Noblesse Oblige by RonD

Episode Tag for Child of Rock and Sunlight

For Adriana

Word Count – 23,430

Teresa sat huddled in the far corner of the sofa, her eyes focused on her embroidery. She was afraid if she made even the slightest of movements, the men would notice her, and she’d be banished from the room. The three of them were at it again.

When she first imagined Murdoch’s sons living here, she’d thought they would quickly come together and live happily ever after. The reality was turning out much differently. She had grown up with the hacienda being a quiet, peaceful house. It was a refuge for her and a special treat to be invited inside with her father. After his death, she had moved into the main house permanently, loving the serenity it provided. ‘Serene’ was not a word she would use to describe the hacienda any longer. Before Scott and Johnny came to live here, Murdoch would say what was to be done and everyone jumped to do it. Now everything seemed to need discussion. Discussion would become heated into argument and argument would escalate to yelling. The main culprit was Johnny, but Scott, too, could raise his voice impressively. And Murdoch…Lord, could the man bellow, his face turning bright red. She’d never dreamed it would be this acrimonious. It didn’t happen all the time but often enough to make her unsettled. Tonight it was the usually reserved Scott Lancer who was making the ruckus.   

“I made a promise!” Scott said emphatically and not for the first time.

“You’re not going back there,” Murdoch reiterated. “You almost died the first time. I don’t care what promise you made to that boy, you’re not going back.”

Scott threw up his hands in disbelief. “This is ridiculous!”

“It ain’t ridiculous,” Johnny said, finally joined the discussion, or argument, as the case may be. “That’s mighty rough country out there…”

…for a greenhorn, Scott finished for him in his head. He was so tired of being perceived as inept, even if they had good reason in this case. Trying to cross what he’d subsequently learned was called Death Valley on foot was foolhardy. But he’d be more prepared this time.

“I know that now. I’ll be prepared for it this time,” Scott assured them.

“And who will do your chores while you’re away?” Murdoch asked. “I need you at the ranch. You already lost work while you were recuperating.”

“Sorry I inconvenienced you.” Scott’s sarcasm was in full flight. The heatstroke and concussion had taken it out of him for a time.

Murdoch blew out a frustrated breath. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“How did you mean it?”

Murdoch glared at his older son. How could he make Scott see how dangerous it was for him to return to the Sickles’ place? He’d almost died out there in the desert. When he’d found out from Johnny just how close Scott had come to death, it had scared him to the core. And now the daft boy wanted to go back and rescue the child. Perhaps ‘rescue’ wasn’t the right word. Scott had promised the boy that he’d be back to help him get to school. He’d be damned if he was going to let Scott go back into that hellhole. Trouble was, he didn’t want to admit to Scott that he was frightened for him. Scott would probably be insulted by such sentimentality. He would remind everyone he was an adult and had survived the war and so on. Murdoch didn’t want to listen to that spiel again. “How about I remind you that I call the tune, and I say you stay here.”

Now it was Scott who blew out a frustrated breath. “You call the tune about what happens on the ranch, not what I choose to do with my life,” Scott said through clenched teeth. “I was informing you of my plans, not asking your permission.”

“You damn straight need my permission,” Murdoch retorted, his voice rising in anger.

“I’m not a child!” Scott responded, equally incensed.

“You’re my son!” Murdoch thundered, slamming his hand down on his desk. Papers and pencils went flying.

Scott reined in his anger, but not his stubbornness. Why couldn’t his father see he needed to be a man of his word, especially when it came to a small boy whose only role models had been criminals? Andy Jack needed to believe there were good men in the world, too. Scott was determined to keep his word, even if it meant estranging himself from his father. He’d only met the man a few months ago anyway. It was time for Murdoch to see what mettle his elder son possessed. He took a deep breath. “I’ll be leaving in the morning. I’ll be back in a week, two at the outside.”

“Two weeks!” Murdoch sputtered. “That’s too long.”

“You’ve gotten along quite well without me for twenty-four years. I think you’ll survive two weeks,” Scott said coolly.

And there it was. The huge wall that stood between them that raised or lowered depending on the topic but never went away completely. Not when the subject of Scott’s being raised in Boston instead of at Lancer continued to be avoided by Murdoch. It always gave Scott the winning hand. Murdoch seemed to shrink before their eyes.

“Want some company, brother?” Johnny asked quietly. He’d been scared, too, at how close Scott had come to dying at Luke Sickles’ hand. It surprised him at how quickly he’d become attached to his older brother.

“I’d love some,” Scott replied. Truth be told, he’d rather not go back into Death Valley by himself.

Murdoch looked like he wanted to explode again but tried to keep his temper. Johnny could use the same argument as Scott about not living at Lancer during his childhood. “Fine! But no more than two weeks!”

“Yes, sir.” Scott rose and headed for the stairs, Johnny hot on his heels.

“This time we’ll need a pack horse and lots of water,” Johnny said as they left the room.

Murdoch slammed his hand down on his desk again. He had forbidden Scott to go, and now he’d lost both his sons on this fool’s errand! “Damn fools!” he muttered. Then he noticed Teresa on the sofa. “Excuse my profanity, Teresa.”

“It’ll be all right; they’ll be all right,” Teresa said comfortingly. It saddened her so to see Murdoch so distressed, especially when it was caused by his sons. She knew he had been overjoyed when they had signed the partnership agreement. She wondered if he was regretting it now.

Murdoch just nodded, but he didn’t share her optimism. His two boys, the Sickles, and the Mojave Desert—it added up to nothing but trouble in his book.

***********************************************

Johnny slouched down in his seat as the stagecoach lumbered toward Panamint. With his hat over his face, everyone thought he was sleeping. Although how anyone could sleep with this amount of jostling was near impossible. Still, it dissuaded any other passengers from making idle conversation with him, which was his intention. Scott had brought a book, which accomplished the same thing as Johnny’s hat, although how anyone could read with this amount of jostling was just as impossible as sleeping. It turned out there was only one other passenger on board at this point. He was a thin, sour-faced man who looked like he was in no mood to talk anyway. No one to call their bluffs.

Johnny contemplated what Scott had told him last night. The plan was to get to Panamint, rent horses, and ride to the Sickles. Scott had arranged school for Andy Jack and lodging for his grandmother in Salinas. The town had one of the first public school systems in the state. Andy Jack could go to school for free, while his grandmother would help at the boarding house. The proprietor was getting along in years and would welcome the help in feeding the boarders and household cleaning in exchange for room and board. Scott had been so proud of himself for securing the accommodations. Johnny thought it didn’t hurt that Salinas was only a day’s ride away from the ranch, so Scott could keep better track of the boy.

Yes, Scott had prided himself with thinking of everything, except whether the Sickles would accept his plan. They seemed like real unfriendly folk, who didn’t take kindly to charity. Johnny recalled how coldly the old woman had identified Luke Sickle as her son, not a tear in her eye, and then demanded the reward money. The sheriff had put her off, telling her he needed to study the situation that led to Luke Sickles’ death. No, Johnny wasn’t anxious to meet these people again, no matter how smart Scott thought the little boy was. He hoped they’d find the cabin abandoned when they rode in. Maybe the sheriff decided to give the old woman the reward money and they’d left. It had been almost a month since they’d rode back to Lancer. Plenty of time for the Sickles to move on. Yep, that would be best as far as Johnny was concerned, but luck didn’t seem to follow Scott, with his penchant for picking up strays and trying to help the less fortunate. His mind wandered to Foleys and the McGloins. Scott could sure pick them, and the Sickles were right there with them.

After spending an uncomfortable night at the waystation, they arrived in Panamint in the late afternoon. The heat was worse than last month as the summer months began. It was like living inside the great room fireplace, Johnny thought grumpily. However, the town seemed busier than ever. Johnny knew that the town had sprung up as silver had been discovered nearby, and that had attracted all sorts of people to the place. Johnny’s holster felt snug against his hip, easing his mind. Scott got out of the coach looking as much out of place in this furnace as he did that first day they met in Morro Coyo. Johnny couldn’t quite place it. Scott now wore more Western wear and had his own gun strapped to his hip, but he still carried the air of an Easterner about him. His anticipated pleasure at helping Andy Jack added to his look of being from out of town. The locals looked more resigned to living in this hellish spot. Only their greed kept them there. Scott looked excited to be there. Yep, he was out of place.

Johnny prayed that it was late enough in the afternoon that Scott wouldn’t want to ride out to the Sickles’ right away. He was tired and hungry and craving a beer. Luckily, Scott was willing to wait until the following morning to rent the horses and ride to the cabin. Tonight they would get a good meal and indulge in a little entertainment and sleep in a soft bed. The stage west wouldn’t be leaving for three days. There was plenty of time to round up Andy Jack and the Sickles women.

After breakfast the next morning, they paid a visit to the sheriff. His name was Knox and he remembered the Lancers. He seemed happy to see Johnny.

“The way I see it, it was your gun that killed Luke Sickles,” he told Johnny. “You should be getting the reward money.”

“I don’t need no reward money, Sheriff.”

Scott was always surprised when Johnny’s voice got soft and shy sounding. It never fit with his vision of the confident Johnny Lancer or the dangerous Johnny Madrid. “You’re not going to give it to Hannah Sickles?”

“The way I see it, she don’t deserve that money. The way I see it, she was aiding and abetting her son by hiding him up there with her. She’s lucky I haven’t arrested her for hiding a criminal,” Knox said.

“He was her son,” Scott objected.

“Yeah, but she knew what he was. Now Johnny here killed him. The way I see it, he’s the one who deserves the reward. Folks here were mighty glad to get their money back.”

Johnny had a look of disdain on his face. Scott nodded toward the door. Once they were outside, he said, “Take the money. It’ll pay for what we need and we can give Hannah the remainder if that would make you feel better. Otherwise, you can take the money and buy our beer for the next year.”

Johnny laughed. “Would it last the whole year the way you drink?” he teased. He looked down and scuffed his boot on the boardwalk. When he looked up, he said, “I killed that man because he was gonna kill you, not for any reward money.”

Scott smiled. “And you don’t know how grateful I am that you did, brother, but it seems foolish to turn down the money just because it wasn’t your intent to get it,” he reasoned.

Johnny looked down again, contemplating for several long minutes. Then he squinted up at Scott and nodded. “Okay, but I don’t promise I’ll give it to Ma Sickles. She’ll have to prove to me she deserves it first.”

“Fair enough,” Scott said.

They walked back in the sheriff’s office and told him of their decision. Knox knelt down to open the safe, explaining that he’d just gotten the money in a couple of days before. Scott idly wondered what he would have done with the money had Johnny not reappeared. Would he have tried to get it to Lancer or just kept it for himself?

“I take it the Sickles are still up at the cabin?” Scott asked.

Knox snorted derisively. “Yes and no. That young gal, she come into town and took up with some miner not long after you left. And Mrs. Sickles, she comes in about every other day to pester me about the reward money. It’ll give me some satisfaction to tell her I gave it to you, yessir.”

“And the boy, Andy Jack?” Scott prodded.

“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since I left the cabin that day. I ‘spect he’s still up there looking after the goats and all.” Knox rose from the safe and handed Johnny an envelope. “Here’s the money, minus the fifty dollars I get for my services.”

Johnny frowned at him.

“Of course,” Scott intervened. “Thank you for your services, Sheriff.” He looked at his brother. “We’d better rent those horses and get going.”

“You thinking about riding out to the Sickles place?”

“Yes.”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Knox advised. “The way I see it, it’s ’bout time Mrs. Sickles came in to plague me about giving her the money again. You stick around. You’ll see her ride in on that mule of hers.”

“We appreciate the advice,” Scott said. Johnny was still frowning at the sheriff. Scott touched his arm and hustled him out the door.

“That right that he took some money out for himself when I did all the work?” Johnny asked skeptically.

Scott shrugged. “I think that’s the way it works with reward money. You can ask Val when we get home.” Johnny still didn’t seem placated. “You didn’t want the money in the first place; now you’re upset it’s only four hundred and fifty dollars?”

That seemed to do it. Johnny sat down in one of the chairs outside the sheriff’s office.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m gonna sit here and count it,” Johnny replied.

“And then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“I suggest you put it in the bank while we’re here. I don’t think it’s wise to walk around with that kind of money on you in a town like this,” Scott suggested.

Johnny looked up and around him. “What’s wrong with the town?” It looked like scores of other border towns he’d grown up and worked in.

“It looks like the kind of town a person with money in his pocket would get rolled over.”

Johnny almost laughed. “You don’t think I can take care of myself?” He gave Scott his best steely-eyed stare.

Scott sensed Johnny’s mood shift. The playfulness had vanished. “No, I just don’t want you to need to.”

“Sure, Scott.” Johnny finished counting the money. It was all there.

Scott stretched out his hand. “Can I take that to the bank for you?”

Johnny sighed. His brother was persistent, he’d learned that by now. He handed the envelope over but not before he took fifty dollars out and stuffed the bills in his shirt pocket.

“You’re a smart man, Johnny Lancer,” Scott said. “Are you going to sit here and wait for Hannah to show?”

“Hell, no!” Johnny protested. “The way I see it, this thing with the Sickles is your business. I’m just along to make sure they don’t try to kill you again.” And just as quickly, the playfulness was back with him mimicking the sheriff.  “I’m gonna check things out in this here town. Then I’m gonna wind up in the best cantina and have me some fun. You?”

Scott sighed. That did sound like fun. Too bad he was going to miss it. “I guess I’ll sit outside the hotel and watch for Hannah after I deposit this in the bank.”

Johnny grinned non-apologetically at him. “Good thing you brought that book with you.”

********************************************

Hannah Sickles rode into town just after lunchtime. It would have been hard for Scott to miss her. Some of the townsfolk jeered at her as she passed by. One man spit at her, but she kept the mule at a slow, steady pace with her head held high until she reached the sheriff’s office.

Scott crossed the street and walked down there, sitting in the chair that Johnny had vacated that morning. He wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but it was inevitable when the voices inside began to yell. No doubt Sheriff Knox had informed her that the money had already gone to someone else. There were threats made by Hannah, which were finally cut short when Knox threatened to throw her in jail for abetting a fugitive. Soon after, Hannah emerged from the office clearly upset from the encounter.

Scott rose hesitantly. This was not the mindset he wanted Hannah to be in when he proposed his plan. “Mrs. Sickles?”

She was visibly startled. “My Lord! Scott Lancer, what are you doin’ here?”

“Hoping to talk to you, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat to her. He hoped his good manners would soothe her ruffled feathers, as it had done so many times in his past dealings with females.

It seemed to work. She took a deep breath and calmed herself before she spoke. “I don’t think I have anythin’ to say to you.”

“No, ma’am. But I have something I’d like to say to you.”

She frowned. “Was it you? Did you claim the reward money? You know I wanted that money for Andy Jack’s schoolin’.”

“No, ma’am, I didn’t claim it,” he answered honestly. He wasn’t going to volunteer any more information. “Perhaps we could talk while we have some refreshment at the hotel?”

