Word Count 52,003
This is an AU/AR story
Rated PG for some strong language
Murdoch had read the telegram over and over, desperate to believe its contents but terrified to trust in something that could so easily lead to yet more disappointment and heartbreak.
He read the words again then slumped down onto the couch as his knees buckled beneath him.
Please God let it be him
Laughter drifted in from the courtyard, his eldest son’s laughter, he would have to prepare Scott for disappointment; just like he would have to prepare himself.
“Over here son.” Murdoch forced himself to his feet, the steadiness in his voice hard won.
Striding over to his father, Scott’s smile immediately faded as he registered the anguish on the older man’s face. The telegram in the trembling hand deepened his concern
“Is it bad news?” Scott’s first thoughts were of his grandfather, was he ill or perhaps worse?
“No! No its not.” Of course it wasn’t bad news, it was the best news he could possibly hope to have, but still it had managed to tear him up inside. Murdoch offered the now crumpled telegram to his son. Scott eyed it suspiciously before taking it from his father.
Murdoch studied his son, witnessing the array of emotions as they played across the handsome face, the ever present sense of pride engulfing him. The elder of his two sons stood tall and proud, endowed with all the fine qualities a man should possess, strength, courage, compassion. The young man had also inherited his mother’s kindness, her gentleness and her eyes, and those eyes looked at the world in the very same way she had done.
Scott had never known his mother; Catherine had died giving birth to him. Harlan Garrett, the boy’s maternal grandfather had taken the baby back with him to Boston and so had begun a long legal battle over the custody of the child. Murdoch had eventually been forced to settle for shared custody and Scott had travelled between the two men. Finally he had decided at the age of eighteen to return permanently to Lancer and become a rancher like his father, that had been two years ago. Harlan Garrett had been violently opposed, wanting his Scotty to become a lawyer. Scott had not wanted to disappoint his grandfather, but his love for his father and Lancer had outweighed his love and any loyalty he felt for the older man. The only place he ever really felt at peace was at Lancer, he knew he belonged there, and anyway his father had lost one son. He had lost too much already.
Heart thumping madly in his chest Scott tore his eyes away from the piece of paper clenched tightly in his hand, his blue eyes flashing with expectation “They’ve found him…”
“Scott…it might not be him, don’t build your hopes up son.”
“It’s him, its Johnny…I know it is.” Scott declared, his heart insisting it was true. “Let’s go bring him home.”
Murdoch stared up at the heavens, contemplating the clouds as they scurried across the night sky, the autumnal winds driving them mercilessly on. A full moon peeked flittingly down on the world, a world that once more tantalized him with the promise of finding his youngest son.
They were three days out from Lancer and still about a day shy of their destination. They’d pushed hard, covering more miles than they had expected but still not enough to reach their goal. Tomorrow they would finally know for certain if thirteen years of heartbreak was at last over, tomorrow wouldn’t dawn soon enough for either man.
Father and son were bone weary but sleep had not been forthcoming, and they sat huddled beneath their blankets, lost in thought.
Scott stared into the mesmerizing flames, trying to imagine the anticipated reunion with his brother. It troubled him a little, what did you say at times such as this? Perhaps there would be no need for words. The only thing Scott really wanted to do was embrace his little brother, wrap his arms around him and never let him go. But would Johnny accept his father and brother? Would he want to return to Lancer with them? Questions swirled endlessly in Scott’s head, with no possible answers, not yet anyway.
A wolf bayed in the distance breaking Scott’s reverie. Throwing a few more pieces of wood on the campfire, he caught his father’s eye. “What do you think he looks like now? I keep trying to imagine him at fifteen but I can’t.”
“He looked so like Maria, I’m sure he still does…”
Scott’s face clouded over at the mention of his stepmother, he felt nothing but contempt for her now. Not only had she taken his brother away, she had run out on him. He had loved her…she was after all the only mother he had known, and yet, she had never returned his affection. Scott wondered if Maria had ever loved him or Murdoch for that matter. She had simply abandoned his father and himself with no discussion, no warning. Murdoch had awoken to find her gone, Johnny along with her. Maria hadn’t even left a note, stealing away in the night, vanishing into the darkness. Leaving in her wake broken hearts and broken dreams.
Ten miles south of Little Creek, Murdoch pulled up his horse, taking a leisurely drink from his canteen, the nearer he got the more nervous he became. Scott watched impatiently as his father re-read the telegram from the Pinkerton agent, very much aware his father was still unable to believe his son had been found.
“Ready Pa?” Scott sensed his father’s nervousness but felt helpless, he wanted desperately to see his brother. The very last time he had seen Johnny, the little boy had been just two years old. Scott had been seven, the memory had never faded. The mischief filled blue eyes unforgettable, staring after him as he’d left Lancer to spend some time with his Grandfather before returning to school. Chubby little hands had waved an exuberant goodbye; Scott could never have imagined the nightmare that would follow.
A few months later Johnny was gone. Murdoch had travelled to Boston to tell Scott and had promised him that no matter how long it took he would find his brother, days turned into weeks and weeks into months and soon years. Years of fruitless, heartbreaking searching and disappointment. As Scott grew older he saw the hope die slowly in his father’s eyes, but not completely, he never stopped hoping that one day, he would have his youngest son home.
The town of Little Creek bustled with life, businesses thrived and the surrounding community grew in its benevolent shadow, but neither man had any interest in it’s goings on. Their only thought, to set eyes on their lost boy again. Leaving their horses in the care of the town’s livery, they made their way over to the hotel and the planned meeting with the Pinkerton agent.
“Mr Lancer.” Murdoch was startled by the deep voice calling his name; strangers to the town they had not expected to be recognised.
“Yes! Agent Evans?” Murdoch held out his hand and took stock of the man before him. Tall, nearly as tall as himself, short dark hair, a ready smile, Murdoch liked the look of him.
“How do you do Sir.” Evans shook the offered hand warmly.
Murdoch turned gesturing with his hand “This is my eldest son Scott.”
