#1 in the Another series
A/R story- A different family meeting.
Word Count Part 1 -29,843/ Part 2- 35,308
“He’s a beautiful boy, Boss.”
Murdoch nodded, unwilling to take his eyes off his first-born son finally sleeping peacefully. “You all set for tonight, Joe?”
“Yep. I’ll see you in the morning. What time do you want to leave?”
“I think I’ll leave that up to Scott.” Murdoch sighed. He wanted desperately to get back to Maria and Johnny, but he couldn’t risk Scott’s health to do it. “Tonight was the first time he’s eaten to my satisfaction since we got on the boat. I want to let him sleep as much as he wants to and then get a good breakfast before we leave.”
“Reckon I’ll sleep in a bit tomorrow then myself.”
Murdoch finally looked at his dependable hand, the only man besides Paul O’Brien to have his absolute trust—enough to entrust him with delivering them to Lancer. “You do that, Joe. I need the sleep myself.”
Joe silently left the room and Murdoch returned his gaze to his son. Yes, Scott was a beautiful boy—beautiful, scared, and miserable. When the lawyer in Boston had summoned him, he’d immediately left for east coast, taking his marriage certificate to Catherine with him. It had taken nearly six months to reach Boston. When he arrived, the lawyer had already set up the court appearance. Harlan had never seen Murdoch’s signature, and the one on the marriage license, signed in the presence of witnesses, was quite different from that on the guardianship papers. The guardianship signature giving up his claim to Scott was clearly a forgery. The judge ruled in favor of Murdoch and just like that, he was awarded custody of his elder son. Murdoch had been ecstatic. If Scott had been in the courtroom, he would have grabbed the boy right then and there and set off to California.
He hadn’t thought things through from Scott’s view. Two days later when all the legal papers were completed and filed, Murdoch had swept into the Beacon Hill mansion, collected his son and his trunk, and left without a civil word to the bastard who had stolen Scott and blocked every attempt to get him back. All he was focused on was getting Scott away from Boston before Garrett could stop him or whisk Scott out of the country. He’d hired a man to watch the Garrett mansion to make sure that didn’t happen. Scott had cried during the entire coach ride to the wharf, rejecting any comfort from his father. Garrett had said nothing to prepare the child for leaving Boston. Once on the ship, though, the little boy dried his eyes and seemed to reconcile himself to his plight.
And what a plight it had turned out to be! The boy had no sea legs at all. Even his dear Catherine had adapted to life on a ship after a week. Murdoch had never seen such sickness as his son endured. He seriously contemplated taking him through Panama just to get him on solid ground for a spell, but the railroad through the isthmus was not yet completed, and riding through the jungle with disease and bandits threatening was something to which he was unwilling to subject the boy. So they stayed on the ship and Murdoch’s life was reduced to cleaning his son’s sick bucket, waste bucket, and trying to get some food and water into him.
It was imperative for them to spend this day in San Francisco to rest. Murdoch continued to gaze at Scott, the boy’s face finally at peace after five and a half months of torture at sea. Murdoch had reveled at being back aboard a clipper ship. The captain had been grateful to have a passenger who knew his way around the rigging, especially when they had sailed around the cape. Murdoch’s size and strength had been very much needed and appreciated. And Murdoch, God forgive him, had been thrilled to be doing something other than being below decks tending to his ill child.
Scott was a slender boy, but now he was gaunt. Whatever food he’d try to eat eventually made its way back up his throat. Even water made a reappearance. Murdoch had been seriously worried that the boy might die of dehydration or starvation. Luckily, the seas from Ecuador on north were fairly placid and he had been able to get some much-needed nourishment into the boy. Scott had eaten enough at dinner tonight to convince Murdoch that he had made the right decision to stay in San Francisco for the extra day. That had reduced the remaining money in his pocket, however, and they’d have to spend at least one night on the trail to compensate. How would his proper Boston son react to that? Would he love seeing the stars glitter in the night sky or see it as another hardship he’d have to endure?
Murdoch smoothed the silky hair on Scott’s head, glad he had spent the extra dime for a bath. Unlike Johnny, Scott seemed to cherish his time in the hot water, melting into the warmth with a contented sigh. The accusatory look in his son’s eyes seemed to vanish for the duration of the soak. He even let Murdoch wash his hair, in which Murdoch took great pleasure. Yes, Scott was a beautiful child, like a porcelain doll. He had Catherine’s eyes, her aristocratic nose and high cheekbones. But like a porcelain doll, he looked fragile and easily breakable.
Garrett had railed at him as he left with Scott, berating him for dragging the boy away from the only home he’d known. A pang of guilt hit him. Had he done the right thing? Scott answered any questions politely, calling him “sir,” but he didn’t say anything more than was necessary. Murdoch tried to explain why he had taken him from his grandfather and where they were going, but Scott had just stared at him, his eyes wide with fear. Murdoch had spent endless hours telling the boy about his new home and family, his mother, and his Scottish heritage. He had no idea whether the lad was listening. Scott seemed most upset that the rocking of the boat made reading difficult. Today they had found a shop selling books, and Scott had selected Two Years Before the Mast. Murdoch had tried to dissuade his selection because it seemed too sophisticated for an eight-year-old, but it was the first time Scott had shown any interest at all, so he relented. Besides, he was interested in reading the book, too.
Maybe he would read the first chapter tonight, but the trip had taken its toll on him as well. As he lay down on his too-short bed, he realized he would be asleep before he finished the first page. Reluctantly, he blew out the lamp and closed his eyes. God willing, in four days he would see his beautiful Maria and baby Johnny. The boy had turned four during his nearly year-long journey to retrieve Scott. He smiled. Scott was classically beautiful, but the cuddly bundle of energy that was Johnny was adorable, absolutely adorable. Everyone said so, so it wasn’t just his fatherly bias. He couldn’t wait to see his California family and to add Scott to it. Now his life would be complete.
Scott could sense his father’s excitement as they neared the white house. It didn’t look like any house he had ever seen. It wasn’t made of bricks or wood and the roof had red tiles on it. Some people ran out of the house and his father was out of the wagon before it came to a stop.
“Papi! Papi!” A small boy ran out of a woman’s grasp and rushed forward to be swept up in his father’s massive arms.
Scott had never seen a man as big as his father. He was tall and broad and towered over everybody. His first sight of his father was of him yelling angrily at Grandfather. He said mean things to Grandfather and Grandfather, red-faced as he had never seen him, yelled back. It had been terrifying. It was then that he decided he would never make his father mad at him. If he were quiet and never disobeyed, maybe he could evade his father’s wrath. He thought his father might get angry over his being sick on the boat, but he never did. That made him feel a little bit better, but he was still scared of what might happen if he became the object of his ire.
Everything here was so strange. People dressed differently, talked differently, and there was nothing familiar about the towns or the land. Boston had been all buildings with only a few open spaces. California was all open spaces and a few buildings. Mister Joe didn’t dress or act like any gentleman’s gentleman he’d ever experienced, but his father didn’t seem to notice the man’s improprieties. Mister Joe hadn’t even helped him dress in the mornings or undress at night like Stevens did at Grandfather’s house. Father had helped him. He missed his evening, pre-dinner bath. He felt all gritty and rumpled wearing the same clothes for four days in a row with no baths. But he missed Grandfather the most. Sleeping outside had been exciting but frightening, too. Father and Mister Joe talked about wild animals coming close. They were talking all quiet because they thought he was asleep, but he had heard them. That had kept him awake for a good long time.
Now there were more people coming toward the wagon. Scott saw his father draw in the beautiful woman who’d been holding the child’s hand and kiss her deeply on the mouth out in the open and in front of everyone! Instead of being appalled, everyone had smiled, laughed, and even clapped their hands! This was a strange place indeed. Then everyone crowded around speaking a strange language that Scott didn’t understand. Even his father was speaking in the foreign tongue. Scott wanted to hide or get away. Mister Joe walked by, and Scott told him he had to go to the bathroom. Mister Joe had hurried him off to the outhouse without anyone hardly noticing.
Mister Joe had waited for him and showed him how to use the pump to clean his hands. Scott had never seen a pump outside in the open. They were only in kitchens in Boston. It wasn’t too difficult to use once it got going. Mister Joe told him there was a washstand and a pitcher of water in his bedroom, too. He was glad that Mister Joe was there to answer his questions.
Then he was marched back to the crowd of people, and everyone was touching him and hugging him and telling him their names. It was impossible to keep track of everybody. His father must have noticed his discomfiture. He told Mister Joe to take Scott up to his room along with his things.
Scott was led to a large bedroom with a big window in it. There was a bed, a chest of three drawers, and a wardrobe. A kerosene lamp was on a small table by the bed and a washstand with a pitcher and basin was by the window. The bed had white sheets and a very colorful blanket on it.
“Here you are, Master Scott,” Joe said as he set down the heavy traveling trunk. He unlocked the lid and said, “There you go,” and started to walk out of the room.
“Wait!” Scott cried. Mister Joe stopped. “Aren’t you going to unpack for me?”
Joe sighed. He couldn’t get it through this boy’s head that he wasn’t his personal servant. “No, I’m not going to unpack for you. Listen here,” he said as he picked the boy up and deposited him on the side of the bed, “I am not your servant. I’m just a man who works for your father hazing cattle. You’re going to have to do things on your own from now on. That’s the way it works here.”
“Then who will draw my bath and help me dress for dinner?”
Joe looked at the almost panicked face. “You’re old enough to dress yourself. And bath time for the Lancer family is the same as everyone else—Saturday. And it ain’t Saturday yet.”
“What day is it?”
The poor kid. He must have lost track of time in the long journey to San Francisco. He doubted that he boy even knew it was June. “It’s Thursday.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Saturday’s two whole days away,” he said alarmed.
“Until then you can use the washbasin.”
Scott nodded. “Thank you, Mister Joe.” Mister Joe started to leave again, and Scott felt the fear arise again in him. He liked having Mister Joe around to tell him the things he needed to know. Quickly, he said, “Mister Joe, could I ask you more questions if I need help?”
Joe came back from the doorway and mussed the child’s hair. “Sure, kid. You can ask me or your Pa or anyone around here. Guess it’s kinda confusing for you.”
Scott nodded again, and this time, Joe left.
Scott just sat on the edge of the bed for a while. It was soft and inviting. He told himself he should be unpacking the trunk and putting his things away, but he didn’t know where to start. One of the servants always put away his clothes. He’d never paid much attention to it. He looked at the chest of drawers. Maybe he’d put his underwear and socks in the bottom drawer and his shirts and pants in the one above. His personal items like his brush, comb, and watch would go in the top drawer. His picture of Grandfather would go on top. Or maybe by his bedside table. So many choices! His suit and shoes would go in the wardrobe. He hoped the bar wasn’t too high for him to reach the hangers.
Suddenly, his father was in the doorway, taking up the entire space. “You all right, Scott? Your bedroom is to your liking?”
“I know this trip has been hard on you. Perhaps you’d like to take a nap before dinner?”
“Yes, sir.” Maybe his father would unpack his trunk for him while he slept.
Murdoch helped Scott undress and get into bed. He would have to get the boy some Western clothing; he didn’t have enough cash to do that in San Francisco. Maybe that would be a good task for Maria to do with Scott, so she could get to know him. He drew the curtains over the window and walked back to the bed. He crouched down so his face was level with Scott’s. “This is your home now, son. We’re all very happy and excited that you’re here.” With a gentle kiss to his forehead and a pat on the head, he left the room.
A knock on the door roused Scott from his sleep. His father stuck his head in the room. “Almost time for dinner.”
“All right.” Scott was already trying to swing his legs around to get out of bed. His father closed the door again, and Scott went to the window and opened the curtains. It was still light outside. His trunk was right where it was before he took his nap; no one had unpacked it for him. After splashing some water on his face and washing his hands, he rummaged around in his trunk for his suit, regretting that he’d put off unpacking himself earlier. He found his jacket and dress shirt easily enough, but his dress pants had been harder to find. Now he was struggling with his tie. He wished Mister Joe would come in and help him, but Mister Joe had said he was on his own here. He finally managed to tie his bow tie after a fashion, although he knew it wouldn’t pass Grandfather’s inspection. He hoped his father wasn’t as exacting. With much trepidation, he walked out of his room and toward the massive room that held the dining table.
His father’s face lit up when he saw him. “There he is!” He motioned for Scott to come over by the couch. “This is my wife, your stepmother.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
She didn’t seem pleased to meet him. “You may call me La Señora.”
“La Senora,” Scott repeated.
“Señora,” she corrected.
“Senora,” Scott said again, and the little boy laughed at him.
“He can’t say it right, Papi.”
Murdoch scooped his little one into his arms. “It’s not polite to laugh at someone, hijo. Maybe you can teach him how to say it right.” Then he turned to Scott. “And this laughing boy is your brother, Johnny.”
“You talk funny,” the little boy said and got a reminder about being polite.
Murdoch put the squirming boy down and said, “Now that we’re all here, we can be seated.”
“Yay!” Johnny hoorayed, ran to the table, and climbed up on one of the fancy chairs.
His father sat at the head of the table, La Señora to his right and Johnny next to her. Murdoch patted the place setting to his left, and Scott sat there. Two women, an older and younger one, started bringing in the food and placing it before them.
“You look funny!” Johnny said, pointing and laughing at Scott again.
He blushed, noticing everyone else were still in the clothes he had seen them in earlier. No one dressed for dinner? Grandfather would have thought it scandalous.
“Now, hush, Johnny. Scott, you look very nice, doesn’t he, querida?” Murdoch said.
“It is not how we dress here,” was all La Señora said, making no move to correct her son’s impolite behavior.
Then his brother started speaking the strange language and La Señora was speaking back to him in it. Johnny was grinning and trying to stifle a laugh the entire time. Scott thought they were talking about and laughing at him. It made his stomach flip-flop. He looked down at his plate.
There was some beef in a gravy, corn with bits of red and green in it, and some brown mush.
“Now, now,” his father was saying, “we need to speak English, so Scott can understand.”
“No!” Johnny protested. Scott could at least understand that. Then the boy began to speak very rapidly and angrily. He ended with a scowl directed at Scott.
“Yes, you will, Johnny. You need to practice your English,” Murdoch insisted.
“No!” Johnny said again, crossing his arms in front of his chest.
“Well, that will make for a very quiet and pleasant dinner for the rest of us!” Murdoch said, a twinkle in his eye.
Everyone began to eat heartily. Scott took a forkful of corn. It was hot! When was corn so spicy? He began to choke. He knew it wasn’t polite to spit food out, but he just couldn’t let that heat go down his throat and into his stomach. He would throw up. He spit it back onto his plate. He was going to get punished for sure, and it was only his first day at the house! He hung his head in embarrassment. Instead of being angry with him, everyone began to laugh.
“Juanita! Bring some milk for Scott!” his father yelled.
The older woman who had helped bring the food out placed a glass of milk next to Scott’s water.
“Drink some quick, boy!” his father instructed.
Scott did. It helped put out the fire more than the water did, but his tongue still burned.
“Is that better?”
“A little, sir.”
“I’m sorry. It didn’t even cross my mind that you wouldn’t be used to peppers. I’m afraid the beef is going to be too hot for you, too.”
La Señora said something again, not in English.
His father chuckled. “We’ll get it right. We’ll have to introduce the peppers slowly. Here,” Murdoch picked up some flat bread and smeared it with the brown stuff. Then he rolled it up. “Try this,” he said, handing the roll to Scott.
“What is it?” Scott asked warily.
Scott set the roll down on his plate. “No, it’s not. I know what beans look like, sir.”
Murdoch picked up the roll and handed it to Scott again. “They’re not Boston baked beans; they’re Mexican beans. Try it.”
Scott looked at it worriedly. The corn had looked like corn, but Mexican corn didn’t taste like Boston corn. He took a small nibble. It wasn’t spicy. It wasn’t as yummy as Boston beans, but it didn’t set his mouth on fire.
Juanita came back with a plate that had a slice of roast beef on it with no gravy. She scraped the beans onto it and took his other plate away.
Murdoch cut up his meat. “This shouldn’t be spicy at all, Scott.”
Scott took a small bite. It just tasted like beef. He gave his father a small smile. “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m not a ‘sir,’ I’m your father.”
“Thank you…Father.” The word felt foreign to his lips, but his father preened when hearing it.
Johnny started speaking and again folded his arms across his chest.
“Yes, you still have to eat your corn, Johnny. And we’re speaking English tonight.”
“He doesn’t have to eat his. Why do I have to?” Johnny whined.
“Next time we have corn, Scott’s won’t be so hot, and he will eat them.”
“Husband, perhaps this once he does not have to. Because of him.” La Señora nodded at Scott.
“No, love. Johnny, you will eat your corn because your Papi says so.”
Johnny pouted, and Scott feared the boy would start to cry. He didn’t. Johnny just kept glaring at his father and pouting. Scott wondered what kind of punishment he would get. Grandfather would never tolerate a look like that from him for any reason.
