Word Count: 12,200
Allowing a half-hidden smile to play on the corner of his mouth, Murdoch didn’t need to look up from the ledger he was working on to know who’d just entered the great room. The signature jingle of spurs identified the figure making towards him, and even after a year, he never tired at the sound. For if nothing else, it reminded Murdoch his youngest son had returned to Lancer and more importantly stayed.
As Johnny stopped in front of the desk, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out several envelopes, giving the top one a quick inquisitive glance. “I collected the mail while in town. Load of bills by the look of it, except for this. Return address is U.S. Marshall’s Office in Stockton.” He handed the pile over, pulled up a chair and helped himself to a cookie from a plate. It was obvious Johnny’s curiosity was aroused and he wasn’t going anywhere until it had been satisfied.
Equally intrigued, Murdoch gave him a nod of thanks and straightaway opened the letter in question. His brow, however, soon furrowed worriedly as he concentrated hard on the single sheet of paper in his hand.
Johnny noted the change. “Something wrong?”
At the sound of his voice, Murdoch snapped out of his anxious thoughts. “Hopefully nothing I can’t handle, son. This is from an old friend, Marshall Jack McKenna. We go way back from when I first settled around here.”
“Don’t tell me he’s found some old wanted poster for Madrid and he’s recommending you claim the reward?”
Appreciating Johnny’s light-hearted humor, Murdoch managed a quiet chuckle at the reference to his son’s gun-fighting past. “You mean there might be one out there you haven’t told us about and would be worth claiming?” he joked back.
“Naw…there’s no posters out on me,” Johnny insisted, smiling good-naturedly while brushing away crumbs from his lap. “So what’s this marshal writing to you about?”
Murdoch’s expression darkened again. “Jack’s warning me about a man released from prison a couple of months ago. He thought it only right I know, seeing as Tom Hooper once threatened to shoot me dead as soon as he had the chance.”
It was now Johnny’s turn to frown uneasily. “So how come you got involved with this here Hooper?”
Murdoch leaned back, his fingers laced behind his head and his gaze focused reflectively up at the ceiling as he thought back in time. “Hooper arrived from Ohio around eight years ago. His wife died on the journey west and he rented a small spread to the south of Lancer and worked it with his two sons.”
“We’re you friends?”
“He wasn’t the kind many would want to be friends with. Work shy, he was also a cruel man and bully who ruled those boys of his with a rod of iron. Not content to make an honest living, he soon joined up with three old acquaintances and robbed a stage, wounded a couple of passengers. Posse went after them, but unluckily for Hooper, his horse broke a leg while he was trying to get away. He was the only one caught and brought to trial. Although told he’d get a lesser sentence if he gave up the names of the other men, he never did.”
“So what’s that got to do with you?”
Murdoch didn’t answer straight away. He straightened in his seat and let out a long breath. “I was foreman on the jury who found him guilty and sentenced him to nine years hard labor.”
“Hardly the basis for wanting you dead,” Johnny commented in a puzzled tone. “I take it he threatened all the other jurors as well?”
Murdoch hesitated before answering. “No, just me.”
“It wasn’t the only time my path was to cross that of a Hooper,” Murdoch admitted and pushed back his chair. With both thumbs hooked into his belt, he stared absently through the French window. “The youngest boy, Michael — must have been around seventeen years old — disappeared shortly after his father went to prison. He was a quiet and decent sort, probably more like his mother. I’m guessing he took the opportunity to get away from Hooper’s clutches while he had the chance. That left Dan.”
Murdoch paused for a moment to clear his throat. “A couple of years older, he was the exact opposite of Michael and seemed to be cast from the same mold as his father. About six months after his brother left, Dan decided to help himself to all the cash in Morro Coyo’s mercantile store late one evening. Only trouble was, he didn’t realize old Silas was still working in the back room, and when challenged, Dan shot him dead before fleeing. However, Silas hadn’t been alone and there was an eye witness to what he did.”
As he turned, Murdoch nodded, his expression somber. “My testimony sent Dan to the gallows.”
Johnny shifted to a fresh position on his hard backed chair. “But that’s a crazy reason to want revenge. The kid deserved what he got for cold-blooded murder.”
Murdoch sat down and returned the letter to its envelope. “I know it, you know it, but in Tom’s mind, I daresay he thought different when told my part in the fate of his son. Though, according to Jack, Hooper’s been a model prisoner over the past few years. He’s even been let out early; I can only assume for good behavior.”
“So what you worried about?” Johnny asked in a more relaxed tone. “He’s probably had enough time to realize there’s no point harboring a vendetta and risking a hanging party of his own. Bet you as soon as he was released, Hooper headed off somewhere new to start afresh.”
Murdoch grunted. “I expect you’re right, son,” he answered, though inwardly not totally convinced. Reaching over for his half-empty coffee cup, he drained the contents and put it aside. “Anyway, that’s enough about Hooper. Has Scott finished loading the wagon yet?” he asked, keen to change the subject.
Suspecting the past threat had left his father more edgy than he was letting on, Johnny made a mental note to keep an eye out for strangers before answering. “Yeah, nearly done,” he informed, then began chuckling.
Murdoch frowned. “What’s so funny?”
Johnny’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “When we flipped a coin to decide who’d check the line shacks, what Scott didn’t realize was I used a two-headed dollar piece. He’s sure going to spit feathers when I tell him he was duped.”
“And just when do you intend telling him?”
His youngest son grinned. “Reckon I’ll wait until he gets back…or maybe I won’t.”
“Johnny.” Murdoch’s tone was reprimanding but he couldn’t help smiling. He sat back in his seat and for a moment let his thoughts center on his eldest.
After such a different upbringing, Scott had managed to fit in well since arriving at the ranch. Dependable and hard working, he’d proved his worth tenfold — never complaining or refusing a task set. After being estranged from him for far too long, Murdoch acknowledged he’d grown to be a son any father would be proud of.
“Heaven help you if Scott ever does find out,” Murdock finally cautioned with a knowing look. “Anyway, he better hurry. If he doesn’t leave soon, he’ll never make the first shack before dark.”
Johnny stretched out his arms above his head and let out a yawn. “He shouldn’t be long. He was just hitching up the buggy for Teresa when I rode in.”
This information brought a frown of puzzlement to Murdoch’s face. “Teresa? Where’s she going?”
“Over to stay with Martha seeing as Clem’s away and the baby’s due any time.”
Murdoch nodded with remembrance. “Of course. I’d forgotten she’d promised to help out at the Johnston place.”
There was then a short silence between them as Murdoch stroked his chin thoughtfully. “About Teresa, Johnny,” he eventually said, his voice noticeably lowered in tone. “She seems to have been a little preoccupied around here lately. When we’ve spoken, she’s not been her usually chatty self and something’s clearly on her mind. Any idea what it could be?”
Johnny made a face and shook his head as he placed both palms flat against the arms of his chair and pushed up. “She’s been the same with me and I’ve been wondering the self same thing. Reckon if you want to know what’s going on, you’ll need to ask that Bostonian son of yours.”
Murdoch lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “Why should Scott know?”
“Haven’t you noticed how over the past weeks he and Teresa have been as thick as thieves?” Johnny asked as he picked up the empty coffee cup and grabbed a second biscuit. “Lost count the number of times I’ve come across them talking all serious like, but as soon as I get close, they clam up. Reckon something’s going on but neither of them seems keen on sharing it with anyone else.”
