Summary: (A sequel to the story “Wasted Years”. This story begins a few minutes after the end of that story)
Word Count: 4300
After welcoming back Scott from a business trip, Murdoch still had the hint of a smile showing as he entered the newly opened restaurant in Morra Coya with his two sons.
The popular eatery was nearly packed to capacity, but luckily there was one empty table left under the window. As soon as the three men sat down, a waitress approached to take their order. A surprised eyebrow was raised at the identical selection made from the menu card, but she made no comment and quickly disappeared back to the kitchen.
Scott dropped his travelling case and hat onto the floor by his side, still puzzled as to how his father knew apple pie, ice cream and ginger ale was his favorite childhood treat. “I’m sure I’ve never mentioned any liking for that combination of dessert and drink before, so what’s going on?” he asked as a slight frown started pulling at his brow.
Easing forward, Murdoch took out an envelope from his pocket and handed it over. “This letter was lost for fifteen years in the local post office. It was only discovered this morning during renovations and delivered to me a while ago. I think you might find it an interesting read.”
Scott could sense Johnny grinning towards him. He quickly exchanged a faint suspicious glance as he pulled out a single sheet of paper and carefully took in the words written.
“Do you remember writing this to me, son?” Murdoch gently asked.
There was no immediate verbal response as Scott continued to stare down at the childlike but all too familiar scrawl for several long moments. “I remember,” he finally answered. He slowly returned the letter to its envelope and handed it back. A strange flicker of a distant hurt appeared in his eyes, hinting at an old wound from the past returned as he slumped back in his chair.
Murdoch frowned in puzzlement, having expected more of a positive reaction. “Is something wrong?”
Scott shifted in his seat. “No sir, everything’s fine. But if it’s all right with you I’d like to head back to Lancer now. I seem to have lost my appetite.”
“But what about the food we’ve ordered?”
Scott stared at Murdoch for a brief moment before pulling out his wallet. He threw several dollar bills down onto the table. “If that’s all you’re worried about, this should cover any inconvenience caused more than adequately,” he shot back a little more icily than intended.
Refusing to respond to his confrontational retort, Murdoch laid a hand on his arm, confused by the sudden change of mood. “You’re the only one I’m worried about at the moment, Scott. What’s the matter?”
Scott shook his head and drew in a deep breath. “I’m sorry, sir. I just need a while…”
His shaky voice trailed, and clenching his jaw, Scott fought back the emotion which threatened to overwhelm him. “I’ll see you back at the buggy,” he quickly stated. After pushing up from his chair, he grabbed hold of his hat and bag, and then walked out into the street without a backward glance.
Johnny jumped up and made to follow, but Murdoch held him back. “Let him be, son. Give him a minute or two by himself.”
Johnny reluctantly complied, instead watching Scott’s every step with an anxious gaze through the window glass until he was out of sight. “What the heck’s gotten into him? Can’t just be because that letter of his was delivered late, could it?”
“No, there’s more to it than that, Johnny,” Murdoch answered with intuitive fatherly wisdom. “He’s like his mother in so many ways; I know he’ll only let us know what’s upset him when he’s good and ready. So until then, we’ll just have to be patient and wait.”
The ride towards home proved to be a quiet and tense affair. Murdoch and Johnny said nothing about Scott’s curious outburst as he sat brooding in silence on the bench seat behind them. Scott finally spoke as they started to pass by a small lake which lay a few miles distance from the ranch house. “Would you mind if we stopped here?”
Knowing it was one of Scott’s favorite places on Lancer, Murdoch gave a silent nod of approval, sensing his son was ready to talk. Johnny swung the team to the right, and after a few minutes, the pair of matched sorrels was brought to a halt.
The three men stepped down from the buggy, and as Scott walked over towards the water’s edge, Johnny and Murdoch made their way towards a large granite rock which had weathered over millennia into the rough shape of an open-ended seat. They settled down on its ample width, watching.
Scott seemed lost in thought as he picked up a handful of small stones and absently began tossing them into the water, one after the other.
