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Scott’s Journal – Entry 3: Wolf at the Hearth by Shelley

Word Count 2,440

An episode tag for The High Riders

May 27, 1870

At last things have begun to settle down here at Lancer and we are beginning to establish a comfortable routine. The ranch, like some living entity, is struggling to return to normal. There are fences to repair, cattle to be gathered, streams to be cleared, windmills to check and any one of a hundred other things that I never would have imagined went into putting a steak on the table. And I? I have been out each day, trying to learn what place I might have in this vast enterprise that is called Lancer.

Johnny has improved far faster than any of us had dared to hope. Dr. Jenkins has proclaimed that my brother has turned the corner and needs only rest and time to make a full recovery. Since the pall of worry and fear has lifted, Teresa has regained some of her lighthearted enthusiasm and Murdoch has stopped stalking Johnny’s room like some huge bird of prey awaiting God knows what outcome. The latter has been, I am sure, a vast relief to our invalid.

At any rate, earlier this week, Johnny was allowed to come down to dinner with the family for the first time since he was wounded. It was, of course, not the first time we had all dined together, but it seemed a vastly different cast of characters than those who attended our first uncomfortable and unpleasant meal. Johnny, in particular, presented a different face. That first night he was cocky and abrasive, even rude, seeming intent on pushing Murdoch into some sort of confrontation.

This time he was quieter, watchful, observing everything with a wary eye. Doubtless he is still not feeling well and perhaps not up to his usual performance. Then again, how would I know what is ‘usual’ for Johnny? I knew him for less than three days before he was shot out of the saddle, delivering on his promise of ‘arms, legs, and guts.’ Since then he has, for the most part, been unconscious, incoherent or asleep.

Quiet or not, it seems there is no ignoring his presence in the room. The feeling is similar to that hair-lifting presentiment of danger that comes just before a strong storm descends on a summer afternoon. But come to think of it, I had not noticed anything of this sort while I had visited in his sickroom or sat with him on the veranda. Perhaps it has something to do with whatever is between my brother and our father.

That there is some sort of discord brewing between the two of them is becoming more and more apparent. It seems that the more Johnny recovers, the farther Murdoch withdraws from his company. The two of them seem to be moving backward toward the open hostility of our first awkward meeting. I am baffled by this since Murdoch was obsessively attentive while Johnny lay between life and death. He certainly is not distancing himself from me. In fact, my father seems to be relaxing somewhat in my company. Some of our evenings together have been quite pleasant.

I have been watching and trying to understand the dynamics of this new development but I fear that I am missing some vital piece of information that holds the key to the puzzle. If I have anything to say about it, that circumstance will change, and soon. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I do not enjoy being kept in the dark. And this situation is no exception. If there is something that I need to know, I will discover it.

Speaking of evening entertainment here in the wilds of California, I must say that the choices are severely limited. The evening itself ends obscenely early, mostly due to the fact that the morning begins the same way. Usually after dinner we retire to the great room where Murdoch pours a measure of his surprisingly good Scotch whisky. He and I spend some time talking over the events of the day and planning for tomorrow. Teresa joins us later after the dinner table is cleared and the kitchen attended to. She keeps a basket with needlework and mending by her chair for such times, or she reads one of her ladies magazines.

Murdoch and I often play chess or checkers or we read. I must say my father has a commendable personal library and informs me that he has a book dealer in Stockton who can procure anything that I would care to order. I find that very reassuring since I would hate to be cut off entirely from the latest literature and scholarship.

Johnny has joined us for the last few evenings. The first night he positioned himself in a chair on the edge of the firelight. Aside from a request for tequila instead of Scotch he sat there quietly. For someone who seems to exist at times in constant motion, his stillness can be profound. I might have thought him asleep except that every time I happened to glance his way I could see the glitter of the firelight off his watchful eyes.

Occasionally Murdoch will read the latest newspaper to reach us here and comment on, or read aloud from, some article that has taken his interest. I know that Johnny listens; I can almost feel the weight of his attention. And though these comments have sparked some lively discussions, Johnny has not taken part. Teresa has tried several times to engage him in conversation but though he has been polite in his response, he has refused to be drawn out. Murdoch, I know, takes this for truculence and I can see his irritation growing. I, however, wonder about that. To me his behavior seems less like a bad-tempered sulk, and more the reaction of a creature that, finding itself in unfamiliar territory, hunkers down and surveys its surroundings, moving forward cautiously until it discovers the way of the countryside.

So, there he sits each night, a part of us and yet apart from us, half in shadow and half in light. I can’t help but be reminded of a wolf that prowls around the campfire just outside its glow, drawn to the brightness and warmth but much too wild and wary to approach.

However, the other night I may have found a way to lure the wolf in closer, using a most unlikely bait. . .

That evening Murdoch and I had once again engaged in a game of chess. Teresa sat with her mending and Johnny, half melted into the shadows, sat watching without appearing to watch at all.

While Murdoch plays a fairly good game, the outcome of our match was much too predictable. I had, after all, been the captain of our chess club at Harvard and while Murdoch has won several contests, I beat him at least four out of five games. Rather than make him angry, this seems to please him.

After the game, Murdoch had gone back to his desk and I was replacing the pieces in their case. I happened to look up and catch Johnny’s eye. Following a sudden impulse I asked him, “Do you play?”

He took a long, slow swallow of his drink. “Yeah, I’ve played some.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eye.

“Really?” I said, and immediately regretted it because the surprise in my voice was much too evident and Johnny had heard it. His eyes narrowed and one corner of his mouth quirked up in a sardonic grin. He turned his attention to the liquor swirling around in his glass.

