Word Count 24,635
The Usual disclaimers and no rating needed. (in my opinion!) .
“Murdoch, have you ever been back, to her grave I mean.” clarified Johnny.
Murdoch’s voice in answer to his younger son’s question was abnormally quiet, so quiet in fact that Johnny had to strain to hear the words.
“No, … no I haven’t been back. Not since … not since… when I found out that Harlan had left for Boston with Scott before she was even buried.”
Johnny, lying on the settee, studied the piped edging on the cushion he was fingering before raising his head and looking over to his father seated at his desk. He looked earnestly into his father’s face, a face that remained impassive. But Johnny Madrid was an expert at reading people’s faces, and in his father’s, he saw the pain and anguish his questions were causing. But for Scott’s sake, he had to continue and disregard the hurt he was causing his father.
Murdoch Lancer was not a man renowned for showing his feelings, but his eyes betrayed the pain he was feeling as the discussion on his late wife Catherine took place.
“Why? All those years… I mean, why didn’t y’a go back, to … You could’a gone back to see what it looked like.”
Murdoch’s voice this time was clear and strong with a touch, not of anger but rather of frustration as he rose from the leather chair and walked to the end of the desk, his voice increasing in intensity as he proceeded with his discourse.
“Why, Johnny, why would I want to go back? She was dead, gone forever. What earthly good would looking at her grave do me? To remind me of the life we could have had together, of the son I lost? No, I needed no reminding of that. Those feelings were with me constantly, and no good would have come from visiting her grave. Tell me, Johnny, have you ever gone back to look at your mother’s grave? How did you feel?”
He softened his voice as he saw the involuntary flicker of pain cross his son’s face before it was deftly disguised. “I’m sorry, Johnny, that was uncalled for. Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief, and it’s no business of mine how they do it, but for me, it’s by staying away.”
“A lot of years have passed since that day, years filled with memories and pain. The pain has dulled, but it still remains, just as the pain of losing your mother remains, son.” Murdoch paused as his son dropped his gaze back to the cushion and then continued.
“But visiting Catherine’s grave would have achieved nothing positive. In truth it would have, for me at least, had the exact opposite effect. I learned to cope with her absence Johnny, I never got used to it, but I coped. Memories even now flood back each time I look at the bed we shared, or when I smell her favourite food, or when I meet a woman wearing her favourite scent. It’s strange that a memory can be triggered by smell or taste, Johnny, but it can. I learned to cope by avoiding as many triggers as I could. I couldn’t bear to see the hairbrush she used each night to brush her hair, or … so they were packed carefully away and stored….”
“In the attic. Just like y’a did for me? You put all my things up there too, didn’t you? Scott told me about the box he found up there last year when he found my christenin’ mug. Is that so you could cope with me being taken away?”
Having walked over to the settee, Murdoch looked down fondly at his dark-haired son and was surprised to see a sad smile gracing the face of his youngest.
“Son, you have no idea of the agony I went through when you disappeared. It was a different agony to what I suffered with Scott’s disappearance – I at least knew where he was and that Harlan, although I disagreed with his motives then and still do, would give him the best upbringing he possibly could. And sad to say, I had never even seen Scott – but with you, I had the joy of you for two years before losing you. I only put away your things after there seemed no hope of finding you.”
He bent and swung Johnny’s socked feet to the floor, seating himself beside his son.
“Yes, by avoiding reminders of you, I learned to cope, but the pain was still raw. It was harder with you because memories were everywhere – you loved riding with me and when I went to town and saw a child in the saddle with his father, the pain would return, even passing the chicken coop where you were found one day stuffing handfuls of wheat into your little mouth would bring back the pain.”
“I tried to eat wheat from the chicken coop?”
Murdoch chuckled, “You did more than try to eat it, by the time we found you you’d swallowed so much we had to get Sam out. You were a very sick little boy. You had been outside with me and I only turned my back on you for a minute – your mother blamed me, of course, but she was right too. I should have kept my eyes on you.”
Johnny grinned at his father, “I guess I must’a been a bit hard to keep an eye on, huh.”
Murdoch returned the grin, “Let’s just say you were a very active little boy! And you seemed to attract trouble like water attracts ducks.”
The inquiring look from his son could not be denied. In fact, Murdoch was enjoying the conversation with Johnny now, now that it had reached safer ground. He and his younger son had had all too few civil conversations. Usually, he was issuing orders or demanding an explanation from Johnny for his actions. What a sad state of affairs, he thought contritely, and he vowed to amend the situation – the boys had a right to know their past history no matter how painful it may be for him to talk about it.
“As I said, you were an active little boy and took an interest in everything around the ranch. Horses were your first love, and nothing pleased me more than having you sitting in front of me on a horse, although the love of horses almost became your undoing on numerous occasions. You’d want to help groom the horses, and usually, I wouldn’t let you, but one time I foolishly relented. I was distracted for a moment and turned to see you standing behind my horse industriously brushing his hocks. My heart stopped at the danger you had put yourself in.”
“If your mother or I didn’t have hold of you around the horses, you’d toddle up to their front legs and cuddle them. Maria told me that once I was away, you disappeared while she was gathering eggs and were found sitting in the corral at the feet of a very inquisitive unbroken two-year-old colt. You were happily chattering away to the colt and patting its muzzle.”
“What? Why are you looking at me like that, Murdoch?” queried Johnny. His father had paused and was gazing at him with a strange look.
“I was just thinking about that colt, Johnny. It was a skittish beast, didn’t like being handled, and was free with his teeth and heels. The men didn’t like him at all, yet you were apparently completely safe there. In fact, Maria and a couple of the hands had difficulty removing you from the corral. The colt wouldn’t let them near him and seemed to be protecting you from them.”
“It has just dawned on me, Johnny, that you’ve always had the affinity you have with horses, the natural talent you have in handling them. You had a rapport with animals even at that early age.”
An amiable silence persisted for a few moments as both men pondered the newly revealed events of the past. Murdoch stretched, patted Johnny’s right knee, and rose, saying, “Well, son, I’ve enjoyed sharing your toddler exploits with you, but these old bones need some rest. So I’ll say good night.”
Johnny looked up at his father appreciatively, “Thanks for tellin’ me, Murdoch.” He took a breath and carried on, aware that he could be lighting the fuse to the rather tall stick of dynamite masqueraded as his father.
“You gonna share the past with Scott too, Murdoch? That’s all he wants y’a know. Especially ‘bout his mother’s death.”
Murdoch regarded his son intently with a wisp of a smile evident on his surprisingly relaxed face. “Yes, son, I will. I’m prepared to talk about anything Scott, or you for that matter, want to know. Good night son.”
Johnny stared in amazement at his father’s broad back leaving the room. Something strange had taken place that evening. Murdoch’s edict about the past on their arrival at Lancer that memorable day last year had just undergone a drastic change. Just what had caused this momentous change, he wasn’t quite sure. Their discussion on Scott’s proposed visit to his mother’s grave had certainly started out poorly, but then to his surprise, Murdoch’s attitude had mellowed and he had almost seemed happy to tell his son of his early life at Lancer. And then his father had fired his parting shot – he would answer whatever questions he or Scott cared to ask.
As Johnny made his way across the room, a worrying thought crossed his mind. The Old Man must be ill, he thought, yep, that must be it. It was the only possible explanation for this confusing change in attitude.
Two days earlier, Scott had first broached the subject of his mother’s death to Murdoch and expressed his desire to visit the grave.
He and Johnny had returned from town with the wagon laden with supplies and the week’s mail. Neither had been in the best of moods when they entered the house, as anything that could go wrong that day had gone wrong.
Firstly they had been held up waiting for the blacksmith to replace a shoe that one of the horses had thrown on the way to town. Though normally not a significant event, it was not a straightforward procedure this time as the bar-shoe had to be specially made to help with Banjo’s corns. Added to their displeasure was the fact that it was Banjo and not Major that had thrown the shoe, as Banjo was always difficult to shoe and thus, it took much longer than necessary. It was late afternoon when they finally brought the team to a halt in front of the open barn doors.
Two wet, muddy and disheveled bodies had climbed down from the wagon seat and started unhitching the team. Not an hour and a half before, the sky had darkened ominously, and without further warning, Mother Nature had unleashed her fury, seemingly only on the brothers, for when they reached home, there wasn’t any sign of the storm. The ground was bone dry, which only served to annoy Scott and Johnny further.
The thunderstorm had come up quickly that late August afternoon and just as quickly was gone, leaving a road that had turned into a minor river in its wake. Dumping over two inches of rain in the fifteen minutes of furious winds and torrential rain before it moved on, the storm had caused wash ways and turned parts of the dusty road into a quagmire.
It was into one of these boggy areas that the wagon had lurched with the inevitable result. To make matters worse, the wagon became bogged not once but twice, sorely testing the patience and friendship of the brothers. After getting the wagon out of the first bog, they had not gone far when it bogged again.
Scott’s knowledge of Spanish was increasing thanks to the efforts of his brother. Still, at times he was frustrated by his lack of understanding, rueing the fact that he could only converse in a limited way with the Mexican vaqueros on Lancer. However, this lack of understanding could sometimes be a blessing, he thought with a grim smile as they battled to free the wagon from the mud’s firm grip. He was not at all sure that he wanted to understand the tirade of Spanish that his brother had let loose as the wagon sank to its axles for the second time.
The strain of being pulled out of the mire twice had tested the construction of the heavily laden wagon, but it had passed with flying colours. Not so the horses, however.
The horses had set their feet and pulled. Leaning into their collars and managing to heave the wagon out the first time, accompanied by the sounds of the mud grudgingly releasing the wagon and expressing its disapproval at the release of its captive.
When they first sank into the mire, Johnny had remained on the seat while Scott had climbed down to survey the bogged wagon. The front wheels were in mud halfway up the spokes, but the rear wheels had settled in the mud up to the axles.
Scott found a solid branch lying amongst the trees close to the road, and while he levered the left rear wheel, Johnny urged the team on. With a final heave, the mud gave up its hold on the wagon, the sudden lurch unbalancing Scott, who went down on his knees, hands outstretched to prevent himself from ending up face first in the mud.
The momentum of the suddenly released wagon pushed the horses on, and Scott, still on his knees in the mud, foresaw the impending trouble and shouted a warning to Johnny. Johnny hauled on the reins, but the rain had made the lines slippery and without gloves, Johnny lost his purchase on them. When he finally regained his grip and pulled up the team, it was too late – the wagon was again bogged, this time sinking in the mud up to both axles.
Once more, the pair of horses set their legs and pulled forward into their collars, but the wagon remained firmly wedged to no avail. The horses had become weary and struggled to shift the wagon for a second time. Scott and Johnny were also tired and frustrated. They had reversed their roles, Scott exhorting the horses to pull while his brother put his shoulder against the wagon’s rear to help push the wagon out.
“This is futile, Johnny.” Scott’s tired voice showed his exasperation. “We’re going to have to unload the wagon. The team is tiring, and with the weight in this wagon, they have no chance of pulling us out.”
Johnny looked at his brother without a word and resignedly started unloading the wagon. Silently the two stacked the supplies and fencing materials on the side of the road. Fifteen minutes later, Scott wearily climbed onto the seat and picked up the reins.
The horses again lowered their quarters and strained forward, not freeing the wagon but moving it in the ooze. Sensing that the task was not beyond them, the pair of horses tried twice more, clearing the wagon from the muddy morass at the second attempt. As it moved forward, a second Lancer brother made his acquaintance with the chilly mud. Scott grimaced as more Spanish curses echoed through the now still air.
Finally, having extricated the wagon from the mud for the second time, the team was halted and Scott and Johnny ran their eyes over the heaving horses. They were lathered in sweat, covered in mud and to the brothers’ intense annoyance, the suction of the mud had pulled two shoes off. As luck would have it, one of the shoes was from Banjo.
Nothing could be done on the road, so all they could do was proceed at an even slower pace to minimise the damage done to the horses’ bare feet. No doubt Banjo would be lame when they got home, but that was the risk they would have to take.
Twenty minutes later, the wagon, now reloaded, resumed its slow journey towards Lancer, just as the rain started again. Not torrential this time but heavy enough to be annoying. Five minutes from the Lancer arch, the rain frustratingly stopped and the clouds cleared.
Needless to say, Scott and Johnny were not in the best humour when they stepped down from the wagon.
Jelly Hoskins, thumbs hooked in his suspenders, appeared from the dark interior of the barn and stood watching the brothers as they started unhitching the team.
“Well, you two took y’a sweet time I must say. The boss’s been hoppin’ up and down, seems y’a forgot you was to drop some o’ that fencin’ wire to the men down by the north crick. Sure wouldn’t wanta be you boys when y’a gets in the house.” Hitching his cap further forward the old man turned back towards the barn. “The fur’s gonna fly that’s all I can say.”
“Well, y’a could stay and help us y’a know Jelly.” Johnny called out, glowering at the retreating figure.
“Come on, Johnny, forget Jelly. Let’s just get this done, clean up the horses and get inside. All I want is a hot bath and some clean clothes.”
Scott’s wish was not to be granted immediately, however. As they opened the front door fifteen minutes later, their father’s obviously annoyed voice greeted them.
Murdoch had risen from the leather chair at his desk and gestured towards the grandfather clock.
“What on earth has taken you two so long? You both have watches, why don’t you use them? I sent you to town to do a simple job, a few hours is all it should have taken, not the whole darn day. Because you didn’t get back in time with the wire the men have had to move those cattle into a different pasture. The break in the fence isn’t repaired and it’ll mean extra work rounding the herd up again tomorrow to move them back into that pasture.”
Without seemingly drawing breath Murdoch continued, not giving either of his sons a chance to reply.
“Tomorrow, you can both make up for the time you probably spent in the saloon. You won’t be finished in time to go to the Walker’s for dinner tomorrow night, so I’ll give them your apologies.”
Having held his tongue while his father ranted and raved, Johnny finally snapped.
“Saloon? Look at us, Murdoch! Do we look like we’ve been in the saloon? If you think I’m missin’ out on goin’ to the Walker’s because we got back late when it weren’t our fault then y’a can think again. You obviously ain’t interested in what happened and why Scott ’n me look like we’ve been wrestlin’ in the mud. Here’s your mail. Now I’m goin’ to have a bath.”
