This story is an orphan – that is, the writer has not been active in the fandom for a long time, and the story has been rescued from the old, defunct Yahoo groups. So that we don’t lose the story entirely, we’re storing it here.
However the original author still owns this story. Should they reconnect with the fandom at some point, we will naturally respect whatever they want to do with their story.
Word count 8,541
HAPPY BIRTHDAY WAYNE!
Wish I could thank him for the pleasure he’s given me all these years through his portrayal of Scott Lancer. When I was a girl, his performances in “Buscaderos,” “Legacy,” “Escape” and others heightened my understanding of compassion, honor and courage. The packaging was pretty nice, too.
Thanks to Sharon and Sammi for the beta.
After all these years, the sight before him was still one that brought
Murdoch Lancer a deep-down satisfaction like nothing else he had ever
known – the sight of hundreds of Lancer steers on the move, headed for
the stockyards, each one bearing the Lancer brand.
Murdoch had veered off the broad trail the drive followed and ridden up
to this rise long familiar to him, just for this view of all that prime
beef, the physical manifestation of the year’s cycle of labor, all to
be traded in a few days’ time for the funds that would ensure that the
cycle would continue.
After a moment spent savoring the big picture of cattle and cowhands
moving through swirling dust, Murdoch looked more narrowly, trying to
spot what made this year different from every other year in the past.
He located them on the far side of the herd, marked by the bright flag
of Johnny’s red shirt. The two young men worked together at keeping the
flank closed, chivvying stragglers back into the main herd. But for
Johnny, Murdoch might have missed Scott, in his tan shirt, his hat
hiding the hair that was almost a match for the tawny grass covering
the valley floor and the foothills beyond.
Two days ago, before they left Lancer, Murdoch had summoned his
segundo, Cipriano, demanding a frank and thorough report on his sons’
progress. If Cipriano had deemed either of them less than capable of
holding his own with the more experienced hands, Murdoch had been ready
to put one or both of his sons to riding drag. He wouldn’t have been
doing either boy … man … a favor by setting him to a task beyond
his abilities and above the place of a more capable hand.
They still had things to learn, clearly, but as he watched them, he
could see that Cipriano had not flattered him by painting too rosy a
picture of his sons’ skills. They were more than able to do the work
that had been assigned to them – a credit to Cipriano’s patient
Murdoch swept off his hat and wiped the trails of perspiration from his
face, then continued to watch the passing scene with a fascination that
he could not deny. A credit to Cipriano’s training, he silently amended
his previous thought, and to their own determination.
With Johnny, the challenge had been to keep him engaged. Ranch life,
with its never-ending round of labor, held little appeal for a man used
to doing as he pleased, consulting no schedule but his own. The first
few months, Murdoch had doubted that his younger son would stick with
it. If Johnny required romance and glory, or the acrid spice of
constant danger in his life, he wasn’t going to find it at Lancer.
Lately, though, Johnny had settled down, found some sort of balance,
however precarious, between obligation and adventure.
Scott, on the other hand, had plenty of self-discipline, adapting
readily to whatever regimen was required. Maybe too much self-
discipline, Murdoch thought, frowning at the distant figure on the
stockinged chestnut. A natural horseman with several years of cavalry
experience under his belt, Scott knew damn-all about cattle. Somehow,
he had caught on. Enough, Murdoch hoped.
Unwilling to risk much to a greenhorn’s ignorance, Murdoch had lectured
his older son on the skittishness of steers and the all-too-real risk
of a stampede. Cipriano had smiled and shaken his head. Thinking about
it later, Murdoch thought he understood why. Catherine’s son was a
quiet young man, calm and contained. Hard to imagine him rattled
enough, or fool enough, to stir up the herd. Well, even a careful man
could make a mistake, and if Scott did, he would not be able to plead
ignorance. Murdoch had told him every tom-fool thing he’d ever heard of
that had caused a stampede, to make sure Scott got the idea.
Murdoch had intended only to enjoy the view of the drive for a moment,
but he found himself captivated by watching his sons at work.
They went about their common task in very different ways. Johnny
allowed the flank to widen, spread out a little, then, with a burst of
energy, tightened it up again, driving the straying steers back into
Scott worked more steadily, constantly urging the outermost steers
inward, not allowing them to stray far from the main herd.
Either way got the job done and Murdoch supposed the difference in
styles reflected something about the different personalities of his
sons. Another piece in the puzzle each posed for his father.
Murdoch looked one last time at Scott. He had wondered, since hearing
that his elder son had served in the cavalry during the recent war,
just what his service had amounted to. Scott would have been very young
when the war broke out. Murdoch had assumed that Harlan Garrett would
have pulled whatever strings were necessary to make sure that the boy
was kept out of the worst of it – assigned to headquarters staff,
perhaps. Seeing a picture of Scott with Gen. Phil Sheridan had only
increased that suspicion. Lieutenants in the field wouldn’t have had
much opportunity to come to the attention of a general. He had imagined
Scott’s role had been more in the nature of an aide-de-camp, perhaps
assigned directly under Sheridan as a flunky. Lots of prestige in that,
for Harlan Garrett’s ego, and not much risk to the boy.