Casually munching on his mid-morning snack, Johnny headed towards the kitchen, leaving Murdoch staring after him with a thoughtful gaze.
Although different in so many ways, both his sons had quickly established a close bond of friendship between them since they’d arrived at Lancer. For this reason, he intuitively sensed Johnny now felt a slight irritation at being left in the dark by his elder brother.
Murdoch heaved a vast inward sigh. The fact was, he also felt the same frustration towards Teresa.
He loved his ward like a daughter and there’d never been any secrets between them. Yet now she seemed unwilling to confide in him. What could he do to correct the situation? Ask her directly why she’d not opened up to him as she’d always done in the past? Or should he just wait until Teresa came to him? After all, she wasn’t a child any more. She was near enough a grown woman.
Still not sure what to do, Murdoch looked at the paperwork requiring his attention and closed the ledger; a sudden need of fresh air to clear his mind a more than reasonable excuse to leave the accounts for a while.
Pushing back his chair, he slipped outside and walked towards a small garden to the side of the hacienda. Surrounded by a five foot wall, he made comfortable on a stone bench seat, and as a late morning sun beamed warmth on his face, Murdoch closed his eyes.
With the light-weight carriage harnessed and ready for use, Scott led the buggy’s horse across the yard to where Teresa was patiently waiting. He loaded a travel bag then frowned as he noted her downcast expression. “I realize I gave my word about letting you choose the right time, but this can’t go on, Teresa. You have to say something to Murdoch soon before it’s too late. Besides I don’t like keeping secrets from him, or Johnny, especially as this is going to affect us all in due course.”
“Oh Scott, I don’t like it either, but I just can’t bring myself to own up. Not when I know he’s going to hate me when he finds out what we’ve done…”
“That’s foolish talk, Teresa,” Scott interrupted with a calming smile. “Murdoch could never hate you. If he’s going to show his temper to anyone, it’ll be me. I’m the one he’ll shoulder all the blame on for persuading you to do it.”
Blinking back a tear, Teresa let out an unhappy sigh.
Scott laid his hands on her shoulders and stared deep into her dark brown eyes. “I’ve no regrets about what we’ve done. Have you?”
“Of course I haven’t. But I just don’t know how to tell Murdoch as I know he’ll be so angry.”
“I don’t expect you to tell him on your own. As soon as I get back, we’ll face him together. How’s that sound?”
Scott nodded. “I promise. Now you go and take care of Martha and don’t worry about a thing. She might even have this baby while you’re there and give you some idea of what you’ll be facing some day. You don’t think you’ll faint, do you?”
Teresa laughed. “I won’t faint. I think I’ve seen enough animals birthing around here over the years to know what to expect.”
“That’s my girl,” Scott replied and kissed her tenderly on her cheek. He then took hold of her arm and assisted her onto the driver’s seat. “It’ll all work out fine, you have my word.”
Believing him, Teresa smiled back fondly and took hold of the reins. “Thank you, Scott, and please say goodbye to Murdoch. I couldn’t find him to tell him myself.”
“I will. Take care and I’ll see you in a few days,” Scott answered and watched as the buggy began to disappear into the distance.
Scott removed his hat and wiped a sleeve across his sweating brow. About to make his way into the house, Scott suddenly remembered something else he wanted to pack onto the wagon. So oblivious to his father sitting feet away behind a dividing wall, the young man slapped his hat against his leg and strode purposefully back towards the barn.
Having trouble taking it all in, Murdoch felt as if someone had given him a double punch in the stomach while being unintentionally privy to the exchange which had just taken place. Had he heard correctly?
It didn’t take long after meeting his eldest son for Murdoch to decide the details sent to him by the Pinkerton agent must have been grossly exaggerated. Scott soon proved to be a far cry from the decadent womanizing rake described and Murdoch dismissed most of the findings as just unsubstantiated gossip probably done to justify the extortionate fee by the detective agency.
But now with his mind a whirl of confused thoughts, Murdoch wondered if he’d been wrong after all. Maybe Scott was deserving of the potentially scandal-based facts gathered against him.
In need of a drink, he returned to the house and went straight over to a crystal decanter. He poured himself a shot of whiskey and swallowed it down. As he refilled his glass, he once again went over everything he’d heard in his mind. But no matter how many times he repeated the conversation in his head, Murdoch came to the self same damning conclusion.
His own son! How could he have been so blind?
Footsteps sounded on the wooden floor and Murdoch turned.
Scott was pulling on his gloves as he made towards him. His eyes focused on the whiskey in his father’s hand for a moment but he made no comment.
Murdoch swallowed down the golden liquid, more than appreciative of its fiery bite inside him as he set the glass down.
“I’m finally ready to leave,” Scott told him with a smile as he drew closer. “Oh, and Teresa asked me to say…”
“I know exactly what she asked you to say,” Murdoch interrupted. A mounting rage and feeling of disgust filled him and came rushing to the surface. Unable to stop himself he lashed out, his fist connecting directly with his son’s jaw.
Unprepared for the assault, Scott’s head snapped sideways and he staggered a few paces before collapsing onto a small side table, sending it spinning noisily across the floor. Falling heavily on his back, he stared up in stunned astonishment.
Alerted by the sound of broken furniture, the kitchen door suddenly opened and Johnny rushed in, a half eaten sandwich in his grasp. He skidded to a halt at the sight of Murdoch glaring down at his brother, who was wiping away blood from a cut on the corner of his mouth with his gloved hand. “What going on?” he spluttered, staring between the pair with a look of sheer incredulity on his face.
Clearly winded, Scott rose unsteadily to his feet. “Damned if I know.”
“Don’t act the innocent with me, boy!” Murdoch quickly admonished, his tone harsh with anger as he pointed his finger towards him. “I heard the discussion you had with Teresa before she left. I now know what’s been going on around here behind my back.”
“You do?” Scott looked at him strangely as though genuinely confused.
“It wasn’t too difficult to put two and two together when I hear you say you persuaded Teresa to do it. That you’re the one who will shoulder all the blame on when I’m told what you’ve done. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Yes…sounds about right,” Scott hesitatingly admitted, still clearly puzzled as he rubbed at his aching chin. “Look, Murdoch, I expected you to be a little upset about Teresa when you finally found out, but in truth, I never thought you’d take it this badly. It’s not as if I forced her into it…she was more than willing.”
For a moment, Johnny thought his father was going to hit Scott again. He’d never seen him look so incensed. Murdoch however took a deep, calming breath to rein in his temper and drew back a pace.
“Have you no shame? How did you think I’d react when finding out Teresa is carrying your child? I’d have thought that reason enough to be more than angry. Or did you receive a different response in Boston when taking advantage of any naive young woman you could lay your hands on?”
Johnny stared openmouthed, too taken aback to speak. He willed his brother to utter a denial, show indignation and yell back. However, there was only silence for several long moments as Scott met his father’s irate stare full on.
“Now I understand what this is all about,” Scott finally murmured, but any fury he felt was well hidden behind a mask of wounded acceptance. “The Pinkerton report on me must have been quite an interesting bedtime read.”
“So you don’t deny what you’ve done now or in the past?”
Scott shot him a glance, on the verge of putting him straight. However inwardly marveling at his self-restraint, he decided to ignore the question. Instead, he calmly shifted his gaze. “Well, Johnny, do you think the same as Murdoch?”
