Word count 5,476
This story was first posted to the Yahoo Lancer groups on September 19, 2005. Although, most of the writers of Lancer fanfiction use the birthdates of the main actors, I’ve chosen to have these characters born at a different time of the year. Also, for the purposes of my stories, Scott is about 3 1/2 years older than Johnny.
Although I did some more editing in September of 2014 before adding this to the files at the Lancer FanFiction group on Facebook, the story is basically the same as originally written. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
September 19, 1870
Sunday. A day of rest . . . to some, anyway.
With mouth quirked to one side and lying on his back, Scott Lancer stretched his aching arms upward. Then he brought them back beneath the coarse blanket and folded them across his chest. He would love to have rolled over onto his side and gone back to sleep. That, however, was a luxury he had given up six months ago when he had accepted a one-third share in his father’s ranch in California. Life in the west generally began at daylight or before, no matter which day of the week it was–holidays included.
Scott lay there and mused about what this particular day would be like if he were in Boston. He wouldn’t get out of bed until nine or ten o’clock. The table in the formal dining room would be set with his grandmother’s best china, and his favorite breakfast would be served on silver platters. Afterward, he might go for a ride in the park. Or his Grandfather might have the carriage brought around, and they would go for a drive. His friends would begin arriving in the early afternoon, and a buffet luncheon would be served. Then weather permitting, they would set up the wickets in the side yard and play croquet. There’d be music for dancing, cake piled high with ice cream, presents to un–
“Hey, Boston. Ya plannin’ on sleepin’ all day?” a soft voice drawled from nearby.
The vision of a perfect birthday vanished like a soap bubble bursting in the hands of a child. Scott sighed and his chest tightened. There was no use in dreaming. The day would be just another day to search steep ravines for Lancer cattle that had wandered high into the mountains east of the ranch during the hot days of summer. He was sure that his having begun his twenty-fifth year of life would be of no consequence to anyone other than himself.
A voice in Scott’s head reminded him that things could be worse. He could have spent the last six months behind a desk and missed watching the sun come up over the Sierras or seeing things like a newborn calf take its first wobbly steps, a sky full of stars brighter than he ever imagined, spectacular sunsets–.
Scott interrupted those thoughts with a rebuttal filled with reminders of baking to a crisp under that same sun, slogging through mud filled gullies, limping for days on a leg kicked by a weanling calf that he might have awed over at birth, aching from long hours in the saddle or from hoisting heavy bales of hay into the barn loft, and the terrors of finding himself caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. He barely finished the long list when his brother’s voice prodded him again.
“I’m getting up!” Scott rolled over and scowled at the dark-haired young man who had turned twenty-one shortly before they had met for the first time earlier that year.
“No need to snap my head off, Brother.” Johnny Lancer’s expression remained indifferent but the lazy softness was gone from his tone.
Scott replied with similar sharpness. “I didn’t.” He poked an elbow against the hard ground beneath his bedroll and pushed upward. Once sitting, he frowned down at his wrinkled shirt that carried the stains of sweat and dust from the day before. When he looked up, Johnny was eyeing him with a mischievous grin.
Johnny’s grin faded. “I could’ve let the old man wake ya up.”
“Thank you for being so considerate, Brother.” Scott tossed aside the blanket and reached for his closest boot. What Johnny had left unsaid brought a clear picture of Murdoch Lancer towering overhead and the sound of the man’s loud bellow ringing in his ears. Not that their father was mean or anything close to it. He simply was an imposing figure who was used to ruling his domain and, therefore, called the tune in no uncertain terms.
Johnny waved a hand at the boot. “Better check that before ya put it on. Some critters don’t like their sleep disturbed.”
“You’d do well to remember that yourself.” Scott gave his brother another scowl. Then he turned each boot up-side-down and gave it a shaking. When he was satisfied both were free of any visitors that might have taken up residence during the night, he tugged his boots on over his crusted socks that should have been washed two days ago instead of being on his feet to be worn yet another day.
