Summary: Warning: This story deals with adult themes which may not be suitable for some readers.
Word Count: 10,600
Scott Lancer reined the buggy’s two horse team to a steady halt a short distance away from the Overland Stage Office. He looked down at the slumbering figure by his side and gave a quiet chuckle. For after two years knowing him, he still couldn’t get over how his younger brother could fall asleep just about anywhere. Johnny had rested against him for most of the journey from the ranch and even emitted a faint snoring at times. “Come on, lazy bones; stage should be due in any minute. It’s always a fast turn around and you don’t want to risk missing it; otherwise, Murdoch is going to throw a fit.”
After a few moments, there was a whispered muffled response. “I keep telling you, Boston, I’m not scared of the old man.”
“Maybe not, but I am,” Scott answered with a light-hearted grin as he gently moved the dark haired head away from his shoulder and eased to the ground.
Johnny let out a yawn and, bleary-eyed, he unfolded his arms and rubbed a hand over his face before reluctantly following suit. “I still don’t see why I have to go. From what you told me, these Cattle Association meetings sure are a dull affair and there’s a good chance I’m gonna die of boredom before the first day is up.”
Scott smiled at his childlike whining. “You’re going because I drew the high card this year, not you, remember?”
Johnny glared suspiciously at him. “Still reckon you stacked the deck.”
Looking a picture of innocence, Scott could only give a gasp of hurt and disbelief. “How could you think such a thing of me brother? As Emerson once said…”
“Ah, thought he’d have something to say on the subject,” Johnny interrupted, throwing over a playful swipe just as the aforementioned mid-day stage came into view and rocked to an ungainly halt several feet in front of them.
“Have you brought the letter of introduction and the papers Murdoch needs to have signed?” Scott asked. His amiable expression suddenly turned businesslike and serious.
Johnny nodded as he patted his jacket pocket and, looking over his brother’s shoulder, couldn’t help but notice the first passenger to disembark from the stage.
The stranger was a heavily built man in his early forties with a thick, graying beard covering his chin. There was a wicked, cruel look about him as he quickly scanned the street up and down through narrowed eyes, and with a single suitcase in hand, he pushed his way into the stage office.
For some reason, Johnny shivered at the sight but his attention was diverted when he felt his hat pushed off and fingers combing his hair into place.
“You were supposed to get this cut two days ago,” Scott reprimanded, then gestured towards the saddle bag he was carrying. “And is this all the luggage you intend taking? You do realize you’re expected to dine out with the Committee members and their wives two nights in a row? You can’t wear the same shirt twice!”
“Boston, you do more clucking than a mother hen,” Johnny replied, a wisp of a half smile playing on the corner of his mouth as he feigned annoyance but, in truth, enjoying the attention as he settled his hat back on. “I aim to visit me the best barber in Sacramento when I get there and you know I always travel light.” He took out a large wad of dollar notes and wafted it under his brother’s nose. “But Murdoch gave me extra to buy new clothes so I’ll be able to dress up real smart and have no trouble impressing the ladies. Satisfied?”
Scott answered with a full grown grin. “Just don’t come back looking like a Bostonian dandy,” he joked. “One in the family was quite enough!”
The two men smiled at the distant memory of their first meeting. After a brotherly farewell embrace, Johnny was soon seated comfortably in the coach and already chatting to his three fellow travelling companions when the stage driver climbed aboard and cracked the whip.
“Make sure to stay sober during the Chairman’s dinner!” Scott cried after him. His brother’s reply was a few loud chicken clucks and a wave of the hand through the window as the coach lurched forward, soon picking up speed and leaving a cloud of dust in its wake.
Laughing quietly to himself, Scott returned the wave. Johnny was only going to be gone for a week but he sure was going to miss him. He inwardly sighed just as the bearded stranger brushed past, knocking him slightly off balance, though offering no word of apology or second glance.
Giving a slight frown of irritation at the bad manners shown, Scott tipped his hat forward to keep his eyes shielded from the glaring sun and so allowed his gaze to remain on the back of the man as he walked away with a strangely uneven step. Then Scott’s stare became almost hypnotically focused on the noticeable ungainly limp as the man strode purposefully on, only pausing in his stride when arriving at the hotel where, without hesitation, he went through the door and disappeared inside.
A week later, the incoming stage from Sacramento drew to a halt in Morro Coyo.
Alighting from the coach, Johnny’s voice carried towards the man waiting for him across the street, who’d become an invaluable, though at times cantankerous, member of the workforce since arriving at the ranch many months before.
Jelly Hoskins scratched at a stubbly chin. “Looks to me like you’ve been doin’ some serious shoppin’.”
“Got me a whole new wardrobe full,” Johnny announced happily with a beaming smile as he heaved a heavy suitcase onto the back of the flat bed wagon.
“How was your meetin’?”
“Mighty interesting if you don’t mind listening to a load of cattlemen discussing cows four days running,” Johnny answered without enthusiasm as he climbed up onto the wooden seat.
Jelly frowned. “Must say, I didn’t think it was the kind of thing you’d want to attend, so how come you volunteered?”
“Believe me, it wasn’t and I didn’t! I’ll just have to make sure I use my own marked cards next time when it comes to choosing who has to go,” Johnny answered knowingly. “Appreciate you picking me up though.”
“Think nothin’ of it,” Jelly replied as he flicked the reins and the wagon slowly set off. “Supplies needed collectin’ anyway, though to be truthful, it was a pleasure to get away from the ranch for a while considerin’ what’s been…” He paused, turning to stare intently into his face. “Tell me true, Johnny boy. You and Scott, did you have a major fall out when he brought you into town last week?”
“What, me and Boston? Hell no! What gave you that idea?”
“Because of the bust up he had with Murdoch as soon as he comes back from droppin’ you off, that’s why. There was a point when I was sure they were gonna come to blows there and then.”
With the smile on his face now gone, Johnny’s brow furrowed with incredulity at the news. “They had a bust up? What about?”
“Well, Scott comes in like the devil’s on his tail and tells Murdoch he was gonna take those days off he’s was owed startin’ that minute. Of course the boss says, with you gone, they’d be shorthanded and there was no way he could agree to him havin’ time away. So then…”
As he paused for breath, Johnny urged him to continue. “Get on with it Jelly.”
“Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. Scott just stared at Murdoch with the meanest look I’ve ever seen on his face and jabbed him hard in the chest. ‘Well, I’m going anyway, whether you like it or not,’ he says, and within five minutes, he was packed up and gone.”
Johnny grimaced in disbelief. “How’d the old man take it?”
“I could see he was shocked and hurtin’, Johnny, but what could he do? All I know is Scott headed north at a gallop, then arrives back three days later without a word of apology to Murdoch or sayin’ where he’d been. And he’s hardly spoken to anyone since, though when he does, it’s usually to bite their head off. I tell you, boy, I’m just grateful Theresa is still in San Francisco and not around to suffer what the rest of us have had to suffer. Surly and bad tempered don’t cover it. Never seen a change in a man so quick, I really ain’t.”
“But when I left him Scott was just…you know, Scott.”
“Well he ain’t that Scott anymore.”
Johnny fell silent, hardly able to believe the change of character in the man he’d seen only seven days before. His mind was still a jumble of unsettling and puzzled thoughts when the wagon finally came to a stop in front of the white-painted hacienda he now called home.
“I’ll see your case is taken upstairs once the supplies have been unloaded,” Jelly offered. “You go straight in and see your Pa.”
Johnny gave a quick nod of thanks, and in a couple of strides, was inside the spacious house. He hung up his hat and gun belt on a peg behind the door and turned to see his father staring out through the large French window, his mind obviously miles away and, for once, oblivious to the awe-inspiring view of the ranch which stretched before him.
The sound of a familiar and much-missed voice stirred the older man from his private troubled reverie.
“Johnny.” Greeting him with warmth in his welcoming smile, Murdoch placed a hand on his shoulder and gave an affectionate squeeze. “Good to have you home, son. Everything go okay?”
Johnny nodded; he pulled out an envelope from his pocket and handed it over. “Deal is done and signed. And the meeting went just fine as well.”
“That’s good…very good. We can talk about it later,” Murdoch returned a little distractedly. Placing the papers on top of his desk, he sank down behind it, his face suddenly looking older, more lined, deeply worried.
Johnny was shocked in the change in him in such a short time as he pulled up a chair and sat down.
“Has Jelly told you what’s been going on with your brother?”
“Yeah, he told me.”
There was a slight pause then Murdoch cleared his throat almost nervously. “Son, I…I have to ask…”
Knowing instinctively what was on his mind, Johnny ran a hand through his hair as he gave a shake of the head. “No, the pair of us didn’t have a fall out before I left. We joked, had a laugh and there was nothing playing on Scott’s mind, I’d swear to it.”
Murdoch gave a nod. “I’m sorry. I just needed to be sure.”
With no sign of resentment, Johnny’s expression softened towards the anxious face before darkening slightly as a notion came to him. “Scott hasn’t had a letter from Garrett, has he? I wouldn’t put it past that old goat to come up with another blackmailing scheme to make him act the way he is. He’d do just about anything he could to get Scott to move back east.”
“The thought did cross my mind,” Murdoch admitted. “But there’s been no post from Boston in months, so we can’t blame his grandfather this time. Though I did ask Scott straight out was he unhappy at Lancer and did he want to leave. But he just said there was nowhere else on earth he’d rather be, though there might come a time when I’d be the one not wanting him to stay.”
There was a short silence as Johnny stared over, bemused. “What’d you reckon he meant by that?”
“I have no idea and he wouldn’t explain further,” Murdoch said, swallowing down the frustration building up within him. “And ever since, whenever I ask what’s worrying him, he either clams up or draws me into an argument for no good reason.”
Johnny pursed his lips, trying to make sense of it all. “Where’s Scott now?”
“He took off first thing this morning to work at that broken fence line on the north range. I advised him to leave it until you came back but he didn’t take any notice and went alone anyway.”
“But he’s told me often enough that’s a two man job. Not like Scott to go against his own advice.”
Murdoch bowed his head and rubbed his brow. “Nothing about Scott is like the man we once knew, son. It’s as if there’s a stranger in the house and…”
Unfortunately, further discussion was brought to a sudden halt when there was a loud knock and one of the ranch hands slowly and hesitantly opened a side door. “Mr. Lancer?”
Murdoch stared over. “Yes, Walt, how can I help you?”
“Jake’s already gone for the Sheriff but I think you better come and take a look for yourself, Mr. Lancer. Wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for them buzzards circling round, but you see we’ve found a body.”
Several miles away from the ranch house and at the bottom end of a dried out deep-sided gulley, the three men pulled to a halt at a small clearing half hidden by a stand of oak trees.
About ten foot above the ground, a thick bough jutted out from the main trunk of one oak on the edge; hanging from a rope with a noose tight about his neck and hands tied behind him was a man, the state of him clearly indicating he’d been dead for a few days.
As they dismounted, Murdoch and Johnny forced themselves to stare up at the festering corpse, the stench of rotting flesh making both their stomachs churn.
Murdoch quickly dropped his gaze, his eyes straightaway fixed on an empty whiskey bottle and the cold cinders of a small fire. Someone had obviously made themselves comfortable while inflicting such a barbaric end to another’s life, he reflected with disgust, then looked over as the local Sheriff came into view. He gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Thanks for coming out so quickly, Sam.”
“No problem, Murdoch; things are pretty quiet at the moment. I’m just thankful Jake brought me here; otherwise, I’d have never found you. I didn’t even know this place existed.”
“Not many do,” Murdoch assured him solemnly and watched as the lawman eased down from his horse and studied the ill-fated victim for a few moments while involuntarily massaging his own throat with his fingertips.
“Well, we can sure rule out suicide. Looks more like a planned execution,” Sam observed, pointing towards several bullet holes still clearly showing on the decomposing corpse and a pistol lying empty on the ground. “He’s a stranger to me, so anyone else here recognize what’s left of him?”
“Reckon I might. He once had the kind of face you couldn’t easily forget.”
Heads turned towards Johnny, who’d just taken a swallow of water from his canteen and was wiping a hand across his mouth. “He came in on the stage last Monday. I saw him just before I headed off for Sacramento.”
“Last Monday, you say.” The Sheriff paused for a moment, took off his hat and scratched his head. “Clerk in the hotel told me an unsavory looking individual booked in about that time, intent on staying until the connecting stage south was due in Thursday. Never went out and insisted all meals be brought up to his room, but by Wednesday morning, he’d disappeared. Left all his belongings but was never seen again.”