As the sound of the last plop faded away, Scott slowly turned and took a few tentative steps to where his father and brother were patiently sitting. “I know what’s in the past is sometimes best left there, but seeing my letter again has brought back some memories which I’d like to share with you both,” he said in a quiet, resigned voice. “May I read it again?”
Murdoch took the envelope from his pocket and placed it in his son’s outstretched hand.
Scott unfolded the sheet of paper and re-read his words. “All that time I was waiting for you to write back and you’d never even received this,” he commented sadly. He slowly eased down to the ground and rested his back against the gnarled trunk of an aging elder tree.
“You must have hated me when I didn’t send a reply.”
Scott shook his head wearily as he took off his hat and placed it on the ground. “No sir, I couldn’t bring myself to hate you. I just made the excuse with childish naivety that you were too busy on the ranch and so obviously hadn’t the time to write back straightaway. But not a day passed when I didn’t hope and pray there’d be some sort of communication or you’d turn up at the door to claim me.”
Murdoch took a shaky breath. “But I never came.”
“No, you never came,” Scott replied in a soft, heartrending tone as he placed the letter in his jacket pocket then drew up his legs and rested his arms across his knees. “So it was during that next summer I decided if Mohammed wouldn’t come to the mountain, the mountain would have to go to Mohammed.”
Johnny also pushed his hat back off his head and ran a hand through his sweating hair. “What you talkin’ about, Scott?” he asked with a puzzled frown. “Who’s this Mohammed?”
“Sorry, brother, it’s just a figure of speech. I decided if my father couldn’t find the time to come for me, then I was going to make the effort to go to him instead.”
For a moment, this piece of information left Murdoch speechless and open-mouthed. “You planned on heading all the way to California by yourself?” he finally interjected disbelievingly. “But we’re talking thousands of miles, many months dangerous travelling. What made you think you could make such a trip on your own?”
Feeling his father’s gaze on him, Scott looked his way with a wry smile. “To my ten-year-old mind time, distance and risk had no meaning, and it just seemed the most logical thing on earth to do, seeing as I only wanted to be with you.”
Murdoch felt his chest go tight at the thought of his son having such a compelling desire to be with him — a comparative stranger who he’d never met. How he wished he could turn back time. A fresh quiet was filled with so many unspoken thoughts and questions he wanted to ask, but before he had the chance, it was Johnny who broke the silence. “Well, I tell you brother, it’s good to know you never made a start on your journeying, ‘cause if you had, I don’t reckon we’d be having this conversation now,” he keenly observed. “No way would you have survived a trip like that in one piece.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong, Johnny. I did make a start, as nothing was going to stop me once I’d made up my mind to go. Guess that’s where my Lancer stubbornness kicked in,” Scott replied, and then a small rueful smile appeared. “However, it suddenly occurred to me I’d need plenty of cash for my travels, which I didn’t have.”
“So what’d you do? Rob a bank?”
Scott chuckled. “I wasn’t that ambitious, but the night before I’d planned to leave, I sneaked into my grandfather’s bedroom and took a wad of dollar bills from his money box while he slept.”
With his blue eyes widened with surprise at the revelation, Johnny couldn’t help but give a broad grin. “You did some thieving off your own kin? I tell you, brother, your hidden talents never fail to amaze me!”
Scott then noticed his father’s gaze fixed on him as though with disapproval. “I’m not proud of what I did, sir,” he hastily admitted. “But in my defense, I did leave a written IOU with the intention of paying him back one day.”
Johnny clicked his tongue and rolled his eyes. “Only you’d think of doing something stupid like that,” he sighed while Murdoch’s brow lifted and his eyes twinkled.
“I’m just glad to hear a little Lancer honesty rubbed off on you, son,” Murdock declared.
