Word Count 6,446
Many thanks to my esteemed beta, Margaret P.
An episode tag to High Riders
“And what shall I do today, sir?”
The departing work crew kicked up a cloud of dust; Murdoch Lancer turned away from it and frowned.
“Why don’t you take the day off? You’ve been working hard; a break will do you good.” Murdoch looked at Scott. “You’ll be in charge of morning orders, once you’ve learned enough.”
“When do you suppose that’s going to be?”
“We’ll see. You’ve still got a way to go.” Murdoch strode back toward the hacienda, leaving Scott as much in the dark as he’d been before they spoke.
“You’re tryin’ too hard.”
The amused drawl drifted toward him from inside the corral. Scott turned to see Johnny pick a saddle up and swing it onto the saddle pad. There was a slight hitch in his movement, but that was the only evidence of his injury. Johnny had healed quickly from the glancing bullet that knocked him from his horse during the battle with the land pirates. The stock saddle settled dead center on the palomino’s back, stirrups on each side, the cinch hanging down completely straight.
Scott gritted his teeth and moved closer. “What are you talking about?”
Johnny grunted as he leaned down to reach under the horse for the cinch. He tossed the near stirrup over the saddle and began lacing the latigo. “That old man. There’s no pleasing him, you know.”
“And you know him so well?” Scott’s annoyance crept into his voice.
Giving the latigo a final tug, Johnny squinted in the direction of the house. “Oh, I know him. I worked for him, or at least for men like him.”
This was news to Scott. He didn’t know either of these men that well. It was clear Murdoch Lancer had spent the last twenty or so years building his cattle ranch, but where had Johnny been? His half-brother was brave in a foolhardy kind of way; he seemed comfortable around the rough men and Mexicans who worked at Lancer. He smiled a lot without actually giving anything away. He threw a hard punch and took one as well. He seemed to own only the clothes on his back and that well-used saddle. And his gun.
“So, John. In what capacity did you work for men like our father?”
Johnny’s mocking smile never failed to unsettle him. “It’s Johnny. And well, I’ll tell you. I protected their investments.”
“With this.” The Colt appeared in Johnny’s hand so suddenly Scott hadn’t seen him draw it. Johnny waggled the pistol, twirled it around his trigger finger, and slipped it back into the holster at the bottom of the spin just as neat as you please.
The dropped voices and sideways glances when men referred to his brother suddenly made sense. “You really are a gunfighter?”
Johnny fingered the brim of his hat in a confirmatory salute. “Cattlemen are the loudest, stubbornest, meanest sons-a-bitches on this green earth.” He grabbed the horn and gave the saddle a shake before swinging up. The palomino tried to move off, but Johnny steadied him and turned him to face Scott.
Somehow, nearly every word Johnny said pissed Scott off. Weren’t families supposed to get along? Then he remembered Johnny’s anger at that very statement by the river. Did Scott really want to be part of a family with this insolent gunfighter?
Still, it had only been a week—too soon to admit defeat. Scott tried again. “Where are you going?”
Johnny leaned into the pommel and pointed with his chin. “Now that I can ride, I’d like to see more of this land that means more to Murdoch Lancer than anything God ever created.”
Scott was about to ask if he’d like some company, but a stable hand had already led a tall chestnut mare out of the barn, saddled and ready to go. Johnny nodded at the man, who handed Scott the reins and then ran over to open the corral gate.
Scott was irritated again. Irritated still. The least Johnny could have done was ask him to ride along, instead of assuming he’d want to go. Being irritated made Scott sarcastic. “So we’re not jumping out today?”
But Johnny just backed the palomino up, guided him out of the open gate, and kneed him into an easy lope. Shaking his head, Scott mounted up and followed.
Johnny turned off the lane and headed cross country. They rode over small hills spotted with scrubby trees. An occasional deer path snaked into the sparse wooded areas. Distant mountains formed a hazy backdrop to their travels. It was pretty in a weedy sort of way.
After a good half hour in the saddle, they came upon a pool of blue water. The spindly trees around a rocky ledge provided enough shade for a comfortable rest, and they dismounted.