She looked down at her dusty, worn clothing, and Scott could tell she was worried that she wasn’t dressed well enough for the hotel. “It’s all right,” he assured her. “You’re my guest.”

She reluctantly nodded. Scott was worried as they walked back to the hotel. Hannah Sickles was a prideful woman. Getting her to accept his proposal might not be as easy as he originally hoped it would be. If she thought it was charity, if she thought for one second that he pitied her, all his efforts might be in vain. He’d have to focus on Andy Jack’s future. Her grandson was her Achilles heel. He needed to concentrate on that.

At the hotel, Scott instructed Hannah to find a table while he left his book with the manager at the front desk. The woman pulled him aside. “Mr. Lancer, I’m afraid you don’t know who that woman is. Her son robbed the bank here some weeks ago. She’s not welcome in this establishment.”

Scott gave her his most charming smile. “She’s with me, Mrs. Watson, and as I’m a paying guest, I’m sure you want to keep me as happy as possible.” He laid a gold coin on the counter.

“Of course, Mr. Lancer. Whatever you want,” she assured him, pocketing the coin.

Scott grinned to himself. Johnny was always quick to point out that none of his Eastern ways were any good out West. If he only knew. Money talked wherever you were, as Grandfather had taught him. He sat down opposite Hannah and encouraged her to order anything she wanted. She modestly ordered tea and cake and Scott had the same.

“Mrs. Sickles, if you remember, I promised to come back and help Andy Jack.”

She looked at him skeptically. “And I’m supposed to believe that—that you’re here to help us?”

“Yes, ma’am. Please believe me.” He gave her his most earnest look.

“How am I supposed to believe you after what Luke tried to do?”

“That was Luke, not Andy Jack. Andy Jack cut me free from the ropes you tied me up with.” Instilling a little guilt in her might help the cause, Scott thought.

She looked properly chastised. “But the sheriff won’t give me the reward money, so there’ll be no schoolin’ for Andy Jack. That’s all that boy wants to do since he learned about school.”

Their conversation stopped as the teas and cakes arrived. Scott watched in fascination as she took her first bite of cake. The look of sheer joy made her look ten years younger. He thought the cake was too dry for his taste, but it was clear that it had been some time since Hannah had tasted the dessert.

“My, this is wonderful,” she exclaimed. “I wish Andy Jack were here.”

“I’ll send a piece for you to take back to him,” Scott offered.

“Why are you doin’ this? What do you want from us?” The skepticism had returned.

“I want to keep my promise to your grandson and send him to school,” Scott said. “I’ve found a place where he can go, you with him, if you let me take you there.”

She set her fork down. “Don’t you understand? Without that reward money, I can’t pay for his schoolin’! And I won’t be havin’ you pay for it for him neither!”

“But that’s just it, Mrs. Sickles. There’s a town over by the coast that has a public school. It’s free. You wouldn’t have to pay for his education.”

“What do you mean ‘by the coast’?”

Scott realized she probably had no idea that California bordered an ocean. If they had lived in these dusty, dirty desert towns all their lives, they probably had never seen the ocean. Oh, he would dearly love to see Andy Jack’s face the first time he beheld all that water! “I mean it’s by the western border of the state. It’s called Salinas. The town just recently started a public school that will teach Andy Jack until he’s sixteen or seventeen.”

“And we don’t have to pay for it?” She sounded incredulous.

“No, ma’am. It’s free to all children who live there.”

Hannah picked up her fork again to finish her cake.

Scott plunged in again. “I’ve also taken the liberty to find employment for you, too, if you don’t mind. There’s a boarding house there in need of some extra help. The owner is around your age, I believe. Her children are grown and no longer live with her. She needs help to run the place, cooking and housecleaning and such. She’d be willing to exchange room and board with you and Andy Jack for your help.” There. He’d laid out his plan to her and now fervently prayed she would agree to it.

She took her time finishing her cake and tea. Scott tried to match her slow pace, but he still was done before she was. She was savoring every bite, he knew. She finally put the last morsel of cake in her mouth and set the fork down. She followed that with the last of her tea and gently placed her napkin on the table. “Mr. Lancer, I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you’ll do it, Mrs. Sickles. Please. For Andy Jack’s sake.” He wasn’t used to begging, but he’d do it for that little boy.

She shook her head, and Scott’s hopes faded. “We don’t deserve your kindness, Mr. Lancer. Not after what Luke tried to do to you. He tried to kill you, and, Lord forgive me, I helped his evil plan. No, I can’t accept your Christian good will.”

Scott made one last, desperate plea. “Maybe you don’t, Mrs. Sickles, but Andy Jack does. He didn’t believe your lies about me being a bounty hunter, and he cut me loose to have at least a fighting chance against your son. He does deserve my kindness and my thanks. Please don’t let him suffer because of your guilt.”

A long silence passed between them. Then Scott remembered Pearl.

“I’m sorry I didn’t find work for your daughter-in-law. But I’m sure Pearl will be able to find something. Salinas is a growing town.”

Hannah gave a derisive snort. “That girl ain’t no daughter-in-law of mine.” At Scott’s raised brow, she continued, “She and Luke were never married, just acted like it. She lit out soon after he died. I seen her once or twice here. Seems like she shacked up with some man already. You don’t need to worry none about Pearl, Mr. Lancer. Girl like that always lands on her feet somehow.”

Well, that would be one less ticket to Salinas to buy, Scott thought wryly. Hannah made a move to get up from her chair, and Scott moved swiftly over to help her rise. She was clearly unused to such courtly gestures and she blushed furiously.

“Will you consider my proposal?” Scott asked as they left the restaurant. They stepped out into the heat of the afternoon sun, and he added, “The weather in Salinas is much more pleasant as well.”

Hannah eyed him up and down. “I’ll consider it, Mr. Lancer.”

“The stage leaves the day after tomorrow. Whether you agree to my offer or not, I’d like to pay a visit to Andy Jack tomorrow morning.”

She nodded. “Yes, come by the place. He hasn’t stopped talkin’ about you since you left.”

“I’ll come by mid-morning then, if that’s convenient.”

She nodded again and left him standing outside the hotel. He watched her walk down the street, holding her head high amid the townsfolk who were making it very plain they were avoiding her. Scott sighed. Hannah Sickles was a hard woman to figure out. He was not feeling confident that they would be traveling to Salinas.

Now he was curious to know where Johnny had landed. He’d have to check out the saloons until he found him. He barely sidestepped a woman rooting through a barrel outside the general store. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he said out of years of habit. He belatedly realized it was Pearl.

She looked at him and hissed, “Don’t you dare speak to me!”

“Sorry,” he muttered and walked on, feeling her eyes burning a hole in his back. He couldn’t blame her. His appearance into her life had set in motion the events that had ended in Luke Sickles’ death. He would happily disappear from her life forever. He’d been told she was the one who had whacked him on the head, so he had no qualms about leaving her to bake in Panamint.

The town had no shortage of saloons, and Scott found his brother in the third one he tried. Johnny was immersed in a poker game, a large mug of beer in front of him. Johnny seemed delighted to see him.

“Pull up a chair, Scott,” he said, kicking out the seat next to him. He introduced the other three players once Scott sat down. Scott anted into the next deal. “So, are we going to Salinas?” Johnny asked as he inspected his new hand.

“She’s thinking about it,” Scott replied, ignoring Johnny’s smirk.

Johnny couldn’t help but smirk. Scott had been so sure that Hannah would jump at the chance of leaving her hard-scrabble life. But Johnny had encountered such crusty old women before. It was hard to uproot them from their spot no matter how miserable their spot was or how lovely the new spot. There must have been some deep comfort for them about knowing what to expect even if it wasn’t much. He’d warned Scott that she might turn him down. Scott had been incredulous. Johnny’s smirk had ‘I told you so’ written all over it.

Scott scowled back. “I’m going up there tomorrow morning.”

Johnny just nodded. He figured Scott wouldn’t leave without seeing the boy. He’d be going, too, then just to make sure Scott didn’t get lost again.

Scott played a couple of hands, losing both. His mind wasn’t into poker right now. His book was better entertainment. “You planning on eating dinner here?”

“Nope,” Johnny said, tossing another two cents into the kitty. “Willie here says the food ain’t too good. I’ll come back to the hotel when I’m hungry and we can decide what to do from there.”

Scott nodded and left. He wanted to go over his conversation with Hannah and prepare for his next meeting with her. He needed to convince her to move to Salinas!

********************************************

The next morning after breakfast, they rented three horses at the livery. Johnny had to laugh when Scott asked the livery man for directions to the Sickles place.

“I know the way,” Johnny said.

“You do?”

Johnny chuckled. “Guess you weren’t paying much attention riding back from your last visit.”

“My head hurt too much for that,” Scott admitted. “I was lucky I stayed in the saddle.”

Johnny gave him a cocky grin and led the way out of town. Scott got easily confused; the landscape looked nondescript and unending. How did Johnny know when to turn right?

He was tempted to ask Johnny if they were lost when his eye caught movement from up the hills. Then he heard the childish voice: “Scott! Scott!”

Sure-footed as one of the goats, Andy Jack came barreling down the hillside. “You came! You came back!”

Scott fluidly dismounted as the boy drew closer and Andy Jack leapt into his arms.

“Hey there, Andy Jack,” Scott said despite being almost strangled by Andy Jack’s arms around his neck.

“You came back just like you said you would,” Andy Jack said, snuggling into Scott’s shoulder.

“I said I would.” There was no way Murdoch was going to deny him this reunion. Scott dropped him back on the ground. “Come on, let’s ride.” He mounted up again and swung Andy Jack up behind him, and the horses walked up to the cabin. When they were some yards from the cabin, Andy Jack scooted off the horse and ran the rest of the way.

“Gramma! Gramma! Scott came just like he said!” he shouted excitedly.

Hannah Sickles was outside tending to a line of washing. “I see” was all she said.

Once Scott and Johnny had dismounted, Andy Jack took Scott’s hand and dragged him to the mine, eager to show him something inside.

Johnny tipped his hat to Mrs. Sickles and sat down in the shade of the porch but not before offering to help, which Mrs. Sickles none too politely declined. He watched her as she took down the dry clothes.

“You know my brother’s a good man. All he wants to help your little boy. He seems to think he’s real smart. He’d take real kindly to you letting him help you.”

Hannah didn’t say anything. She took down the rest of the clothes and picked up the full basket. Pausing next to Johnny, she said, “You killed my last remaining son.”

“He was gonna kill Scott,” Johnny explained. “Would have killed any man trying to do that. Like I said, Scott’s a good man, finest one I know.”

Hannah walked into the house and slammed the door behind her, making Johnny wonder for the fiftieth time whether Scott was in his right mind trying to help these people.

After a time, Andy Jack and Scott emerged from the mine, Andy Jack still leading Scott by the hand. Scott had an amused smile on his face. When they got to the porch, he asked Andy Jack to stay outside with Johnny because he needed to talk to his grandmother alone.

Scott went inside, leaving Johnny with Andy Jack. He didn’t know what to say to the boy. It didn’t matter. It seemed Andy Jack was quite the talker.

“Did you go to school like Scott?” Andy Jack asked.

“Nope. Had me some schooling. Learned to read and write and do sums, but that’s about all. Scott’s spent like twelve or thirteen years in school. He’s the most schooled man I know.”

“Wow!” Andy Jack was duly impressed. “I’d like to go to school that long.”

Johnny thought the kid was daft. “Maybe you will.” He didn’t want to say any more because he didn’t know if Mrs. Sickles was going to agree to Scott’s plan, and he didn’t want to get the boy’s hopes up.

Andy Jack seemed to contemplate the prospect of going to school for a long time, and then he said, “You killed my Uncle Luke, didn’t you?”

Johnny nodded. “He was going to kill Scott,” he explained again. “Scott’s my brother.”

“You don’t look like brothers,” Andy Jack noticed. “All my uncles looked like each other. They were brothers.”

That’s unfortunate, Johnny thought meanly and smiled a little. Then he sighed. Seemed like everyone they met needed to make the observation of how different he and Scott were, like they were telling him something he didn’t know. “Well, we are. We had different mamas.”

“You mean your papa had two wives?” Andy Jack asked slightly horrified.

Johnny laughed. “Not at the same time,” he clarified. “Scott’s mama died and then my pa married my ma.” He wasn’t quite sure why he was telling Andy Jack the specifics. The boy just seemed to draw it out of him.

Andy Jack fell into silence, for which Johnny was grateful. He didn’t want to say anything more about his family or their unique situation.

“I’m glad Scott’s alive,” Andy Jack whispered after a while.

“Me, too.”

Inside the shack, Scott found Hannah folding the clothes from the basket. He plucked out a blouse and tried to help her, making a complete mess of it.

Hannah snatched the garment out from his hands. “You never folded clothes a day in your life, have you?” she scolded half amused.

Scott blushed. “No, ma’am,” he confessed and watched as she deftly refolded the blouse. “Have you thought on what I said yesterday? Will you give Andy Jack a chance to go to school?”

Hannah paused in her task and almost sighed. “Why do you think I came home and washed all our clothing? We’ll need them in that Salinas place.”

Scott resisted the urge to hug her. “You won’t regret it, Mrs. Sickles,” Scott promised her. “And you’re doing what’s right for Andy Jack. I see great things in his future, given an education.”

Hannah looked dubious. “I’ll have to take your word on that.” She sighed. “I’m not sure what to pack,” she admitted.

“We’ll be traveling by stagecoach,” Scott informed her. “You won’t be able to take too much, no furniture or anything like that. Do you have any traveling bags?”

She went into the other room and dragged a worn and tattered valise from under the bed, along with a duffel bag. “Will these do?”

Scott nodded. “You’ll be able to fit some small items in there with your clothes. Whatever clothes can’t fit, we’ll just buy some more in Salinas,” he told her.

She frowned at the boy. What would it be like to live never having to wash your own clothes, to just buy new ones whenever you needed to? It almost made her want to change her mind about leaving, having her poverty thrown so unwittingly in her face. But she knew he was sincere about helping them, and without the reward money, it was the only way to get Andy Jack into school. She had prayed to the Almighty to find a way to get Andy Jack schooling. Apparently, He had sent Scott Lancer as His answer. She wouldn’t question His wisdom.

“Andy Jack!” Scott called outside. “Come in here!”

Andy Jack came scurrying in. Scott raised his eyebrows to Hannah. “Your grandmother has something to tell you.”

Hannah looked at her grandson’s face, alight with excitement and promise for the future. “Andy Jack, Mr. Lancer here has found you a school to go to…” That’s all the further she got before Andy Jack again bound into Scott’s arms.

“Really? Truly? I can go to school?”

“Really, truly,” Scott answered, setting the boy down again.

“But what about Gramma?” Andy Jack asked.

“She’s coming, too,” Scott assured him.