“Certainly sounds like he could be your man then, Sam,” Murdoch mused thoughtfully. “Did he have a name?”
“Just signed in as Wilson, but after what’s happened, I’m thinking he was intent on keeping a low profile and it might well be an alias.”
Murdoch nodded in agreement. “You want some help to cut him down now?”
“I’d be much obliged,” Sam acknowledged gratefully, and with everyone playing a part, the unsavory task of recovering the body from the hanging tree was soon completed.
As they were no longer required, Murdoch sent Walt and Jake back to the ranch, while Sam bent down and quickly checked the dead man’s clothing.
“Well, one thing’s for sure, Wilson — or whoever he is — wasn’t murdered for his money,” Sam said as he pulled out a wallet stuffed with dollar bills. “It looks like someone with a mighty big grudge followed him to town, though why take the trouble to bring him all the way out here to kill him sure is a mystery. But guess the reason’s something we’ll never know for sure, ‘cause with no useable tracks to follow, whoever finished him off must be long gone back to where they came from by now.”
“Anything else we can do to help, Sam?”
The sheriff considered for a moment then shook his head. “Don’t reckon there is, Murdoch. I’ll bring out a wagon to collect what’s left of him, then try and find out who he is, or should I say, was. I’ll let you know if I come up with anything.”
“I’d appreciate it, seeing as he died on Lancer land,” Murdoch replied. Within a few moments, he was watching the sheriff retrace his steps back to Morro Coyo.
“How could anyone who was a stranger to the area know about this place? It took months before me and Scott found it,” Johnny queried.
“I thought that too, son,” Murdoch replied, though his mind was now back once more on his eldest. “But at the moment I’ve got more pressing concerns regarding your brother to sort out.”
It was dark by the time they returned to the ranch, and when Johnny entered the house, he felt a slight sense of trepidation as he stared over towards the tall figure of his brother leaning against one side of the stone mantel fireplace.
With a glass in hand, Scott’s boyish look of geniality seemed to have vanished to be replaced by a pensive and drawn expression as he stared into the flames. And if he’d hoped for the warm, welcoming smile he’d always received in the past, Johnny was soon to be disappointed, for when sensing his presence, Scott just raised his head and gave a curt nod of greeting.
“Good trip?” Scott asked before sipping at his drink.
Refusing to be put off by his frosty reception, Johnny fingered his shortened locks with a grin. “Not bad and I had the haircut like I promised, see? Plus I didn’t get drunk. You’d have been real proud of me, Boston!”
The flicker of a smile played on Scott’s lips before vanishing as quickly as it came. “Nothing more than I expected of you,” he answered tersely. “Where’s Murdoch?”
Unsettled by his brusque manner but unwilling to show it, Johnny flicked a hand in the direction of the kitchen before slumping down casually on the deeply upholstered couch. “He’s apologizing to Maria for being late in for dinner.”
Scott ran a finger around the rim of his glass, his whole demeanor one of cool detachment. “She told me you’d both ridden off in quite a hurry a couple of hours ago. Something happened I should know about?”
“Jake and Walt found a stranger strung up at that stand of oaks on the southern edge, where we ended up chasing those cows last fall.”
Although Scott remained silent, there was a faint nod of remembrance as Johnny continued. “We met up with Sam to check it out, and though the maggots had got to work, I recognized him from when we were waiting for the stage last week. Bearded and evil-looking. You must have noticed him standing right behind us?”
Scott raised his gaze to stare out through the window, the muscle in his cheek twitching slightly. “Must I? Don’t recall.”
“Well, anyway, Sam said he hasn’t got much hope of tracking down who killed him. Some sort of private vendetta, he’s guessing.”
“Really,” Scott answered. His tone seemed to be one of total disinterest as he poured himself another whiskey and, tipping his head, drank it back in one long swallow.
Dinner for the most part was an awkward, tense time, though Johnny tried to draw Scott into the conversation while telling of his visit to Sacramento. Wishing for a show of interest or a witty response, he would have even been grateful of a reference to Emerson and one of his damn quotes!
But during the meal, all he got was an occasional momentary glance. Scott spent most of the time playing with his food and noticeably hardly taking a bite.
As he finally gave up on that tack, Johnny then set about on another course of discussion. “I hear you went off on your own for a few days last week, Boston. Where’d you end up?”
Without answering his question, Scott stared over at his father. If looks could kill, Murdoch would have been dead on the spot. “It seems I can’t do anything around here without everyone knowing my business.”
There was an edge to his voice, though Murdock returned his stare without comment, refusing to take up the bait while Johnny also intentionally ignored the ungracious remark. “You should have waited till I got back, brother. We could have headed off and found us a quiet little border town and had us some fun time together.”
Taking a deep breath, Scott slowly wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Hasn’t it ever occurred to you I might not want your company every minute of the day, Johnny? That I might enjoy having some time away without you hanging onto my coat-tails everywhere I go?” He then pushed his chair away and rose to his feet. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to have an early night.” Without another word, Scott left the room and went up the stairs.
Almost immediately, Johnny jumped to his feet, intent on following to clear the air, inwardly hurting and outwardly seething. But Murdoch physically held him back. “No, son, leave him be.”
For several seconds, Johnny remained stock still before reluctantly complying with his father’s wishes and sitting back down.
Murdoch heaved a deep sigh. “Scott didn’t mean what he said; you know that, don’t you?”
Johnny gazed towards the archway his brother had disappeared through, willing for him to reappear. “If I thought for one minute he did, I’d be up there now and we’d be beating the crap out of each other,” he finally responded.
Murdoch smiled slightly at his reply, knowing the way the two really felt towards each other, hell would freeze over first. “It’s obvious something is tearing him apart inside to make him act the way he is. But unless he opens up, there’s nothing we can do until he comes round and explains why he’s doing his level best to have everybody turn against him.”
“I’ll give him two days, old man, that’s all,” Johnny stated firmly. “And if he’s not said a word by then, I’m going to find out what’s going on in my own way, whether you like it or not.”
Without offering any argument, Murdoch nodded towards him with a tender smile. “You’re a fine brother to have, son. I just hope Scott realizes how much you care.”