Johnny reached over and grabbed the reins of Scott’s horse; he led both animals to the pool. Lacking an invitation to do otherwise, Scott stayed where he was and watched. Johnny whistled soundlessly as the horses drank. He led them back up the rise, looped the reins around low hanging branches, and plopped down on the ground. Scott joined him as he pulled off his gloves and dropped them beside him.
Scott stretched out and crossed his legs at the ankles. “Nice country.”
Johnny nodded, his gaze fixed on the water.
“Is this what people do here?”
“Ride around and sit on the ground? Is this a typical day on our father’s ranch?”
“You’re a funny guy, aren’t you?” But Johnny wasn’t smiling. At least he’d turned his head a little to look at Scott, who ached to once again hit his less-than-talkative brother on the jaw.
“I just meant: what are we doing? You. And me. Here.”
Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know about you, but I’m here because I got offered one third of this ranch in exchange for my gun.”
“So you really are only here for the money, then.”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “I never said any different.”
“And the fact that you now have a father and a brother means nothing to you.”
Johnny looked away. His hands were fisted, but he opened them to rub along his pants legs once, twice, before he turned back to Scott. “You tell me. What’s it supposed to mean?”
God, what an exasperating man! “Most people find families to be a source of support. Of comfort. Of love.”
“Yeah?” Johnny tilted his head to the side and regarded Scott with a half-smile. “You feel all that comfort and love coming from the old man, do you?”
“Of course not. We don’t even know each other yet.”
“Well.” Johnny turned away, picked up a small rock, and side-armed it toward the pond. “Why is that?”
Murdoch Lancer sent his first born away to a distant city and made no effort to keep in touch until the night the Pinkerton agent tracked him down. How could it be anyone else’s fault than Lancer’s that they didn’t know each other?
Johnny grew up without their father too, apparently told by his mother Lancer had thrown him out. Teresa’s words by the lake that day suggested a different reading of the past, but Johnny seemed convinced he’d been summoned only for his prowess with a gun.
A door opened in Scott’s mind: might there be a different interpretation of his own past, too? He’d thought his father was reaching out to him, trying to make amends. Could Murdoch Lancer have brought him here only because of his military experience?
The thoughts balled up in his head until Johnny spoke again. “You grow up in a big fancy house back there in Boston, with servants and cooks and the like?”
“Yes, I lived with my grandfather in the city.”
Johnny nodded. He picked at his palm, staring at it intently.
“Where’s your home?”
“You’re lookin’ at it.” There was that small smile again.
“No, I mean where was your home before you came here?”
“Didn’t have one.”
Scott tried a last time. “So where are you from?”
His brother sighed. “I was born here on this ranch.” He huffed out a bitter laugh. “Can you believe that? Now, how I came to leave it seems to be open to question…I grew up in a lot of different places in Mexico. Once I was on my own I just kept moving. Along the border, mostly.”
No fixed address. A drifter. His half-brother had grown up poor. Would still be poor, if not for this opportunity handed to him. Was it any wonder he came for the money?
Scott had never actually known anyone who didn’t own something, who didn’t live somewhere.
What did Johnny mean, ‘once I was on my own’? Obviously, he didn’t have a father, but what about his mother? Could Johnny have really meant he was all alone? A kind of an orphan?
Scott grew up knowing enough about orphans to be glad he wasn’t one. Orphans wore tattered clothes and scrounged through garbage, unless lucky enough to be cared for by an agency. His grandfather donated conspicuously to an orphanage in Boston, although Scott had no idea where it was. He’d certainly never visited the place.
Were there agencies in Mexico? Orphanages? How did Johnny eat? Who made his clothes? Where did he sleep? Who took him to school?
A question tumbled out of Scott’s mouth. “How long were you on your own?”
“I dunno. Long time.”
“Why were you in Mexico?”
Johnny jerked his head to finally look at Scott. “What?”
“Why did your mother take you to Mexico?”
“That’s where she was from. That’s where Matamoros is.” Now Johnny was staring intently at him. “You haven’t figured out I’m mixed? My mama was Mexican.”