Scott shuddered. The filth he had to endure was the hardest thing to contend with in this new life. It was such a stark contrast to everything his grandfather had instilled in him since childhood. Cleanliness was not an option for those of a high social standing in Boston. It was mandatory. However, living by that standard was impossible here in the wilds of California. Cattle drives and roundups simply did not accommodate bathtubs or daily changes of clothes any more than had prison life during the war between the northern and southern states.
Having no other choice, Scott shrugged into his jacket. He grasped his saddle by the horn, slung it over his shoulder, and followed his brother to where a string of horses were tethered to a rope a hundred yards or so beyond the camp. Without saying another word, they saddled and bridled their mounts. Then, leaving the cinches loose, they returned to the camp and went over to the canvas-covered wagon that was by the fire.
A group of men, with food-laden tin plates in hand, had already gathered around the campfire. Scott returned their cheerful greetings, mimicking his brother in replying in the native tongue of the Mexican vaqueros, who spoke to them in Spanish.
Not one mention was made of Scott’s birthday. Even his father gave him no more than a muffled “good morning” muttered around a mouthful of food. Scott wasn’t greatly surprised. This was as he had expected, but he couldn’t help wondering if his father was even aware of what day it was. It was doubtful. The subject of his birth had never been broached after that first day when Murdoch Lancer had cleared the air by brusquely stating that he had been born, his mother died, and he had been left in the care of her family. The past was past, and the big man had made it clear that that was where it was to stay.
Scott closed the door on the hurt deep inside of him. If his father wanted to keep the past in the past, then so be it.
“Here ya go, Boston.”
Once again saved from the un-pleasantries in his mind, Scott thanked his brother and reached for the offered plate. He took a bite of the limp bacon and picked up one of the butter-slathered biscuits. A dribble of grease from the meat sneaked down his chin. Somehow he managed to capture it with the edge of his hand while warding off the frown tugging his brow at the sight of the blackened bottom of the bread.
Scott’s appetite fled. He was tempted to dump the rest of his breakfast behind a bush for the birds to fight over. That would be a foolish move. He would be famished long before dinner time that night. Instead he forced down the food with a fake zeal that would have impressed any stage director with his acting abilities.
The day went pretty much as anticipated. In accordance with Murdoch’s orders, Scott accompanied Johnny up a ridge where they fanned out at the top and checked all the fingers of a rugged ravine that dumped into the southern branch of the Rio Verde near an abandoned shack five miles and a thousand feet lower in elevation to the south. A little to the east of its namesake, the town of Green River, this same river was joined by its northern fork, which passed through the Lancer valley.
By the time the crude cabin came into view, Scott was tired and irritable. He wished he could soak the weariness from his bones in a tub of hot water, change into clean shirt and pants, and then sit down and relax for the rest of the evening while his horse was rubbed down by other hands and a scrumptious dinner was served without his having had to lift a finger to help in its preparation. That was not to be. His own hands would see to his horse’s comfort, and jerky and a few hard biscuits were the only things he and his brother would be dining on unless by some miracle Murdoch had sent someone to stock the cabin with food supplies. This was doubtful, since this particular shack was not on Lancer land and had been devoid of anything edible less than two weeks ago when he had spent the night there with Johnny to escape a late summer thundershower.
Scott was tempted to ride on to Green River, book a room at the hotel, and eat in the establishment’s dining room. He could get up early and be back on the job by daylight the next morning. This was out of the question, and he knew it. First off, he was too tired to make the five mile ride. Second, he didn’t have a change of clothes, and the store would be closed before he could get there. Third, he wasn’t about to have his brother wanting to know why a decent meal and a soft bed were so important on this particular night. The two of them had roughed it before under worse conditions than this and when closer to town. Johnny was too perceptive not to see through fabricated excuses, and telling him the truth was out of the question. The last thing Scott wanted was sympathy because their father had overlooked, forgotten, or purposely ignored his birthday.
The cattle ahead broke for the river. Scott let them go and rode on through the deepening shadows to the shack. In the morning, he and Johnny would finish scouring the area for strays and then drive their herd back to the main camp.
When Scott rode up to the half-moon shaped corral, which was attached to a lean-to that showed the sad effects of wind and rain, his brother was dismounting at the drooping gate.