“Eat your dinner, son,” Murdoch ordered firmly, and Scott didn’t know if his father’s statement had been directed at him or Johnny, but he began to eat in earnest. Johnny didn’t and thus commenced a battle of wills the likes of which Scott had never seen. He didn’t see the end of it. After he finished his dinner, he was excused, and he practically ran back to his room where he stayed the rest of the night.
Scott woke up the next morning not remembering how he got tucked into bed. Maybe Mister Joe had done it. He went through some of his morning routine and then sat there for a long time waiting for the knock that would tell him breakfast was ready. He read some of his book while waiting. He was starting to like it a lot. The main character had gotten seasick on the ship out of Boston Harbor just like he did. The knock didn’t come. Finally, needing to use the privy badly, he tiptoed out of his room and went into the great room. No one was there. He found the kitchen and no one was there, either. He used the privy and then walked back into the kitchen. He was hungry!
La Señora was there this time. “Oh, so you have decided to wake up!”
She looked angry, but he decided not to tell her he’d been awake for a long time. “Yes, ma’am. When is breakfast served?”
She gave a derisive snort. “Breakfast?! You are too late for breakfast; it was over an hour ago.”
“Is there any food left, ma’am?”
“No, chico, we only make what we will eat. Now go. The kitchen is no place for you.” She made shooing motions for him to go outside.
Before he did, he asked where his father was.
“Out working, of course. Now go.”
Scott wandered outside. He had no idea where anything was or what some of the buildings were. He wandered into what looked like a barn. It was the stables. Only a few horses were in the stalls. He didn’t bother them. He knew enough about horses that some of them liked to bite, but he did go into an empty stall next to a beautiful black horse just to look. Horses were so beautiful with their big brown eyes that seemed like they knew all the answers to the universe. That’s what Beacham, the stablemaster in Aunt Amelia’s stable, had told him. That’s why horses looked so wise. He wished he had all the answers to the universe. A young man came into the stables and asked what he was doing. Scott said he was looking for Mister Joe. The man said Mister Joe had gone with the other ranch hands this morning. Both his father and Mister Joe were gone. What was he supposed to do? He had no one to ask.
Scott wandered around the stables and watched some of the horses in the corrals until he got bored with that. His stomach kept growling at him. He saw a long building with smoke coming out of the chimney and walked in. There was a big stove against one wall and a big pot of something was gurgling on it. It smelled good, but Scott wasn’t tall enough to see inside. Maybe if he got up on a chair…
He moved a chair over and carefully climbed up.
“You, boy, what’re you up to?”
The booming voice startled Scott so badly he almost fell against the stove. Hands grasped him roughly by the shirt and pants and tossed him away from the flame. Scott stayed where he was dropped, too scared to move.
“Who be you, now?”
“Scott,” Scott croaked. He swallowed hard and tried again. “Scott Lancer.”
“Ah, you be the new one,” the man said stroking an unkempt, snow-white beard. Scott had never seen such a man before. He was older than his father, old like his grandfather, with white hair sticking out all whichways to match his beard and the wrinkliest face he’d ever seen. Scott wanted to touch his face to feel whether the man’s skin was as tough as the leather it resembled, but he was too polite to do so. “What brings ye in the bunkhouse?”
Scott looked around. There were tiers of beds, tables and chairs scattered around, and men’s gear stashed in all kinds of places. This was where the ranch hands slept. “I smelled the food.”
The man smiled at him. “Ye missed breakfast, did ye?”
“Yeah, the boss runs a tight ship up at the house. Meals right on time. Ye gotta be there or ye don’t eat.” The man picked Scott off the floor and sat him in a chair at a table. “You sit there and ol’ Cookie will make ye somethin’ to eat. Will eggs suit ye?”
“’Sir,’ now, is it? I don’t reckon I’ve been called ‘sir’ for a wee long time, Master Scott Lancer. Sounds right easy on my ears. ’Bout time these cowpokes started callin’ me ‘sir,’ don’t ye think, young ‘un? Maybe you can teach ‘em some fancy manners.”
Scott just stared at the man agape, as he busied himself with making some scrambled eggs while talking the entire time. Even though he asked questions now and then, he went right on like he didn’t expect Scott to answer them. In no time a plate of eggs appeared before him. Cookie found him a fairly clean spoon and Scott dug in. They were the best tasting eggs ever!
After he was done, Cookie asked him whether he could stir the pot without catching himself on fire. Scott assured him he could, and that was how he began to help Cookie with the lunchtime meal. He helped load it onto the chuckwagon, and Cookie asked him if he’d like to go with him to the range and feed the men. Scott agreed eagerly.
Cookie seemed just as helpful as Mister Joe for finding out how things worked at the ranch. He told Scott all about what the ranch hands did and what his father was doing. Today they were moving a small herd of cattle to meet up with a larger herd farther north. It took them a long time to finally get up to where the cowboys were. One of the Mexican cowboys—Cookie told him they were called vaqueros—spotted the wagon and took off galloping. Soon many men were coming their way. Scott helped Cookie set up the lunch they had made. Scott couldn’t see his father, but finally he and Mister Joe came riding in.
“Scott!” Murdoch said with a delighted smile. “I didn’t know you needed a helper, Cookie.”
“And a right fine helper he be, Boss!”
Scott saw that his father waited until everyone else had their food before he took his plate. “Come sit with me and have your lunch, son.”
Scott sat down under a tree with his father and took a bite of the stew he had stirred. To his relief, it wasn’t spicy at all.
“I’m surprised to see you way out here.”
“I helped Cookie with the stew and he asked if I wanted to help him feed you.”
“Did you sleep well? You missed breakfast this morning.”
“I was awake, but you didn’t knock on the door to tell me it was time.”
“What? Why didn’t you just come down when you were dressed?”
“Am I allowed to do that, sir? One of the servants always brought me down at Grandfather’s.”
Murdoch finished his first biscuit and put his plate down on the ground. He moved so that he was abutting his son. “Scott, this isn’t Boston. There are no servants here. Just come to the kitchen once you’ve dressed.”
“But I wasn’t to bother or distract Heddy.”
Murdoch picked up his plate again. “We eat breakfast in the kitchen here. Believe me, Juanita and Maria are fine with it. No one knocks on your door for meals.”
“You did, sir. For dinner, you knocked on my door to tell me to get ready.”
Murdoch chuckled. “I did, didn’t I?”
“Don’t call me ‘sir,’ Scott.” Scott looked worried, so Murdoch hastily added, “Do you want me to call you ‘sir,’ sir?”
“I’m too young to be called ‘sir.’”
“How old do you have to be?”
“Out of school,” Scott answered quickly and confidently. Murdoch wondered how long it had taken Scott to learn the intricacies of the proprieties of the Boston elite. There were layers upon layers of social complexities that he had been incapable of and uninterested in learning during his time there.
“Do you mind me calling you ‘son’?”
Scott smiled. “No, sir.” Then he clapped his hand over his mouth at his mistake.
Murdoch laughed and saw the tension drain from his son. The boy seemed so worried about making a mistake. Was that a legacy from living with Garrett? Was Scott expected to be perfect there? “Tell you what. I’ll call you ‘son’ and you call me ‘Pa.’”
“Pa?” Scott’s face scrunched up in distaste.
“Is ‘Father’ better?”
Scott nodded. Murdoch thought he could live with that until Scott felt more at home, but he secretly yearned for the boy to call him “Pa.”
“Father?” Scott’s voice was quiet, hesitant. “I liked it when you knocked on my door to tell me when dinner was.”
Murdoch finished mopping up the last of the gravy with the last of his biscuits and said, “How about this? I’ll knock on your door in the morning to tell you it’s breakfast time, and you get yourself to the table for lunch and dinner. It’ll be our little ritual, me knocking on your door in the morning. Will that work?”
Scott smiled gratefully at him. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Father.”
Murdoch sighed. He was going to have to be patient with this boy who knew nothing about life out West and expected to be told when and how to do the least little thing.
Scott was grabbed harshly and painfully by the ear when he walked into the kitchen. It was La Señora.
“Where have you been, chico?”
Scott cried out in pain and tried to pull away from her grasp, which only made his ear hurt worse.
“You told no one where you were,” she continued as she dragged him through the great room and into the wing of the house that had the bedrooms. “That was bad. That was very bad of you.” She marched him into his room and then let go. “You stay here until dinner.” She slammed his bedroom door behind her when she left.
Scott rubbed his ear to ease the pain. He climbed on his bed and got his book. He didn’t mind staying in his room, his sanctuary, for the rest of the afternoon. He took out his watch. It would be dinner in a little while anyway.
There were people in the great room when he went down for dinner. He wore his dress shirt and pants but left off his jacket and tie. One of the people was Mister Paul. His father had said he was his foreman, which was a very important position at the ranch. The other person was a woman who looked around La Señora’s age. He was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, and they commented on his good manners after he shook hands with them and told them he was pleased to meet them. Grandfather was right: good manners were appreciated. He paused a moment to think fondly of his grandfather. He hoped he wasn’t too sad back in Boston.
When they sat down at the table, Mr. O’Brien took the seat he had last night. Mrs. O’Brien sat next to him, so Scott sat down next to Mrs. O’Brien. People started talking in the strange language, so Scott just sat there, trying to be patient and not tap his fingers or jiggle his leg. Grandfather wouldn’t have allowed it.
Mrs. O’Brien leaned over to him and whispered. “You don’t speak Spanish either?”
“And I’m not going to learn,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “What about you?”
Scott considered. “I think it would be fun to speak another language. Madame Renaud spoke French and it sounded very pretty.”
“Well, I don’t think Spanish is pretty.”
I do, Scott wanted to say, but he had been taught that it wasn’t polite to contradict adults.
Juanita and Maria brought in the food and everyone began to fill their plates. Mrs. O’Brien filled his.
“Juanita made some of the corn plain tonight, Angel, in honor of your palate and Scott’s,” his father said as he passed a bowl down to her.
Scott peered at it. The corn didn’t have the red and green bits in it. The mashed-up beans were there again and then there was some tied-up square thing Scott had never seen before. Everyone was speaking English now, except Johnny, who complained about something in Spanish to his mother. Scott wondered whether another battle of wills was brewing.
Scott stared at his meal. The square thing looked like nothing he had ever seen before. How was he supposed to eat it? He only had a fork and spoon; he guessed his father thought he was too young for a knife. He poked the thing with his fork. It resisted all his poking. He really needed a knife. He’d been using one since he was five, when he had been permitted to eat in the formal dining room with Grandfather. Instead, he took a bit of corn. It tasted like it should tonight.
“Never had tamales before, Sweetie?” Mrs. O’Brien asked.
“Can I help you with it?”
“Well, you are such a little gentleman,” she exclaimed. She picked it up and started unwrapping it.
“What’s that, ma’am?” he asked pointing to a discarded piece of something.
“It’s a corn husk, Sweetie.” She finally unwrapped the rest of it and a light brown substance slid off the husk and onto the plate. It looked as unappetizing as the beans.
The adults began talking about the ranch and the townspeople. Scott didn’t know who they were talking about, so he kept his head down. He put the beans on a tortilla and rolled it up like his father had done the night before. It wasn’t very tasty, but it was filling. When he had finished his corn, he took a little bit of the tamale. It was spicy, but more than that, it had a grainy texture. It was dry and flaky, and Scott didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to eat it, but there were guests, and he didn’t want to make his father angry for not eating everything on his plate. He noticed Johnny had almost scraped his plate clean already.
Mrs. O’Brien leaned over again. “You don’t like the tamale?”
Scott shook his head almost imperceptibly. “No, ma’am,” he whispered.
“Neither do I.”
Scott looked at her plate. Most of her tamale was still there. She unobtrusively moved his tamale onto her plate. “Our little secret,” she whispered back. He liked Mrs. O’Brien.
After dinner they all went over to the seating around the big fireplace, and Murdoch poured Paul and himself a glass of scotch. The O’Briens and La Señora sat on the couch. Johnny sat in his father’s lap in the wing-backed chair, and Scott sat in the chair opposite his father. He was used to sitting quietly while adults talked, and he knew he wasn’t expected to pay attention to their conversation. Suddenly, he heard his name spoken. His father was telling the O’Briens about the voyage from Boston.
“Scott was sick the entire time.”
Now everybody was looking at him.
“Oh, you poor thing!” Mrs. O’Brien said.
Scott felt his ears redden.
“But now he’s here and I have my whole family at Lancer,” his father said with pride.
“Yes, but you were gone a year, Husband, and your Johnny missed you terrible,” La Señora scolded.
There was a silence, and Scott couldn’t help but squirm in his chair, guilty he had taken his father away from them.
“It was quite a surprise when we saw Scott with Cookie bringing lunch out today,” Mister Paul finally said.
Mrs. O’Brien voiced her surprise and admiration for his initiative, but La Señora told them he had worried them all and interrupted their daily routine.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Scott muttered.
“Lo siento,” Johnny said. “’Sorry’ is ‘lo siento.’”
“Lo siento,” Scott repeated, and Johnny clapped his hands.
“I taught him something, Papi! I taught him how to say ‘I’m sorry’!”
“Yes, you did, son. I’m so proud of you,” his father said hugging the boy tightly. “Oh, how I missed you, little one!”
“I missed you, too, Papi. I cried and cried. Don’t go ‘way again,” Johnny scolded and slapped his father’s chest soundly.
Scott stared in horror. He would never think to hit an adult. Grandfather would have…would have…he didn’t know what Grandfather would have done, but it would have been bad. His father just laughed and gave Johnny another hug.
“Scott is here now, and I won’t be going away like that again,” he promised Johnny.
A sour look quickly passed over La Señora’s face; Scott didn’t know why.
The large grandfather clock started to chime, and Murdoch set Johnny down. “Time to get ready for bed, mi hijo.” He gave Johnny a gentle pat on his behind.
“If you will excuse me, I will see to him,” La Señora said, rising from the sofa. She held out her hand and Johnny ran to grasp it. Everyone arose as she left the room with her son.
“Well, we must be on our way, too, Murdoch,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Angel hasn’t been feeling well in the mornings these last few days. Thank you for the dinner and be sure to pass on our thanks to Juanita and Maria.”
“I will,” Murdoch said, shaking his foreman’s hand, “and I can’t wait to cook up those potatoes you brought over. Now that Scott’s here with his New England palate, maybe we can persuade Juanita to grow them in our garden.”
“And it was a real pleasure meeting you, Scott,” Mrs. O’Brien said, bending down to give Scott a hug.
The gesture surprised him, but he managed to whisper, “Thank you about the tamale.”
She stood up and mussed his hair.
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien.”
“You, too, son,” Mr. O’Brien said, mussing his hair, too. Adults in the West sure liked to mess his hair up. Good thing he had brought his brush and comb with him.
Murdoch walked outside and saw his guests depart. Then he came back in and looked fondly at his son. The O’Briens had remarked again on the boy’s good manners. Murdoch couldn’t take any credit for it, but he begrudgingly gave his father-in-law some. He seemed to have been raising Scott properly. The boy looked up at him solemnly and expectantly.
“How about I show you the ranch tomorrow, Scott. Would you like that?”
Scott nodded vigorously. “I’d like that, sir…Father.”
“Then off to bed with you, now. I’ll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in.” Murdoch made shooing motions and Scott ran off to his bedroom. Murdoch took a few minutes to down the last of his scotch, wondering if his first-born child knew how to smile with his teeth showing.
The next morning, Scott happily went to the kitchen after his father knocked on his door.
Murdoch looked him over. “Are you sure you want to wear those pants? I think we might get some dirt on them today.”
“They’re all I have, Father. I mean, I have other pants, but they’re the same as these.”
“That reminds me, querida, I’d like you to take Scott into town and buy him all the clothes he’ll need for living out here.”
“As you wish, Husband,” she said without enthusiasm.
Murdoch frowned inwardly. At first, he had loved it when she said those words to him. It was if she was claiming him, and he was damned proud to be claimed by such an exciting and beautiful woman. Now they made him feel like he was a Southern plantation owner and she was his slave.
There was a burst of Spanish from Johnny.
“Sí, si preguntas en inglés.”
Johnny sighed dramatically. Clearly, he was put off by having to speak English. “Can I go to town, too, Papi?”
“Of course, you can.” He turned to his wife. “I’ll have Walt drive you.”
And there it was again: “As you wish, Husband.” It sounded so submissive. The thought of his wild and tempestuous Maria submitting herself to him made him excited. He willed his budding erection away. This was not the time, but tonight he might make her submit to him again…
A plate of eggs was laid in front of Scott by La Señora. They had some kind of red sauce on them. He took a tiny bite. It was spicy! “May I have some milk, please, Father?”
“What? Oh, yes. Juanita, please get some milk for Scott. I thought we weren’t going to put any spicy sauces or peppers in Scott’s food.”
“Forgive me, I forgot,” La Señora said.
Scott didn’t think she sounded sorry at all.
“Are there any more eggs?” Murdoch asked.
“No, there are not.”