Scott felt like it was a test of some kind, and he had no idea how to pass it. He blurted out the first words that came to mind. “Tell me about her.”
For an instant Johnny looked flustered, but he recovered quickly and flashed a grin.
But he didn’t say anything for a long time. When he started talking, the faintest hint of an accent, unheard before now, crept into his voice.
“She loved to sing. She married my papa—my stepfather—when I was little. He was a farmer. Nothing special about any of it. My papa died when I was about nine, and things didn’t go so good for us after that. My mother took in washing for a while, cleaned houses, worked in cantinas…she started to drink. She was so pretty…men noticed her. You can figure out the rest for yourself.”
Could he? He didn’t like where his thoughts went. “Where is she now?”
Scott bowed his head. “I am sorry.”
“Yeah. Me too.” The silence between them was so uncomfortable Scott had to break it.
“Teresa said something about a gambler. It looked like that struck a nerve.” It was a risky gambit, but Johnny had brought it up, however obliquely.
“It did.” Johnny got to his feet and slapped the dust off his trousers with the gloves fisted in his hand. “You ready to head back?” He didn’t wait for an answer as he strode over to the grazing horses.
“No, wait.” Scott got to his feet but stood his ground. “I appreciate knowing more about you. I still think we should be able to get along.”
Johnny turned and stared hard at Scott. “Even knowin’ I’m only here for the money?”
“Well, yes. I mean, whatever the reason, it appears we’re going to be partners. And I think we need a plan for dealing with our father. You’ve worked with people like him, and you certainly fit in better out here than I do. Maybe you can give me some pointers.”
His brother stared at him for several seconds. Finally he shook his head. “Naw, you don’t need any pointers from me, Boston. Just treat him like you’d treat that soldier in that picture you showed me. Murdoch Lancer is your commanding officer now. Just like he’s the man paying my gun money. He says ‘jump’, we say ‘how high’.”
Lancer’s workday was exhausting. After dinner each evening, Johnny ignored their father’s frown and retreated into the bunkhouse. Murdoch disappeared behind newspapers and pamphlets from companies he was considering investing in. After several fruitless attempts to start a conversation, Scott took to retiring with a book from his father’s library. He was often still awake when Murdoch clomped off to bed; less often, he heard his brother coming up the stairs to the room next to his own.
The girl Teresa seemed to be more Murdoch’s daughter than either Scott or Johnny was his son. She called him Mr. Lancer, but he was relaxed around her, even accepting her gentle nagging about taking care of himself. Around Scott, Murdoch was less communicative; he talked only about the ranch. Johnny didn’t talk at all. His eyes seemed to miss nothing, but he never joined in conversation unless asked a direct question.
Sunday morning Murdoch invited Scott to go to church with him and Teresa in Green River. Although he appreciated the gesture, Scott declined. Worn out by cowboys and cattle, he couldn’t bear the thought of playing nice with still more strangers.
Apparently, Johnny declined the same offer. Scott settled on the portico with a fresh cup of coffee, watching a stable hand hitch a matched pair of bay horses to a buggy. Johnny appeared from the barn, said a few words to the departing hand, and proceeded to check the harness buckles. Murdoch approached him and said something. Scott was out of earshot, but he saw Johnny stop and answer. Then Johnny turned back toward the corral, and Murdoch put a tentative hand on his arm. Johnny looked at it and the hand was immediately withdrawn.
Johnny stepped closer to Murdoch and glared up at him, shoulders square, back tense. He spoke again, and whatever he said caused Murdoch to step back and nod at the same time. Just then Teresa skipped down from the portico, and Johnny turned away to help her into the buggy. Murdoch got in the other side and snapped the reins. Johnny stood, left hand twitching against the conchos on his trousers, as they drove off. Then he spun and went back into the barn.