Throwing the bundle of mail onto the desk, Johnny stalked out of the room, oblivious to the fact that half the envelopes had slithered off the desk and onto the floor at his father’s feet.
Bending down to pick up the letters, Murdoch glanced at Scott, who had remained silent throughout.
“Well, what have you got to say for yourself? I must say I’m surprised, Scott. I know Johnny can be irresponsible, but you’re usually so reliable. I thought you’d have more sense than to be led astray by your brother. You knew the men were waiting for that wire.”
At Scott’s curt reply Murdoch almost dropped the letters he had just picked up.
“I don’t have anything to say, Murdoch. Johnny said it all. I totally agree with him. And I, too, am now going to have a hot bath.”
Leaving his flabbergasted and somewhat annoyed father, Scott was almost out of the room when Murdoch’s voice halted him in his stride.
“Look, Scott, we’ll talk about this later.”
“If you insist, Murdoch.”
Scott again turned to leave, only to be halted once more by his father’s voice.
“Wait, Scott. There’s a letter here for you.”
Murdoch stood with the letter in his outstretched hand, not making any move to go to Scott, so his son walked stiffly over and took the proffered envelope without glancing at it.
Once out of the room, he read the return address, it was a long overdue letter from his grandfather. He would read it as he relaxed in his bath.
As he reached the top of the stairs, Scott gratefully acknowledged his brother’s thoughtfulness as he met Miguel, one of the young vaqueros on the ranch bringing up water for his bath.
“Gracias, Miguel.” Scott thanked the vaquero after the tub was filled with steaming water.
“De nada, Senor Scott.” the young man replied.
Before undressing, Scott went to his brother’s room and opened the door, poking his head inside. The muddy clothes his brother had stripped off were lying in a jumbled heap on the floor.
As the door opened, Johnny quickly grabbed at a blanket, fearing it was Teresa entering the room. Scott found him clutching the blanket in front of him, unaware of the view in the mirror behind him.
Johnny’s expression was comical, but Scott refrained from laughing, but a slight smile relieved the tenseness he felt as he left his father.
“If I did happen to be Teresa, brother, I’d be shocked! Look behind you!”
Johnny turned his head, noted the reflection, and smiled into the mirror at his brother. “Wish she wouldn’t just barge in, Scott. Makes a man nervous, you know.”
Agreeing, Scott added, “I just came in to thank you for the water; nice surprise. And to see if you’re all right – Murdoch was in one of his unreasoning moods, wasn’t he?”
“Sure was, bad enough gettin’ yelled at when I do somethin’ wrong, but when it ain’t my fault … Did you explain what happened?”
“No, I did not. I said that I agreed with you and left him. He was a little ruffled, I believe!”
“Anyway, I’m going to relax in that bath you so kindly organised and forget about today. There was a letter from Grandfather in the mail, so I’m going to lie back and read it. Hopefully, it will improve my mood! Enjoy your bath, Johnny.”
Johnny waited until the door had closed before dropping the blanket and stepping towards the steaming tub. As he lifted a leg to step into the tub, he noticed a new bruise on his calf. Stepping back again, he stood in front of the mirror and surveyed the many bruises that hadn’t been there that morning. A rather dark bruise on his shoulder attested to the pressure he had exerted trying to push the wagon. His muscular body bore the evidence of the battle Scott and he had had with the bogged wagon. Johnny wondered whether Scott bore similar bruises.
He sighed with contentment as he sank blissfully into the water’s warm caress.
After Scott took his leave, he entered his own room. He stripped off and took a moment to examine the bruises that adorned his torso.
A rather large bruise on his stomach just below his ribs puzzled him. He surmised it must have been caused by the tree branch digging into him when he slipped as the wagon lurched. There were a number of more minor bruises on his thighs, shins and arms. Annoying and a little painful, but nothing serious.
As he looked at the reflection of his lean and muscular frame in the mirror, he smiled at the changes life in the west had wrought. He had always been slim, but in Boston his life had not been as physical. Since coming to Lancer, he had muscled up and become leaner.
Stepping into the hot water, he slid down into a sitting position and leaned back, closing his eyes and sighing, savouring the comfort and warmth of the water. It was only then that he realised that the letter was still on the dresser where he had put it while he undressed. Standing up, he stepped out of the bath, water cascading down his body and leaving a watery trail on the floor over to the dresser and back again.
Once more, he subsided into the water and started to open the envelope. The water from his damp hands made the ink run on the envelope so he reached out and grabbed his towel, drying his hands before unfolding the letter and starting to read.
His grandfather always wrote a formal but newsy missive. The business was going well, although it would do better if Scott were a part of it. Scott’s friends sent their regards and missed him, they looked forward to the time that he would come back to Boston. His best friend Mark had just become betrothed, his family greatly pleased as Elizabeth was a wonderful young woman, the middle daughter of a very prosperous family. They looked forward to Scott attending their wedding. Scott’s cousin, Rose, had just given birth to a son, Henry. Henry’s father was relieved, as there was now an heir to his family’s manufacturing business. And yet another entreaty from his grandfather to return to Boston – Scott couldn’t help but notice the underlying innuendo in all the news; subtlety had never been his grandfather’s forte.
As he read on, though, the letter’s tone changed; his grandfather had written:
‘My dear Scotty, the year is slipping away with unseemly haste. I fear it is a sign of my impending old age that time seems to pass so fleetingly. Although without your presence in Boston I find it sometimes seems so interminable.’
One paragraph took his breath away however…
‘It is almost August … By the time this missive reaches you in California’s wilderness, the new month will be with us. A month, my boy, which always brings a great sadness to my heart. In my youth, I used to look forward to August with avidity. August 25th to be precise, your mother, my dear precious Catherine’s birthday. It was on this happy day that my beloved wife Mary gave birth to our cherished daughter. After your grandmother’s passing, Catherine became my life.’
Scott paused and closed his eyes, unsure of what he was about to read. He released his breath slowly without even being aware that he had been holding it.
‘I feel that I may have failed you somewhat over the years my boy, my sorrow and distress over your mother’s untimely and unnecessary death did not allow me to share with you the joy of my Catherine’s life.
You may wonder, Scotty, and rightly so, why I am referring now to this painful matter. The answer is simple my boy. You will recall of course my old friend William Jacobs. Well, I am saddened to inform you that he passed away last week. He was aware of his impending death and he and I conversed at great lengths. Towards the end Jacob expressed his anguish over his failure to discuss his wife’s illness and death with his son.
My boy, with Jacob’s admission I realised much to my chagrin that when my life is over there will be no one who will be able to answer your questions. No doubt your father will be able to speak of Catherine’s life with him, should he so desire, but that is but a short passage in her life. And so I have decided to give some rather overdue insight into your mother’s life.
As you know Catherine’s life ended as yours began, I know some men that would hold such a fact against their son or grandson but you are aware that that is not the case in my situation. My life has been enriched by your presence Scotty, I only wish that it were still so… but enough of that. You know of my wishes regarding your return to Boston.
Catherine’s life ended in an insignificant little town in the middle of nowhere called Carterville. Murdoch had sent her east and I was to meet her and accompany her back to Boston. But she died on the way shortly after your unexpected early birth when illness befell her.
I arranged for a memorial for her gravesite and I took you back to Boston. Although I have thought of her resting place many times over the passing years I must admit that I felt great apprehension regarding my return to the place where I last saw her.
I am an old man Scotty, and fear that I will now never make the journey, but you are young and well able to travel through the desolate land. It would behove an old man if you could journey to Carterville, I hope you will seriously consider this request my boy.’
Scott could read no more for the present. He once again closed his eyes as he rested his hand on the edge of the tub. His mind was in turmoil. What was his grandfather asking him to do? Throughout his entire life his grandfather had avoided his questions regarding his mother. And now, now he wanted him to go to Carterville and was willing to tell him about his mother’s life.
The letter dropped to the floor from his inert hand and as he leant over to retrieve it he realised the water in the tub had cooled. He slowly stood up and towelled himself dry; dressing in the clean clothes he had placed on the bed.
Once dressed, he picked up the silver framed image of his mother from the dresser and sat in the chair by the window. As he traced his finger over the contours of her face he came to a sudden decision. He would go to Carterville, not to indulge his grandfather’s sudden whim but to honour the memory of his mother and also to satisfy his own curiosity he thought.
Having made his decision, he made his way downstairs to dinner. It would be an interesting dinner tonight, he thought, he was not sure how his father would take the news.
Murdoch’s reaction did not surprise him, although it did disappoint him.
Usually a companionable meal, this meal had been just the opposite. It was just the three Lancer men, Teresa having gone to a friend’s place for the evening. Johnny, still smarting from the unwarranted berating they had received from their father was uncommunicative. Scott was answering questions posed by his father with monosyllabic answers.
Murdoch had nearly choked on the mouthful of wine he had just taken, “You what!”
“I want to go to Carterville to visit my mother’s gravesite,” repeated Scott. “In his letter Grandfather said …”
“Harlan! I might have known he was at the bottom of this ridiculous idea.” Murdoch spluttered.
Johnny, who had been as surprised as Murdoch had been at Scott’s announcement, noticed the chill in Scott’s voice as he rounded on his father.
“And why is it a ridiculous idea? Do you realise Murdoch, that between you and my grandfather, I know practically nothing about my mother? Neither of you has been prepared to talk about the past, so now it is up to me to find out for myself.”
“Why now? Why suddenly do you want to drag up the past?”
Scott looked in amazement at his father. “Suddenly? You call this suddenly? Murdoch for twenty-five years I’ve been kept in the dark about my mother. All I really know is that she died when I was born. Not much to go on, is it?”
Receiving no answer, Scott continued.
“Does the twenty-fifth of August mean anything to you, Murdoch?”
Scott was not sure that Murdoch was going to answer him, but eventually he did, saying, “Yes, Scott, it does. It’s your mother’s birthday.”
“A fact that I only just found out. And with or without your help Murdoch I’m going to be in Carterville on the twenty-fifth. I would like you to be there with me but if not, well…”
Murdoch stared at Scott and turned abruptly, and left the room.
“Well, I guess that’s my answer, brother.”
“He might come round, Scott. Maybe y’a just took him by surprise, y’a sure surprised me!”
Johnny paused then said in a barely audible voice, “I’ll go with you, Scott, if you want me too.”
“I’d like that, brother. I’d like that a lot.”
Even after a night’s sleep, Scott felt tired and unrested when he awoke the next morning.
Sleep had eventually come after much tossing and turning, but the thoughts over which the night’s repose had prevailed rose again with the sun’s first pink rays.
Having risen and dressed, Scott paused as he brushed his blond hair, now longer and less disciplined than the hair that had accompanied him to Lancer an eternity ago. Or so it seemed this morning. Was it only eighteen months or so since he had left his safe, routine, and uninspiring life in Boston?
He picked up from the dresser the sterling silver frame in which his only tangible link to his mother rested and traced his fingers over the contours of her face just as he had done the evening before.
Thoughts that had preyed upon his mind throughout his life once again dominated his thinking, just as they did each time he looked at the image of his mother.
What he had said to Murdoch in anger and exasperation about his mother the night before was lamentably true. He knew very little about Catherine Lancer.
His thoughts then turned to his grandfather’s letter. Picking it up from where it lay on the dresser, he fingered it but refrained from rereading it. Glancing at another frame that also stood on the dresser he spoke with sorrow and uncharacteristic bitterness to the image of Harlan Garrett.
“Yes, Grandfather, you did fail me. As a result of your wrath over my mother marrying Murdoch and your grief over her death, you fed me a litany of lies about my father. Not only do I know so little about my mother, but also I spent my entire life hating Murdoch, thinking he didn’t care. I have great affection for you, but I am not sure I can forgive you for depriving me of the life I could have had here at Lancer. Even worse, you also knew that I had a brother and deliberately kept that fact from me, and for that, I can never forgive you.”
Turning away from the images of the past, Scott walked to the door, now even more determined to journey to Carterville.
When he entered the kitchen, Johnny was coming in the back door.
“Mornin’ brother. D’ya sleep well?” Johnny inquired, noticing the tiredness evident in his brother’s face.
As he reached for the coffee pot, a faint smile accompanied Scott’s response. “Eventually, but I’m just as tired this morning as last night. But then I think you knew that already, Johnny.”
“Yeah, well you was so mad at Murdoch last night I kinda figured ya mightn’t sleep too well. I know I didn’t. Hope he’s in a better mood today.”
“Maybe he’s forgotten about all that work he’s plannin’ on givin’ us today,” Johnny added hopefully as he, too, poured himself a cup of the steaming brew.
A heavy tread warned them of their father’s imminent presence in the kitchen and both were seated drinking coffee at the table when Murdoch entered.
“Morning, boys. Coffee hot?” Murdoch greeted his sons affably, all thoughts of Scott’s surprising declaration last night forgotten.
But he had not forgotten about the extra work he had planned for his tardy sons. After the morning greetings from his sons, Murdoch detailed the work that he expected to be done that day. As the list grew longer, Johnny’s dismay also grew. However, to avoid another argument, he said nothing.
Scott was only half listening to his father as he cited the tasks to be undertaken, his mind still churning over the information his grandfather had provided via his letter and planning his trip to Carterville. So preoccupied was that he failed to notice that his younger brother had left the kitchen.
“Don’t you think you’d better join Johnny and get started, Scott?” Murdoch inquired, “I expect all those jobs to be completed today.”
“I beg your pardon, Murdoch. What did you say?” Scott was aware Murdoch had spoken to him but did not know what was said.
“I said hadn’t you better get started on those jobs,” Murdoch repeated. “I expect them all to be completed today.”
Vainly trying to hide his annoyance at being treated like an errant child Scott simply said as he stood to leave, “As you wish, Murdoch.”
As he left the kitchen, Scott couldn’t resist the temptation to close the door into the hall with rather more force than required and smiled smugly at the resounding bang as it shut.
As he approached the barn, his annoyance grew as he thought about his father’s words. There he found Johnny vigorously tightening the cinch on Warrior, Barranca already saddled and standing patiently in his stall.
“I hope you were more gentle than that with Barranca, brother,” observed Scott.
“Huh, what?” grunted Johnny with a final pull on the cinch.
“It would seem that you’re trying to cut Warrior in half by the way you’re tightening that cinch. It certainly won’t slip.”