“Scrape as much of the sauce off as you can, son,” Murdoch advised as he handed Scott a biscuit.
Scott tried to get the sauce off the eggs, but it was difficult. In the end, he had a breakfast mainly of biscuits.
“Are you ready to see the ranch, son?”
Scott’s “Yes, sir” was drowned out by Johnny whooping in joy and running outside. When Scott walked out, he could see his father’s giant horse was already saddled. It had to be at least eighteen hands. Everything out here was bigger than in Boston—the horses, the saddles, the stables, the open land…even fathers.
“Do you know how to ride?”
“Yes, sir. I started lessons last year.”
“Good.” Murdoch gave Scott quite a leg up, and the boy sat firmly in the saddle, tall and erect. He mounted behind him.
“Me! Me!” Johnny cried, jumping up and down. “I want to go, too, Papi!”
“Not today, mi corazόn. It’s just me and Scott today.”
“No!” Johnny wailed and grabbed his father’s boot. “Me, too!”
Murdoch couldn’t shake his foot free gently. “Maria!”
La Señora came over and pried Johnny’s hands off the boot. He fell to the ground and proceeded to throw a fit the likes of which Scott had never seen.
“Perhaps you could take him, Murdoch,” she suggested.
“Another time. Today I want to spend time with Scott.” He jostled the reins gently and rode away.
Maria looked at her son lying in the dirt and wailing his displeasure. Well, he wasn’t the only one who was displeased. Was this how it would be from now on: Murdoch paying attention to his first-born son while her son was left crying in the dirt? Second son, second best.
She knew how it was; she had lived it. Her father had been the second son. When his father died, he left everything to his eldest son, and her uncle did not like to share. That’s the way it is, he would say: the oldest son inherits everything. So her family lived in near poverty, while her uncle lived in a grand house with many acres of farmland and many men and women working for him. Her father turned to drink for comfort. Her parents quarreled constantly about money and his drinking. She bore it as long as she could, but after her mother died, she struck out on her own, earning enough money singing and dancing to feed herself.
When Murdoch Lancer came into the cantina, she saw her chance. He tipped her generously for her singing; he asked her to have a drink with him, then a meal, then share a room with him. She didn’t mind leaving Diego behind. His wages could not compare to a white man who owned his own ranch in Alta California. She would do all she could to make this Murdoch Lancer her husband, so she could leave this poor life behind her.
They were married in San Diego. She did not tell him of her family, who she was sure would have been upset at her marrying a gringo. They had not been bothered with her father nor mother nor her for several years. It was best that they thought she was dead.
She had never been so happy. The ranch turned out to be not as grand as she had imagined from Murdoch’s description of it, but he had told her of his great plans for it. She shared his dreams for it and for their happy lives together. She became pregnant almost immediately. Her husband’s face as she told him the news had been so excited, so happy. Then one night as they lay in bed watching the baby inside her wriggle and make her belly undulate, Murdoch had caressed her abdomen and told her about when he had done this before. And everything changed.
She was a second wife and her baby was a second baby! The news had cut her to the core. He had a son, who was living far away. That made her feel a bit better. As long as he was far away, it might be all right. Her baby would be here, sharing their lives. It was going to be a boy; she just knew it. Her son would be here, and her husband would forget the other one. They would be all right; she could still be happy. Once he had forgotten the other one, he would see that the rightful heir to his ranch would be her son.
Then one day he had read a telegram, went searching through his safe, and the next morning had been bound for a place called Boston. He had sent a few telegrams telling her of his progress in the journey and about his success at winning a court case. Nearly a year after he left, he returned with this gringo son, all blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Murdoch told her the boy reminded him of Catherine, the first wife. The perfect wife. As if there were not already reminders everywhere in the house. She had slowly been introduced to the history of things: the china, the big, noisy clock, the rose bushes in the flower garden. So many things that were Catherine’s that she could not move or alter in any way or Juanita would chide her. Or Murdoch would.
And now her worst fears were coming true. Murdoch’s first-born was getting all his attention. They had to speak English, his food had to be special, and now Murdoch was riding with his first-born, while Johnny, whom he knew loved to ride with him, was crying on the ground. Was this what lay ahead of them in the future? No, her son was not going to end up like her father—with nothing of his father’s. The gringo boy was so stupid and useless, having to be told to do the least little thing. And she was supposed to take care of him? She had never been asked what she wanted. She resented that and this new child. The boy had just been thrust upon her. Did her husband expect her to love him? Him—the boy who would take the place of her Johnny, who would deny her son his rightful inheritance? No, she could not love him; she could barely tolerate him. As she bent down to pick up Johnny and send him back into the house, she vowed she would make the gringo’s life at the ranch so miserable that he would go back to Boston, far away, and Murdoch would forget about him again. She would make sure Johnny’s future was secure.
Scott settled into his dining room chair to his father’s left with a contented sigh. Today had been so fun. The ranch was so big. They rode around all day and his father said they hadn’t seen quite all of it. They had watched the cowboys work with the cattle for a while. It was exciting to see. A steer would try to run away from the herd, but a cowboy would catch up and nudge it back to the main group. They stopped for lunch by a beautiful lake, and Father tried to tell him about what a ranch was like. It was a lot of information, and Scott hoped he would remember most of it. A butterfly had landed on a nearby flower, and he’d been so taken with it that he chased after it when it flew away. He had tripped and gotten his clothes dirty, but his father hadn’t yelled at him like Stevens would have. His father just laughed and dusted him off.
“I’ve been looking forward to this meal the whole day,” his father said as Juanita placed the adults’ plates on the table. “This is a New England kind of meal, right, Scott?”
La Señora came in a moment later with the children’s plates. Scott looked at his meal. It had a slice of roast beef, boiled potatoes, and carrots. He recognized all of the food! “Yes, sir.”
Everyone began to eat. Scott scooped up some potatoes with his fork. Salt! The potatoes tasted like salt. He couldn’t even taste any potato, just salt. He wanted to spit it out, but his father and La Señora were looking at him expectantly, waiting to see how he liked it. He choked the bite down and reached for his water glass.
“Good, eh?” his father asked, putting a forkful of potatoes in his own mouth.
Scott nodded a little at his father, waiting for him to spit his potatoes out, but he didn’t. Scott steered clear of the potatoes and took a bite of the beef. Salt! It, too, seemed to be nothing but salt. Scott couldn’t swallow it; he just couldn’t. He spit it back out on the plate.
“Such bad manners!” La Señora chided.
“Hit some grizzle?” his father asked spearing his own bite of beef.
Scott nodded as he drank more water. He rooted out a carrot slice from the bottom of the pile. It, too, was quite salty, but he managed to wash it down with more water. He tried the same tactic with the potatoes, but it didn’t work. The potatoes seemed to be too salty all the way through.
Scott felt the anxiety surge through him. All through lunch, his father had talked about this meal, saying how it was being made special just for him. It looked so delicious, he wanted to eat it so badly, but it was just horrible with salt. He managed again to get the potatoes down his throat again with the help of his water, but then he was stuck. He didn’t have much water left in his glass, but he didn’t want to take another bite of anything anyway. He pushed his food around on the plate, covering up the beef he had spit out. Apparently, his father was watching him.
“What’s wrong with your food, boy?”
Scott could hear the edge in his father’s voice. It was very similar to Grandfather’s. He didn’t want his father to get angry with him. The anxiety was reaching panic, but he had to tell the truth. Grandfather demanded that he always tell the truth. “It’s too salty,” he whispered.
“What? Speak up!”
“It’s too salty, sir.”
“Nonsense!” His father’s fork was just about to snare a bite of his beef when the plate suddenly disappeared.
“If it is not to your liking, then you shall have none!” La Señora decreed as she snatched Scott’s plate away.
‘Don’t cry,’ Scott reminded himself. He swallowed down his tears before they leaked out of his eyes.
La Señora came back and placed Scott’s plate before him. It had been scraped clean.
Murdoch and La Señora started speaking Spanish. They both sounded upset. Then Johnny started talking, and they settled down.
Scott stared at his empty plate. He had wanted to eat this dinner so much. He looked at his glass. “May I have some more water, please?”
La Señora glared at him. “You are old enough to get it yourself. There are no servants for you here.”
“Maria,” Murdoch admonished gently. “Go on, son.” He nodded toward the kitchen.
Scott took his glass to the kitchen sink and began to pump.
“Was something wrong with your dinner?” Juanita hesitantly asked him, nodding to the remains of his meal now in the slop bucket.
“I’m s-sorry,” Scott stuttered. “Lo siento. It was too salty.” He wondered if pigs minded too much salt.
Juanita frowned and he made his way back to the dining room before she could scold him, too.
Juanita was not too proud to reach into the slop bucket and scoop up a potato. She tasted it. The boy was right—it was much too salty. She looked at the salt cellar sitting by the oven. It was nearly empty and she could have sworn it had been nearly full this afternoon. She shook her head. Something was not right in this house, but she would keep it to herself. It was not her place to say, especially when it might mean getting on the wrong side of La Señora’s temper.
Scott carefully placed his full water glass on the table before he sat back down. He looked at his empty plate forlornly.
“Here, is this too salty?” His father fed him a forkful of beef from his own plate. The meat was savory and moist.
“No, sir. It’s delicious.”
His father proceeded to place half of his food on Scott’s plate. Scott wanted to protest, but he was too hungry. He wanted to eat the food.
La Señora protested for him. “He does not deserve your plate when he will not eat from his own!”
They lapsed into Spanish again briefly. His father apparently won that argument. He called Juanita to bring out more of the beef roast, which she did, and his father sliced more of the meat for himself. “Any more potatoes or carrots?”
“Lo siento, Patrόn,” she said as she sent an accusatory glance at La Señora, who pointedly ignored her.
“Thank you, Father,” Scott said as he happily ate his New England supper, savoring every bite. He was starting to like his father, who seemed genuinely concerned for him. He couldn’t say the same for La Señora.
Scott was most curious to go into town. Coming from San Francisco, they had not stopped in this town but had continued traveling to reach Lancer as quickly as they could. It turned out to be unlike any town he had seen back east. The buildings were made of wood and the streets weren’t cobblestoned but dirt. Most of the buildings were one or two story and all of them had hitching posts in front of them. It wasn’t a pretty place.
Walt stopped the carriage in front of the general store and helped La Señora out. Then he left to do some errands. La Señora grabbed Johnny’s hand and walked into the store with Scott lagging behind.
The people who owned the store started talking Spanish, so Scott guessed they were Mexican. People out here seemed to know right away who was Mexican and who wasn’t, but he couldn’t tell unless they started speaking Spanish. He saw La Señora point at him a couple of times and the woman behind the counter smiled at him.
She came around the counter and bent down to him. “I am Señora Baldemero. What is your name?” She had a thick accent when she spoke English.
“Pleased to meet you, Scott. Mrs. Lancer says you need new clothes. What do you need?”
Before he could speak for himself, La Señora answered. “Everything, I think. Shirts and pants and socks and boots.” She held up a colorful shirt that Scott thought was quite ugly. “This one, I think.”
“Please, can you help me pick out my clothes, Mrs. Balmoro?” he whispered fervently. “I would like you to do it.”
Señora Baldemoro smiled. She, too, thought Maria had picked out the worst shirt of the bunch. She told Maria she would help Scott with his clothes. Were there other things Señor Baldemoro could help her with?
Scott heard La Señora start to get upset, but Mrs. Baldemoro took his hand and led him to where the pants were.
Maria was upset. She had wanted to pick out the boy’s clothing to make sure they were ugly and ill-fitting. It would have made life much more uncomfortable for him. But somehow, Bianca Baldemoro had outmaneuvered her. She sighed. Not all her plans would go perfectly. She followed Johnny around the store, removing things from his grasp, until he stood before the penny candy. Another idea came to her.
Scott was on the bench outside the general store with a passel of packages when Walt walked up. “What are you doing sitting out here, Scott?”
The boy shrugged. “La Señora told me to wait out here.”
“She still inside?”
“Mind if I sit with you? I’m all finished with my errands for the Boss.”
“No, sir.” The boy scooted over some to give him more room to sit.
“Are you liking it here or finding it kinda scary?”
“Umm…kinda scary, I guess. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
“You’ll learn quick enough, I reckon.” He mussed the boy’s hair.
Scott was smoothing his hair back down when La Señora came out carrying parcels. Walt immediately took them from her and started loading them on the carriage.
Johnny was carrying a small bag. “I got candy!” he proclaimed happily.
Scott brought over his packages to be loaded. He hadn’t had candy since he was in Boston. He hadn’t had a lot of things since he was in Boston.
La Señora was getting Johnny seated in the carriage when Walt and Scott were finished. Scott hesitated, not knowing where he was supposed to sit. There was a package up front next to Walt where he had sat coming in. He made a motion to get in back with Johnny, but La Señora shooed him away. “You don’t sit here,” she said.
Johnny took a peppermint out of his bag. “Want one?” He offered the piece to Scott.
“No!” La Señora protested, but Johnny was too quick for her. He plunked the candy in Scott’s palm before his mother could stop him and Scott popped it in his mouth.
“Thank you, Johnny,” Scott said. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Spanish?”
“Gracias,” Johnny said, beaming.
Scott smiled back. His brother’s smile was just too cute and infectious. They locked eyes and Scott felt something pass between them. They were brothers. He was a big brother to this little boy and felt privileged to be such. “Gracias, brother.”
“Hermano,” Johnny corrected.
Johnny grinned. “I like teaching you Spanish.”
“I like learning Spanish from you.”
Johnny tried to give him another candy, but La Señora stopped him. “The candy is only for you, for being a good boy.”
The implication was obvious. Dejectedly, Scott climbed onto the small space next to the package, and Walt started the team up. The cowboy wondered what the quiet, polite boy had done that had ruined his chance at a treat. There was no doubt the boss’ wife was a beautiful woman, but Walt sensed a mean streak in her that was unsettling. Everyone at the ranch knew better than to get on the wrong side of her.
Scott tried to settle into his new routine, which seemed to consist solely in unpleasant chores. Every morning he was to refresh the water in all of the washstands. Then he had to check all the chamber pots and clean any that had been used during the night. Johnny seemed to be the only one who used his routinely, and Scott could hardly blame him for not wanting to walk all the way outside to use the privy. Then he would clean the chicken coop on Monday, pig sty on Tuesday, goat pen on Wednesday, help muck out the stables on Thursday, scrub the kitchen floor on Friday, and weed the garden on Saturday. If a job was not done to La Señora’s satisfaction, she would punish him. Many times, it was the loss of having lunch.
But there were good times, too. He and Johnny played together in the evenings when his father was back from the range. During the day, Scott came to realize that La Señora would try to keep them separated, but Johnny was very clever in getting around his mother’s rules. One day, as school was fast approaching, Father had come home with a pony for him. Scott took one look at him and fell in love.
“Do you think he’ll do the job, son?” his father asked.
Scott could hardly breathe; the pony was so pretty. Its coat was a reddish brown—the color of rust, so that is what he named it. Father approved.
But Johnny was jealous. “Where is my horse, Papi?” he whined.
Murdoch picked up his son and held him close. “You are too young for a horse, mi corazόn. Scott needs one so he can ride to school.”
“I wanna go to school,” Johnny wailed.
“You’re not old enough to go to school, but when you are, you’ll have a horse to ride.”
“I wanna horse now!”
Father had laughed and hugged the boy. “Next year. Next year I will get you a horse.”
“Maybe sometimes we could ride Rusty together,” Scott suggested. He looked at his father to see if this was possible.
“That’s an excellent suggestion, Scott. Johnny, you can ride with Scott sometimes.”
Johnny stuck out his tongue at Scott. “I want my own horse.”
Scott smiled. If Johnny was trying to get him upset by sticking out his tongue at him, it would never work. It just made Johnny look more adorable.
Father set Johnny down and swatted his behind toward the house. Then for the next hour he had taught Scott everything he needed to know in order to take care of Rusty. Then Scott had ridden his horse for the first time. It was so wonderful. He thought it was one of the best days of his life.
School started, and Scott felt relief beyond measure. To be out of La Señora’s icy stare had been freeing. He met other boys around his age and the teacher was really nice. The only problem had been his packed lunches. Again, the food that was in his tin was oftentimes too spicy for his taste. He was learning to tolerate the milder peppers, but what was in his lunches were much hotter. Luckily, his friend, Luis, loved very hot food, so he would trade lunches with him a lot. Luis’ lunches were not as filling as his own, but something was better than nothing. Then one day Luis got sick after he’d eaten Scott’s lunch. He wouldn’t trade with Scott anymore, and Scott was so scared his lunch would make him sick, he would throw it into the bushes. He simply got used to eating less. His life at Lancer fell into a barely tolerable, occasionally enjoyable routine.
Scott rode Rusty home from school and led him into the stables. As usual, Johnny came trotting in soon after. Although his mother had told him not to speak to or play with Scott, Johnny loved his brother and delighted in pestering him to distraction. Today was no different.
“Qué pasa, hermano?