Andy Jack couldn’t contain his excitement. He ran over to Hannah for hugs and then to Scott again, laughing with glee. “I get to go! I’m going to school!”

Johnny appeared at the door to take in the child’s joy. He couldn’t figure how school could make the little fellow so happy. His time at the orphanage under the tyranny of the nuns had been nothing but a nightmare. Nevertheless, seeing the child’s pure delight made him smile. Once more he was amazed at his brother’s generosity.

“Would it be possible to pack up and leave here this afternoon?” Scott asked hopefully. “We brought an extra horse for your things and Andy Jack just in case.”

Hannah nodded. She looked around. Clearly, she was seeing what she would have to leave behind, making her wistful.

“Can I help you pack?” Johnny asked Andy Jack. He knew Hannah wouldn’t want his help. He’d leave her to Scott.

“Sure!” Andy Jack chirped and they disappeared into another room.

“I’m sorry we don’t have more space,” Scott apologized.

Hannah sighed. “No matter.” She squared her shoulders and gave Scott a tremulous smile. “Time for a fresh start.” She took a dainty, pink and blue teacup and saucer off a shelf. “This here’s all I have left from my mama. This and the quilt on my bed.”

“You can take both,” Scott said. “We can wrap some of your clothes around the teacup to keep it safe, and you and Andy Jack can sit on the quilt in the stagecoach.”

Her face brightened. “Think so?”

Scott nodded, smiling.

She smiled at him then, small but genuine. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer, for doing this for Andy Jack, for helping us.”

“I thought I was going to die out there in the desert,” he confessed. “Andy Jack saved me. Just returning the favor.” It was best not to mention the attempted murder of him.

They left in the early afternoon. Andy Jack was just as excited about staying overnight at the hotel as he was about school. Johnny could see why Scott was taken with the boy. He’d fretted about the goats, but Hannah assured him someone from town would take them and see to them. That seemed to satisfy the child.

Having dinner in the restaurant was a real treat. Andy Jack bounced up and down in his chair and had to be reminded several times about his manners. Nevertheless, Scott ordered a slice of cake for him, and the waitress set down a large piece in front of Andy Jack as she winked at Scott. Johnny had opted for some Mexican fare down the street. After dinner Scott and Andy Jack went in search of him, stopping every few feet as Andy Jack marveled at some new sight or bauble. They never did find Johnny, as Scott suspected. It was the journey with the boy that mattered.

Scott hadn’t slept much that night, being just as excited for Andy Jack as Andy Jack. After breakfast, Scott told Johnny to inform the sheriff of their plans so he would know the Sickles had left, while he went to the bank to retrieve Johnny’s money. Andy Jack saw a shiny jackknife in the general store window, and Scott told him to wait there while he went inside the bank. When he came out, there was no sign of the boy.

Suddenly, Pearl came rushing up to him, saying Andy Jack was in trouble and needed his help. She hustled him down an alleyway as he tried to get her to explain what was wrong. That was the last thing he was conscious of.

Johnny had just come out of the sheriff’s office when he spied Pearl run up to Scott all agitated. She pushed him into the alley. He frowned. Now, what did that gal have planned for his brother? This he had to see. He went down a parallel alley to get the drop on them.

What he saw filled him with rage. Scott was sprawled face down in the dirt, while a heavyset man rummaged through his pockets. Pearl was imploring him to hurry up. He crowed when he discovered Scott’s billfold.

Johnny decided to make his presence known. “Drop it or I’ll drop you,” he threatened.

The big man just sneered at him until the bullet nearly took off part of his ear.

“The next one will cripple your hand,” Johnny promised.

The man dropped the wallet as Pearl cowered behind him. “That’s the one who killed Luke,” she told her accomplice.

“You got two seconds to get the hell out of here, and if I even see your face today, you’re a dead man. You, too,” he said to Pearl.

They both hurried away.

Johnny hunkered down beside his brother. Scott was just starting to come around. Johnny helped him sit up.

“What happened?” Scott asked, rubbing the back of his head.

“You got bushwhacked,” Johnny told him.

Scott pondered the information. “Pearl…”

“Yep, she set you up good. She and her new man tried to rob you.”

Scott’s hand immediately went to his jacket pocket, finding it empty. Johnny handed him the billfold. Scott took it with a grateful nod.

“How’s the head?”

“Hurts like a son-of-a-bitch,” Scott complained.

Johnny was surprised. He’d expected Scott’s usual “I’m fine” response. It must be hurting something fierce for his brother to admit pain.

Scott suddenly looked around. “Where’s Andy Jack? She said Andy Jack was in trouble.” He started to rise.

Johnny helped him up and steadied him. “Haven’t seen him.”

“I left him at the front of the store while I went to the bank.”

“Well, let’s look there then,” Johnny suggested softly. Scott looked none too steady on his feet as they moved back up the alley.

They found Andy Jack right where Scott had left him, a piece of licorice in his fist.

“Where were you when I came out of the bank?” Scott asked angrily.

“I saw Pearl. She told me to go pick out candy and she’d pay for it,” he said guardedly. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Pearl did,” Scott muttered.

“She does a lot of wrong things,” Andy Jack muttered back. “She’s stupid.”

Scott didn’t correct him, giving him a penny for his candy. Andy Jack ran back in the store to pay for his treat.

“You sure you’re all right?” Johnny asked again.

“Think I need to sit down a bit before we go,” Scott admitted.

“Go on back to the room,” Johnny suggested. “I’ll take care of everything.”

“Thanks, Johnny.” Scott had never been more grateful that Johnny had come with him. When he first conceived of coming back to Panamint, he thought he’d be traveling alone. Now he was very thankful for his younger brother’s company. The blow to his head was taking more out of him than he cared to admit. He was starting to feel nauseous. He’d just lie down for a few minutes.

Johnny had been concerned that he had to wake Scott up from a deep sleep to get him to the stagecoach in time. He figured his brother needed the rest. Now as the coach rattled its way toward Bakersfield, he couldn’t help but sympathize with the man. His head had to be hurting something awful. Nevertheless, he kept up with Andy Jack’s non-stop questions with the patience of a priest.

The coach was full; Hannah and Andy Jack Sickles and Scott rode on one side, Johnny and two men rode on the other.  Both of the strangers looked like miners who were down on their luck. They didn’t appear to know one another, but both seemed very glad to be leaving Panamint. Johnny couldn’t blame them. The town was booming now, but it didn’t hold anything of real permanence. Johnny reckoned that when the mines tapped out, so would Panamint. But if you were a fugitive from the law, it wasn’t a bad place to hole up.

An hour or so into the journey, Scott produced a book from his coat pocket and gave it to the boy. It was a McGuffey reader. Scott explained it was the first of a series of books designed to teach children reading, among other things. Johnny smiled. His brother thought of everything. Now he was teaching Andy Jack the alphabet. Johnny had to admit the boy was a quick study. He had mostly conquered the letters by lunch, and now Scott was teaching the sounds of each of them. Johnny wished he’d had a teacher as patient and inventive as Scott, who was able to create all sorts of examples to illustrate his points. The nuns had required rote memorization only. It had been boring to repeat things over and over again. Scott explained why words sounded the way they did and were written the way they were. Johnny was learning new things along with Andy Jack, although he’d never admit to it. Scott’s head didn’t need to get any bigger.

Speaking of Scott’s head, every time there was a significant jolt from a rut or a root, Scott’s face would go pale and he’d wince. That wasn’t good, but if Johnny knew his brother, which he thought he did, he knew Scott would soldier on without complaint, being the true soldier that he was. They had three more days to travel by stagecoach to get to Salinas. The only thing that would improve was the weather.

Hannah Sickles sat quietly with no complaints. Johnny hoped it was because she knew she was getting a good deal from Scott. Every so often she would tell Andy Jack to hush and stop asking so many questions, for which Johnny and the rest of the passengers were grateful. Even Scott’s patience seemed to reach its limit later in the afternoon. Luckily, Andy Jack chose to take a nap and silence reigned.

Days later on the road from Bakersfield north to San Miguel, Scott grew silent and asked Andy Jack to look at his book by himself. Johnny traded places with him and sat next to Andy Jack, so Scott could get some respite. The two miners had left at Bakersfield, and a woman with two older children were now their traveling companions. The two daughters found Andy Jack adorable and proceeded to occupy most of his time, much to the Lancer brothers’ relief.

Johnny kept an eye on Scott. It had been difficult to rouse him from bed in the morning. He was beginning to slur his words, too. The coach was beginning to slow as it made its way to the last rest stop before they’d stop in Salinas. It couldn’t come too soon for Johnny. They’d have about a half an hour stop at the way station while they changed horses and the drivers had something to eat.

As the horses came to a stop, the driver jumped down and opened the door for the passengers. “All right. Everybody out. There’s some food in the station and an outhouse and all,” he said.

Everyone was eager to get out of the cramped space and stretch their legs. Everyone except Scott.

“Hey!” Johnny called, jostling Scott’s shoulder. “You heard the man—‘everybody out.’”

Scott didn’t open his eyes.

“Hey!” Johnny shook him harder.

“Leave me alone!” Scott said. At least that’s what Johnny thought he said; the words were badly slurred.

“You boys coming?” the grizzled driver asked.

“Can my brother stay?” Johnny asked. “Seems he’s too tired to get out right now.”

The driver shrugged. “Don’t make no never mind to me.”

Johnny jumped down from the coach. “Thanks.” He walked into the waystation hoping to find some food. He picked up a sandwich, a couple of carrots, and a mug of water and sat down by the Sickles.

“Where’s Scott?” Andy Jack asked.

“He decided to stay in the coach,” Johnny answered. “Said he wanted to sleep some more.”

“He sleeped all day,” Andy Jack groused. He had missed his morning reading lesson. Apparently, Johnny was a poor substitute.

“Let the man be, child,” Hannah chided. “You plum wore him out with all your questions.”

Johnny hoped that was all there was to it. Andy Jack pouted while he ate his sandwich and then went outside to pester the two girls.

Left alone with Hannah Sickles, Johnny searched for something to say. Scott was usually the one who commenced with the casual conversation. He hadn’t exchanged more than five words with her the entire trip. He could tell she was just as uneasy as he was. “Only ‘bout two more hours to Salinas,” he said.

She nodded. After a spell, she said, “I admit I’m a bit nervous to get there.”

“Why?”

“What if the boarding house woman don’t take a likin’ to me?” Hannah said worriedly.

“Mrs. Schwartzmann? Scott said she was a real nice lady. You help her out, and she’ll like you just fine,” Johnny tried to reassure her.

Hannah still looked skeptical. There was nothing more Johnny could say about that, not having met Mrs. Schwartzmann. “Scott went to a lot of trouble to arrange all this for you and Andy Jack. He thinks it will all work out, and he’s a pretty good judge of things like this.”

Hannah sighed and turned her face away.

Frustrated, Johnny got up and went outside to use the outhouse. He still wasn’t convinced these people needed helping, although he could see the appeal of Andy Jack. It wasn’t the kid’s fault he was born into a rotten family. He peeked in the coach window to check on Scott, who hadn’t moved a muscle since he’d left. Andy Jack was chasing the girls around. They were playing keep-away with his book. Andy Jack’s face looked more desperate than happy as he tried to get his book back. Johnny watched for a while and then intercepted it when he got the chance. He handed the book back to Andy Jack while the girls groaned in disappointment. “’Bout time to get back on the stage,” he explained, grateful when the driver hollered the same thing not two minutes later.

Johnny longed to sit next to his brother, but it was clear the mother of the two girls wouldn’t have it. So he sat opposite Scott next to the Sickles, while the mother sat next to Scott, acting like she was shielding her daughters from the dangerous, sleeping man. Johnny smiled to himself. If that mother knew that she was sitting next to most honorable and wealthiest man in the San Joaquin Valley, she’d change her tune in a heartbeat. No, the dangerous man was sitting across from her…letting an eight-year-old crawl onto his lap.

Why did the last leg of a journey seem to take an eternity? Johnny and Hannah both let out huge sighs when the stagecoach finally pulled into the Salinas station. The mother and daughters were getting off here, too. The driver helped them down from the coach and then offered his hand to Hannah. She let Andy Jack depart before she did.

“Scott,” Johnny said, again jostling his shoulder. This time Scott slid down the seat. Alarmed, Johnny cried, “Scott!” He shook Scott hard, but nothing happened, not even a twitch.

“What’s the matter?” the driver said, climbing halfway in.

“My brother—he won’t wake up!”

The driver shook Scott roughly, then slapped his face hard.

“Hey!” Johnny objected.

There was no response from Scott.

“We need to get him out of here,” the driver told him. “Hank? C’mere and give us a hand with this feller.”

The second driver appeared by the door, but there wasn’t much room for him. Nevertheless, among the three of them, they managed to get Scott out of the coach and onto a bench outside the station. The situation was causing quite a stir.

“What’s wrong with Scott?” Andy Jack’s plaintive voice carried through the general buzz.

“Hush now, boy, and help my with these bags.” That was Hannah.

Johnny stood by his brother at a loss as to what to do. Scott hadn’t told him of his plans once they reached Salinas. Was anyone supposed to meet them? Did they have reservations at the hotel? Andy Jack and Hannah managed to get all their bags together by the bench where Scott lay.

“Let’s get him to the hotel and then go for the doctor,” Hannah said, gently folding her quilt under Scott’s head as a pillow.

Johnny was grateful for her advice. It galvanized him into action. Leaving Scott with the Sickles, he found the hotel. Scott had made reservations and paid for two rooms. Johnny decided they’d double up on one room and give Hannah and Andy Jack the other one. He didn’t think Hannah was ready to go to the boarding house just yet. Besides, he might need her help with Scott. Then he tracked down the doctor, who told him he would be along in a bit.

Johnny returned to the stage office. Hannah was still there keeping watch over Scott. Some bystanders volunteered to help move Scott to the hotel and among all of them, they managed to get Scott and the luggage settled in the hotel. Johnny had gotten a room with two beds in it for him and Scott. Hannah’s room was a few doors down.

Johnny took Scott’s boots off and then stood there for a while. Eventually, he moved a chair over to the bedside and just sat there, looking at his brother’s slack face. A few minutes later, Hannah knocked on the door, asking how she could help. Johnny shrugged but opened the door wider, allowing her into the room, Andy Jack bounding in behind her. He was more excited about his hotel room here than he was about the one in Panamint.

Hannah went straight to the washstand and poured water into the bowl. She grabbed the towel and went over to Scott’s side. “When’s the doctor comin’?”

“He had another patient. He said he’d come over as soon as he was done.” Johnny said.

Hannah wetted the towel, folded it several times, and placed it on Scott’s forehead. Still, Scott didn’t awaken. “We’ll just wait for him, then,” Hannah said decisively. “Why don’t you unpack your things while we’re waitin’?”