At his brother’s words, Johnny reassessed the cinch and, with a sheepish smile, loosened it a little before moving over to Barranca and doing the same to the palomino’s cinch. Patting his horse, he said, “Sorry boys, guess I was taking m’frustration out on you two.”
“It seems that we are both rather annoyed with our father,” stated Scott as he picked up his horse’s reins and led him out of the barn. “Oh, and thanks for saddling Warrior Johnny.”
“Anytime, Scott,” answered his brother, following behind with his own horse.
“Can ya believe Murdoch Scott? Comes into the kitchen this mornin’ all bright and chirpy as if nothin’ had happened yesterday and last night. Then in he starts with those darned jobs. I’d’a liked to have told him what he could do with ‘em, but I weren’t in the mood for an argument this mornin’. After yesterday I might’a said or done somethin’ I’d regret!”
“Growing up eh? But I agree with you, Johnny, it’s not worth having an argument – it’s not as if he’d listen to anything we said. But like you said yesterday, I’m not going to miss out on going to the Walkers’ either, that invitation was for the three of us, and the three of us will be there, regardless of what Murdoch says.”
Having mounted Warrior, he turned in the saddle slightly to look at his brother behind him. “Johnny, we’re going to finish those irksome jobs and turn up at the Walkers’, and I’ll take great satisfaction if it embarrasses Murdoch after he’s given our apologies!”
“Boy Scott, you are mad at the Old Man aren’t ya? He’s goin’ to be hoppin’ mad when we turn up after he’s apologised! I can’t wait to see his face! Come on then, let’s get ta work. I can already taste Mrs. Walker’s plum tart and custard.”
”I’ll grant you that Mrs. Walker makes a most delicious dessert Johnny, but I do believe that I can smell her Veal a la Bourgeoise, and I am definitely * not * depriving myself of that most agreeable experience of dining on her masterpiece. Henrietta Walker may make that dish to remind Murdoch of Scotland but Scottish or not, I must say that I am very partial to it myself!”
With more buoyant spirits, the two rode away, their enthusiasm for completing the tasks transferring to the horses who snatched at the bits in eagerness.
The late summer evening was closing in when the two brothers knocked on the imposing paneled door of the Walker’s home. The deep, resonant sound from the brass knocker echoed through the still evening air.
Swallows circled in the silver-blue and the pale rose of the sky above Walker’s softly rolling land, above the peacefully grazing Hereford cattle. The rich red of the Herefords appeared darker with the absence of the sunlight, and the white on their faces, legs and backs looking more intensely white. Occasionally light reflected on a pair of horns. The faint lowing of the distantly grazing cattle could be heard from the front door.
Although the Walker ranch was not as vast as Lancer, it would have to have run a close second. Thomas Walker was a knowledgeable cattleman and an astute businessman, and as a result, he ran a very successful ranch. He was a fair and well-liked employer, and his hands were loyal and tended to be long-term employees.
A tall man, his face weathered by many years in the outdoors, Thomas was older than Murdoch by more than ten years. Along with Henry and Aggie Conway, Thomas and Henrietta were some of Murdoch Lancer’s oldest friends. After Maria left with Johnny, Henrietta and Aggie took it upon themselves to try to ease the burden Murdoch was bearing.
Murdoch was a regular visitor to both ranches and while the women provided delicious meals and delightful company, the men were able to discuss ranching and other such matters. In fact, the discussions between the three men on these evenings led to the formation of the fledgling California Cattle Growers Association. Over the years, many more ranchers joined, ultimately making it one of California’s strongest and most powerful Cattlemen’s Associations.
Over the last ten years, since Henry’s death, Murdoch had dined weekly with Aggie and less regularly with Thomas and Henrietta and their two girls.
Since the return of his sons, Murdoch had been a less frequent visitor, but when he did, his boys went with him. Henrietta fussed over Scott and Johnny, treating them as her surrogate children. Since her girls had married and moved away, she rarely saw them, so she relished the chance to heap her maternal affection on Murdoch’s sons. Henrietta had always made sure the meal reflected Murdoch’s Scottish ancestry and Johnny and Scott had embraced the new tastes wholeheartedly.
Within seconds the door swung open, and a surprised Thomas ushered them into the parlour. A surprised and delighted Henrietta rose from a deep green velvet upholstered grandmother chair.
“Scott, Johnny! Oh, I am so pleased you were able to make it. I was so disappointed when Murdoch said you were unable to come. I’m glad he was mistaken.”
As Scott and Johnny received their hostess’s obligatory kiss on the cheek, they surreptitiously looked at their father. Murdoch looked rather displeased.
/Good, I hope you feel suitably embarrassed./ thought Scott uncharitably.
“Luckily, we haven’t eaten yet,” continued Henrietta, “we were just relaxing and reminiscing before dinner.”
Thomas interjected, laughing, “Don’t you believe a word of that, boys. Henrietta was using delaying tactics, putting off dinner, hoping you would come. I have no doubt that your favourites are on the menu tonight.”
He smiled fondly at his beaming wife before she disappeared happily towards the kitchen.
Although they weren’t facing their father, Scott and Johnny could feel Murdoch’s glower burning into their backs.
“Well, we didn’t want to disappoint Henrietta, Thomas. Murdoch must have thought we were unable to come, but that was not the case as it happened. I hope it hasn’t inconvenienced you with the change of plans.” said Scott.
“Not at all, boys, not at all. As you can see the table is set for all of us! Henrietta looks forward so to your visits. Satisfies her maternal feelings!” explained Thomas.
“Well, come on everyone, don’t stand there idly talking. Dinner, as they say, is served,” announced Henrietta from the doorway into the dining room.
After dining on a sumptuous meal that had disappointed no-one the diners made their way back to the parlour, where Thomas poured a glass of port for the Lancers and himself. His guests declined the offer of a cigar, but Thomas lit one and sighed as the aroma filled the room.
“Ah, this is the life, isn’t it, Murdoch? Good food, good friends and a good wife.” He smiled appreciatively at his wife who looked aghast at her husband, who then realised his faux pas.
“Why Thomas Walker, I declare you don’t think before you speak sometimes,” berated his annoyed wife. “I’m sorry, Murdoch, boys.”
Then wishing to change the subject she asked, “Now what have you boys got planned, or is Murdoch wielding the whip and not allowing you time off?” She laughed lightly and turned to Murdoch, a little surprised at the dark look on his face before he recovered.
“Well, as a matter of fact Henrietta,” began Scott, “Johnny and I are planning a trip to…”
“This is neither the time nor the place, Scott,” interrupted Murdoch coldly. “We’ll speak of this later.”
Ignoring the interruption, Henrietta asked, “A trip? That sounds wonderful, Scott. Where are you going?”
“Carterville,” Scott answered.
“Carterville?” Henrietta murmured, “Why that’s where your dear mother passed away, isn’t it, Scott?”
“Yes, it is, Henrietta. I …”
“Scott…” growled Murdoch.
“Now Murdoch Lancer, leave the boy alone,” scolded Henrietta. “Go on, Scott, you were saying you and Johnny were going to Carterville?”
“Yes, we’re leaving in a few days. I’d like to be there by the twenty-fifth.”
“The twenty-fifth,” repeated Henrietta. “Oh, that’s Catherine’s birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Johnny. “Scott don’t know much about his mother and he’s never seen where she is buried. I think it’s a good idea.” Johnny looked pointedly at his father, who sat in stony silence.
“So do I. I think it’s a grand idea,” Henrietta agreed. “Don’t you agree, Murdoch?”
Henrietta Walker was a perceptive woman and she did not fail to notice her dear friend’s body language. Murdoch Lancer was furious and she had no doubt it had to do with his sons’ plans.
Murdoch had taken Catherine’s death very hard and then had a short time later suffered the humiliation of Maria’s departure with another man. The loss of his toddler son only worsened the situation.
Never a man to wear his heart on his sleeve Murdoch had, over the years, unburdened some of his feelings and guilt to them. But as his closest friends, Henrietta and Thomas knew that Murdoch tried to keep the past hidden away; there were some things that he would never talk about.
Scott’s planned visit, she could see, was touching a raw nerve and although she could understand Murdoch’s viewpoint, she felt that it would be beneficial to Scott. It would be a sad trip but also one of enrichment.
Thinking of her own girls, she appreciated how tragic it would have been if they had known nothing about her, their mother. Scott deserved to know about Catherine. And as Murdoch’s friend she would make him realise that fact. But it would not be easy, and it was a task that she needed to do alone.
And there was no time like the present.
“Scott dear, would you help me in the kitchen for a moment, please?” Henrietta asked the eldest Lancer brother.
“Certainly,” Scott replied, slightly mystified about the sudden request for help. Henrietta had never sought help from her guests before.
He followed her to the kitchen and then looked around. “What would you like me to do, Henrietta?”
The reply was not one that he expected.
“Now, Scott dear, I want you and Johnny to go home straight away…”
She laughed and patted him on the cheek as the surprise registered on his handsome features.
“I know that it is a strange request. I love the company of you and your brother, you know that, but it’s just that I want a word with your father and I think it would be better if I can harangue him on his own.”
She cast a knowing look at the young man standing beside her. “Your father is being a little difficult over your plans to go to Carterville, isn’t he?”
“Well, yes he is.” answered Scott honestly and without hesitation. “I was hoping he’d come with me, but he has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of reliving the past.”
“He can be a stubborn man, but there are ways and means…” said Henrietta cryptically.
She almost pushed him out of the kitchen, “Now go and collect that dashing young brother of yours and off you go. I’ll tell Murdoch I want his opinion on a new painting I have and that he’ll have to go home later.” She chuckled, “It just so happens that I do have a new painting, so it’s not really a lie, is it?”
She whispered to Scott conspiratorially as she ushered him into the parlour, “ Don’t worry, Scott dear, you just go ahead and plan that trip.”
As they entered the parlour once more Scott said to Henrietta, “I’m sorry Henrietta, but I’m afraid that the hard day’s work is catching up with me, not to mention the effects of your delicious meal. So if you’ll excuse us…”
“Of course, Scott. I understand. It was lovely to see you tonight,” replied Henrietta.
Scott turned to Johnny and said, “Come on, brother, I think it’s time we headed home.”
His face expressing surprise, Johnny nevertheless stood up and thanked the Walkers. He would quiz Scott on their sudden departure once they were outside.
Murdoch also stood up to leave, rather annoyed that Scott had suddenly decided that they should go home. The evenings with the Walkers traditionally lasted well into the wee hours of the morning. He and Thomas would have some in-depth discussions on the state of the world and ranching in particular and Henrietta, an accomplished pianist, would sit at the grand piano and play. He was not at all pleased that his evening’s pleasure was to be cut short.
“Oh Murdoch, would you be able to stay a while longer?” asked Henrietta innocently. “I’m sure the boys won’t mind heading home alone, will you?” she addressed Scott and Johnny, who agreed that they were quite capable of finding their way back to Lancer on their own. Truth be known both Scott and Johnny thought that they would enjoy the ride back alone without their irascible father.
Henrietta continued, “I’ve just bought the most wonderful painting and I’d like your opinion on it.”
Having farewelled the brothers, Henrietta cajoled Thomas into making coffee. Once he had left the parlour she turned to Murdoch.
“Murdoch, you may well tell me to mind my own business, but you know that I will do no such thing. So you might as well just sit and listen to what I have to say!” She smiled sweetly at Murdoch who suddenly wished that he had left with his sons. He suspected that there was no painting after all; it had been nothing but a ruse to keep him there for one of Henrietta’s sermons.
He had been on the receiving end of Henrietta’s so-called sermons before. He had yet to win an argument with this dear friend, and often wondered how her husband ever got his own way.
Henrietta paused, waiting for comment from Murdoch. As none was forthcoming, she continued.
“You have two fine boys Murdoch, fine boys, and I don’t think you fully appreciate them. Oh, don’t look at me with that expression, Murdoch Lancer. You know I am right.”
“You lived for years without them, all those sad, sad years wondering about them, hoping against all hope that one day you would be reunited. And now that you finally have them home you try to rule their lives as if they were children. They are your partners and they are grown men. Treat them as such.”
She paused, but Murdoch remained silent, stony faced at this attack on his character.
Henrietta softened her attack, “I know you have been used to living alone, yes, I realise Teresa was at Lancer, but I am referring more to the running of the ranch. You have been the decision maker through necessity but now you don’t have to be. You have your sons, something you have always wanted. Don’t turn them away Murdoch with your pigheadedness and inflexibility.”
“Think of them. How they feel. Scott has never known you; it is as hard for him to learn to be your son as it is for you to learn to be his father. He has the added burden of being raised back east and having to learn our ways as well. He’s a quick learner Murdoch, and in a short time he has shown himself to be a fine rancher. Thomas would hire him in a moment as foreman if he weren’t your son!”
She eyed Murdoch speculatively, “Have you ever told him what a good job he is doing?”
“I didn’t think so,” she added, seeing Murdoch’s discomfort.
“And Johnny. What of him? If he has any memories of you from his childhood, they would be of a doting father. But what did he come home to? – an irritable and rigid man who expected him to conform instantly. He’s trying Murdoch and has endeared himself to many people. I’m afraid some still mistrust or fear him because of his past, but they are inconsequential. You and I know what a caring and special young man he is. He’s fought hard against all odds to become Johnny Lancer and leave Johnny Madrid behind. You should be proud of him.”
“I am, Henrietta. I am proud of him and Scott too.” Murdoch said vehemently. “You’re right. They are both fine boys… men…”
“Well, tell them, Murdoch. How?” she asked, seeing the uncertain look on Murdoch’s face. “Well, one way is to go with Scott and be with him, tell him about Catherine. He deserves to know.”
She drew her chair closer to Murdoch and rested her hand gently on his arm. “Think of Catherine, Murdoch. What would she want?” she said softly. “Would she want her son, the son you both looked forward to with such excitement and great expectations, to know nothing of her?”
She gripped his arm more forcefully, “Murdoch, if I were dying and my girls were facing life without me, I would want them to know all about me. I would expect Thomas to tell them all about me. I fervently hope that he would do just that.”
“Please, Murdoch, think of Scott, think of Catherine – I have no doubt her dying thoughts would have been of you and your son. Promise me you’ll reconsider your opposition to this trip that Scott needs to make,” she appealed.