Johnny sighed with a wan look. “Hell, Murdoch. If he doesn’t know that by now, he never will.”
Upstairs in his room, Scott stood with his back resting against the door, unable to move as his heart beat loud and hard within his chest. He didn’t need to close his eyes to recall the wounded, disbelieving look which flickered momentarily across Johnny’s face at his cutting words; never had he felt so low, hating himself for being the cause. For a brief moment, he seriously considered returning downstairs, taking back everything he’d said, making up with the brother he’d grown to love and respect since arriving at Lancer. But he held back; it was done now, the die was cast.
His gaze fell on a framed photograph stood atop a chest of drawers. It showed him as a newly promoted Union officer, dressed immaculately in Cavalry uniform with his Unit Commander at his side, a picture he’d always displayed with pride.
Scott took a few steps towards it, and for several moments, stared down as he held the frame in a shaky hand. It was a constant reminder of the bright- eyed, highly-principled young man he’d once been. Unable to look any longer, he slammed it face down on the dressing table with such a force the glass cracked from corner to corner in the process.
He sank onto the edge of his bed and buried his face in his hands, Scott’s posture now reflecting a disconsolate and despairing man as he sighed long and hard and sadly accepted that, once again, it was going to be a long time before he fell asleep that night.
Johnny’s deadline came and went with no change in his brother’s behavior and no one any the wiser as to the reasons for it. So when he came down on the third morning and sat at the kitchen table, he asked the question, though already guessing the answer and knowing the course of action he’d soon be following. “I take it Scott left early again?”
Murdoch nodded. “There’s a dead tree stump which needs removing before he can continue on with that fence line, and he insisted he could manage the work alone.”
Johnny took hold of the coffee pot and poured himself a cupful. “If it’s all right with you, I’ve got me a hankering for a visit to that fence line.”
Realizing what was on his mind, Murdoch raised an eyebrow. “Scott won’t want you there,” he warned, though smiling approvingly.
A second smile also tilted Johnny’s mouth. “Scott’s not going to have any choice in the matter. From now on, I aim to stick to him as tight as a mosquito sucking blood till I find out what’s going on. And knowing how tight-lipped he can be at times, I’ve a feeling this is going to be a very long day.”
The sun shone hot overhead, and after following the track of a rutted dirt road, Johnny reined to a halt on the crest of a hill and looked down. Surrounded by a sea of lush green meadow grass, he observed his bare-headed brother swing a pick over his shoulder then slam it down hard into the ground by a lightning ravaged tree where a large portion of trunk and roots still remained half-buried deep in the earth.
Several clods of dirt broke apart, and shirtless Scott’s chest glistened with sweat; taut muscles indicated a hidden strength within his lean frame at the exertion. And just what else are you hiding in that head of yours, Johnny mused thoughtfully as he pulled the brim of his hat low on his brow and continued on.
The harnessed team lifted their heads at Johnny’s approach with equine curiosity as he stopped by the side of the wagon. From a few feet away, Scott glowered towards him as he leaned on the pick. “I made it clear before I left I don’t need any help.”
“Well, I’m not giving any,” Johnny answered glibly as he dismounted and dropped the reins, his well-trained mount taught not to go far as it began to contentedly graze.
Eyeing him with a wary frown, Scott wiped a sweated forehead with the back of his arm as Johnny unfastened his canteen and offered it over.
For a second or two, Scott seemed reluctant to accept but then dropped the pick to the ground and sipped at the cooling water, swilling some around in his mouth before swallowing it down. He pushed the stopper hard into place, and with a faint — albeit genuine — nod of thanks, handed the canteen back while giving his brother a brief close scrutiny. “New jacket?”
Slightly taken aback at the sudden interest in his attire, Johnny nodded. “Sure is. You like?”
For the briefest of moments there was a glimpse of the old Scott as he gave an approving nod and the corner of his mouth curved into an admiring smile. “I like.”
Then almost as quickly, his expression became closed and unreadable again as he pushed aside a damp strand of hair clinging to his temple. “So what’s on your mind, Johnny? I’ve got work to do,”
Although confused by him running hot and cold, Johnny refused to lose his temper as he calmly returned the canteen back to his saddle. “Well, the fact is, Boston, I’ve got me this problem and I figured only a Harvard brain would be able to solve it for me. So of course I thought of you.”
“Is that right?” Scott answered with a sardonic edge to his voice, sensing intuitively all was not as it seemed.
Johnny rested on the lowered tailgate and nodded. “You see, there’s this fella I used to know,” he went on. “Maybe you’re acquainted with him? Good-lookin’ guy, little over six feet, blond hair, blue eyes, always had a pleasant disposition about him. But since I returned from Sacramento, he seems to have done this disappearing act…”
Scott’s response was a sigh of irritation as he interrupted. “Very funny, Johnny. Now will you just drop it and go.”
There was a shake of the head. “Sorry, no can do. I may not be well schooled but even I can work out you’re hurtin’ bad from whatever’s gnawing away at you. So I’m not going anywhere till I get a straight answer to a straight question: what’s troubling you?”
“The only trouble I’ve got is you not leaving me alone,” Scott replied as he turned and took a few paces away.
“I’m not through talking to you yet, brother.”
“Well, I’m through talking to you, so before I forget we’re related, get on your horse and leave,” Scott ordered. Grabbing hold of a spade, he placed one boot on top of the blade and pushed it hard into the freshly disturbed soil.
Totally ignoring the ultimatum, Johnny unhurriedly dropped down to the ground within the shade of the wagon, resting his back against a wheel.
Scott turned his head, his brow drawn together disbelievingly. “I thought I told you to get going?”
Johnny tugged at a clump of grass and twirled it around his fingers as he spoke, his voice, though low, also determined. “Well, I choose to stay.”
Realizing his threat got him nowhere, Scott heaved in a deep breath and, muttering to himself, continued with his work. Time passed — an hour at least — and even though he could sense eyes boring into him, Scott refused to acknowledge Johnny’s soundless presence.
However, the quietness between them was unnerving to the extreme. Both exhausted by his back-breaking toil and exasperated by his brother’s stubborn silence, Scott finally threw his pick and spade into the back of the wagon where they clattered noisily amongst the various assortment of implements already stored there. “Will you please explain what you want from me?”