Scott ignored him. Johnny asked this every day after he came home from school, and his brother knew perfectly well that Scott had to groom Rusty. It had become a game with them.
“Scott…” Johnny whined.
Scott relented. “Qué pasa con tú, Juanito?”
“Lo siento mucho, hermano. A mi tambien.”
Now that they had established that nothing was happening with either of them, Johnny seemed at an impasse.
“Want to help me brush Rusty?” Scott suggested.
Johnny shook his head.
“Where’s Amigo? You brush him today?”
True to his word, Father had given Johnny his own horse after he turned five. The small, gentle pony was perfect for him, but Father had forbidden Johnny to gallop with him, which had made Johnny very petulant.
“He’s out to pasture today,” Johnny said, picking up a piece of straw and poking Scott with it.
“Quit it! Go muck out Amigo’s stall, then.”
“Naw. I wanna do something fun.”
“Well, unless you think grooming my horse is fun, there’s nothing for you here.”
Having not gotten the expected irritation from Scott, Johnny dropped the straw and wandered away. Scott was relieved. He liked to concentrate solely on his pony when cleaning his coat and inspecting for ticks and other parasites. Grooming a horse was an important responsibility to keep the horse healthy. He thought Johnny was too young to understand its importance.
Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of La Señora’s voice could be heard in the courtyard. She was back from her ride. Unlike everyone else, she never took care of whatever horse she chose to ride. She was demanding that someone take care of it immediately.
Scott heard a frightened cry and then a thud. He ran out of the stall to find Johnny on the ground crying. Obviously, his brother had taken a tumble, probably startled by his mother’s voice. That meant he’d been doing something he shouldn’t have, probably climbing on the stacks of hay piled up to the rafters.
Not knowing how far Johnny had fallen, Scott rushed to his side. “Johnny, are you all right?” Johnny just continued to cry loudly as Scott tried to discover if he were hurt anywhere.
All of a sudden there were two sharp blows to his forearm. He jerked his hand away from his brother and turned from the attack trying to cradle his injured arm. Thwack! Another blow hit him across his back. It hurt so much!
“Get away from him!” La Señora screamed at him. “Get out of here!”
He turned his head toward her and saw her raise her arm to strike him again with her riding crop.
He raced into the house, but instead of going to his room where he was sure she’d track him down and lock him in his wardrobe, he squeezed between two boards that were part of the barricade that separated the finished section of the house from the unfinished. It was his secret place. He sat among the broken adobe bricks and splintered beams, letting his tears fall. The crop hurt so much! He didn’t know how long he sat there, but it was long enough to realize he didn’t want to stay in this awful house with his awful stepmother any longer. He was going back to Boston to live with Grandfather again. Grandfather didn’t hug him like his father did, but nobody there tormented him like La Señora, either, and right now that was more important. He would sit at dinner and hear La Señora tell Father how he’d hurt Johnny. He would deny it, but no one would believe him. Father always believed her. No matter. By tomorrow he would be on his way to his true home.
Scott’s heart was pounding as he gathered his things together the next morning. Everyone would think he was just heading off to school when really he’d be heading into town to the telegraph station. He had enough money to send a telegram to Grandfather and then board the stage to Stockton. He would tell his grandfather to meet him in San Francisco. He didn’t know how long it would take for Grandfather to send someone for him, but he was determined he could find some kind of work that would keep him fed and housed until Grandfather sent for him. He didn’t care how long it took as long as he was away from La Señora.
Scott collected his lunch, saddled Rusty, and rode off in the direction of town. He smiled. His plan was working perfectly. He was about a third of the way to town when Rusty suddenly reared up, dumping Scott on the ground. It was a hard fall and it took a second or two to regain his senses. As he did, he saw the tail end of a rattlesnake slither away a foot from his face. By the time his brain registered what was going on, the rattlesnake was far enough away not to be bothered by Scott’s instinctive reaction of throwing himself backwards. He sat up and just stayed there for a while trying to determine whether he was hurt. His head hurt some and the left side of his body was sore, but he didn’t think anything was sprained or broken. Where was Rusty? His pony had galloped away and couldn’t be seen. Everything he owned was on that pony!
Scott didn’t know how long he spent looking for Rusty. If the horse went back to the ranch, they would know he hadn’t made it to school and come looking for him. He still had his money in his pants pocket. He could still send a telegram to Grandfather but only if he got to town before anyone from the ranch found him. He abandoned his search for Rusty and headed for town.
It was a hot day. He was thirsty. His head hurt. He was hungry and a little lost. There was a good-sized stand of trees ahead. The shade looked inviting and maybe there’d be a little stream or something from which he could drink. The shade was nice and cool, but there was no water. His head was pounding harder now. He was so tired. He’d just rest a bit and then be on his way.
“Oho! And what do we have here?”
Scott came awake with a jolt. All he could see was some boots in front of his face. He quickly scrambled up, making his head hurt worse. A wave of dizziness made him sway on his feet. He was trespassing! “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll get out of your way. If you could just point me in the direction of Morro Coyo?”
Henry just stared at the boy. The boy started to back away from him, but he could tell he was a mite dizzy. “Hold on, boy. I won’t hurt ya none. Name’s Henry Conway. What’s yours?”
Henry Conway. Scott had heard his father mention the Conways, but he’d only seen Mrs. Conway at church. “Scott.”
“Scott, huh? Nothing else?”
Scott shook his head slightly. He didn’t want the man to take him back to Lancer.
“Well, Scott, it’s getting close to suppertime and I’m hankering to eat. Want to join me?”
“Yes, sir.” He was hungry!
“Come on then.”
Mr. Conway mounted up and gave Scott an arm to grab hold of and swing up. “Thank you, Mr. Conway.”
Henry smiled. It felt good to have the boy’s arms around his waist. If only he and Aggie had been blessed with children. Two miscarriages and a boy who died in infancy had convinced the doctor that she was incapable of carrying any more children. He’d apparently been right. But this boy was just a tad older than his Joseph would have been had he lived. Henry pushed the sorrow back down for the hundredth time. “Woman of the house!” he called when he rode under the wooden crossbar that had Double C burned into it. His darling Agatha came out in a hurry.
“What do you want, old man?” She saw he wasn’t riding alone. “What’ve you got there?”
Henry chuckled. “Went into the western woods hunting some rabbit and ended up with this critter.” He swung his arm around for Scott to grab and dropped the boy on the ground. “Says his name is Scott.”
Agatha peered at the boy. “Scott? Scott Lancer, is that you?”
Scott was devastated she had recognized him. Now he was going back to Lancer for sure. There was no denying it, though. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, what in tarnation are you doing out this way? Did you get lost coming home from school?”
Agatha looked helplessly at her husband, who just shrugged. “You’ve got two powerful hungry men to feed, woman,” he said, “and I promised Scott a supper.”
Agatha stood with her hands on her hips. “All right, Mr. Conway, take care of your business and we’ll see you later.”
Henry headed his horse toward the stable and Agatha gathered Scott to her. What was going on? Why was Murdoch’s son out this way on foot? She wanted some answers. She told Scott to wash his face and hands and help her make dinner. He did so, trying to hide that he was drinking the water as well as washing in it. He seemed a little unsteady on his feet, but he was eager to help and polite to a fault.
Scott ate ravenously, secure in the knowledge that there was nothing bad in his food because he had helped make it. In between bites, he told them that his horse had thrown him after being spooked by a rattlesnake. After that, he’d been a bit lost and had found his way into the woods where he fell asleep and Mr. Conway had discovered him.
Agatha had been alarmed that he’d been thrown from his horse. All the boy would admit to was having a little headache. She informed him he would need to take a bath to soak the aches and pains away and he, surprisingly, readily agreed. She’d heard boys didn’t like baths. Scott Lancer was unlike any young boys she’d ever encountered with his quiet and mannerly ways.
Henry got the water started for the bath while Agatha washed the dishes. They agreed that it was too late in the day to take the boy home or even send a rider to Lancer telling Murdoch where his son was. Agatha would take him home first thing in the morning but, unfortunately, Murdoch would have to worry overnight.
Henry knocked gently on the bathhouse door. “Scott? I have clean towels for you.” He almost didn’t hear the shy boy’s “come in.” He entered and put the towels on the bench.
“You doing all right?”
The boy nodded.
“Need help washing your hair?”
The boy nodded again, and he brought the pitcher over, scooped up some bath water, and poured it over the child’s head. Scott leaned forward and sputtered, and Henry’s hand nearly dropped the pitcher. There was a welt down the boy’s back. He took a closer look and saw the bruising on the upper arms. There were two more welts on his right forearm. He soaped up Scott’s hair and slowly washed it. The child almost purred in contentment.
“Never had someone wash your hair before?”
“Stevens did it every night when I lived in Boston,” the boy sighed. “I miss him so much.”
“Our manservant. He always made sure everything was just right for Grandfather and me.”
“Must be nice having a manservant. Do you miss Boston?”
“How long have you been out here?”
Scott shrugged. It seemed like years and years.
Henry poured more water over the boy’s head to wash away the suds. “There now, I think you’re done.”
The boy stood up to climb out of the tub, and Henry was once more stunned. He could see the ribs on the child. Was Murdoch Lancer starving his son? He helped Scott out of the tub and rubbed him down with a towel, tickling the boy as he did so. The young face scrunched up in enjoyment, but the expected giggle didn’t emerge. Did this boy not know how to laugh?
“Now, wait here until I get Mrs. Conway,” he said, wrapping the towel around the boy’s waist. “You’re not clean until she inspects you and declares you’re clean.” He was desperate to have Aggie look at the boy. She would know what to do. “Agatha! Come see whether Master Scott is clean enough for your standards.”
Aggie came in and gasped. Henry quickly motioned her to her calm down.
“Turn around, Scott, so she can see all your sides,” Henry instructed.
The boy did. After the warm soak, the bruising stood out in greater contrast to the boy’s pale skin. So did the deep pink welts. He was painfully thin.
Aggie tried to maintain her composure, but her shock was quickly turning into anger. How could Murdoch let his son get in this deplorable condition? “Well, I say you pass inspection, Master Lancer,” she said trying to keep her tone light. “What do you say to a bedtime story after you get dressed?”
His somber face brightened. “I’d like that very much, Mrs. Conway.”
“Do you need help getting dressed?” Henry asked.
“No, sir. I can manage. I’m nine years old.”
Aggie and Henry closed the door behind them and hurried into the parlor.
“Dear God, what’s going on over there at Lancer?” Henry looked ready to hit something.
“I don’t know, but I intend to find out tomorrow morning,” Aggie said barely containing her anger. “That child looks like a starving waif rather than the heir to the Lancer ranch.”
“And let’s not forget the bruising and the whipping.” Henry started to pace. “We can’t let this go on, Aggie.”
“We won’t, Henry.”
Scott appeared in the doorway, and Aggie pushed her anger aside and managed a smile at him. “Come sit next to me, Scott,” she said as she sat on the settee and patted the space beside her. “Now what story shall we read?” Having no children of her own, she didn’t own any children’s books.
Henry walked over to the bookcase. “We don’t have as many books as your father does, but here’s one that might do.” He pulled out Oliver Twist.
Aggie shot her husband a wry glance at his ironic choice, but said, “Charles Dickens is a wonderful writer. I think you’ll like it, Scott.” The boy nodded eagerly, and she put her arm around him to draw him in close. She could feel him stiffen at her embrace, but she didn’t remove her arm. “Come on, snuggle in close, so we can both see the words together.” He looked at her as if he was seeking her assurance that she really meant it but moved in closer to her and finally relaxed. Reveling in the feeling of a child’s body nestled by her side, Aggie began to read. Scott was asleep by the middle of chapter two. Henry reached to take the boy to the spare room, but she shook her head. He didn’t need to be told that she was delighted to be left just like this for a while. When Henry returned from his nightly rounds, he found them both fast asleep. He arranged a blanket over them and quietly stole away to his bedroom.
The following morning, Scott asked if he could help with the chores. Henry was impressed that he offered and asked what chores he did at Lancer. Scott told him and it took everything within him not to look utterly appalled. They had the boy doing shit work. Literally. Animal and human, the boy was up to his elbows and knees in shit. Henry took him to the barn and showed him how to milk a cow. It didn’t take long for Scott to get the hang of it. The boy was a quick study and seemed delighted to learn new tasks. Did anyone at Lancer know that? Henry and Aggie could hardly eat their breakfast after Henry had told her of Scott’s revelations, but the child ate heartily and helped with the dishes. Then Aggie and Scott left for the Lancer ranch.
“Where were you headed to yesterday and don’t tell me it was to school,” she asked him when they were well on their way.
He liked Mrs. Conway a lot. He didn’t want to lie to her. “Boston.”
She managed to stifle the laugh but couldn’t repress the smile. “That’s very far away. What’s in Boston?” She very well knew the answer. Murdoch had complained about Harlan Garrett even before Catherine was pregnant.
“It’s a very long way to Boston on foot.”
“I just needed to get to the telegraph office. I was going to wire him and have him come and get me.”
“You don’t like it here then?”
Scott hesitated as if he were debating whether to answer but finally said, “No, ma’am.”
Agatha decided to get down to business. “Is your father hurting you?”
Scott squirmed in his seat. “No, ma’am.”
“Then who’s causing the bruises on your arms?”
The child immediately tensed up and looked away. “No one.”
Aggie stopped the buggy. “Scott Lancer, do you think I’m stupid?”
The boy flinched away from her, as if he were afraid she was going to hit him. “No, ma’am.”
“Well, you’re right. I’m not, so don’t try to tell me no one’s been grabbing your arms too tightly or that no one took a whip to you. Now tell me who it is this instant!”
Scott looked down at his boots. ‘Don’t cry, don’t cry’ he told himself over and over. It was doing no good. He could feel the tears rising up in him. ‘No! Men don’t cry!’ How many times had Grandfather told him to hide his tears, to not let people see that they had upset him? He couldn’t tell Mrs. Conway who was hurting him. La Señora told him not to tell anyone or she would hurt him worse. He couldn’t contain his tears, though, and they slipped silently down his cheeks.
Aggie saw the boy’s anguish and his tears. She wasn’t about to add bullying to the list of abuses to him. Besides, she had a very good idea who was behind the injuries—the insufferable Maria Lancer. Oh, how she wished Catherine was still alive to see and raise her beautiful son! She shook the reins and started the buggy again. “Does your father know about your bruises?”
Scott shook his head that was still looking down.
“Does Johnny have bruises, too?”
He shrugged, and they rode on in silence until they were on Lancer property and Aggie caught sight of one of the hands.
“You, man! Where’s Murdoch?”
The man rode up and reined his horse. “Out looking for him.” He gestured at Scott.
“Find him and tell him we’ll be at the east corral.” Her tone brooked no argument. The man tipped his hat and rode off.
They continued on and as the ranch came into sight, Scott whispered, “Please, Mrs. Conway, don’t tell him about me. I’ll do better from now on and everything will be all right.”
Aggie highly doubted that. “Was that what it was? Punishment for misbehaving?” She couldn’t believe this quiet, polite boy could do anything that deserved a whip, but any little thing could set Maria’s temper off, if the town gossips were right.
Scott nodded and his whole body shrank into his seat, as if he wanted to make himself as small as possible, if not invisible. Aggie gathered the reins into one hand and pulled the boy close to her with the other. He didn’t stiffen this time. “Nothing’s going to happen to you again, Scott. I promise. Believe me?”
He shrugged again but stayed snuggled to her side.
They were just coming up to the east corral when Murdoch came galloping up. He slid off his horse before it stopped.
“Scott!” he shouted. “Where the devil have you been? I’ve lost a full day’s work because of you! Why, I should tan your hide.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind, Murdoch Lancer!” Aggie could feel Scott trembling beside her. The boy was frightened to death. “Scott, dear, why don’t you go to your room? You can do that, can’t you?”
He nodded and scrambled from the buggy, running in the direction of the house.
“What’s this all about, Aggie?”
“Help me down.” Once Murdoch had gotten her down from the buggy, she suggested they walk for a while. “Henry found him late yesterday afternoon asleep in the woods just west of our place. He was plum tuckered from walking all that way.”
“What in tarnation was he doing out by your place?”
“He was running away from home.” She let that sink in a bit and added, “to Boston.” She knew that would get his dander up. It did. She could see him clench his jaw.
“Why would he do that?” he huffed.
Aggie studied her friend’s face. He looked genuinely surprised and perplexed. He couldn’t look like that and be the one hurting Scott. “Because someone’s been beating your son, Murdoch.”
Murdoch strode into the house and up the stairs to Scott’s room. Inside he saw Maria grabbing his son by the left bicep and shaking him angrily. Scott looked terrified.
“Let him go!” he bellowed at his wife.
She did but stood there defiantly. “I was only telling him how worried he made his papa!”
“I’ll take care of this,” he told her.
She didn’t move right away but stood there glaring at him, her chin jutted out and her eyes afire. He glared back and finally she said, “as you wish,” and left the room.
