Word Count 1,845
Thank you, Chris Petrone and Terri Derr, for the beta.
Scott procured a ticket, tucked a small derringer in his coat, and boarded the Butterfield stagecoach in Fresno. He’d read all about the ‘Wild West’ on the train ride from Boston. And stage rides carried a high risk from outlaws robbing them for cash and gold transported in the strongbox. Some bandits had even murdered passengers—like Rattlesnake Dick, who killed a lady during a hold-up for money and jewels.
Hot and cramped, the bumpy ride to Morro Coyo would take him close to his father’s ranch. But the miserable conditions of the coach’s interior made him wish he’d bought a horse and shipped the luggage. Not only would a ride through the country be more comfortable, it might be safer as well.
Or perhaps a wise man would have ignored the strange and belated invitation offering him a thousand dollars to visit a father he never knew. More extraordinary still, the thousand bought only an hour of his time. Pulling a handkerchief from his breast pocket, he dabbed the sweat droplets from his forehead. At the moment, an offer of FIVE thousand wouldn’t keep him an extra hour in this dusty hotbox.
The stage slowed. Scott tilted his head out of the window: nothing to see but road, rocks, and ragweed. The drop-off to one side and a steep rocky hill on the other proved the ruggedness of the land.
Movement ahead caught his eye. A man waved the stage down and stepped out toward the center of the road. Discreetly, Scott removed a good portion of his cash from the leather billfold inside his coat pocket. Careful not to draw attention to himself, he loosened his shirt a bit and slid the paper money inside.
The man wore a sidearm. He stood his ground as the horses moved right at him. Something about his stance emanated danger. He did indeed appear to be an outlaw making an ambush.
Other than the priest sitting next to him, the passengers began to fidget and fret. Scott recognized their fear and growing panic. He tried to reassure them and spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. “Stay calm, if there’s trouble, don’t draw attention to yourselves.” He gazed out the window again.
As the vehicle drew nearer, Scott saw that the man had a saddle slung over his shoulder. Perhaps he’d judged this as a hold-up too quickly. The world-weary expression on the man’s face reminded him of the past—barely grown boys fighting in the war had that same expression: eyes asking for relief that he had no means to give.
What battle had this one fought? Or did he still fight? Why should it matter at all what might be going on in this boy’s life? There was no reason to feel this weight of concern toward a stranger. Fingering the derringer in his coat pocket, Scott didn’t want improbable emotions to hamper his ability to protect himself or a fellow passenger.
The kid gingerly put the saddle down and approached the driver. What was that jingling? Tilting his head further out the window, Scott saw silver buttons on the legs of the guy’s pants, but he had to gaze further down to his dusty boots to find the sound’s source. The oversized spurs made the music, the jingle sound. With a half-smile, Scott tucked his head back some, thinking ‘pink shirts and outlaws.’
“You going to Morro Coyo?” The boy wanted a ride.
“Unless I’m lost.” Arlo didn’t seem to think they were in danger.
“You mind if I get a lift?” He glanced away and kicked the gravel as if asking for a ride injured his pride in some way.
“Sure thing. We’ll take care of that gun of yours.” Arlo had the right idea, or maybe confiscating firearms followed company policy. Whatever the case, Scott let go a breath of relief; the stranger would not board the stage armed. But watching their future passenger duck his head and hesitate, relief turned to a strange desire to protect.
Finally, the boy looked up and said, “Sure.”
“Seems like we’re picking up another passenger.” Scott put on his hat and informed the others on board. Bryce Eller and his wife, Fay, sat on the opposite bench with Fay’s sister, Hanna McNeil, a plain but neatly dressed middle-aged woman who nervously picked at her knitting.
Fay gazed out her window. “Bryce, he’s a gunfighter, and he’s…” The man patted the woman’s arm as if to reassure her.
Her sister showed little emotion until now. “He’s what?”
“Mexican.” The older woman mouthed the words and hastened to cover, realizing the priest was also of Latin descent. “Father, I’m sorry. I don’t mean anything by it. He just looks so dangerous.”
The priest smiled serenely. “We are all His children, are we not?” And he glanced toward the heavens.
Scott wondered if he might have rolled his eyes just a bit. But, on the other hand, perhaps it was a trick of the light.
Their newest passenger opened the stage door. Quickly scanning every occupant, his eyes settled on the tiny space between Scott and the priest; he climbed in, shut the door, and positioned himself to sit. He hadn’t completed the move when the driver yelled at the horses. They took off, jerking the boy onto Scott before he had wriggled his derriere into the only space left.
Scott almost lost hold of his most precious book, Overland, a personalized gift from the author, J W Deforest, a friend of sorts from the war. Closing the book with one hand, he reached up to adjust his hat with the other.