Johnny tipped his hat back slightly, immediately noticing the strain lines around Scott’s mouth and tired shadows beneath the blue eyes as he met his gaze full on. “I just want the brother I once knew returned. Not too much to ask, is it?”
Scott gave a shake of the head. “After the past few days, hasn’t it got through that thick skull of yours yet he’s gone forever?”
“He may be gone, Boston, but I sure as hell ain’t giving up on him yet!”
As their blue eyes met, a protracted silence followed and the visual connection between them was only broken when Johnny pushed up to his feet and made towards his horse. He pulled out a couple of packages containing sandwiches and two bottles of home-made lemonade from his saddlebag and handed one of each over. “Lunch is on me,” he announced and sat back on the grass covered ground again.
Scott stared into his hand and let out a sigh, too tired to argue anymore and too hungry to turn down the offer of food. Feeling the skin on his back burning red, he reached into the wagon, pulled out his shirt and put it on along with his hat, then sank down by his brother’s side.
They ate and drank in the comfortable silence they’d grown used to, as if nothing had happened between them, but when his hunger and thirst was satisfied, Scott once more requested Johnny to leave him be and go home.
Just giving a half smile, Johnny ignored the appeal and instead hugged his knees to his chest and rested his chin thoughtfully on them. “Remember the time when you hit me so hard I barely managed to stop from falling into that mass of water?”
Although trying hard to retain his frosty stance, Scott was unable to hide a guilty grin at the memory of the altercation soon after they’d arrived on the ranch. “My hand throbbed for days after.”
“So did my jaw,” Johnny admitted. “I also said something like, though we shared the old man’s blood, you meant nothing to me. Remember?”
“Vaguely, though if my memory serves me well, I was trying to dodge your right fist at the time.”
“Well, I tell you, Scott, what I told you that day was a down and out lie,” Johnny confessed as he stretched out his legs again. “From that first morning, I figured you were someone worth having around in my life, and nothing’s changed since then. So no matter what you throw at me or say or do to the contrary, I’m not going anywhere until you let me know what’s going on in that Bostonian head of yours and I get my old brother back.”
Feeling tense again, Scott’s voice trembled slightly. “I keep telling you he’s gone, so why don’t you just give up on me?”
Johnny took a breath and released it. “Because I can’t.”
Scott swallowed hard, those three words enough to convey the depth of feeling Johnny felt for him by his simple truthful reply. He gave a sigh. “Don’t make this hard for me, John. What you’re asking of me is not that straightforward. I wish it was.”
Johnny retained his intense gaze towards him. “Then explain it to me in simple terms. And I won’t break any confidence between us; you know that, don’t you?”
In no doubt of his sincerity, Scott gave a single nod. “I know it,” he murmured and lowered his head, looking pensively down at his hands for several seconds. Finally a decision was made, and though sadly resigned to that fact once he’d told his story nothing would be the same between them again, Scott’s soft voice now became hard.
“The man found strung up the other day…I was the one who arranged his necktie party. In fact, you could say I was judge, jury and executioner, all rolled into one. Certainly puts me in a class above anything Madrid was ever accused of, doesn’t it, brother.”
As he absorbed this information, there was a momentary look of incredulity; then any signs of condemnation Johnny might have had at the disclosure were hidden well behind his poker-faced expression. “That depends,” was his only softly spoken response.
“If you had a just cause for doing what you did.”
“Oh yes, I had just cause,” Scott assured in such an unexpected embittered tone it sent a shiver down Johnny’s spine.
“Care to explain?”
The question hung in the air for a few moments as Scott took off his hat and gripped it so hard his knuckles showed white. “I’ve kept it to myself for a very long time and never planned on anyone else knowing what went on.”
“Well, I’m not just anyone; I’m your brother,” Johnny answered back, his eyes narrowed as he focused on his face. “So tell me, Scott; trust me enough to let me help you through this.”
Knowing he’d trust him with his life, Scott sighed in defeat as he felt his resolve of self-imposed silence slipping away. He fisted his hands on his lap and took a deep breath. Then with a voice that slightly shook, soon everything he’d held back for so long burst forth in a torrent as he cast his mind back and finally bared his troubled soul.
“It was just after I was taken prisoner during the war,” he began. “Along with a dozen other troops, I was held in a cellar at an abandoned farmhouse a couple of miles out from the nearest town. The Confederates weren’t planning on sending us to a prison camp straightaway, so three men were left on guard duty — two Privates and Sergeant William Walsh.
Conditions were harsh, with barely enough food and water to stay alive, and one evening, we heard Walsh tell his men they could have the night off. Soon after they’d ridden away, Walsh appeared, reeking of whiskey, and hauls the youngest and weakest of us — a seventeen-year-old by the name of Davies — out of the cellar.
When he was eventually brought back, we could see by the light of a lamp the kid had not only been pistol-whipped but was in a complete state of shock. He collapsed down, whimpering in a corner, then Walsh looks over at me with a leering sneer, rubbing his crotch and the inference plain as to his intention. His words are still with me to this day. ‘Now it’s your turn to pay for this damn Yankee bullet one of your kind put in my leg. I’ve never had a Union officer before, so let’s see how loud and long I can make you squeal like a whore.’
As an eighteen- year-old Lieutenant, in many ways still wet behind the ears, I’m not ashamed to say fear froze me to a standstill and I refused to move. Walsh then threatened to shoot my fellow prisoners dead and claim he’d had to do it during an attempted mass break out if I didn’t go with him. Knowing the man for being an odious bully, the kind of man who gave humanity a bad name, never mind the Southern cause, we all knew it was no idle threat. So with a rope around me and with no strength to resist, I was dragged into the house where I was pushed onto a bed and tied down.
Death by a thousand cuts would have seemed more preferable at that point. Not because of the pain inflicted by Walsh, but the humiliation of being forced unwillingly to participate in the ungodly and unlawful act. But I didn’t give him the satisfaction of screaming out. I just buried my face into that stinking mattress and prayed for it to end. Maybe I should have made a noise, because my silence seemed to infuriate him, and after the first time he began to drink his way through another bottle of whiskey and then did it again.”
As the horrific recollection flashed into his mind, Scott shuddered, his fists now clenched so tight fingernails cut painfully into the palm of his hand.