“Pleasure to meet you both. I took the liberty of renting you two rooms; I think we should go there and discuss the situation.”
“The situation? What do you mean?” Scott voiced his concern.
“Let’s go somewhere private.” Evans led the way up to the room, unlocked it and ushered father and son in.
“Where’s Johnny? You said you had found him.” Scott surveyed the empty room, panic beginning to rise in his chest.
“I have son…but it isn’t that simple…”
“Where is he?” Scott demanded.
“I’m afraid he’s in jail.” Evans looked at Murdoch “We need to talk.”
“Jail!” Murdoch spluttered. “What’s going on? He’s only fifteen?”
“You had both better sit down, it’s a long and unpleasant story, and it’s not going to be easy to listen to.” Evans sat down in a chair. Murdoch motioned to Scott to do the same and followed suit.
“The reason we have had so much trouble tracing your boy is that he has been living under another name, Madrid. I’m sorry Mr. Lancer, I’ve bad news about your wife, Maria Lancer was murdered three years ago, and your son witnessed it, he killed the man responsible.”
“Killed the man responsible! No…he…I can’t believe…” Murdoch whispered, rocked by the news Maria was dead and that his son had killed a man at twelve years of age.
“The boy’s been drifting ever since, he’s got himself into quite a bit of trouble along the way. Stealing mainly but the boy’s also earned quite a reputation for being good with a gun. You might have heard of Johnny Madrid?” Saul Evans watched the color drain from Murdoch Lancer’s face; the name obviously meant something to him. “I finally tracked him here; he’d been caught stealing food. I told him who I was and why I was looking for him, he didn’t take it very well. It seems he blames you for a lot of things Mr Lancer.”
Agent Evans handed Murdoch a folder. “This contains everything I’ve managed to find out about your son, it’s not pretty, he’s had a difficult life to say the least…” Saul Evans paused, uncertain of how best to broach the remaining unsavoury facts to Murdoch Lancer. “The boy’s pretty wild, angry at the world and more importantly angry at you. He threatened to kill you.” Evans glanced from Murdoch to his suddenly very pale son. “Are you alright?”
Scott nodded his head, stunned by what he had just heard, he gazed at his father, the older man looked equally stricken.
Evans pushed on. “The boy should have been released this morning, but the sheriff agreed to hold him until you arrived.”
Murdoch stood up quickly, his mind reeling at the stark facts relayed to him. Johnny was no longer his sweet, loving little boy, he was almost a man, he had taken a life…several lives….and he had threatened his life. For a brief second he’d hoped the agent was wrong and that the boy wasn’t his, that this apparently cold blooded killer was someone else’s son. That the whole damn mess was all some terrible mistake. Murdoch quashed that thought instantly. God forgive me no matter what, he wanted his boy so very badly. “I want to see my son.”
The few minutes it actually took to reach the jail seemed to Scott to last forever; his mind ached from the revelations made clear to them by the Pinkerton Agent. Scott wanted so desperately for it to be Johnny but he didn’t want to believe a word of what had been said about him.
The three men entered the jail and were greeted by Sheriff Thomas Grey. Introductions were made and the sheriff made it clear the boy had been an unwelcome guest. “I’m sure glad you arrived. That boy’s about drove me loco.”
The sheriff led the way to the cells at the back of the jail. Standing, looking through the bars was a teenage boy, unruly black hair framed a tanned, handsome face, a face that bore several bruises and one very split and swollen lip. Startling blue eyes scrutinized the three men as they approached.
Murdoch had been right, the boy bore a striking resemblance to his mother, he stared hard, silently mouthing the name John. A tremendous sense of relief washed over him, his son, his boy was here, safe. Murdoch said a silent prayer of thanks, and prayed for strength, he was going to need it, the boy’s eyes stared back full of hate.
Johnny stared at the two men, at the two strangers claiming to be his father and brother. What did they want from him? Why after all this time did they look for him? He couldn’t believe the latest twist in his life, unease gripped him and he silently blasted himself for allowing the irrational fear to take hold. For some strange reason he was scared of what their interest might mean. One thing he didn’t want was for them to see his fear and he fought to control it, releasing his anger instead. “You bastard! You got some nerve keeping me locked up; you’d better tell him to release me NOW!” Blue eyes flashed angrily and a sneer crept across the boy’s face. “Hey blondie, you another one of his mistakes? Did he throw your mamma out too? Who’s warming your bed now Old Man?” Johnny glared menacingly at the two men, surprised and relieved that his voice had held so calm.
“Hold your tongue boy; you need to listen to what your father has to say.” The sheriff opened the door and Johnny edged backward toward the rear of the cell.
Murdoch entered slowly never taking his eyes away from his son. Scott followed, staggered by the hate that had pulsed from every one of the boy’s words.
Agent Evans noted the fresh bruises on the boy’s face and turned to the sheriff. “Those bruises weren’t there yesterday.”
“He attacked my deputies…they had to restrain him.” The sheriff dropped his eyes under Evans’ scrutiny but his face had already told the whole story. Unwilling to pursue the matter, with the precarious reunion taking place before them, both men turned to face the three Lancers now standing inside the cell.
“Johnny…I’ve searched for you, I’ve tried to find you son…”
Johnny moved forward and spat into his father’s face. “Don’t you call me son.”
Murdoch wiped at his face, shocked at the boy’s action.
A string of expletives spewed from Johnny’s mouth and Scott was unable to contain his anger, he grabbed the boy by the shoulders and pushed him up against the wall. An involuntary groan escaped the boy’s lips and his face paled, but Scott’s anger would not be quelled.
“Do that again boy and I’ll have to teach you some manners, now just you sit there and listen.” He manhandled Johnny to the bunk and forcibly made him sit.
Johnny sat, his heart pounding, four against one. The odds were against him, he’d found that out to his cost before now, but anger and stubbornness made him shout back.
“Lay a finger on me again and I’ll kill you.”