Clearly torn, Johnny’s loyalty was painfully divided. He didn’t answer straightway and ran a finger up and down the bridge of his nose, a well known habit which always indicated any uncertainty in his mind.
The quiet between them went on too long and Scott gave a sad, wry smile. “I see. Et tu, eh, brother?”
Not sure what he meant but convinced it wasn’t something to be proud of ,Johnny went over to the hearth. With his appetite suddenly gone, he threw his unwanted food into the grate. “Hell, Scott!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know what to think. You and Teresa being all secretive and now Murdoch saying she’s…well, it’s come as something of a shock you know!”
Scott shook his head slowly. “I bet it has,” he replied, his voice barely audible. He bent down and scooped up his hat from where it had fallen and turned to move away.
Murdoch grabbed hold of his arm and spun him around. “Where do you think you’re going, young man? I haven’t finished talking with you yet.”
At long last, Scott’s self-control fell away. He shrugged off the firm hold, his own eyes now piercing and narrowed with anger of his own. “Well, for the time being, I’ve done talking with you, sir,” he snapped back in a defiant tone. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve got several line shacks to re-stock and repair.”
“This conversation isn’t finished between us yet. I’ll have more to say when you get back. As for Teresa, I expect you do the right thing by her. Understand?”
Knowing exactly what he meant, Scott couldn’t help but give out a short, humorless chuckle. “This just gets better and better. Well, I suggest you talk to the lady herself before you start planning a shotgun wedding between us.”
With disbelief etched on his face at his frivolous response, Murdoch’s lips tightened. “I don’t understand what’s got into you, Scott. I never thought the day would come when I’d regret asking you to come to Lancer.”
Scott let out a bitter laugh. “Ask? I don’t recall you asking, Murdoch. From what I remember, you only considered me and Johnny worth bribing to gain our attention,” he snapped, his voice now sharp with sarcasm. “How do you think that made me feel after being conveniently forgotten about for twenty-four years? Did you not suppose I’d have appreciated a slightly more welcoming invitation from my father when requesting my presence for the very first time?”
For a moment, Murdoch seemed to forget the reason behind the confrontation with his eldest son. Never before had Scott indicated any sign of resentment for the way he was summoned to Lancer. Now, knowing the truth, it sent a stab of pain across the older man’s heart. “If it’s any consolation, I swear you were never forgotten. Not a day went by when I didn’t think of you.”
With his temper still simmering, Scott stared at him coldly. “Forgive me if I find that a little hard to believe at the moment,” he shot back. He glanced over at his brother and muttered something inaudible under his breath. Without another word, he stalked swiftly away, slamming the front door loud and hard behind him.
There was no movement or sound for several seconds in the great room. Finally Johnny spoke. “Murdoch? You sure you got all your facts right?”
“I heard what I heard, son. And Scott didn’t care to refute the allegation.”
Raking a hand through his hair, Johnny sighed despondently. “Well, I tell you this, old man; if you’re wrong, I’m betting there’s a good chance we might be a man short come fall.”
Murdoch said nothing; his face crumpled and he sighed deeply, only able to offer over a faint nod of agreement as a reply.
It was shortly before dusk, and somewhat wearily, Johnny sank down into a steep backed armchair. With his chores finished for the day, he looked over at his father, who was staring without seeing into the flames of the fire. It was more than obvious the morning’s events had affected him deeply; Scott’s closing words adding to the misery Murdoch was feeling inside.
Johnny leaned his head back, the nightmare replaying again in his head. He shuddered at the memory; then the creaking of a door opening suddenly caught his attention. As he recognized the slender figure walking towards him, any feeling of unease he felt at the sight was skillfully hidden as he gave a surprised smile of welcome. “Hey, Teresa, we didn’t expect you back for a couple of days.”
“Clem managed to return earlier than he thought, so I wasn’t needed,” Teresa explained.
Suddenly stirred from his private thoughts, Murdoch’s caring instinct came to the fore. “How are you feeling, my dear? Not been overdoing it I hope?”
Teresa gave a tired sigh as she eased down on the settee. “I’m fine, though I must admit I don’t know how Martha copes with three children as it is, never mind four when her latest comes along.”
“Must be hard,” Murdoch said and tried to smile but it froze on his lips.
Teresa thought she detected a note of tension in his voice, and as an uncomfortable silence settled, she intuitively sensed something was wrong. “What’s happened?” she asked anxiously as her gaze flittered between them both. “Somebody died?”
The two men exchanged a quick glance and Murdoch decided to come to the point immediately. “Darling, I…er…by accident I overheard you talking with Scott this morning. I now know all about…”
As his voice trailed, Teresa stared at him, horrified. “Oh Murdoch, I’m so sorry. Please believe me; I didn’t want you to find out that way.”
Murdoch’s face was now flushed with fatherly concern. He leaned forward, taking hold of her hands and squeezing them comfortingly. “It’s all right, my dear. I just want you to know I don’t put any blame on you at all,” he told her with a gentle smile. “And you can also be rest assured I’ll make sure Scott doesn’t shirk away from any of his responsibilities and takes good care of you and the baby.”
Teresa’s eyebrows drew together in total bewilderment. “Baby? Whose baby?”
“Why, yours and Scott’s, of course.”
Looking at him as though he’d lost his mind, Teresa’s confusion continued to show on her face. Then slowly a realization dawned. She gasped and sprang to her feet, her eyes wide and cheeks flushed red with indignation. “Murdoch! I’m not having a child. How could you think such a thing?”
Murdoch noticeably recoiled back into his chair. “Well, it was the obvious conclusion after what I heard of your conversation. I…” Suddenly not so sure, he hesitated, took a deep swallow. “Are you saying, you and Scott haven’t had a…an intimate relationship?”
Still showing righteous anger, Teresa glared down at him. “Of course we haven’t!” she exclaimed. “Surely you know your son better than that! Scott has never been anything but a gentleman and acted like a brother towards me. Didn’t he put you straight about what we’d really been talking about?”
Johnny shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. “He didn’t seem to want to say much about it, not after Murdoch punched him in the mouth.”
Teresa’s eyes widened even more in shocked surprise. “You hit Scott? What for?”
“I thought…I was so sure he’d…” With a mournful expression etched on his face, Murdoch buried his head in his hands. “Teresa, I’m so sorry,” he groaned. “What an idiot I’ve been. Can you forgive this stupid old fool?”
Teresa’s heart went out to him, and unable to stay mad, she knelt by his side. “It’s alright, Murdoch. I know you were just looking out for me,” she assured softly as she hugged his arm.
“Thank you, my dear,” Murdoch answered with a sigh. “I just hope Scott will be as understanding when I apologize to him. Though I can’t work out why he let me rant on instead of shouting me down and admitting what was really going on. It makes no sense.”
Johnny had no immediate response, as he often had trouble figuring out how his brother’s mind worked. “Reckon he was so mad at us for thinking the worst from the start, he couldn’t bring himself to tell us straight out.”
“You could be right, though I was the one to falsely accuse him. None of this mess is due to you.”
Johnny shook his head, refusing to let him take all the blame. “Damn it, Murdoch, don’t start laying all the guilt on your shoulders, ‘cause that’s not the way it happened. I let him down just as bad,” he admitted emphatically.
“But I struck him. I struck my son.” Murdoch exhaled forlornly with shame, grimacing while rubbing his fist as if feeling it throbbing once again.