“You don’t have to carry on,” Johnny told him in barely a whisper as he laid feather-light fingers on his knee, too shocked at what he was hearing to raise his gaze.
A jaw clenched determinedly. “Yes I do,” Scott murmured back, his eyes filled with hatred and a voice raw with emotion as he continued.
“When returned to that stench-filled cellar, I just wanted to curl up and die. But I guess some of that Lancer stubbornness kicked in and made me determined not to let any life I had left be destroyed by the actions of one depraved and half-crazed man.
But unlike me, Davies was unable to face the thought of living after what he’d suffered. We found him at dawn lying in a pool of blood; the poor kid had slit his wrists with a small piece of glass and silently bled to death without any of us realizing.
Not long after, a Confederate captain turned up in readiness to escort us away that day. But to his credit, though he was the enemy, he was also a God-fearing, honorable man. When he found out the reason one prisoner had taken his own life, he straightaway gave instructions to have Walsh arrested. But the Sergeant must have been pre-warned, because he’d already vanished without a trace.
It was then I vowed on Davies’ grave, regardless of the consequences, if I ever came across Walsh again, I’d see him dead for what he’d done. And though as time went on I was afraid that was one promise I’d never be able to keep, last week, after waiting and hoping all these years, I finally got my chance.”
Scott fell silent. Johnny wasn’t sure what to say or do next, a mix of anger and compassion stirring within him for what Scott had suffered. However, he sensed his brother wasn’t in the mood for any outward show of sympathy and still had more he needed to be said.
So he just kept quiet. Almost immediately, Scott straightened his back, and as he glanced his way, Johnny was sure there was a strange look of satisfaction now reflected in his brother’s eyes as he began to speak again.
“After recognizing that damn limp, I followed Walsh to the hotel and heard him tell the clerk he’d be staying till Thursday. That’s when I fixated on revenge and why I decided to get away from the ranch so I could carry out the fitting execution he deserved.
I remembered that remote stand of oaks and it seemed the perfect setting for what I had in mind. So late Tuesday night, I broke into his room, and as he’d already drunk his way to oblivion, I had no problem getting him down the back stairs and away from Morro Coyo without being seen.
The rope was already secured in readiness, and as he woke from his drunken stupor, I put him astride my horse and placed the noose around his neck. When reminded of his crime and a young life wasted because of him, Walsh just laughed in my face without any expression of remorse. So I cursed the bastard to hell, and with no compunction for what I was about to do, slapped the horse’s rump hard.
I toasted Walsh with whiskey while he did a wild dance with the devil and watched his every contortion as the noose tightened and his eyes began to bulge. Once dead, shooting his corpse was an afterthought, extra sweet justice for the self-respect he stole from me, and then whistling Dixie, I left him swinging in the breeze for the crows and flies to feast on.”
With his narrative concluded, Scott slowly rose to his full height. “So now you know the whole sorry tale,” he said with a faint wry smile playing on his lips as he rested his arms across the back of the wagon. “How does it feel to have a brother who can happily carry out a cold-blooded, premeditated murder and then have no guilty conscience about doing it? Bet you never imagined your old friend Day Pardee and me could have so much in common, did you, John?”
Although sickened at the thought of all Scott had gone through, Johnny’s head snapped up. At last it all made sense. “Is that why you’ve been acting crazy lately, putting yourself in the same bracket as Pardee? How can you think yourself similar when you killed something that can’t even be classed as a man?”
To his amazement, Scott began to laugh, but the laughter was hollow and bitter. “Now you’re just splitting hairs, brother. Didn’t you hear what I said? I enjoyed killing Walsh, and even took pleasure watching him die! I don’t suppose you thought Pardee worthy of respect or regarded a decent man when he did the same around here, so what right do I have to be thought of any differently?”
Johnny jumped to his feet and took a few steps then turned on his heel, staring back. “Damn it, Scott!” he cried out as he shoved his hat back off his head. “For an educated man, you sure play dumb sometimes. It’s as plain as the nose on your face you share nothin’ in common with Pardee. To my way of thinking, you were fully justified in doing everything you did and have no cause to feel anything but satisfaction for doing it!”
However, the words fell on deaf ears as Scott stared out across the vast miles of meadowland with unseeing eyes, his mind unable to blot out a sneering, heavily bearded face. “Save your breath, brother. I know what kind of man I am now and there’s nothing you can say that’ll change it.”
Shaking with angry frustration at his obstinacy, Johnny grabbed at Scott’s shoulder, pulling him round; the two men were now standing toe to toe, inches apart. “Will you listen to me, Boston?” he ordered, his voice now low and furiously controlled as he held on tightly to each arm. “Pardee was born plain evil but you’re one of the good guys in this world. And no matter what you’ve done, you’re still the man I left a week ago — a decent, generous man I’m proud to call brother and who I’d standby no matter what, and I won’t listen to you tell me different!”
Caught off guard, Scott started with surprise. Johnny’s impassioned declaration was the equivalent of a hard slap on the face in an attempt to make him see sense.
Slowly the words began to sink in, the fact his brother had refuted so emphatically everything Scott thought about himself enough to finally refocus his mind. “I…what an idiot I’ve been,” he admitted as he felt his arms released and sank down to the floor.
Johnny blew a sigh of pure relief as he sat again by his side. “For once, Boston, I’ve got to agree. But don’t be too hard on yourself; you just lost your way for a while. With all that misery remembered and returned to swirl around, you got sidetracked away from good judgment and being able to think straight.”
Resting his head back and eyes closed tight as if he were in pain, Scott groaned at his stupidity. “That’s somewhat of an understatement.”
“But what I don’t get is why all the bad-mouthing to everyone?” Johnny asked with a frown. “What was that supposed to achieve?”
Scott exhaled a shaky breath. “I thought by having you all against me, it would be a fair punishment to endure for turning out like Pardee. Stupid plan but at least you now know my behavior was nothing personal.”
Johnny gave his head a sad shake. “We never thought it was, though you need to talk to Murdoch and explain it all after the worrying you’ve put him through. He’s a right to be told.”
Scott’s eyes flashed open. “What? Burden him with the knowledge his son is a calculated killer? It would tear him apart and he’d hate me for it.”