Murdoch patted her hand still resting on his arm. “All right Henrietta. As usual you will have your way. I will promise to think about it.”
“Good!” she said, “And now I really do have a painting I want you to look at.” She looked at him slyly, “It wasn’t a trick, you know!”
As they rode away from the Walkers’ the moonlight shone on his brother’s face and Scott could see Johnny’s puzzled and inquiring look.
“Well, don’t hold back, say what’s on your mind, little brother!”
Johnny accepted the invitation, “Just wonderin’ why ya hustled us home so early Scott. Not that I mind leavin’ Murdoch there mind ya – much more peaceful ride home without him. I don’t think he was too pleased with ya mentionin’ the trip to Carterville!”
The moonlight reflected off Scott’s teeth as he smiled briefly, “Carterville is the reason why Johnny.”
Seeing the confused look on his brother’s face, Scott halted Warrior and Barranca stopped beside him.
“I’ll explain.” He went on before Johnny could voice his question. “Henrietta’s a very perceptive lady, she noticed the look on Murdoch’s face when I mentioned Carterville and that’s why she asked for my help in the kitchen. She quizzed me on Murdoch’s opinion of the trip, well really all she did was get me to confirm her suspicions!”
“S’pose she’s known him for a while, huh? Reads him like a book, I guess,” surmised Johnny.
“That she does,” agreed Scott. “Anyway, she told me to collect you and head home. She said you were ‘dashing’!” he teased as he urged Warrior on again.
“She did huh? I always knew she liked me better’n you Scott.” Johnny said cheekily as Barranca caught up to Warrior.
“That’s not it at all. Only shows that the poor woman is deranged or losing her mind.” Scott countered, before continuing, “Anyway she said she wanted to ‘harangue’ Murdoch while he was alone. In your vernacular Johnny she is going to ear-bash our father!” he added before Johnny could ask.
Johnny chuckled, “I almost feel sorry for Murdoch. Almost.”
After a thoughtful pause, Johnny asked quietly, “Ya think it will make a difference, Scott? Can Henrietta make him change his mind?”
“I have no idea, Johnny. But I appreciate her attempts. In any case, you and I are going no matter what Murdoch says.”
No further mention was made of the forthcoming trip and the conversation for the rest of the ride home consisted of good-natured banter and an appreciation of the repast they had recently enjoyed.
As he wearily climbed the stairs, Johnny reflected on the events of the previous two days and his conversation with his father that evening.
After his initial worrying thought that Murdoch was ill, he realised that illness was not the reason for Murdoch’s sudden change in attitude. It was more likely that he had surprisingly acted upon Henrietta’s advice that he had received the previous night.
Since leaving the Walkers’ home the previous night, neither Scott nor he had seen Murdoch. Not until he had found his father sitting at his desk that evening. Murdoch had arrived home around midnight the night before, and despite his obvious attempts to retire without disturbing the household, Johnny was well aware of his arrival home.
And that morning, Scott and he had breakfasted and left the house to start their day’s work without sighting their father. They had been kept busy checking stock in the higher country all day, a tiresome but necessary task.
When they arrived home in the late afternoon, there had still been no sign of Murdoch, a fact that concerned neither brother. Scott was still irked by his father’s attitude, and for Johnny, it meant some peace and quiet.
But Murdoch had seen his sons arrive home from his vantage point on a hill above the ranch. He had heard the boys that morning as they left their rooms and went downstairs to breakfast and he had, silently acknowledging his childlike behaviour, avoided seeing them. He realised that he was behaving rather like an ostrich poking its head in the sand to avoid the issue, but before he spoke to Scott he had some more thinking to do.
The verbal lambasting he had received from Henrietta the previous night had been food for thought. He had to admit that she certainly put forward some good points and she had struck some sensitive nerves. He had not slept well, mulling over what she had said.
He certainly had not considered Catherine; she naturally would have wanted Scott to know all about her. But a lifetime of avoiding painful memories was not something to be pushed aside easily.
He had promised Henrietta he would think about Scott’s desire to go to Carterville, and think about it he would.
So he had waited until Scott and Johnny had ridden away that morning before saddling his own horse and heading in the opposite direction. He had spent the day riding aimlessly over his much-loved country, the very country that had also been his nemesis.
Harlan Garrett had hated the idea of Murdoch taking his beloved daughter Catherine to such a wild and untamed land. Murdoch realised with a jolt that Harlan probably would not have opposed their marriage so vehemently if Murdoch had been a businessman or even a New England landowner. It was not so much himself that Harlan really fought against, it was the land.
And then there was Maria. His vibrant and exciting Maria. Slowly the land had drained away her enthusiasm for their life together. Not even the birth of their son could stop the insidious effect his passion for the land had on her. His tenuous hold on her came to an abrupt end that night she disappeared with his two year old son.
The life that son came to live in the intervening years between his disappearance and his homecoming was a direct result of the land too, he thought miserably. If he had had more time for Maria she would not have left with Johnny and his son would have been brought up on Lancer, where he belonged.
Instead he had to fend for himself in the border towns after Maria’s death. And in order to survive, the child Johnny Lancer died, and in his place, the gunfighter Johnny Madrid was born.
His words to his sons upon their arrival at Lancer still haunted him. Yes, he did have a grey hair for every good blade of grass on Lancer, but whatever had possessed him to tell his estranged sons that he loved the ground more than anything God ever created? What must they have thought?
Both had despised and mistrusted him because of the mistruths they had been fed throughout their young lives by relatives they trusted implicitly. Scott, he had realised over recent time, had not come because of the money offered but rather out of curiosity. Curiosity about a father who had had no contact with his son for nigh on twenty-five years.
Johnny, on the other hand, had come purely and honestly because of the money. And an earnest desire to kill him. He had been shocked when he had realised that his son had hated him that much, but Johnny, despite his reputation, was no cold-blooded killer. Instead of shooting him on sight he had grudgingly listened to him and had come to care about him over time, realising that one does not always accept things at face value.
Then on their arrival they hear those words, confirming the feelings of rejection they had felt for lord knows how many years. He had not meant that the land was more important than his sons, but that was the way it must have sounded. Careless words that once uttered could not easily be taken back.
Yes, his cherished land was both blessing and blight.
But since that day his sons had also come to love it, both Scott and Johnny had suffered because of it but that seemed to be of no consequence. They bore no grudge towards the land for what it had done to them.
Nor to him. In all honesty he could not lay the entire blame on the land – he was the one at fault. It was his love for the land that created the problems. And it was he who had to set things right. But how? For well over twenty years he had avoided confronting the truth and the past. A lifetime: not an easy thing to overcome.
Still wrestling his conscience Murdoch let the big chestnut meander homewards.
Johnny had found his father sitting silently at his desk in the Great Room. Murdoch sat as if in a trance, unaware of his son’s entrance.
After they got home Scott had said he was going to his room to pack, intending to leave the next day for Carterville. Johnny, who always travelled light, would throw some things into his saddlebags in the morning. Scott also said he would ask Maria to take his meal to his room, as he did not wish to confront his father again over the trip.
Johnny had then asked Scott to arrange for his meal to be taken up to his room also. If Scott was dining in his room Johnny had no desire to be Murdoch’s sole companion at the dinner table.
Johnny took his time grooming the horses and then bedded them down. As Barranca methodically chewed his grain, Johnny rubbed his hand up and down the golden nose.
“You ‘n Warrior got a long ride tomorrow. This trip’s important to Scott, fella, hope it goes like he wants.” He gave Barranca a final pat. “Sleep well boys.”
As he closed the barn doors, he came to a momentous decision.
He then walked over to the house and opened the front door, hanging his hat and gunbelt on the stand near the door.
Murdoch did not acknowledge Johnny when he greeted his father as he walked towards the settee. Johnny glanced again at his father and sat down.
“Murdoch.” Johnny tried to attract his father’s attention, but there was no response.
“Murdoch!” he repeated more loudly.
‘Hmm, what?” Murdoch was roused out of his reverie. He looked around rather vaguely then saw his son sitting on the settee. “Sorry, Johnny. I was miles away. Where’s Scott?”
“Up in his room, packin’.”
Murdoch picked up a paperweight and then put it down again, the stress evident on his face.
Johnny decided now was the time.
“Murdoch, have you ever been back, to her grave I mean,” clarified Johnny.
The snippets of pale blue sky around the white clouds brilliantly illuminated by the recently risen sun contrasted vividly with the dark clouds overhead that promised rain showers as the two brothers led Warrior and Barranca out of the barn.
Having been up before dawn, they had just saddled their horses, securely tying bedrolls and two flour sacks containing enough food to last until they reached Carterville. Neither doubted the sacks contained more than dried beef and coffee. The ever loyal and devoted Maria would have made sure that although they would be eating on the trail, they would not be deprived of some of the finer things in life.
Murdoch had slept lightly that night and heard the movement in the hacienda as his sons rose and made preparations to leave. He had still not risen when his sons made their way down to the substantial breakfast prepared by Maria, who had fussed about them.
“Maria, stop fussin’, it ain’t as if it’s our last meal. We’re only goin’ to be gone for a week or so, we ain’t leavin’ for six months ya know,” Johnny complained unconvincingly through a mouth full of bacon and eggs.
“Silencio, Juanito,” the elderly woman gently admonished, “usted y su hermano tienen un viaje largo, usted necesita continuar su fuerza.”
[Hush . You and your brother have a long trip, you need to keep up your strength.]
Johnny grinned mischievously at Scott as Maria patted them both on the arm before turning back with a smile on her face to tend the fire under the grate where the coffee pot sat hissing happily. The bait and been taken and the fish reeled in satisfactorily Johnny thought with satisfaction. He enjoyed the gentle sparring and teasing with Maria, and relished the affection she poured on him.
After they left the house, Murdoch followed and met them as they left the barn with the horses.
“You got everything you need?” he asked his sons after they had mounted.
“Yeah, Maria made sure of that,” Johnny answered quickly.
Scott eyed his father speculatively. “Well, we’ve got enough food if that’s what you mean,” he said pointedly. “So, in that case, I suppose we do have everything we need.”
Without further comment he went to turn Warrior towards the gate, but Murdoch put his hand on the rein and stopped him.
“Look son, I know you want me to come with you, but …I …” At a loss as to how to explain himself Murdoch finished lamely, “I’m sorry, son.”
“But not sorry enough to come with me,” Scott ground out and dug his spurs into his surprised horse’s sides, and cantered off.
Murdoch looked miserably for support from his younger son but inwardly cringed at the decidedly cold glare he received. With a curt “Bye Murdoch” Johnny rode off after Scott.
Murdoch despondently watched his sons until they became tiny specks and turned towards the hacienda, unaware of the tornado about to be unleashed when he entered the house.
The early morning light shone on the creek snaking its way across the valley as the brothers paused briefly on the hill overlooking their home.
“That’s home, Johnny,” Scott said, gesturing towards the hacienda in the distance. “I’ve lived here for what, eighteen months, and yet this place feels more like home than Grandfather’s house in Boston where I have lived all my life.”
He shook his head, “You remember the first time we were on this hill, the first time we saw Lancer?” He saw the nod of affirmation from his brother, but Johnny didn’t even glance at him, he was also gazing towards the hacienda.
“Whenever I see Lancer from this hill I have the same feeling as I did that day. I felt an instant attraction, and as a reasonable man I find that totally unreasonable. It felt like home but yet I had never been here, had no idea what it was like or what I was going to find there. I’ve never felt that way before, I find it hard to understand.” He smiled briefly at his brother, “Should have studied philosophy at Harvard I guess!”
“I ain’t sure what that philosophy is Scott, but I c’n understand what ya mean. I don’t know why ya felt that way, cause I sure as hell didn’t think I was comin’ home that day. All I wanted to do was confront the old man and maybe plug him before I left!”
“After I collected the thousand dollars of course!” He gave his older brother a lopsided grin.
“But when Teresa stopped the buckboard that day and we looked at all this before us, well I don’t think I’d ever seen anythin’ like it before. Oh I’d seen some grand ranches and beautiful country before, killed to keep them that way in fact,” he added grimly. “But this was dif’rent.”
He appealed to his brother, “Mebbe it’s because it was Lancer, the name, heritage, I dunno … but there sure was somethin’.”
Johnny urged Barranca on. “C’mon brother, we need to get to Carterville.”
Scott sighed then turned Warrior to follow his brother along the road they would take on their journey to Carterville.
Conversation while still on Lancer land was related to what they saw. The brothers pointing out work that needed to be done, minor tasks such as clearing brush that had blown up against fencelines or trees that had fallen across creeks. They laughed at themselves, realising that they were regarding the land with a rancher’s perspective.
“Listen to us brother, talkin’ like full blown ranchers! Eighteen months ago would ya have even noticed somethin’ like a tree ‘cross a creek or a broken wire on a fence?”
“Eighteen months ago I would not have even been in a position to do so Johnny. There aren’t many fences in Boston to have broken wires! And what about Johnny Madrid? Would he have cared even if he had noticed?” Scott teased.
Johnny grinned, “Nope! Ya know Scott we have a lot to thank Day Pardee for!”
“We do? In what way?”
“Well if ol’ Day hadn’t decided to take the Old Man’s land you’d still be in Boston and I’d be… well I’d be…”
“Don’t go there Johnny. Just be thankful Murdoch sent those Pinkerton men after us. Why if he hadn’t I wouldn’t have known I had a little brother to race to that gnarled tree by that bend in the road up ahead!”
That night the brothers made camp by a creek that gurgled happily as it flowed over water worn rocks made smooth by centuries of flowing water. Warrior and Barranca had been watered and tied to two large trees for the night.
Scott and Johnny were sitting beside the crackling fire, the shadows cast by the flames dancing on nearby bushes. Content after devouring Maria’s repast both felt relaxed after the long day’s ride.
“Boston…” began Johnny uncertainly.
“Did Murdoch talk to you last night?”
“What makes you think that he would have?” Scott queried.
“Well, I asked him about why he didn’t ever go back to Carterville.”
“Well, he sure took me by surprise. At first he snapped and snarled but then all of a sudden he started talkin’ to me about when I was little. And then he said he’d answer any questions either of us had to ask and then headed off to bed.” He chuckled, “I thought he must’a been sick!”
