Word Count 12,187
Where’s he gone this time? Scott, annoyed, pondered the number of times he had had to turn detective to find his younger brother. Always up before the rest of the family, Johnny managed to occupy himself usefully about the place, sometimes with a grudging acceptance of the need to keep the place running smoothly, sometimes with a defiant air, as if forced to it. Oddly, the work was, more often than not, voluntary, once he’d learned what needed to be done. It was as if he had to retain a measure of independence in the midst of orders from Murdoch, instructions from Scott, and advice from Teresa.
So a few quiet minutes in the morning were understandable, but it always left Scott on the hunt, a morning ritual he could do without. On a few occasions in the past ten months it had led to real concern. Johnny’s past life left him vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, some of which had come close to ending his life on Lancer almost before it had begun. They had all had to work together to pull him through; it had taken the first month to get him fit enough to get around on his own, and what a trial that month had been. Tying him to the bed had several times seemed the only available option. But here he was, living, sometimes settled, sometimes as restless as the wild horses he loved. Irresponsible? No – he had been responsible for himself for too long for that to be true.
As Scott reviewed the last months, he checked Johnny’s room, as he did now habitually. How much of his still somewhat meagre collection of stuff was still there? It always looked half-unpacked; apologetic, even. I’m not really here, it seemed to say. But it was all there, so he’d be on the ranch for another day at least.
He exited the house and paced down to the corral, past small buildings which had been thrown up somewhat haphazardly to accommodate the needs of a growing ranch. He looked around but there was no sign of his brother. He was aware of the stillness of the morning; even Jelly was still in his room. One man was feeding the horses in the corral.
“You seen my brother, Jeb?” Scott asked, aware that he’d asked this hand the same question only the day before.
“Yes, Mr.Lancer – he was heading off that way a few minutes ago.”
“Thanks. I wish I had some way of finding him more easily – I waste time every morning with this.”
Scott finally found him practising speed draws behind the barn. He was not bothering to fire the revolver. He was simply taking the movements to pieces, practising every muscle movement, legs, hips, back, shoulder, arm, hand, all on the point of being synchronised; yet he stopped again and again to make some minute adjustment. Johnny acknowledged Scott’s presence with a nod then went back to work, while Scott leaned on the fence post to watch.
“Didn’t want to wake you all,” Johnny said, finally stopping to ease back muscles still not quite as they should be. Pardee’s bullet hadn’t done any major damage, but enough to mean that his draw was fractionally off. “I can’t get this quite right.”
“Maybe you don’t need to get it right any more,” Scott ventured, unsure what Johnny was really saying to him.
“Yes, yes, I do, Boston. I miss being able to do this.” In one graceful, easy movement he turned and drew, and Scott found himself looking down the barrel of his brother’s revolver, not even truly aware of how the trick had been done. The grace was inborn; the ease came from this constant, hour on hour practice. He whistled his appreciation.
“Boy, you do that any faster and the devil himself’d come up short.”
“Maybe he’s already tried his luck against me.” Johnny grinned disarmingly, aware of the effect this implied boast would have on his half-brother. He couldn’t resist needling him sometimes. He holstered his sidearm and sauntered nonchalantly over to where Scott still leaned. “You want to try me?”
“Oh, no, little brother. I know when I’m bested. When it comes to killing the other guy, you’re one of the fastest there is.”
Scott had expected a mock rise to the bait; instead, Johnny suddenly looked away, not upset exactly – more – thoughtful.
“Do you know how many men I’ve killed?”
Scott considered his answer. Aim high, and embarrass Johnny by making him admit to fewer. Or low, to give him a chance to boast. But before he could reply, Johnny enlightened him.
“I don’t know, Boston. I know who I shot, face to face. Never likely to forget. Even then, you don’t wait to see how long, or even if they survive. You can’t tell a man’s dead just by looking at him. That’s with a handgun. How many have I killed with a rifle? I know that many I’ve fired at haven’t gone on firing back.” Johnny paused, very serious and intense suddenly. So many deaths around him, so many times to judge others and kill them in case they killed you. And with a handgun, so direct and personal. Nearly all his adult life, that had been Johnny’s way of surviving.
“I’ve killed too,” Scott offered, as much in sympathy as in competition.
“Under orders. Clear cut. Right, wrong. Are you sure you can trust me to know the difference between right and wrong?”
Scott didn’t hesitate. He knew the answer. “When you came back, that first time, from Pardee, I stopped doubting you. I trust you completely, little brother.”
Johnny smiled slowly. Scott felt there should be something more he could say to banish the doubt still there in his brother, even in the way he stood, poised as if to run. But nothing came to mind, and when Johnny playfully drew on him again, he automatically ducked then ran through the open gate and towards Johnny, mock-annoyed. Johnny dropped his gun, put his hands up and surrendered.
Scott skidded to a halt and laughed. “Must be the first time ever. Trying to use strategy on me, boy?”
“Last time we fought you nearly broke my hand. These hands are all I have between me and – and …”
“Yeah, whatever that is. Come on, what are we doing today? I know, you told me already. Fence posts? Branding? Town?”
Scott knew he was being teased by a brother he was coming to respect and like more than he’d thought possible. It felt good; it felt like family.
“I’m packing you off to the mesa line hut again, checking fences. I know you wouldn’t ask for such a privilege..”
“Morro Coyo! You said Morro Coyo today. Barranca’s ready, I’m ready and the cantina girls have been waiting more’n a week!”
“Sure, sure. Have you eaten yet?”
“Then go eat, boy. You’re all skin and bone as it is.”
Scott eased the pace into town subtly, trying not to make his brother impatient. They were going for supplies; Scott was in charge of the buckboard while Johnny let Barranca dance round, running ahead then lagging behind, mainly to signal that impatience.
By the time they reached town, Johnny’s enthusiasm had evaporated. Scott couldn’t figure it; as soon as he’d seen the place, the banter had stopped, he had reigned in Barranca and was now following the buckboard soberly. He had something on his mind, and Scott wanted to know what it was. But his brother could be a clam when he wanted, as well as a chatterer.
“Going for a haircut, Johnny?”
“No, I reckon not. I like it the way it is.”
“You can’t keep it out of your eyes.”
“The barber took half of it off last time. Wasn’t there some guy in the Bible had his hair cut and it cost him all his strength.”
“I didn’t reckon on you knowing the Bible, boy.”
“Why not? My Ma taught me.” The old resentment was apparent immediately. Scott was at a loss to know how to make amends; apologies never seemed to work. He kept quiet. Whatever was eating his younger sibling would be shared in due course so long as he didn’t push for an answer.
“I’ll take the list to the hardware store. We could go for a beer while we’re waiting.”
“You go, Scott. I have plans. A little job I need to do. I’ll see you back here in a couple of hours.”
“Sure. Take your time. I need to catch up on a few chores myself. I don’t like my hair this long.”
“Not neat enough yet, Boston? I never seen a hair outa place for more than a few minutes on you.” Johnny smiled but he was not disguising his edginess well. They parted, Scott instinctively wanting to warn Johnny yet unable to do so – what could he warn him about that Johnny wouldn’t have already seen?
So Scott busied himself with the hardware requirements, then relaxed in the barber’s chair, content with being pampered and restored to neatness and order. He had never minded the hard work but he did like to be clean and orderly. It was in his training.