Scott stared directly into the hate filled eyes, “Is that a threat or a promise?” Several tense moments passed as Scott stared the boy down, finally the dark head bowed. “Either way, you say or do anything else I consider inappropriate and I’ll do more than lay a finger on you. Got it brother?” Scott snarled.
The boy’s head shot up quickly and his anger gave way to confusion… “You ain’t my brother…you ain’t …” The dark head bowed again and the boy fell silent.
Scott sat down beside the young man. “Yes I am Johnny.” Scott’s voice was suddenly quiet, calm; his heart aching for the boy. “I’m your brother Scott. You were just two the last time I saw you. I guess you were a little too young to remember me, but I have never forgotten you, my father…our father has searched for you ever since…Johnny?”
The boy continued to look at the floor and Scott turned helplessly towards their father, the older man stood so near and yet so very far from his youngest son.
Seeing the hopelessness in his elder son’s eyes Murdoch moved a few steps closer. Johnny’s discomfort in his presence was palpable and he’d forced himself to hold back and keep from getting too close but God how he wanted to hug his son, hold him in his arms as he had done all those years ago.
“Johnny you have to listen to me, please give me a chance to explain. I don’t know what your mother told you but…”
Johnny was on his feet in an instant, raging back at the older man, his every word dripping with hatred. “She said you threw us out! That you never loved her and that you said I was a mistake. That you didn’t want no half breed for a son! She hated you Old Man and so do I. I watched my mother die and I ain’t gonna rest until I’ve had the pleasure of puttin a bullet in your head. But don’t you worry none about watchin your back… you’ll see it comin!”
The depth of Maria’s treachery proved too excruciating a blow, and the last traces of the love Murdoch still felt for his son’s mother evaporated. She had lied to their son; fed him tales guaranteed to fester and eat away at his soul, and her legacy, a putrefying hatred that eclipsed what had once been love for the man who had only ever loved him. In utter desperation he caught his younger son’s shoulders in a death grip. The boy had to be made to see, he had to be forced to understand just how very wrong he was.
“NO! You listen to me Johnny. I loved your mother and I loved you, she left one day and took you with her. I looked for you and I have been looking for the last thirteen years. But I’ve found you now and I ‘m not prepared to lose you again. You can hate me all you want son, but I want you to know that I have never stopped loving you, will never stop loving you. Your brother and I have come to take you home. Please Johnny, give me a chance, give yourself a chance.”
Johnny stared intently into the stranger’s eyes, desperately trying to maintain the eye contact, wanting the other man to be the first to look away, to show some weakness, some doubt. But he stared right back and whatever it was shining in the stranger’s eyes drew the sting of unwelcome tears. Dropping his gaze, Johnny wrenched himself away from the man’s grasp; telling himself over and over that the old man was lying, that it was all some kind of trick, and that he couldn’t believe…shouldn’t believe him, because they would only hurt him in some way…and no one was ever going to hurt him again. Overwhelmed by the surge of confusing emotions he was suddenly very unsure of anything right then, and he turned away from the stranger, walking to a darkened corner of the cell.
The men watched as the boy lowered himself to the floor, drawing up his legs, laying his head on his knees before finally wrapping his arms around himself. Scott moved quickly and sat beside his brother, throwing his arm around the boy who flinched and tensed dramatically at his touch. Johnny’s reaction disturbed Scott and he pulled away, reluctantly getting back up on his feet. Scott looked towards his father; the older man’s eyes were full of pain and defeat. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! What should he do? What could he do? He turned his gaze back to his brother; the first thing was to get him out of this place.
“Johnny. We’ll stay in town tonight, and then head home tomorrow first light. You must be hungry? We’ll eat over at the hotel…” Scott waited for some response and after a few tense moments Johnny stood up, he raised his eyes and Scott was startled by the transformation that had occurred. Gone was the boy who had stood before them, in his place a young man with a cold, level stare, confident and in control. His entire being seemed relaxed and poised.
Murdoch turned and walked out of the cell; Scott motioned to Johnny to follow and was relieved to see the boy do as he was bid. He followed quickly behind, expecting the boy to make a run for it.
Once in the outer office, Johnny abruptly stopped. “I want my rig,” his voice soft but deadly. The Sheriff looked at first Murdoch and then Scott, before opening the cabinet behind his desk, and retrieving the boy’s gun and holster. Johnny took the weapon from the sheriff, holding the rig in his left hand he gently removed the gun from the holster; exposing the strangest looking colt any of the silent spectators had ever seen. The weapon shone a cold blue gray and was impeccably cared for. The sight had been filed off, and the barrel shortened. Johnny’s fingers curled around the butt of the weapon and seemed to become one, the weapon becoming an extension of Johnny’s hand. Each of the four men witnessing Johnny’s actions were chilled by the manner in which Johnny handled the colt. That Johnny was comfortable with the weapon could not be disputed but the oneness he was exhibiting left them no doubt that he was as deadly with a gun as the reputation which preceded him had foretold. Johnny strapped the deadly weapon around his slim hips and carefully drew the weapon once, then replaced it. Once satisfied with its placement, he gave a barely perceptible nod to his father. Murdoch turned and led the way out of the jail.
Once outside, Murdoch briefly exchanged a few words with the Sheriff and then they headed off to the hotel where they parted company with Agent Evans. Johnny walked between Murdoch and Scott, on the alert, taking in every detail of his surroundings without seeming to notice them.
Entering their room Scott was aware of the way the boy’s eyes searched the room, staring at the window and both doors, no doubt planning his escape, or was it something else, something Scott couldn’t fathom.
Johnny felt the older man’s eyes on him and he turned to look directly into them. “I’m hungry! You said we’d eat here!
“Pa’s ordering a meal for us; but first you need a bath and some new clothes…”
“I ain’t having no bath.” The fingers of his right hand stroked the weapon resting on his hip, a gesture Johnny didn’t even seem conscious of. Sapphire eyes turned a darker shade as they stared in defiance back at Scott.