Johnny complied; there was nothing else he could do for Scott. Andy Jack followed Johnny around, asking about everything that came out of his and Scott’s bags. Just as Johnny was finishing the task and losing his patience, there was another knock on the door. This time it was the doctor. He was as slim and tall as Scott, about ten years older, with thinning brown hair and a small mustache.

“Harold Halloway,” the doctor introduced himself briskly, shaking Johnny’s hand. “Now where’s the patient?”

Anyone with half a brain could see that the patient was the man on the bed, but Johnny kept his sarcasm to himself and motioned toward Scott’s bed. Hannah rose to give Halloway the chair. At Johnny’s nod, she left the room. The doctor didn’t need Andy Jack’s incessant questions while he was examining Scott.

Halloway set his bag down and rooted around in it until he came up with his stethoscope. Johnny thought the man took forever to take Scott’s pulse and listen to his heart. Then he asked Johnny to help him undress Scott and get him under the linens. With Scott no help at all, it took them a bit of time to accomplish that. Finally, he put the wet towel over Scott’s face. Scott still didn’t rouse.

Looking very concerned, Halloway took the towel off and started feeling around Scott’s skull. “Did he get hit in the head recently?”

“Yeah. In the back of it.”

Halloway’s fingers probed the back of Scott’s head. “Ah! Found it!”

“But that was three days ago,” Johnny protested.

“Did he lose consciousness?”

“Yeah.”

“For how long?”

“A few minutes. Not too long. Then he came ‘round and he was fine.”

“Fine?” Halloway questioned skeptically.

Johnny smiled despite the circumstances. “His version of ‘fine.’ Had himself a headache for a day or two, I ‘spect, but otherwise he just seemed like Scott.”

“And today? Anything different? Did he slur his speech?”

“Yeah, and it kept getting harder and harder to wake him up until he wouldn’t wake up anymore.”

Halloway nodded as he put away his stethoscope. “It happens that way sometimes. Head injuries are tricky. A person can be walking around seeming perfectly fine for a week and then drop dead.”

“Scott’s gonna die?” Johnny said alarmed.

“No, no, I didn’t say that, young man,” Halloway said soothingly. “Like I said, head injuries are tricky. We don’t know a lot about them. He could wake up just fine, so calm yourself.”

Johnny started pacing. “What can we do, Doc?”

Halloway sighed. “Nothing much, I’m afraid. However, I interned with a doctor who swore that keeping the head immobilized was very important.”

Johnny looked blankly at him. “What does that mean and how do we do it?”

“We need to keep his head as still as possible. I’ll arrange a sling for it. I’ll tie it to the headboard and hopefully, that will stop any movement or at least discourage it.”

“And that’ll help?” Johnny asked, hope in his voice for the first time.

“I have no earthly idea,” Halloway admitted, “but it couldn’t hurt. I’ll get the things I need from my office. I’ll be right back.”

When he returned, he and Johnny tied thin pieces of wood on either side of Scott’s face to keep him from turning his head. Then they slung a piece of cloth under his chin and tied it to the headboard to keep Scott’s head in place. It looked awkward to Johnny, but the doctor assured him that Scott wasn’t feeling a thing; he was deeply unconscious.

Both Halloway and Johnny stepped back from their handiwork. “And this is gonna work?” Johnny asked dubiously.

“As I told you, you can’t tell with head injuries,” Halloway said, wondering how many more times he’d have to say it to this worried young man. Apparently, the two men were brothers, although he had a hard time believing it. They looked nothing alike. However, Johnny’s devotion and worry toward Scott was undeniable.

“So he could still die?”

“Yes,” Halloway said softly. It was the most likely outcome. He didn’t want to give the man false hope.

“When?” Johnny asked bleakly.

“There’s no telling. Could be an hour from now; could be days.”

Johnny stared at Scott’s still form, nodding pensively.

Halloway slapped Johnny’s shoulder as he passed. “Or he could wake up like nothing is wrong. That’s a possibility, too, Johnny.” He was relieved when Johnny didn’t ask for the percentages. He let himself out of the room as Johnny sat down to keep vigil over his brother.

Not too long after, Hannah knocked on the door again. Johnny ushered her in gratefully. “I need to send a telegram to our father, let him know what’s happened. Could you watch Scott for me?”

Hannah nodded. “Did the doctor say he’d be all right?”

“He wouldn’t say, just ‘maybe yes, maybe no.’”

“What happened to him?” Hannah asked, nodding at Scott.

“Pearl hit him in the head. She tried to rob him,” Johnny said, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.

“That girl!” Hannah said with disgust. “When?”

“The day we left Panamint.”

“Pearl hit him in the head before, too,” Andy Jack said, “that day you come looking for him at Uncle Luke’s cabin. She hit him real hard and then hid him in the mine.”

“Hush, child!” Hannah told him. She didn’t want Andy Jack to reveal her part in the plot.

“That so?” Johnny asked her.

Embarrassed, she nodded. Luke’s plan had been a foolish one. Why had she ever agreed to it? She knew the answer. She was scared of him. How awful was that—to be scared of your own son?

Johnny stood rooted to the spot. Poor Scott. Twice! He’d been knocked unconscious twice by that bitch. No wonder it had taken him a few weeks to recover fully from his ill-conceived journey through Death Valley.

“Can I come with you?” Andy Jack asked, breaking the silence.

Johnny thought Hannah and certainly Scott needed the peace and quiet. “Sure. Come on.”

They found the telegraph office and got the message sent a few minutes before closing and waited for the confirmation that Morro Coyo had received it. Johnny felt confident that Zeke would get the telegram to Murdoch that evening. Andy Jack peppered the operator with questions, mainly how a telegraph worked. Johnny was surprised at the answer, not knowing what electricity or a battery was. He’d been curious about telegraphs at first, too, but not enough to actually ask the questions. Now he had all the answers, mostly. Scott would have known, no doubt, but he didn’t like giving Scott the opportunity to show off his learning over things that didn’t matter. Telegraphs worked. That’s all Johnny needed to know about them.

There was no change in Scott’s condition when he walked back in the room. “Thanks for looking after him,” he said. He gave Hannah a dollar for her and Andy Jack’s dinner. After they left, he sat in the hard chair and watched the slight rise and fall of Scott’s chest. Then he got up and paced the floor some. He wished he had the upholstered wing-backed chair that was in Scott’s room. Scott had found it in a guest room and claimed it. It was his favorite chair to read in. It also was comfortable enough to fall asleep in, which was why Johnny was missing it. He knew he’d never make it through the night on the wooden chair.

Hannah came by with some stew and biscuits for him. The woman did surprise him every so often. He restlessly paced the floor again. Finally, he dragged his bed as near to Scott’s as he could. He figured he was near enough to hear any change in Scott’s breathing. He lit Scott’s bedside lamp and found the book Scott was reading. Then he settled himself down for a long night.

A rapping on the door awakened him. He sat up abruptly, knocking Scott’s book off his lap. Light was peeking around the corners of the curtains. Doctor Halloway was on the other side of the door. He walked in asking whether there was any change in Scott’s condition. If there had been, Johnny had slept right through it. Halloway checked Scott’s pulse and heart again, and then lifted Scott’s eyelids. Even Johnny’s untrained eye could see one pupil was much bigger than the other. That couldn’t be good.

“How is he?” Johnny asked.

“The same as yesterday.” Halloway had this clipped, terse way of speaking that rubbed Johnny the wrong way. At Johnny’s sigh, he added, “But he isn’t any worse, either, Johnny. Look at it that way.”

Johnny nodded. “What do you want me to do?”

“As I’ve told you, there’s nothing we can do but wait. I’ll come by this evening to check on him again. Let me know if there’s any change in his condition, no matter what the time.”

Johnny nodded again. Halloway may not have Sam Jenkins’ bedside manner, but he seemed a capable doctor, and he did seem concerned about Scott. Johnny thought his brother was in competent hands.

Halloway let himself out and Johnny moved the bed back where it belonged and settled on it. He picked up Scott’s book and then tossed it aside. The damn thing was so boring it had put him to sleep. Some story about a woman who had to wear an A on her and who had an annoying daughter named Pearl. That should have put him off right there. Gals named Pearl weren’t real popular with him right now. He had read only a few pages before he flipped through the book, stopping at random paragraphs in an effort to find a place that described some action. He hadn’t found any. Well, he wasn’t going to get any farther into it—unless he needed something to put him to sleep. And Scott read this shit for enjoyment?

Eventually, he heard Andy Jack’s voice in the hallway. He took the pitcher and politely asked Hannah to get fresh water in it. She agreed, and Johnny restlessly wandered over to the window. Drawing the curtain aside, he looked out onto another sparkling California morning. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. He wasn’t looking forward to spending the beautiful day in this darkened room. Then there was the matter of the Sickles. Hannah and Andy Jack needed to relocate to the boarding house, and with Scott unable to do it, it fell on him. He sighed. It was Scott who set up this whole arrangement. He didn’t know what he had told this Mrs. Schwartzmann or what they had agreed to.

The hotel manager brought the newly filled pitcher back. He asked her whether someone could sit with Scott while he ran some errands in an hour or so. She said she or the cleaning girl could do it, which meant he would be able to get some fresh air today. He looked down at Scott’s face. It was unsettling to see it so lax. Fear squeezed his heart. He fervently hoped his father had gotten his telegram last night and was even now making his way to Salinas.

*********************************************

“Mrs. Schwartzmann?” Johnny asked, pulling his hat off his head, as manners dictated.

“Ja?” The stout, matronly woman was wiping her floury hands on her apron.

“My name’s Johnny Lancer. Scott Lancer is my brother?”

He got no further before Mrs. Schwartzmann interrupted. “Nein! Scott Lancer ist blond und hoch.”

Johnny didn’t understand all the words she was speaking, but he got the gist of it. It was the Schwartzmann equivalent of “you can’t be brothers.” “Ma’am, I can assure you, he is my brother.”

“That’s right!” Andy Jack piped in. “Johnny and Scott are brothers.”

“Ach, so,” she conceded, and Johnny didn’t know whether it was his assurance or Andy Jack’s that had convinced her.

“Ma’am, this here is Hannah Sickles and her grandson, Andy Jack. My brother said he’d made arrangements with you to take them in?”

Mrs. Schwartzmann’s ruddy face broke into a huge, warm smile. “Ja! Welcome! Welcome!” She motioned for everyone to come inside. They were ushered into a roomy parlor with worn but clean furnishings. She offered everyone tea, which Johnny declined, saying he needed to return to the hotel. It turned out Mrs. Schwartzmann’s first name was Hanna, so that seemed to put Hannah more at ease. Andy Jack had been enveloped in the boarding house owner’s ample arms and given a good squeeze. There seemed to be nothing but good will abounding when Johnny left the house. It was a large, two-story clapboard home, with the Hanna(h)s occupying the downstairs bedrooms and four more bedrooms rented out upstairs. Hannah seemed satisfied with the arrangement, and Andy Jack was already exploring the rooms, handling everything, and asking questions.

Johnny stopped at the cantina and had some eggs with salsa for breakfast. He was very worried about Scott but not eager to spend the entire day inside a darkened and stuffy room. Nevertheless, he sauntered up the main street and went back to the hotel. The cleaning girl was there looking quite bored. She reported that Scott had not moved an inch while Johnny was gone and then hurriedly and gratefully left the room with her tip.

About an hour later, there was another knock at the door. This time it was Hannah, much to Johnny’s surprise. She offered her help, and Johnny accepted it. He hoped the time would pass more quickly with another person there, even if it was Hannah Sickles. She again got a towel wet and dabbed at Scott’s perspiring face with it, careful not to move his head. Mrs. Schwartzmann was happily looking after Andy Jack. Johnny figured even Hannah needed to get away from the boy every so often. He wondered how long Mrs. Schwartzmann would last under the avalanche of questions.

They started out talking about the weather. It was warm in the room even with the window open and a slight breeze. That led to the heat in Panamint and eventually to talking about the cabin in the hills above it. Johnny asked how her family came to live there.

“I married Hosea Sickles when I was only fifteen,” Hannah confessed. “I shouldn’t have married so young, but I wanted to get out of my father’s house, and I thought I was in love, you know?”

Johnny nodded.

“For a while everything was good until Hosea lost his job at the mill. Don’t know why he lost it, but after that, it was hard for him to find work and he started drinking more. By then I’d already had my first son, Matthew. We started moving around. Hosea thought there’d be work in the next town, so we moved. He’d find a job and it would last a few months and then we’d move on either because he’d quit or was let go.” She gave a mirthless laugh. “I don’t think Hosea liked to work all that much. We barely got by, mostly by good folks’ charity, and I kept birthin’ sons for him.”

“How many sons did you have?” Johnny asked.

“Four big, fine, strappin’ sons. Birthed a girl in there, too, but she died after a few days. Andy Jack’s the son of my third boy, Andrew Jackson Sickles. He was the smart one. Andy Jack takes after him. Takes after his sweetness, too. He weren’t never meant to be robbin’ banks and such. His father and brothers seemed to take to it, but he never wanted to hurt nobody.”

“They got into robbing banks?”

“And other places. Hosea thought it was a whole lot easier than workin’ for money. They got them a real reputation in Texas. We finally had to get outta there.”

“And you didn’t stop them?” Johnny asked, accusation in his tone.

Hannah flashed him an angry glare. “It was all I could do tryin’ to stay outta his way and keep my boys fed. Hosea was a mean drunk, Mr. Lancer, and he liked to drink.”

Johnny didn’t need further explanation. He’d been around his share of Hosea Sickleses in his young life. He’d learned to give them wide space. Mama had gotten involved with some who definitely didn’t take to having a mestizo kid hanging around. He’d learned to lay low and make it to the next day. He couldn’t blame Hannah for doing the same.

“He filled up my boys with his hate and bitterness. Made ‘em think beatin’ women was normal. Andrew was the only one who had a wife. Your Pa ever beat you?”

“No. I got beat but not by my father,” Johnny said, thinking of Mama’s men.  

“It changes a person. Changed me. First my Pa, then my husband. Sometimes even my own sons took a hand to me. Once Hosea died, I seen a chance to raise Andy Jack right and I’m doin’ it.”

Johnny knew what she was talking about. Part of his Madrid persona was created so that no man could lay a hand on him again and live to tell about it. He didn’t want to think about that time of his life. “How did he die?”

“Robbery gone wrong,” Hannah said, looking off toward the window as if she was remembering the day. “They got Hosea and Andrew. I feared Andrew would be taken. He was never cut out for that kind of life. Luke said he got killed because he hesitated shootin’ the man who killed him. Luke and Matthew made it out alive but without the money. Two years later, Matthew died doin’ the same thing. That left Luke…and you. Luke swore that if we could get the law to think he was dead, the price would be off his head and we could move away from that awful place. Then I could get Andy Jack into school. You have to understand, Mr. Lancer, how much I wanted to get Andy Jack out of that place and into school.”

That didn’t excuse Luke for trying to kill an innocent man in cold blood. “Luke deserved killing,” he whispered.