At the sound of his pitiful sigh, Teresa returned to the settee, her eyes suddenly filled with tears and clearly distressed. “This is all my fault,” she insisted with a sob. “I asked Scott to say nothing and you know how he always keeps his word. If it wasn’t for me, he’d have explained the true facts right away and wouldn’t have fallen out with you both.”
Without hesitation, Johnny quickly moved over to sit by her side. Gently, he pulled her into his arms. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he whispered softly as she leaned into his chest. “Once Scott gets back, me and Murdoch will do a whole load of groveling to clear the air; then everything will be just as before.”
Teresa gave a loud sniff and looked up at him hopefully. “You really think so?”
Johnny was silent for a moment. He wondered if after the morning’s angry altercation Scott might well tell them both to go to hell and leave. And as much as he hated the prospect, Johnny in truth couldn’t find it in his heart to blame him if he did. Fine brother I’ve turned out to be, he thought bitterly.
However, he swallowed back his inner misery and nodded reassuringly in an attempt to convince her. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Scott, he never stays mad for long. I daresay we’ll all be laughing about this little misunderstanding before the week’s out. So no more tears, you hear me?”
Convinced and cheered up, Teresa took out a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped her eyes dry.
With a kindly smile, Murdoch gave her a considered stare. “Seeing as I’m not going to be a grand-daddy anytime soon after all, any chance you can enlighten us as to what really has been going on with you and Scott?”
Smiling back and inwardly relieved at the chance to unburden herself, Teresa nodded towards her guardian. She took a deep breath and braced herself for the reaction to come. “I’d like to train to be a doctor.”
Johnny’s eyes widened with surprise. While not giving anything away, Murdoch sat back in his chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. “Go on.”
For a moment, Teresa couldn’t find her voice. Johnny gave a smile of encouragement, and spurred on by his silent support, she continued on determinedly.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to be for a very long time. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you as you’ve always been so protective, especially since father died. I was sure you’d refuse to allow me to take up a career where there’s still so much prejudice against women and it meant me leaving Lancer for several years.”
As his father remained silent and thoughtful, Johnny butted in. “Where does Scott fit into all this?”
“I mentioned to him what I’d hoped to be one day and why I hadn’t told Murdoch. Scott said he believed everyone should be allowed to follow their dream if it was possible, and he promised he’d do anything he could to help me achieve mine.”
“I see. And I take it from what I overheard this morning you’re close to realizing your objective?”
Teresa nodded. “After a lot of urging and nagging on Scott’s part, I agreed to make inquires with the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. They sent word I’d need to attend for a formal interview and entrant’s exam. If I passed, I’d be expected to start my training straightaway. Scott even promised to finance my time at medical school using funds given to him by his grandfather, if I gained a place.”
Murdoch noticeably bristled at the mention of his father-in-law. Although slightly confused by his antagonistic stance, Teresa carried on. “Scott also insisted he’d be willing to accompany me to Pennsylvania as it would give him the perfect opportunity to visit Boston again.”
“He seems to have thought of everything,” Murdoch admitted, nodding his head very slowly in admiration.
Teresa swallowed nervously. “Well, Scott was sure if all the arrangements had been made, you’d find it harder to come up with a reason to say no. But because of my age, I’d need your signature as my guardian before I’m allowed to even set foot in the college, and they want my answer before the end of the month.” She paused, looking over sheepishly. “I know we’ve acted a little underhandedly and wouldn’t blame you for being angry. It’s just that this is what I really want to do, more than anything else in the world.”
“I’m not angry, Teresa. Just a little disappointed to think you couldn’t find it in you to talk to me about this first. Am I such an ogre?”
“Oh, Murdoch, of course you’re not. No one could be more generous or loving, and I’m sorry if I hurt you. That was never my intention.”
Giving her a soft smile, Murdoch mulled over everything in his mind. It seemed ironic that he’d gained two sons but now the girl he thought of as a daughter wished to leave him. Though he knew what it was to have a dream. It had been the one thing to keep him going as he left his homeland and travelled across the mighty Atlantic and eventually on to California. He might have had a different aspiration to the one held by his ward, but it would seem her desire was just as strong, just as committed as his had ever been. He leaned forward. “I’ll be honest with you Teresa; I don’t want you to go. I…” Murdoch’s voice faltered. “I need you here.”
Johnny opened his mouth as if to say something on her behalf, but Murdoch gestured with a hand to silence him as he continued. “However, this isn’t about my needs.”
Teresa stared at him for a moment as if her brain could not understand the words. “Does that mean you’re saying yes?”
With his face now unexpectedly relaxed, Murdoch nodded. “There is one stipulation, though.”
Both Johnny and Teresa eyed him questioningly.
“You don’t touch a penny of Harlan Garrett’s money. Much as I appreciate Scott’s offer, I pay all the costs…every last cent’s worth. I think I’ve earned that right.”
Uttering a cry, Teresa sprang from the settee and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh, Murdoch, I love you so much. Thank you,” she told him, hugging him tight. “I promise to make you really proud.”
With genuine affection, Murdoch kissed her lightly on the forehead and held her just as fiercely. “I’ve no doubt you will,” he smiled, blinking back moisture in his eyes.
Johnny prodded the dying fire and watched distractedly as several rogue sparks from a smoldering log disappeared up the chimney. He placed the poker back in its stand and walked over to a table and poured himself a drink. “Want one?”
Murdoch shook his head.
After an evening of conversation with an excited Teresa about her possible new life to come, tiredness had finally overwhelmed her and she’d retired to bed. However, as her footsteps faded away up the stairs, the two men’s thoughts returned to the son and brother camped out many miles away.
“Wonder what Scott’s thinking right now?” Johnny asked, more to himself than Murdoch and not really liking what he inwardly surmised as he sipped at his whisky.
Without commenting, Murdoch heaved himself out of his chair. He went over to his desk and unlocked a bottom drawer and took out a large brown envelope. He looked at it for several long moments in deep contemplation before walking back across the room and throwing it onto the glowing embers.
Johnny stood next to him in front of the hearth and frowned. “What’s that?”
“It’s the Pinkerton report about Scott,” Murdoch answered tersely. “Should have known it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Just wish I’d never asked for the damned work of fiction in the first place.”
Nothing further was said between them as the flickering flames quickly devoured the envelope and document inside, leaving only a smoldering heap of grey colored ash.
“In case you’re wondering, I’ve already burnt the report I had on Madrid,” Murdoch admitted quietly, still gazing into the fire as he spoke.
As he placed his empty glass on top of the mantelpiece, Johnny eyed him with not a little surprise. “You have? When?”
“Straight after that business with the Strykers, remember?”
Thinking back several months, Johnny nodded at the unhappy memory. “I also recall walking away from the ranch, saying I had places to go before being boxed in. So what made you think that was a good time to get rid of it?”
Murdoch rested a large, work-worn hand on the nape of his son’s neck, his tone tender. “You came back of your own free will. It was clear to me then Johnny Lancer intended on staying.”
Johnny gave a flicker of a smile before his face clouded over. “What about Scott?” he asked dejectedly. “Reckon we hurt him pretty bad this morning. Do you think he’d return here if he takes Teresa back east?”
Murdoch swallowed hard, the thought of losing his eldest again too painful to contemplate. He was about to answer when there was the unexpected sound of loud knocking.