The boy smelled anything but sweet, it was clear to Scott that Johnny and soap were strangers. Well he didn’t mind being the one to acquaint the two of them. Scott was also aware that he could not afford to show any weakness, appear intimidated. He faced his brother.
“You ARE having a bath….one way or another.” Scott set his jaw, determined to win every battle with his brother. He knew this was just the first in a long line of confrontations; this boy was going to fight authority of any kind all the way.
“I ain’t, and YOU can’t make me…” the boy’s voice rang with challenge.
Perhaps a head on battle of wills would best be avoided, Scott thought. Perhaps he should make the boy an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“Well I might need the help of Pa, Agent Evans, Sheriff Grey and I suppose I could always drag a few men off the street…but like I said, one way or another you ARE taking a bath BOY.”
Half an hour later a tub had been situated in the room and filled with hot water, soap and towels left on the bed.
Johnny stood, glaring at his brother; Scott stared calmly back, arms folded, leaning casually against the wall. The door opened and in walked their father, a neatly wrapped parcel held in his hand. Murdoch glanced between his sons, instantly aware of the tension in the small room. It hung heavy in the air, palpable, with a tangible life of its own.
“These should fit you Johnny, but the lady at the store said she could alter them if necessary.” Murdoch opened the parcel and laid the clothes on the bed.
“Get yourself undressed and get in.” Scott ordered.
Johnny looked at his father and then back at his brother. “No!”
“I think we had this discussion earlier…”
“Yeah I think we did and I think I told you then I ain’t having no bath, you don’t listen too good!”
“Johnny!” Murdoch took a step closer to his son, maybe some encouragement from him might help, but the boy stepped back quickly. “Touch me and I’ll…”
Scott moved in closer “You’ll what? Now do you get in yourself or do you need some help…I can arrange the help.
Johnny’s eyes moved from his brother to his father then back, deliberating over his next move he suddenly made a run for the door. Scott caught hold of his arm and wrestled the boy to the floor. Murdoch watched as his eldest son pinned his youngest son down. Though Murdoch didn’t approve of manhandling the boy or standing idly by as Scott did, he could find no other way to reason with him. Yet, he felt an odd sense of pride in watching as his eldest assumed the role of caretaker which he knew Scott had always longed to fulfil.
“You’re beginning to annoy me now BOY.” Scott snapped as he sat astride Johnny’s legs and pulled his brother’s arms behind his back.
“Bastard….get off me…. ” Johnny struggled furiously, causing his shirt to rip and ride up, revealing an angry mass of bruising that extended out across his back. Scott looked to his father whose eyes were now fixed upon his son’s injuries.
Murdoch flinched, suddenly realizing the deputies had done a damn sight more than restrain his son. “Scott…let him up”
Scott released his hold on Johnny, and the boy turned over, slowly and painfully he got to his feet. Scott reached out to help him but Johnny glared back, releasing another stream of oaths in his direction. Backing over to the bed, he sat upon it.
“Get a doctor Scott….” Murdoch began softly, immediately cut off by a vehement statement from his younger son.
“I don’t need no doctor.”
“Maybe I should stay Pa and you go.”
Scott reluctantly left the room, glancing back with concern at his father.
Johnny hung his head, again confused at the emotions warring inside. What did these strangers want? Surely they didn’t really want him? That didn’t make any sense. His father hadn’t wanted him before…not according to his mama and she wouldn’t lie to him, well not about something like that. He could feel the older man’s eyes on him, he could sense his concern and he didn’t like it, he didn’t want the bastard to feel anything for him because he felt nothing for him except overwhelming hatred.
Murdoch was again lost for something to say, how was he going to make this hostile boy understand how much he loved him, how much they both loved him. Johnny was hurting both physically and mentally and the boy’s pain could all be laid at his feet. The enormity of the chasm between them appalled Murdoch, how was he to get through the walls of mistrust and hate? It seemed an impossible battle but it was one he was determined to win.
Scott had explained the situation to Paul Davies, the town’s doctor, as they walked quickly back to the hotel room. He hadn’t liked leaving his father alone with the boy. Johnny was filled with so much anger and hate, but thankfully he’d been able to locate the doctor within minutes. Entering the hotel room he found his father standing beside his brother, the boy’s head bowed. This stranger, his brother, was a mass of contradictions, confident, cocky, cold and deadly, then in the next breath a lost little boy, needful, vulnerable and confused by the world he’d suddenly found himself in. It was this side, the lost, vulnerable Johnny they were going to have to reach, if they were to ever become the family they should be.
“Mr Lancer” The doctor greeted Murdoch with a firm hand shake, he gazed down at the boy and then back at his father.
“If you’d like to wait outside, I’ll call you if I need you.”
“Maybe we should stay doc.” Scott wasn’t sure leaving the boy alone with the doctor was a good idea.
“No need son, now please.” Doctor Davies smiled at the young man’s concern.
As Murdoch and Scott left the room, the doctor sat in a chair opposite Johnny.
“Well young man, I believe I need to take a look at you. The sooner I start the sooner I can leave you in peace.”
Johnny’s eyes met the doctor’s “I’m alright…”
“I’m the one with the medical degree! Now do I get your father and brother back in here or are you going to do as I ask you.”
Johnny looked at his feet and nodded.
Doctor Davies seemed nice enough but Johnny wasn’t happy being tended to by anyone; he was used to taking care of himself. He’d stubbornly refused to answer the doctor’s questions particularly on who and why someone had used him for a punching bag, that was something else Johnny had learned to expect by now.
After confirming there were no broken bones the doctor had simply pointed at the tub. “You’ll heal soon enough, I do recommend you take a bath though, that will help ease some of the soreness.” Determined to see if his suspicions were correct, the doctor added quickly, “Does the sheriff know what those deputies did to you boy?”
Johnny’s head shot up, how had the doc known?
“You’re not the first they’ve worked over…but you’re the youngest.”