Two hours and a few minutes later, he waited for Johnny. He lounged, relaxed, against the wheel of the buckboard, trying to choose the words he could use to berate Johnny’s lateness. His concern began to grow after half an hour. He began to search; surely it was a small enough place that he could find one lost brother easily enough. It was only like every morning search except it was the town.
Finally, he found a clue. As he’d searched round the back of the buildings, Barranca had been taken. There was a note pinned to the buckboard – very brief and to the point. “Going off for a few days. Be seeing you. Don’t follow. J.” That was it, then. There was no point even trying to follow – Johnny could slip any pursuit without difficulty. So more explaining to do with Murdoch, more apologising for Johnny, more trying to do his chores too. Scott was more than angry; he was disappointed. The weeks of building a friendship were blown away. Frustrated, he checked the harness, climbed aboard the buckboard and drove home
At the end of the second week, Scott took a walk down to the arched gateway, ostensibly to stretch his legs. He had got into the habit of doing it since Johnny had gone; he would never had admitted he was looking for him – it was just a convenient distance to walk. It was near dark and there was no moon. The starlight was soft, almost imperceptible, lending just enough light for him to see his way. Doubts nagged at him. Murdoch had been just plain mad at Johnny, angry and hurt that Johnny had left but only caring to show the anger. Neither Teresa nor Scott had been able to ease the older man’s steady bitterness. Teresa had filled in the time and space by washing every stitch of Johnny’s clothes, mending them and then putting them away, giving his room at last a sense of permanence. She had carefully set a plate for him at every meal, solemnly putting away the clean plate each time and ignoring Murdoch’s daily injunction not to set the place. Scott had done his extra share of work without complaint; it made no sense to complain and passed the time. He didn’t feel anger in the way Murdoch did. Disappointment still ruled. Just why wasn’t his brother back yet? Why hadn’t he needed his help?
The light dimmed further. The white gateway, which proudly proclaimed the family name, was a dim white presence. Here Scott stood for a while, leaning against the wall, looking out across the valley. Someday Johnny would be back, bringing some stray child with him, or maybe a woman for them to accommodate for a while. He collected strays like a child yearning for company, as if his own family were not enough for him. Yet he had lost every one – except Jelly. Jelly, who was quietly devoted to him. He’d never truly considered it before, but for all his bluster Jelly always tried to look out for Johnny and Johnny, for all his teasing, listened to Jelly when he might not listen to Murdoch. Perhaps Johnny had told him where he was going. Scott looked back at the huge, grand house, where oil lamps and candles were being lit. The curtains had been left open. A light to guide the wanderer.
A noise made him turn back to the road. Towards him, slowly, trailed a man leading his horse. The palomino’s distinctive white mane gave Barranca away immediately.
“Johnny!” Scott paced forward, all energy suddenly, ready to play the elder brother to the hilt. “Are you all right?”
“Sure, Scott,” came back the familiar soft, assured voice. “Sure. Barranca pulled up lame. I’ve been walking him a spell.”
Johnny came towards him, hand outstretched to greet his brother. “How’s the old man? Plenty mad with me, I guess. I got delayed. But I’m back now.”
Scott grasped his hand and was relieved to find the grasp as firm as ever. He fell in alongside his younger brother, matching his steady pace, neither hurried nor slow.
“What’s that you got tied to the saddle? What have you brought back this time, Johnny?”
“I’ll show you when we get there. I’m a might tired now.”
Concerned, Scott tried to assess his brother’s state of health since, in the starlight, he could not tell how he was. It was no use asking; the admission of weariness was as far as it was going to go.
They came up to the house. Scott wanted to run ahead, to tell the others but stayed with Johnny in case he should be needed. He wanted to talk to him, to tell him how he’d been missed and how glad they were he was back. But his brother was silent, and Scott knew it was a silence he could not invade. Johnny hitched his horse and went to the saddle to fetch whatever it was tied there.
“Carry these in the house. I want to get Jelly to look at Barranca right away.”
“Teresa and Murdoch’ll want to see you right away.”
“This horse has done more work than I have this trip. I’ll see them in good time. Now, are you going to take this stuff or not?”
It was an impatience Scott recognised as characteristic of his younger brother but it still rankled. “All right, all right. See to your horse first. I’ll tell them you’re here and all their worrying about you was not needed, since you are absolutely fine.”
“Scott, leave it. I want to do what’s right and that means looking after my horse. He don’t understand why he should wait. They do. Now, are you going to let me go?” There was a mild threat in Johnny’s tone – Scott had not even realised that he’d been holding him by the arm. He let go, annoyed, and took the two boxes Johnny handed him. “Just take them to Murdoch. He’ll know what they are. But don’t open them until I get there. I went to some trouble to get them. Oh, and put the coffee on.” Johnny walked Barranca away, whistling up Jelly and waiting for the older man to join him. Scott watched the two of them, heads together, then Jelly ran his hand down the horse’s foreleg. Scott left the two of them and took the boxes into the house.
It was half an hour before Johnny came back, washed up and sporting a clean shirt and pants but still smelling faintly of liniment. He knew it, too, and ducked his head in apology. “Jelly’s rubbing Barranca down. He’ll be all right in a couple of days. Teresa – you bin goin’ through my stuff again? I swear you’ve starched every one of my shirts.” He was teasing and smiling but Scott knew there was something wrong. Teresa knew it, too, and was not so shy about asking.
“Did he throw you, Johnny? Do you want a steak for that eye?”
“It’s been blacked before, Teresa – it’s all right. Now, where’ve you put my boxes?”
Murdoch hadn’t said a word; when he did, Scott was startled by the anger still colouring his voice. “Two weeks you’ve been away, and you haven’t even got the grace to apologise, or say where you’ve been or why you’re busted up.”
The reaction was unexpectedly quiet. “I am not busted up. I have a black eye and I’ll tell you about that when I’m ready. Now, let’s get to these boxes.”
“They’re not yours. They’re mine.” Murdoch was angrier still. He stood in front of his desk as if protecting the two dusty, small boxes from Johnny. “If you have any decency, you’ll let me take these and put them where they belong.”
It was touching the match to the dynamite, saying that, though Scott still had no idea why.
“Where would that be, old man? Your bedroom?”
Scott instinctively stepped between them, holding Johnny back. “What’s going on? What’s in those boxes? Johnny?”
Johnny stood for a moment then shook himself free. “I’ve been a long way, nearly killed my horse, and all for them. They’re mine, my cousin said they were willed to me, and I want them. If I’d thought you’d try to take them I’d never have brought them to you.”
“Johnny – you’re not making sense. What are they?” Scott was caught in the middle of the contest of wills, a position he did not care to continue without explanation. It was Johnny who relented enough to give him a clue, though he spoke directly to Murdoch.
“It’s all she took from Lancer. All she kept of me, from the beginning. I’ve brought it back.”
Murdoch was silent. He would not back down easily but Johnny’s simple explanation caught and moved him. “Son – I didn’t mean to – I’m sorry. You must understand – she was my wife as well as your mother.”
But Johnny was not so easily placated. He turned on his heel and walked out, slamming the door behind him. Murdoch restrained Scott, who was about to follow.