Hannah thought about the times her youngest had hit her and Andy Jack. “I was gonna do it myself,” she whispered back. “Lord help me, I was thinkin’ about killin’ my own son, but he took the rifle away from me afore I could do it.” She looked down at Scott Lancer’s face and dabbed away a bead of sweat from his upper lip. “I don’t blame you for what you did anymore, but still…it’s hard. Those boys were such sweet children afore they got older and Hosea got ahold of ‘em,” she said wistfully. “Turned ‘em…”

Johnny stayed quiet. There was nothing he could say to Hannah Sickles to ease her pain.

“I didn’t think there was a man alive that was good ‘til your brother come along, but he’s done convinced me. The way he treats Andy Jack and bringin’ us here and all…” She shook her head. “Was hard to believe.”

“Hope you believe it now,” Johnny said smiling.

She smiled back tentatively, like she wasn’t used to it. “I do, Mr. Lancer, I surely do.”

The next minutes passed in silence, but it was a comfortable one. Finally, Hannah said, “Why don’t you get some air, Mr. Lancer? You shouldn’t spend all day cooped up in this room. I’ll look after him good.”

Johnny nodded, believing Scott was in good and trustworthy hands. He told her to send for the doctor if Scott showed any signs of waking up. Then he went in search of a beer.

************************************************

Hannah had left hours ago. Johnny was hunched over in the wooden chair trying to keep Scott cool with wet towels. His back was starting to complain. He heard heavy footsteps in the hall. “I do believe the cavalry has arrived, brother,” he said and then smiled as he remembered Scott was the cavalryman. The footsteps stopped outside the door and there was a knock. “Come on in,” Johnny called, surprised at the amount of relief he felt having Murdoch here to share the burden.

Murdoch burst through the door, and Johnny glimpsed the manager backing away.

“What happened?” Murdoch demanded, striding over to the bed.

“Scott got hit on the head back in Panamint. He seemed to be okay, but as we traveled to Salinas, he got sleepier and sleepier. By the time we got here, I couldn’t rouse him.” Johnny hoped the short version would be sufficient for the moment. It was.

“What’s this?” Murdoch pointed to the sling around Scott’s head.

“Doc wants to keep his head still. We thought this would help,” Johnny explained.

Murdoch motioned for Johnny to get up from the chair. He did thankfully, and Murdoch took his place by Scott’s bed. “Does the doctor think he’s going to be all right?”

“He won’t say. Said it could go either way right now.”

Murdoch looked up at his younger son. “When was the last time you were out of this chair?”

Johnny blew out a breath. “This afternoon.”

Murdoch looked him up and down. “You have two choices, John. You can lay down on that bed and get some sleep or go downstairs and get something to eat.”

“I’m all right, Old Man,” Johnny protested, knowing it would fall on deaf ears. Murdoch had called him ‘John,’ which meant he wouldn’t tolerate disobedience. It didn’t matter. With the relief that he felt with Murdoch’s appearance came the realization of just how tired he was. He sat down on the other bed, took off his boots, and was asleep in minutes.

Murdoch reached for Scott’s hand. His boy looked to be asleep, nothing more. There was the slight, rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, but otherwise, there was no movement at all. A pang of fear gripped him. He’d been afraid something bad was going to happen on this knight errant’s trip. Once Johnny was awake again and fed, he’d get the whole story. And he wanted to talk to the doctor himself. But for now he’d keep watch over both his sons and bring them back to health by sheer will if he had to.

************************************************

The following morning, Murdoch sought out the doctor’s office. He found Doctor Halloway restocking his doctor’s bag. Murdoch introduced himself, and the doctor offered his condolences on Scott’s condition.

“I’ll come straight to the point, doctor. I want to know what my son’s chances are.”

“As I told your other son, there’s no way to tell.” At Murdoch’s glare, Halloway continued, “Scott may recover today and not be the worse for wear.”

“Or…”

“Or he could die. One never knows with head injuries,” Halloway said. “And there’s usually no sign that tells us one way or the other. The only thing you can do is wait and see. I do want to put a feeding tube in. Johnny seemed quite adamant against it when I mentioned it last evening. Perhaps he’ll listen to you?”

“Not likely, but if you think Scott needs it, then you do it.”

Halloway nodded. “Good. We have to keep fluids in him, or he’ll die from dehydration before his head has a chance to heal.”

“When will you do it?”

“Now’s as good a time as any. I should have done it yesterday.”

As they walked to the hotel, Murdoch asked him about his qualifications.

“I was trained in New York—Columbia.”

Murdoch nodded approvingly. That was Sam Jenkins’ medical school.

“I got most of my training in combat during the War,” Halloway continued. “Thought I’d find a quieter spot out West to set up practice. Salinas is a nice, quiet town mostly.”

“Scott fought in the Union cavalry until he was taken prisoner,” Murdoch said, hoping this doctor would fight harder for his son if he knew they had something in common.

Halloway was surprised. “He survived a Confederate camp?” It was a stupid question. Of course, he had.

“Scott has a very strong sense of survival,” Murdoch said as they entered the hotel.

“He’ll need it.”

Murdoch frowned at that statement.

As predicted, Johnny strenuously objected to inserting the feeding tube, but in the end, Murdoch got his way.

Watching Johnny stomp out of the room, Halloway remarked, “They don’t look much like brothers.”

Murdoch harumphed. “Different mothers,” and that was all he was going to say about the matter. He knew his sons were tired of hearing that comment every time they were introduced to someone new. Catherine and Maria were as different as night and day and their sons were the same. Yet both women had been beautiful and had captured his heart. He loved both his sons fiercely, but they also scared him. He knew that losing them was the only thing that could destroy him, that could reach deep into his soul and tear it to shreds.

Halloway tried again to rouse Scott but failed to get a response. Then he carefully inserted the feeding tube through Scott’s nose. “It’s very important to keep water in him.” He demonstrated how to use the syringe as he gave Scott his first dose. “Fill it four or five times every couple of hours.” He let Murdoch practice with the last two amounts. Satisfied that Murdoch could handle it, Halloway left.

It was a while before Johnny reappeared. He frowned when he saw Scott’s face but didn’t say anything. Then Murdoch asked for the whole story behind Scott’s condition. Johnny told him and watched as his father got more and more agitated.

“I never liked those people, and now they do this to Scott.”

“It was just that gal, Pearl, Murdoch. She wasn’t a lawful part of the family anyway, only fornicating with that outlaw, Luke. Hannah said she left almost right after we did and found herself a new man to please. It must have been him that hit Scott.”

“’Hannah’ now, is it?” Murdoch grumbled.

Johnny grumbled right back. “Yeah, and she’s been right nice about helping me with Scott.”

Murdoch didn’t want to continue down this path of arguing with Johnny, not with Scott so ill. “It’s time to give Scott more water. Let me show you how to do it.”

Johnny balked. “Aw, hell, Old Man, I don’t want to be doing that.”

“You need to know, John. Scott is counting on us.” Murdoch filled up the large syringe and gave it to Johnny. “Push the plunger down slow and even.”

Johnny did so, watching the liquid disappear up the tube.

“That’s fine, son. Excellent,” Murdoch praised. “Why are you so against the tube?”

“Had one stuck in my face in El Paso when some pendejo busted my jaw. It was the worst feeling. It hurts, Murdoch,” Johnny explained. “I didn’t want that for Scott.”

Murdoch nodded. “He’s not feeling it now, and we’ll take it out when he is. He won’t need it once he can drink again.”

They worked out a schedule for taking care of Scott. Murdoch had taken his own hotel room, for which Johnny was very grateful. He didn’t want to look after Scott while listening to his father’s loud snores. That would have driven him crazy. Plus, he didn’t like sharing his bed. Yes, Johnny Lancer was learning to be finicky in this new life as one-third owner of Lancer.

They settled into their new routine quickly. Every so often Hannah Sickles would stop by with and without Andy Jack. Johnny didn’t mind the interruptions; they broke up the monotony, but Murdoch would always turn them away. Doctor Halloway brought over a chessboard during one of his visits with both chess pieces and checkers, which alleviated the boredom some as well. Meanwhile, they kept shoving water into the tube and waiting for any signs of life from Scott. At one point, Johnny walked in on Murdoch reading out loud to Scott from his book and chided his father.

“Don’t be reading that to him, Old Man. If anything, it’ll put him to sleep deeper!”

Murdoch laughed. “I remember when this book was published. I was in Boston trying to claim Scott. It was the talk of the town then. I couldn’t get a copy of it because it had sold out of every bookstore.”

“They have stores that just sell books?” Johnny asked incredulously, half joking. When Scott had first told him of such establishments, he hadn’t believed him.

Murdoch closed the book and set it aside. “It was scandalous because it centered around sex—adultery.”

“Who would have thought someone could make sex so boring!” Johnny groused.

Murdoch laughed again. He loved Johnny’s sense of humor. Johnny’s humor came from a place of open engagement with his world, of noticing its absurdities. Scott’s was a dry wit, sometimes too subtle for Murdoch to grasp. If only he could hear that wry sarcasm again.

It was getting close to dawn two days later when Johnny had to push more water into Scott. Suddenly, Scott’s eyes opened. Johnny almost jumped back. He hastily withdrew the syringe.

“Scott!”

Scott didn’t seem to hear him. He stared unblinking and unseeing.

Johnny positioned his face over Scott’s. “Scott!” he called again. He was afraid to jostle him lest he move his head.

A few seconds later, Scott’s eyelids closed and all was like before. Johnny quietly left the room and ran down to Murdoch’s, pounding on the door. Murdoch appeared sleepily but came fully awake when he saw Johnny.

“What’s happened to Scott?”

“He opened his eyes!” Johnny wanted to scream it but whispered it instead in deference to the other hotel guests.

They both ran back to Scott’s room. Their patient remained unconscious.

“Are you sure he opened his eyes?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny scowled at his father. “You don’t think I know the difference between open and shut eyes?”

“No, no, you’re right. Sorry,” Murdoch apologized.

“Want me to get Halloway?” Johnny offered.

“It’s almost dawn, and nothing’s changed really. Let’s give the doctor some more minutes of sleep.”

“Everything’s changed,” Johnny argued. “He opened his eyes! He’s getting better!”

Murdoch continued to doubt the significance of the event. They sat with Scott for another hour, Johnny eagerly hovering over his brother and cajoling him to open his eyes again. Then Murdoch went to fetch the doctor.

“Johnny said that’s all he did; he didn’t look at him or seem to see anything.” Murdoch explained as Halloway grabbed his black bag. The doctor said, “Hmmm.”

“What does it mean?” Murdoch demanded.

Halloway stopped at his front door. “Mr. Lancer, let me be honest with you. It could mean Scott is beginning to recover or it could mean nothing at all. We’ve been speaking of Scott being fine or dying, but in reality, anything in between is possible. There could be severe brain damage and opening his eyes might be all that he is capable of. He could wake up and not remember anything, like who you are. There have even been cases where the patient didn’t know who he was—couldn’t remember his own name or previous life at all.”

“Scott could lose all his memories?” Murdoch asked appalled.

“It’s a possibility. There’re a thousand possibilities. It’s too early to tell. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up too high right now,” Halloway said, closing the door behind him. “Make sure Johnny knows that.”

The doctor took Scott’s pulse again, as he did every morning, and listened to Scott’s heart while Johnny paced fuming. What good did listening to his heart do Scott? Nothing! Halloway didn’t seem to be impressed with the news that Scott had opened his eyes. Johnny wanted to hear that Scott was making progress on coming back to them. He didn’t get it. The doctor had only said to keep plying Scott with water and walked out.

Murdoch had filled Johnny in on Halloway’s cautious words. The look of despair on his younger son’s face wrenched his heart. Clearly, Halloway had wanted to spare himself of that anguished look, leaving Murdoch to explain the dour prognosis to his overwrought son. They settled into their vigil again.

**************************************************

Murdoch moved his bishop to threaten Johnny’s queen and frowned. Johnny obviously had something on his mind and it wasn’t chess if he had left his queen so vulnerable. “What’s bothering you, son?” he prodded.

“Scott,” Johnny replied.

“I know. We’re both worried about him,” Murdoch admitted.

“No, it’s not that,” Johnny corrected. “I was just thinking. Something Hannah said.”

Murdoch couldn’t imagine that sour woman saying anything to put Johnny in such a pensive mood. He kept that to himself, knowing that Johnny would speak again once he had his thoughts in order.

“She said her sons were good boys until her husband turned them mean,” Johnny finally said.

Murdoch nodded. “It happens. Probably more often than we think. The boys get mistreated or something. It can turn people angry and hateful, lead them to a life of crime.”

“That started me thinking about Scott. I ain’t never met a man like him, Murdoch, the way he always tries to help people. He’s so decent and upstanding. Why, he goes out of his way to help pure strangers if he thinks he can help them. Remember Polly Foley and the McGloins? Why does he do that?”

Murdoch considered the question. Finally, he said, “Noblesse oblige.”

“Huh?”

“Noblesse oblige. It’s a French phrase meaning that the nobility should be obligated to help the poor because of their more fortunate circumstances.”

“Scott ain’t no nobility,” Johnny scoffed.

“No, not by title,” Murdoch agreed, “but he was raised in wealth in Boston. That class of people thought of themselves like nobility, which meant certain responsibilities to the lower classes. His mother had a very keen sense of it. Thank God she did or I would never have met her.”

“How did you meet her?”

A soft expression spread across Murdoch’s face as he remembered the encounter. “She’d come down to the docks with some other women from her church and was handing out coats and blankets to the men who worked there. I was one of them. It was a bitter winter that year. Some men tried to take advantage of her…”

“And you came to her rescue,” Johnny finished for him.

Murdoch nodded and Johnny was surprised to see the blush that appeared on his father’s face.

“Scott was raised in the same household Catherine was,” Murdoch continued. “He would have been subject to the same expectations of behaviors she was.”

“What was that phrase again?”

“Noblesse oblige.”

“Sounds so fancy,” Johnny mused as he rescued his queen from the bishop’s threat, taking one of Murdoch’s knights in the process. “Do you think that’s it? It’s all in how a guy is raised—how he turns out?”

Murdoch tried to hide his disappointment. Maybe Johnny was paying more attention to the game than he thought. “What’s going through your head, son?”

“Scott,” Johnny frowned. “I can’t imagine him being anything else but Scott. I mean, I can’t imagine him being like one of the Sickles boys. But what if Hannah and her no-good, rotten husband had raised him?”

“But then he wouldn’t be Scott, would he? He’s Catherine’s and my son, not Hannah’s and her husband’s,” Murdoch objected.

“Right. You’re right,” Johnny conceded. He thought some more. “But what if the Sickles got ahold of him after his ma died instead of his grandfather—that they raised him all those years?”

“What are you getting at?”

Johnny’s upper teeth worried his lower lip. “I’ve just always thought of Scott having this inner core of goodness in him. It’s there inside him, fixed in him.”