Murdoch turned to his son. “Take your shirt off!” he demanded.
Scott stood there, rooted in terror, shaking all over. His worst nightmare had come to pass. His father was very angry…with him. Would he hurt him worse than La Señora?
His father’s face softened. “Please, Scott, can you take your shirt off for me?” he asked much more gently.
Slowly, Scott’s hands came up to his top button. He was quaking so badly, he couldn’t get his fingers to push the button out of the hole. His father took a step toward him, but he stepped back. “I’ll do it, sir.” He wanted to keep himself farther than arm’s length from his father.
Murdoch didn’t miss that Scott had reverted back to calling him “sir.” It took all his self-control to not rip the shirt off his son’s body. He knew Aggie wouldn’t lie to him, but he had to see for himself the extent of Scott’s mistreatment.
Finally, Scott got the last button undone and shrugged out of his shirt.
Murdoch could barely believe his eyes—the bruises, the whip marks on the forearm, the prominent ribcage. “Turn around,” he said flatly, and the welt on the back came into view. “My God!” He rushed forward and gathered his son into his arms before the boy could move away from him. Scott was trembling violently, sheer terror in his eyes.
Murdoch sat on the floor with Scott in his lap and started rocking him slowly. “Oh, my boy, my poor boy. Look what’s been done to you,” he moaned.
Scott had never heard his father’s voice like this. Realizing he wasn’t going to be punished for the moment, he melted into his father’s embrace. It felt even warmer and safer than Mrs. Conway’s hugs. ‘Don’t cry’ he told himself, but the tears were already streaming down his face again and he finally gave into them. Sobbing into his father’s broad chest, he wept for all he’d endured since leaving Boston.
Murdoch let Scott cry himself into exhaustion, all the while murmuring consolations and apologies. Then he tucked him into bed. Tiredly, Scott begged him to take him home, back to his grandfather and Boston. Murdoch was stunned. Even after a year and a half here, Scott still didn’t consider this his home. He told Scott that this was his home now. Then Scott begged him not to let her hurt him anymore. He assured the boy that things would change for the better. He wouldn’t have to be scared anymore. Once more, Scott implored him to take him back to Boston. His anger rekindled, Murdoch left to find his wife.
He found her in the great room holding Johnny.
“Papi!” the boy squealed delightedly and reached out his arms to him. The difference between his happy, rambunctious younger son and his meek, subdued elder one was doubly apparent now. Why hadn’t he paid more attention to it earlier? He had thought Scott simply had a more reserved nature. What a blind fool he’d been!
“There’s my boy!” Murdoch said, snatching the youngster from his mother’s arms. “Juanita!” he called as he moved toward the kitchen.
The cook met him halfway. “Sí, Señor?”
“Can you take Johnny and give him some cookies and milk? Keep him occupied for a little while?”
She nodded and took the child into the kitchen.
Murdoch took a deep breath and reminded himself that his wife was very young herself, ten years younger than he was. She frequently complained about how hard living away from Mexico was on her. She was still adjusting to ranch life and to being a mother even after four years. Then he had forced Scott on her, never asking whether she wanted that responsibility. He tried to keep his voice level. “Are you the one who put those marks on Scott?” he asked her in her native tongue.
“The bruises on his arms.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I touch him the same way I touch your son. There are no marks on Johnny.”
“Scott has bruises up and down his arms.”
“That’s not my fault. Johnny has no bruises.”
“Are you saying someone else is hurting him?”
“Maybe, or maybe the other’s skin is too white and thin. Johnny has no bruises.”
Murdoch knew there weren’t any bruises on Johnny. He’d helped the boy undress for bed the night before and the child’s baby skin had been flawless. Scott had always struck him as delicate. Perhaps there was some truth in Maria’s words and the boy bruised easily. But there were more than just bruises. “And the whip marks on his arm and back?”
“He was hurting Johnny! I told you this already. I had to stop him quickly. I had the riding crop in my hand. I used it.”
“He’s just a child…”
“He was hurting my son! Am I to allow that? I did not think about it; I just did it. As long as he does not hurt Johnny, it will not happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t in any case. From now on, I’m in charge of Scott’s discipline.”
She gave a disgusted noise. “You are never here during the day. What do you know of it? The boy is clumsy, rude, disobedient, and disrespectful of me.”
“Scott?” Murdoch couldn’t believe it.
“Yes. He is like two different boys. He is polite and obedient when you are here. Then when you leave, he becomes difficult, impossible to manage.”
Murdoch still couldn’t believe Scott could become two completely different personalities. “Why didn’t you tell me before how difficult he was?”
“You wouldn’t have believed me. You don’t believe me now. I can see it in your face. He is your first-born son. You love him more than Johnny.”
“That’s not true!” Murdoch sputtered. “I love Johnny just as much as Scott!” Murdoch knew he had just lied to her. He loved Johnny more. He knew he did. Johnny was open and loving, a free spirit endearing himself to everyone he encountered. Scott was closed off. He seemed wary of everyone and reluctant to embrace life at Lancer. Of course, he was more naturally drawn to Johnny. He had been a father to Johnny since the boy’s birth. He knew it wasn’t Scott’s fault that he had been whisked away to Boston, but he’d been an abstract being in Murdoch’s mind for eight long years. Even after more than a year, he didn’t know Scott. He’d been captivated by Johnny for five enchanting years. Johnny was always climbing up his knee, clamoring for his attention, giving him hugs; Scott sat in the corner, watching everyone with wary eyes or reading a book. Murdoch sat down on the edge of his desk and drew a hand across his face. “Can you treat Scott more carefully in the future?”
“As you wish, Husband.” And with that, she swept out of the room toward the kitchen.
Murdoch sat for some time mulling over his conversation with his wife. Maria’s description of Scott being a willful child did not mesh at all with his experience. If Scott really was a disobedient, disrespectful child, surely others at the ranch would have noticed it. He decided to go in search of some answers.
The whipping had occurred in the barn. Maybe Walt, the young horse wrangler, had seen or heard something that day.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer, I saw the whole thing,” Walt said when asked about the incident. “I was on the other side of the barn. Johnny was climbing on the hay bales and fell. He was crying and all about it and Scott went to see if he was hurt bad. That was when your wife came in and started hitting Scott with her quirt. The boy run off, and she was helping the little one when I come over and tried to tell her that Scott didn’t hurt the young ‘un, but it was like she didn’t want to hear it.”
Murdoch inwardly groaned. Scott had been telling the truth about the incident. It never occurred to him that Maria would lie about what happened. What else had she lied about over the years? His anger flared. “And you didn’t see fit to tell me about this?”
Walt fidgeted. “Ain’t my business what happens in your family life, Boss.”
Murdoch nodded and corralled his ire. It wasn’t Walt he was angry with. “Yes, you’re absolutely right, Walt. Sorry I said that.”
Walt acknowledged the apology with a dip of his head. “I hope Scott is all right, Mr. Lancer. He’s a real nice boy and she got him good with that quirt.”
“So Scott isn’t disobedient or disrespectful to you?”
“That boy?” Walt shook his head. “He does whatever anyone asks him to and he’s right quick about it, too. Never seen a young’un so obedient. He calls all of us ‘sir.’ We used to laugh about it, but now we kind of like it.”
Murdoch nodded and started to walk away, only to turn around once more. “Anything else I should know about? Have you seen my wife hurt Scott other times?”
Walt shook his head. “Not like that. Seen her grab him and shake him some.”
Murdoch started to move away again when Walt said, “It’s just…” Murdoch stopped and motioned him to continue. “…it’s just that she always seems real upset with him, like he can’t do anything right. He tries real hard to do a good job mucking out the stalls. I think he’s done a real fine job of it, but she finds fault with something, like he’s too slow or he missed a corner. Makes him do it all over again half the time.”
Murdoch nodded, frowning.
“I’m sorry. It’s not my place to say anything…”
“No, Walt. I appreciate the information. Thank you.” Murdoch shook hands with the cowboy and walked back to the house. If anyone knew about what went on in there, it would be the cooks, Juanita and Maria.
His wife and Johnny were gone from the kitchen when he entered.
“Do you need something, Patrόn?” Juanita asked.
“Yes, some information.”
Murdoch saw the older woman give her niece a meaningful glance. If pressed, Murdoch would say it looked like a glance that said, “say nothing.”
“Please sit down,” Murdoch said as pleasantly as he could as he sat down at the table. The two women did, although it was clear they were quite nervous. Perhaps they had overheard his earlier discussion with Maria. It had been loud enough. “I’d like to know what Scott’s been doing during the day while I’m gone from the house, besides school, of course.”
The women exchanged glances. “He does his chores, Patrόn. He is a good boy,” Juanita said. Maria kept her head down, her right hand worrying the edge of her left cuff.
“What sorts of chores does he do?”
“Anything La Señora asks him to. He is a good boy.”
“What does she ask him to do?”
Juanita took a moment and then said, “To clean things. He cleans. He is a good boy.”
This was getting him nowhere. He didn’t need them to defend Scott. He already knew Scott was a good boy, despite what his wife said. After all, he’d just found out she could lie to him. “Have you ever seen my wife get angry with him, punish him?”
Maria made a little noise which elicited a glare from Juanita. “We are busy in the kitchen, Patrόn. We do not know what goes on in the rest of the house.”
He didn’t believe that for one minute. Juanita knew everything that happened at the hacienda. She ruled the place more than his wife did. He also knew he wasn’t going to get any information from her. “Thank you, ladies.” He rose from the table and went back into the great room. He’d talk to Maria after dinner tonight without her aunt’s presence. The tension his questions had caused between the two women was troubling.
His wife took her dinner in her room, a clear sign to Murdoch that she was unhappy with him. Scott kept his head down and Johnny talked non-stop about one of the cats having kittens in the tack room. But he didn’t miss the look of relief in Scott’s red-rimmed eyes when he realized his stepmother wouldn’t be dining with them. More than ever, he was determined to find out what was going on at the hacienda.
After dinner, he dismissed Juanita and detained Maria with some unnecessary task. Then he told her he would walk her back to her place.
“Why does Juanita not want you to talk to me?” he asked her in Spanish as they walked.
“My aunt is afraid she will lose her favored position at the house if anything bad is said or if La Señora becomes angry with us. And she feels sorry for your older son. She does not want to get him into any more trouble.”
“He gets into trouble?”
Maria looked away, trying to form her answer. “Only with La Señora, Patrόn. He tries so hard to be please her, but she is never satisfied. I’m sorry, Patrόn, I should not speak ill of your wife. That is why my aunt does not want me to speak to you.”
“I won’t tell anyone what you tell me. Good or bad, I want the truth from you, Maria.”
He got it. Everything—the foul chores, the tampered food, the cruel punishments. An hour later, he’d thanked Maria and promised her that her and her aunt’s favored positions were still good, but only if he were told when Scott was hurt in the future. Now he once again strode angrily into the house.
He saw a light underneath Scott’s door. He peeked in. Scott saw him and immediately closed his book with a wary and frightened look. It was a look all too familiar to him—constant since they’d boarded the boat in Boston. Now he knew why. Since he’d arrived, the boy had lived in abject fear. The same thought arose in his mind nearly two years after that first night in San Francisco: Scott was a beautiful, scared, and miserable boy. He tried to hold his anger toward his wife in check and smiled at his son. “Are you all right?”
Scott nodded somberly.
“Don’t stay up too late. I was thinking maybe you’d like to ride the range with me tomorrow, since you don’t have school.”
“I’d like that, Father.” A sliver of excitement crept into the boy’s voice and face. “Did you find Rusty? Is he all right?”
“Walt found him yesterday afternoon safe and sound. But we were worried about not finding you with him.”
“I’m sorry, Father.” A whisper.
“I’m just glad you’re all right, son. Get some sleep. Shall I blow out the lamp for you?”
Scott nodded, he did so, and then went in search of his other son. Johnny was not in his room. He went to his bedroom, where he found Johnny in Maria’s arms as she gently rocked him. The five-year-old boy was too big for her arms and his legs draped over the arms of the rocking chair. It looked uncomfortable, but Johnny was fast asleep. Maria awkwardly held up a finger to her lips, motioning for silence.
‘Well played,’ Murdoch thought as he realized this was the second time that she put Johnny between them as a buffer. “I’ll take him,” he whispered.
She clutched Johnny more tightly. “Not yet.”
“He’s asleep; he needs to be put in his own bed.”
“Not yet. Can a mother not hold her child if she wants?”
“Now you can’t put him down? Usually, you can’t wait to.” After Johnny was born, Maria didn’t want to have much to do with him. Juanita said some women got that way after childbirth—like they weren’t interested in the baby. It had been fortunate that Cipriano’s wife was breast-feeding at the time. She didn’t mind nursing Johnny as well. It had taken Maria months to warm up to motherhood. Luckily, he and everyone else at Lancer had been immediately smitten with the baby and made sure Johnny got all the mothering and attention a boy could want. Although Maria was now an adequate mother, she never did dote on Johnny as he had seen most other mothers do to their children. Murdoch tried to dote on the child for both of them.
Maria glared at him and continued rocking.
He walked over and tried to wrest the boy from her. He needed to talk to her about Scott. As he lifted the boy from her arms, he saw her purposefully scratch Johnny. The child started crying before he even awoke.
“Now see what you have done!” she scolded him. “Give him back to me.”
Murdoch said “no” and carried Johnny across the hall to his bedroom. He stayed a few minutes, calming the boy down and soothing him until Johnny was asleep again. He needed to calm himself down, too. When he saw Maria viciously scratch Johnny, he’d wanted to hit her, and he had never struck a woman in his life. He had to get control of his temper. When he went back into the bedroom, Maria was gone. Sighing, he went in search of her and found her in the great room, a brandy in her hand. She continued to glare at him, and his anger was reignited twofold.
Scott had not yet fallen asleep when he heard his father and stepmother yelling at each other. It was all in Spanish, so he couldn’t understand a word of it, yet he knew they were arguing about him. He pulled his blanket over his head to muffle the sound. It didn’t help much. A while later there was the sound of a door slamming. By the sound of it, Scott guessed it was the big, heavy front door. Then there were footsteps in the hall. He cringed. Were they hers and would she open his door and hurt him again for causing the argument? The footsteps went past his room and then another door was slammed. He couldn’t help but feel his presence at the ranch had disrupted everything, had turned a happy household into an angry and miserable one. Once again, he wished his father had never taken him from Grandfather. He missed everyone from Boston, especially Greta, his governess. She had started each day with a hug for him. No one hugged him here—well, sometimes his father or Juanita or Maria did. Back in Boston, if Heddy, the cook, had hugged him, she would have been fired! Everything was so different and backwards here. He felt the tears well up inside him again. Hadn’t he cried enough today? He was surprised he had any tears left. He blinked them down and turned his mind to Rusty. He was happy his horse had been found and was all right. Imagining what tomorrow would be like riding with his father on the open range, he gradually fell asleep.
No one was in the kitchen when Scott walked in a week after the big argument. It had been the best week at the ranch. He didn’t have to be around La Señora because his father had taken him with him out on the range every day after school. It was fascinating to watch the ranch hands work the cattle. They maneuvered their horses so expertly around the big steers. Scott tried to emulate what they were doing, but he and Rusty couldn’t get it right. Maybe ponies weren’t as smart as horses. His father laughed when he asked him about it. He was especially enthralled with the men’s ability to make and throw a lariat. Mister Joe tried to teach him, but it was very hard to do. Mister Joe said all it took was practice, so Scott had spent every night after dinner trying to lasso a fence post. The fence post was winning!
As he walked out the side door of the kitchen, he saw his father mounting his horse and riding out with Mister Cipriano. Johnny and La Señora had gone missing yesterday, and Scott supposed his father was leaving to look for them. Yesterday afternoon Father had sent riders out to all the neighboring towns to see if they were there, and by the time the riders came back, it was too dark to go anywhere. All of the riders had come back reporting no luck in finding them. His father had looked very angry, so he had quickly gone to his room. Now he stood by Mister Paul while everyone watched the two men disappear from sight. Then Mister Paul started issuing orders to the rest of men for the day.
“Can I ride with you today?” Scott asked.
Paul O’Brien was surprised to feel the tug on his pants and hear the boy’s question. Damn! He had forgotten about little Scott as they had become frantic about Maria and Johnny. “Juanita!” He looked down at the angelic face. Johnny always had a bit of the devil in his eye, but Scott seemed the personification of innocence. It was easy to overlook this quiet boy who seemed to stay in the corners out of everyone’s way. “No, you can’t ride with us today,” he said and saw the boy’s hopeful face fall. “Do your chores and whatever else Juanita tells you to do.” The Mexican cook appeared, and he told her to take care of the boy today. She nodded and hustled him back into the kitchen.
“Where did Father go?” Scott asked as he watched Juanita prepare breakfast for him.
“To find your brother and La Señora,” she answered.
Scott didn’t think she said “La Señora” very nicely. “How long will he be gone?”