“No – leave him, son. He’ll cool off. Maybe I was hard on him. But I never expected to see these again. She took so little – just these two travelling boxes. They were brand new – look, both marked up with the Lancer L. I’ll leave them for Johnny to open later.”
Teresa suddenly interrupted. “You men! You’re always leaving Johnny alone just when he needs someone to talk to!” She was gone before either Lancer, father or son, could stop her.
Murdoch poured himself and Scott a drink, then went to sit by the fire. Scott pondered ways to get him to open up, but his father was quiet, even morose and Scott didn’t have any way of getting into the problem. He wandered over to look at the boxes. Muddied and shabby, they contained things precious to his brother and to Murdoch. Why did they have to belong to one or the other? Surely these were things they could share. How could he persuade them to see it that way? It seemed so logical to him; but then he’d never been afraid of losing his childhood. It was available to him whenever he wanted it. Johnny must have lost contact with his babyhood in the years he’d been concentrated on surviving in a world of hopeless cases and lost chances. How could anyone hold on to their childhood in a world like that? Yet somehow Johnny had contrived to keep some of his childishness. Was he just being childish now? Maybe Teresa could make sense of it. He sincerely hoped so. He didn’t feel equal to the task.
Excusing himself, he went outside, not to join in on any conversation Teresa might be having with Johnny, just to check on her progress. She practically ran into him, plainly upset.
“Hold on – what’s wrong? What’s he said to you? I’ll …”
“No – no, Scott. You’ve got it all wrong.” Teresa took a deep breath and steadied herself. “I’m angry with myself. He shied away, like he always does and I got angry with him, which was stupid. I’m angry with Murdoch too. I don’t know how to begin to sort this mess out and now I think I’ve hurt Johnny’s feelings too. He doesn’t deserve this, Scott. He’s hurting, I know he is. Can’t you talk to him? But I don’t know where he’s gone. Oh Scott, I’m afraid he’ll go and stay away for good. I missed him being around, you know.”
“I know that, Teresa. I know. We all did. I think I know where he’ll be. You go and talk to Murdoch – I’ll do what I can. Maybe if we all meet in about an hour, we can get these boxes open and that’ll settle everything for both of them.”
Teresa nodded, brushing a tear from her cheek angrily.
“It’s hard on you, being the only woman here, isn’t it.”
“I talk to Maria. But yes, you three can be enough for me to look after. You always seem to need looking after.”
Scott smiled agreement and reached out to touch her arm. “I guess we do. You make a good job of it, too. Don’t blame yourself – you can’t put this right all by yourself.”
Teresa smiled. “I’ll fix us a meal. I guess Johnny’ll need feeding up again and Murdoch hasn’t eaten tonight yet.” Suddenly all business again she walked away to queen it in the kitchen and solve their problems the best way she knew how – through their stomachs.
It didn’t take Scott long to find Johnny, who, with Jelly’s help, was currying Barranca. The two of them had been talking quietly, or perhaps arguing; they fell silent when Scott walked in. Embarrassed that he had interrupted them, Scott resorted to his older brother status to join them.
“He’s come a long way. That red dust on him, that’s …”
“Yeah, Scott – you know where I’ve bin. Border country.” Johnny reached for a curry comb lying on the floor then pulled up short, covering the graceless movement by beating some non-existent dust from his pants leg. Further distraction followed – Scott found himself under attack for not helping out but knew well enough what his younger brother was trying to do. But it was Jelly who spoke up before Scott could say anything.
“Well? You gonna tell him or do I have to drag you to the doc’s myself?”
“What’s to tell, Jelly? There’s nothing wrong with me that liniment won’t fix. You checked me out yourself. I told you not to say anything.”
Jelly wasn’t usually in a hurry to argue with Johnny but they were good friends and Scott could see Jelly was worried. Saying the wrong thing now could be disastrous.
“If Jelly says you need the doc, I think you should see the doc. I’ll hitch up the buggy and take you into town now.”
He could see Johnny ready himself to bridle, to give excuses or get mad. He hadn’t expected his brother’s quiet, decisive reaction.
“Saddle me another horse, Jelly. I’ll take myself to the doc. He can fix this. I don’t need no help.”
“You can’t ride with your shoulder in that state, Johnny, you know that. I don’t reckon you could sit a horse anyway,
bruised up like you are.” But that was too much and then Johnny was all temper, ordering Jelly to do as he was told until Scott had to intervene.
“What’s all the fuss about? Johnny? Most men’d enjoy making the most of being ill – why do you hate it so much? Come in the house, at least. We can think about the doc in the morning if you don’t want to do anything right now. Teresa’s cooking us a meal – you’ll eat with us, won’t you?”
Johnny was back currying his horse, and the pain he was carrying was obvious, once Scott knew what to look for. His left shoulder, his left side. How? Was he going to speak again or had the conversation been terminated?
“It’s like – it’s like practising with my sixgun, Scott. If everything don’t work properly, I’m in trouble. They can’t know I hurt. I had to hide out like an animal until I was strong again – I was lucky if I got to the doc myself. And you can tell me as often as you like I don’t have to be like that any more, because I don’t believe it. Now let me get this job done and I’ll come and eat and you can keep quiet because I’ll see to myself.”
Now that was the end of the conversation. Neither Jelly nor Scott wanted to go on fighting him – he was clearly tired and angry and it didn’t make sense to try. They ran the danger of driving him off altogether. He was still on his feet and Jelly had looked him over. He was a grown man. Scott rationalised his fears as well as he could. If his younger brother was happy making them all angry when he, Teresa and even Murdoch had done their best to solve his problems then so be it.
“Half an hour, then. Jelly, come up to the house and join us.”
“Yes, boss. What’s Teresa giving us?”
The steady brush-strokes over Barranca’s flank were Johnny’s only contribution to the falsely relaxed exchange.
“I don’t know – but I guess steak might be her choice.”
“We’ll be there, won’t we, Johnny?”
Even a direct question couldn’t tempt him. Scott drew on his considerable patience and left them, returning to the house. He had done all he could. The next move would have to be Johnny’s. He knew that conclusion was wrong – that he needed to take charge and at least make sure whatever injury Johnny was nursing had been properly attended to. He just didn’t know how to do it.
Within a half hour, the Lancer family was sitting down in the kitchen to the meal Teresa had prepared. Johnny was saying nothing but still managed to dominate the atmosphere; even Murdoch’s ill-disguised annoyance couldn’t compete with his steady silence. Teresa tried to get him to talk; Scott tried. But he was adept at putting personal comments aside without being actively rude. Finally, Murdoch brought matters to a head.
“Son, why did you bring your mother’s boxes here if you didn’t want me to see them?”
Johnny had been pushing the food round his plate, carefully trying not to use his left hand by keeping his fork in his right. Anything that needed cutting up was clearly a puzzle to him. He looked up finally, put down his fork and pushed his hair back off his forehead.
“I didn’t know you’d want them. I brought them only for you to see. You want I should take them back, maybe?”
“Son …” For a moment Scott thought Murdoch would relent; but there was too much at stake for him simply to give up what he wanted to his younger son. “I think the stuff belongs to me now, and you should have them as part of your inheritance from me.”
“I have to wait till you’re dead to get them?” Johnny stood up, pushing his chair back thoughtlessly and turning hastily from them, trying to cover his pained reaction. The next move would be to leave, Scott realised immediately and there was only one way to stop that.