Appreciating his warmth of reply, Scott cleared his throat and continued on with his tale. “I’d told Henry-Jack what I was going to do, so we’d hatched up a plan for me to disappear without my absence being noticed straight away. He asked Grandfather if I could stay with his family for a short while, and it was agreed. But instead of heading for Henry-Jack’s house on the pre-arranged day, I bought a ticket for New York, and with a few possessions packed in a small case, I took off.”
“Didn’t anyone question a young boy travelling alone?” Murdoch asked with an incredulous frown.
Scott shrugged. “Well, I was tall for my age and, as I told anyone who asked, I was on my way to the city to stay with relatives. It seemed to satisfy inquiring minds.”
“So where did you go when you got there?”
Scott let his gaze wander towards the lake. His eyes narrowed against the glare of the sun as he replied. “As soon as I arrived, I headed for the waterfront. I’d heard it said there were countless immigrants arriving from Europe every week and some of them buying passage around the coast to the Missouri and joining mule trains heading west from St Joseph.”
“And you figured on doing the same?” Suddenly seeing his elder brother in a new light, Johnny’s voice was filled with admiration for his resolve and well-thought out plan at such a young age.
Scott nodded. “I’d barely been on the quayside a few minutes when I heard loud shouting and a woman screaming. I’d been so engrossed with my surroundings I hadn’t noticed the driver of a heavy goods wagon desperately trying to gain control of a team of horses. The horses had bolted and were galloping in my direction.
“They were practically upon me when, at the last minute, I flung myself away from the clattering hooves. As I landed, I must have hit something hard, because everything suddenly went black. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a bed with my head throbbing and a swelling the size of a goose egg in my hair.”
Murdoch felt a shudder go through him. “Looks like you had a close shave, son.”
“Too close for comfort, I’d say,” Scott replied. “Luckily, I’d been taken back to the rented room of a husband and wife by the name of Jacob and Christina, who’d witnessed what had happened. They’d arrived from Sweden with their young daughter Anna, and were due to sail from port the very next morning. The doctor they brought in told them I had a severe concussion and needed round-the-clock care for a few days in case there were complications. So they straightaway offered to look after me and postponed their journey.”
“They sound like a very compassionate couple.”
Scott swallowed hard and gave a faint nod of agreement as a distant look came into his eyes. “They were, and though their English was very limited, we managed to communicate without much trouble. When asked why I was alone, I was a little economical with the truth. I just said, though I lived with my grandfather, my own father had sent me money to join him in California. No further questions were asked, and Christina insisted I stay with them all the way west, seeing as they were heading in the same direction.”
There was a short silence as Scott stretched out his legs and returned to stare fixedly towards the dark depths of water, his mind obviously far away. Murdoch watched him closely, deep in thought. There was still so much he didn’t know about his eldest son. He inwardly sighed and wondered what further secrets from his past would soon be revealed.
Johnny shifted position and moved over to sit cross-legged by his brother’s side, resting his weight against Scott’s shoulder. He began to distractedly fiddle with the toggle of his hat string, mulling over everything that had just been said.
Enjoying Johnny’s close presence, Scott allowed a slight smile of remembrance to twist the corner of his mouth as he continued. “Over the next few days, Jacob would tell me stories about their homeland and the family they’d left behind in Sweden. Little Anna took a shine to me and wouldn’t leave my side, saying I was now going to be her big brother for ever more. And Christine was kindness itself in every way possible. I was soon made to feel like one of the family. On reflection, it was the happiest time I could ever remember having and I never wanted it to end — but end it did.”
Refusing to be hurried, Scott paused once more for a few moments as he gathered his thoughts. Johnny turned his head to look at him, noticing immediately the drawn expression that now covered his face. He exchanged a quick glance with Murdoch, who’d noticed the same.
“Five days later, I’d made a full recovery, so fresh passage was booked. We headed towards our ship that final morning, all of us excited to be on our way. But only yards from the boarding point, I heard a familiar voice calling my name. I turned, and it was Grandfather. Henry-Jack had thought I’d be long gone, so when put under pressure to admit where I was, he’d told of my plan to head for California and the reason for it.