Murdoch had quickly discovered that Scott did indeed know his way
around a horse and had nothing to learn there, other than the skills
peculiar to rounding up cattle. But could he spend all day in the
saddle, working hard the whole time? Murdoch had had his doubts. Oh,
he’d toughened both of his sons up since they’d been here, no doubt
about it. But an ordinary day at the ranch saw frequent breaks and more
variety than this. Johnny, he knew, was all too accustomed to long
stints in the saddle. But Scott?
Now, it was late afternoon of the second day. He saw nothing to
indicate that Scott was flagging. He might be sore and tired – they all
were. But he worked at the same steady pace he had shown yesterday. He
had known long hours in the saddle before, then.
Murdoch frowned and wheeled his horse about. Time to pick up the pace
of the drive.
Johnny Lancer stretched out on the sun-warmed grass beside the small
stream. He lazily watched his brother splash half the contents of the
shallow creek over himself in an effort to lay the day’s dust. Johnny
was willing to put up with the dust just to gain a few more minutes of
rest. No sense gettin’ carried away about dirt today if tomorrow was
just going to coat you with another layer.
When you had to be in the saddle for days on end, a chance to be still
was not to be spat upon.
“Makes me tired, just lookin’ at ya,” he told his brother.
Scott’s mouth quirked up in a small smile. “Makes me sleepy just to
look at you,” he conceded.
Johnny grinned, then lay back, pulling his hat down over his eyes.
Blocking the sun, yeah. Blocking this too-new brother, too. After a
rocky start their first few weeks at Lancer, things had gone right
smooth between him and Scott. It made him wary. Maybe he was more
comfortable with a hot-headed brother throwing punches at him. He
grinned again. ‘Course he had a suspicion that it wouldn’t be too hard
to make Scott see red again, if he chose to.
“Let me know when you’re done wastin’ all that excess energy,” Johnny
Hidden by the hat, Johnny smiled, knowing his brother was as dog-tired
as he was. Not that either one of them was willin’ to show it to
anybody else. Reckon they both knew everybody, from the newest hand on
up to ol’ Murdoch, was lookin’ to see them make a mistake or faint dead
away from the wear and tear. Well, they’d be wastin’ their time if they
expected that from him. Sure, it was hard work, but so was some other
things he’d done.
“You notice how the old man’s been watchin’ us?”
Scott had quit his splashin’ and sat on the grass close to Johnny now.
“Think we measure up?”
This time Johnny snorted. “I ain’t worryin’ about measurin’ up to no
ruler of his. I’m just here to get a job done. Reckon I can do it,
When Scott made no reply, Johnny turned his head slightly to look at
his brother. If anybody was bein’ tested, it had to be Scott more than
him. Bet he was plenty sore and fightin’ it rather than let it show. He
couldn’t be used to this kind of ridin’ – well, maybe in the war, but
his brother had been livin’ a life of leisure in Boston for some time
since the war. First long haul in the saddle again was bound to take it
out of him, no matter how good a shape he was in.
But just look at him. Even now he was sittin’ up when he could be
layin’ down. Them Yankees sure did put a lot of starch in their horse
soldiers, he thought with amusement. Ol’ Boston needed to learn how to
“It’s loco to wait till morning,” Johnny complained to his father.
“Them cows are all tuckered out. They couldn’t panic if they tried. I
say we cross the stream tonight and get it behind us.”
“You say?” Murdoch fumed. He turned to his other son.
“Scott?” Johnny had had the same idea.
Scott held up both hands, as if to ward them off. “I’m the greenhorn
around here,” he said. “Johnny’s suggestion makes sense to me, Murdoch,
but I assume you have some reason for wanting to wait until morning?”
Murdoch tried to keep from scowling. He was not used to giving reasons
for what he did to anyone. But his sons would never learn this business
if he didn’t explain the whys and wherefores.
For years now, this was what they had done, spent the third night out
beside the stream rather than crossing it. It was habit. What Johnny
said did make sense. Except….
“You’re both greenhorns,” he reminded his sons. “When it comes to
cattle ranching, anyway. You say these animals are worn out, Johnny.
Well, the two-legged ones are, too. And men who are tired make
He paused to see if Johnny protested that one. And if Scott would
demand additional explanations.
Neither son said anything, but their silence seemed like a burden to
Murdoch. “The herd will be fine in the morning. That river is not going
to panic them, not at this time of year – water’s slack. You’ll have to
allow, Johnny, that I know considerably more than you do about the
behavior of cattle.”
“And maybe I know better’n you what a tired man is capable of.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? “Maybe you do. Maybe you
don’t,” Murdoch said, wondering what else he could say.
Johnny shrugged. “It’s all right, Murdoch. You call the tune.”
There was no hint of irritation in his son’s tone. Murdoch wondered if
the whole discussion had been Johnny’s idea of a test. And wondered if
he had passed.
He shook his head as Johnny left to find a place to spread his bedroll.
“I’ll never understand that boy,” he muttered. “Every conversation we
have turns into an argument.”
He looked at Scott, but when their gazes touched, Scott turned his eyes
to the campfire. After a short consideration, he looked at Murdoch
again. “Every time you lock horns with him, you get to know him a
little better, Sir.”