Johnny reached for the latch and nodded a greeting to Scott. “Find many?”
“Eighteen or twenty. And you?”
“About the same.” Johnny shoved the gate open. He licked his upper lip and tucked it between his teeth while watching Scott dismount.
Once Scott was on the ground, Johnny reached for Chico’s reins. “I’ll take care of the horses.”
Scott refused to relinquish his grip. “I am fully capable of tending to my own mount.”
Johnny lifted one hand in mock surrender while keeping a restraining grip on his own horse’s reins with the other. “Didn’t say ya wasn’t,” he drawled. “Just thought you could rustle up somethin’ to eat while I got the horses squared away. I don’t know about you, but I’m starved.”
The corners of Johnny’s mouth twitched upward, and the glint in his eyes contradicted his abrupt tone. Scott suspected his brother was up to something but quickly dismissed the thought. I’m just tired, he reasoned as he led his horse up beside his brother’s palomino.
Upon handing his reins over without further argument, Scott stepped out of the way. “I’ll do what I can . . . but if you expect much of a meal, you better start praying and fast.”
Johnny grinned. “What ya think I’ve been doin’ for the last hour?” He let out a soft chuckle, looked away, and tugged on both sets of reins.
A picture of his brother riding with folded hands and bowed head while pleading with the almighty God came to mind, and Scott let out a laugh. He was still chuckling when he slapped his horse on the rump and turned toward the shack as Johnny moved on into the corral.
On the way past the woodpile at the back corner of the cabin, Scott decided he might as well collect an armload of wood before going inside. Fat rounds of oak, which would have to be split into kindling for starting the fire, greeted him. He groaned. Neither he nor his brother had an ax with them, and he didn’t remember there being one anywhere around before. Apparently the offer to care for the horses hadn’t been a favor after all. If he was to fix a hot meal, provided there was even anything to cook, he would have to go looking for some smaller chucks of wood.
With a scowl drawing his brows together, Scott grumbled under his breath and started for a clump of trees that was beyond the shack. He abruptly halted three strides later at the far side of the woodpile. There in front of him was a chunk of wood as big around as a barrel, and stuck in the center was an ax that was serviceable despite its handle having seen better days.
Scott supposed some traveler could have forgotten it. He couldn’t think of any other explanation for it being there. Not that he cared at the moment. He was just glad to have a way to chop up the block of wood.
While he worked, Scott imagined he caught a whiff of smoke and something more tantalizing that he couldn’t quite identify. That was ridiculous. His aching arms and back had to be making his mind play tricks on him.
Scott continued swinging the ax until finally enough wood had been split to build a decent fire. He filled his arms and started for cabin.
Loose boards squawked with each step as Scott crossed the porch at the front of the shack. He half expected the floor to give way before he reached the door. It didn’t, and he shifted his load enough to get the fingers of his right hand under the latch and lift. When he felt the door give a little, he kicked it wide open with the toe of his boot — rusty hinges protesting with an eerie groan.
The smell of fresh biscuits mingled with other odors reminiscent of the kitchen in the Lancer house at dinner time met Scott’s nose. He ignored them, telling himself his mine was still playing tricks on him.
Scott stepped through the doorway. Although his load hid much of the room from view, but he confidently walked straight ahead toward the fireplace he knew was in the far wall. When he had last been in the cabin, the path between the table on the left and the built-in bunk-beds to the right had been clear. He could think of no reason for anything to have been moved in the mean time.
Scott felt his thigh collide with the unyielding corner of the table. He grunted, his left arm lowering at the strong urge to grab his leg. The stack of firewood shifted and the upper sticks skidded to one side.
Desperate to keep from loosing any part of the tipsy load, Scott juggled the wood from arm to arm. He almost had control of his unruly cargo when his gaze was drawn to the other end of the table where the trim figure of his father’s ward came into view. His mouth sagged open and the wood was forgotten. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Another pair of hands seemed to come out of nowhere to grab the bundle of wood and save him from the impending disaster of the entire armload landing on his feet. Equally as surprised to see his father as he had been to find Teresa in the cabin, Scott allowed the man to take the firewood. “Murdoch?” he whispered without waiting for the girl to respond to his former question.