“Why don’t I fetch them here? Then we can get them opened and see what all the fuss is about.” There was a pause as both stubborn men wrestled with this simple solution. Teresa came down firmly on Scott’s side, much to his relief.
“Yes – Murdoch – Johnny – let’s see what’s in them. They’re what your mother left you, Johnny? What’s in them? Did you have a favourite toy when you were little – my friend Jessie, she’s kept every scrap of paper Joel scribbled on …” and on, until the chatter broke the tense atmosphere and Scott was able to slip away to fetch them. When he returned, Johnny had sat down. His whole body language read tension, barely under control, and the look he gave his brother conveyed a depth of pain Scott hadn’t seen for a while. Murdoch paced, turned in on himself and Scott began to doubt the wisdom of putting the objects of all the tension back into the ring. But it was too late by then. Teresa moved some plates out of the way and he put both boxes midway between father and son.
“Should I open them?” Scott asked, since neither made a move forward.
“Yes, Scott – here – here’s a knife.” Murdoch pulled pocket knife from his vest pocket and handed it over. Scott cut the string holding the box closed and pulled the top up, revealing the closely-packed contents.
On top, two papers, tied with a faded piece of ribbon. Scott checked with his sibling and father – yes, go ahead. He untied the ribbon and opened the first document. Marriage certificate. The next, Johnny’s birth certificate. Scott carefully placed both on the table. Under the papers a well-worn book; a Bible. Johnny reached for that but pulled away and looked down, then put his hand to his head.
“She taught me to read that, and it was no chore, the way she did it.” His voice, so quiet, laid his feelings in front of his family with no more barriers. Scott laid the book next to the papers. Laid over the rest of the contents was a baby blanket, well worn and stained. As Scott pulled it out, he heard his father speak. “She wrapped you in that, Johnny – I guess you were wrapped up tight in it the night she left me.”
Scott looked at Teresa. Her eyes swam with tears. She took the shawl from Scott as if it were the most precious thing she had ever handled.
Under the shawl, other clothes – even some Scott knew had to be Murdoch’s, which he set aside quickly. At the bottom of the box, a toy bear, hand-made, with much-battered ears. Again, Murdoch filled in its history. “You sucked its ears, son, till I had to take it from you. I didn’t know she’d rescued it from the trash.”
“You took away his toy?” Teresa sounded shocked.
“Yes, Teresa – it wasn’t healthy for a boy to get so attached to something like that. We were trying to break him of some bad habits.”
Johnny snorted, and looked up but kept his peace. Scott could feel the waves of anger and hurt from Johnny, unable to touch those things he felt were his while under the close gaze of his father.
That was all there was in the first box. Scott put it carefully behind him and started on the second one. On top, another toy, a delicately carved wooden horse, which Johnny seemed to remember – his expression warmed for a moment, then closed off again. “Didn’t bother taking that one from me, then?”
“I made it for you myself, John. You would hardly let it go some days.”
“Well, I ain’t keepin’ it now.”
Scott had no choice but to go on, much as he was regretting his suggestion about getting the boxes open. A couple of small boxes, a shawl, a bright-coloured skirt and blouse and another small packet of papers; that’s all there was.
The packet of papers turned out to be a picture Johnny had drawn of a tall, strong-looking man, created from the imagination of a small boy.
“I wondered what you looked like. Ma told me and I tried to draw you. Kept it under my pillow when my step-father came down hard on me for something.” Teresa was openly crying. Scott knew that she had more knowledge of the events of Murdoch’s marriage to Maria, but she was clearly touched by these glimpses into the heartbreaks surrounding Johnny’s childhood.
Next, two sealed letters, one to Johnny and one to Murdoch. At least there was no dispute about the owners of these but both father and son chose not to open their letters in front of the other. Scott was puzzled.
“How did she know to put both of them in the same box, Murdoch?”
“Hope? I don’t know, son, but it was like her to wish for things she couldn’t have. She must have thought whoever got the boxes would hand the letter on if they had the chance.”
One of the smaller boxes Scott opened contained some medicines and ointments, one for skin complaints. “She had sensitive skin,” Murdoch mused.
Finally, Scott opened the last box, a carved wooden one. Trinkets, he thought at first, worthless bits of glass. But as he tipped them onto the table, a ring rolled towards Johnny, who stopped it and picked it up.
“Her wedding ring. It has her initials and mine – there. Look.” Murdoch reached across for the ring but Johnny put it down on the table with the other bits of their past.
“Wouldn’t want to be thought to be stealing it,” he said bitterly.
“Now – son…” Murdoch didn’t finish. “Well, now, I always wondered where that went …” He picked up a cameo brooch. “My mother’s brooch. I wonder how she got hold of that.”
His quiet musing was interrupted by an imprecation. It was Johnny, self-control finally gone as he drew his own conclusion from Murdoch’s words.
“You’re saying she stole this, ain’t you! You’re planning to steal all this from me, like you stole my chance at an education and a life with a brother and a mother, all because you would only think to need us when you were – ” He stopped suddenly, wrapping his right arm round his chest and drawing a quick breath. “No – no, I’m all right.” Teresa had moved to help him but he stood and backed away from the table. “You’re planning to steal it all back from her and me. But you’re gonna have to go through me to get it.”
Angry again, Murdoch stepped round the table and went for Johnny, catching him by the shoulders and holding him, preparing to give him whatever piece of his mind he thought he deserved. Somehow Johnny squirmed out from his father’s hands but at cost to his injuries. The blood was suddenly bright on his shirt; the anguish bright in his eye.
“You think you can take me, old man? You think I can’t defend myself?” And there it was, that amazing, faster than eye could see action as Johnny pulled his gun on his father. Murdoch stood quite still. Scott was holding his breath. Johnny spoke again. “Promise me you’ll keep everything till I get back, Scott.”
“But brother …”
“No, Scott! Promise.”
“Sure, Johnny, but where are you going now?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere away from here. Anywhere.” His revolver still pointed at Murdoch’s heart, Johnny backed away, then turned and walked quickly out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
Murdoch, clearly shocked, sat down heavily. “What have I done?” he asked.
“There’s still one more thing here,” said Scott, more to distract his father than that he’d found anything too important. It was a locket. Behind the glass in the back was a black curl of softest baby hair. Murdoch took the locket, looked at it, groaned and strode out of the room.
Scott, still in control of himself, gradually began to put the fragments of three lives back into the boxes. Teresa, her voice trembling but evidently angry herself, interrupted him.
“Is that all you’re going to do? Put the things away again. Didn’t you see he was bleeding? He told me he’d pulled a muscle but he was bleeding. Go after him – he’d do the same for you.”
“In that mood? Leave him to cool off – he can’t get far.”
Teresa stamped her foot in impatience with him. “Do you care about him at all? He always cares about you – he’s given up some important things to help you, more than once. Get after him, Scott, before he gets himself killed.”
Sighing, Scott left the room, for a moment tired of trailing after Johnny, of trying to clean up after his brother. It didn’t take long to find him – all he had to do was follow the sound of raised voices. He stood for a moment outside Jelly’s room, listening, trying to judge a good moment to interrupt.
“Jelly! You were supposed to be there – to stop me from doing the fool thing I went and did!”