“They don’t like half-breeds.” Johnny spat
“I see…well thank God the whole world doesn’t feel the same. Johnny… it’s none of my business I know but your brother told me a little about what’s happened to you…like I said it’s none of my business but I think you should give your father and brother a chance. It’s obvious to me that they care about you.”
“You’re right, it ain’t none of your business,” Johnny looked away from the kindly eyes. The doctor meant well but he knew nothing about him or them for that matter.
With a knowing stare, Dr Davies observed the young man before him. He opened his mouth to say more then decided as quickly against it. The doctor trailed a hand in the bath water as he left the room. “Go on, get in. I’ll have a word with your father.”
Father! that word stirred up an eddy of emotions and Johnny silently cursed the man.
Once the doctor had left the room, Johnny unstrapped his gun belt, placing his old ‘friend’ on the table next to the tub, his hand almost lovingly caressing the smooth leather. Reluctantly he brought himself back to the task before him; he removed his pants and eased himself painfully into the bath. The water felt good indeed, it soothed the stiff aching muscles, and the sore, bruised and tender skin. Johnny sniffed at the soap pulling a disgusted face, and as he scrubbed away at a month’s worth of grime, he sighed wearily. The urge to run was still constant, but new sensations nudged for recognition, curiosity and one he tried to suffocate but to no avail, need. Something innate was insisting he give them a chance, one chance only. Let them just try and…and what, what did he expect them to do, so far the old man and his brother…brother! No, it didn’t pay to see him that way…blondie had showed only concern, but he knew better than to trust them. He could, he realised, grabbing hold of his next thought, use them, let them feed him, a full belly was a luxury he saw no point in turning his nose up at.
Take ‘em for all you can Johnny boy
The doctor had been brutally honest with Murdoch and Scott, informing them of not only the very recent violent beating Johnny had suffered but of the scars that told of a history of similar abuse. It had been another painful blow for both men. The doctor also had the task of breaking the news to the stunned men, that the boy had also recently been shot. A scar on his left shoulder indicating the serious nature of the injury. “I’d say he’s still not fully recovered from that yet”
Murdoch had nodded his understanding. “If he’s up to a few days ride, I’d like to get him home.”
“I think the sooner he’s home the better. That’s where the real healing will have to take place.”
The doctor had left, assuring both men that he would personally take the matter up with the sheriff. Murdoch had agreed, unsure he’d be able to contain his ire and also because he felt unable to leave his son for any length of time.
Both men entered the room with some trepidation, but were surprised and relieved to see Johnny not only in the tub but washing his hair. The boy avoided eye contact, ignoring them completely and they thought it prudent to do the same. Sitting on the bed they discussed who would take what room. Murdoch would take the double with Johnny. Scott would take the room they occupied presently.
Johnny reached for the pitcher and favouring his bruised ribs and still very tender shoulder wound, lifted it and rinsed off his hair. He listened to the men’s conversation, his stomach grumbling as the blonde left the room to hurry up the meal. Johnny’s mouth watered fiercely just at the mention of food. During this latest spell in jail he’d not benefited from the meals provided, the deputies had made sure he found his food unpalatable.
Somewhat self-consciously he’d dried himself off then dressed in the new clothes. He couldn’t remember ever having anything new before, and that evoked a strange feeling.
Ten minutes later the tub had been removed from the room and Scott had returned with two trays. He placed one on the table, appearing to ignore the weapon resting there and motioned for Johnny to eat. Johnny attacked the food with gusto. Murdoch and Scott tried to concentrate on their own meals but the boy’s obvious hunger hit them hard. Murdoch sent for more and Johnny relished the second helping as equally as the first, finally getting up and staring at his father “I’m tired old man”
Murdoch nodded and opened the adjoining door to the next room. Johnny reclaimed the rig still sitting on the table, then stepped through the door without another word; he lay on the bed, turning his back on his father. Murdoch and Scott both watched from the doorway, breathing a sigh of relief as the boy’s soft steady breathing confirmed he was asleep, gun tightly clasped in his right hand. Both father and son exchanged a glance, unable to express their concern for Johnny’s attachment for the odd looking colt and equally unable to resolve their concerns.
Murdoch had lain awake all night, straining to hear every breath and sigh of his younger son; each tiny reminder of Johnny’s presence, manna from heaven. Physically weary he was too afraid to give in to his body’s demands, afraid that if he should close his eyes Johnny would be gone when they reopened.
The Pinkerton report had read like some horror story, but not even the darkest work of fiction could conjure up the nightmarish scenario his son had endured. It was no wonder the boy hated him so very much; he hated himself for allowing such horrific things to happen to his child. Now he was faced with trying to put right all the terrible wrongs and he knew the task was an impossible one. All he could do, and what he was determined to do no matter what, was love his son. Love was the only weapon he had at his disposal, it was the only thing strong enough to break through the boy’s defences and shatter the walls he’d built around his heart.
Scott had been equally as restive, the Pinkerton report having robbed all vestiges of sleep from his elder son. Murdoch knew Scott was concerned about the threats the boy had made, from what he’d witnessed so far, he was too. All that was needed was some time, at least that was what he kept telling himself, time to reach his son, but would Johnny be prepared to grant him that time or was time going to run out for the Lancers.
Murdoch knew he was not going to get any sleep. Dawn was breaking and the trip home loomed before them, long and ominous. With a groan, he rose from the bed and stretched, muscles protesting the sudden movement. He didn’t remember when he had become so soft, his back ached, and he only hoped he would be able to keep his discomfort hidden from his youngest son. The journey home was going to task Murdoch to the limit. Like Scott, he knew Johnny was watching, never missing the most imperceptible sign, he knew he could not afford to show any weakness.
Stifling another groan, he gently reached out and touched Johnny’s shoulder, quietly calling his son’s name. In the blink of an eye he was staring down the barrel of a gun, awed by the speed with which Johnny had turned over and leveled the weapon. Murdoch was not even sure how the Colt had appeared; momentarily stunned he then tried to cover his unease by completely ignoring the gun in his face. “Come on, I want to leave as soon as we’ve had breakfast.”