Immediately Teresa was at Scott’s side, taking hold of his arm before he was barely free of his burden. She tugged him toward the blanketed corner near the foot of the beds. “We have a hot bath all ready for you.”
“Bath?” Scott struggled to make sense of all that was happening. Up to now, he hadn’t even noticed the make-shift curtain to the right of the door.
“Your clothes are there on the top bunk. You’ll find soap, washcloths, and towels on that chair. Don’t take too long. Johnny’ll want to clean up too, and you don’t want your birthday dinner to get cold.” As she kept up a steady chatter, Teresa pulled back one side of the blanket to reveal a large wooden tub. She stepped to one side, guided Scott into the small cubical, and was gone, closing the blanket behind her.
Shut off from the rest of the room, Scott stood for a moment wondering if he had heard correctly. Surely he had to be dreaming. It didn’t seem possible that his wishes of earlier were about to be granted. His nose, however, assured him that a pleasant meal was in the making.
The bath water was too inviting for Scott to ignore it for long. He soon set his thoughts aside and stripped off his clothes. Then leaving the garments where they had fallen on the floor in a mountain like heap, complete with a maze of ridges and deep ravines, he climbed into the tub and sank into sheer bliss as the warmth of the water enveloped him midway up his chest and soothed his aching muscles.
Scott slouched deeper into the tub, leaned his head against the rim, and closed his eyes. Later he would puzzle over how his father and Teresa had managed to time everything so that the fire would be out when he arrived and yet the bath water would be hot enough to sting. For now he was content to bask in the unexpected luxury while the weariness of the day slowly melted away.
Time slipped by. All too soon, Johnny’s complaining voice seeped into Scott’s sanctuary. “Hey, ya mind lettin’ me clean up before that water gets cold?”
“I’ll be out in few minutes,” Scott replied, unable to hide his reluctance to abandon his dream world.
“Well see that ya are. If you’re in there much longer, you’re gunna look like a prune.”
There was a chuckle from the other side of the blanket and a deeper rumble along with a soft twitter. Although his family was laughing at him, Scott was too contented to care. His ill-humored mood had dissolved away in the bath water along with the aches and pains of the day.
Except on rare occasions, patience was not a character quality that Scott had witnessed in his brother. Doubting that this would be one of those times, he relaxed for only a couple of minutes longer before reaching for the bar of soap on the chair beside the tub and vigorously putting it to work until he was squeaky clean. His supposition proved correct. He had just climbed out of the tub when Johnny returned to nag him.
“I’m out. Just give me a couple minutes to get dressed,” Scott called, lurching sideways to snatch one of the large towels from the back of the chair. He wobbled, caught his balance, and straightened while his other hand searched for and found the remaining narrow edge of the thick cloth.
Starting at the nape of his neck and see-sawing the towel, Scott scrubbed away moisture and loose skin as he gradually worked his way downward. He lingered a little over his shoulders and back — the scratching sensation feeling good — before moving on to his legs and finally ending at his heels. Then he hurriedly wiped the front of him dry. His brother’s boots were scuffing the floor outside of the curtain. Any moment, Johnny would put an end to his privacy.
Scott pulled up his pants at the same instant that a grinning face appeared between the corner of the top bunk and the edge of the blanket. Right again.
“It’s all yours, Brother.” Scott motioned toward the tub and turned to retrieve the white ruffled shirt from off the bed. He kept his back turned until he heard a light splash that meant Johnny was undressed and in the tub.
When Scott turned to face his brother, Johnny let out a whistle. “Whoowie! Look at you.”
Scott straightened his tie and retained a sober face despite his brother’s smirking grin. “How do I look: handsome, sophisticated, debonair . . .?”
“Think so?” Scott smiled, moving closer to the tub.
Triumph glinted in Johnny’s eyes. “Yep. You are pretty!”
A menacing tone crept into Scott’s voice as he leaned toward Johnny. “Little Brother, I think I need to teach you some manners.”
Johnny grinned. “Think ya can?”
“Yes, I do.” In one smooth move, Scott plunged his right hand into the water and out again with an upward flip of his fingers.