Several hours passed with no sign of Johnny. Scott wrote a letter to his grandfather, and another to an army buddy. Then he decided to raid the kitchen for something to tide him over until Sunday dinner. Johnny entered the kitchen from the other door at exactly the same time. Scott hung back a few seconds, hoping Johnny might just go away, but Johnny nodded at him and headed for the bread box. Scott sighed quietly and took a seat at the large wooden table. Johnny pulled out a loaf of bread, took up a knife, expertly sawed several slices, and passed one over to Scott. He didn’t use a plate.
At least his hands appeared clean.
“Is there anything besides bread?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes. “What’s the matter? Plain bread not good enough for you?”
Johnny was being an ass again—that wasn’t what Scott meant at all. He just wondered if there was butter, or jam. Before he could get the words out Johnny hopped up and fetched a butter dish and a knife. He sat straddled in his chair and slid them across the table to Scott.
Scott buttered his slice in silence, but without a plate he didn’t know where to set the knife. Johnny smiled at him through a bite of bread as Scott forced himself to place the knife on the bare table.
“Look, Johnny,” Scott started, just as Johnny said, “Y’know, Scott…”
“Look.” Scott started again; Johnny sat back, chewing. “It’s him I’m angry at. Not you.”
“I was just joking about the bread, you know. Didn’t mean anything by it.” Johnny swallowed, then said, “Why are you mad at him?” There was no doubt between them who was meant by “him”.
Scott raked his hands through his hair. “I don’t even know. Maybe I thought this would be more than a…a business arrangement.”
“He’s our father. I thought…I hoped…like I said before, that we’d be a family.”
Johnny stared at him. “You ever hear of a family like this?”
Scott laughed. “No. Have you?”
Johnny shook his head with a smile. After another bite of bread, he said, “What’s wrong with a business arrangement?”
“If that’s what I wanted I could have stayed in Boston.” Maybe he should have done that. This trip to meet a long-lost father was nothing like he imagined.
“Why didn’t you? Stay in Boston, I mean.”
“I told you. I hoped for a…” No, he’d said enough to this annoying half-brother.
“What’s so great about a family?”
“Can’t you speak without asking a goddamn question?” His chair clattered onto the floor as Scott sprang up and made for the back door. But Johnny was up, too, blocking his way.
“Come on, Scott. Get it out. Let me have it.”
“I just explained to you: it isn’t you I’m angry with. It’s Murdoch.” He tried to push past, but Johnny grabbed his arm.
“Oh, I heard you. It’s just, the last thing he can be is that father you want. You heard him. It’s the ranch he loves.”
Scott shook off the restraining hand. “And you believe that? If all he wanted was to protect the ranch, why call on us? There must have been cheaper and easier guns to hire. Certainly closer.”
“All I know is what I see, and I don’t see Murdoch Lancer trying to be our daddy.”
Scott sighed in frustration. “And that doesn’t bother you? Don’t you want him to be a father?”
There may have been a glimmer in Johnny’s eye, but it was gone before Scott could be sure. “I already had one. I don’t need another one.”
Scott pushed past him a touch harder than was necessary. He’d just cleared the door when a mighty shove from behind sent him to his knees in the dirt of the courtyard. Days of frustration erupted as Scott scrambled up to round on his brother.
When Scott first began hammering him, Johnny kept his arms up but didn’t retaliate; a few punches in, though, he started fighting back. Scott had a longer reach, but Johnny had more raw power. This time there was no Teresa to pull them apart. The fight was intense, but brief.
They were both down and bleeding. Breathing hard, Scott struggled to his feet. Johnny stayed on all fours, swinging an arm up in surrender.
“¡Basta! Stop it. That right hand of yours hasn’t gotten any more easeful, you know.”
Scott snorted. “You still have a fair uppercut.” He held out his hand and pulled Johnny to his feet. “Pax?”
“If that means you aren’t going to hit me again, sure.”
They limped to a stone bench in a garden behind the kitchen. Johnny sank down with a groan; Scott settled beside him. As the rush from the fight wore off, Scott felt weak. His arms and shoulders were shaking; his knees ached. Blood oozed from a cut on his jaw, and he was still angry, this time with Johnny.
“What was that all about?”
Johnny’s eye was already swelling as he looked off into the distance. “Oh, just tryin’ to get some of that Eastern stuffing loosened up.”
