresa with the dishes and then went out to saddle his horse. The cooler weather made it an ideal day for a ride to check on the progress of the fencing on the south range. For some reason the torrential downpours had loosened some of the stakes and would need reinforcement.
Riding at a steady pace across the vast landscape, Scott enjoyed the feeling of freedom. Hopefully, now that Johnny had returned, he would be able to take some time off. A short trip to San Francisco appealed to him. Malcolm had said that he was always welcome at Godwin’s.
After checking on the fences, Scott found a tree to sit under for a short time, but unexpectedly the weariness of the past months caught up to him as his chin dropped to his chest and his eyes closed in sleep.
Awakening some time later, he hurriedly mounted his horse to return to Lancer. He needn’t have worried because the great hacienda was quiet, except for Teresa in the kitchen doing some ‘welcome home’ baking for Johnny. Inquiring after his brother’s whereabouts, the blond was informed that ‘Master Johnny’ was in the bath house soaking away the grime of his travels.
A fleeting smile crossed the firm lips. After his own tedious journey between Boston and California, he knew the feeling well. In a teasing voice, Scott told Teresa, “Guess he plans to make his triumphant return to Morro Coyo’s ladies!”
Teresa rolled her eyes at him. “He was already making a list of those he planned to honor with his presence! But first he plans to gobble down the cake I’m making!”
“Good to see he hasn’t changed.”
Teresa nodded, but then quietly replied, “I. . .I think the trip was good for him. I guess we all need some time away.”
“Except for Murdoch.”
Teresa smirked, “You’ve got a point there, Mr. Lancer.”
“I’ll be in my room reading if anybody wants me. Uh, that is unless you need my help with the baking?”
Teresa’s incredulous breath burst forth. “The last time I let you help me bake, the biscuits could be used as stepping stones. No, no, you go read. Our stomachs aren’t ready for Scott Lancer!”
Drawing himself up in a hurt manner, Scott sniffed loudly and then marched towards the door. “Never say I didn’t offer to help!” Then he winked at her and proceeded to his room.
A short time later there was a knock on Scott’s door. A refreshed Johnny Lancer peeked in to ask if he could enter.
Putting down his book, Scott smiled at the younger man to invite him to sit down.
The sapphire-eyed man said nothing for a moment then uttered, “Good to be back.”
The blond nodded in agreement. “How is she?”
“Fine. Been two years since I saw her and she’s prettier than ever. Guess that school did a good job. You should have seen the way she uses her hands to talk. Her husband’s good at it too. He’s the one who told me what she was saying. I really liked him. He’s even good with the baby!”
“So how does it feel to be a godfather?”
“Strange. When I got that letter from Mattie askin’ me to be the baby’s godfather and attend the christenin’, I. . .I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea. You know, bringin’ back all them mem’ries, but she was right. It did both of us good. Now, I know for sure she made the right decision. She needed to get some learnin’ and see more of the world. I. . .I cared about her a lot, but it would have just made both of us miserable in the long run.”
“What’s her husband like?”
“Robert? Real good man. I think he was kinda embarrassed to have to be the one to tell me what she was sayin’, but after awhile it was almost like he wasn’t there—just one of them translators. Coupla times when he wasn’t there, she’d write out stuff. He’s just the kind of man she needs—no pity or gratitude, just love. And the baby’s kinda cute, even if he is wrinkled.”
Scott chuckled, “I believe most babies are when they’re that small.”
“Surprised their folks keep ’em if they stay that way.”
“Not everyone’s perfect like you, brother,” Scott wryly observed.
“S’pose that’s true. Well, guess I’d better go check on Murdoch. Probably wants to finish his ‘talk’ with me.”
“Was he angry?”
“Not exactly. More in a sermonizin’ mood. Said he was glad I was back, but not to plan on anymore little trips for awhile. Can you believe it? ‘There’s work to do!'” Since the last four words were a perfect mimic of Murdoch Lancer, both young men began to laugh. Then Johnny’s face sobered. “So how was it while I was gone?”
“You heard your father. Nothing much happened except for his leg and the drought.”
Sapphire eyes stared into steel blue for a moment. “If you say so, Boston, but I owe you one.”
“Forget it, Johnny. I might decide to take some time off myself one of these days. Besides, I learned a few things while you were gone.”
“Doesn’t matter now, but I won’t soon forget. Whattya say we head to the kitchen and grab a slice of Murdoch’s cake?”
“Murdoch’s? Teresa said she was makin’ somethin’ for me!” the young man protested.
“Now, Johnny, it’s been too hot for Teresa to do much baking so naturally with Murdoch’s leg and all, she. . . .”
Johnny punched Scott in the arm as soon as he saw the twinkle in the cerulean eyes. “You are one evil dude, brother.”
“I try. Last one to the cake has to wash windows for Teresa!”
The cattle stampede that had nearly cost Murdoch his life had nothing on the two Lancer sons as they fell over each other trying to get to the kitchen.
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