“No one knows. Gone until he finds them.”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Juanita looked at the boy’s worried face as she placed his plate in front of him. She was asking herself the same question. Was she supposed to look after him? El Patrόn had not asked her to. Was she supposed to cook meals for him as if nothing had happened and was he supposed to eat them all alone? Perhaps she could suggest he eat in the bunkhouse, and she could have some days off from cooking at the hacienda. She would ask Señor O’Brien this afternoon when he returned from his work. But for this day, the boy was hers to deal with. “We will work in the garden this morning, sí?”
“Sí,” he said, putting his glass down. A line of milk sat over his upper lip.
She laughed at the sight. He was a good boy, this boy of the first señora of the estancia.
Scott didn’t mind tending the garden. It was one of the more pleasant tasks he was asked to do. The morning was cool and weeding and watering the plants were easy tasks that gave him time to think. His father had left without even saying good-bye to him or telling him what he was supposed to do. The thought of staying in the big house all alone was scary. One more thing to add to his long list of things that frightened him here. But the most frightening thing had gone away. Scott knew everyone was upset that La Señora left, but he wasn’t. He was glad. Was he sinful for thinking that? He wished that she hadn’t taken his brother with her, though. He sighed. He just wanted for once in his life to be somewhere where he didn’t feel like he had to be perfect or he would be punished.
Then he thought of a very good idea. All he needed was for Juanita not to pay too close attention to him. That shouldn’t be too hard. No one here paid much attention to him, not like in Boston. In Grandfather’s house, one of the servants was always tending to him, hovering over him, every minute of the day. He rather enjoyed the freedom he had here, but something in between hovering and neglect would be nice.
After lunch, Scott announced he was going for a ride. Juanita approved of that immediately. He wrote his letter, gathered his things, and saddled Rusty. Everything was going to plan. He placed the envelope on the kitchen table where Juanita would be sure to find it and rode southeast with a wide smile on his face.
Paul O’Brien rode back to the hacienda with his work crew. He was hot, dirty, and craved a beer. He dreaded going home to Angel and the baby. Angel would plop the infant in his arms and retreat to the bedroom as soon as he walked in the door, leaving him with a usually very upset daughter. It was chaos at his house, and the quiet hacienda with its quiet boy beckoned as a haven. Perhaps he could convince Angel to let him stay at the big house under the pretense of taking care of Scott. It was doubtful but worth a shot. Maybe he should take Scott to his house, but he liked the boy too much to subject him to Angel’s nasty mood swings after Murdoch had told him some of Maria’s unkind treatment of Scott. Maybe the cooks and housekeepers, Juanita or Maria, would take him.
Juanita greeted him as he entered the kitchen, handing him an envelope addressed to him.
“What’s this?” he asked noting the childish handwriting. Juanita just shook her head and he tore open the letter.
Dear Mr. O’Brien,
I hope this letter finds you well. I have gone to stay with Mr. and Mrs. Conway until Father comes back. They said I was welcome anytime and this way I won’t be a bother to anyone at Lancer.
Please give my regards to your family.
Paul almost chuckled out loud. The boy had certainly learned how to write a formal letter. He sighed. He wasn’t sure if Murdoch would have wanted Scott to stay with the Conways, but it sure solved the problem of what to do with him. He told Juanita what Scott had written.
“And you will let him stay with them?” the cook asked.
“If they don’t want him, they’ll bring him back and we’ll think of something else. It’s where he wants to be, and Murdoch will probably only be gone a few days. It’s for the best. It makes your life easier for a while.”
Juanita smiled. “Sí, Señor, but I have already made the tortillas for dinner. Do you want to take them home?”
Paul thanked her and began to brace himself for the ride home to Angel and Teresa.
Aggie looked out of the front window to see who had entered the yard. To her surprise, it was Scott. Wiping her floured hands on her apron, she walked out to the porch.
“Scott, what a surprise! I didn’t think we’d be seeing you so soon.”
“Good day, Mrs. Conway. I was wondering if you and Mr. Conway would mind looking after me while Father’s away.” He stayed on his horse. If she said no to his staying with them, he could turn right around. He would still be able to make it back to Lancer by dinnertime.
“Your father left?”
“You get down off that horse this instant and come inside and tell me what’s happened. You can help me make some sugar cookies.”
Scott fairly jumped off Rusty. He grabbed his satchel and hurried into the house, his heart thumping with joy.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and still no one from Lancer came to claim him. He soon stopped worrying about that and learned to just enjoy his time with the Conways. It was as if he had awakened in an entirely new world, a world of smiles and hugs and kisses on the top of his head. He got his hair mussed up a lot by everyone at the ranch, but he didn’t mind it when the Conways did it.
Their ranch was mainly a horse-breeding ranch. It didn’t seem to need the same amount of work as a cattle ranch. It didn’t have as many hired hands as Lancer, and everyone seemed happier here. Even Mr. Conway had time to take him to the lake fishing. The first time he did was such a special day. Scott knew he would always cherish the memory of it.
Mr. Conway had seemed surprised that Scott didn’t know how to fish. “You hear that, my darlin’ lass? The boy says he doesn’t know how to fish. Do you believe that, a boy his age not knowing?”
‘Why, Mr. Conway, I believe we should rectify that situation as soon as possible. Today, if you can.”
“I can. There’s nothing that can’t wait ‘til tomorrow, and this is a true emergency.”
Scott shied away as Mr. Conway tried to ruffle his hair. He wondered if his father would ever say that the ranch could wait. The way he saw it, Lancer always came first.
“You get the fishing gear and I’ll come by later with a picnic lunch. How does that sound?” Mrs. Conway asked.
“Sounds perfect! What about you, lad? Going fishing today all right with you?”
Scott had just popped some oatmeal into his mouth, so he just nodded vigorously.
It had taken them a little while to find all the fishing gear, especially a second rod for Scott, but eventually they got underway and stopped at a beautiful lake. Mr. Conway taught him how to bait a hook and throw the line into the water and then they just sat for a while. Scott got bored and sighed, so Mr. Conway drew him close and put his arm around his shoulders. Scott leaned into him.
“So what are you going to do with your life, Scott?”
Scott shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m only nine!”
Mr. Conway laughed. “True enough, but you dream, don’t you, lad? What do you dream about?”
Scott shrugged again.
“There’s nothing you dream about, Scott?” This time Mr. Conway’s voice sounded serious and a little sad.
“No, not nothing. Everything. I dream about doing all sorts of things—too many for me to choose.”
“Can you pick even one for me?”
Scott scrunched up his face in serious thought. “I dream about seeing the world, traveling all over and seeing wonderful things.”
“Like the pyramids in Egypt. Father has a book with drawings of them. They’re supposed to be really, really big and old. And there are buildings in Greece and Italy that are really old, too. There’s one in Rome called the Colosseum. The drawing of that is amazing. It’s in Italy. I found it on Father’s globe.”
Henry listened as Scott Lancer talked on and on about his dreams for the future. How had he and Aggie thought the boy was so quiet and reserved? Clearly, no one had ever asked the right questions of the boy. He wasn’t reserved, just reticent, perhaps too afraid to speak of his hopes and feelings.
They each caught a fish but deemed them too small to eat, so they let them go.
“I don’t like to see them suffer outside the water,” Scott said, as he threw his back in the water and watched it swim away.
Henry laughed. “That’s what your mother said!”
Scott immediately became intense. “Did you know my mother?”
“Yes, I did. Very well. We all came to this valley around the same time.”
“Can you tell me about her?”
The longing in the boy’s voice and face was almost Henry’s undoing. “Hasn’t your father told you about her?”
“No. No one at the house will talk about her.”
Henry sighed. That was Maria’s doing, no doubt. It was clear she was very jealous of the first Mrs. Lancer. She had probably forbidden anyone to speak of Catherine. But Murdoch should have said something to his son, damn him! He drew the boy into his side again and was pleased that Scott snuggled up to him. He began at the beginning—his first impressions of Catherine Lancer. She had been a beautiful, well-bred, refined woman, who wasn’t afraid of hard work. She’d get as dirty and sweaty as anyone on the fledgling ranch. He told a story or two but stopped when he heard Aggie drive up in the buggy.
She wasn’t impressed with their fishing ability, saying it was a good thing she had packed a hearty lunch. They all stuffed themselves, and after lunch Henry said that Scott wanted to hear about his mother. Aggie made the boy snuggle against her as she wrapped her arms around him and told him her impressions of her best friend. She had been devastated by Catherine’s death. Soon, Scott’s head was in her lap and she was carding her fingers through his hair as he slept.
Henry saw her expression. “He’s not ours, darlin’.”
“I know,” Aggie sighed. “My heart just goes out to him. It’s like he’s never had a proper childhood.”
“I know. He’s touched my heart, too. But we’ll see he gets to be a child with us, won’t we, lass?”
She nodded. She and Henry talked quietly while Henry caught enough fish for dinner. She wanted to stay like this forever with this beautiful little boy asleep in her lap and her wonderful husband by her side. She hoped Murdoch Lancer would never come back.
It was nearly nine months since Scott had arrived at the Conways that a cowboy stopped in front of the house. Aggie recognized him immediately and her stomach turned over. She walked out on the porch. “Good morning, Joe. Something I can do for you?”
“Yes’m, Mrs. Conway. Mr. Lancer is back, and he’s sent me to collect Scott.”
Her heart racing, she tried to remain calm. “He’s in school right now. Won’t be back until late afternoon. Would you like to wait?” What was she going to do with this man for all those hours?
Joe sighed. He hadn’t thought about Scott being in school. Boss probably hadn’t thought of it, either. He didn’t think Murdoch would want him to take Scott out of school.
Aggie saw the man dither. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. How about I bring him over tomorrow morning? That will give Scott some time to prepare.” Who was she kidding? She needed the time to prepare for the inevitable.
“I reckon that will be all right with Mr. Lancer,” Joe said. Truth be told, he wasn’t looking forward to bringing Scott back. He had a hunch the boy wouldn’t want to go back to the ranch and make a fuss.
“Did he find Johnny?” She didn’t give a damn about Maria, not after what she’d done to Scott.
Joe shook his head slowly. “No, ma’am, he didn’t. Didn’t find hide nor hair of ‘em.”
Aggie felt the sadness well up in her. Murdoch had loved that little boy so. They all had. “Tell Murdoch we’re sorry and that we’ll see him tomorrow.”
Joe tipped his hat at her and left the courtyard.
Aggie sat down on the front porch step and wept.
Scott sat thin-lipped and stone-faced as the hacienda came into sight. He didn’t want to leave the Conways. They had talked about it the night before, but he couldn’t get them to keep him. The only thing that had made it at all tolerable was the knowledge that La Señora wasn’t there to torment him. But Johnny wasn’t there, either. It was going to be a quiet place without him there to liven things up.
Aggie was disappointed and a bit peeved that Murdoch wasn’t there to meet them. He had been in such a hurry to get Scott back yesterday and he didn’t even have the decency to be there when they arrived. As usual, he was out on the range with the ranch hands. The only person in the house was Juanita, who greeted Scott warmly.
“I have missed you, niño,” she said, and Scott ducked his head shyly. “From now on I cook only the food you like. No peppers.”
Scott smiled broadly at her. “Gracias, Señora Valdez.”
She playfully swatted his arm. “I am ‘Nita’ to you, have you forgotten? See that you remember!”
Scott laughed, rubbing his upper arm as if she had seriously hurt him. “I’ll remember!” He took his bag from Walt and went up to his bedroom.
Juanita turned to Aggie, her face serious. “Señora Conway, what have you done? That is the first time I have ever heard him laugh or seen teeth when he smiled. What you have done—it’s a miracle. Milagro!”
“Scott is such a wonderful boy. Henry and I are very sad to see him leave. He is such a joy. We’ll miss him very much. I only hope Murdoch will see him the way we do.”
“El Patrόn is very changed. He carries much sorrow now,” Juanita said sadly.
“How long has he been back?”
“Almost a week now.” Then she brightened a little. “It will better for Scott now that La Señora is gone.”
Aggie certainly agreed. She couldn’t believe that Murdoch had waited almost a week before he sent for Scott. If it had been Johnny, he would have stopped at their place before even returning to Lancer. She pushed down the resentful thought. “La Señora—Maria putting on such airs!” Aggie snorted derisively.
“I did not mind. She would not be confused with my dear niece.”
“No one would ever confuse your darling niece with that b…woman!”
“You are kind, Señora. May I get you something to drink?”
“Yes, some water would be nice,” Aggie said as she followed the cook into the kitchen. “And I’d like to know what’s been going on here the past couple of years.”
Scott found them in the kitchen. He hadn’t thought to check there before he’d gone outside when he didn’t find Mrs. Conway in the great room. He’d been relieved to see her buggy was still out front with the horses hitched. Once outside, he’d been waylaid for some time by several cowboys welcoming him home. It just didn’t seem like home to him, not like the Conways’ more modest house did.
“Will you stay for lunch?” Scott asked the woman he thought of as his mother. For some reason he felt as if he’d walked in on a serious conversation.
Aggie shook her head. “No, no, my darling boy. I need to get back.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Scott whined as he followed her out the front door.
“I know. But this is your real home. You know that. Juanita will look after you right, and we’ll see each other after church tomorrow.”
Scott nodded reluctantly.
“Murdoch will be so happy to see you. Be a good boy.” And with a kiss to the top of his head and tears in her eyes, Aggie was gone.
There was no dinner at six o’clock sharp in the great room because his father wasn’t back from wherever he’d been that day. Scott had dinner in the kitchen with Juanita, filling her in on all the things he’d done while at the Conways’. He made her laugh several times. It was the most pleasant dinner he’d had at Lancer. He was reading when his father came into the great room, or rather stormed in. Scott stood up when he entered the room. Murdoch strode over to the liquor cabinet as if he wasn’t there and poured himself a good-sized drink.
Immediately, Scott felt his stomach clench. All his intestinal issues had vanished at the Conways’. He prayed they wouldn’t come back again, but his stomach was roiling. “Good evening, Father,” he said stiffly. His father looked much older than when he’d left. His face was drawn and his countenance harsher. He was thinner than Scott had ever seen him.
“Huh?” Murdoch looked over at the noise. “So you’re back, are you?”
“Yes, sir.” The wide welcoming grin upon seeing him that Scott had wished for didn’t appear.
“What do you mean by going over to the Conways’ anyway? I lost a half a day’s work out of Joe yesterday because he had to get you.”
“I thought it was for the best, sir. No one else seemed to know what to do with me and they had offered…” Scott let the sentence drift away. He didn’t know what to say to his angry father. This was not the homecoming he had imagined. It suddenly felt like La Señora was still there.
“Well, good.” Murdoch patted the top of Scott’s head absent-mindedly. The boy looked just the same as when he’d left—sulky and skittish—but with more meat on his bones. How different he was from Johnny, his darling Johnny. That his search for the boy had been unsuccessful weighed so heavily on him. “Go on upstairs to your room. Church is tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott grabbed his book and went upstairs. His father, whom he hadn’t seen in over eight months, hadn’t even asked him how he was or if he’d taken his Saturday night bath. No matter, he had, but that didn’t seem to be the only thing that had changed. His father had changed. He was…harder, colder, haggard. Scott was looking forward to seeing the Conways tomorrow. He had only one prayer as he laid his head down on the pillow. “Please, God, please let me live with Aggie and Henry instead of here at Lancer.”
A new routine settled in at Lancer. Murdoch threw himself into the ranch, working long, back-breaking hours. No cowboy ever complained about the workload because the boss worked twice as hard as any of them. At night he drank himself into a stupor, trying to rid himself of the imaginings of where his wife and son were. Where were they? Were they safe? Did they have enough to eat? Were they cold? Were they alone? Two months into the search he and Cipriano found the gambler Maria had left with. After a sound beating, he confessed she had left him, too, not long after they arrived in Los Angeles. He didn’t know where she was nor did he care.
Murdoch carried an anger in him so deep that none dare cross him. Even Scott gave him a wide berth. He was actually thankful for that. He knew he should take more interest in the child, but he couldn’t muster up the energy it would take to cross the chasm that had opened up between them. It had something to do with his stay at the Conways’. The only one in whom he could confide was Paul, who had troubles of his own with Angel and the baby.
Scott fared better than his father. He was back at school and loving it. He threw himself into his studies like his father threw himself into the ranch. From the first day of school, he had loved it. He had met boys around his age and enjoyed their friendship. It had been sealed when Scott stood up to Aaron Henshaw. Aaron was fifteen, the only boy that old in the class. He wasn’t all that bright, but he was built like a prize bull with a temperament to match. Scott speculated that Aaron’s mother sent him to school just to keep him away from her. He liked to bully the younger boys and annoy the girls. He had immediately picked on Scott, who was so skinny and who he thought was the teacher’s pet. But Scott’s anger had been honed by La Señora. He had to be cowed around her. She was the mistress of the house and his stepmother. He had no compunction when it came to Aaron, no holding back. The evening when his father had noticed his bruised face had been nerve-wracking, but his father only asked if he was all right and whether the other boy looked worse. He nodded approvingly when Scott said he had. Scott could have hugged his father for not getting all upset and punishing him.