“You think so? So what do I know from this one?”
Scott looked away. After another short pause, he said, “You know that
he’s concerned about getting this herd of cows to the stockyard in good
shape and on time.” He looked back at his father. “I think maybe you’ve
been wondering about that?”
Murdoch met the level gaze of his elder son, trying not to show the
discomfort he felt. Was Scott about to challenge him now? There had
been no emotion he could detect in the tone of his words, either,
whether they indicated temper, disgust, or a simple statement of fact.
If Scott had guessed his father’s thoughts about Johnny, he surely must
know that Murdoch had some misgivings about his elder son, too. Maybe
that was what Murdoch saw in that long look, that knowledge.
//Catherine’s eyes.// So much like Catherine’s eyes. Murdoch had
thought he remembered just how Catherine had looked – until the day
that Scott had walked into the hacienda and he had looked his son in
the eye for the first time in nearly 20 years. It had been a difficult
moment, having braced himself for this stranger-son only to find that
Catherine had stepped into the room, too, as close to Catherine as he’d
ever be again this side of the grave. It had been hard to see past that
ghost to the man who had stood there with an expression bordering
between the sarcastic and the amiable – an expression that Murdoch did
not now identify with the young man who had become a part of his
household. A mask then?
Murdoch shrugged off the uncomfortable reflection that Scott rarely
revealed much of himself. After all, the boy was more of a known
quantity than his brother to begin with. Murdoch knew where Scott had
grown up, how Harlan Garrett would have reared him, what sort of
experiences a young man was apt to have in Boston. He could flesh out
the few facts he knew well enough. If Scott sometimes seemed like a
closed book, Murdoch was confident that it was a book whose pages held
no dark secrets. A confidence that he could not feel when it came to
Scott had taken his bedroll well out of the range of the campfire and
the murmurs and rustles of the rest of the men made as they bedded down
for the night.
He spotted Johnny, also at the edge of their campground, already lying
down with his eyes closed, back to a large boulder, taking advantage of
its sun-baked warmth. Scott found a spot for himself under an oak tree
not too far away. He would have the sounds of the night breeze
whispering in the leaves to lull him to sleep.
His mind still hovered over his conversation with Murdoch. When he
looked at his sons, what did Murdoch Lancer see – sons, strangers,
untested business partners? Did the man even know what he wanted from
his sons, now that they were here and his — their — ranch was safe?
Funny that he and Johnny had had a much easier time of getting to know
each other. Or maybe it wasn’t. Fathers and sons, after all – books
were full of tales of the difficulties between fathers and sons.
Not that he and Johnny had drawn close for any family reasons, any
sense of blood ties. No, after a shaky start, they had turned to each
other because of their common position. Both of them were outsiders
here, both subject to doubtful scrutiny, however different the reasons.
The differences that might have kept them at a distance from each other
had paled before this common ground.
The news that had at first repelled them by its unexpectedness – that
they were brothers — had lately become the focus of curiosity and the
source of unexpected reassurance. Scott had been grateful to feel that
at least one person was pulling for him when he tried his hand with a
lasso and branding iron. Well. Pulling for him in between bouts of
laughing mightily at him. And maybe Johnny was glad that there was one
person who didn’t flinch or shy when he said something about his past.
Certainly, they had each had the pleasure of sharing their discoveries
at Lancer with one person for whom it was all still new.
Away from the fire, the night was a little chilly. Scott wasted no time
in getting under his blanket.
Then he sucked in a deep draft of the night air, savoring its
fragrance. Not like back home, this fragrant air. He knew the pungent
smell of pine forest and the piercing perfume of lilacs in a Boston
spring, but this pervasive sweetness, clean and light, was unique to
California in his experience.
Bit by bit, he was learning the plants, their colors and aromas, their
peculiar shapes against the grassland and scrub, from the shrubby yerba
santa that Maria had shown him in her cottage garden to the red-barked
manzanita in the foothills, from the lacy-branched chamise to the gray-
green sages. He relished the names of the plants he had learned, even
as he enjoyed still unknown scents brought to him by the breeze.
Scott turned on his side so he could look out over the moonlit range.
Inwardly, he exulted in a way that he knew none of these men here with
him would understand. He was having the time of his life, but that was
not something he could share with men who regarded this short drive as
an onerous job.
Hard work it was, too. But – he felt himself grin in the darkness – it
reminded him of a walking trip he had taken up the coast with a friend
back home, before the war. John Gilchrist was reading Thoreau. Scott
had just discovered Keats and only regretted that Boston didn’t have a
Lake District handy.
To his grandfather’s consternation, Scott had proposed that he and John
walk to Gloucester. When John’s parents made no objection, Harlan
Garrett had relented. The boys – Scott had been 15, his friend, 17 –
had packed haversacks with what they deemed to be essentials, including
their respective books, and set out overland, keeping as close to the
coast as they could, avoiding the roads and finding their way into a
town or village only when necessity forced them to do so. Always the
sea had lured them on and, when the heat of their exertion and the fine
summer weather grew oppressive, they abandoned their walking and took
to the water, stripping out of their sweaty clothes and racing into the
frothy spray, then swimming into the waves. Then, as now, Scott had
slept under the stars. Then, as now, he had come to his bed tired and
sore because he had felt honor bound to push himself to his limits.