‘Ah that explains it then.” said Scott. “He must have knocked on my door as he was going to his room. I must admit he took me by surprise too. When I opened the door he asked if he could come in and then he sat on the chair. I have to say he did look rather uncomfortable, not as if he really wanted to be there.”
“What’d he say?”
“Ah, you know what they say about curiosity little brother! It gets you killed!”
“Ain’t curiosity that’s likely to get me killed big brother, you know that!” smirked Johnny. “C’mon, what’d he say.”
“Not a whole lot really. Just what you said, he would tell me anything that I wanted to know. He told me about going to Carterville and arriving too late. My mother had died and Grandfather had left for Boston with me.”
Scott paused as he thought back to the previous night.
“He said that he realised he had been selfish by not talking to us about the past. He had been only thinking about himself and that we did have the right to know about our pasts.”
The flickering firelight was playing on Johnny’s face and he studied his brother’s features for a moment.
“Just what did you say to him last night, Johnny?” he inquired.
“Me?” asked Johnny with surprise. “I didn’t say anything. Only said I ‘preciated him telling me about some of the things I did before Mama took me away. And I said that’s what you wanted too. To know about the past.”
“Well he obviously took notice. You can be very persuasive you know.” Scott playfully swatted his brother’s arm. “I still wish he’d come but at least we might get some questions answered when we get back. I think we might find a different Murdoch.”
“Ya think?” asked Johnny with scepticism.
“Yeah.” Johnny answered stifling a yawn.
“For coming with me.”
“Anytime Scott.” Johnny rolled himself in his blanket. “Night Scott.”
“Good night Johnny.” Scott pulled his blanket up to his chin and within minutes both brothers were asleep.
Two days later, the brothers reined in their mounts.
“Well, there it is, Johnny. Carterville.”
Johnny rested his arms on the saddle horn and looked closely at his brother sitting stiffly in the saddle, looking down towards the town.
“Ya okay Scott? Ya ready for this?”
Dragging his eyes away from the innocuous looking town that lay before them Scott held his younger brother’s gaze.
“Yes, Johnny. I’m ready; I’ve waited a long time for this moment.” He smiled briefly, “In your words brother, let her buck!”
The evening sun bathed everything in its golden glow as Scott and Johnny rode slowly up the dusty main street of Carterville. It differed little from the main streets of the many hundreds of small towns dotted throughout the west.
Livery stable, saloons, hotel, boarding house, shops of various descriptions, doctor’s office, sheriff’s office: nothing noteworthy, just the usual buildings found in small towns, thought Johnny as the brothers passed each building. It did rate a newspaper office, however, something that was a little out of the ordinary.
The dust the horses had disturbed as they made their way up the street settled as they came to a halt in front of the hotel. The brothers wearily dismounted and tied Warrior and Barranca to the worn-smooth hitching rail before the double-storey timber building that bore the rather incongruous sign ‘The Limerick Hotel.’
Scott and Johnny stepped up onto the boardwalk and entered the hotel carrying saddlebags and rifles. The room was empty except for the couple sitting on the circular padded seat in the middle of the foyer.
Just as they were about to ring the bell on the reception desk, a bearded man of indeterminate age emerged from behind a plush red curtain that partitioned off the room behind the reception desk.
“Welcome to the Limerick.” The lilting Irish accent gave some indication as to how the hotel came by its name. “Rooms, gentlemen?”
“Yes, two and some information if you can oblige,” replied Scott as Johnny and he placed their saddlebags and rifles on the desk.
“I’ll do my best to help ye with both. Just sign the register and ask what ye want.”
Scott dipped the pen into the ink well and signed his name, then handed the pen to his brother, who did the same.
The desk clerk turned the register round and glanced at the names before handing the room keys to Scott and Johnny.
“Here ye are Mr. Lancer and er Mr. Lancer. Now there’s an interestin’ ting! Lancer! Tisn’t a common name round here, yet there’s a tombstone with the same name here.”
“Well, that tombstone is why we’re here in Carterville. Can you tell us how to get to it?” Scott asked. He wasn’t sure how he felt now that the moment had arrived.
“To be sure, I can, but ye won’t want to go there tonight. It’s too far from town, and it’s nearly dark. It will be lost that ye’ll get in the dark.”
“Oh,” Scott’s voice was tinged with disappointment, but common sense told him the man was right. He and Johnny were tired, and trying to find his mother’s resting place in an unknown area in the dark would be foolish. He had waited over twenty-five years to see it, so he could no doubt wait another twelve hours or so.
Johnny could see Scott’s disappointment, but his brother was no fool. They would wait until the morning to seek out the grave. But nothing stopped them from finding out as much as they could tonight.
“We’re also lookin’ for a woman, but we don’t know her name,” Johnny said. “Fact is we ain’t even sure she’s still livin’ in Carterville or even if she’s alive. Be someone who lived around here twenty-five years ago.”
“Twenty–five years ye say. Well, tisn’t many people ye could be wantin’. Town wasn’t as thrivin’ as it is today.” The Irishman failed to notice the looks of skepticism that passed between the brothers. “T’was only a few houses then apparently, maybe a store or two. No law or even a doctor back then. To be sure, times have changed, we’ve got quite a prosperous town now even if I do say so meself.”
“Yeah, yeah it’s a great town,” muttered Johnny. Scott scowled slightly at Johnny who realised that sarcasm might not get them the information they needed, but the man had apparently not heard the remark.
“Yes, well, do ya know anyone who lived around here back then?” Johnny interrupted the desk clerk’s reminiscences.
“Oh, that I do. Edna Carson, it is that ye want. There’s not too many people who’ve lived round here that long. Real local identity, that she was, there tisn’t a ting she didn’t know about what went on in Carterville.”
“Was? Went on in Carterville?” echoed Johnny, “You mean she’s dead?”
“That she is, I’m afraid. Died last month. Sad affair it was too. Everybody round here liked Edna a lot.”
“Did she have any family, anyone who would have been here with her that long ago?” Scott asked, hopefully not expecting an affirmative answer.
It appeared that he was destined to remain in the dark about his mother’s last days, he thought regretfully. A month! Edna Carson had only died a month ago, but it was no use dwelling on what could have been. There had been no reason to make the journey a month ago. He had received his grandfather’s letter that had initiated this trip well after the woman’s death.
“She did not, I’m sorry to say, looks like ye’ve had a wasted journey I’m afraid,” answered the Irishman.
“Well, I must admit that it was a calculated risk,” admitted Scott, “but we’ll still ride out to the grave in the morning, so if you’d be kind enough to give us the directions…”
Having received the seemingly simple directions, Scott and Johnny picked up their belongings and turned to the stairs.
“By the way,” added Scott as an afterthought, turning back to the clerk, “any good eating houses in town?”
“Ye’d do well to go to the café just opposite, best food and service in town.”
Nodding his thanks, Scott followed Johnny up the stairs and found that their two rooms were not adjoining but were opposite each other.
“Hungry Johnny?” As his own stomach was informing him of his need for sustenance, Scott was sure that his ever-hungry younger brother would also be ravenous.
Sure enough, a vigorous nod answered his question. “I’ll just wash up and meet you in, say, fifteen minutes? Can you last that long?” Scott asked, his attempt at lightening the mood not lost on his brother
As they had ascended the stairs, neither man had commented on the disappointing news they had just received from the Irishman. Scott, Johnny thought, was hiding his disappointment well. To find that the woman who could have told Scott about his mother’s last days had died only a month ago seemed cruel. But maybe visiting the grave would help in some small way.
“Yeah, I guess I can wait that long,” Johnny replied with an attempt at humour. He glanced down at his dusty pants and then grinned cheekily at his brother, “’sides although I ain’t as grubby as you Boston, I s’pose I could do with a clean up m’self!”
In spite of himself, Scott smiled as he opened the door to his room. No doubt about his brother, Johnny was incorrigible. . “We’ll eat after we take Warrior and Barranca to the livery then,” he informed his brother.
Scott found that the hotel room was quite spacious and although the carpet was well worn, it was not as threadbare as on the stairs and in the hall. The bedspread had also seen better days, but the room appeared clean and had a fresh smell about it.
There was a jug and chipped washbasin on the marble-topped dressing table and Scott tossed his saddlebags and rifle onto the bed and thrust his hands into the cool water. After washing his hands, he splashed water onto his face and glanced at his image reflected in the cracked mirror above the dressing table.
He was surprised to see a tired face peering back at him. He hadn’t realised the toll the trip to Carterville had taken. The tension with his father before the trip had been eased somewhat with their frank talk but not entirely. Scott could not deny his disappointment that Murdoch had still refused to accompany him to Carterville.
He dried his face, raked a comb through his blond hair, and moved towards the door. As he reached for the doorhandle, he noticed the dusty cuffs of his shirt and realised how preoccupied he must have been. His grandfather would be scandalised he thought with some amusement. Going to dinner in the clothes one had worn during the day was just not done.
Although he tried to maintain his life-long habit of changing for dinner, there were times back at Lancer when he was just too tired to be bothered. It was a pleasant tiredness though, he thought with satisfaction. It was a weariness born from the knowledge that accomplishments were achieved each day.
No more frittering away his life; something that he now appreciated he had been doing back in Boston.
He pulled a clean blue shirt from his saddlebags and stripped off the shirt bearing the marks of the trail Johnny and he had ridden. He dropped the dusty piece of apparel on the floor and grinned in spite of himself. /Your bad habits are catching, brother./ he thought to himself as he donned the clean shirt.
Johnny had tossed his saddlebags and rifle onto his bed before flopping down onto it himself after entering his room. He positioned the pillows comfortably behind his head and laced his fingers behind his head on the pillows. He supposed he should have removed his boots first, but it probably wouldn’t matter. The holes in the bedspread bore testament to the number of spurred boots that had rested on the bed’s cover. A couple more holes wouldn’t even be noticed he thought roguishly.
He closed his eyes and lay there relaxing until there was a knock at the door.
“Thought you were starving,” Scott said through the closed door. “Come on, brother, get a move on.”
Swinging his legs to the floor, Johnny winced slightly at the sound of ripping material. Glancing at the bedspread, he saw the six-inch long rip one of his spurs had inflicted on the fabric. Well, maybe they would notice that after all, he mischievously thought.
“Comin’ Scott,” he called as he hurriedly pulled off his own dusty shirt and replaced it with the clean one from his saddlebags. Since arriving back at Lancer, he had developed the habit of changing from his dirty work shirt into a clean one for dinner. It was something he had never done before, but then he had never had anyone to wash and iron his clothes before, he thought ruefully.
It was also because of Teresa’s, and he supposed Murdoch’s too, desire to have a civilised meal at the end of the day. Certainly his Boston bred brother liked to change before dinner, although he had never commented on Johnny’s often-grubby appearance. He simply led by example, just one of the things Johnny admired about his brother. No doubt leading by example was something Scott would have done as a cavalry officer.
/Your bad habits are catching, brother./ he thought to himself as he tucked in the tails of his shirt and quickly splashed some cold water from the basin on the dresser onto his face. He grabbed the towel from the nearby towel-stand and wiped his face, then tossed the towel onto the stand oblivious to the dirt he had transferred from his face onto the towel. He then opened the door and joined his brother in the hall.
The two men walked down the stairs and had almost reached the door on to the street when they were halted by the desk clerk’s voice.
Scott and Johnny turned and the Irishman called them over to the desk.
“Me memory tisn’t what it used to be I’m afraid. I just remembered that there might be someone else who could help you. I forgot about Emily Porter. She lived in Carterville around that time but moved away for some years, and she may be of some help,” he said cautiously.
“Could you tell us where to find her if it’s not too late to call on her?” asked Scott.
“Tis not too late at all, she’ll be busy bakin’ and cookin’. In fact, she owns the café I told ye about.”
With hope renewed and all thoughts of food momentarily forgotten, the brothers crossed the street and entered the café, noting that there was barely a table empty. The desk clerk had advised them wisely as brisk business was always a sign of good food and service. As they crossed its threshold, a petite dark-haired young woman approached and greeted them.
“A table, gentlemen?”
“Yes, thank you,” replied Scott, “but we’re also here to see Emily Porter. Would it be possible to talk to her?”
“Emily Porter’s my mother. I’m Constance Porter. If you sit down, gentlemen, I’ll tell her you’re here.”
Scott and Johnny had barely settled themselves at the gingham-covered table Constance had indicated to them before the girl was back.
“As you can see, we’re really busy, and she said she is sorry, but she can’t leave the kitchen.”
Scott’s brief look of dismay disappeared when she added, “But she said she’d be pleased to talk to you in the kitchen if you don’t mind her working.”
“Not at all,” said Scott gratefully, “but we don’t want to be an inconvenience.”
“You won’t be.” replied the girl brightly as she led the way to the kitchen.
The wonderful steamy aromas that filled the room assailed the senses of Scott and Johnny as they entered the kitchen.
Standing by the stove busily stirring a steaming pot stood an attractive dark-haired woman. She was aged in her late forties, surmised Scott. She turned upon hearing them enter and motioned towards the chairs by the table in the middle of the room.
“I’m Emily Porter. Take a seat, gentlemen, and tell me why you want to talk to me. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep stirring this custard, and if I stop, it will become lumpy.”
Scott and Johnny sat down on the indicated chairs and briefly looked around them. On the smooth wooden table were spread her tools of the trade, a large china bowl, a wooden spoon for mixing, a large jug of milk and bags of flour, dried fruit, sugar and a number of other ingredients. The table was littered with broken eggshells and spilled flour. A large basket of eggs stood on a dresser by the wall, along with trays of cooling biscuits and pies.
“Thank you for seeing us.” Scott began. “My name is Scott Lancer and this is my brother Johnny.”
The woman failed to acknowledge the introduction, if indeed she heard it at all, for just as Scott started speaking Constance scurried into the kitchen with a plate and conferred with her mother.
“Oh drat, that man,” Emily grouched, “just once, I’d like him to be satisfied with his meal. He does this everywhere he goes. It’s just a ploy to get a free meal.” She sighed with frustration, “Go and tell him there’s no charge for his meal Constance.”
“And tell him not to come back for another six months!” she added through gritted teeth after her daughter had left the room.