Knowing he was way off the mark, Johnny recalled something said to him in an early morning conversation between them on their first day at Lancer. He smiled at the memory. “You don’t give the old man too much credit, do you? When Murdoch gets to know why you did what you did, he’ll understand and forgive in an instant, I guarantee it.”
Fighting down an inner panic which suddenly gripped him, Scott shook his head. “No, I…I can’t tell him what Walsh did. I couldn’t look my own father in the face again if he knew his son had once been…”
Unable to force the word past the lump in his throat and so admit again what he’d been subjected to, Scott’s voice broke a little as it trailed.
Johnny’s chest tightened at the sound of his brother’s pain and he laid a reassuring hand on his arm. “You’ve got nothing to feel ashamed about, Scott seein’ as you’re the victim in all this. But you’ve got to trust Murdoch in the same way you’ve trusted me, and then all this misery can get buried away for once and for all where it truly belongs, in the past.”
With nerves stretched taut, it was all suddenly too much to take in and too much after being tightly locked away deep within him all those years. Scott’s face crumpled as the wall of self-restraint built up around him fell away. Unable to hold back any longer, for the first time since he’d been brutally assaulted, he allowed himself to release all his pent-up emotions at the memory, and with head bowed, began to unashamedly weep.
Intuitively understanding his distress in an instant, Johnny slipped an arm around Scott’s shoulder and pulled him close. Scott buried his face into the welcoming chest and allowed his tears to fall unchecked. A whispered voice softly soothed in his ear. “Cry it out, brother. Get it gone.”
Protectively cradled like a child within the comforting hold, Scott allowed his sobbing to continue unabated until at last, little by little, he grew quieter; the crying stopped and the trembling ceased. Physically and emotionally spent, exhaustion overwhelmed him, and for the first time in days, Scott fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.
Johnny held his elder brother tight as if his life depended on it, not daring to move in case he woke him up from his well-needed slumber. ‘Damn it, Boston, why’d you have to make me care about you so much,’ he silently cursed, love and respect for the man on his lap almost too much to bear as he shed silent tears of his own while reflecting on the indescribable anguish Scott endured yet kept to himself.
How long he sat there Johnny was unable to hazard a guess; all he knew was when the light began to fade the figure resting on him finally stirred. “You okay?”
Scott blinked hard, momentarily confused as to where he was and why before sitting up. He gave a sheepish nod. “Was I out for long?”
“Long enough that I can’t feel my butt,” Johnny answered jokily as he stretched out his arms, then gently eased up to his feet and rubbed at his aching back.
Shivering slightly from the hint of an early evening chill in the air, Scott wiped a hand across his tear-streaked face, reddening slightly at his loss of self-control. “Sorry about…well, you know.”
Hearing a tremor of embarrassment in his voice, Johnny just gave a reassuring smile. “Are you any the better for it?”
Scott drew in a deep breath and nodded. “Much better, thanks to you.”
“Then it was worth it,” Johnny confirmed. Keen to change the subject in order to save Scott further awkwardness, he took out his treasured timepiece and checked the lateness of the hour. “We’d better be going before the old man sends out a search party,” he advised as he returned the watch to his inner pocket. “I’ll help you finish here tomorrow. It shouldn’t take long with two of us tackling those roots.”
Scott cast him an indebted look as Johnny turned his head and gave a shrill whistle and then watched as his horse trotted obediently towards him. He fondly stroked the long neck and gave it a deserving pat. “About Murdoch, are you going to talk to him, tell him everything?”
Although not relishing the prospect, Scott accepted it had to be done and gave a nod. “Just hope when I get to the hanging part he doesn’t hand me straight over to the Sheriff.”
Johnny chuckled, knowing that would never happen. “Well, I tell you, Boston, if he does, don’t count on me to try and break you out of jail. I’m a reformed character these days,” he told Scott as he tied his mount to the back of the wagon and then extended his arm.
Scott managed to grin back as he took hold of his hand, grimacing slightly at the pull of aching muscles as he was hauled to his feet. He scooped up his hat and settled it back on his head before giving Johnny a grateful smile. “Thanks for not giving up on that brother who was lost. It sure is a relief to have been found.”
“It weren’t any bother, seein’ as I figured you hadn’t gone far,” Johnny responded towards him. The look that passed between them spoke volumes at the brotherly bond now renewed and stronger than ever.
Scott gave a faint smile, then following his lead, climbed up onto the wagon seat. With Johnny immediately resting his head against his shoulder, Scott took control of the reins and they moved off at a leisurely pace in the direction of home.
Back at the ranch as the evening shadows grew longer, a worried father looked out for the umpteenth time through the window. He then saw what he’d been waiting for as a familiar wagon and horse following close behind appeared and slowly made towards the barn.
Seeing his sons sitting together, Murdoch felt a surge of optimism that all was well between them again. At least they hadn’t killed each other, he thought as he inwardly smiled and returned to his chair.
He picked up a book, but though he turned the pages, the words were just a blur. Murdoch’s brow furrowed worriedly again as thoughts kept returning to his eldest son. Scott was still an enigma to him at times, and hoped Johnny had managed to make some inroads into his brother’s troubled mind.
A while later, Murdoch heard the front door creak open, and after the sound of a short, muffled conversation, footsteps echoed up the stairs. Johnny ambled into the room towards him.
Hiding his inner turmoil, Murdoch put down his book and exchanged a smile of greeting as his son settled himself full stretch on the couch and stared up at the ceiling. “Scott’s just gone to freshen up,” Johnny told him quickly by way of explanation. “He shouldn’t be long.”
“And did he give you some idea what’s been troubling him?”
“Yeah, I got me some answers. He’s gonna tell you…just don’t push him.”
Murdoch nodded, heeding the warning and didn’t press Johnny further. He pretended to read again in the quiet between them until a few minutes later Scott appeared, clean-shirted and face washed, though looking both drained and a little nervous as he faced his father in the huge main room.
Unable to stop his paternal instincts coming to the fore, Murdoch’s heart went out to Scott and he offered over a welcoming smile. “Come and sit down, son; you look worn out.”
Scott hesitated, slightly wrong-footed by the warmth of greeting he considered was undeserved.
Murdoch could sense a growing tension in Scott as he sat in an armchair close by. “Did you manage to dig out that tree?”