“On the off chance I was still awaiting passage, Grandfather had raced down to look for me. Straightaway, I told him I was going to join my father, whether he liked it or not, and that I was in safe hands with my travelling companions. But Grandfather was having none of it. He threatened to have Christina and Jacob arrested for attempted kidnapping and imprisoned if I didn’t go back with him. Knowing how he never said anything he didn’t mean and had connections in many high places, I realized for the sake of my new friends I had to comply with his wishes.
“Anna just clung around my neck, both of us weeping as we said our goodbyes. Christina was also crying, and when she pulled me close, she whispered in my ear, saying if she ever had a son, she hoped he’d be just like me. Then suddenly the three of them were gone, swallowed up in a mass of humanity as the ship began to allow its passengers on board.”
Scott shut his eyes as the memory of those few idyllic days came flooding back again: a giggling blond-haired little girl with curls flowing down her back; a man’s voice singing a quiet lullaby in a foreign tongue as he lulled his daughter to sleep; and a woman with eyes as blue as the sky, promising in a strange lilting accent to take care of him while they made their way to the promised land of California.
An uncomfortable silence hung in the air for several seconds. “It must have been upsetting to have such a loving family wrenched away from you like that, son,” Murdoch finally observed with a sympathetic gaze. “And I expect Harlan gave you a hard time for what you’d done.”
Scott inwardly shook himself back to the here and now. “I certainly felt his wrath a few times, if that’s what you mean,” he answered with a painful grimace at the memory. “But I told him no matter how many times I was disciplined, I’d still attempt to make my way to your side when I had the chance. He obviously believed me, because I was locked in my room and only let out under his close supervision. Even Henry-Jack, who I’d practically grown up with, wasn’t allowed to visit. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as lonely as I did then.”
“I tell you brother, if I ever get to meet this grandfather of yours, I’m going to have a few words to say and no mistake. You didn’t deserve being treated like some sort of criminal!” Johnny stated grimly.
At the sound of his brother’s venomous tone, Scott felt a sudden need to give his grandfather a few kind words in his defense. ”I don’t blame him now for doing what he did, Johnny. In his own way, he loved me and didn’t want to lose me, and must have thought he was doing the only thing he could to keep me from leaving and possibly coming to harm.”
Johnny shook his head with a sigh. “You’re too damn forgiving for your own good. So how long did this go on?”
“Everything changed around three weeks after I’d returned to Boston. It was one morning at breakfast…”
As he paused in mid-sentence, there was suddenly a change in Scott’s demeanor. A distant remembered guilt returned to haunt him again as it had done many years before. He visibly trembled, and a look of anguish settled on his face. “Grandfather showed me a newspaper article. It told of a passenger ship which had floundered and sunk during a storm off the Carolina coast. All on board were lost, and as I read the name, I realized it was the boat Christina, Jacob and Anna had been on.”
Unashamedly, Scott wiped a hand across his eyes, blinking away moisture which was blurring his vision. He felt Johnny’s comforting hand rest lightly on his arm. No words needed to be said between them. Taking a steadying breath, he gave a silent nod of thanks for his brother’s unreserved empathy and genuine concern.
Scott gulped hard, then went on, though his voice noticeably shook at the painful memory. “Grandfather…he made a point of saying, if it wasn’t for me delaying their plans, the three of them wouldn’t have perished. They’d drowned as a consequence of my foolish actions, and he hoped I’d learned my lesson and should be grateful to him, for if he hadn’t brought me back to Boston, I’d also be dead.”
Johnny uttered a few choice curse words. “Damn it, Scott. How could he saddle his ten-year-old grandson with that kind of guilt? What happened wasn’t your fault. It was just a cruel twist of fate. You must know that, don’t you?”
Scott nodded tightly. He dropped his head, gritting his teeth in an effort to go on. “I can accept I wasn’t directly responsible, though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to free myself entirely of blame,” he said, his eyes still filled with unshed tears. “But back then, it was a very heavy burden to carry on a young boy’s shoulders. There were many nights when I couldn’t sleep, always imagining their final moments as they struggled in the freezing, murky water…”
As Scott’s voice trailed off uncomfortably, Murdoch heaved a vast inward sigh at the torment his son must have suffered. “I suppose Harlan’s words had the desired effect then, and that was enough to stop you from running away again.”