Johnny glanced over at the grandfather clock. It was well past midnight. “Overly late for a social call,” he murmured and walked over to where his holster hung from a coat stand. He pulled out his gun and with his finger resting lightly on the trigger unlocked the front door.
A porch light revealed a tall stranger with several days’ growth of stubble on his chin and a deep scar down the side of his face. He gave the weapon pointing towards him a quick glance but showed no fear. “I take it you’re the infamous Madrid?” he asked, grinning. “I’ve heard a lot about you, boy.”
Johnny viewed the unkempt face with suspicion, any surprise he felt to be called by his former alias well hidden. “The name’s Lancer now.”
A muscle twitched in the older man’s cheek. “So I’ve been told,” he replied then looked past him. “Murdoch Lancer?”
It was only when he answered Johnny realized Murdoch was stood only inches away.
“An old acquaintance would like to meet up with you, Lancer. I’ve come to take you to him.”
With a feeling of foreboding, Murdoch hesitated before nodding tightly in response. “Hooper?”
The man raised an eyebrow and smiled. “I see you ain’t forgotten old Tom.”
“No, I’ve not forgotten.”
Johnny took a step forward. “Mister, my father isn’t fool enough to go anywhere near Hooper, so it looks like you’ve come a long way for nothing. Best you leave now, seeing as my finger’s getting real twitchy.”
Even though he found himself looking straight down the muzzle of Johnny’s revolver, the man laughed menacingly. He held out a gun belt which had been slung over his shoulder. “Reckon this’ll sway your mind to my way of thinkin’.”
Johnny recognized it immediately. “It’s Scott’s,” he said in a tense voice.
With his brow furrowed worriedly, Murdoch took it from the outstretched hand. “What have you done with my son?”
“He’s safe…for now,” the man answered, his lip curling up into a sneer. “Can’t guarantee how long for, though, seein’ Tom ain’t the most patient of men. So you comin’ or not?”
Taking but a moment to consider, Murdoch placed Scott’s gun belt on a hall table then grabbed hold of his Stetson and coat.
Johnny placed a firm grip around his arm. “You can’t be thinking of going with him, Murdoch?” he asked in disbelief. “It’s madness! Hooper once threatened to kill you on sight!”
“I know, Johnny, but Scott’s life is on the line. What else can I do?”
Johnny heaved a sigh and nodded, knowing he had no choice.
Growing impatient, the man jerked a thumb in the direction of a second shadowy figure stood by the hitching rail. “We brought horses for you both, seein’ as Tom’s keen to have a family reunion. And you can leave your gun, Madrid. You ain’t gonna be needin’ it tonight.”
The four men rode in silence at a rapid pace, helped on their way by a full moon which frequently emerged from a bank of cloud. It was a long, laborious ride, though it was soon apparent to Murdoch where they were heading as the track rose in a steep incline, flattened for a while, then rose again. Finally they reached journey’s end.
Murdoch was familiar with the cabin which nestled by the side of a granite cliff. It was the first of the line shacks Scott was to have visited during his days away. As they pulled to a halt, two men could be seen emerging from inside. One carried a rifle and had it pointing warningly towards father and son as they dismounted.
“Lancer,” a voice called out. “Glad you and your boy took up my invitation.”
The speaker moved closer, and by the light of the moon, Murdoch couldn’t get over the change in Tom Hooper’s appearance since the last time he’d seen him. Once thick set and considered handsome, the man before him was now gaunt looking, sunken eyes set back in his bearded face. It was obvious his years in prison had taken its toll.
“I kept my side of the deal, Hooper, so where’s my son?” Murdoch demanded.
“He’s in here,” Hooper replied and walked over to a smaller windowless shack used for storing supplies which was built directly into the rock face. “Must say, Lancer, after waiting a while I got to wondering how we’d ever get all three of you away from that ranch of yours. Lucky for us we saw your boy heading this way and followed him. I couldn’t have chosen a better spot for what I’ve got in mind.”
Murdoch felt a cold chill race up his spine.
Hooper looked over to the three heavily armed men standing a few yards away. “I’m not carrying a firearm, but just in case you or your boys have the crazy idea of overpowering me while we’re in here, think again,” he warned ominously. “There’d be no negotiating for your freedom. My friends have been instructed to shoot to kill should they need to.”
“I take it these are the same men who held up the stage with you? The ones you refused to name?”
“Well remembered, Lancer. I called in a favor and they were more than willing to repay the debt.”
Murdoch’s eyes hardened. “Even if it means killing unarmed men?”
Hooper shrugged his shoulders. “Like I said, they owed me,” he confirmed and slid back the bolt on a heavy wooden door.
Inside an oil lamp hung down from a hook, its light revealing the room empty apart from a figure huddled in a corner.
As he recognized his father and brother, Scott pushed his lean frame up and, with a faint groan, stretched aching muscles.
“You okay?” Johnny asked, his voice sincere with concern as he rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Apart from being half-starved, I’m fine,” Scott answered, the earlier confrontation between them for the moment forgotten. “What’s going on?”
“You don’t know?”
Scott shook his head, clearly bemused. “All I know is four men turned up just as I started unloading the wagon. Found myself looking down the barrel of a rifle and was locked in this place.”
“Don’t worry, son, I’ll soon get you out of here,” Murdoch promised reassuringly and turned towards the hostile gaze focused on him from the doorway. “Okay, Hooper. I know you want me dead because of Dan but let my sons go. They’ve done nothing to you.”
“Dead?” Hooper’s bloodshot eyes glinted wickedly. “I don’t want you dead, Lancer. I gave up the idea of killing you years ago. Why this time tomorrow, you’ll be back at that fancy hacienda of yours, tucked up in a nice warm bed. You see I want you to live. Live long into old age.”
Murdoch frowned at him in total bewilderment. “Then what was the point of making me come all the way up here?”
“Oh, I have my reasons,” Hooper smiled mysteriously. He then let his gaze fall on Scott and Johnny, who were stood together, watching him closely.
“I know I never showed it much when I was around them, but I loved my boys,” Hooper admitted. “When Dan was due to be hung, one of the guards lent me a time piece. I spent all that night watchin’ it tick away. Can you imagine what it’s like, knowing to the exact minute when your child is going to die?”
Without waiting for an answer, Hooper went on. “Seein’ as Michael didn’t want anything to do with me, I’d figured on heading back to Ohio as soon as I was released from prison. But when I found out your boys had come back home, I got to thinking how unfair life was. Lost both of mine, yet you’d gained two.”
“What are you getting at?”
Hooper moved in closer and stared Murdoch straight in the face. “I had a change of mind, Lancer, and decided to get me some revenge after all. So I flicked a coin that day between your eldest and youngest.”
Hooper focused his gaze on Johnny. “Madrid, you continue to have a charmed life. Your brother lost.” He pulled out a battered old pocket watch from inside his jacket and placed it in Murdoch’s hand. “I’m leaving this so you can count down to five o’clock like I once did. Then you can return to your beloved ranch and remember for the rest of your days how you spent the night waiting for your boy to die…just as I’ve done.”
Murdoch froze momentarily, stunned by Hooper’s words and his blood running cold at its implication. “Are you saying you’re going to kill Scott?”
Hooper remained silent but the smirk on his face gave the answer.
Johnny rushed over and grabbed the bearded man by his shirt. “What’s to stop me snapping your scrawny neck this very minute and leaving right now?”
Hooper leered at him. “Nothin’ at all, but in case you haven’t noticed, there’s three loaded rifles pointed straight at this shack. Don’t think even Madrid could survive those odds, do you?”