“Would you like to play?” I asked.

He looked up. His eyes met mine and just for a second I felt a shock, like a wild creature come suddenly face to face with the wolf. “Well, Boston,” he drawled, “if you promise not to be too tough on me, I’ll give it a shot.”

“Great.” I smiled brightly.

Johnny got up and refilled his glass and then took the seat opposite me. Murdoch was scowling at me in disapproval and I smiled back at him with a look that was intended to convey that I would not humiliate my younger brother too badly.

I held out two pawns, Johnny tapped the black and I spun the board around.

“Scott,” Murdoch said with a growl. “Do you really think that this is a good idea? It’s, ah, getting late.”

Johnny dropped his eyes and snorted softly.

I sighed to myself. “Nonsense, sir. It’s still early and we’ll be fine. But please, don’t let us keep you up if it’s past your bedtime.”

Johnny’s shoulders shook and the look that Murdoch gave me should have set my hair afire. I smiled to myself. Deciding on my strategy I opened with a pawn to Queen’s Bishop Three and settled back to wait for my brother’s first move.

There was no wait. I had hardly withdrawn my hand before he advanced his own pawn.

Within a few moves our game settled into a pattern. Johnny would make his move and then I would study the board, taking my time to consider my options, and advance my own piece. Johnny, with almost no time for thought or planning, would move his piece and it would once again be up to me.

After the third or fourth such exchange, Murdoch looked at me as if to say, “I told you so.” And I had the sinking feeling that this game might end up being embarrassingly one-sided. I certainly had not intended to humiliate Johnny the first time he ventured out of his chosen shadows.

About forty-five minutes into the game, something changed. My brother, who had so impressed me with his stillness, began to fidget. He crossed his legs and played with his spurs till they rattled and jingled. He shifted his weight and changed his position; he took one of the discarded pieces and rolled it precariously back and forth over his knuckles. He even began to whistle at one point until I scowled up at him.

“Oh,” he said. “Sorry,” and he gave me a small smile.

I was beginning to think that perhaps it wasn’t such a bad idea to trounce him, badly. Then again, I thought I’d try one more time to offer some good advice. Perhaps he’d be grateful for it later.

“You know, Johnny, chess is a very ancient game of tactics and strategy.” I finished my move and looked at him. “It’s been played and studied for thousands of years. Entire books have been written about the strategies involved. The best players are known to plan their game many, many moves in advance. You might find that the game goes better for you if you take some time to study the board before making your move.”

Johnny paused with his hand extended over the board. “Really?” he said, and moved his rook.

I sighed to myself. At least I had tried and perhaps he would be more receptive later, after I’d demonstrated the benefits of a planned approach. I looked over at Murdoch and shrugged. My father had a rather peculiar look on his face and I was about to ask him if he was feeling well when Johnny called my attention back to the game.

“Come on, Scott, your move. We ain’t got all night here.”

Murdoch rose and walked over behind my chair.

“In chess it’s not considered good form to try to rush your opponent.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t mind stayin’ up late. Nobody’s going to raise Cain right now if I’m not up at the crack of dawn. But I imagine that ol’ Murdoch there will expect you to be up in time to go shake the roosters awake.” He planted his elbows on his knees, dropped his chin to his clasped hands and grinned at me.

“Oh, you are amusing,” I said and I could feel my back teeth grind together. I rolled my shoulders and turned my attention back to the board, intending to set my plan in motion and spring the trap that would end this farce, except…

Johnny had leaned back with his left ankle on his right knee. He was resting his glass on his stomach and watching me intently.

I looked up into his eyes. He raised one eyebrow. “Mate in three,” he said softly, smiled, raised his glass to me and drank.

I shook my head. “No, that can’t be right.” I looked back to the board.

“He’s right, Scott,” Murdoch said.

“No, just let me think.”

“You can think all you want, Boston, but it’s not going to change the board.”

I took one more look; there must be some way out. But there wasn’t. “Hubris,” I muttered softly as I reached over and lay down my king.

“What?” asked Johnny.

I looked up at him and smiled wryly. “Oh, just something that comes before a fall.”

“Thought that was pride,” he said, his eyes intent on my own.

We stared at one another for a moment, tension singing between us. Suddenly we both laughed.

“Congratulations, brother, that was a damn fine game.”

He ducked his head.

“Next time, however,” I said, “I won’t be such an easy mark. I’ll be ready for you.”

“You do that, Boston.” He stood and I saw him stretch his shoulders and wince as the healing wound pulled. “But right now I’m going to bed. I think you wore me out.”

He started toward the stairs when Murdoch’s voice stopped him. “Good game, John.”

He glanced back over his shoulder. “Thanks.” He moved on toward the stairs.

“Where did you learn to play?”

He stopped again. “Oh, just around.”

“Around where?” Murdoch persisted.

“Sir,” I said, “did you see that last move coming?” Our father turned back to me and Johnny took the opportunity to make his escape. His softly spoken “Good night,” was barely audible as it drifted back from the shadows that engulfed the stairway.

As I said earlier, we have started to establish a routine here at Lancer, but routines change and relationships grow and hopefully prosper.

Tonight, after dinner, instead of going to his accustomed chair, Johnny snagged a cushion and positioned himself on the floor at the far end of the sofa. He pulled out a tangle of narrow rawhide strips and proceeded to braid them into an intricate pattern. And while he again took no part in our discussions, I cannot help but smile. It seems my wolf has taken one step closer to the light and I find that that pleases me immensely.


Back to Entry 2 : Gun Oil

On to Entry 4 : Gunfighter


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