“What gives you the right to do that?”
“Huh? Why shouldn’t I? Listen, Boston, if you keep all that mad inside, it’ll come boiling out your ears one day and melt your shirt collar.”
Scott stared at Johnny. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Johnny leaned back gingerly, shaking his head and chuckling. “Nobody ever warned you about that?”
For the briefest instant Scott searched his memory for warnings about melting shirt collars. Then he caught the twinkle in Johnny’s eyes, and laughed softly. “No, not that, exactly.”
Johnny’s smile wasn’t fake this time. “Well, it’s about time somebody did.”
“And you think you’re the man to do it.”
“Who better, brother?” Johnny grinned and stuck out his hand, and Scott grinned back and shook it. Maybe this brother wasn’t so bad after all.
Strike while the iron is hot, Scott thought. “So, Johnny. Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure. Might even answer it.” Scott began to bristle but caught himself. Maybe Johnny was simply joking around. Maybe he joked around a lot.
“What was going on between you and Murdoch this morning? I saw you talking for a few minutes by the corral before he left. You didn’t look happy.”
Johnny blew out a big “phhttt”. “The old man don’t think Johnny Madrid is good for anything except killing.”
Johnny tilted his head and looked at him strangely. “Johnny Madrid. Don’t you know about him yet?”
“I’ve heard the name. He’s a notorious gunfighter, isn’t he? But what does it matter what our father thinks of him?”
Johnny stared wide-eyed at Scott, then snorted. “I’m Madrid. That’s my name.”
“You’re Johnny Madrid?” It took a minute to sink in. “So not only are you a gunfighter, you’re famous?” Scott shook his head. This half-brother, a notorious gunman? A rogue or ne’er do well, maybe; he could see that. But a hired killer?
“Famous? Some would say. Others might say something else.” White teeth flashed in a winning smile. Scott had never seen his brother look so unguarded. “I guess you could say I’m infamous.”
“It’s no wonder our father doesn’t think you know about anything other than being a gunfighter then. Although I am surprised he actually said that to you.”
“Well, maybe those weren’t his exact words, but that’s what he meant.”
“Well, do you?”
“Do I what?”
”Do you know about anything other than being a gunfighter?”
Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “You know about anything other than being a soldier?”
Scott smiled. “Point taken.”
He pushed stiffly to his feet, arching his back with a groan. Johnny groaned when he got up, too. They walked slowly, side by side, back into the house. Before they went their separate ways Johnny slapped him on the back. “See you later, Boston.”
And Scott realized it was the first time he wasn’t offended by the nickname.
Somehow after the fight on Sunday, Scott felt more relaxed around Johnny. Apparently, the feeling was mutual: Monday night after dinner instead of heading to the bunkhouse, Johnny settled on the sofa in the great room. Gratified, Scott offered him a glass of whisky. Murdoch took one, too. Teresa brought in a plate of cookies, then disappeared into her room.
After some silent sipping, Scott broke the ice. “This is fine whisky, sir.”
Johnny nodded and swallowed quickly. “Goes down real easy.”
“Yes, a bit smoother than Old Overholt, isn’t it?” Murdoch smiled. “It’s Talisker. I suppose you could say it’s an indulgence of mine: a friend back in Scotland ships me a case every year. Costs an arm and a leg, but there are times when nothing else will do.”
“Scotland?” Johnny asked.
Johnny shifted in his chair. “I figured all gringos just came from the States. I never thought you might have started somewhere else.” He took another sip of Talisker. “That first day you mentioned Inverness. I never heard of it before. I didn’t know it was in Scotland.”
“I’d never heard of Matamoros,” said Scott. “I didn’t know it was in Mexico. I guess we have some catching up to do on each other’s family trees…on our family tree.”
“Come over here.” Murdoch grabbed his cane and limped toward a large globe set in an ornately carved wooden stand in the corner of the room. “I’ll show you.”
Scott jumped to his feet to join him. Johnny followed more slowly, but he stared intently at the globe once he got there. “It’s like a map, but round.”