Murdoch knew what Johnny was talking about. Scott did exude this air of decency and honesty that seemed to shine from his very nature deep within him.

“But what if he was raised by a mean drunk of a father who hit him and everyone else in the house? What if he didn’t get his education and believed lies told to him by his folks? Would he have ended up robbing banks and killing innocent people like the other Sickles boys? Would all that goodness be beaten out of him or not be there in the first place?”

Murdoch was rendered speechless. No wonder Johnny had been so pensive; these were complicated and disturbing thoughts. He didn’t know how to respond. The thought of Scott’s seemingly innate goodness being the sole product of Harlan Garrett’s upbringing was disquieting. Murdoch thought Garrett was the nephew of Satan. He glanced over to his elder son’s bed. “Johnny!”

Johnny looked in the direction of Murdoch’s gaze. Scott’s eyes were open again! He leapt up and ran over to Scott, again trying to get right in front of Scott’s fixed gaze. “Scott!”

Murdoch grabbed Scott’s hand and started stroking his forearm. “Scott, wake up, son!”

But like before, Scott seemed not to see Johnny or hear their pleas.  Johnny thought his eyes stayed open longer than the first time, but they closed again after a couple of minutes.

“Should we send for Halloway?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny blew out a frustrated breath. “Naw. He’ll just listen to his heart and tell us to wait some more. Let’s hold off until he does something more.”

“Let’s pray he will do something more.”

Johnny grinned at his father. “He’ll do more. He’s trying to get back to us; I can feel it.”

Murdoch smiled back. He could practically see the optimism radiating from his younger son. It was contagious. Halloway’s dire warnings be damned! Scott was trying to come back to them, and when he did, he would be all right. They just had to be patient. And pray.

************************************************

Scott slowly became aware of the outside world and wanted to slip away from it again. His head ached something fierce. He opened his eyes, but it was difficult to see because of his throbbing head. It seemed to distort all his senses. He thought he heard voices calling him, but he couldn’t understand what was being said.

“Where am I?” he asked, but it seemed no one answered him. “Johnny? Johnny, help me!” he called. There was something on his face, but when he tried to get it off, his hand was pulled away. “What is it? What happened to me? Johnny!” The voices got louder and hurt his head worse. He was so tired. He faded away again.

“He’s gone again!” Johnny said, frustrated.

“But he seemed to be looking at you,” Murdoch said encouragingly, “and trying to speak.”

Johnny wasn’t as hopeful as his father. Halloway’s warnings of brain damage were too fresh in his mind, and if this last incident was any indication, then there was definitely brain damage. “Speak! Is that what he was trying to do? I couldn’t make sense of it.” Johnny was shaken to the core. What if it turned out that this was all Scott could manage for the rest of his life?

“It sounded like a string of sounds but no words that I could make out,” Murdoch said. He was so frightened for his elder son. Scott had a first-rate mind. What if all that knowledge was lost to him now? He refused to go there if only for Johnny’s sake. The boy looked devastated. “Still, it’s more than he’s done before. I’m going to get Halloway.”

As Johnny predicted, Halloway took Scott’s pulse and listened to his heart as Johnny described what had happened. “What do you think, Doc?”

Halloway thought about it some. “I’m encouraged. I agree that Scott is trying to regain consciousness; however, it’s too early to tell if he’ll be successful.”

Johnny wanted to punch Doctor Gloom in the mouth. Was he never the bearer of good news? Could he never offer them hope? He watched glumly as the doctor pushed some more water into his brother. “What about the tube?”

“What about it?” The water in the syringe disappeared up the tube.

“How much longer does it have to stay in?”

“It stays in until Scott can get enough water in him by mouth,” Halloway decreed, “and not before! And don’t you try to take it out without me, young man!”

Johnny glared at the doctor. “He didn’t like it. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but he made it damned clear he didn’t want that tube in his nose. He would have yanked it out himself if Murdoch hadn’t stopped him.”

“I know it’s uncomfortable, but it stays in.” With that declaration, Halloway bid them good-bye.

Johnny sat down beside Scott and held his hand. “Come back to us, brother,” he said softly.

Murdoch sat on the other bed and once again felt like an intruder on an intimate moment between brothers. He was happy they had bonded so quickly, but it often made him feel like a third wheel. It didn’t help that he thought they’d connected so early and deeply over their shared hatred for him. Time was bringing all of them closer together, but at moments like these, he still felt like an outsider. Perhaps it was time to get some lunch.

A soft knock interrupted his thoughts. It was the hotel manager with a telegram for him.

“What’s wrong?” Johnny asked.

“It’s from Cipriano.” At Johnny’s expectant glare, he continued, “He’s just keeping me apprised of what’s happening at Lancer as I asked him to.”

“And?”

“He’s combining the north and east herds and driving them down to the southern pastures. And that new bull we got last month looks sickly.” Murdoch sighed as he reread the telegram.

“You want to go back?” Johnny asked. The thought of being left to manage Scott on his own again was unsettling. He realized he needed Murdoch here with him. And wasn’t Scott more important than the ranch? When they’d arrived that first day, they had been informed that they weren’t. But now some months had passed, and Johnny had begun to believe that his father felt affection, if not love, for them.

“No,” Murdoch said unconvincingly. “I’ll stay until Scott is better.”

Johnny motioned for Murdoch to hand the telegram over. He read it; it didn’t sound like the situation with the bull was too dire. “I’ll answer this and get us some lunch. It’s your turn to watch Scott.” He didn’t want Murdoch to wire Lancer that he was coming back. Not until his brother could focus on them and talk to them. And had that damned tube out of his nose. He and Murdoch decided to tell Cip to isolate the affected cattle immediately. Once at the telegraph office, Johnny added not to send any more telegrams. It was time Murdoch focused on his son and not his ranch!

***********************************************

“Shit!”

Johnny came awake in a second. He hadn’t meant to doze off. He looked over at Scott just in time to see the feeding tube come out of his nose.

“Shit, that hurts!” Scott said. The words were badly slurred but definitely understandable.

Johnny was off his bed in a split second. “Whoa, Scott! Let me take that.” He took the feeding tube from Scott and watched a thin trickle of blood run from his nose. “What did you do there?” He fished around in the drawer that held Scott’s things and came up with a clean bandana.

“What’s this?” Scott said, pressing the bandana to his nose while his other hand tried to take off the sling that held his head.

Johnny caught his hand. “Leave it be. You’re supposed to keep your head still.”

“Gotta pee.”

Well, this was a dilemma.

“Now.”

Johnny opted for the chamber pot. He untied the sling from the bedframe and helped Scott sit up enough to use the pot. He tried to lower Scott down on his back, but Scott went sideways instead.

“Back hurts.”

Johnny could understand. Scott had been laying on his back for days. He needed to change his position. He took the wooden pieces off Scott’s head and maneuvered the pillow so that Scott’s head wasn’t pointed up or down but straight across. Satisfied he had done the right thing, he took a second to rejoice in the fact that Scott was talking and making sense. A miracle! “It’s so good to hear your voice, brother,” he said as he adjusted the sheet up to Scott’s shoulders.

Scott mumbled something that sounded like “tired.”

“I need to get Murdoch,” Johnny told him and ran down the hall.

By the time they returned, Scott was sleeping. Murdoch was surprised to find his son sleeping in that position. “Are you sure he should be on his side?” he asked worriedly.

“Said his back hurt,” Johnny explained.

“Hmmm, let’s see what the doctor has to say about this.”

“He’s probably asleep now, too,” Johnny observed. “It’s too late to bother him.” He didn’t want Doctor Gloom to tell them this meant nothing and Scott could still die.

“We can’t let Scott sleep like this all night if it’s not good for him.” Murdoch picked up the chamber pot. “I’ll dispose of this and go over and get him.”

Johnny nodded. Now was not the time to set back Scott’s healing.

“But he spoke and was coherent?” Murdoch needed the reassurance.

“It wasn’t much and it weren’t real clear, but it made sense,” Johnny assured him.

Murdoch left and Johnny watched Scott with a wide smile on his face. Yeah, Scott was getting better no matter what Doctor Gloom had to say. He knew it in his bones.

Murdoch strode in a few minutes later with Halloway. The doctor looked alarmed at seeing Scott lying on his side. Addressing Johnny, he said, “He spoke to you?”

“A little. Then he took a piss and went back to sleep.”

“Good, good.” Halloway shook Scott’s shoulder.

Johnny wanted to object, but Halloway was the doctor. He should know what he’s doing.

Scott made protesting sounds but didn’t open his eyes.

“Wake up, Scott!” Halloway ordered, shaking Scott harder.

Scott tried to bat the offending hand away but was too weak to have much of an impact.

“Scott, are you with me?” the doctor asked.

“Hmmm…” Scott replied.

“What’s your name?”

Johnny thought the question was an odd one. Hadn’t Halloway just called his brother ‘Scott’?

“Scott Lancer.” The ‘Lancer’ was quite slurred.

“Do you know where you are?” Halloway pressed on.

“No.”

“Do you know what year it is?”

“No.”

Johnny thought Doctor Gloom’s face started to look gloomy. He jumped in. “What’s my name?”

“No. Sleep,” Scott protested again, slapping at Halloway’s hand on his shoulder.

The doctor stepped away from the bed, sighing. “It’s good that we can wake him now, but…” He was shaking his head sadly.

“Doc, he wasn’t answering your questions with ‘no, I don’t know.’ He was answering them with ‘no, stop asking me questions and leave me alone.’ Leave him be, and the next time he wakes up by himself, I’ll bet he’ll be able to answer them,” Johnny pleaded.

“Maybe.” Halloway sounded unconvinced.

“Is it alright that he’s on his side?” Murdoch asked. That was what he was primarily worried about.

Halloway thought about it. “As long as he can keep his head still,” he said at last. He picked up the discarded sling. “I think this has done its job well.” Then he collected the feeding tube. “Did you take this out?” he accused Johnny.

“Nope. Scott did while I was asleep. Sorry. His nose bled a little from it.”

“That’s why I wanted to be the one to remove it,” the doctor said. “Well, what’s done is done. Did you give him any water?”

Johnny shook his head. “Sorry.” Murdoch put a consoling hand on his shoulder.

“Make sure he drinks water every time he’s awake, or I’ll have to put it back in.”

“We’ll be sure to do that,” Murdoch assured him. Murdoch hated to see the tube up Scott’s nose, too.

“He’s gonna be all right now, ain’t he?” The hope in Johnny’s voice was apparent.

“Well, I’d say he’s no longer in much danger of dying, but whether he’ll be back to his usual self is still questionable. We won’t know the answer to that until he’s more alert.”

“So he’s not gonna die,” Johnny repeated. It was a miracle that the cautious doctor had given them that seed of hope.

Halloway sighed. Would these people never get it through their thick skulls? “As I’ve been saying, head injuries can be tricky. It’s been my experience that it takes six to eight weeks to fully recover from one. So at this point, I’m not prepared to say either way.”

“Six to eight weeks!” Murdoch exclaimed. He didn’t want Scott out of commission for that long. He had a ranch to run. But he could put Scott to work on the books and other light chores for a while. “Can we take him back to Lancer soon? Let him recover there?”

Halloway looked shocked. “Good Lord, man, no!”

“We could fix up a wagon for him to lay on…” Murdoch continued.

“Absolutely not!” Halloway objected, raising his voice. “Even now I want him to keep his head still as much as possible. Rattling around in the back of a wagon is the worst thing for him.”

Then when do you think he’ll be able to come home?” Murdoch asked.

“That will be up to Scott,” Halloway explained. “Even though he’s no longer unconscious, his head will probably be hurting for some time. It will gradually lessen until it disappears completely. There’s no telling how long that might be. Everyone heals differently.”

Murdoch gave a disappointed grunt.

“What do we do now?” Johnny asked.

“The best things you can do for him now is to get water or any liquids into him as much as he can take. And try to have him keep his head still. That will be harder and harder to do as he gets better and is awake longer. On the other hand, in cases like these, the headaches are often exacerbated by head movements, so he may hold still naturally.”

Murdoch thanked Halloway and ushered him out the door.

“What does ‘sasserbate’ mean?” Johnny asked his father.

“’Exacerbate.’ In this case, it means ‘makes worse.’”

Johnny filed that away. It was a funny sounding word and one his fancy, educated brother would probably know. He’d save it for some future use and surprise Scott out of his boots. He smiled at the thought, hoping that moment would occur. He looked over at his father who was standing over Scott’s bed brooding. “Doc said he’s not gonna die,” Johnny reminded him.

“Hmmm? Yes.” Murdoch went back to brooding.

Maybe something else was wrong. “You worried about that bull?”

Murdoch nodded. “Among other things.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have told Cipriano not to send any more telegrams a few days ago. It hadn’t made Murdoch concentrate on Scott any better. “Ride back to the ranch tomorrow then,” Johnny suggested.

Murdoch dithered. He was extremely worried about the possibly infected bull, but he was also worried about Scott. Ultimately, Scott won out. “I shouldn’t leave you to take care of him all by yourself.”

“You heard the Doc. It’s just making him drink and nagging him to keep his head still. I can do that.”

Murdoch was very tempted to leave. There had been other problems that had cropped up since the boys had left for Panamint that he hadn’t told Johnny about, not wishing to burden him further. There had been a rumor of anthrax coming to the valley, which made the ailing bull especially worrying. Anthrax could quickly wipe out the entire herd. But Scott was ailing, too. “What if he takes a turn for the worse?”

“Then I have the Doc, Hannah, and Mildred to help me.”

“Mildred?”

“The lady at the front desk.”

Murdoch almost smiled. Leave it to Johnny to be on a first name basis with the woman. His boys were charmers, just like their mothers. And maybe like their father, too. He liked to think he was a bit of a charmer in his younger years before the tragedies with his wives drained it from him.

“It’s all right to leave, Murdoch. Scott’s only gonna get better and we’ll be back at Lancer in no time. You’re not doing yourself any good all twisted up over the ranch. I’ll look after him just like I promised. I’ll send you wires on how he’s doing.” You go back to your first love, Old Man, he thought sourly. Then he chided himself. For almost the entirety of his adult life, Murdoch Lancer had been focused on making Lancer a success. He’d succeeded, but at what cost? It seemed he could think of nothing else besides his ranch. He’d told them he loved the ranch more than anything else on the first day they’d met, hadn’t he? Still, Johnny couldn’t condemn the man. They were all new to trying to be a family. They hadn’t been together for even a year yet, and there was so much they didn’t know about each other. But he and Scott had gotten this far in their lives without the benefit of a father hovering over them. They could go on that way.

Murdoch sighed. He got the feeling that Johnny was eager to have him go and he didn’t know why. But if that’s what Johnny wanted, then he’d do it. He was finding this fathering role quite perplexing. When should he stand firm and when should he yield? He had little idea but thought he often got it wrong. “All right. I’ll head back tomorrow, but let me know if anything happens good or bad.” Although he felt guilty about leaving Scott, he had to admit he was eager to get back to the ranch and see for himself what was happening. He knew what he was doing there. And if it was anthrax…

Johnny sighed in relief. “Have someone bring Barranca and Charlie out. It’ll be easier than renting here and returning them when Scott’s home.”