Scott smiled again. Mad and romantic was what they had been and it had
been a glorious experience, every sandy, mud-caked, mosquito-bitten
moment of it. He could understand why poets liked to refer to “life’s
highway” – if only life could be a highway like that one.
A couple of years later, as a new enlistee in the Union army, he had
felt a similar inner exultation at his first bivouac – the distance
alive with campfires, the lantern light turning the officers’ tents
into lanterns themselves. His giddy head had been full of a sense of
adventure, noble adventure, all these men at all these campfires
embarked on a soul-stirring cause of freedom.
The smile faded. It had not taken him long to lose that sense of
adventure. Only a little longer to lose his certainty of a common
cause, though he never flagged in his belief in what they were doing.
With a sigh too soft for anyone to hear, he put such thoughts away. He
drifted toward sleep looking forward to what the next day would bring –
the river crossing and the sight of these skilled vaqueros guiding the
huge herd through the water and on toward their destination. It was no
small satisfaction to him that he would put all his strength and mind
into helping them, hoping to make up for what he lacked in experience
With that thought still resonating in his mind, Scott fell asleep.
The next time he woke up, the darkness was absolute. The moon had set.
Not sure what had awakened him, he lay still, trying to listen to the
night, but wavering between sleep and consciousness.
“We don’t have to go tonight. We could change our plans.”
Scott froze at the words, wide awake but suspended between reality and
the shock of memory. Those very words . . . . It had to be a trick of
the night air, blowing from behind him, that brought the words so
close. So evocatively close.
“I cain’t stand one more day . . .”
The last of that speech was lost to him, but he imagined two
conclusions. He had recognized the second voice, one of the younger
hands, Henry Branch. He could guess the two men were in process of
violating Murdoch’s last edict, that no one leave the drive for
Melrose, a small town less than three miles off the trail. Branch
couldn’t stand another day without whiskey or women, Scott presumed.
The remuda was back there, behind him. He could hear the soft jingling
of their harnesses as the men saddled up for their stealthy getaway.
Scott lay still and tried to concentrate on the sounds behind him, not
the memory that had set his heart to racing.
Too soon, the men had slipped away into the enveloping night and he was
left alone with his thoughts.
//”We don’t have to go tonight.”//
Corporal Flanagan, a 17-year-old boy from Ohio, had made that same
urgent plea. A draftee, he had got caught by Johnny Reb when he had
strayed too far from his post on picket duty. Unlike the rest of the
group, Flanagan had seen more of the prison than he had of the war.
That he had balked that night had not surprised Scott. The boy – Scott
checked that thought. At 17, Flanagan had been only a couple of years
younger than Scott himself. The difference battle experience made,
perhaps. Flanagan had fretted and wavered from the day they started the
tunnel and nothing anyone said to him had eased his mind.
When Dan Cassidy had outlined the daring escape plan, Scott had thought
the boy would stop up his ears to keep from hearing such a dangerous
idea. Flanagan had fretted over every inch of that tunnel. The only
images Scott could call to mind of the corporal now were expressions of
alarm. He had radiated fear and anxiety to such a degree that Scott had
sometimes thought the Rebel guards would be tipped off to their
activities by Flanagan’s anxious face alone.
But the tunnel grew and grew, a testament to their fierce desire for
freedom. Or had Flanagan really wanted to escape?
Scott shifted on the hard ground, feeling roots he had not noticed when
he first bedded down. But he couldn’t blink away the question. Would
Flanagan have been content to wait out the war in that hellhole? It was
years too late for regret now, 16 lives too late, but Scott faced the
painful truth. Yes. Flanagan would have been happier if he had never
even known of their plans.
Cassidy had considered him necessary, though. Flanagan was the only one
of them who had any engineering training, the only one who knew how to
build a tunnel – no easy task in the damp, sandy soil surrounding the
Scott frowned and shifted again, wriggling into a more comfortable
position, hoping sleep would overtake him again. Or that more cowboys
would sneak away, giving him a diversion.
But once started, these memories rushed at him like a locomotive
speeding down a grade, unstoppable.
Even as the tunnel had lengthened, Dan had grown ill, stricken with
prison fever. He fought it off, as much as a man in their weakened
condition could fight anything. Like all of them, he had dreaded the
tender mercies of one of the prison hospitals.
The last coherent words Dan had uttered were that they must go on, that
the breakout should go forward as planned, with or without him. To
delay risked discovery, the loss of all their killing labor – and the
suffering of whatever punishment the Rebs chose to inflict.
When the night came, Cassidy was under medical care, lost in delirium.
And it had been up to Scott to “call the tune,” as Murdoch liked to
say. When Murdoch said them, the words rang with pride.
Seventeen men, including himself, had slipped down through the break in
the fireplace to the floor below. They had long ago found a way to let
themselves into the rat-infested cellar where their tunnel began.
As senior officer, Scott had counted them off one by one as they
entered the tunnel. McAfee. Mosher. Chaple. Buice. Garbutt. Drew. Hall.