“The clerk at the hotel said you might be able to help us.” continued Scott in an attempt to regain the woman’s attention.
“Oh? Now, why did Tim O’Callahan think that?” she queried, finally looking at the two men.
“We’re lookin’ for anyone who might’a lived in Carterville twenty-five years ago,” Johnny elaborated. “He thought you did.”
Emily took the pot off the heat and poured the contents into a large jug beside the stove.
She then wiped her hands on her apron and sat on the chair at the end of the table.
She asked cautiously, looking from one to the other, “And why are you looking for this person? Twenty-five years is a long time. What reason could you possibly have for seeking them after so long?”
“Oh, I assure you, it’s nothing to be alarmed about,” Scott said reassuringly. “It’s purely personal … it’s …”
He floundered as he suddenly became uncertain about how to approach the topic.
Seeing his uncertainty, the woman said quietly, “I think that we’d better talk somewhere else. Just wait while I ask Constance to take over and then we’ll be able to talk privately.”
She disappeared into the café and was back within a minute or so. “My daughter can take over as cook and can cope with serving meals for a while.”
“Come this way if you please.” She led the way through a door into the parlour of the house that the café fronted.
“Sit down and tell me how I can help.”
Scott took a deep breath and began tentatively, “Twenty-five years ago, my father was experiencing some difficulty with raiders, and he sent his wife back east. She was with child, and he thought it wasn’t safe to remain on the ranch, but she became ill near Carterville and died …”
As Scott spoke, Emily leaned further forward and at his final words she knelt in front of him. Taking both Scott and Johnny by surprise, she gathered Scott’s hands in hers and whispered, “Scotty! You’re Scotty!”
Scott pulled his hands from hers and looked at her with confusion. She sat back on her heels and gazed at him lovingly, eyes glistening. “Scotty Lancer! All these years I’ve wondered about you, Scotty, how you were, what you were doing …”
Johnny sat speechlessly watching the tableau before him. Emily Porter had greeted his brother like a long lost relative and Scott was obviously reeling with shock.
Finally, speech returned, and Scott managed to stammer out, “Yes, I’m Scotty… er Scott … how did you know? … Who <are> you and how do you know me?”
Emily wiped the tears from her eyes and laughed lightly. “I suppose it must seem extraordinarily strange to you. I will explain, Scott dear.”
Stunned that the woman knew who he was, Scott watched her draw her chair closer to him and waited.
Looking earnestly at Scott, Emily Porter began her tale.
“I did live in Carterville twenty-five years ago. My husband and I ran the dry goods store and we were expecting our first child. But Tom was killed when he was crushed by a toppling wagon as he was repairing a broken wheel.”
She fingered the wedding ring she still wore and continued. “It was the saddest six months, waiting for our child to be born, knowing that Tom would never see the child.” She glanced towards the door leading to the café and back to Scott. “Constance was born three weeks before your mother arrived in Carterville.”
“One afternoon around the middle of December, a wagon arrived in town carrying an ill woman – your mother. In those days, there wasn’t a doctor within a hundred miles of here, so the decision was made to leave and try to get to the nearest doctor.”
Scott interrupted Emily and asked, his voice barely a whisper, “Who decided? Who made that decision to leave the town?”
“Your grandfather, Harlan Garrett. He had met the wagon a day out of Carterville and accompanied it into town. When he found no doctor, he decided they would go on to Blackwood, but they rested here overnight before setting off.”
Emily looked at Scott with sorrow in her eyes. “It was clear that your mother was not going to survive. She was so very ill. We never knew what was wrong. Apparently, she had been ill for several days with a very high fever and convulsions, and she just got steadily worse.”
“Edna Carson attended the people who were sick around here and when your mother was settled in the hotel, Edna stopped in on her. Not knowing what was wrong with her, she wasn’t able to help much. She just kept an eye on her overnight and tried to keep her fever down, making her as comfortable as possible.”
She paused before she went on, knowing that what she was about to say would no doubt be distressing for the young man before her to hear.
“Go on, please.” Scott’s words were quiet and sad but nonetheless firm. “I came here to find the truth, Mrs. Porter, so please don’t hold anything back. I want to hear it all.”
Scotty has grown into a fine young man, thought Emily. Catherine would have been so proud of him.
Johnny had gone to leave the room when Emily had begun to speak, feeling that what Scott was about to hear would be shared with him by his brother later if Scott so desired. But Scott had asked him to stay so he sat in an armchair by the wall and listened in silence to the account of Catherine Lancer’s final days. He had to admire his brother; to listen to a tale about your mother’s death could not be easy. Nor was watching her be murdered he couldn’t help but think grimly.
“Catherine’s condition remained steady overnight, she was no worse, but neither was she any better. They left the next morning but a couple of hours later a rider rode pell-mell into town. Your mother was in labour and with no one to help her you were both in great danger. Now I’m not sure exactly what went on between Edna and your grandfather while he was in town … he was rather overbearing and disparaging about Carterville and its inhabitants and Edna never spoke about what had happened … but he sent word that Edna was not to see Catherine.”
“He what?” exclaimed Scott in disbelief. “He asked for help then wouldn’t accept it?” Grandfather had professed to care so much about his mother; he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“That’s only partly true Scotty dear. He refused to allow Edna near her but she sent me out.” She smiled a sad ghostly smile “I think Edna knew that the end was near for Catherine. They were stopped about an hour from town and when I got there I found that she was indeed in labour. But you were in no hurry to come into the world Scotty.”
“I tended to Catherine over the next twenty-four hours or so. I don’t know whether it is possible to form a lasting friendship in such a short time, but I feel we did. Your mother was a kind, gentle soul Scotty. Even through her pain and illness, her only thoughts were of her unborn child and the pain and anguish her husband would go through raising his child without a mother.”
She looked at Scott with tears glistening in her eyes and reached for his hands once again. “She knew that she would not survive my boy, and her only hope was that she could bear her child, a healthy child before she lost her battle.”
Scott dipped his head momentarily and struggled with emotions he had been brought up not to display. When he raised his head once more, a worried face studied him.
“I know this is hard on you. Do you want me to stop?” Emily inquired quietly.
“No, I want to know. Please go on.”
“When your mother was coherent, we talked. She told me of meeting your father in Boston, the move to California and her life on the ranch. She did so love the new life she found herself living. It was so far removed from the genteel life she had in Boston, but she told me she enjoyed the excitement and challenges but even had she not, her love for your father would have overcome all obstacles. Her one regret about her marriage and move to California was that her father did not approve.”
“You may think it odd that she bared her soul to a complete stranger and I don’t know why she told me such personal things… whether it was the fact that she was expecting and that I had a babe in my arms that drew us together I’ll never know. But I am honoured that she thought she could trust me and share the thoughts that were worrying her.”
Emily paused to wipe a runaway tear that coursed down her cheek. “She told me of the letter she had written to her father when she first found that she was with child, telling him of her wishes to name the child, if it were to be a boy, Scott William. She said the name had been given to the first–born son in the Lancer family for generations. Your mother was determined to continue that tradition. I fear that she thought her father may use his influence to name the child in the absence of her husband.”
“Harlan was devastated by her illness and impending death, but she managed to get him to promise, in my presence, that he would accede to her wishes and not try to influence her husband in any way. She asked me to remind her father of his promise. To give your grandfather his due, he did so, however grudgingly, and you were so named.”
“Your grandfather spent some short periods of time alone with her and after each visit appeared exhausted and spent. After one such visit Catherine surprised me with a request, she was fretting over how her baby would survive the trip back to the ranch without a mother. She asked whether I would be a wet-nurse for the child. I must admit it came as a shock, but the decision was relatively easy. Since Tom’s death, I had found that Carterville held too many sad memories and the chance to leave was a godsend.”
“My decision seemed to ease her mind and she spoke of her hopes for her child.” Emily wiped the now freely flowing tears and continued, “Finally, you decided to enter the world, a little bundle with blue eyes and wisps of blond hair. It was both a joyous and heart-breaking event, for although you were a healthy baby, Catherine’s time had run out. She held you in her arms and spoke your name Scotty. She told you that she loved you and would always be watching over you. She died with you in her arms.”
Emily rose from the chair and turned away from Scott. She needed time to compose herself and felt that Scott would also certainly need time to digest the information he had just received. He would no doubt be in need of a drink. She knew she certainly was and as she had no alcohol in the house it would have to be coffee.
“If you’ll excuse me for a few minutes, I’ll bring us some coffee.”
While she was gone Scott sat silently, assimilating all that Emily Porter had just told him.
“You all right Scott?” came the quiet voice of his brother.
Scott looked over gratefully to where his brother was sitting. “I’m not sure at the moment, Johnny, but I will be. I’ve waited so long to hear about Mother…”
‘Mother’ he thought. The word seemed to roll off the tongue so easily and yet he had, up to now, only ever referred to her in conversation with his grandfather as ‘my mother’. As he had in the rare occasions, she had been mentioned in Murdoch’s presence. She had never been given that personal title of ‘Mother.’ Strange that he would now use that term without thinking and so easily he thought.
“Johnny, you don’t know how glad I am that you’re…,” but the sentence remained unfinished as Emily returned with a tray that bore coffee pot, cups, milk jug, sugar bowl, spoons and sliced fruit cake on a plate. Scott automatically rose, took the tray, and placed it on the occasional table near where they were sitting.
After inquiring how Scott and Johnny took their coffee, Emily poured three steaming cups.
“Please continue, Mrs. Porter,” Scott said as he accepted the coffee offered but declined the cake. His mouth was dry and he felt he would gag if he ate anything.
“Please tell me what happened next, for we both know Grandfather did not take me back to Lancer,” Scott’s voice hardened. “If Grandfather promised my mother that he would take me back to the ranch and my father, I would like to know why he didn’t, why I ended up in Boston and didn’t see my father for twenty-four years,” he finished bitterly.
Emily Porter looked taken aback. “Twenty-four years?” she echoed faintly. “You never saw your father for twenty-four years? He didn’t send for you or come to claim you? Oh Scotty, I am sorry, I had no idea.”
“Yes, well, that is rather another matter and one that I intend to clear up before too long,” Scott said with asperity.
Their father had better come good on his declaration to him that the past was open for discussion, thought Johnny, because Scott was going to be asking some very awkward questions when they got back to Lancer.
Emily hesitated as she thought about how to explain what had happened after Catherine’s death. “I think your grandfather was in deep shock after your mother passed, for his actions made little sense to any of us. I took you away and fed you, then waited nearby while he stayed with Catherine for what must have been an hour or so. Afterward, I was going to take you back to town and fully expected your grandfather to follow with the wagon. I must admit he took me and the others completely by surprise when he announced that we were to leave that afternoon.”
“Leave? What about my mother? Her … funeral. Didn’t he wait and see her buried?” Scott asked in disbelief.
He was struggling to understand why his grandfather would have decided to leave before his mother was laid to rest, but Emily’s next words gave him a better understanding of his grandfather’s motives. Murdoch Lancer.
Emily looked ill at ease. “That’s what I mean Scotty. What he proposed to do made no sense. I tried speaking to him, as did some of the men that had traveled with Catherine from your father’s ranch.”
She looked at Scott and added hesitantly, “When one of the men said that your father would no doubt be arriving within days – they had telegraphed him about Catherine’s illness – he became angry. We suggested waiting in town until Murdoch Lancer arrived, but he refused point blank. He wouldn’t listen to anything we had to say. He made it abundantly clear that we would leave before Catherine was put to rest and ordered the Lancer men to leave, saying that we would continue with the three men who had accompanied him on his west trip.”
“We were to leave when he returned from Carterville. I went with him taking you and Constance. I must admit he didn’t give me much time to make arrangements or to get my things together. I asked a friend to look after the shop; I was lucky she agreed to do so at such short notice. We were only in town for an hour while he arranged everything and paid Edna for what she had done for Catherine when they were in town. When we arrived back at the camp, your grandfather gathered Catherine’s things together, and we set off.”
She looked worriedly at Scott before continuing, “You can imagine my consternation when I realised we were not heading west, back to your father, but east. At first, my questions fell on deaf ears – Harlan Garrett was a man on a mission and would not discuss any matter pertaining to your father. But the next day, he churlishly answered my questions about why we were travelling east. He told me that he had honoured his daughter’s dying wish concerning your name, although he had taken to calling you ‘Scotty’, but insisted that that was all he would do. I’m afraid that he did not think highly of your father. He said that the desolate land where your father lived was no place in which to raise a Garrett child. He was doing what he thought was best for you. When I reminded him, foolishly in hindsight, that you were Murdoch Lancer’s son and not a Garrett, he instantly put me back in my place – I was no more than an employee paid to look after his grandson and to kindly remember my place.”
“As we travelled eastwards, I learned a lot about Harlan Garrett. Your grandfather is a complex person Scotty. He really did believe he was doing what was best for you – in his own way, he loved you. He was not a demonstrative man, but there was a tenderness evident whenever he held you. You were his link with Catherine and he was not going to sever that link without a fight.”
Emily’s last comment brought both men thoughts of Harlan Garrett’s visit to Lancer some months ago. He was still fighting to keep Scott as his link to his deceased daughter and he wasn’t above using foul means to do so. Scott had been deeply hurt by his grandfather’s deception and blackmail and Harlan Garrett had sunk as low as a man could go in Johnny’s estimation.
“We had an uneventful trip to Boston, but I grew to admire women who have twins. Caring for two babies is not easy.” Emily smiled fondly at Scott, “But you were a wonderful baby, better dare I say it than Constance, who never slept well and cried incessantly. But I would never admit that to her!”
Scott thought it was an odd feeling, knowing that the woman before him sustained his life as a baby. He wondered how long she remained in his life, and as if reading his thoughts, Emily continued.
“Your grandfather thought it best that I continue in my role upon our arrival in Boston. Although he was my employer and was an authoritarian, to me he was fair and to his credit listened to what I had to say concerning your upbringing.”
She sighed, “It certainly was a grand life and one that I will be thankful for. Especially for the opportunities, it gave Constance, it would have been a battle, being alone and struggling to care for her while working in the shop in Carterville. Whereas all I had to worry about in the Garrett household was caring for you both, meals and cleaning house was of no concern of mine, and your grandfather was quite generous in his remuneration.”
Johnny, who had remained silent throughout, asked Emily, “When did y’a come back to Carterville Mrs Porter?”