“Hey!” Johnny plowed the water from his eyes with his fists while Scott watched from two long strides away.
When his brother’s hands descended, cupped together with thumbs crossed, Scott danced backward shaking a forefinger. “Uh, uh . . . if you mess up my outfit, Teresa won’t be happy with you.”
The threat of a dowsing sank into the depths of the tub and stayed there. However, squinting eyes and the tongue protruding between parted lips told Scott that retribution had merely been delayed. Johnny would get even eventually.
Smiling at his brother’s childish behavior, Scott turned away and put on the stylish jacket that matched his grey dress pants. He was still smiling when he exited the improvised bathing room.
His suit coat seemed tighter across the shoulders than he remembered it being when he had last worn it that day he had arrived at his father’s ranch. Scott assumed it was due to the lifting of heavy bales of hay and sacks of grain, the clearing of brush from stream beds, and the wrestling of calves that needed doctored. His back and arm muscles obviously had thrived on the rigorous exercise.
“You look nice,” Teresa O’Brien said.
Her voice drew Scott from his thoughts to notice that she was wearing the green flowered dress she had had on the day she met him at the stage depot in Morro Coyo. Her hair was pulled back and tied with a long ribbon of a complimentary shade of the same color. The ensemble, which five months ago had made her look girlish and much younger than her fifteen years, seemed to have the opposite effect in the warm glow of the lamp on the crude table that had been transformed with a lace tablecloth, a vase with a bouquet of flowers, and the delicate china from the Lancer dinning room. Now she looked closer to nineteen than to the sixteen she had turned on her birthday a couple of months earlier.
Scott bowed to the girl he had come to think of as a sister. “Thank you. So do you.” He hesitated, inhaling the teasing aroma of biscuits in the oven and chicken sizzling in a pan on top of the stove, and noting his father was wearing dark dress pants, a white shirt, string tie, and tan corduroy jacket. Scott’s throat constricted and speaking became difficult. Murdoch and Teresa had put a lot of effort into seeing that his birthday would be celebrated in style.
If Scott’s struggle with his emotions was noticed, neither his father nor the girl let the knowledge be known. Teresa announced that dinner was nearly ready to put on the table and inquired if he minded having chicken. When he answered with a shake of his head, she turned back to preparing the meal while Murdoch handed him a drink and asked how his day had gone.
Johnny appeared a while later dressed in snug-fitting black pants that belled at the bottom of the legs to easily fit over the top of his boots. His matching, short bodied jacket, which was trimmed with gold braid, hid all but the front of an embroidered white shirt that was open at the neck. Scott whistled and smiled. His brother was a splendid sight.
The evening progressed into one of Scott’s most memorable birthdays, and the rough interior of the cabin took on a beauty that he would have been hard pressed to explain to anyone, especially his grandfather. Even the simple meal of fried chicken, baked potatoes, and big fluffy biscuits seemed like a feast after a week of camp food.
After thoroughly stuffing himself, Scott was further surprised with gifts to unwrap. Each item represented a great deal of thought and time on the part of the giver: from his father, a packet of stationary with the Lancer brand in the upper left corner and a book of poetry; from his brother, a bridle that had been hand braided with meticulous care using red, black, and cream-colored horse hair; and from Teresa, a dark-blue shirt that she had no doubt made. Scott tried to express his appreciation, but couldn’t. The words seemed inadequate despite the smiles he received from his family. Fortunately, Teresa saved them all from embarrassment by announcing it was time to cut the cake.
The cake that Teresa set on the table wasn’t nearly as elaborate as those Scott’s grandfather had had prepared for him on past birthdays. Although in many ways a frugal man, Harlan Garrett of Boston never did anything by halves when it came to impressing guests in his home. Still, this cake, baked and decorated by someone dear to his heart, held a simple beauty that Scott found much more appealing because of the love that he knew had been put into its preparation.
Twenty-five pencil-thin candles lined the edge of the cake. Noticing one was taller than the rest, Scott wondered which year it signified: the day he was born, no day in particular, or his current birthday. From the look on the faces of his family, he chose to believe the latter.