“And just how was I supposed to stop you? Barranca needed my attention – I forgot the time. Hold still, let’s see what’s happened here. Oh, look now, you’ve pulled a coupla stitches – it ain’t so bad. Doc’ll fix you up in no time. Why, I’d do it myself if I had some of that fancy thread they use. I told you to wear the sling, didn’t I, but you wouldn’t have it. No siree. Wouldn’t do to let Murdoch know how much it cost you to get them boxes, now would it.”
“I’ll get it patched up in town, Give me my shirt – I ain’t stayin’ here a minute longer than I hafta. Is Barranca fit to travel?”
“No, sir, no, he ain’t. And neither are you. You can’t hardly stand straight as it is. How’d’you expect to ride?”
Scott had heard enough. His intervention was required. He stepped into Jelly’s room and stopped the conversation cold.
Johnny stood, shirtless, holding on to the bedpost while Jelly stripped away the last of the bloodied bandaging. The left side of his chest was a mass of purple and yellow bruising, gathered round each rib, the marks of a fall, not a beating. His eye was half-closed now; that, too was from a heavy bruise on his temple which looked like the result of a fall.
Scott had to ask one question first. “Just why were you wearing that gun at table? I didn’t notice it – you always take it off and leave it on the mantel.”
“Couldn’t take it off,” Johnny muttered, evidently still blazingly angry.
“Were you expecting trouble?”
“No – I mean I couldn’t take it off. Can’t use this arm much at all now – could when I put it on, can’t now. Did the old man send you? Jelly, be careful with that.” The gasp of pain and Johnny’s admission finally convinced Scott the situation was several degrees more serious than he’d thought. The blood running from a knife wound high in his brother’s left chest was proof enough. Surely someone had aimed at his heart.
Jelly got a compress on and staunched the blood. “There now, that’ll stop it bleeding for a while. Whoever sewed you up did a neat job but didn’t intend for you to go moving around and falling off horses.”
“You fell off your horse? Is that why Barranca was lame?”
“Tripped in a gopher hole or somethin’. Did all he could not to roll on me, too. Couldn’t hold onto him cos …”
“Because you’d travelled God knows how far with a knife wound in you. Brother, you are a stubborn man.”
Johnny smiled wanly at him. “I’m on my way, soon as Jelly gets this fixed. Maybe Murdoch won’t mind if I leave Barranca here a few days. I’ll go into town and get this fixed again and then I’ll move on.” Sadness was beginning to temper the anger; his brother, barely standing, was offering to take himself out of the way. “All that practising, Scott, all that pride in what I could do – why did I have to use it that way? I damn near killed him.”
Jelly had the wound bound again and was helping Johnny back into his shirt.
“Because Murdoch’s being a stubborn old fool and you had every right to be angry with him. He has no right to things which have been willed to you – no right at all.”
“And I pulled a gun on him. Then I couldn’t even pick up the boxes, let alone carry them away. Oh boy – how’d things get so tied round themselves?”
Scott moved to sit on the bed, close to his brother – ready to help any way he could. Right now, his clear head was what was needed.
“If you’re bound and determined to get away, why don’t you let me and Teresa help out? We can take you up into the hills; maybe to that old house we found – yeah, that’d do. Teresa and I, we can look out for you until you’re feeling stronger, and by then we’ll have had a chance to talk to Murdoch. He’ll have cooled off and so will you.”
“I hate to tell you this, Scott, but we can only get up there on horseback, and I don’t think I can ride right now. I can be patient when I need to but I can’t stay trapped here, not now.”
“Sit there, brother. I’ll have this worked out before you know it.”
Between them, Jelly and Scott finally persuaded him to sit down. Scott then detailed Jelly off to pack food, blankets and fire makings and to saddle two horses before heading back to the house.
Teresa was working in the kitchen, as usual preferring action to moping. The boxes were still on the table.
“Well?” she said, her temper still running high.
“He’s letting me take him up into the hills for a while. It’s the best I could do – he’d have just left any way he could, though he knows he can’t ride. The blood’s from a knife wound, Teresa – someone tried to kill him.”
“Oh – how can you men be so foolish? Why didn’t he just tell Murdoch that? All right, what do you want me to do?”
“Ride up with us. Then spend what time you can with him. I’ll spell you when I’m not working. Can you tell Murdoch you’re off visiting?”
“Not at this time of night. Not easily.”
In a sudden moment of insight, Scott saw what she was trying not to do. “You’ve never lied to him. I can’t make you now. But you can’t tell him what we’ve got planned.”
“All right – I’ll think of something. I’ll get some more bandages and the laudanum. Go and get the medicine bag from my room. I don’t know where Murdoch is – I’ll write him a note.”
“We can do this, Teresa, I’m sure we can. It’ll be all right – you see.”
“Yes – of course, Scott. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
She could be absolutely trusted, Scott knew – unless she ran into Murdoch. She wouldn’t lie to him, not even for Johnny. So he had to get her, himself and Johnny organised to leave the ranch in short order.
He did it, too. It was close to midnight when they finally left. Teresa rode one horse and led another, with the supplies Jelly had been able to put together. The brothers shared the third horse, Johnny in front, Scott behind and already having to work to keep his brother in the saddle. And so they left the ranch, in the dark of the night, none of them sure of the future, in the dim starlight.
It took an hour and a half to cover the distance in the quiet dark. Johnny’s wound was still bleeding; as Scott held him, he could feel the warm dampness spread down Johnny’s shirt. But he could do nothing except continue to guide the horse and lead the way. Teresa said little, riding alongside and keeping pace but otherwise unable to help. It was not easy to stay on the horse but Scott kept at it without complaint, holding his brother firmly yet trying to protect his bruised left side.
At last after a long, slow climb they reached a ridge. The landscape rushed away from them to the valley floor. Teresa kept close, then reached across to touch Johnny’s hand. He was still conscious and clasped her hand firmly.
“I’m still here, Teresa. Don’t you worry about me.”
“Oh, you know me – always worrying. Always trying to clear up after you too.”
“You do a fine job,” Scott volunteered, happy that she was there and able to share in caring for Johnny. “There’s the house, up ahead. What fool built it here? Apart from the stream there’s nothing here.”
“Let’s just be grateful they did, Scott. Can we light a fire here?”
“We’ll have to. But you’re right, it’ll be seen. I’ll tell the hands something tomorrow to keep them quiet. And maybe no fire during the day? I don’t know – let’s just get Johnny inside.”
Scott jumped clear of the horse and tethered it securely before returning to Johnny, who was already trying to dismount. It was more like a half-controlled fall but he managed it. Scott put his arm round his brother’s waist and Johnny’s right arm round his shoulders; together they made it inside. Teresa had pulled the essentials from the pack horse and came in right after them.
There was no furniture, not even an old chair, so Scott had to lower Johnny to the floor and lean him against a wall. Teresa lit a lantern and sighed. “Good job I thought to pack plenty of blankets. With no bed it’s going to be uncomfortable, Johnny. And don’t say you’ve had worse because I know you have – but not when you’ve been so bruised.”
“It’ll do. It’ll be fine. Nice cup of coffee, an’ an early night – what d’yer say, Boston?”
“I say save your strength, brother, and let us get on with what needs doing.”