“I stayed in Boston for three years. By that time, your grandfather thought that employing a nurse and a tutor would be best for you as you were no longer a baby, and I tended to agree with him. I had no expertise in teaching a child the etiquette needed for upper-class Boston society. Oh, I could have remained in Boston, in fact your grandfather offered to find me lodgings and employment, but as fate would have it, I received word that my friend who had been running the shop had died. I had been happy to leave the business in her care and not have to think about it, but now the circumstances had changed.”
“It was a hard leaving, and I had no desire to go back to the store, but arrangements had to be made for its sale. It seemed the ideal time to return. Constance was at an age where no attachment to Boston had been made. Other than you, of course, Scotty, she did miss you and asked where her ‘brother’ was constantly. I sold the store and bought this café and well, here we are.”
“Tell me, did my father come to Boston or write to me during that time?” Scott needed to know the answer to this burning question.
“He didn’t come to Boston, that much I know, and as to any letters, I’m afraid I can’t answer that, much as I would like to. That is something you would have to ask your father or grandfather.”
“Living in your grandfather’s home, I came to have a grudging respect for him, although I didn’t agree with many of his decisions. I understood why he did what he did, but I certainly did not condone his actions.”
A brief silence ensued.
“That is about all I can tell you, Scotty dear. Is there anything else you would like to know?” she inquired gently.
“Thank you, there may be, Mrs. Porter, but at the moment…”
“Emily, please call me Emily.” Emily insisted.
A sudden thought crossed Scott’s mind. He hesitated, then asked tentatively, “What… what did I call you when I was little?”
A wistful look crept over Emily Porter’s face as she answered, “Markie, you called me Markie.”
Scott stood, Johnny, following suit. “Thank you, Mrs. Por… Emily.” Scott said. “I’m grateful for your time… and for all that you did for me in the past.”
Emily stepped forward and embraced him. “It was my pleasure, Scotty dear. You’ve grown into a fine young man.”
As she released him she added, “Are you going out to her grave? Do you know where it is?”
“Yes, the clerk at the hotel gave us directions. We’re riding out there in the morning. We’ll take our leave now, Emily, and thank you again.”
Emily reached out for Scott’s arm as the two young men walked to the door. “Do you mind if I tell Constance? She is bound to ask who you are and what you wanted.”
“Not at all. It’s high time past secrets were revealed,” Scott replied as Johnny and he went through the door.
Emily stood at the window watching the two young men cross the street and walk into the hotel opposite.
The sun’s golden orb rose majestically as the brothers rode out of Carterville towards the hills. The directions they had been given the night before were clear and they had no doubt that the gravesite would be easy to find in the daylight. But they had a good hour’s ride ahead of them.
In spite of Scott’s pressing need to get there as soon as possible, they had breakfasted in Emily’s café. They had not eaten the night before and common sense prevailed – their bodies needed nourishment.
There had been no sign of Emily or her daughter, in a way it was a relief, Scott had thought. He was in emotional turmoil; he desperately wanted to visit the grave, even more so after Emily’s frank discussion the previous evening. But part of him wanted to maintain the status quo, blissfully ignorant of all the emotional pain the next few hours would bring.
But he had made a promise to himself and it was one that he would keep.
The flat country around Carterville soon merged into the foothills. Although early, the day was already warm and still, without even the faintest of breezes. There was nary an animal or bird to be seen. The cloudless sky promised a scorcher later, and the brothers were glad they had made an early start.
Both men rode without speaking. Scott’s mind was still churning over the information he had learned the night before. Johnny’s thoughts, too, reflected on Emily Porter’s words.
“Scott, do ya remember Emily?”
A brief silence followed before Scott answered slowly, “No, no, I don’t Johnny, but I think I wish I did.”
“Yeah, she seems like a real nice lady.” agreed Johnny.
They rode in companionable silence for some time and the only sounds to be heard were the steady, even four-beat walks of Warrior and Barranca.
Johnny eventually broke the silence. “What’s the first thing ya remember, Scott?”
“What do you mean, Johnny?”
“Well, ya said ya didn’t remember Emily, so what’s the first thing ya do remember?”
Scott’s face wore a thoughtful expression. “I don’t think that is something I can really answer. I have many memories but don’t know which one is the first. Sometimes it’s not really a memory but something we’ve been told and we hold it as a memory.”
He looked quizzically at his brother, “What about you, brother? What’s the first thing you remember?” Here was a golden opportunity to glean a bit of knowledge about Johnny’s early life, thought Scott.
Johnny’s thoughts took a fleeting trip back in time and then he grinned at Scott, “Guess you’re right about trying to remember the first memory Boston. I’ve been thinkin’ back but it’s hard, and to be honest I dunno if I can. One thing though, I sure don’t remember anythin’ about Murdoch or Lancer.”
The silence once again was punctuated only by the sound of the horses’ footfalls and a snort from Barranca, who shied as a bird flew unexpectedly from a bush by the side of the road.
Scott interrupted the silence. “I do remember my first tutor, though, well, I can’t remember his name, but I do remember his mustache. He had the most amazing handlebar mustache. I was about four or five and I was fascinated by it.” Scott smiled to himself at the memory; in fact, he didn’t think he’d seen anything as grand since.
“A mustache, huh? That’s your first memory? Now that’s something really worth remembering.” Johnny snorted.
“Sarcasm, my dear little brother, is, as they say, the lowest form of wit,” said Scott without any hint of annoyance. “Now it’s your turn. I’ve shared and had my memory ridiculed so now you’ve got to tell me one. Turn and turn about brother.”
“Them’s the rules are they?” Scott could see a glint a glint of mischief in Johnny’s eyes.
“They are indeed.”
Johnny pondered a moment, then offered, “I remember the first time I fell off a horse.”
Scott laughed, “Why doesn’t that surprise me? Go on then, tell me.”
“I was about seven, I can’t remember what town we were livin’ at the time, but I helped the man at the livery stable feed the horses, and he let me ride them in return. We started with him leadin’ me around, but I soon got sick of that and wanted to ride by myself.”
Scott could well imagine that a boisterous and energetic young Johnny would quickly tire of the leading rein, “So I gather you tried by yourself.”
“Hey, who’s tellin’ this story?” Johnny complained.
“Sorry! Go on…”
“Yeah, I did, try by myself I mean. Mama knew I was goin’ to the livery and warned me not to go near the horses if Senor Alonzo was busy.” Johnny grinned as he looked at Scott, “Well as ya know I don’t follow orders too well, so I guess I tried to get up on one of the horses…”
“You guess?” interjected Scott, “What do you mean you guess? What happened?”
“Well if ya let me finish I’ll tell ya,” Johnny said slightly piqued.
“The next thing I know I’m wakin’ up in bed with Mama hoverin’ over me. Had concussion or somethin’. Seems I musta tried to get on a horse from the fence and either I didn’t make it or I went over his back and landed on my head. So there ya are, a memory, but I weren’t as young as you were, don’t think I can remember anythin’ from when I was four or five.”
“Four, I was four, not five,” Scott said suddenly. “It was before my fifth birthday and Grandfather said I was old enough to start schooling. So he employed that tutor. And I remember that birthday too, Johnny. We had balloons; I’d never seen them before and there was a clown with a small monkey. There were other children there, cousins I think and probably some friends too. Grandfather was there, of course, and another man for a while, Grandfather introduced me to him, but I can’t remember his name or what he looked like. But he was tall, far taller than Grandfather; he looked like a mountain to me. He shook my hand and I remember his hand was rough, not smooth like the men in Boston.”
“I’ve never thought about that before. He must have worked with his hands, a farmer or rancher. But that doesn’t make any sense. Why would Grandfather be entertaining a farmer or rancher, and why introduce me?”
Scott suddenly pulled Warrior up short and Johnny also halted Barranca and looked at Scott. He had a strange look on his face and said haltingly, “Johnny, that man… the one with the rough hands… you don’t suppose it could have been… no, it couldn’t have been because he would have taken me with him. Wouldn’t he?” He looked at Johnny with confusion.
“You mean could it have been Murdoch?” Johnny said softly.
“I guess that’s somethin’ you’re goin’ to have to ask him Scott,” Johnny added quietly. During Harlan Garrett’s disastrous visit to Lancer, Murdoch had told him that he had tried to get Scott but had said no more. Maybe that was the time – if it was, then he had no idea why Murdoch didn’t return with Scott.
Scott had tried to talk to Murdoch but although he had never said what happened Johnny assumed that it only ended in an argument.
All that came out of that fateful visit was the realisation that Garrett would resort to any lengths to get Scott back to Boston. That and the fact that Deegan’s shooting had contributed to Murdoch’s late arrival in Carterville. By that time, Scott’s mother had died and Scott was on his way to Boston with Garrett.
Johnny couldn’t see any way Murdoch could avoid answering Scott’s questions this time. He stole a glance at Scott, his brother was deep in thought and as he watched Scott kneed Warrior on again and the rest of the journey was made in silence.
It had been cool as they rode through the trees in the hills but the heat of the sun hit them as soon as they emerged from the trees and rode into the valley below them. There in the distance could be seen the purpose of their visit – the grave of Catherine Lancer.
He watched as the two riders descended the hill and rode towards the gravesite. He had made good time, but there was no way he could cover the distance between them and get to them before they reached the grave.
He noted little had changed in the area in the last twenty-five years as he rode towards them. The area was still bleak, but maybe that was only because of what it meant to him. It was actually quite a pleasant little valley, surrounded by treed slopes and now, with the late summer sun shining, it took on a different appearance.
It was early winter when he last saw this place. He had arrived too late – too late to care for his sick wife, too late to see his son born, too late to say a last goodbye to Catherine and to tell her how much he loved her, and too late to prevent Harlan Garrett from spiriting his newborn son away. If only… But that would do no good; life was full of ‘if only’s’. You couldn’t undo or take back the past, and now he realised he had to move forward, accept the past for what it was, and ensure his future with his sons. Henrietta and Maria had made him see the light.
After Henrietta’s heart to heart with him, he had been swayed but not convinced. He had been selfish he thought grimly. He had seen the determination in Scott’s face; his son was going to Carterville with or without his approval or company. But he couldn’t bend – wouldn’t bend. His motives were purely selfish and he had seen the disappointment in his elder son’s face but still he could not face the past; Scott had hoped even to the end that he would have changed his mind.
And what had he seen in his younger son’s face as the two of them had ridden off that morning? Not disappointment, not anger – how could he describe it? Scorn, contempt, disillusionment? Murdoch thought sadly, probably a little of all three if truth be known. Johnny remained surprisingly silent over his adamant refusal to go with Scott. But Johnny had provided the moral support his brother needed and willingly offered to travel with him.
Having watched them until he could no longer see them that morning, he had walked unsuspectingly back into the house. He had only just closed the door when he turned around and there, with a wooden spoon in hand, stood Maria. Fire blazed in her eyes as she launched her attack, partly in English and partly in Spanish. He was sure she had deliberately armed herself with the spoon because it was used to good effect, being brandished to emphasise many a point.
He had realised soon after the arrival of his sons at Lancer the degree of respect and fondness Maria felt for both Scott and Johnny. Naturally, with Johnny’s heritage and the fact that she had known him as a baby, she had an attachment to his younger son. And Johnny knew this and played on it unmercifully sometimes, much to Maria’s delight he felt with a father’s indulgence.
But it was gratifying that she cared equally for Scott, for she played no favourites. When needed, they each received her rewards and reprimands in equal proportions. She was like a mother hen protecting her brood and was an invaluable and indispensable member of the household.
Because of this, he listened to her outburst, telling him he should have the courage to go after Scott. She had called him selfish, and he had realised he was. Maria had had no qualms about what she had said to him, things that in most employer and employee relationships would have resulted in instant termination of employment. But Lancer was not ‘most’ places, what with Jelly frequently expressing his opinions whether called for or not and Maria expressing hers, it was far from normal.
It made for some exciting and volatile times but he had to admit that he enjoyed the sparring, not that he would ever admit that to either of them.
So he had decided to go to Carterville – Maria, upon hearing this, had returned to her inner sanctum, the kitchen, with the fire in her eyes extinguished and a satisfied expression on her face. No doubt the wooden spoon having served its rather unorthodox purpose would now be used for its original intent.
It had taken the rest of the morning to organise the ranch. Jelly had been given a list of tasks to be completed and had assured him that the ranch would be still standing when he returned.
He had left just after noon, and after calling in at the Watson ranch to tell Teresa that he would be away for some time, he headed towards Carterville. The boys had a good start on him and he knew that he would not catch them up, especially as they were younger and fitter and could cope with hours in the saddle better than he. He hoped however to arrive not long after them and hopefully be with Scott when he first saw his mother’s grave.
And now here he was, but short of shouting to the riders to stop, Scott would be alone when he first saw Catherine’s resting place. Well, not entirely alone, he had his brother with him and Murdoch knew that would be of some comfort to Scott.
When Johnny and Scott had first ridden up, Scott just sat on Warrior and stared at the gravesite. Finally, he dismounted, dropped the rein, and stepped towards the gate in the ornate wrought iron fence surrounding the grave.
The gate latch slid easily and the gate gave way to his touch without a sound. Scott was oblivious to the ease with which the gate opened, but it crossed Johnny’s mind that it was obviously well oiled – someone cared for this grave and ensured that it remained well maintained. The fence was in perfect order and the grave itself was in immaculate condition. Certainly the grass covering it was not a lush green but cropped short and well covered. No patches were suggesting small animals grazed atop it, in fact Johnny doubted that any animal could get through the closely spaced iron spikes of the fence.
Johnny also dismounted and stood uncertainly, twisting and untwisting the rein in his hand. He did not want to intrude into what must be an emotional time for Scott, but he wanted his brother to know that he had his support should it be needed.
Scott, kneeling before the elaborately carved granite headstone, was deep in thought and didn’t hear the approaching rider. He had not known what to expect when he finally came face to face with this very tangible reminder of his mother.
When first he saw the gravesite, there was an emotional void. He felt nothing. But as soon as he opened that gate and stepped closer and saw the inscription on the headstone it was as if he had been punched in the stomach. The raw emotion of the moment hit him unexpectedly and he knelt down and gazed at the inscription.