Fox. Turner. Davis. Buck. Bowen. Fitzgerald. Bruner. Armantrout.
It was a night as black as this one. In the tunnel, he had huddled
beside Flanagan, who was shivering in the humid earth, and waited for
Armantrout and Bowen to dig out the last bit of dirt. The unstable
nature of the sand-walled tunnel itself had argued against delay.
If Flanagan’s calculations were correct, and the information gleaned
from some of the guards had not been false, they would emerge in the
courtyard of the building next to the prison.
As he had waited there that night, Scott had thought about the
potential peril in this. He had proposed having the tunnel open up in
an alley across the street from the prison, so that each man could make
his own way toward freedom as soon as he came out. Dan had believed
that coming out in the courtyard would buy them extra time free of
exposure. Well. It might. But to Scott it felt too … confined. They
would be bottled up in that courtyard, looking for a way out. Easily
recaptured if they were surprised. Maybe he was drunk with the nearness
of freedom – one extra minute of confinement seemed more than he could
When they came up at last in the courtyard, just as predicted, Scott
was grateful for the blackness of the night. Once they had gained one
of the streets outside, they could slip away in the darkness.
The last one out of the tunnel, he was surprised to find his men still
milling about in the courtyard. He had told them to find a way out and
leave as soon as they emerged. One or two men slipping away together
might pass unnoticed. Seventeen would look like a mob.
“Take off!” he told them, as forcefully as he could without speaking
loudly. He urged Flanagan forward, for he had resolved to stick with
the frightened soldier until they had reached safety.
Scott had taken no more than two or three steps when the dark night had
erupted in total confusion. Suddenly, there were lights around them and
rifle fire, cries of panic and anger.
Betrayed. Somehow they had been betrayed.
“Surrender!” he shouted to his scarecrow force. “Hold your fire! We
Even as he spoke, he felt a shaft of heat pierce his side. Something
slammed into his shoulder. Still, he reached out for Flanagan, wishing
to throw him to the ground where he might be spared.
But Flanagan turned to him, eyes wide in terror, mouth open to shout,
or curse. His mouth was full of blood that glistened in the light of a
bull’s-eye lantern. And that was the end of Corporal Flanagan’s war.
All sixteen of the men Scott had counted off that night had died.
Scott had taken three bullets himself, but the Rebs had let him live.
He heard later that the man who had led the Confederate guards that
night had shown more zeal for “preventing” the escape than his superior
had called for. The continued gunfire had brought his commanding
officer to the scene. Scott had no memory of this. He had passed out
when the third bullet struck him.
He had been taken to one of several prison hospitals in Richmond. Not
expected to survive the night, he had stubbornly, unconsciously, clung
to life. The doctors and nurses had treated him with kindness. His
appearance by then, after some 10 months in prison, must have been
He was still in the hospital when Richmond fell.
Long months later, back in Boston, he had had time to absorb what had
happened. He went over and over it, trying to discover some fatal flaw
in his own actions, trying to understand how – and why – he came to be
the only one of 17 gaunt, unarmed prisoners, who made it home.
It might have been Flanagan who gave the game away. The fearful youth
might have tried to buy his own safety with information. Scott searched
his heart for rage or bitterness, but all he found was a profound
sadness. Flanagan should have been back in Ohio in 1865, completing his
studies and looking forward to a life of useful work. A boy like that
should never have gone for a soldier. As for a possible betrayal, Scott
resigned himself for the thousandth time to putting such thoughts
behind him. The plain truth was that he would never know what had
tipped the Rebels off.
He blamed no one else. But it was hard not to blame himself for being
alive when all of the men in his charge had died.
McAfee. Mosher. Chaple. Buice. Garbutt. Drew. Hall. Fox. Turner. Davis.
Buck. Bowen. Fitzgerald. Bruner. Armantrout. Flanagan. The litany of
names brought back their faces, their words and acts, the dark time
they had lived through before that night in the courtyard.
Unable to stop such thoughts and unwilling to cope anymore tonight with
the old questions that still demanded answers or the old doubts that
five years had not appeased, Scott twisted in his covers again.
//”We don’t have to go tonight.”//
Scott sat up, throwing wide his blanket. If he couldn’t put these
thoughts from him, maybe he could walk away from them.
He scrambled to his feet and looked about him. He wanted to walk, but
here, over unfamiliar ground on a moonless night? Or ride – but the
horses were working horses and needed their rest. He turned instead
toward the beacon of fire beside the chuck wagon.
The wind was up now, causing him to shiver and the flickering fire to
dance madly. A pot of coffee had been left warming by the fire, its
enameled curves gleaming with orange light. The brew within had been
left for the convenience of the hands setting out for night herding.
Grabbing the rag that the cook had used to clean their mugs and plates,
Scott hefted the pot. Almost full. The last pair must have set out
before the wind got up. They’d be glad of a cup when they came in.
Careful of the sounds he made, Scott found a mug and helped himself to
a little coffee. He had just set the pot down again when he heard
heavy steps behind him.
“You, too, huh?”
Scott turned to face his father. The big man appeared to be in a good
mood, considering the lateness of the hour and the stiffness of his
“You heard those rascals sneaking off, didn’t you?”