Scott and Murdoch traded a quick glance over his head. “Have you never seen a globe before?” Scott asked.
Johnny shook his head. “I’ve seen ‘em. I never had the chance to study one.”
Scott stepped up and spun the globe until North America was under his hand. “This is the United States, and this is Mexico. Top is north, right is east.”
Johnny reached out to touch the surface. “Yeah, I recognize the shapes. This is the whole world, huh? Imagine that.”
“It is.” Murdoch hunched over a little to point to a spot near the west coast of the United States. “Here we are right now, in California.” He moved the globe a bit, traced his finger to the right, and stopped nearly at the Gulf of Mexico. “This is Matamoros, where I met Maria.”
Johnny shot a quick look at him, then turned back to the globe.
Murdoch’s finger moved up and eastward, to Boston. “Here’s where I met Catherine.” Then he turned the globe further and trailed his finger across the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland. “And here’s Inverness.”
Scott frowned with a quick nod of his head. “That was quite a journey, sir. I suppose I never gave it much thought before. You’ve covered quite a lot of ground in your time.”
Murdoch straightened, sucking a breath through his teeth. “Yes, I have. And now I’m going to cover the ground back to my chair. My back tells me to quit bending over the globe.”
Scott hovered near Murdoch as he made his way to his leather armchair. Johnny lingered by the globe, turning it and leaning in to read the tiny print. He covered a part of it with his thumb; Scott thought it likely he was measuring a distance. He was glad to see Johnny knew how to read; with his background it certainly wasn’t a given. Murdoch, now settled in his chair, watched his younger son, too. The look on his craggy face approached affection.
Hoping that Murdoch would reveal more of himself, Scott asked if he had any living relatives back in Inverness.
Murdoch’s face hardened. “A brother and a sister. We write…”
Scott wondered at the change in expression; Johnny, taking his seat again, hadn’t noticed. “They would be our aunt and uncle then. They got names?”
“My brother is Callum. He’s two years younger than I. And my sister, Fiona, is two years younger than Callum.”
Johnny broke into a delighted smile. “That’s great, Murdoch. Do they have kids? I mean, do I…do Scott and I have any cousins?”
His younger brother looked for all the world like an eager child at Christmas. No trace of the hard-bitten gunfighter showed on his face; Johnny appeared absolutely delighted to learn they had relatives.
If only Murdoch shared in that delight. His face remained hard, his voice dismissive. “Yes, they each married and had several children, and I recall hearing about grandchildren, too.”
Johnny’s smile faded as he looked at Murdoch and he, too, became expressionless. There was silence for a moment until Scott said, “Maybe you can tell us about them sometime.”
“Yesss…” Murdoch muttered. Silence fell once again.
Johnny tossed down the rest of his drink and got to his feet. “Well, it’s been a long day. I’m gonna hit the hay. Night.”
Scott and Murdoch both called “Good night” after him. By the time he was out of sight, Murdoch had picked up a newspaper and disappeared behind it. With a sigh, Scott followed his brother.
Johnny’s door was open. Scott leaned in and met his eyes. “For a moment there, I thought we were going to learn something about our family.” Johnny waved him in and struck a match to light a lamp; Scott took the only chair in the room.
The window was open, and twilight cricket songs wafted in. Johnny replaced the chimney, blew out the match, and perched on the edge of his bed. “Seems like Murdoch Lancer isn’t much of a family man. Wonder why he wouldn’t talk about his brother and sister?”
Scott sighed. “He’s a tough one to figure. I had no idea he had living relatives in Scotland.”
Johnny twisted the beaded bracelet on his wrist. “That globe is something, isn’t it? Makes everything look so close together.”
Scott sighed inwardly at the abrupt change of subject. Did anyone in this family know how to follow a conversation? But manners took precedence, and he followed Johnny’s lead. “You said you’d seen one before.”
“Yeah, some of the big shots I worked for had’em in their houses.” Whatever warmth he had detected in Johnny at the thought of aunts and uncles and cousins was gone now. The close-mouthed gunfighter was back. That inward sigh escaped Scott’s lips, and he gave up.