In Loving Memory of
Catherine Garrett Lancer
Dearly beloved daughter of
Harlan and Mary Garrett
Loving Mother of Scott
And Wife of Murdoch Lancer
Died 23rd December 1846 Aged 25 years
Johnny, however, turned when the horse’s approach could be heard and looked in surprise at his father, who dismounted without saying a word.
Johnny silently stepped back from the gateway allowing his father to move forwards to stand beside his eldest son. Until he felt a firm hand on his shoulder giving it a gentle squeeze, Scott was unaware of Murdoch’s arrival.
Thinking it was Johnny, he glanced up to give his brother an appreciative smile but, to his amazement, found it was his father. Neither man said a word. Scott turned once again to the inscription, as did his father.
Murdoch looked for the first time in twenty-five years upon his first wife’s resting place. How different it looked from the last time he saw it. The old woman had been right. It had a fine granite headstone and was covered in grass, although burnt brownish from the summer sun, and was obviously well cared for. But by whom he wondered. This place was in the middle of nowhere – who cared enough to make the ride out here to tend a twenty-five year old grave?
Minutes passed and neither father nor son moved. They remained as they were, Scott kneeling with Murdoch standing alongside, his hand still resting on his son’s shoulder.
Finally, Scott stood, his father’s hand slipping off his shoulder. He turned back to the gate and, without looking at his father, said simply, “Thanks Murdoch.”
The two men exited the gate and Murdoch gently closed it and slid the latch into place.
The long drawn out saga is nearing its end – what’s that I hear? Cheering? Now that’s not nice! J I hope the dialogue is realistic for the characters and not too soppy!
Save for nature’s late summer sounds, silence prevailed as the three men mounted and with a last look at the gravesite turned their mounts towards Carterville.
Murdoch pushed his horse up to ride alongside his eldest son and seeing this Johnny slowed Barranca and dropped back. The conversation about to take place was between his brother and his father and should remain so.
Now beside his son but not knowing how to begin Murdoch looked stonily ahead as the two horses walked lazily along in the heat, heads bobbing in unison. Scott, both hands resting on the saddle horn cast a sidelong glance at his father.
“What made you come, Murdoch?” Scott broke the silence.
Murdoch, surprised not only by the suddenness of the question but also the brutal frankness of it, had to quickly gather his thoughts before answering.
“Two very forthright and outspoken ladies.” He smiled but there was no humour in the smile.
“I’m sorry son, I know I hurt you.” He went on, “I… I never meant to. You probably won’t believe this Scott, but I really wanted to come with you… but I couldn’t bring myself to admit that.”
He looked at his eldest and saw the scepticism in his face. “I realise now that I was being entirely selfish and was only thinking of myself. I had no wish to relive the pain of losing your mother.”
He paused, “I think you know that Henrietta tried to convince me how wrong I was, but even that wasn’t enough to make me come. I knew how much it meant to you but I was so self-centred and self-pitying that I ignored your needs and feelings… I think I may have been guilty of doing just that with your brother and yourself quite regularly now that I think about it.”
Warmth radiated across his face as he said, “You have an unparalleled ally in Maria, son, in case you didn’t know it. She launched an attack on me after you both left, making the Boston Tea Party seem quite insignificant, and I was finally humbled and suitably shamed.”
“I had no idea why Harlan suddenly wanted you to make this trip to Carterville, I am ashamed to admit that I thought he had some ulterior motive and I reacted accordingly. My behaviour was deplorable and unforgivable.”
“I have no right to ask your forgiveness, son, and will therefore not do so… but I hope that the pain and hurt I caused you will lessen and you will hate me less for it.”
“Pull up, Murdoch.” When his father brought his horse to a halt, Scott stopped Warrior beside him. He looked at his father, but Murdoch avoided his eyes and gazed straight ahead.
“I don’t hate you, Murdoch,” he said quietly. “I must admit I was furious with your pigheaded attitude and I was sorely disappointed… and hurt, yes, you did hurt me… but I certainly bore you no animosity.”
Murdoch turned to his son. Scott looked earnestly at him, “I don’t think I could ever hate you. Not now anyway.” he smiled humourlessly, “Having hated you all my life for the man I thought you were, had been told you were, I now know better. You /are/ pigheaded, unbending and hard to convince sometimes, but you are honest and resolute. I know you had your reasons, although I don’t understand or condone them. But you came and that is all that matters.”
Murdoch felt he had been let off the hook too easily, his behaviour over the last few weeks did not, in his opinion, deserve such leniency, but he did not wish to draw out the awkward situation. But there was one final thing he had to say before the matter was laid to rest.
“Son, you realise it’s the 25th today?”
Scott looked back briefly to the grave and then back to his father. His smile was sad and he said nothing, but the expression on his face acknowledged that he knew the date. Silently he wished his mother a happy birthday.
They rode on in silence and Johnny pushed Barranca up and the trio of horses lazily made their way into the treed hills, each man silent with his own thoughts.
Scott, while pleased that his father had changed his mind and had given him moral support at the grave was also astounded that Murdoch had actually apologised for his behaviour. He had no desire to discuss anything with his father at this time, but when they got back to Lancer, he had some questions that were going to be answered. Murdoch was not going to evade the past this time and there were going to be no unanswered questions. He also had some questions for his grandfather who may live to regret sending him on this quest he thought grimly.
Now he knew the truth there was no way that his grandfather would be able to twist the facts as he obviously had been doing for the past twenty-five years.
Murdoch’s feelings were mixed. He now knew that he had made the correct decision and was thankful that he had arrived in time – however the pain he had caused Scott over the last few weeks could not be excused. And the guilt that he had felt for the last two and a half decades could not be assuaged. He should have followed Harlan to Boston after Scott was born… should have fought for custody of Scott regardless of Harlan’s threats… and he should have spoken to both his sons about the past. When they got back to Lancer things would be different he avowed. He had promised Johnny that both Scott and he could feel free to ask him anything, and that was a promise he intended to keep come hell or high water.
From his father’s and brother’s body language it appeared to Johnny that the rift between them had narrowed from the gaping chasm it had been before Scott and he had left for Carterville. He knew how angry his brother had been at their father’s refusal to go with him. He didn’t know what had finally convinced Murdoch to come, but come he had and he had provided Scott with the support that Scott needed. Support that he himself had been only to willing to give to his brother but it needed to come from Murdoch – for only he could grieve with Scott over Catherine.
He silently chuckled to himself. Murdoch no doubt thought that the worst was over, but wait until they got back to Lancer. He was certain that his brother would have a long overdue talk with Murdoch and that it would be with no holds barred. Scott would go for the jugular as to why Murdoch had ignored him for twenty-five years.
As they rode along the tenseness that had existed between the three men over the last few weeks visibly dissipated as they began commenting on the country they were riding through, making comparisons with the land back home that they knew and loved.
Before long, the conversation drifted to the ranch itself. Johnny, with a mischievous glance at his father, asked Scott what changes he thought Jelly would be making while the three of them were away.
Scott thought briefly then replied, valiantly trying to keep a straight face. “Well, we know Jelly is quite innovative with breeding cattle, so he’s probably introduced some new blood into the herds, perhaps some Angus or maybe even Highland Cattle to remind you of Scotland, Murdoch. Highlands I think! We’ll be the only ranch to have very hairy long-horned Herefords. We’ll be the envy of every rancher in California. Or maybe he’s started up a sheep farm instead. Then of course he may have reopened the Lorelie.”
Noting the amused look on Murdoch’s face and the laughter on his brother’s, Johnny added, “I know, he’s sold all the cattle and turned the ranch into a poultry farm, y’a know how he loves that Dewdrop. We might be in the goose raisin’ business Murdoch!” he finished triumphantly.
Entering into the light-hearted banter Murdoch said, “Well I’m sure Maria and Teresa would relish the thought of finding recipes for goose instead of beef. Perhaps we could find a new recipe book to take back with us!”
The heat of the sun had an almost soporific effect on the horses, their pace was slow and their heads dropped lower and lower. The riders frequently removed their hats and wiped the sweat from their brows.
As they drew closer to their destination Scott spoke to Murdoch. “I suppose you’ll see some changes in Carterville.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement, “It’s been a long time. The town will have grown although I doubt I’d remember any of the people.”
“You’ve never met her but there is someone there that I think you should talk to, Murdoch.”
Murdoch looked inquiringly at Scott.
“After we get cleaned up we’ll go and see her. She knew my mother and was able to tell me a lot about what happened all those years ago.”
Feelings of guilt once again assailed Murdoch and he reminded himself once again that he would keep no secrets from either of his boys ever again.
There is a reference to another story of mine, The First Birthday, so it may be a trifle confusing to those who haven’t read it.
Murdoch paused as he slowly walked towards the wooden box sitting on the ottoman near the sofa. It had not been there when he was last in the room – someone had brought it down from the attic. Johnny perhaps? After all it contained all the toys, clothes, drawings and other items from another time – the time when Lancer resounded to the joyous laughter of a wild dark-haired toddler. It would make sense if Johnny had brought it down.
But somehow, deep inside, Murdoch doubted that it was his youngest son’s doing.
More likely it was Scott – he was the one who rediscovered it last year, just prior to Johnny’s birthday. It was he who had recently suggested, very strongly, Murdoch recollected with a slight smile, that Murdoch talk further with Johnny. It was no doubt a subtle hint from his eldest son.
It had been nearly a week since they had returned from Carterville. And in that time Scott and he had come to an understanding.
Scott had still been at a loss as to why Murdoch had not sought him out and returned him to his rightful home all those years ago, in fact Murdoch himself had trouble reconciling the fact that he did not follow Harlan and reclaim his son. But Scott had accepted Murdoch’s explanation.
Now that Scott knew that his father had been there at his fifth birthday and his grandfather had threatened Murdoch with a court case, Scott had transferred much of his anger and frustration to Harlan. Murdoch had been reluctant to reveal the fact that Harlan had used Scott himself as a weapon against him but Scott had badgered him to tell him the facts, warts and all. So he told him. Scott had remained quiet but Murdoch could see the anger simmering below the surface.
In fact, unbeknownst to his father and brother, Scott had later started and torn up many letters to his grandfather. He was finding it hard to put his exact feelings and anger onto paper. Although he did not want to drive a wedge between his grandfather and himself, he certainly wanted him to know exactly how disappointed and displeased his grandson was with his grandfather’s behaviour over the last twenty-five years. The letter as yet remained unfinished.
After having met Emily Porter, Murdoch’s mind was slightly easier. Knowing that his infant son had been so well cared for and loved was a blessing. When Scott had introduced him to Emily upon their arrival back in Carterville, he felt that the look of surprise on her face must have mirrored his own.
They had spent the afternoon and evening with Emily and her daughter. Emily had told him so much about Scott’s early years. Although he had welcomed the anecdotes and information, he could not help but feel a pang of jealousy and a feeling of injustice that it was this woman and not himself who had experienced Scott’s first tooth, his first steps, his first words and many other firsts… until her departure from Harlan’s residence. It should have been ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’ or ‘Pa’ that Scott had first uttered instead of … what? Surely not ‘Grandfather’ – that would be too unfair.
He would never know what Scott would have called him. What a loss. He would never forget the delight he had experienced when his dark-haired toddler had uttered ‘Papa’ for the first time.
They had taken their leave of Emily and Carterville the next day, the lure of Lancer strong and beckoning. He had issued an open invitation to Emily and her daughter to visit Lancer at any time. It seemed such a small thing – how did one thank someone for providing a loving and caring environment to one’s infant son, in what was surely a difficult environment? There were not words enough to thank her, and he left with a feeling of inadequacy.
The journey back had been uneventful and relaxed. In fact he had felt that the three of them seemed closer, and he determined to keep it that way. But the nearer to Lancer they got, the more nervous he felt about the upcoming questions his eldest son would be asking.
And Scott had pulled no punches; he was direct in his questions and received equally direct answers in return.
Murdoch was still musing over the box when he heard the front door close and the jingling of spurs as the wearer entered the Great Room. He looked up and smiled when he saw his younger son coming across the room. Johnny flopped down onto the sofa in front of him and swung his legs up. Teresa would have a fit, thought Murdoch with amusement. She had repaired innumerable small tears in the sofa’s covering courtesy of Johnny’s spurs. Normally he would remind Johnny about them but this time… Why did he not want to reprimand his son this time? Was it because of the box?
Johnny sighed and stretched and regarded his father. Murdoch was looking at him with an unfathomable expression on his face.
“Now, what have I done,” Johnny thought with slight exasperation. He shifted his legs slightly and felt a spur grip the material. “Sorry!” he apologised, grinning and leaned forward to remove the offending spurs. He looked up as Murdoch spoke.
“Johnny,” Murdoch began slowly, “you haven’t looked in this box at any time, have you?”
Having not noticed the box before, Johnny regarded the box behind Murdoch for a moment and then shook his head.
“Why not?” Murdoch probed gently. “You knew it was there, in the attic… that Scott found it last year when he found your christening mug.”
All Murdoch could see was the top of his dark-haired son’s head. Then Johnny lifted his head and said quietly, “Yeah, I knew it was there, but I was waitin’ for you Murdoch, hopin’ you’d tell me about it. Weren’t no point in lookin’ and not knowin’ what things meant.”
Murdoch dropped his head and then looked at Johnny shamefacedly.
“Oh, Johnny, I’m sorry.”
He lifted the box off the table and onto the floor in front of the sofa and knelt down opening the lid. Two heads, one grey-haired and one dark-haired, bent together towards the box and began to unearth its treasures.
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6 thoughts on “One Day Nearer by Wendy P.”
Really enjoyed this. Thank you.
What a lovely story. Thank you
There was a point in this story I felt I understood Murdoch not wanting to go to Cartersville. However, my sympathy was with Scott throughout this story, especially when he learned the woman who he’d wanted to talk to had died the month before he’d made the trip.
You did a good job creating the story of what transpired from the time Catherine came to Cartersville to when Harlan left with Scott and Emily.
This was a good story. Thank you for sharing it
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Finally Murdoch knows that he has to talk about the past.
Hermosa historia, completando los vacíos existentes en el pasado de Lancer.
Thank you for writing a story expressing the difficult and emotional scenes concerning Murdoch and Scott about Catherine. One Day Nearer answers a lot of questions and the end is another beginning.