Surprised that Murdoch showed no anger, Scott asked, “You plan to fire
Murdoch shook his head. He stooped for the coffee pot and was secretly
grateful when Scott anticipated his wishes and shoved a mug into his
hand. He watched his son’s face as Scott poured him a brimming cup of
the strong, black brew. The blue eyes were veiled by fair lashes, but
Murdoch thought he knew what was on his son’s mind.
“What would you do?” Murdoch asked.
Scott looked up at him then, meeting Murdoch’s eyes for just an instant
before looking away and bending over the fire to return the coffee pot
to its previous position.
“I can’t say,” he admitted. “You were quite firm in ordering them not
to go. I assume you had a good reason.”
“But you didn’t plan to tell me about it, did you?”
* * * *
Murdoch saw that his words had taken the boy by surprise. He hid his
grin in his coffee mug. When he’d swallowed a bitter, reviving draft,
he looked back at his son. Scott had squatted down on his haunches to
poke up the fire a bit. And avoid his father’s question? “It seems to
me that you must have decided to keep their secret.”
Without looking at him, Scott said, “You don’t seem overly concerned,
Touche, Murdoch thought. And if Scott had been looking at him, he would
have had a clear view of his father’s grin this time.
Murdoch said nothing, waiting for Scott to turn to him.
Silence stretched between them for a long moment, but was not
uncomfortable. The wind had shifted, bringing the smell of the herd
with it now and pulling at the flames, drawing them out. The sound of
snores came to them from some of the men who slept nearby.
Finally, Scott looked up at him, eyes questioning. “Was it a grievous
“It’s always a grievous offense to disobey the man who pays your
wages,” Murdoch pointed out. “Tomorrow will be a hard day. We need
everybody at full strength. Those two – assuming they make it back on
time – won’t be good for much.”
“Yet you didn’t try to stop them or send someone after them?”
For all his quiet, mannered ways, this Boston-bred son of his didn’t
miss much. He had surprised Murdoch more than once by his quick
comprehension. “No, I didn’t send anyone after them. You had a chance
to stop them too. You had some experience of discipline during the
That earned him a long look from Scott, a look he couldn’t read. He
didn’t give a damn for Scott not going after those two – he had long
experience handling this kind of mischief – but he would’ve liked to
hear something from the boy about what he’d done in that far away war.
Looked like he wouldn’t hear it tonight. “Have you checked to see which
two it was?” he asked.
Scott shook his head. “I didn’t have to. I heard them.”
“Branch and Manning,” Murdoch said anyway. “They’re new hands. This is
their first drive. Given their age and inexperience, I expect a few
pranks from them. Better they get it out of their system now, this
year, when we’re making good time and having good weather. They’ll be
riding drag tomorrow if they get back in time.”
“They were riding drag today, Sir.”
In another tone of voice, those words would have been cheeky. Murdoch
thought he detected a glint of humor in Scott’s eyes. They had not
shared many moments like this one, and he admitted to himself that it
wasn’t just the fire that had warmed his aching bones. The thought
didn’t stop him from saying, “If they don’t get back on time, you and
your brother will take their places.”
The light, the spark, darkened in the blue eyes, but Scott showed no
other reaction to a remark that now seemed a bit mean-spirited to
Murdoch. Was it so necessary for him to insist on his authority?
“Somebody has to,” Scott said with a careless shrug.
Somebody did, but they had several new hands this fall. Less
experienced than Johnny, less skilled in the saddle than Scott. But if
he put his sons to riding drag, it would show the other hands that
Murdoch was not favoring his boys unduly. It would also show his boys
that he was boss. Murdoch frowned at the darkness. Those fool cowboys
had better be back by first light.
“You haven’t told me why you didn’t report their leaving,” he said
mildly, really only curious now. He understood how it was at Scott’s
age and, truly, he wouldn’t have respected Scott if he’d come to report
the two men to him.
The look on Scott’s face surprised him. A look of embarrassed, even
pained, startlement, as if he had just realized something he was not
“It doesn’t matter,” Murdoch said, not sure now that he wanted to hear.
He didn’t want to hear why Scott hadn’t dealt with the situation
himself either. He had too often expressed his annoyance at what he
deemed interference from his sons to want to hear his words turned back
on him now.
Murdoch found a spot for his coffee cup, from which he could reclaim it
at breakfast. With an inward sigh, he thought of his bedroll. Maybe he
could get some more sleep now that he’d had a chance to stretch.
“Get some sleep, Scott,” he said.
The boy still sat brooding over the fire. “No use worrying about them.”
Was that what had got Scott up? Worrying that he should do something about those hands? Wondering if he should tell his father? Murdoch considered the bowed blond head.
“You’ve got a long day ahead of you, in any case.”
“Yes, Sir,” came the soft reply. “I believe I’ll have just a little more of that coffee first.”
“Morning will be here before you know it,” Murdoch said. With some reluctance, he turned to seek out his bed again.