“Well, maybe I don’t mind dying if it means you’ve gone before me.”
“Maybe so, boy, but if all you Lancers were dead, who’d take care of that pretty little gal back on the ranch? Seein’ as none of my friends here has had a woman for quite a while, be a shame if anythin’ happened to her, don’t you think?”
More than aware of the veiled threat made towards Teresa, Johnny pushed him away in disgust. “You’re crazy,” he snarled, eying him with contempt. “Time in prison sent you mad!”
Hooper laughed insanely as he headed for the only exit. “Reckon it did.”
At the sound of a bolt being slid into place, Johnny swore bitterly and kicked out at the door. Feeling helpless and useless, he rested his forehead against it, pounding his fists hard in angry frustration.
Scott sat down, and in an attempt to ease the tension, he swallowed back his fear and made light of his predicament. “Hey Johnny, about that flip of a coin. Do you think Hooper would be willing to make it best of three?”
Johnny clenched his jaw and took a deep calming breath before turning round. He let his gaze rest on him for a long moment. “Are you feeling lucky, brother?”
A hauntingly pensive smile tugged on the corner of Scott’s mouth. “No. Guess one thing I’m not feeling today is lucky.”
At the sound of his voice breaking a little, Murdoch cast the watch away and sank down next to him. Saddled with guilt, his expression was grim. “I’ll do my damnedest to get Hooper to change his mind, son. Plead with him and go on bended knees if I have to. It’s me he hates, and the one he really wants dead.”
With his heart pounding in his ears, Scott shook his head in the semi-darkness. “I appreciate the offer, sir, but we both know that’s not going to happen. Hooper has clearly decided its one son’s life for another and he isn’t going to change his mind.”
Now pacing the small room, Johnny pushed back his hat and threw up his arms in exasperation. “Damn it, Scott, we’re not going to leave you here to die. I’m willing to take my chance when Hooper comes back. All I need to do is rush out, grab hold of one of them rifles then…”
Scott interrupted with a firm shake of the head. “You’d never make it past the door, so don’t even think about it. Better two go free than all three of us shot to pieces. Don’t forget, someone’s got to be around to take care of Teresa.”
Johnny stopped his pacing and went to argue the point. But more than aware his brother made sense his response was to curse again and sit down by his side. “What gives you the right to be too damned smart and bossy for your own good?”
“I’m the eldest,” Scott replied with genuine affection. He tried to smile to lighten his spirits but failed as Johnny just met his gaze with misery clearly reflected back in his eyes. Having just gained a brother he’d grown to trust and love, the thought of the empty years ahead without him around was too much to bear.
Scott looked away, drawing on all his reserve to keep himself from breaking down there and then. “I’d appreciate knowing who this Hooper is and why he’s hell bent on getting his own back. I take it you had something to do with his son’s death?”
With a grunt, Murdoch nodded and quickly explained their past history.
Once he’d finished, Scott continued to frown as a thought nagged. “So knowing Hooper wanted to kill you, why agree to come here to meet him?”
Murdoch’s craggy face stared at him with a tender gaze. “It was made clear what would happen to you if I didn’t show up. I wasn’t prepared to see you dead.”
“You care enough to risk your own life, despite thinking what you did about me?”
Murdoch patted his leg fondly. “I more than care, son, much more,” he replied quietly. “Besides, Teresa had already told us the full story. But even if I hadn’t known the true facts, it wouldn’t have made a dime’s worth of difference. Keeping you safe was my only concern.”
Appreciating his heartfelt disclosure, a half smile touched Scott’s lips then he sighed heavily. “I’m glad the truth is out. I just hope you agreed to let Teresa try for a place at medical school. I’m sure she’ll make an excellent doctor one day, given the chance.”
“It was hard to refuse after all the arrangements had been made.”
Scott couldn’t stop himself from giving out a quiet little chuckle, then his expression changed. “I have to tell you, sir, I’m not too proud of the way I behaved at the house, or some of the things I said to you both.”
“Damn it, Scott, you had every right,” Johnny quickly answered back. “It’s me and Murdoch who need to do the apologizing. The pair of us should have known better than think you’d behave badly towards Teresa.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement. “As for striking you, that’s something I’ll never be able to forgive myself for,” he ruefully admitted.
Showing no hard feelings, Scott’s expression lightened somewhat as he stroked a finger across his bruised chin. “I’ve got to say, Murdoch, you can still give a mean punch. I’ll have to learn to duck next time.”
His attempt at a joke fell flat. No one felt like laughing and Johnny’s hands curled unconsciously into fists. “Hooper will pay for this, Scott,” he announced in the quiet and deadly voice once associated with Madrid. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Scott looked over sharply. “No!” Grabbing hold of his brother’s wrist, he repeated the word only less forcibly this time. “No, Johnny. It’s up to the law to bring him to justice. Not you.”
“You’ve got to be kidding! You don’t expect me to sit back and let him get away with murdering my own brother?”
Scott nodded in deadly earnest. “That’s exactly what I expect you to do. I don’t want you risking your own life for my sake. Murdoch is going to need you more than ever once I’m…”
Scott stopped and took a breath, his features now pale and drained in the lamplight. “Please, brother, just promise me.”
Drawing up his knees, Johnny hugged them. “Hell, Boston, you don’t know what you’re asking,” he groaned. There was a long silence as he felt Scott staring at him intently while awaiting an answer. Finally he forced over a nod of agreement he couldn’t put his heart behind. “You got a deal. I won’t kill Hooper.”
Scott suddenly felt as though a heavy load had taken off his shoulders. His brother had never lied to him and he didn’t believe he’d start now.
Scott shifted a little to try to get more comfortable. His head fell back and his eyes closed, sandwiched and greatly comforted by the closeness of the two men at either side. He was tired…so very tired. Maybe if he slept a while, he’d wake up and find out all this had been a dream. A bad, bad dream.
Disjointed images and sounds flashed into his mind — pleasant evenings spent chatting with Johnny and Murdoch, riding the vast acres of the ranch with them both, and his brother’s laughter as they shared a joke. Damn it! He’d never been happier than with his new-found family over the past twelve months. He wanted it to continue. He wasn’t ready to leave them yet.
Not that he was unduly scared of dying. He’d been prepared to give the ultimate sacrifice during the war, even at times since arriving at Lancer. However, losing his life just to satisfy a father’s perverse desire for revenge was a completely different story.
An involuntary moan escaped Scott’s lips. Powerless to hold back the feeling of apprehension gathering in his body at his fate to come, he began to tremble. In a heartbeat, Murdoch placed an arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. At first, Scott stiffened, embarrassed and ashamed at his apparent lack of self-control. But then almost resignedly he sagged and allowed himself to be held like a small child within the strong and comforting hold.
Murdoch absently stroked a soothing hand across the blond hair, his glassy eyes reflected wet in the lamp light as they met those of his youngest. An unspoken look of understanding passed between the pair.
Johnny may have made a promise to leave Hooper to the law, but Murdoch hadn’t been asked to make the same pledge. So, no matter how long it took, a vengeful father would one day get his own revenge while a supportive son happily and willingly looked on.
Although he ached with discomfort from sitting on the hard floor, Murdoch readily continued to hug Scott tight after he surprisingly fell asleep in his arms. It was the first time he’d ever held his eldest son in such an embrace. Would also be the last chance he’d have? He inwardly cursed, silently mourning the missing years between them once again.