After he had stood up to Aaron, all the boys around his age seemed to want to be his friend. He suggested they make a pact like the Three Musketeers and band together whenever Aaron came around trying to pick a fight. “All for one!” they would cry and gang up on the bully. Once they had mastered Aaron, school had become so much more fun. They had gone on many imaginary adventures fueled by the novels Scott had read. Father had a great many wonderful books on the shelves in the great room and he promised himself he would read every one.
All meals were now partaken in the kitchen. Scott had liked that about the Conways’ home and had suggested it to his father, who readily agreed. To be served in the great room seemed silly when it was only the two of them. Father told him it had been La Señora’s idea, anyway. Yes, life at Lancer now was a big improvement after the first years where he had suffered under La Señora’s harsh rule. But there was a pall hanging over the ranch, a sadness that Scott thought he could reach out and touch. His tenth birthday came and went almost unnoticed by his father, who had given him a book at dinner. The ranch hands had given him a braided bridle. He’d been so happy and moved by their gesture that he had hugged them all. But even the hands were not as happy as they once had seemed. Johnny was gone, and his absence was keenly felt by everyone living at the ranch.
One day, his father came home in an exceptionally bad mood. He yelled at everyone he came in contact with, even Juanita. He yelled at Scott for putting too many carrots in his mouth in one bite. When he finished eating, he stomped out of the kitchen, leaving Scott wary and confused.
“Pay him no mind, child. Today is a difficult day for him.”
“It is the niño’s birthday. Johnny’s. He misses him so.”
“I do, too,” Scott said, sad for his father.
“We all do. That the puta took him away from him is not right.” Juanita almost spit the Spanish word out. “She should burn in Hell for it.”
Scott agreed. He didn’t know what ‘puta’ meant, but he had a good idea. He stored the word in his memory; he’d use it if she ever came back.
That evening after he had finished his schoolwork, Scott tiptoed down to the great room. The lamps were lit quite low. His father sat on the couch staring into the fire, a large glass of liquor in his hand. He always had a glass of liquor in his hand in the evening. But every morning, he was up as usual and ready for a long day’s work. Scott didn’t know how he was able to do that.
“Father?” he said quietly. “I wrote a poem. It’s about Johnny.” He handed the paper to Murdoch. “I’m sorry you couldn’t find him and bring him back home.”
Murdoch roused himself from his stupor and looked at his elder son. He took the piece of paper from Scott and quickly perused it. Then he laid it aside.
When his father didn’t say anything about his poem, Scott didn’t know what to do. “I miss him, too, Father.”
Suddenly, he was engulfed by two massive arms that pulled him up and onto his father’s lap. His father held him tightly to his chest, and Scott wondered if he’d be able to breathe, but he didn’t say anything as his father began to rock him gently. No words were spoken by either of them. Scott’s face was down and crushed against his father’s chest, but he had the impression that his father was silently weeping. Even though the embrace was a bit painful, Scott tried to relax into the hold. He was afraid if he said anything about it or tried to pull away, his despairing father would break into little pieces.
Scott woke up in his own bed the next morning not remembering how he got there. His father’s rocking must have lulled him to sleep. He sat up and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, when he heard a rap at his door and his father’s voice say, “Wake up, son.”
“I’m awake!” Scott replied, deeply gladdened that his father remembered their old routine. Maybe things were going to get better.
Not long after Johnny’s birthday, Mister Paul came to live with them in the hacienda. Like Father, his wife had left him, but she hadn’t taken his daughter. He had liked Mrs. O’Brien ever since she had saved him from the tamale. She always had a wink and a smile for him whenever she saw him, which wasn’t often. Mister Paul seemed sad, but he didn’t go after Mrs. O’Brien like Father and Mister Cipriano went after La Señora and Johnny. Maybe it was because she had left the baby. Maria stopped being Juanita’s helper and looked after Teresa for Mister Paul while he worked. They found out that Teresa could cry very loudly, but luckily, she was old enough to sleep through the night. But Mister Paul took to drinking in the evenings just like his father. Scott was sad for Mister Paul.
One night a few months later, he was sitting at the kitchen table eating dinner with Mister Paul and Father when his father told him that he was leaving again.
“Why?” Scott asked. He knew his father and Mister Paul had been discussing serious matters for a few weeks.
“I have some loans coming due, and I need to take a job down south to get money to pay them off.”
“You could sell some cattle for money,” Scott suggested. Wasn’t that how they always got money if they needed it? Wasn’t that the purpose of a cattle ranch?
“Not this time.”
Murdoch sighed. He knew there was no impudence behind Scott’s question, only curiosity. “Because we’d need to sell a lot of cattle. It would decimate the herd. You know what ‘decimate’ means?”
“I think so. It means there wouldn’t be enough cattle left to make the ranch work.”
Murdoch nodded. This son was so bright. He hated to leave just as things were getting better between them.
“What are you going to do?”
“Well, I’m going to be a kind of lawman.”
“Like a policeman? I remember them from Boston. They were always so nice to me.”
Murdoch bristled. Of course, they were nice to the grandson of Harlan Garrett. He’d have their jobs if they weren’t. “Not exactly, but something like them.”
Murdoch had been so grateful to Joe Barker for giving him this opportunity. He had met Joe during his hunt for Maria and Johnny. The lead hadn’t panned out, but he and the bounty hunter had fit together well. When the bank manager, John Hamilton, had told him that the bank was closing on his loans, Murdoch had contacted Barker and asked if he could use a partner. Barker had responded immediately in the affirmative. At least he had talked Hamilton into giving him a year between the two due dates, with the second one being for the greater amount. It gave him a chance to make the deadlines.
“How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know, son. It could be as long as two years or so.” Murdoch saw his son’s frown.
“When are you going?”
“The day after tomorrow. But Paul will be here along with Juanita. They’ll take good care of you.”
Scott just nodded. He silently thanked the Lord for answering his prayers.
“I’m going to live with the Conways,” Scott declared, as he and Mister Paul watched his father ride south.
Paul sighed. “You heard your father. He said he wanted you to stay here.”
“Yes, but he isn’t here now, so I’m going back to the Conways.”
Paul counted to ten. He had no desire to fight with this boy, who he knew to be as stubborn as his father. With a measured but authoritative voice, he said, “I’m sorry, Scott. You’re going to do as your father wishes.”
“Will I?” Scott’s anger exploded. “Or you’ll do what? Lock me in my room or in my wardrobe like La Señora did? Are you going to hurt me like she did? Grab my arms and shake me, slap me, spank me, take a switch or a whip to me?”
Paul just gaped at the child. Murdoch had confided in him a bit about Maria’s mistreatment of the boy, but he hadn’t gone into specifics. Appalled, he whispered, “No, I wouldn’t do that.”
“I’ll just run away. Every day if I have to,” Scott threatened. He wanted to live with the Conways so badly.
Paul looked into Scott’s resolute blue eyes. The boy was making no idle threat. He’d do it. At least the kid had the guts to tell him outright of his plans. Paul had no idea how long Murdoch might be gone. They had speculated that it might take a few years to earn the kind of money to pay off both loans. With the state of the ranch mainly falling on his shoulders, it would be nice to have one less responsibility to manage. “Get your things. You let me do all the talking, and if they say no, that’s it. No wheedling or begging from you. Hear me?”
“Yes, sir!” Scott promised, racing to his room to pack.
Paul smiled. He’d never seen the boy so animated. He wondered what lay beneath the serious demeanor of the child. His reserve was almost unnatural, but that burst of anger had been real enough. Paul wondered what he was like when he was at the Conways’, out of the control of his father and stepmother. Maybe he was more like Johnny. They all missed that little scamp at the estancia. Murdoch might be an excellent rancher, but Paul wouldn’t trade places with him, not with his troubles and heartaches with his family life. It was why he turned down the offers of a partnership Murdoch had made him over the years. He was content to be just the foreman without the legal and financial responsibilities of the ranch, even if his own family life wasn’t turning out so well either.
Angel may have left just like Maria had, but he wasn’t all that sad to see her gone. Murdoch had been devasted by Maria’s departure, especially because she had taken Johnny. Paul was grateful Angel hadn’t taken Teresa. How could she become the next Jenny Lind if she had a baby in tow? Paul didn’t know why Angel had married him if she had truly wanted to be a showgirl as she now claimed, but he had come to know that there were two Angels: one of great energy and aspirations and one of deep despondency and dependence. He had married the latter one. When the former one emerged, she had told him of her desire for the stage. It had surprised him. He hoped she’d find success. Truly, it had been a relief to see her gone. Living through her mood swings was draining.
He wasn’t surprised that the Conways readily agreed to look after Scott. The boy had dismounted then and rushed into their arms, where he received hugs and kisses from them both. As he turned his horse around to head back to Lancer, Paul’s last sight had been of Scott standing in between them with Agatha’s arm about his waist and Henry’s arm around his shoulders. The affection among the three of them was obvious. No wonder Scott wanted to stay with them; Murdoch wasn’t one to display his emotions. He hadn’t even hugged the boy goodbye when he left; he just told him to be a good boy. Paul hadn’t thought Scott was demonstrative, either, until he saw him respond so warmly to the Conways. All three of them were faired-haired and slim, and he had thought the boy looked more like the Conways’ son than he did Murdoch’s.
Murdoch rode through the tree-lined entrance to the Double C at a weary walk. The ride home from Tucson had been a long one, and he wasn’t getting any younger. But he couldn’t regret taking the job with Barker. They had earned enough reward money for him to pay off his loans and have money to buy more stock and keep repairing the hacienda. Joe and he had captured an entire gang, and although it felt satisfying to see justice done, it was even more satisfying to be able earn enough money to return to Lancer debt-free. Paul, Joe, and Cipriano had done an admirable job at keeping the ranch going in his absence. Now all he had to do was collect Scott and he could put this chapter of his life behind him.
To tell the truth, he was more than a little upset when he discovered that Scott was back at the Double C. With Paul and Teresa living at the house, Murdoch assumed Scott would have stayed there. Paul told him the boy had been determined to stay with the Conways, and Murdoch was well acquainted with his son’s stubbornness. When he’d mentioned that to Paul, his friend had laughed and told him that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
As he neared the house, he heard whooping, hollering, and laughing.
“Get ‘m, boy! Almost!” That was coming from Henry Conway.
“Careful!” That was Agatha.
And the laughing? That was coming from a beanpole of a boy with mussed blond hair. He was chasing after a young pig that was proving to be quite elusive.
Just as Murdoch rode in, Scott nabbed the creature.
“I got him! I did it, Pa! Look, Mama, I got him!” he laughed openly and happily.
Several whooping, amused cowhands who had been watching the spectacle clapped and whistled their approval.
“You sure did, son!” Henry said. “Put ‘im in the pen quick now before he gets away again.”
Many emotions coursed through Murdoch at once. He had never seen Scott dirty, barefoot, and dressed in too short overalls before. He looked like a ragamuffin. He had never heard Scott call Henry and Aggie “Pa” and “Mama.” He thought it was presumptuous of them to call him “son.” And lastly, he was deeply ashamed to admit, he had never heard Scott laugh before, especially not this joyous, carefree laughter that was erupting from him. All he had ever managed to elicit was a shy smile from the boy. It made Murdoch very surprised, very angry, and very sad all at the same time.
Scott placed the piglet in the sty and turned around, seeing his father for the first time in over two years. Immediately, the laughing boy turned alarmed and then stone-faced.
Aggie was already rising from her rocking chair on the porch. “Murdoch, you’re back! Welcome home!”
He nodded an acknowledgement at her. “Henry,” he said, nodding again to her husband. “Scott, get your things. We need to get back to Lancer.”
Scott moved over to Henry, who placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. It struck Murdoch like a protective move. That angered him even more.
“Pa?” Scott said tremulously to Henry.
Henry sighed. He didn’t want their time with the boy to end, either. Resignedly, he said, “Do as your father says, Scott.”
Scott glared at Murdoch and reluctantly went into the house.
“Now, Murdoch, you don’t have to leave right away,” Aggie cooed. “How about some coffee and crumb cake and you can tell us where all you’ve been while Scott gathers his things.”
“Thank you, Aggie, but no. I want to get Scott back and get back to running my ranch. He shouldn’t have come here in the first place, imposing on your hospitality.”
Henry and Agatha shared a look. “It was no imposition. We love having Scott with us,” she said. She wanted to add “and he loves being with us,” but she could tell the big rancher was angry and upset. She wanted to diffuse the anger before he left with Scott, but she didn’t know how to do that if he wasn’t willing to even get off his horse.
They stayed there looking at each other for several long minutes.
“I take it you were able to get the money for the ranch,” Aggie said, unable to bear the silence any longer. Henry and Murdoch seemed perfectly content just to scowl at each other. But they had all been friends since they’d arrived in the San Joaquin Valley only a few months apart, and she was going to try to salvage the friendship as best she could.
“I did,” Murdoch answered tersely and then fell silent again.
Aggie managed a smile while her mind and heart were breaking for the boy inside the house and for her own loss of him. She loved him so fiercely. He had infused so much joy into the ranch. “That’s wonderful news.”
More minutes passed until Scott finally emerged, wearing his boots and carrying his bulging valise and his rifle.
Murdoch was instantly incensed. “What’s that in your hand?”
“Rifle! You’re too young to have a rifle.”
“It was a present from Pa, for my birthday,” Scott explained defiantly. “You didn’t remember it.”
“You watch your tongue, boy!” Murdoch tried to remember where he’d been on Scott’s twelfth birthday. Out in the middle of nowhere Arizona trying to ambush the Colton gang. He’d been cold, hungry, and exhausted and in no position to wish this selfish boy many returns of the day. For over two years, his only thoughts were how to salvage his ranch so the boy would have a home and a legacy. “Leave it here.”
Murdoch had never heard Scott so openly defiant of him. The boy deserved a trip to the woodshed. But he couldn’t do that with this son who had endured almost two years of abuse from Maria. He wasn’t about to give Scott more reason to want to stay with the Conways…or run away to Harlan Garrett.
Finally, Henry spoke up. “Now Murdoch, the boy’s been riding on the range with me and the men. He’s turning into a first-rate ranch hand. Lassoed his first mustang at full gallop last month. You know out on the range a body’s got to be able to protect himself. He’s real good with it, too. Taught him myself. He’s got a real good eye.”
Murdoch didn’t want to hear this from the man whom Scott called “Pa” with true affection in his voice. He’d been waiting for years for Scott to call him “Pa.” All he ever got was a stiff, formal “Father.” If anyone was going to give Scott a rifle and teach him how to shoot, it should be him, not Henry Goddamn Conway. “Leave it, and don’t test me again, Scott!”
Scott sullenly left the rifle on the porch and went into the stable to saddle up Rusty.
Murdoch glared at Henry. “What else did you give him—new clothes, new boots, a new horse?”
Actually, they had. All three. When Scott had shot up like a weed right before he turned twelve, they’d had to buy all those things for him. Rusty was too little for him now. He’d been riding a bay named Sugar for the last few months. Henry held his breath to see which horse would come out of the barn. To his relief, Scott had wisely saddled Rusty and led him to where he and Agatha were standing.
“Bye,” Scott said forlornly, giving each of them a hug. “Thank you for everything,” he whispered. “I wish I could stay.”
“As I’ve said before, you’re welcome anytime. You know that,” Aggie said, tears in her eyes.
Scott reluctantly mounted his too small pony. He loved Rusty but he had outgrown his beloved pony. He was as tall as Henry now and still growing.
As Murdoch started to move away, Aggie came running up. “Oh, I should tell you Mr. Witherspoon will be around in a few days to talk about Scott.”
What did the teacher need to tell him? “Why? Has Scott done something wrong?”
Agatha was again taken aback by this new and not for the better version of her friend. Did the man not know Scott at all? “Of course not! He just needs to talk to you about an idea he has for Scott.”
Murdoch nodded at her and motioned Scott to ride by his side. As they headed home, he couldn’t help but notice that Scott’s horse and saddle were too small for him. “You been riding like that?”
“No, sir. Mr. Conway loaned me one of his horses and gave me a saddle for Christmas.” Scott closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of the hurt of leaving Sugar behind. Mama and Pa had gifted the horse to him as well, but he knew better than to tell his father about that. He didn’t know why his father seemed so angry with him and the Conways, but he didn’t want to stoke that fire. As angry as he was about his father taking him away from what he considered was his home and his family, he didn’t want to rile him. Even with his growth spurt, his father was still taller and bigger than he was. His father and his father’s temper still scared him.
“Why didn’t you put that saddle on Rusty?”
“Figured you didn’t want me to take anything from them once you made me leave my rifle.” He had to take the clothes and boots they’d given him, though, or he’d be riding home naked.
For a moment Murdoch wanted to chastise his son for his impudence but thought better about it. He’d been gone for over two years. A lot could happen in that time. He needed time to get reacquainted with Scott. “I’ll get you a new saddle when we get home. There’s a new pool of horses you can choose from, too.”