The fear evident albeit briefly in Johnny’s blue eyes drove home to Murdoch just how much the boy needed him and how the Colt had taken over his role of protector.
After a moment of careful consideration, Johnny lowered the Colt and laid back down, the gun casually pointing in Murdoch’s direction. Murdoch then turned on his heels and strode into the adjoining room where Scott was now shaving, thankfully ignorant of what had just transpired.
It had taken a moment or two to make sense of his surroundings but as soon as he had Johnny had turned over and closed his eyes once more; he was in no hurry to get up. Not that his reluctance to surface was due to tiredness, for some reason, for the first time in a very long time he had slept soundly. The truth was, Johnny just wasn’t prepared to jump because the Old Man said so, he’d get up when he was good and ready. If old man Lancer didn’t like it, then tough. Johnny had always been in control of his actions and schedule and he wasn’t about to give up his control to anyone, especially the two men who now called him family.
Scott stared at his brother; the boy remained sprawled out on the hotel bed. Murdoch had repeatedly asked the boy to get up and join them for breakfast; the last request had been met with an expletive. Scott knew that had he ever dared speak to his father like that he’d have been unable to sit down for a week and would no doubt have been left with the lingering taste of soap in his mouth for months. Murdoch had ignored Johnny’s filth signalling to his elder son to do the same, the older man was obviously avoiding any confrontation with his younger son. Scott on the other hand wasn’t prepared to be so accommodating and was determined the boy wouldn’t win this round either; he just wasn’t sure how to handle the latest revolt…well maybe he did!
“If you’re quite sure you don’t want your bacon and eggs then I’ll have it. We’ve got a long way to go with nothing but beans and jerky…”
Scott returned to the table and sat beside his father, forking in a mouthful of eggs from his brother’s untouched plate. He was soon aware of a pair of eyes watching him and he lifted his gaze to meet them “Did you change your mind?” Pushing the plate away, he gestured at its contents “Eat up… before I do.”
By the end of the first day’s trek, Scott was silently seething; Johnny had been surly and openly offensive to their father. Murdoch was ignoring everything hurled at him but Scott was itching to knock some respect into the boy. He knew Johnny was deliberately provoking his father, daring him to react. Murdoch, not usually known for his patience, refused to take the bait, but Scott was simply biding his time, waiting for the right moment, when it came he would be ready.
The Lancers had stopped to make camp shortly before night fall, now falling into a strained silence. Scott offered to tend to the horses, Murdoch quietly agreeing. Johnny refused to surrender responsibility for his mount. Scott watched intently as Johnny unsaddled his chestnut gelding, taking extra care to see to its needs, his attention to the animal evident. Obviously Johnny had learned the value of a good horse and was as diligent in the gelding’s care as he was in the care of his weapon. Scott’s heart ached as even more evidence of Johnny’s lonely existence presented itself. That the boy considered his horse, and weapon, to be his only companions was agony. Scott resisted the urge to wrap his arms around the boy and turned instead to the task at hand.
Murdoch had prepared a meal of beans, and biscuits, and a pot of coffee, silently keeping a watchful eye on his sons. His sons, his Sons! It was what he had spent the last thirteen years dreaming about. Yes, Murdoch Lancer had dreams, and hopes, he wasn’t as hard as he appeared. He had just experienced disappointment after disappointment over the years as first one lead then another had ended in the knowledge he may never find his youngest son. Jerking himself out of his reverie, he became aware of his sons standing before him. While Scott filled three cups with the steaming coffee Murdoch passed the plates to his sons, watching in dismay as Johnny sat as far from him as possible while still enjoying the warmth the fire provided.
Pointedly ignoring his new found family, Johnny ate his meal with the same concentration he had exhibited the night before. Once he had eaten his fill he laid his plate on the ground beside him and withdrew his colt from its resting place. Johnny carefully, almost lovingly, cleaned and polished the deadly weapon until its cold metal shone in the firelight. Once satisfied with the results of his labor, he then returned it to its holster, his attention once more on his cup of coffee. Johnny idly blew on his cup to cool it, staring vacantly into the fire. Used to his own company and not wanting to exchange any niceties with the men present he found himself dwelling on why he was there. He had learned the hard way not to trust people, they always let you down. These men had somehow, he realized, wormed their way past his guard and he just didn’t understand how or why, maybe it was because he’d wanted to believe there was a speck of truth in what they said or perhaps, and this reason was the one he would cling to, they would willingly provide his requirements until he was back to full strength and had found another job.
Johnny’s last job had seen him shot and left for dead and to add insult to injury…unpaid. If it wasn’t for the reluctant care of an old prospector, Johnny knew he would be long dead. Somehow he’d made it up into the hills, like some animal crawling off alone to die. The old man had found him, making it clear to Johnny that he was an inconvenience but still he’d dug the bullet out and tended him through the fever that had gripped him for days. Daniel was obviously a loner and there had been little conversation between them but he’d been keen to know where Johnny’s folks were. “Dead” Johnny had replied, no lie, his mama was dead and the man who’d used her was as good as dead to him. But just weeks later that ‘dead’ man was now sitting opposite him, and the rage he felt towards Murdoch Lancer was slowly eating him up inside. He couldn’t look at the man without wanting to choke on the taste of bile, the deep voice grated on his every nerve and his touch…if he ever touched him again Johnny was sure he’d kill him! Checking himself quickly, Johnny tried to regain control of his emotions as his heart thundered painfully in his chest. Suddenly he was ashamed of the hate he harbored, but just as quickly he told himself the hate was justified and that he wasn’t prepared to let it go.