But as Scott bade Johnny good night, he realized he had indeed learned something this evening. Johnny might not know it, but the way he lit up when he asked about having cousins convinced Scott: Johnny Madrid wanted a family, too.
Rounding up strays sounded like a fairly innocuous task, but Scott already knew cows could be recalcitrant beasts, and he was fully prepared for a grueling day. He and Johnny were working together, and his brother was proving to be both a hard worker and a valuable instructor. They rode experienced cow ponies from the Lancer remuda. Neither animal was much to look at, and Scott found his mount’s gait choppy. But the horses knew their jobs, and with Johnny’s advice Scott began to get the hang of just letting the horse haze the stray back to the herd. Once there the two cowboys who had the job of keeping the animals bunched together took over.
After interminable hours in the saddle Scott was more than ready to be done. It was past chow time, but they kept going, anxious to drive their strays to the south pasture where the larger herd was being assembled for the upcoming drive.
When the brothers finally got home it was late afternoon; they were tired, hungry, and dirty. Johnny won the toss for the first bath; Scott dusted himself off as best he could and found some cookies to stave off his hunger. When he saw Johnny leaving the bathhouse Scott took his turn. After a comfortable half hour’s soak, he dried off, dressed, and made his way back into the hacienda.
Before he turned for his bedroom, he heard voices in the great room. Murdoch’s unmistakable bass voice sparked with irritation. Johnny’s voice, though softer, was equally upset.
Scott stopped short in the doorway and looked from one to the other. Johnny sat on the edge of the sofa cushion clutching a glass in his left hand. His head was bowed. Murdoch leaned forward in his chair, elbows on knees, staring at Johnny. Scott didn’t move as he heard his father say, “I searched for you for a long time before I found you.”
Johnny looked up and saw Scott, but directed his remarks to Murdoch. “You found me before you knew you did. A Pinkerton agent found me in Bullskin, what…three years ago? Name of Whitesell.”
It took a moment for Murdoch to make the connection. Then his face paled. “Whitesell was killed on the job. You didn’t…”
“No, I didn’t. At least, I don’t think I did.” His next words sounded regretful. “He got caught in a crossfire from a job I was on. I tried to warn him.” Johnny sipped his drink, rested it briefly on his knee, then took another swallow. “He told me your name. I didn’t know it until then.”
Murdoch started. “She never told you your own name?”
Johnny stared at him. “Sure she did—Johnny Madrid. That’s been my name as long as I can remember. I didn’t make it up.”
“That’s not your name.” Murdoch’s tone left no room for debate: the tune caller had spoken. “You were christened John Luis Lancer del Solar.”
Johnny’s response was a snarl. “I never heard that name before.”
Scott hardly dared breathe as he waited for Murdoch’s reaction. Both men before him had been deeply wounded by Maria Lancer. What kind of mother lies to her child about his very name?
To Scott’s relief, Murdoch took a deep breath, then simply said, “I wondered why you didn’t come home when she died.”
Johnny squinted at him. “You should be glad I didn’t. I hated you when I was growing up, you know. I planned to find you and put a bullet between your eyes.”
Scott inhaled sharply; Murdoch’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Johnny shook his head a little, then looked down at the floor. His voice softened. “By the time I found out who and where you were, the hate had died down some.” He glanced at Scott in the doorway again before he turned back to Murdoch. “Oh, I tried the name on, but ‘Johnny Lancer’ didn’t fit. At the time I was working hard to make Johnny Madrid the name of a top gunman.”
“You succeeded.” Murdoch might have been talking about the weather, his tone was so flat.
“Yeah, I did.” Johnny showed no emotion either. Was he proud of his accomplishment? His words about Whitesell suggested there were things he regretted.
“When I learned who you were, heard about your reputation…” Murdoch trailed off, his jaw hard. Then he looked at Johnny. “When Pardee began attacking, I figured your skills would be useful. And I was right.”
Scott gasped to hear Murdoch confirm Johnny’s suspicion so baldly. Johnny merely raised his glass with a smile both sardonic and sad.