Relieved Scott was finding temporary peace of mind, Johnny refused to allow himself the luxury of sleep. Instead, he leaned close to his brother, just content to offer the warmth of his body. Occasionally he’d flick a glance at his father. Murdoch looked like he’d aged ten years in the space of a few hours.
There was no further attempt at conversation, and having refused to look at the watch, time had no meaning in the small shack. It was only when dawn-filtered light began to trickle almost reluctantly under the door and through cracks in the wooden paneled wall did it become obvious it was the start of a new day.
Realizing his worst nightmare was close to coming true, Murdoch tenderly kissed the head of his firstborn before reluctantly rousing the sleeping figure. “Scott.” He paused for a moment, gritting his teeth in an effort to go on. “Wake up, son.”
Stirred from his slumber, Scott jerked awake. Momentarily unsure of his bearings, he stared around then the memory returned of where he was and why. Seemingly resigned to his fate, he ran a hand across his face, his expression clouded and impossible to read as two pairs of eyes focused on him, no one truly knowing what to say.
From outside there came the sound of a murmur of men’s voices in deep conversation, stamping of hooves, creaking of leather harness. A short while later, a bolt scraped back, shattering the quiet in the shack and the door opened.
With a holster strapped to his thigh, Hooper slapped his hand against his firearm with a grunt of impatience. “Time’s up, Lancer.” His voice sounded hoarse and his breath smelled of whiskey.
Murdoch scrambled to his feet. “Hooper, I beg you. Do whatever you want with me but let Scott go.”
“No can do. Having you dead is not part of my plan,” Hooper retorted flatly. “But I won’t make you watch your boy die, seein’ as I never saw Dan take his last breath. My friends are gonna escort you away. Just get out here now with Johnny boy; otherwise, I might be tempted to send you home alone.”
The inference of his threat was clear as he turned heel.
Scott blew out his cheeks with relief. At least his father and brother would be spared the horror of seeing him executed in front of them.
The muscles along Johnny’s jaw tightened but he didn’t hurry as he rose to his feet and held out a hand. Scott took hold of it and allowed himself to be pulled up. As their eyes met Johnny struggled to put into words what he wanted to say. “Scott, I…”
Shaking his head, Scott smiled as best he could. “Don’t make this harder than it is,” he quietly urged and drew him into the kind of embrace only devoted brothers could share. “It’s been a privilege and joy knowing you, Johnny,” he whispered in his ear. “I love you, brother.”
Though his face was lined with sadness, Johnny’s mouth twitched slightly. “Likewise,” he murmured softly, the word bringing back memories of their first meeting to them both.
Crying inside but refusing to openly surrender to tears, Scott expelled a shaky breath. “You better go.”
For a moment, Johnny hesitated before giving a silent nod of obedience. Blinking back the sudden burning in his eyes, he gently tapped Scott on the arm in a tender gesture of farewell and made his way outside.
After watching him leave, Scott scooped up Murdoch’s hat and handed it to him. “Just to make it clear, sir, I don’t blame you for any of this. You can’t be held accountable for the ravings of a madman.”
Knowing he’d always hold himself responsible for his untimely death, Murdoch forced back tears of his own. Words weren’t needed between them; love for his son plain to see. He took him in his arms and held him tight. Scott buried his face into Murdoch’s shoulder, relishing their closeness and it bringing him a brief moment of welcomed comfort.
All too soon, Murdoch pulled away. He stared at his eldest for a final time as if trying to etch the sight of him standing straight-backed and composed into his memory. With a breaking heart, he slowly turned and started to head for the door.
Scott blue eyes softened. “You should know something, father; I…I love you.”
Murdoch paused in mid-stride. It was the first time Scott had ever called him by that name and was the most welcoming sound he’d ever heard. Unable to speak, he gave a faint nod, and swallowing back the sobs in his throat, he continued on.
The heavy door slammed shut behind him.
Scott slumped back against the wall. Now alone, nervous sweat trickled down his neck, his façade of calmness gone. He felt weak from the lack of food but even the thought of eating churned his insides as apprehension stirred in his stomach.
He remembered back twenty-four hours when he’d happily risen with the sun, keen to start out and begin his work on the line shacks for the very first time. He’d even feigned ignorance at Johnny’s ruse when he flipped the two-headed coin to decide which of them should go, such was his desire to prove to himself and Murdoch he could do as good a job as any seasoned Segundo on the ranch. Scott shook his head ruefully; now neither of them would ever know if that aim could ever be achieved.
Glancing down, his gaze fell on the discarded watch. He picked it up and in the dimmed light just managed to read the time. Scott groaned softly and took a deep shuddery breath. It was ten minutes to five.
Hooper’s three associates were already mounted with their rifles trained on Murdoch and Johnny as they stood together by the side of the supply wagon.
Hooper gave the pair a fixed stare. “You’re looking rough, Lancer. Not get much sleep?” he asked in a mocking tone.
Murdoch glared over with such an intensity of loathing it even shocked Hooper at its strength. “You’ll pay, damn you,” he hissed. “There isn’t a rock you can crawl under on this earth that’ll hide you from me.”
“Don’t be too certain, Lancer. I’ve made sure my escape route is foolproof,” Hooper replied with a half-crazed laugh. “Now get on your wagon and go. I’ve got a five o’clock deadline to meet.”
With fists clenched tight, Johnny had heard enough. All rationality of thought was gone and not caring what happened to him, he took a step forward, the urge to do some killing of his own with his bare hands too strong to resist.
However intuitively realizing what was about to happen, Murdoch held him firmly. “No, son. I’m not losing you as well. Let’s just get out of here.”
It was sound advice as a cocked revolver had already appeared in Hooper’s firm grip and was pointing towards them. His discolored teeth showed in a cold sneering smile. “Listen to your Pa, boy. He talks sense.”
Johnny yanked away from his father’s grasp. He stared steadily at the bearded man in stony silence for a moment then climbed onto the bench seat and took hold of the reins. Murdoch joined him, and with the three armed men following behind, the two horse team moved off.
Almost immediately, Murdoch forced himself to look back. Hooper was stood stock still, watching them drive away. With his gun held down by his side, he swung around and started walking towards the small shack, pausing as he reached the door.
At this point, they rounded a bend, and as Hooper disappeared from sight, Murdoch turned his gaze back to the road. For someone who was still alive, he now looked like he was already dead inside.
The small party continued on. Finally after several agonizing minutes came, the distant sound of a single shot.
Knowing full well what it signified, Johnny pulled to a halt. With his eyes squeezed tight, he bowed his head. Murdoch gazed towards the far distant hills, his lips moving as if in silent prayer.
The man with the scarred face drew level with them and reined in. He sheathed his rifle and settled his hat firmly down on his head. “Seein’ as Tom’s done what he set out to do, we’ll be on our way.”
Murdoch’s voice was filled with disdain and anger. “I’ll make sure you’re all brought to justice for your part in this. You may not have pulled the trigger, but you’re just as guilty of murder as Hooper.”
There was no immediate reply as the man smiled thinly and twisted in his saddle to glance back the way they’d come. “Don’t waste your time on us, Lancer. Go back to your son. You’ve got a body to bury,” he instructed, straightaway spurring his horse and setting off at a gallop; the two other men following close behind.