Murdoch pushed the food around his plate, his appetite having deserted him. His patience was also on the ebb, but he knew he had too much to lose by reacting to the boy’s lip. He wasn’t scared of his own son but he did fear the boy would bolt and he didn’t want to give him a reason to. It was so damned hard to ignore the insults and sass, but he knew Johnny was deliberately trying to goad him. If the boy kept pushing the way he was doing Murdoch knew he’d eventually crack, the temptation to slap his son’s mouth shut was constant now. That would of course only serve to give the boy the wrong signals and could also prove the excuse Johnny needed to draw his gun. Murdoch had observed the boy’s relationship with the odd looking colt. Relationship? Murdoch checked himself. Yet there was an undeniable connection, as if the gun and its owner were one. Johnny’s right hand hovered constantly near the weapon strapped low on his hip, seemingly of its own accord. Like breathing, Murdoch thought, again the idea flitting through his mind unbidden and equally unwanted. Would the boy use the gun on him? Murdoch wanted to be able to say no to that question but he had serious doubts. He was ashamed to think that way, but he could understand the depth of the boy’s hate.
“We need more firewood, could you look for some John?” Murdoch stared across the fire meeting an icy glare, he knew what answer to expect but he had to try.
“I could, but I ain’t going to, get it yourself Old man.”
Johnny watched the older man’s face, his features remained impassive but Johnny didn’t miss the briefest flash of anger in the blue eyes. For a minute he thought he was going to get a reaction but the older man simply looked into his coffee mug. Johnny couldn’t decide if the gray haired man lacked backbone or was just good at keeping his cool? He’d expected some kind of a fight from the older man but Lancer seemed indifferent to all his taunts and bloody mindedness and Johnny just wasn’t sure what to make of the man.
His brother, strange how easily that word came to mind, was a different matter entirely, disapproval oozed from every pore. Johnny knew he was pushing it with him but he was also looking forward to the time when Scott snapped again.
A little while later Murdoch left the camp to gather the wood required to keep the fire burning over night, telling his older son it was a good excuse to stretch his legs. Scott knew it was really just a pretence to escape the hostile environment, and he couldn’t blame the older man. Scott had listened to the last insulting exchange and now leapt to his feet. It was going to end here and now, one way or the other. He’d had more than enough and seizing the opportunity he strode over to where his brother sat, relishing a second helping of beans. With a growl of anger he lunged at the object of his fury, lashing out with his foot Scott kicked the plate out of his brother’s hands.
Johnny rose to meet him rounding on his brother. “Hey! What’d ya do that for?”
Scott stared into the blue eyes that were suddenly ablaze with anger, unsure of how to begin to answer that loaded question “The next time pa asks you to do something do it!”
“I don’t take orders from any one.” Johnny snarled, it was about time the blonde learned that lesson.
“You do now boy! You do exactly what pa tells you or you’ll answer to me…”
A sneer hardened the handsome face. “You got no authority over me, no more than that old man, you mean nothin’ to me…except maybe a free meal, and I’ll be out of here whenever it suits me…”
“Wrong!” Scott took another step closer, his brother’s throwaway remark deepening his anger. “You WILL do exactly as you are told, you WILL keep a civil tongue in your mouth and you WILL show some respect to your father because if you don’t boy…”
“You’d best stop calling me boy!” Johnny growled, his ire being whipped into a fury by the older man’s condescending tone and the grating use of the word boy.
“Why? That’s what you are…a boy! At least that is how you are behaving!” Scott emphasized his point with his finger, prodding his brother in his chest.
“Bastard…” Johnny’s temper erupted, his right hand forming into a white knuckled fist as he aimed a punch directly at his brother’s face.
Scott ducked and spun around, his left foot connecting with the younger man’s butt, sending him sprawling to the ground. Quicker than Scott thought possible he was looking at the wrong end of Johnny’s gun. He briefly raised his hands in mock surrender before lowering them and grinning down at his brother.
“No! I don’t think so! I think we should settle this the old fashioned way?”
“What?” Johnny spat, flowing to his feet, gun aimed at his brother’s heart.
Fists suddenly in the air Scott took up a fighting pose “You know man to uh… man. Marquis of Salisbury rules…”
Johnny looked his brother up and down; a hesitant smile crept across his bemused face. He nodded and re-holstered his gun. “Ready when you are blondie!”
Just a few minutes later, Scott was staring down at his brother for the second time. The boy lay dazed, wondering just how he had so quickly found himself on the ground again. Johnny wiped gingerly at the corner of his mouth, his sleeve soaking up the trickle of blood.
Scott swallowed his concern, he had been very careful not to cause any real harm, mindful too of the boy’s injuries. His well aimed and power judged jab had been perfect in its timing and he hoped his brother had understood the message about not messing with him. “Had enough yet BOY?” Scott shook his head at the stream of oaths that met him “That is something else I’ve been meaning to talk to you about!”
Before either brother had a chance to continue they became aware of Murdoch approaching. Johnny leapt to his feet, glaring at his brother, biting back on his answer to his brother’s next threat.
“That was round one, watch your mouth or you’ll be regretting round two.”
The next few days had passed excruciatingly slowly. Murdoch knew his son’s had had some sort of altercation but hadn’t pressed the issue. Whatever had passed between them had resulted in Johnny becoming less belligerent, falling into a sullen silence and Murdoch was so very grateful for that. The atmosphere was still unbearably tense, and the Lancer patriarch had said a prayer of thanks when they finally looked down at the vast expanse of land where home glistened in the late evening sun.
“As far as the eye can see…Lancer!” Murdoch studied his younger son, he wasn’t sure what reaction he had expected but it wasn’t the cold indifference his announcement received. Johnny took in the panorama before them, glowing with shades of pink and purple under the setting sun. He seemed as disinterested in the regal view before them as a child during a Sunday morning sermon. Murdoch’s youngest son actually stifled a yawn as he sat his mount, his right hand absentmindedly rubbed his thigh and he shifted impatiently in the saddle. Turning slightly, he became aware of Murdoch and Scott watching him, and felt a small sense of satisfaction knowing he had once again unnerved them.
Serve them right he thought.