* * * * *
With no intention of trying to go back to sleep, Scott settled by the
fire, his back more or less comfortably resting against a wheel of the
chuck wagon, his long legs stretched toward the blaze. He nursed the
mug of cooling coffee between his palms and studied the flames. An
occasional gust of air swept under the wagon and caught him on the raw,
causing him to consider getting up to warm his other side, but he
continued to sit facing the fire.
Why hadn’t he tried to stop those hands from leaving? Going to Murdoch
about it was not his style. But getting up and having a sympathetic
word or two with them before suggesting, firmly, that they return to
their beds would surely have been the thing to do. So why hadn’t he
//”We don’t have to go tonight.”//
Manning’s words this time, and Scott had known what the pair were up
to. But maybe some part of him had thought of them only as escapees,
two who might get safely away.
* * *
Johnny had been awake for some time before deciding to get up and seek
out the fire. The wind had kept him awake, rustling and stealthy at
first, then a real roar coming down from the distant mountains and
shaking every tree and bush in the valley.
He hated a windy night. When you couldn’t see nothin’, even a light
wind made so many suspicious sounds. Twigs snapped, branches rattled,
torn leaves sifted down. A man couldn’t keep his edge, couldn’t tell
what was goin’ on around him in that racket. When it got louder, at
least it quit foolin’ you into thinkin’ you were hearin’ something that
mattered. It just stopped ya from hearin’ anything at all.
So, if he couldn’t have his ears, let him have his eyes. Not that he
thought he was in any danger out here with Murdoch’s cows. But all the
same, he’d like to have some light. Daybreak would be here soon,
anyways. Bet ol’ Murdoch wouldn’t like this turn in the weather. Might
be crossing the river in the rain. Johnny smiled to himself. Wouldn’t
that just make the ol’ man mad after their disagreement earlier?
After shaking out his blankets and packing up his bedroll, he sought
out the cook’s fire.
He thought at first that Scott was asleep, but he was just sittin’
there starin’ down at nothin’. “So, you can’t wait to eat or you tryin’
to impress us?”
He regretted the flip words when Scott looked up at him. Nothin’ bad in
that look, just that it was obvious that those eyes hadn’t been shut
much tonight. What was eatin’ at him?
“I might ask you the same thing,” Scott shot back. That smile of his
looked mighty sleepy, though. Bad timin’, Boston. No use bein’ sleepy
Wood for the fire was stacked beside the chuck wagon. Scott reached for
a length of oak and added it to the blaze.
“Me, I got up so I wouldn’t miss the look in Murdoch’s eyes when he
sees what kinda weather we got for crossin’ that river.”
“You think it’s going to rain?”
“Don’t you?” True, he wasn’t familiar with the weather round these
parts, but he’d bet that wind had brought rain.
Scott looked up at the still dark sky. “Maybe. Air feels pretty dry,
though. And it’s cooler than yesterday morning.”
Johnny hadn’t expected his city-bred brother to notice such things.
Keep forgettin’ that war, Johnny thought. So, did he really fight in it
or just dress up for it? It was something he woulda liked ta ask Scott
about. But they hadn’t asked each other a lot a questions yet. Had to
get to know each other better now, before either of them could talk
about how they used to be.
Johnny frowned. Maybe there never would come a time for that. The
better he got to know Scott, the less comfortable he felt about tellin’
his brother about the things Johnny Madrid had done. He hadn’t expected
that. Hadn’t expected that it would matter to him what Scott thought
about it at all. But it seemed like it did.
And Johnny resented that. Growin’ up safe and protected, how could
Scott understand what a man could come to? He’d never been really
tested, had he?
“There’s still some coffee,” Scott told him.
Johnny found a mug and helped himself. He also helped himself to the
crate Murdoch had used for a chair last night, placing it on the other
side of the fire and taking a seat. It gave him time to reconsider.
While the thought of Johnny Madrid made the ol’ man puff up like an
angry rooster, Scott had never been less than acceptin’, after those
first few days, at least.
Facing his brother across the flames, Johnny admitted to himself that
Scott was a puzzle. It tickled him to remember how citified Scott had
looked when they first met, but he had learned soon enough that that
Eastern window dressin’ didn’t have much to say about the man it
covered. So how come that was so? And why hadn’t he puffed up like
Murdoch when he found out who, and what, his brother was?
The wind was laying now, he noticed. He could hear the restless
stirring of the horses in the remuda.
“So how come you been sittin’ here all night?” Johnny asked, unable to
deny his curiosity.
“Not all night,” Scott corrected. “Some of the hands stirring about
woke me. Branch and Manning. They slipped off to Melrose.”
“After what the old man said?”
“They back yet?”
“There was a time when I might have joined them,” Johnny offered.
“Might have gone just ’cause Ol’ Murdoch said no.”
“But not now?”
“Maybe not. It’s a might early to tell. What about you, Boston? You
horse soldiers always follow orders?”
Scott took a long time answering that, Johnny noticed. Reckon he’d
given a few orders, too, hadn’t he? A lieutenant would have to have
somebody to order around. Two or three. Ten or twenty. He tried to
imagine how his brother might have handled discipline problems. How
would Scott bring a hard-headed private into line? Funny just thinking
of it, knowing how young Scott would have been.
He looked at Scott through flames that burned higher now that they had
bit into that last piece of oak.