Murdoch stared after them as they disappeared into the distance. His eyes glowed with hatred, and it suddenly came into his mind he still didn’t know any of their names.
Thinking on the nightmare they were living through, father and son continued to sit together for a while without a word passing between them.
Finally Murdoch stirred himself. Though he dreaded the prospect of returning to the shack, it was time to face what had to be done. Placing his arm around Johnny’s shoulders, he gave a gentle squeeze. “Come on, son. Let’s go collect your brother,” he suggested softly in an almost reverential tone.
Half expecting him to refuse and ask to put it off a while longer, instead Johnny simply nodded his head, too numbed to argue. He gathered up the reins and turned the team around.
With no sense of urgency, they headed back and approached the line shack. A blanket covering a human shape came into view, blood having seeped out from underneath leaving a dark stain on the ground.
Both men quickly lowered their gaze. At least Hooper had shown a small amount of decency to spare them the sight of Scott’s lifeless body.
Johnny pulled the team to a halt. There was already a stench of death in the air and a feeling of nausea welled up within him. He jumped down and crouched with knees bent, allowing his head to hang between them.
Murdoch remained seated. Tears began to unashamedly trickle down his cheeks. Dear God, please give me strength to get through this, he silently begged. Such was his grief in the following moments of silence, he failed to notice movement as a figure walked towards him from the direction of the shack.
Hearing the sound of footfall, Johnny tensed. Surely Hooper wasn’t fool enough to stick around? Had he decided to do more killing? Looking up, the early morning sun hung low on the horizon and shone in his eyes. He squinted to try and see better, shocked confusion covering his face as he began to make out a familiar tall outline.
“Scott?” Johnny’s voice shook as if seeing a ghost.
“Yes, it’s me brother.”
Rising to his feet, Johnny tentatively took a pace forwards, hardly daring to believe. “Scott,” he said again, this time more loudly. He gripped his arm, felt warm flesh, and with a whoop of joy pulled him close.
Scott all but fell into his arms, and as they embraced, Murdoch joined them. Wiping a drying sleeve across his eyes, his expression was one of stunned delight at the wonder of it all. After several seconds, Johnny reluctantly loosened his hold and backed away. He was still beaming while an overjoyed father gave his eldest a bone-crushing hug of his own.
Finally, Murdoch also stood back, studying the pale face before him, his eyes filled with questions. “How’d you stop, Hooper? Jump him when he opened the door?”
Scott stared over at the prone figure. “No. It didn’t happen like that,” he admitted wearily. “Hooper shot himself in the head on his 5 o’clock deadline. He’d never intended it to be me.”
Although puzzled at this disclosure, Murdoch eyed him sympathetically. “That can’t have been a pleasant thing to witness, son.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Scott answered and gave an involuntary shudder. He leaned against the side of the wagon, grateful for its support as he took several deep breaths.
“Did Hooper tell you why he’d decided to kill himself and not you?” Johnny finally asked.
Scott moistened his dry lips with the tip of his tongue. “He was dying. Cancer of the stomach, the prison doctor had diagnosed. Didn’t see him surviving more than a few months if he was lucky.”
“So that’s why he was released early?”
Scott nodded. “The disease had taken his father and uncle, so he knew the suffering to come towards the end. That’s why he chose to die on his own terms, but only after he’d made you go through a night of misery like he’d once done.”
Murdoch slowly exhaled. “He went to a lot of trouble on my behalf. In his warped mind, I suppose it gave him more satisfaction to exact any feeling of revenge he had towards me doing it that way. Did his friends know what he was planning?”
“Yes. They knew.”
Johnny gestured over his shoulder towards the corpse. “That’s what must have been meant by a body in need of burying. Suppose it’s the least we can do.”
Murdoch looked into the neatly packed wagon still filled with supplies. A pick and shovel lay fortuitously on the top, added at the last minute by Scott the day before. “There’s a small clearing not too far from here. We can bury him there.”
Showing no sign of dissent at the suggestion, Scott placed a hand on Murdoch’s arm. “Before doing anything, could we rustle up some food? If I don’t eat something soon, I think I might just faint away.”
“Now you’re talking,” Johnny readily agreed, conscious of his own stomach rumbling angrily.
With his eyes still glued to his eldest, Murdoch uttered a contented sigh that normality was slowly returning. “Sounds a good plan but once we’re done here, we’ll have to head right back to the ranch. Teresa will be worried sick wondering what’s happened to me and Johnny.”
Scott chewed thoughtfully at his lip for a few moments. “If it’s all right with you, I’d rather stay and finish what I came up here to do. It seems a waste of time going all the way back just for me to have to return again at a later date.”
“I agree it makes sense, Scott, but we need to take the wagon. Hooper’s men made us ride their mounts up here,” Murdoch reminded him. “That’s unless you expect your old man to walk over twenty miles under a blazing sun?”
Having momentarily forgotten, Scott managed an apologetic smile. Then a thought suddenly struck him and an idea formed. “Hooper’s horse is still here. You could take it back to the ranch while Johnny stays and helps me. As the saying goes, many hands make light work.”
Johnny rolled his eyes. “Don’t tell me that’s another of them Emerson quotes, brother? ‘ Cause if it is, it’s pretty damn lame.”
Scott sighed in good humored exasperation. “No. It’s not Emerson for once. In fact it was first said by…”
Johnny held up his hands as if in defeat. “It’s okay, Scott. I really don’t want to know at this point in time. Seeing as you’ve volunteered me to stick around up here, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to amaze me with your Harvard education over the next few days.”
Chuckling, Scott playfully nudged him in the ribs. “Like you once said, little brother, I’m too damned smart for my own good, and don’t you ever forget it!”
Murdoch laughed at the exchange. “Johnny, I know I call the tune but I like to play fair. Do you want to flip a coin to see who goes home?”
Before Johnny could answer, Scott interrupted with a lopsided grin. “I wouldn’t risk it, sir. Johnny seems to have quite a winning streak on coin flipping at the moment. Isn’t that right, brother?”
Narrowing his eyes, Johnny didn’t answer, though reddened slightly. The tone of Scott’s voice clearly indicated he knew about the two-headed dollar coin. He took a nervous gulp. Something told him he may well be paying for his little trick someday soon.
Also sensing Scott was well aware of the prank played on him, Murdoch hid a smile as he laid a hand on his shoulder. “Sir? Do you still have to be so formal Scott?” he asked softly. “I know when we first met I said you could call me anything, but I kind of liked it when you said the name father earlier today.”
Also remembering back to that initial meeting, it occurred to Scott how much their relationship had changed in such a short while. From the man he thought he hated, Murdoch had rapidly become a figure he both respected and loved. His mouth curved slightly as he looked him straight in the eye. “I think after all we’ve just gone through, you deserve to be called it from now on. Though it may take me a while to get used to saying it.”
Suddenly realizing how much it meant to him, Murdoch swallowed hard and nodded his thanks. He turned to Johnny. “What about you, son?”
Johnny pondered for a moment then shook his head. “Sorry, Murdoch, don’t reckon I could ever call you father. It just doesn’t come natural to me,” he admitted with a serious frown.
Murdoch inwardly sighed with disappointment.
“Mind you,” Johnny went on with a twinkle in his eye. “Pa seems to roll quite easy off the tongue. Will that do?”
Murdoch’s face lit up. “It’ll do fine, son,” he responded happily.
After all, having never felt as blessed as he did at that moment, what more could a man wish for?