Wood to be gathered by lanternlight; windows needing blankets tacking over them to keep out some of the cold mountain air; bringing in food and whatever he could to make Johnny more comfortable kept Scott occupied for the next half hour. Teresa had the fire lit and coffee on as soon as she could. Then she unpacked her medicine bag and turned to Johnny, who appeared to have gone to sleep.
“Scott – we’ve got to get his clothes off him. I need to see how bad this is. If he’s kept quiet about the knife wound, what else is he keeping to himself? Did you say Barranca threw him? It won’t be just his chest that’s bruised then, will it?”
“Well, he can still walk, so I guess he can’t be too bad off. And he’s still alive which suggests nothing inside is damaged from the fall. And …” Scott felt his brother’s forehead, “he’s only a might feverish, so… He’s had medical attention.”
Johnny woke up and looked at them both with bright eyes. “I did take care of myself properly. A doc fixed me up, good as new. But Barranca…”
“We know. Barranca threw you. No, come on, don’t be stubborn, let’s get you out of these clothes. You want to look your best when the doc checks you tomorrow, don’t you?”
“You don’t leave a man much dignity, do you?” Johnny complained as they stripped him.
“Johnny – I’ve seen a man naked before. Stop fussing.”
“You have?” he replied, trying to keep the tone light. “And just who would that be?”
“None of your business. But I live on a ranch with all you men – I was bound to see something. Now, cover yourself if you like but I want to see how your hip and leg are doing.”
Scott, amused by her briskness, held the lantern while Johnny kept the edge of a blanket over his last shred of dignity. Scott didn’t like what he saw and neither did Teresa but neither said anything.
“Cold compresses will help – Scott, take these and soak them in the stream. It’ll be icy, up this high. I’ll make a remedy for you, help to stop the pain. How did you walk with this?”
“It ain’t so bad. Stiffened up some but it still works. Just as well, otherwise you’d be having to tend to my needs in a way that’d leave me plum embarrassed.”
Scott laughed aloud at his brother’s ability to joke away any problem; but he didn’t like the look of his bruises and the way that the wound leaked a little blood, slowly, like water oozing slowly out of the holes that could be dug in a dry river bed, if you picked the right place. He soaked the cloths Teresa had given him and filled a bucket with cold water, too. When he returned, Teresa had a large piece of cloth and was pressing hard on the wound, making Johnny squirm with the pain of it.
“What’re you doin’?” Scott demanded, suddenly out of his depth.
“I read somewhere, or someone showed me – this is how to get it to stop. If we don’t, there won’t be enough blood left in him and he’ll die whatever we do. I tried it before, on you, and it worked. Don’t you remember?”
“Of course! Worked too, though it hurt like hell while you did it. You all right there, boy?”
Scott held the lantern up and saw Johnny’s face, glistening with sweat, his eyes closed, his mouth working to keep in the sounds of pain.
“Sure, Scott, I’m just dandy. Teresa puts all her weight on my shoulder and it’s just fine.”
“I think we’re getting to him at last, Teresa. Now – see if …”
“No – keep the cloth there. The body does the rest, see, but we mustn’t move the cloth away.”
Ten minutes later, both were sure the cloth was getting no bloodier. Teresa then pulled Johnny’s arm up across his chest and wrapped a sling round it to keep it rested. She began to wash away the blood. Johnny was still conscious but quieter; he hadn’t been able to suppress the groans when she’d moved his arm.
“Put the compresses on his left side, there – I’m sorry, this is cold, but it will make you feel better. Now something over his eyes, keep the fever down.”
And she continued, making up a drink for him with some herbs she had brought and then pouring coffee for Scott and herself. As soon as he had drunk the bitter tisane Johnny slept again, restlessly. It was all they could do to keep the compresses on him. And all round them, the cold of the mountain pressed against the house, kept at bay only by the fire both worked to maintain. The hugeness of the landscape dwarfed their tiny refuge. Scott, having done all he could, slept for a while then let Teresa sleep. She would have to carry the bulk of the time with Johnny, who needed her patient nursing; and she would need her sleep.
At dawn, just as the first brilliant light cleared the mountain top, Scott helped Johnny to dress again, to try to keep him warmer. Then he mounted his horse, waved his farewells to Teresa and headed back down into the valley. He looked back once more before the curve of the mountain hid the house. He had brought away the pack animal with him; he had hidden Teresa’s horse; they had found the driest wood they could and now the fire was out. It looked for all the world as deserted as it had done before, although someone looking closely would have seen the blankets at the windows. It would have to do. Now the last trick to pull off was persuading Murdoch to back down and accept that his younger son had a right to the stuff it had cost him so much to bring back to them.
Scott rode back to the ranch anticipating trouble. Teresa was away with no reason he could give, and himself gone all night, would certainly give Murdoch the chance to figure out what they were doing. But he had no other solution – however annoying Johnny could be, however headstrong, he was his brother and, while he’d been loathe to admit it, he enjoyed being grabbed, wrestled and even occasionally almost hugged by his exuberant younger brother. Johnny leaving for good was no longer an option and he would fight with every ounce of his intelligence and training to keep him safe.
He reined in at the main door and hitched his horse. Jelly greeted him unusually quietly.
“Well? You got him safe?”
“Yes – Teresa’s looking after him. I don’t envy her – he’s hurting. Where’s Murdoch?”
“I saw him readin’ at his desk, not five minutes back.”
Scott glanced through the french window, sure that Murdoch was aware of his presence. His father sat, head bowed over a piece of paper he was holding. He didn’t look up as Scott entered, and remained silent. The two boxes had been moved to the floor by Murdoch’s chair.
“What does she say? I’m sorry – is it private?”
“What she says won’t make this any easier, Scott. It seems Johnny lied about the will. She says she’s giving the boxes to me – all of it, except one thing, which he can choose for himself.”
Taken aback, Scott tried to think. “Why – why would he tell us different, then? Murdoch, you’ve no idea the trouble he’s been to. Maybe he just got the wrong idea somehow. In any case, is it worth worrying about, just for these few oddments of clothes and jewellery.”
Murdoch looked up, pain in every line on his face. “It’s what’s left of a marriage, Scott – it’s all I have of her.”
As a rule, Scott deferred to and agreed with his father. They were much alike. But this denial of Johnny’s worth was too much.
“You have Johnny. Surely he’s more important than this? He has little enough – don’t you think he deserves this? He pulled a gun on you but he hates himself for doing it. Maybe he needs you to reassure him that when he goes wrong, someone’ll care enough to put him back on the right track.”
“I can’t do that for him, son. Maria’s instructions are quite clear. But I will write Johnny a note – I’m guessing you know where to find him. Then he can read his mother’s notes and mine, and make some decision for himself.”
“I think he needs more than that …”
“Don’t press me, Scott. If he wants to come back here, I’ll take him in. If not, he must try to find his life somewhere else. Oh, and Scott, bring Teresa back here. It’s not fair on her to drag her into this.”
Scott found himself losing his temper. It was a rare experience for him and he didn’t altogether like it; but the time had come to set Murdoch straight.
“I doubt Johnny’ll live without Teresa. I shall bring her back when Johnny no longer needs her. Write your note and I’ll take it and Maria’s letter to him. But this is not the end of it, Murdoch, and I’m going to do my damnedest to bring this family back together, even if you won’t.”