Taking a moment to compose himself before answering, Scott was unable to look him in the eye as he gave a nod. “He also added to my misery by saying I should stop living a pipedream of happy-ever-after with a father who didn’t care, and who, by failing to reply to my correspondence, made it clear he wanted nothing to do with me. So it was then any thought of having a life with you finally disappeared, just as I imagine Grandfather hoped it would.”
As a fresh silence fell, Scott risked a look at Murdoch but his face was impassive. Whatever he was thinking or feeling, Murdoch was keeping it hidden deep inside.
Unaware of being under such scrutiny, Murdoch inwardly conceded that without Harlan Garrett’s timely intervention, Scott would now be resting in a watery grave. For that he was truly grateful to the man, but still he cursed his father-in-law for poisoning his son’s mind against him.
Murdoch gave an audible sigh. Thank God things were now right between the two of them, his only regret it had taken such a long time to have both sons returned to his side after too many empty and wasted years.
Murdoch cast the thought aside and settled his gaze once more on his eldest. “I’m sorry your letter brought back such unhappy memories today, Scott. If I’d received it fifteen years ago, there’d have been no power on earth that would have stopped me bringing you back to Lancer. I hope you realize that now.”
Scott met his father’s tender and sincere look full on, and with his painful recollections now at an end, he gave a smile which, for the first time, also reached his eyes. “I know it.”
Murdoch nodded, noticing straightaway his son’s face was clear of its earlier troubled expression, and there was a companionable silence again between the three of them.
Johnny pushed up to his feet and sauntered down to the lake’s edge, staring over at the rippling water which was stirred awake by a late afternoon breeze. “Hey, Scott, you fancy a dollar bet on who can skim a stone the most before we head back?”
Scott looked over at Murdoch and winked. “I’d better warn you brother, I was junior champion at this three years running.” He grinned, more than eager to take up the childhood challenge as he joined his willing opponent.
“Three times?” Johnny queried.
Scott picked up a few small pebbles and selected the most suitably shaped one. “That’s right…three times.”
Failing to notice the mischievous gleam in his brother’s eye, Johnny shook his head. “Why does that not surprise me,” he muttered under his breath, suddenly not so confident in his ability to win the wager. However, undeterred, he bit his lip with concentration and threw his stone, watching and counting carefully as it skimmed across the top of the water. After making it to double figures and then reaching twenty, it disappeared into the depths and Johnny let out a whoop of triumph. “Beat that!” he challenged with a beaming smile.
“Not bad, little brother, but something tells me this is going to be my lucky day,” Scott announced as he took what seemed an age to balance his chosen pebble between his fingers before allowing it to fly out from his grasp.
With their eyes following its every move, the counting began until finally it also sank out of sight. “Damn, it’s a draw,” Scott said with more than a hint of disappointment. “How about having best of three?”
However, before he received an answer, there was the crunch of footsteps behind them and they both turned to see Murdoch with a pebble in his hand. “May I have a go?”
“Aren’t you a little past it to be throwing stones, old man?” Johnny asked, though there was affection in his tone. “After all it’s a young man’s game.”
A muscle in Murdoch’s jaw twitched as he ignored the cheeky jibe, and with a flick of his wrist, the stone was gone. Each bounce was silently counted by three bobbing heads until finally it sank without trace, having noticeably sailed yards further and bounced more times than the first two attempts.
“And that, gentlemen, is how it’s really done,” Murdoch announced as he dusted his hands clean. “A dollar each I think you owe me, boys.”
As his sons stared after him with obvious amazement and reluctant admiration, Murdoch made his way back towards the buggy with a fresh bounce in his step, unable to disguise a broad winner’s smile and a father’s inner glow of utter contentment.