“Follow orders and give them, too,” Scott said quietly. A wry smile
tugged at his lips, but even in this light Johnny could tell that there
was no humour in his brother’s eyes.
Johnny looked away from Scott’s unguarded gaze, knowing there was
something there to read if he knew more about his brother.
Johnny had always preferred to work alone. Just like the Ol’ Man, he
wanted to call the tune, but he only wanted to call it on himself.
When at the mercy of a boss, including Murdoch, he chafed at the bits.
He didn’t figure any man much liked being told what to do. But now the
sadness he thought he saw in his brother’s eyes made him wonder about
the other side of the coin.
Decidin’ things for yourself was easy – you didn’t like the way they
turned out, you knew who to blame. But decidin’ for other people, when
it was life or death . . . . Johnny shook his head over his cup of
coffee. If an officer in a war messed up, people paid with their lives.
Johnny thought about his time with the rurales in Mexico. He had done
what he could to help them, but he dealt his own hand and they dealt
theirs. He hadn’t wanted to suffer from their bad choices, and he
hadn’t wanted them to suffer for his.
But somebody had to make decisions for all. Nothing big got done unless
somebody was willing to answer for trying.
Bit by bit, light began to steal into the sky, like water dropped into
ink, diluting it to a paler color. Now the two men could see beyond the
ring of firelight. The wind had stilled and in places ground fog eddied
through the brush.
“Well. The prodigals return.”
Johnny looked at his brother, then followed his gaze to two mounted
figures coming toward them at an erratic pace. Singing. Branch reeled
in his saddle, while Manning threw out an arm to emphasize the chorus
as he rattled it off in heavy beats.
* * * *
Murdoch Lancer woke before the sun every morning. He always had, and
that didn’t change whether he was sleeping in his feather bed at the
hacienda or on the hard ground.
Intending to rouse the cook, who had a propensity to oversleep, he had
been surprised to hear voices coming from the other side of the wagon.
When he realized the voices belonged to his sons, he was tempted to
stand still and listen. But the voices broke off just as he got within
listening range and he found himself reluctant to break into the
silence that followed.
At Scott’s words, reminding him of those rascals, Branch and Manning,
he came around the wagon to see what his son saw.
Not much to see there, though. Drunken cowhands were nothing new to a
man who had been ranching for nearly 30 years.
As he so often did these days, Murdoch found himself turning away from
the usual things in his life to look again at what was new.
He was mildly amused to see Johnny perched on his own crate. Johnny had
better enjoy it while he could. He was not at all amused to see Scott
still sitting by the fire. A look at his elder son’s face told him that
the young man had not gone back to bed at all. Why? Murdoch wondered,
thinking back over what they had said in the night about the cowhands.
No clues there, that he could see.
“Johnny,” he said.
The sound of his voice brought both sons to their feet. They regarded
him warily. Someday, he hoped, they would understand each other better
“Get a start on sobering those two.”
Johnny’s distaste for the task was evident.
“They can’t sleep it off,” Murdoch said. “We need them on the job.”
“Will they be reliable on the job?” Scott asked. “Assuming we can get
them sober enough to get back on their horses?”
Questioning again. Always questioning. Murdoch had heard that “we,”
too, though, approving Scott’s readiness to help Johnny. But he had
given the order to Johnny because he wanted a moment with Scott, to try
to find out what was worrying him before the rest of the hands were up
and stirring. And that was a foolish thought. Scott wasn’t likely to
Murdoch looked into those clear blue eyes, Scott’s eyes not
Catherine’s, and considered his son’s words. If he got to know Johnny
through arguing with him, would he come to understand Scott through his
What did this one tell him? “You sound like you’ve had some experience
working drunken hands,” he said.
Scott evaded again. “From the look of them, they aren’t likely to be
safe in a saddle anytime soon.”
Safe in the saddle. No, they wouldn’t be. Damn fine punishment, though,
for men who had blatantly disobeyed an order. And they couldn’t cause
much trouble riding drag. “They ride,” he said. “Johnny?”
Johnny tipped his hat and headed off to find Manning and Branch.
Without meeting his father’s eyes again, Scott turned and followed his
brother. It would take both of them, Murdoch conceded.
Murdoch watched Scott walk away. He carried himself like a man, erect,
with his head up and shoulders back, no hint of a sleepless night
showing in his step.
With his decision made, Murdoch admitted to himself now that there was
justice in the boy’s objection. Sick from a night on the town, either
man would be a danger to himself, if not to the herd.
Later in the morning, as Murdoch waited to watch the last of his herd
cross the river, he looked for Scott and Johnny. Finding his younger
son again by the bright color of his shirt, Murdoch looked to see Scott
At first, he couldn’t locate him. Then he spotted his firstborn, not so
close to Johnny as yesterday. Still working the flank, but further
back. Near the drag riders.
Watching out for Branch and Manning, Murdoch realized, which was more
consideration than they deserved.
As Murdoch watched, he saw that Scott held up his own end of the job,
didn’t take the burden off the other two.
But Murdoch knew that his son was keeping an eye on them in case one of
them got into trouble. Like a shepherd unwilling to lose even two
Murdoch watched him for a long time.
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