Scott turned on his heel and walked through to the kitchen, remembering what had happened there as soon as he saw the chair still pushed back, just as Johnny had left it. Murdoch did not follow him.
There were a few practical matters to sort out. He put Jelly in charge of getting a doctor organised. He took some more supplies, changed and saddled a fresh horse. He checked with the foreman that there was nothing immediately needing attention. The whole place seemed too quiet, as if the heart had gone out of it. A scant hour later he was back in Murdoch’s office, silently picking up two letters left for him there. Murdoch had not waited to give them to him, nor to wish him well.
He hadn’t intended to go back to the house quite so soon. But he felt somehow that Murdoch had driven him away. In any case, Johnny needed to be reading the letters and learning the truth. Scott did not doubt that somehow, Johnny had simply misunderstood a message; surely he would not try to keep to a lie about something so important.
When, somewhat tired, he dismounted outside the house, he paused to look out over the ranch, spread wide at his feet. Despite all their initial troubles, the family had begun to work together. It had taken so little to blow it apart again, across the generations. He took his saddlebags and pushed open the door quietly.
Teresa sat by the dead fire, in the half-dark, cross-legged, head nodding forward. She smiled and put a finger to her lips. Scott glanced across; huddled in a corner Johnny lay, sound asleep, breathing deeply and steadily. In sleep he was not himself; he could be very relaxed when he chose; but this was more than relaxed; it was as if he was gone from them. Scott automatically checked on him and was only reassured when he felt his brother’s breath on his hand. It was irrational; he could see his brother breathe but somehow he needed more proof. He stood and beckoned Teresa to join him outside.
He relayed as much as he could accurately remember of what Murdoch had said. Teresa walked slowly away, clearly annoyed. She stood in the sun, hands on hips, looking out, as Scott had done, over the hundred thousand acres of Lancer.
“Wake him. Let him read the letters. This has to be done now. We’ll get no thanks for making him wait.”
Scott made no argument; that had been his thought too.
They shook him gently awake and then propped him upright. Scott passed him the pages of the letters, opened and flattened for him to manage easily. Johnny looked at them, then placed them carefully at his side.
“Dunno that I want to read these.”
“You don’t? Why not?” The reaction was in character but not quite what Scott had expected.
“Because I never had both my parents lecturing me at once, not that I remember.”
“You don’t know what they’re going to say.”
“Nope – but I reckon I don’t want to, neither.”
“Johnny – don’t be so exasperating! Read your mother’s first.”
His brother finally gave in, having shrugged responsibility for the decision onto Scott. He read aloud. “Hijo mío.”
“Aloud? In Spanish?”
“Thought you meant read it out.” He grinned at them but it was nervousness, not teasing. Scott affected his most glacial stare and Johnny gave in and read silently, following the Spanish through carefully. Without comment, he put the letter aside; but he was chewing on his bottom lip and his hand shook. He reached for Murdoch’s note and read that through with the same quiet, intense concentration. When he laid that down, too, he looked at Scott and Teresa again.
“Give me a hand up.”
Scott didn’t question him. He knew Johnny needed to move, however many difficulties that might cause. He’d already been still too long. So he pulled him up and put his buckskin coat round his shoulders.
“I’m gonna go outside a few minutes and think this through. I’ll be fine – ease my leg – won’t do it no harm. Can you read Spanish?”
“I can,” Teresa volunteered.
“Read them letters – see what you think. Then we can talk about what needs to be done, all of us.”
He sounded rational and, while clearly shaky, he was in command of himself. So they let him slip outside. Teresa translated for Scott.
“She says – well, some personal things. She loves him, she wishes she could have guided him better. She did what she did and she’s sorry he had to live with the consequences. Now – oh, Scott! The will – she says she’s sorry, but she didn’t will him the boxes. That was the only way she could think to get him to come and fetch the boxes. She gave them to a cousin, told her to find Johnny if she could, and send for him with the promise of something willed to him. She’s told him to keep one thing and give the rest to Murdoch. Scott – I guess most people round here know now about Johnny, what his name used to be and who he is now, so maybe this cousin just found out and sent the message.”
Scott couldn’t think what to say. Johnny had been lied to and had been accused of lying, all because his mother wanted to give Murdoch two boxes.
“How are we going to set this right, Teresa?”
“Read the other letter, Scott, before you interfere.” Teresa was calm and quiet in the face of the mountain of difficulties and her self-assurance encouraged Scott.
He read the note aloud. There was little in it to surprise him. Murdoch had stopped short of calling Johnny a liar; had even left unmentioned Johnny’s earlier action. But he was clear. The boxes stayed with him. He could come back to the ranch, choose one item and then stay or go, whichever he needed to do.
“He’s thrown the whole decision back on Johnny’s shoulders, hasn’t he. How could he? I love Murdoch as much as I loved my own father, but he’s dead wrong in this.”
They both went to join Johnny, who was leaning against the wall of the cabin.
All three were silent for a while, letting the sun warm them. Scott held his peace, waiting for some signal from Johnny to begin to talk it through. When none came, it was Teresa who prompted him.
“We both think Murdoch’s wrong, Johnny. Give us some time with him – we can talk him round.”
When Johnny spoke, there was a bitterness in his voice they thought had been softened out of him over the months.
“Give me some time with him – won’t be long before I end up killing him.”
“Oh, Johnny! Come inside, rest, we’ll get this all straight somehow.”
“I ain’t needin’ rest, Teresa. I’m needin’ advice and a chance to think. I go and say anything to him right now and it’ll be the end of my life here. He’ll hate me too much to ever take me back. But I ain’t thinking of makin’ you do my hard work for me.”
“This is something we do together, brother.” Scott chipped in at last with the only thing he felt sure about. We just need some way to get through that thick hide of his.”
“I believe I’ll – just go back inside now – just for a spell …”
Scott hadn’t noticed how much paler Johnny had become. He caught him as he fell forward and, without comment, threw him over his shoulder. He balanced him carefully and took him back inside.
Once they’d got him comfortable again, Scott and Teresa talked for a long time; but no real solution presented itself. They did some necessary chores, ate a cold meal at midday and watched over Johnny, who drifted in and out most of the morning before waking, telling them he was feeling better, and then slept again.
As the day wore on towards late afternoon, Scott began to worry since no doctor had arrived. Finally Johnny woke and asked for water. He struggled to sit up; they wrapped the blanket round him then sat down to listen, since he seemed anxious to talk to them.
“I can’t make no sense of Ma lying to me. I’d have fetched them things for her, whether she wanted me to have them or not. So why did she go lyin’ to me?”
“She left you before she knew who you’d be, Johnny. She only saw you young. How was she to know you wouldn’t grow up just wanting to grab what you could get? That’s what most people in your old line of work wanted. Wasn’t it?”
“I guess. I had to go a long way back in the past to get them boxes. I went right down to the border, back to a town I could just remember. We visited Ma’s cousin once – I did remember her. Poorest town you’ve ever seen – folks with nothin’ to do, no money, just enough food to keep the life in the children, nothin’ to spare. I had to go back as Johnny Madrid – only way to keep them from stealin’ everythin’ from me. They know my reputation all right. Ma’s cousin heard from a friend of hers I was here and my name was Lancer, but she’d kept quiet – jus’ sent the message like Ma had told her to, all those years ago. Here, Scott, let me have more of that water.”