Murdoch seemed unaware of the impact of his statement. He continued, “But I meant it when I offered you and your brother each a third of this ranch. You were gone for a long time, but you have always been my sons. And this ranch has always been here, for both of you.” He glanced at Scott, but when he turned back to Johnny the warmth in his voice was unmistakable. “Maybe it’s time to try John Lancer on for size again.”
Johnny stared at the floor. A muscle worked in his jaw. He was no longer the cocky gunman of their first meeting; he looked miserable. Scott could barely hear when he said, “You’re askin’ a lot.”
“Yes, I am. But look at the rewards, Johnny. Look at what I’m offering you.” There was an urgency in Murdoch’s voice. Not the urgency of a businessman making an offer, but the urgency of a father trying to get through to his son. The urgency remained when he turned to Scott and said, “Both of you. You are both my sons. I said it that first day, and I’ll say it again: the past is past. It’s time to look to the future. Lancer’s future. All of us. Together.”
Murdoch looked from Scott to Johnny. Johnny hadn’t looked up from the floor.
Murdoch clenched his fists and turned to gaze out the window at the land he said he loved. “We are a family. We agreed I call the tune, and until you both have learned what it takes to keep this land, I will do so. But…” He ran out of words as he turned back to his sons. For the first time, Scott saw a longing in his father’s face, a longing matched by the look in Johnny’s eyes when he raised his head. It was the same longing in Scott’s heart—a longing for a family.
Could it be they all really wanted the same thing?
“Murdoch,” Johnny said. “It’s going to take some gettin’ used to.”
“I know. I know, son.”
“Scott here knows I don’t give anybody too much credit.” He looked at Scott, who smiled at him in acknowledgement of their first morning at Lancer. Johnny half-smiled back. Then with a huge sigh, he turned to his father and said, “Okay.”
As acknowledgements go, it was pitiful. And Scott wasn’t entirely sure what Johnny was agreeing to. But the smile on Murdoch’s face suggested that he and Johnny understood each other, and Scott found himself grinning, too.
Yet in the days that followed, little seemed to have changed. Maybe the atmosphere was a touch more relaxed during family mealtimes; maybe Johnny spent more evenings in the great room than in the bunkhouse. But Murdoch still spoke of little except ranch business, Johnny barely spoke at all, and Scott couldn’t help wondering what had happened to his hope of becoming a family.
Murdoch proved to be a man of his word. Once the ranch had settled down to what Scott assumed was its normal workings, Murdoch arranged for all of them to go to town to sign the partnership agreement.
The lawyer’s office was nicely appointed, if somewhat crowded for the group of them. Johnny found an out-of-the-way corner next to a polished cabinet and stood there, slouching and chewing on the end of the storm string of his hat. Teresa stood beside him while Mr. Randolph briefly explained the important points of the partnership agreement. It was not a complicated document compared to those Scott was used to. In plain English, with no exclusions or amendments, it split the estate in its entirety between Murdoch, Scott, and Johnny. In the event of a disagreement among the partners, Murdoch Lancer had the deciding vote.
After confirming there were no questions about the contract, Mr. Randolph dipped a pen in ink, handed it to Scott, and showed him where to sign. Without hesitation Scott signed his name, then smiled at his father. Murdoch smiled briefly before adding his own signature. Then the lawyer turned to Johnny. “And you, sir.”
Johnny pushed forward from the cabinet, pulling the storm string from his mouth. He was reaching for the pen when Murdoch interrupted. “Mr. Randolph, I should have told you. That last name should be John Madrid. Not Lancer.”
As Randolph bent to make the change, Johnny’s eyes darted from the lawyer to his father. Jaw jutting forward, Murdoch met his stare, then looked away.
Scott had no idea if Murdoch was offering an olive branch or dropping a gauntlet.
Johnny’s face remained impassive, but when he turned his head Scott saw veiled hope in his brother’s eyes. Now he understood: Murdoch’s words offered Johnny the right to his own hard-won identity. But Scott knew Johnny wanted more, and his softly spoken response marked the beginning of what they all longed for.
“No. Let it stand.”
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