“Thank you, Father” was the stiff reply.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, Murdoch trying to figure out what he could do to foster the kind of home that would produce the joyous, carefree laughter from Scott he’d heard at the Conways’. With the extra money he’d earned in Arizona, he’d rehired the Pinkerton Agency to locate Johnny, who was never far from his thoughts or heart. But maybe he should concentrate on his first-born son for a little while.
At first, Scott didn’t know how to handle the extra attention his father was giving him. In truth, it made him anxious. But after a week or two, everything returned to way things were before Scott had gone to live with the Conways. The ranch needed constant diligence and with the O’Briens living in the hacienda, Teresa took up most of the adults’ non-work time and attention. Everyone seemed quite concerned about her growing up without her mother, Juanita especially. No one seemed concerned that he was in the same position, but then she was an adorable toddler and he was a resentful twelve-year-old.
A few days later a well-worn buggy pulled up in front of the house. Murdoch looked out of the French doors. It was the schoolteacher, Ambrose Witherspoon. Happy to have his work on the books interrupted, he welcomed the teacher into the great room. The man looked around the massive room in awe. Murdoch was quite pleased. That was just the kind of reaction he was aiming for with the hacienda. After all the niceties were dispensed with, Witherspoon got to the point of his visit.
“I’ve come to speak to you about Scott,” he said, after a sip of lemonade Maria had provided.
“Is there something wrong?”
“Oh, no! Not with Scott at least, but I don’t know what to do with him.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sure you know what an extraordinary child your son is.”
Murdoch nodded, even though he had no idea what Witherspoon was talking about. “I’m sure it’s unusual to have such a quiet and studious boy in your classroom.”
“Quiet?” Witherspoon looked perplexed. “I wouldn’t use that word to describe him, Mr. Lancer. Scott is quite outgoing and talkative. He’s a natural-born leader, and I have left him in charge of the class several times when I was called away for an emergency. I think the other students like him as a teacher more than me.” He smiled self-deprecatingly.
Murdoch glanced away in embarrassment. He would never think of Scott as outgoing and talkative. In truth, he had no idea what kind of student Scott was. All he knew was there were never any complaints about him, which was all he needed to know. Clearly, Scott was different when he lived with Aggie and Henry from when he lived at Lancer.
“Mr. Lancer, Scott has read every book the school has, which I admit is not that many. He excels at almost every subject. I see you have quite an extensive library here.”
Murdoch was proud of his collection. Harlan Garrett had told him he was an ignorant immigrant while he was courting Catherine. He hadn’t bothered to tell the man his father was a schoolteacher and that he was well read, especially with an uncle who owned a bookstore. With each book he bought and read, it felt like he was sticking a knife into the old goat and twisting it. Ignorant immigrant, indeed! “Yes, I do.”
“Scott told me he has read every book you own.”
“What? Every book?”
Witherspoon nodded. “And all of the Conways’ library, although it is smaller and there are quite a few duplicates I’m told. In fact, I asked the pastor to inquire of the congregation who might like to donate books for Scott to read. Although there aren’t that many households that can afford books, it turned out there was only one he hadn’t already read—some book on plants indigenous to California. He read that, too. Literature, science, economy, agriculture, history, philosophy. He’s read all books I brought with me from college. Devoured them and understood them.”
Murdoch grew restless. Where was this heading? He had ledgers to balance.
As if sensing Murdoch’s waning interest, the teacher hastily explained that Scott had simply outgrown his ability to teach him. For the last two months of the prior term, he’d had Scott tutor the younger students in the mornings and take Spanish lessons in town in the afternoon because he didn’t know what else to do with him. “Mr. Lancer, I think your boy is extremely intelligent, one of the brightest minds I’ve encountered. A mind like his needs to be nurtured, and it can’t be done here. There is an excellent private school in Sacramento called San Domenico, and there’s also a good one in San José.”
Murdoch frowned. Send Scott away? To a private school? That would take money. “How much would that cost?”
“I don’t know exactly, but I’ll inquire for you.”
‘Probably the price of a good breeding bull,’ Murdoch thought.
Scott walked in the room. “Hello, Mr. Witherspoon,” he said, excitement in his voice. It was evident he knew what they were discussing.
“Hello, Scott. Your father and I were talking about continuing your education.”
Scott turned his excited face toward Murdoch. “May I, Father? I’d like to continue my schooling.”
“Well, I don’t know, Scott.” Murdoch rose and went to shake the teacher’s hand. “Thank you for coming all the way out here, Mr. Witherspoon. I’ll have to think on all you’ve said before I decide anything.”
Realizing the visit was over, Witherspoon rose, too. “Yes, of course, Mr. Lancer. I can’t say enough about your son. He certainly is a joy to teach.”
Murdoch looked at Scott, who was blushing from head to toe. He walked Witherspoon out to his buggy and saw him off with his arm around Scott’s shoulders, reminded again how tall Scott had grown. He was no longer the scrawny eight-year-old he’d brought home from Boston. Although still slender, Scott was solid muscle beneath his embrace.
“May I go?” Scott asked again as Mr. Witherspoon’s buggy headed toward whatever structure his father was building out there. Mister Paul said it was going to be an archway.
Murdoch sighed. He had other plans for his money right now. Lancer was growing and he needed more of everything. He needed to invest in the ranch. He still had much of the hacienda to rebuild. “I said I’d think on it.”
Scott deflated before his very eyes. “Yes, sir,” he said, but Murdoch knew Scott knew that the answer would be “no.”
Murdoch saw Henry and Agatha Conway pull up their buggy in front of the house. What did they want now? And why were they arriving right at dinnertime? He walked out to greet them.
“Henry, Aggie, what brings you out this evening?”
“Can’t old friends visit each other?” Aggie asked as Murdoch helped her down from the carriage.
“I know you too well to know you’ve always got an angle, Aggie MacDouglas Conway.”
She just laughed.
“Truth is we got a hankering for some of Juanita’s cooking,” Henry said amiably as he shook hands with Murdoch.
Murdoch looked askance at him, too. “Come on in. Scott will be delighted to see you.”
“We’ll be delighted to see him, too. Any chance of you and him coming for Sunday dinner?” Henry asked.
Murdoch smiled. “That would be a good possibility.”
They walked into the house and Murdoch called for Maria to set two more plates at the table. Scott came downstairs and immediately greeted the Conways warmly. That genuine warmth struck Murdoch hard again. He wished some of it could be directed at him. They engaged in small talk until dinner was ready. Paul brought Teresa to the table and all eyes and much of the dinner conversation were centered on her. She had discovered the power of saying “no,” and used it often. Everyone thought she was adorable, except her exasperated father.
After dinner, Murdoch had Paul take the children to the barn to see the new colt. The Conways alighted on the sofa. Murdoch passed around the brandies and waited for Aggie to get down to business. He had a good idea what the issue was. She didn’t waste any time.
“Mr. Witherspoon told us you decided not to send Scott to private school,” Aggie said, disapproval plain in her voice.
‘Mr. Witherspoon should keep his big mouth shut,’ Murdoch thought. He had guessed right that this was why the couple was here. “That’s right.”
“Why? That boy is gifted. He needs to keep going to school.”
“It’s none of your business why, Aggie! He’s my son, not yours! I decide what is best for him!”
“Now, now, no need to get upset. We all just want to do what’s best for the lad.” Henry was ever playing the peacemaker between his wife and Lancer. His wife had Scottish blood in her from her father’s side, too. It made for a combustible time when she and Murdoch disagreed. He and Aggie speculated that Lancer might be upset by the close relationship they’d formed with Scott. It was apparent that they had been right. “Scott is eager to go, Murdoch.”
“He needs to stay here. At Lancer.”
“Why?” Aggie pressed again. “To be one more ranch hand? What a colossal waste of his mind!”
“I just got him back. I don’t want him gone again so quickly.”
“And if you got a lead on Johnny’s whereabouts, you would stay here in order to get to know Scott better?”
Murdoch glared at her. “That’s different!”
“It’s not! Why can’t you care about Scott’s welfare as much as you do about Johnny’s?”
“I do!” Murdoch protested. “Scott’s here and safe. Johnny is God knows where.”
“If you cared about Scott, you’d put his welfare above your own. You want more time with him, but it’s Scott’s entire future you’re throwing away to satisfy your own needs, ease your own guilt.”
Murdoch studied the glass in his hands. He did feel guilty for leaving Scott alone as much as he had and for Maria’s abuse of him. But how was he going to make it up to him if the boy went away to school?
Henry interrupted the silence. “If it’s the money you’re worried about, Aggie and I are prepared to pay for Scott’s education.”
Murdoch stayed silent. How had they guessed the real reason for his refusal? But he had too much pride to agree to them paying. “No, I can’t let you do that.”
“How about we split the cost?” Henry offered. “We think of the boy like family. We’d like to help him.”
“No. It’s too much.” He wanted to reinvest any money back into the ranch. He was so close to that critical point where a few more cattle and another prime bull would have the ranch making the kind of profit he’d always dreamed of instead of just getting by.
“Then pay for Scott’s education yourself.”
Murdoch sighed, still not ready to commit the funds to Scott. “It’s just a lot…”
Aggie glanced at Henry. He nodded and she went in for the kill. “Perhaps we should ask Scott’s grandfather to pay. He seems very anxious about Scott’s future. He’s worried he’s not getting a proper education in California.” Aggie knew that would get Murdoch’s attention.
“And just how would you know that?”
“We’ve exchanged some correspondence,” Aggie admitted. “You should thank me, Murdoch. Harlan was ready to come out here and grab Scott back to Boston when you left this last time. And don’t ask me how he knew that. I think he’s getting regular reports on Scott from someone. Regardless, Scott and I convinced him otherwise. However, if he finds out you’ve ended Scott’s schooling at age twelve, there might be some trouble.”
“You play dirty, Agatha Conway,” Murdoch glowered at her.
“When it’s something this important, you’re damned right I do!”
Murdoch considered this new information. “You’ve been in contact with Garrett? Scott, too?”
“Yes. It seems their correspondence had been ‘lost’ when he lived here. He wrote letters to Boston but never received any reply. Your father-in-law had the same complaint.”
Murdoch remained silent on the subject. He and Maria had thought a clean break from Boston and Harlan Garrett was best for the boy to get a solid start in his new life in California. They hadn’t mailed Scott’s letters nor given him Harlan’s. He wasn’t going to justify their decision to the Conways. “I’ll not take a penny from Harlan Garrett.”
“And how much have you paid the Pinkerton Agency to look for Johnny?”
Murdoch’s shoulders slumped. Paying for a man to follow any and all of the leads on Maria’s and Johnny’s whereabouts, paying for all his daily expenses, added up quickly.
Aggie thought she could see Murdoch adding the numbers in his head and knew she had struck a nerve. “Does Scott deserve less?”
It had been raining steadily all day and Scott was bored. Unable to go outside, he’d finished rereading his book and had even written a letter to Grandfather to occupy his time, even though he knew any letters written at Lancer never made it to Boston. He walked into the great room and approached his father’s desk with apprehension. His father had been working there, grumpily, all day. He’d even scared off Mister Paul and Teresa.
He cleared his throat and his father looked up from the papers he was reading.
“Yes?” His father’s voice was impatient.
He cleared his throat again and said nervously, “Father, would you like to play a game of chess with me?”
“Chess! When did you learn to play chess?”
“Mr. Conway taught me.” He saw the frown that statement produced. It seemed like his father was mad at the Conways and he couldn’t figure out why. It had been really nice of them to look after him the past two and some years. “And Mr. Witherspoon,” he hastily added.
Murdoch sighed and took off his reading glasses, peering at the boy. He was tired of trying to reconcile the books. A diversion was just what he needed. He’d told Agatha he wanted to spend time with the boy. No time like the present. “You think you can beat your father at chess, son?” he asked in mock seriousness.
“I’d like to try, sir.” He had seen his father and Mister Paul play chess. He thought he could beat either of them, although his father usually won. He was keen to match wits with him.
Murdoch grinned. “Go set up the board, then.”
Scott’s face brightened as he hurried off.
Murdoch finished arranging the papers on his desk and walked over to look at the board. The boy had set it up correctly. Murdoch grabbed two of the pawns, switched them behind his back, and held his fists out to Scott. Scott chose the black pawn and the game began…and was finished not ten minutes later. Murdoch lost. He hadn’t been paying much attention to it, just content to be spending time with his boy.
He looked at his son’s face. It was wearing its usual wariness. Was Scott afraid he was going to get angry with him for beating him at chess? How was he ever going to ease the boy’s fears, especially when there were so many? He remembered Witherspoon’s words: Scott is an extraordinary child. “Well done, son! Care for a rematch?”
Scott nodded enthusiastically.
Murdoch paid more attention and still lost. However, it took nearly forty-five minutes before he knocked over his king in defeat. “Best of five?”
Scott actually smiled at him. “I’d only have to win one more game.”
“Cheeky boy! Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Murdoch eventually won. The game was interrupted by dinner and by Teresa knocking all the pieces off the board. Murdoch remembered where every piece was, but he waited to see whether Scott did, too. He did. Murdoch was impressed.
“You getting scared, boy?” Murdoch asked as he set up a new game.
“Nope,” Scott said confidently, and Murdoch smiled.
The fourth game ended in a draw.
“I think that should count as a win for me,” Murdoch suggested.
“No, sir!” Scott had immediately replied, his eyes shining.
Murdoch chuckled. It felt so good, so right, to be having these moments with his first-born. Why hadn’t he had more of them? He let Scott set up the board again. Once more, Scott was black, and Murdoch sensed victory as he made his first move. An hour later, he was again ceding his king.
Murdoch was shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t know how you do it, son.”
“It’s not so hard. You like to start with the Spanish opening. I just use the Cordel defense.”
“I didn’t know it had a name. It’s just how my Da used to start play if he was white. And you didn’t learn that defense from Henry Conway. I beat him every time with that start.”
“No. I learned it from Mr. Witherspoon. Actually, I learned it from a book on chess Mr. Witherspoon lent me. I’d read it and then practice what I learned with Mr. Witherspoon. You should play with him, Father. You’d have really good games.”
“I take it you beat Mr. Witherspoon, too.”
And there it was. A full-fledged grin directed at him! It was the most beautiful sight he’d seen since Maria had taken Johnny from him. “You’re pretty smart for a kid.” Murdoch reached over and mussed the boy’s hair.
Scott shrugged and smoothed down his hair. “I just like to read and most of the other boys don’t. But you can learn so much from books, don’t you think?”
“Yes, son, I do. That’s why I have so many. Mr. Witherspoon said you read every book on the bookshelf.” Scott nodded. “Even David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature?”
Scott nodded again. It was one of the thickest books on the shelf, and it had taken him several months to get through it last year even with some help from Mr. Witherspoon.
“And you think you understand it?”
“Most of it. I liked the part on moral sentiments and the rise of the virtues, but I didn’t like that he thought we couldn’t know anything.”
Damn! The boy had read and understood it! The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher was required reading for the older schoolchildren of his homeland. It had been a difficult text to wade through. He had read it as a teenager, but he had a teacher there and a father at home to help explain it to him. Scott had read it on his own with perhaps some meager help from Witherspoon, who leaned more to history than philosophy. “Well, he was responding to another philosopher, an Englishman named John Locke, so it would probably have made more sense if you’d read him first.”
“You don’t have that book here.”
“No, I left it in Scotland. Only took my Scottish forebearer; no Englishman was worth the space in my trunk.”
“Because Scotsmen don’t like Englishmen.”
And Murdoch finally understood what Witherspoon and the Conway’s were saying about Scott and education. He’d never encountered a mind so curious, so like his own. They were right: Scott’s mind needed to be nurtured and expanded. That wouldn’t happen on the ranch. “It’s getting late and you should go to bed, young man. Maybe you can find out why Scotsmen don’t like Englishmen when you go to San Domenico’s.”
It took a moment for it to sink in. Then Scott threw his arms around his father’s neck. “You mean I can go?”
Murdoch gave his boy a tight hug. “Yes, Scott, you can go.” The breeding bull could wait, or be damned, for all he cared at this moment. He could feel the happiness radiating from Scott’s embrace.
“Thank you, Father,” and Murdoch could hear the raw emotion in his son’s voice. This meant everything to him. He would miss him, but unlike Johnny, he would know where Scott was and that he was safe.
And Aggie and Henry would deign to talk to him again when they had dinner with the Conways on Sunday.
Johnny Madrid rested his horse at the crest of the hill. Below in the late afternoon sunlight lay a beautiful valley lush with lakes and streams and lots of acres of green land. A large, white hacienda was tucked along the western side of it. Lancer. His birthright, or so Mama had told him often enough. He took in the magnificent view for a while, then took a deep breath and gathered his courage. He nudged his horse forward and started the slow descent into the valley. He had a job to do, a promise to keep to her. His quarry was down there, and he had a bullet with his name on it.