Scott passed him the canteen and he drank from it thirstily.
“I stayed with them, shared their food, gave them some coffee and stuff I had with me and then bedded down there. In the night, someone tried to rob me. I couldn’t kill him, didn’t seem – right somehow – and that cost me this knife cut. Still didn’t kill him, Scott. He had nothing – he only wanted something he could sell. He was grateful, got the doc to me, and he did a good job of patching me up. That’s all there is to tell – took the boxes, headed back home, then Barranca threw me and I walked back. The rest you know.”
Scott knew there was a whole lot more to tell; Johnny had cut away everything he couldn’t say right then. But in what he didn’t say Scott knew lay the reason he wanted so badly to keep what he had fetched, and not give it back to his father, whatever he wanted or had a right to. Johnny had one more thing to say.
“I forgive them both. If they want the stuff who am I to argue with that. No help me up, I need to stretch my legs some.”
“Yes, Scott, I’m sure. Leave me be a few minutes. Then I want some coffee and something to eat, if we can light a fire now?”
With Scott’s help Johnny made it to his feet, swayed and then righted himself. He let the blanket fall to the floor and made his way to the door, opened it, and slipped outside.
“Will he be all right?” Teresa asked, her hushed voice revealing how moved she had been by Johnny’s simple words.
“We can’t fuss over him any more. Another night’s sleep, and then we’ll get him into town tomorrow, risk losing him if he slips off. The doc should have been here by now.”
“I’ll get the fire going.”
“Can you see any way forward?”
Making coffee and cooking up the meal took their attention. Scott hadn’t been keeping track of time until a sliver of late day sunlight penetrated the dusky room and he knew time had slipped by.
“Should I get Johnny?” he said as carelessly as he could. Teresa knew immediately what he meant but kept up the fiction that it wasn’t worrying that he’d be gone some time.
“Yes – it’s all ready. He’ll be outside somewhere. Probably liked to look at the view. He likes looking at his property.” She smiled and threw another couple of logs onto the fire in its broad, stone fireplace.
“I’ll find him. I’ve had plenty of practice. Every morning. Search for Johnny.”
“You love it, Scott – makes you feel like the elder brother every time you do it, doesn’t it?”
Scott tried to smile but hoped it would be an easier search than usual
He went outside and started calling, thinking to flush Johnny out straight away. He couldn’t have got far. Once round the house and a check on the outhouse convinced him it was going to be as hard as the morning searches; but his brother was a wanderer and it’d be easy to find a hidden place in amongst the boulders which punctuated the earth slope. He jumped on top of one of the nearest and saw, not Johnny, but something he would not have missed. Slowly making his way up the slope on horseback, still quite small but unmistakable, was Murdoch. There were two people with him, but in the slowly fading light Scott could not make out who they were.
Suddenly it became imperative to find Johnny. He ran back to the house, shouting for Teresa, who came to the door of the cabin.
“I can’t find him! And Murdoch’ll be here in just a few minutes. Where can he have gone?”
“Here – calm down. Take this lantern and go find him – I’ll send Murdoch after you. He’s not taken a horse has he?”
Scott hadn’t thought of that – no, horses present and correct. So he was on foot. Which way would he go – higher? Down to meet Murdoch, or slide past him in the dark? Running from Murdoch rather than towards him made more sense to him, but would it to Johnny? Even travelling slowly it’d be easy enough to get lost, or lose pursuit in – how long had Johnny had? He cursed himself – he wasn’t even sure of that. He couldn’t have got far – Scott held on to that hope as well as he could while Teresa organised the lantern
Scott set off up the slope, deciding it was best to get started, and take wide sweeps upwards. There was enough light to track but very rough ground; he didn’t have Johnny’s skill but he had more patience and, a scant five minutes later had the luck to cut the track. Its unsteadiness made Scott hurry forward faster but looking ahead he saw no sign of his brother.
He climbed and searched, following odd footsteps which were lost in the rocks too often for comfort. He paused for a moment to look back and was, for the first time in a couple of days, pleased to see his father moving rapidly towards him, with – Jelly, and a man in a black suit, carrying a bag – the doctor.
“Over here, Murdoch! Jelly! I’m on his trail!”
He was joined by three men breathing heavily. For once his father didn’t seem in the mood for recriminations.
“I saw him take off when he saw me. I’ve brought something for him and I’m going to give it to him, as soon as we find him. This has gone far enough. The house is so quiet without you all – the boxes just stood on my desk. They aren’t what I need.” He showed Scott what he had tucked in his pants pocket, and Scott knew Johnny had a chance with his father – if they could just find him.
With the four of them searching they made much better progress. Scott knew Murdoch had found Johnny a quarter of hour later when he heard his father’s shout. He hurried over the rough ground, greeting Jelly on the run, and went to stand by his brother.
Johnny lay curled against a rock, apparently asleep, for all the world like a boy on a runaway adventure. Murdoch knelt next to him. The doctor was opening his bag. For a breathless moment, Scott saw his brother dead, all the life gone from that active body; but it appeared he was not so easy to kill. He stirred as Murdoch gently called his name, then flinched away from his father, trying to get to his feet and failing.
“Whoa, son. You don’t need to run away any more. Your mother and I, we didn’t mean for this to happen. You were my boy then, and you are now – I raised you as long as I could. You belong with me and your brother – are you always going to be running away? I have something for you.” Murdoch took his son’s right hand and pressed into it the small, carefully carved wooden horse he had made for his black-haired, blue-eyed little boy, so long ago. Scott knew it was the right thing, the only thing to do. Would Johnny know that too?
Johnny was sitting up. He grasped the horse as if his life depended on it. “Murdoch.” he whispered. “Take me home.”
And just as the thinnest slice of new moon was revealed by the edge of the earth spinning away from it, Scott helped Murdoch pick up his younger son, made sure he was held safely then, following Jelly and the doctor, led the two, father and son, back down the slope. A lantern, held by Teresa as she waited in the door of the house, was the starlight to guide them home.
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6 thoughts on “Starlight by Cat”
This is such a beautiful story. Just when you want to throttle Murdoch, he comes around. Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us Lancer lovers.
Murdoch hates the way Maria treated Johnny but in his own way he does the same thing. Sure he comes around but it almost always comes at Johnny’s expense. I still enjoyed the story, thanks 😊
Thanks! I’ve changed my mind since I wrote this story – I wrote it a long time ago now!
Good dramatic family story with a negative (nearly to the end) Murdoch. However one has to wonder, if Murdoch hadn’t realized that Scott and
Teresa were standing with Johnny, would he have relented? Other than the wedding ring, there wasn’t actually very much that needed to belong to Murdoch.
Thank you! I wouldn’t write Murdoch like this now, but it was my first story after re-discovering the series so it has its faults!
I think you did a wonderful job on this story. There’s nothing wrong with the way you wrote Murdoch even if you would do it differently now. His character was consistent to the very end, selfishly choosing the one thing that Johnny could have rather than letting Johnny choose for himself as Maria had requested. I, for one, would much rather read a mean Murdoch story than an immature, weak minded, cry baby, Johnny story. Those make me positively homicidal. So, again I say, good job and thanks for sharing.