Murdoch nodded and sat down in the hard, wooden chair by Scott’s bed. “Let me sit with him a while, then, son.”

“Sure,” Johnny agreed, “for a little while, but you’ll need a good night’s sleep for that ride tomorrow.” He glanced at his brother sleeping peacefully and headed out for the cantina. Now that Scott was better, he didn’t mind being on his own with him again.

*************************************************

The next handful of days settled into a routine. Johnny spent his mornings with Scott. After five days, he was almost back to his old self except for the headaches and the naps. Scott had slept a lot at first. But as time passed, his headaches became less severe and his naps became shorter. His slurred speech cleared up and he was able to dress himself and make it on his own to the outhouse, about which Johnny was very happy. But Doc Halloway didn’t want Scott riding back to Lancer until his headaches were completely gone, and Johnny could tell that they were still plaguing his brother. A sudden, odd tilt of his head and a pained grimace would appear on Scott’s face. Scott seemed to be fully back to his old self, except for missing the time between packing the Sickles up in Panamint and waking up in the Salinas hotel. Johnny wished he could forget that endless stagecoach ride as well.

Either Hannah or Hanna would bring them lunch and sit with Scott afterwards, freeing up Johnny to release his pent-up energy. Mainly this was done by pampering Barranca and exercising him and Charlie. Walt had brought their horses from Lancer a couple of days ago, and he and Johnny had cleaned up at poker that night, while Scott had sat quietly at a nearby table drinking water. He’d stayed awake all through their winning streak and had asked that they take him back to the hotel just as their luck started to change. Yessir, he was a godsend, this brother of his. Hannah or Hanna would leave in time to be back at the boarding house when school let out. The women’s partnership seemed to be going very well, both of them benefitting from the companionship and sharing the work at the house.

“Time for a nap?” Johnny asked sarcastically as Scott yawned. They had just finished breakfast in the hotel restaurant. It was mid-morning, since Scott took his time getting ready these days. The rest of the day stretched out in front of them like an awakening cat—long and languid. Johnny was bored, tired of games of chess, checkers, and even poker.

“I thought I’d go over to the boarding house to see if Mrs. Schwartzmann needs any odd jobs done,” Scott replied.

Once said out loud, Johnny could hardly stay behind. Why hadn’t he thought of that days ago? Noblesse oblige. Scott had ingrained that in his soul. “I’ll go with you,” he said laconically. He didn’t want Scott to know what a good idea he thought it was.

“I hoped you would,” Scott said smiling.

“So I can do all the things you don’t know how to?” Johnny teased.

“So you can hold the ladder,” Scott rejoined, not missing a beat.

Johnny grinned. It was so good to have his brother back in form. There had been a time he had despaired of ever hearing Scott’s voice again, much less exchanging barbs with him. They returned Halloway’s chessboard and pieces with thanks and headed for the boarding house.

As Scott expected, there were many small repairs that needed to be done. With Andy Jack in school, the place was quiet and peaceful. The women worked in the kitchen while Scott and Johnny repaired small sections of the roof and barn and replaced several of the fence posts. Then they oiled rusty hinges and tightened screws and nailed squeaky floorboards. They all shared a hearty lunch, but Scott left mid-afternoon. Johnny watched him climb the small hill toward the north of town.

“Where’s he going?” He asked Hanna, who was watching Scott leave as well.

“Looks like to die Schule,” Hanna mused. “Guess he wants to check up on der Junge. Schule will be out in Kürze.”

Scott said Hanna sprinkled her speech with German words. Johnny didn’t know any German, but he thought he got the gist of what she was saying. He started out after his brother, but Hanna held him back. “Let him be, Sohn. He’ll be all right.”

“That’s the school there, up on that rise?” Hanna nodded. “I just want to make sure that’s where he ends up,” Johnny said. “He gets lost easy. I’ll be right back.”

She let him go. Johnny walked around several buildings until Scott was in sight. Hanna had been right. Scott was sitting on a bench under an open window of the schoolhouse. Johnny knew he wouldn’t interrupt the teacher. He’d wait until school was over to introduce himself to Andy Jack’s teacher. Smiling, Johnny walked back to the boarding house and to his next chore.

Scott arose when he heard Mrs. Morgan say, “That’s all for today, children.” They burst out of the schoolhouse door a few seconds later with happy squeals.

Andy Jack gave an excited whoop when he saw Scott and jumped into his arms, heedless of the fact that his friend had been bedridden for the last two weeks. “Scott, you’re here!” he cried, hugging the older man for all he was worth.

Scott laughed, ignoring the twinge of pain in his head. “Let me talk to your teacher for a few minutes and then we’ll walk home together,” he said, placing Andy Jack on the ground. “You sit there,” he ordered, pointing to the bench he’d just vacated.

Mrs. Morgan proved to be a very good-natured older woman around Hanna Schwartzmann’s age. She wasn’t a beauty, but her smile lit up her face, and Scott smiled back.

“Mr. Lancer! So good to see you again.” She shook his hand. “I’m sorry about your terrible accident.”

Not so much of an accident, according to Johnny account of events in Panamint, Scott thought. It had been quite intentional. “I just stopped by to see how Andy Jack is doing.”

“Oh, he’s doing wonderfully! You described him beautifully—so curious and bright.”

“I’m glad you think so, too. He likes to invent things, use his hands. I can see him being an engineer in the future.” He hoped Andy Jack’s education wouldn’t be just mindless rote memorization. Andy Jack learned by using his hands, by experimenting with things. The worst thing that could happen would be to make him disenchanted with school.

“Oh, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?” she continued to gush. “Maybe I can think of some experiments for him to try.”

“That would be wonderful; just what he needs,” Scott encouraged her. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with his education,” Scott said, picking up a pencil and finding a scrap of paper to write on. “Here’s the address where you can reach me.”

For a moment Scott thought Mrs. Morgan was going to put the paper in between her breasts, but there was a small pocket above her right one where it was tucked away. She gave him another wide smile. “I’m sure he’ll do brilliantly with your guidance.”

He courteously bade her farewell and gathered Andy Jack. As they walked down the hill, Scott asked, “How would you like to see more water than you’ve ever seen in your life?”

Andy Jack’s eyes grew large. “Boy, would I ever!”

“Let’s ask your grandmother if she’ll let you come with me tomorrow. It’s Saturday and you have no school, right?”

“Right!” Andy Jack started to run back to the boarding house. Scott continued to walk; his blossoming headache required it. Still, the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as when he’d first awakened out of his coma. Now it was just a dull ache. He’d endured much worse those first difficult months while getting used to working under the hot sun at Lancer.

By the time he reached the boarding house, Andy Jack was already inside telling everyone about his day. The women beamed indulgently; Johnny looked vexed. When Andy Jack finally found a stopping place, Scott asked Hannah if he could take Andy Jack to visit the ocean the following day. “We can all go, if you’d like,” he invited.

Hanna Schwartzmann declined immediately. “Saturday is my busiest day, Mr. Lancer. I must get all things done, so I can rest on Gott’s day.”

“I’ll stay to help you,” Hannah Sickles said, sounding thankful for the excuse not to go. “I appreciate you takin’ Andy Jack, though. That’s right nice of ya.”

“Guess it’s just you and me,” Scott said, ruffling the boy’s red hair.

“And me,” Johnny said.

“You want to come, too?” Scott asked, surprised. He thought Andy Jack drove Johnny insane. He’d want to do anything other than spend the day with the boy.

“Gotta keep you two outta trouble,” Johnny said with a smirk. He’d made a promise to Murdoch to look after Scott, and he would do just that, even if it meant putting up with Andy Jack—his own version of noblesse oblige.

Scott gave the boy a hug good-bye. “Nice of you to have my back, brother,” he said teasingly as he passed by Johnny.

“Always.” Johnny was absolutely serious.  

Scott smiled to himself. He’d been deeply touched by his younger brother’s care and concern as he recuperated from the concussion. Johnny could be so warm and kind to friends and family, yet he’d also seen Johnny turn as cold as ice when threatened. Yes, his brother was a complicated and intriguing man. So cocky and confident with a gun, yet quite vulnerable when it came to Murdoch and his place at Lancer. Their father certainly hadn’t been welcoming to them that first day. Scott was beginning to think Murdoch’s gruff and brusque exterior was a façade. But to hide what? He wasn’t sure, but he hadn’t gotten the answers he wanted from his father yet, so he was going to stick around for a while. He’d stick around anyway to get to know his mercurial and sometimes volatile younger brother. Johnny was unlike any person he’d ever met and definitely worth his time and effort.

***********************************************

Andy Jack was taken with Barranca’s good looks. Johnny complimented him on his eye for fine horses, which made Scott laugh. Johnny felt blessed to hear his brother’s laughter again. God had answered his prayer; He’d given his brother back to him. It seemed to take forever to reach the coast, what with Andy Jack’s incessant chatter and the fact they had to take it at a walk due to Scott’s head and Andy Jack’s inexperience with riding. Johnny tried to tune the boy out, but Scott seemed interested. He’d inquired about how Andy Jack liked school, which resulted in a minute-by-minute recitation of his school activities for the last two weeks.

They followed the Salinas River out to the sand dunes. A couple of hours later, they were standing on the bluffs that overlooked Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. It was a stunning sight, but Scott’s eyes were on Andy Jack. The boy’s face didn’t disappoint. He gaped open mouthed in awe and wonder at the view. Johnny watched Scott’s face. It didn’t disappoint either—it was of pure delight. Johnny had to admit that coming out here had been a wonderful idea. Andy Jack’s reaction had been worth the non-stop chatter getting here.

Scott suggested that they find a way down to the water’s edge, and eventually they found a path to the narrow dunes. Johnny took care of the horses while Andy Jack ran to the water’s edge. He had never seen waves before and asked what they were. Once Andy Jack learned what they were, the questions started. Where did they come from? Why didn’t they always stop at the same place? Why was there wet sand farther than where the waves reached?

Johnny sat down in the shade provided by the overhang of the bluffs above. Truth be told, he wasn’t a fan of the beach. Too much sand getting into places where you swore you never knew how it got there. Scott, however, looked like he belonged on a beach and was thrilled to be there. Johnny reminded himself that Scott was no stranger to the ocean. It was just a different one and on the other side of the country.

Scott took the towels he’d brought from the hotel and he and Andy Jack sat down on two of them and removed their boots and socks. Then Scott rolled Andy Jack’s pants legs up above his knees. He did the same with his own trousers. Andy Jack ran to the edge of the waves and then ran back again, afraid to let them get him wet. Johnny laughed. Seemed like every kid he ever saw did that at the beach for the first time. He had been eleven and in Tijuana when he’d heard about the ocean. He and another escapee from the orphanage had traveled west and had pretty much the same reaction as Andy Jack. So much water! He’d gone again to the beaches around San Diego. He loved the ocean but never took to the sand.

He was once again impressed with Scott’s patience with the boy’s never-ending questions, but he had to admit, he was intrigued by them. Why had he never wondered where the waves came from? Once asked, he realized it was a good question and he was just as curious as Andy Jack to know the answer. Strangely, Scott had answered “wind,” which prompted Andy Jack to ask where wind came from. Again, Johnny was surprised at his own lack of curiosity. The wind was the wind; he had never wondered where it came from or what caused it. But Scott knew all the answers to Andy Jack’s questions, and Johnny settled in for some learning.

And learn something he did. Turned out that even though it felt like the Earth was standing still and the sun was moving around it, it was actually the other way around. And the Earth was spinning, too. That caused day and night, day when the Earth was facing the sun and night when it was turned away from it. This spinning caused the air to move—wind. Other things helped, too, like the moon. Johnny knew there were ocean tides, but he didn’t know the moon caused them. He couldn’t figure how something so far away could cause anything to happen down here. Then Scott started talking about gravity and gravitational forces, and Johnny figured he’d had enough learning for the day. Andy Jack, though, was soaking up everything Scott said like a dry mop sopped up water. Maybe that was why Scott was so taken with Andy Jack—he listened to all of Scott’s book learning.

Andy Jack ran out of questions for a while and he and Scott ventured into the water up to Andy Jack’s bare knees. They sloshed and splashed, and Andy Jack giggled the entire time. The childish laughter made Johnny smile. This was the sound of childhood. He couldn’t remember a time when he had let loose with such carefree laughter. He wondered if Scott had. He must have, growing up with all that money. What cares would he have? But it was difficult to imagine Scott giggling. He tried to picture Scott at Andy Jack’s age, and the image he came up with made him smile wider.

Seeing Scott frolic in the water with Andy Jack made Johnny think he was getting an early glimpse as to what Scott would be like as a father. He liked what he saw. Scott was so patient and kind with Andy Jack, who Johnny thought could be a very trying child. But Scott didn’t see him as annoying, just curious. He saw something in the kid that others didn’t. Did Andy Jack remind Scott of himself at that age? Had Scott been that annoying? The thought of his staid and proper brother being such a trial made Johnny smile, although he couldn’t imagine Scott’s grandfather putting up with a blond-haired Andy Jack for long. Scott had said he was rather strict.

That thought made Johnny’s mind wander to what kind of father Murdoch would have been to an eight-year-old Scott or him. Would he have been as patient as Scott? Johnny doubted it. He certainly couldn’t picture his father being playful with them, as Scott was playing with Andy Jack. He imagined that Murdoch would have been a disciplinarian, demanding obedience from his children. But Johnny had to admit his father was also a fair and honest man. And he had seemed almost gentle while tending Scott. However he might have been, it would have been a damn sight better than how Johnny had grown up. For the hundredth time, he rued being taken from Lancer. His curiosity about why his mama had left Murdoch would never be satisfied. Had Murdoch been strict with her? She wouldn’t have put up with that for long. The not-knowing left a little hole in his heart that would never be filled.

Laughing as they ran up to where he was sitting, Scott and Andy Jack asked him if he wanted to go with them to look for shells, which he declined to do. He was content just sitting with his back to the bluffs, although he was losing his shade. The sun looked at its highest point, and Johnny’s stomach rumbled. Lunchtime. Johnny wondered what Mrs. Schwartzmann had packed them for lunch. She had taken to Andy Jack right away and had been delighted they were showing the boy around. She seemed to have taken to Scott, too. Johnny was certain the woman had stashed some delicious treats in their lunch tins.

Finally, Andy Jack and Scott reappeared at the water’s edge. Both had driftwood in their hands. Andy Jack ran up to him, wielding his driftwood like a too large sword and eager to show him all the shells he had collected. Scott caught up as Andy Jack was stuffing the shells back in his pants pockets. Scott’s driftwood was only about a foot long, but it was a stunning piece, twisted and gnarled beautifully.

“You want to eat lunch here on the beach?” Scott asked.