Scott slowly shook his head. “The ground’s harder than I thought, plus I was also sidetracked somewhat,” he admitted without elaborating further. “But Johnny’s offered to help, so we should manage to finish by tomorrow.”
Murdoch nodded an agreeing response. “Would you like a drink?”
Scott looked directly at his father, recalling his angry words towards him, repaying any moment of kindness with a cutting insult. How he regretted it all now. He gave a faint yet appreciative smile. “I’d like that very much, sir. Thank you.”
Murdoch made his way to a cut glass decanter and removed the stopper. “Do you want one, Johnny?”
There was a negative response so Murdoch poured out two glassfuls of brandy, passed one over to a waiting hand then sat back down and waited.
After taking a single sip of his drink, Scott placed the glass on a side table, keen to make a start on what had to be done. “I…er…um…there’s something I have to tell you, Murdoch, something you have a right to know which relates to the way I’ve been behaving lately.”
Releasing the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, Murdoch couldn’t help but notice the two brothers exchange a quick glance, the younger clearly offering reassurance and support to the elder. “I’m listening, son.”
Wiping sweated palms on the side of his legs, Scott blew out his cheeks. “This isn’t easy for me to say and will be even harder for you to hear, and for that I’m sorry. All I ask is you reserve judgment till I’m done.”
Showing no outward sign of any unease he might be feeling at what was to be divulged, Murdoch gave a silent nod of agreement.
Scott shifted uncomfortably then leaned forward, resting his arms on his upper legs and his hands clasped loosely between them. “It all started just after I was taken prisoner during the war… ”
Scott repeated nearly word for word what he’d already told Johnny. Throughout, Murdoch remained silent, for the most part his face impossible to read. However when forcing himself to describe again the harrowing account of Walsh’s brutal attack on him, the expression on his father’s face changed to such inconsolable heartache and sadness that Scott was sure he was about to take him in his arms, as though in an irrational attempt to protect him from further harm.
At last he finished and Scott steeled himself for the reaction soon to come. “I don’t presume you’ll forgive me for what I did to Walsh,” he admitted, though still with no sign of remorse in his voice. “I just hope you can appreciate my reasons for doing it.”
Still saying nothing, Murdoch stood up and walked towards a window, his hands pushed into his pockets as he stared out into the darkness for a few moments. He swallowed down the nausea formed at the thought of the unspeakable act inflicted yet silently borne by his eldest. And then he pondered on how Scott had taken full responsibility for his actions as he kept his word to a young soldier long dead. Never had Murdoch felt so proud of or loved his son more.
He quickly blinked back moisture in his eyes as his throat tightened with emotion. “You should know, Scott, I’ve always considered murder was murder, whatever guise it took, and when I first saw that man’s body, my initial feeling was revulsion towards the person responsible for inflicting such an uncivilized killing on another.”
Murdoch paused and turned, immediately noting the fearful look on his son’s face. Murdoch’s own expression softened to show genuine sympathetic understanding. “But now my opinion has changed. Knowing all the facts, you don’t need my forgiveness for your actions as I fully support everything you did.”
Scott sighed with relief. He should have had more faith his father wouldn’t let him down and gave an inward curse for having doubted him. “Thank you, sir. Johnny tried to tell me you’d react favorably, but I wasn’t so easily convinced.”
“Then you should listen to him more often, as he obviously knew what he was talking about,” Murdoch answered as he returned to his chair, a soft smile playing at his mouth. “Sometimes I wonder just who is the Harvard graduate around here.”
“I also wonder that myself,” Scott agreed quietly, exchanging a meaningful look towards Johnny, who’d remained diplomatically silent throughout.
Scott then straightened in his seat and looked between them. “I owe you both an apology for what I’ve put you through. I’m also in your debt for accepting what I did, even though in the eyes of the law the killing of Walsh didn’t fit his crime. But if that means I’ll rot in hell, well, so be it.”
“There’ll be only one man rotting in hell, Scott, and it won’t be you,” Murdoch told him reassuringly. “I had a very interesting visit from the Sheriff this afternoon.”
Johnny immediately sat up and spoke for the first time. “Sam managed to find something out about Walsh?”
Murdoch nodded. “After working out Wilson was an alias, he discovered Walsh has been wanted in five states across the Midwest for several years, and with a hefty bounty on his head, a Federal Marshal was also close on his tail.”
The sound of a low whistle echoed around the room. “No wonder he was laying low and heading south,” Johnny observed. “What was he wanted for?”
“More like what he wasn’t wanted for. Murder, arson and robbery.” Murdoch paused and looked towards his eldest. “And also a longstanding yet still active warrant made out for his arrest by the Military for excessive and improper conduct towards unnamed Union prisoners of war.”
No longer feeling shame, Scott determinedly refused to lower his eyes from his father’s gaze at the revelation. He forced out a smile to ease the tension. “So if I’d left well alone instead of going after Walsh, there’s a fair chance he’d have soon been caught and hung anyway, and I’d have saved us all a load of grief.”
With a thoughtful nod, Murdoch picked up his glass. “With hindsight, there’s a lot we’d do differently, son,” he said as he took a sip.
It was a good answer, though not one Scott was willing to accept. “Maybe for some, but for the record, I’d do what I did again without changing a thing in order to keep my pledge to Davies so he can rest easy at last.”
There was a brief lull in the conversation at this statement, Murdoch noting Scott’s features had relaxed and he looked more at peace with himself than he’d done in days.
“Well there’s one good outcome that has come out of all this,” Murdoch then told them. “Sam reckoned he could claim the reward on behalf of the town and there’ll be enough to get started on that new school house that’s been planned for years.”
Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle mischievously and flashed a grin Scott’s way. “See what happens when you don’t use that Harvard brain of yours, brother? You end up helping the community save some tax money. Bet your old mate Emerson never came up with a quote to cover that happening.”
There was suddenly a rush of movement as Scott took hold of a handful of grapes from the fruit bowl. Throwing with precision, he watched with satisfaction when they hit Johnny squarely in the face, one after the other.
Keen to retreat from the line of fire, Murdoch stood up. “I’ll go see if dinner’s nearly ready,” he announced as teasing banter and laughter from his sons echoed around him.
Life on Lancer it seemed was back to how it had been, and God willing, would remain that way. As he made his way to the kitchen, a more than contented father gave a silent prayer of thanks and smiled.