The pink-shirted boy fingered Scott’s jacket. “I didn’t mean to mess up your outfit.”
Scott wasn’t sure if this flamboyant stranger spoke out of sincerity or if the half-grin and twinkle in the fellow’s eyes carried a hint of teasing.
Keeping with civility, Scott brushed the very place the boy had touched. “Can’t be helped.” But he thought the newcomer might have been more careful.
Scott returned to his reading but noted the young man was mannerly enough to tip his hat to the ladies across from them. Both frowned, but the kid smiled as if they’d invited him to tea.
Father Gomez patted the boy’s leg and began conversing in Spanish. The young stranger spoke the language as well as he had English. Scott only picked up a word here and there. His language studies at Harvard concentrated in Latin and French. However, some knowledge of Spanish carried over from the time his grandfather took him to Spain when he was sixteen.
Early in the conversation, Father Gomez said the name “Johnny Madrid,” and the coach quietened. Fay Eller paled and placed a handkerchief to her nose. Bryce squeezed her hand, and Scott wasn’t sure but thought Hanna whispered, “Oh my.”
The conversation next to Scott became more excited, and the priest placed a hand on the fellow’s arm. “Gracias, my son, gracias.” The boy ducked his head. Then, saying something in Spanish back to Father Gomez, he pulled his hat down on over his eyes. Finally, the kind man of God patted the knee of this new passenger, smiled, and turned to look out the window.
Unable to concentrate on his book, Scott’s thoughts turned to the father he would meet for the first time this day. The only emotion he could dredge up for the man was resentment. If Murdoch Lancer cared at all, why had he never written? Or come for him? Or sent for him until now?
Scott’s gut clenched, and the smells of the closed space became overwhelming. The movement of the stage, long days of travel, the anxious feeling in the pit of his belly made him wonder why he answered this man’s summons?
Perhaps he wanted to make sure Murdoch Lancer knew he was entirely superfluous to his life. Yes, Lieutenant Scott Garrett Lancer was educated, wealthy, and successful in all pursuits, never wanting for anything in life —except perhaps a family. All his life, he wanted a family like his friends had, one with laughter and love.
Of course, Grandfather cared. But quite frankly, Scott felt like a possession. Love as he observed in other homes, was non-existent in the Garrett mansion. And from Scott’s point of view, Murdoch Lancer had denied him both love and family.
“Whoa, whoa there.”
The driver called the horses to slow again. This time when Scott looked out, a small dusty village greeted him. He bent down to place his book in a small travel bag. A bump on the shoulder, a blur of spurs and boots, and the young stranger almost knocked him over to make a hasty exit. Frowning at the lack of manners, Scott nevertheless understood a desire to be free of the cramped quarters, and he ducked through the stage door and stepped out.
Looking around for a man that might be his father, Scott found only a young, dark-haired girl coming toward the stage. She must be meeting someone, but searching the distance beyond her, no one else appeared interested in passengers. Could it be his father didn’t receive his telegram?
The young girl seemed puzzled. First, she stared at Scott and glanced over her shoulder at her two companions. Then she spoke. “Ah, Mr. Lancer?”
“That’s me.” Scott answered and immediately heard someone behind him say, “Yeah.” Was that strangely dressed boy trying to be funny?
“Ah, I’m sorry. Which one of you said. . .?”
“I did,” Scott said, and the exact words echoed behind him.
Scott glanced toward the girl and back at the stranger. Right now was no time to lose his temper. But some matters had to be handled.
“You’re Johnny.” The girl was pointing at the boy behind him.
“That’s right.” The kid stepped forward. Good to finally know his name. He’d not had the manners to introduce himself on the stage.
“Then you’re Scott Lancer.” She addressed him and walked closer.
And with a bit of anger in his voice, this Johnny said, “No, ma’am. He’s no Lancer. My mother only had one kid, and that was me.”
“Likewise.” Scott couldn’t help the harshness in his tone.
“Oh, well, we didn’t expect you both at the same time, but…but actually, you’re right. It’s Mr. Lancer that had two.” The girl and the men with her seemed ill at ease.
“Two… what?” This whole conversation turned more bizarre by the minute.
“Wives… and sons. You two.”
Scott turned very slowly and looked at Johnny. The kid was standing there with this half-grin on his face, looking him up and down. How dare he size him up. And worse, he looked amused. AMUSED!
Then it dawned on Scott. This kid who laughed at him, who he felt a need to protect one minute, and the next to grab him in a headlock and wrestle him to the ground, this annoying boy who needed to be taught some manners… was his little brother.
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