“Naw. Let’s go back up top and find some shade,” Johnny suggested. He didn’t want sand in his food.

Scott nodded and took Andy Jack back to the towels by their boots. Scott brought two more towels out of his saddlebags, and they wiped their sandy feet off with them before they put on their socks and stuffed their feet back into their boots.

Oh, that’s how you deal with the sand, Johnny thought. He’d wondered why Scott had asked Mildred for more towels that morning. His brother thought of everything. They found some nice shade on the bluffs, and the horses were happy to forage around in the grasses, while they sat on Charlie’s saddle blanket and had a picnic. Mrs. Schwartzmann didn’t disappoint, much to Johnny’s pleasure. He and Scott let the excellent meal settle while Andy Jack ran around chasing butterflies and whatever else he could terrorize with his driftwood sword. Scott reminded him twice not to bother the horses.

Finally, Johnny suggested they head back to Salinas. Andy Jack pouted, especially when Scott suggested that he leave his “sword” behind. It was too long and awkward to carry back. He gave Andy Jack his piece of driftwood in exchange, and the look on Andy Jack’s face was pure hero worship. Johnny knew the kid would treasure the worthless wood for years. Andy Jack’s dejection at going home made the ride back much quieter. At last, the boy said, “I wish you were my brother, Scott.”

That took Scott by surprise, Johnny could tell. “I’m sorry you don’t have a real brother, Andy Jack. You’d make a great big brother,” Scott told him.

“I was a big brother once,” Andy Jack said, “but it was to a girl.”

Johnny and Scott raised eyebrows at each other.

“Her name was Ruth. She died when she was a baby,” Andy Jack went on. “I didn’t get to teach her nothing.” He paused. “Can I be your brother?” He gave Scott his most yearning face.

Scott considered. “Well, you’ll have to ask Johnny. I don’t know if he’s willing to share.”

That made Johnny chuckle, but Andy Jack looked at him real hopeful and serious-like. “Hmmm, let’s see…” He looked at Scott critically. “I guess there’s enough brother to share.”

Andy Jack gave a whoop.

“Don’t forget,” Scott cautioned, “that makes you Johnny’s brother, too.”

“Really?” Andy Jack said, eyes alight. “Would that be all right, Johnny, if you could be my brother, too?”

“Don’t see why not,” Johnny said with a wink. He caught Scott’s warm glance at him and there was no doubt of the affection shining through for him there. Maybe he should reconsider. He liked the thought of having Scott all to himself brother-wise. He was rather surprised at his reaction. He would never have guessed that the arrogant, pompous ass he’d met on the stagecoach that first day would come to mean so much to him. He’d been wrong about his initial assessment of Scott Lancer. He’d thought the Easterner wouldn’t last a week out West, but Scott had proved to be a hard worker, quick learner, and most important to Johnny, a loyal friend. He had come to rely upon Scott’s quiet wisdom, dry humor, generous nature, and proficiency with a rifle. Dependable, that’s what he was. Someone Johnny could depend on, and that was a very rare commodity in his life. He was glad Scott was his brother, but he guessed he could share him with an eight-year-old boy who lived a day’s ride away.

That revived Andy Jack’s spirits, and he commenced chattering about his experiences at the beach all the way back to the boarding house. Once there, Andy Jack bounded off the horse and ran up the porch stairs shouting, “Gramma! Gramma!”

Both Hannah Sickles and Hanna Schwartzmann appeared at the door.  Andy Jack started telling them all about the day and showing them his shells and driftwood. Scott and Johnny dismounted more slowly, being the dignified young men they were. They tipped their hats at the women and returned the lunch tins to Hanna, complimenting her on the food.

“We’ll be on our way back to our ranch tomorrow,” Scott declared, surprising Johnny. They hadn’t discussed it.

Andy Jack had wailed at that and clutched Scott’s leg. Scott gently disentangled the boy and handed him to Hannah. Mrs. Schwartzmann invited them to dinner that night since they were leaving. Scott looked over at Johnny, who gave a slight nod, and he accepted for both of them. Johnny was on the receiving end of another of Scott’s affectionate smiles.

“You feel well enough to ride home tomorrow? It’s a fair piece,” Johnny said, concern lacing through his words as they led their horses back to the livery stable.

“If we take it slow,” Scott assured him.

“I wouldn’t want you to exacerbate your headache.” Johnny was ecstatic he was able to work the big word into the conversation. And it got the predicted response from Scott.

Startled, he said, “Where’d you learn that word?” He couldn’t believe it had come out of Johnny’s mouth.  “Nogales?” he teased.

“Ain’t telling, but it’s a good one, isn’t it?”

“It would make my Harvard professors proud,” Scott praised. Then he added, “My headaches aren’t too bad now, and I promised Murdoch we’d be no longer than two weeks. It’s already been longer than that.”

“Well, that whack on your head kinda messed up the timeline.”

“It did indeed,” Scott agreed. “And I prefer not to be any later than I already am.”

“Ah, he’ll be happy just to see you upright,” Johnny said lightly. Then he turned more serious. “He understands. He was awful worried about you.”

Scott had no memory of Murdoch being in Salinas. “I’m sorry I worried you.”

“That Doc Halloway kept going on how you might die or be brain damaged or something. It was real worrisome.”

“Sorry,” Scott apologized again. He’d rest for the remainder of the day and be well enough to eat a fine dinner and to make the trek back home tomorrow. His promise to Andy Jack kept, he looked forward to sleeping soundly in his own bed tomorrow night. “Are you going to give Hannah any of your reward money?”

“Ain’t much left of it after our extended stay here,” Johnny pretended to grouse. He’d paid for Andy Jack’s rental horse and had given out a lot of tips to the hotel staff for helping with Scott. Some losing poker hands hadn’t helped either, but he still had a sizeable sum. He didn’t want Scott to know that, though, lest his brother think of more ways to spend his money.

“I’ll pay you back for the hotel,” Scott offered.

Johnny was tempted to take him up on it, but honesty won out. “The Old Man paid for everything before he left, even Doc Halloway.”

“Decent of him,” Scott commented. He wished he could remember Murdoch’s presence. Hearing about his father’s kindness in caring for him was heart-warming, but it couldn’t replace his actually experiencing it. He found himself rather longing for experiencing it. He’d seen Murdoch’s concern and care for Johnny when he’d been shot by Pardee. He hoped he’d gotten some of that for himself. It was best not to dwell on such lost moments. One could only move forward. “Johnny, I’m not trying to pressure you into giving the Sickles any of your reward money. You earned it fair and square, not Hannah.”

“I know. I’m still thinking on it. Hannah kinda grew on me, and she looked after you real fine.”

“Whatever you decide is fine with me,” Scott assured him.

Johnny knew that was true. Scott wouldn’t think less of him if he kept all the money, and Madrid would have. But living with Scott had changed him to proudly be Johnny Lancer. He’d slip Hannah some of the money tonight at dinner. It wasn’t charity or noblesse oblige; she’d earned it and he would still have plenty.

********************************************

“Walt came back with the mail this afternoon,” Murdoch said, handing a couple of envelopes to Scott. One was from Boston, probably from Harlan, judging from the precise script, but the other one was unfamiliar.

Scott looked at them and opened the unfamiliar one first with a slight frown on his face. He pulled out two notes and the frown turned into a delighted smile. “It’s from Andy Jack,” he exclaimed as he scanned the note. “He says he knows how to write a proper letter now and he chose me to write to first.”

Murdoch harrumphed. The address wasn’t written by a child who was just learning to write. He knew that much. It was definitely written by a feminine hand. It had been three months since his sons had returned from Salinas and they hadn’t heard a peep from the Sickles. That suited him just fine. Between Scott’s severe blow to the head and the threat of anthrax, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d been so worried since Paul O’Brien’s death and Pardee’s assault on the ranch. But Scott had returned just a bit worse for wear and the anthrax threat had never materialized. The bull seemed fine now, too. Everything had turned out fine and he wanted it to stay that way.

Scott opened the second note and his smile grew wider.  “This is from Mrs. Morgan, his teacher,” Scott explained. “She says Andy Jack is learning very quickly and is a joy to teach. He’s already reading past his grade level. Then she gave me the address where I can write back.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful news!” Teresa said.

“Are you?” Johnny asked.

“Am I what?”

“Going to write back?”

“Of course, I am! Right this minute!” Scott grabbed the letter from Boston and bounded up the stairs to his room.

Johnny and Murdoch stared at one another. Johnny sighed. “Now he’s got even more letters to write.”

“I don’t think he minds this addition.” Murdoch looked rather wistfully after Scott’s exit. He wondered if his elder son had that depth of caring for him as he did for that little boy. He still didn’t know what it was about Andy Jack that had touched Scott so.

Johnny started setting up the checkers on the checkerboard. “You up for getting beat by me again tonight, Old Man?”

“What? Oh, yes, and don’t be so sure you’re going to win this time.” Murdoch sat down in the wing chair.

“I think what Scott did for that little boy was so nice,” Teresa said as she started in on her embroidery again.

Johnny picked up on his father’s pensive mood. “Almost makes it worth it,” he muttered. He still felt somewhat guilty about berating the man after he found out about the anthrax scare. Murdoch had been justified in being worried about the ranch as much if not more than about Scott. He shouldn’t have thought so badly of the Old Man.

Murdoch kept his voice down so only Johnny could hear him. “Almost losing your brother again because of it? Hardly.” He moved his pieces a few times before he added, “But he wouldn’t be Scott if he didn’t help those less fortunate than he.”

“Noblesse oblige,” Johnny agreed, getting a surprised glance from Murdoch just as he had intended. He remembered those fancy words. Grinning, he jumped over two of Murdoch’s pieces.

Murdoch gave him a murderous glare and then started laughing. Johnny joined in.

Teresa smiled to herself. Now this was more like what she had dreamed about—a house full of love and laughter. When Johnny and Scott left for Panamint, she realized that the hacienda had not been serene before the boys had come home, it had been without a soul, empty, lifeless, even with her and Murdoch living there. There was a contentment in Murdoch that had never been there before, that could only have happened by the return of his sons. Now, truly, Lancer was the most beautiful place on Earth.

~end~

June 2022

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22 thoughts on “Noblesse Oblige by RonD

  1. Nice job! Another wonderful story. My sister has been asking for a story about Andy Jake getting to go to school, so I’m happy you did this. I enjoy a little H/C with Scott and you do it so well. Thank you for another great Scott story!

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  2. Wowww Ron,
    This is a very good story.
    I loved every single step, every single facet of the characters involved.
    You made everything so realistic and fitting.
    I hope you don’t take offense, but for me this is the best story you’ve ever written.
    I love stories that the whole family is involved in.
    During the unfolding of the facts you made their approach keeping intact their character differences in an excellent way.
    Thank you for writing and sharing.
    Have a nice Sunday
    Silvia

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  3. I really liked this story.
    The start of the story being Teresa’s thoughts on observing the three Lancer men was different and gave a odd (in a good way) look at the men’s discussion.
    You gave a enough of a backstory for Hanna and her family to build some sympathy for the woman.
    The fact Johnny felt that Murdoch’s being there as comforting is telling. Johnny did get a little aggravated when he learned Murdoch had Cop telegraph him with reports on the ranch, but understood that even as Murdoch was worried about Scott, the ranch was still a concern.
    Scott has proven time and again to be a good brother, but this story hints at how Scott would be as a father.
    All in all, I really enjoyed this story and I also like that you closed the story with Teresa’s thoughts as the way you opened it. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. What a wonderful story. I loved this. I loved how you described the relationship between the brothers. You captured the nobility that is Scott Lancer perfectly. Loved this story.

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  5. Thank you all so much for your kind comments. When I confessed I was running out of ideas to write about, Adriana suggested I do a WHN for some of the Scott episodes. I didn’t want to leave Andy Jack hanging, but I needed some drama around it. Finally thought of making Pearl the villain. Thank you all for taking the time to write a response. It means so much!

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  6. I always enjoy your stories – they are so well-written and ring so true. This was no exception. Can I ask about the sequel to Besotted that I saw mentioned somewhere? Would love to read that. Thanks again.

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  7. Jan, Who mentioned a sequel to Besotted? Didn’t Scott suffer enough in that one? (It was so fun to write.) So glad you liked this one.

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    1. It’s listed among your stories in the Lancer FanFiction Archive – Yarnell? I’ve tried to access it but no luck. Yes, Scott certainly went through the mill but what a villainess! More please.

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  8. The paragraphs where Johnny talks about Scott’s inner core of goodness with Murdoch are wonderful. I also smiled at you getting Johnny to use new words to take Scott and Murdoch by surprise.

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  9. Thank you so much for this great story. You describe Scott so well with all his qualities, honesty, big heart. So glad we know what happens to Andy Jack and Scott and Johnny did a great job to help him.

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  10. Hoo, boy. Yarnell is not a sequel. When I posted Besotted to fanfiction, I didn’t realize that their default setting was K-T. I’d rated Besotted as M, so it kept not showing up in the story listing. But it did show up in my author’s list. So Yarnell was created to direct people to my author list. Eventually, I discovered the true problem—Besotted was rated M. So rest easy that you have not missed a thing. Besotted stands alone and complete. With Connie/Sadie guilty of murder, there’s not much more havoc she can wreak on the Lancers, but I’ll tuck her away in my subconscious. Who knows what might emerge. As to this one, I rather enjoyed getting the nature/nurture debate in the nineteenth century! I hope everyone enjoyed the beach scene. That was another one that was fun to write—imagining Andy Jack seeing the ocean for the first time after growing up in the desert.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for this great story ! You describe Scott just the way he is with all his qualities : big heart, honesty, patience. Nice to see what Johnny thinks of his brotber.

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  12. Thanks, Catarina! I’m so glad you liked my story and that you think my stories are true to the characters and the show.

    Like

  13. Look forward every time when you post a new story. This did not disappoint, loved it. I’ve loved the characters of Lancer but the storytelling on the show was haphazard at best, fanfic corrects all the flaws. Thanks RonD, and looking forward to the next one!

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  14. Excellent! I kind of agree with Johnny’s
    sentiment regarding the.child, but Scott’s insistence on keeping his promise is so very much h in character.

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  15. Thanks, Susan. I’m glad you liked my story. Now the pressure is on not to disappoint you in the future! LOL

    Like

  16. Thank you Ron a great story, it moved along nicely and we got a good look at each character’s thoughts and feelings.

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  17. Absolutely loved this story but then I knew I would because RonD you are an amazing author. I had already left a review on fanfiction and also hope you received my email sent a week or so ago about your other fantastic stories. Long may you continue to entertain me (hopefully!)

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  18. An excellent story and worthy of the characters! It’s been a while since I have read Lancer (I grew up watching the originals on TV) and I read stories for decades now. It’s good to get back to characters that I love.

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  19. Thank you, Lucy, Lea, and Deborah, so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you liked my story. You inspire me to write more!

    Like

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