As Teresa touched the wick of each candle with the burning end of a long splinter of wood, tiny flames flickered and grew to form a glowing ring around the edge of the cake. She then tossed the stick into the fireplace and returned to the table.
Three sets of hands lifted glasses of cherry-red wine while an equal number of faces turned toward Scott and voiced a round of birthday wishes.
“Thank you,” Scott said, not quite succeeding in keeping his voice steady.
Much like on every other birthday except for two that had taken place during the war, Scott was instructed to make a wish and blow out the candles. He did with a quick movement of his head, and his success received a round of applause–clapping of hands mingled with hoots, whistles, and words of praise.
As the noise died and the wisps of smoke disappeared, Teresa picked up a knife and insisted Scott cut the cake. He objected but quickly gave in when her request was backed up by the rest of his family.
The knife slid easily through the mound of frosting and parted the dried cherries and ribbons of orange peel which were scattered over the snowy ripples of icing like early spring wildflowers in a high mountain meadow. Soon Scott had sectioned off four fat wedges of cake, which Teresa transferred to plates and then drizzled with cherry sauce that matched the thick filling between the layers.
Once the plates were handed out, all talking stopped until Johnny broke the silence after taking his third bite of cake. “So . . . what’d ya wish for?”
Scott replied with nothing more than a slight smile and a shrug of his shoulders. His mouth was too full to talk, not that he would have revealed his wish. The thought was much too personal to be voiced even to his family.
Teresa spoke up for him. “Johnny Lancer, you know good and well that Scott can’t tell you his wish. If he did, it won’t come true.”
Conversation picked up then with bits of laughter coming from the three younger members of the family. When Murdoch remained quiet, his expression somewhat pensive, Scott wondered if his father was thinking of the past. He decided against asking. There was no need to spoil the present with thoughts of what couldn’t be changed, especially when the here and now was so pleasant.
Scott knew that every good thing had an end. His birthday celebration was no exception. All too soon, Murdoch and Teresa prepared to leave. Since the cabin only had two beds, they were going on to Green River to spend the night at the hotel. Scott tried to talk them into staying by insisting that he and Johnny could sleep in the stable or on the floor. The suggestion fell on deaf ears. Murdoch had business to attend to in town first thing in the morning.
Teresa hugged Scott and Johnny, and Murdoch helped her up to the wagon seat. “Goodbye, Johnny. Goodbye Scott. Happy birthday,” she said.
“Goodbye, Teresa . . . and thank you.” Scott tried to say more, but the words stuck in his throat.
“Scott.” Murdoch’s large hand engulfed Scott’s–the grip firm as they shook hands. He looked like he wanted to say more, but he merely let out a sigh and his hand slipped free. Then he climbed into the wagon, waved, and drove away.
Scott glanced over at his brother and nodded. “Yes, it was. Very nice.”
“Think I’ll check on the horses. You comin’, too?” Johnny scuffed his toe in the dirt.
“No. You go. I think I’ll . . . get more wood for the fire. We’ll need some for in the morning.”
There really was enough wood. The wood box was more than half full. Scott just needed a moment to himself. All of a sudden, his emotions were running away with him. His family had gone to great lengths to provide the simple celebration, and their efforts to make his birthday special were bearing down on him again. He felt like a king, even though his castle was no more than an abandoned shack.
Scott looked toward the heavens and closed his eyes. “Thank you for my best birthday ever,” he whispered. A lump slid painfully up his throat. All thoughts of his grandfather in far off Boston and of the cattle that needed to be rounded up in the morning were crowded from his mind by the three faces that had become even dearer to him in the last couple of hours. Murdoch, tall, stoic, and stubborn to a fault was gruff on the outside, yet his heart held a tenderness that was made known in a multitude of ways. Scott had no doubts that he was loved by his father. Then there was Teresa, a sister in every way that counted, and Johnny, who was proving to be all he could have asked for in a brother. Together, despite struggles to put aside hurts of the past, they were becoming the family they were meant to be.
With a smile on his lips, Scott packed his armload of wood into the cabin. The day had turned out not to be just another day, after all. Instead it was a day he was certain he would never forget as long as he lived.
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