The trio rode up to the hacienda and were greeted by a hand, who took their horses and led them to the barn, curiously shooting a sideways glance in Johnny’s direction. Being late on Sunday and the fact no one was expecting them back before Monday at the earliest, the hacienda was deserted. Murdoch led the way inside, his height dwarfed by the magnificent oak door. Johnny hesitated but a side on look from his brother soon had him mask his uncertainties. His heart began to beat a little faster as he stepped into the great room. Blue eyes searched every inch of the room, looking for anything that seemed familiar. He’d hoped he would remember something, anything, but no. Uncertainty again bred anger and he told himself he’d been a fool to come, to believe their lies. The two older men moved further into the room and Johnny followed, unsure of what he should do. Murdoch occupied himself lighting the fire, suddenly desperate for a distraction from his younger son’s agonizing unease.
A picture set upon a small table caught Johnny’s eye and he was drawn towards it. Unstoppable tears blinded him and he blinked furiously, the image in the frame of someone he thought he would never see again.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged glances and Scott decided that maybe now was a good time to leave father and son alone, he headed to the kitchen promising to fix some supper for them all.
Johnny cradled the photograph in his hands, lost in the wonder of that one moment captured for all time. She looked happy, happy like he’d never really seen her before, her dark eyes sparkled and her smile radiated up at him. He wanted to smile back at his mama, and at the same time he wanted to weep, weep because she wasn’t really there. He wanted desperately to keep this newly found treasure but he wasn’t prepared to ask its owner for a damned thing. Sensing his father’s eyes on him, he reined in his emotions and set the picture back down. “You got a picture of his mama too?” Johnny gestured towards the kitchen.
“Yes I have, do you want to see it?” Murdoch was surprised by the soft unchallenging tone of his younger son’s voice.
Johnny ignored the question; he wasn’t even sure why he’d asked about Scott’s mother, she was of no importance to him. Easing himself down onto the couch he settled back into the cushions, his right hand once more unconsciously resting on his gun. Home what a strange concept. He had never had a real home, most of his childhood had been spent drifting from town to town, with each new village came the promise of a stable, secure home. He knew she had wanted to provide him with a place to call home, with a real room of his own, a school, and friends. But each time he had thought she meant it, they were forced to flee and usually in the middle of the night. He was never quite sure what they were running from but he had tried to believe her. Now he was here in a beautiful home with warmth and security and try as he might, it was becoming harder to push back the waves of doubt that he was beginning to drown in. These men, this Man, were strangers and yet somehow, someway, they seemed more sincere than SHE had. Yet loyalty kept him fighting the ocean of emotions threatening to sweep him away. Anger once again reared its ugly head, asserting itself. How dare they…how dare they come into his life NOW and try to change things, change him. How dare they imply SHE had lied and was to blame. Again, he gave in to his anger, embraced it, looking to it for the sense of normalcy he so needed. He couldn’t be swayed, not now, not yet. But could he? The warmth of the fire beckoned and he felt himself surrendering to its safety, its comfort…
Murdoch sighed, he wasn’t sure where to go from here but one thing he knew he did have to tackle was the issue of the gun. It was a house rule that all firearms were removed on entering the hacienda, and kept in the area designated for them. He and Scott had automatically removed theirs moments ago. Murdoch was not looking forward to informing his younger son of the rule.
“John we don’t wear our guns in the house, you can leave yours over there with ours, no one will touch it.”
“You’re damned right no one will touch it, they ain’t gonna get the chance.” Johnny sneered up at the older man, waiting for his response. Without realizing it, his father had given him the fuel necessary to hold onto his anger. Johnny let it envelop him, let it take him, he embraced it. His gun had been his only ally, only friend and there was no way in hell he would allow anyone, especially Murdoch Lancer, to take that from him.
“You don’t need it here, you certainly don’t need it in our home, it’s a house rule we all have to abide by.” Murdoch tried to reason, at the same time knowing he was fighting a losing battle.
Lithely getting to his feet, Johnny met the determined stare with one of his own. “I don’t have to abide by your rules Old Man, I make my own.” For added emphasis, he gently caressed the weapon strapped low on his hip.
“Not any longer Johnny. I am your father and you are back under my roof and in my care now and until you are of age you will do things my way, I call the tune.”
“Go to hell!” Johnny snapped, turning his back on his father and making for the door.
Instinctively trying to prevent his son from leaving Murdoch lunged after Johnny, wrenching him violently backwards. He had just found his son and he was not going to give him up, no matter what. Johnny would stay one way or another.
The crushing grip on Johnny’s arm caused him to wince and he felt the familiar dread at what was coming; well the old man wasn’t going to get the chance to beat on him “Get your hands off me!” Johnny growled menacingly as the Colt once more appeared like magic in his hands.
In the kitchen, Scott had busied himself preparing sandwiches of thick roast beef and potatoes. He hoped against hope his father was getting through to Johnny. Scott knew it would take a lot of work on the part of them all, he only hoped the sight of the hacienda and the promise it held would somehow get through to the boy, touch his heart, and make him want to stay. It was so quiet in the great house, the only sound the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall. Scott was beginning to believe it would work out, that his father and newly found brother were talking things through, when he heard the sound he had been dreading. A single shot resounded throughout the hacienda and echoed painfully in his ears. He did not even notice the china plate as it slipped from his hand and crashed on the floor at his feet. Nor did he notice as the pitcher of milk followed closely behind it, its own journey to the floor ending in a puddle at his feet, wetness caressing the leg of his trousers. Scott careened into great room, his heart pounding and his mouth dry, the gunshot had sent shards of panic slicing through his heart. Suddenly his worst fears had become real as he saw his brother running out the door, leaving their father prostrate on the floor, blood seeping sickeningly from a head wound.
Jess White paused in mid stride Had that been a shot?
Unaware the man leading him had stopped; the chestnut took another step forward, his left shoulder brushing against him. The hand struggled to maintain his feet at the abrupt contact. He pulled back on the reins, effectively halting the gelding. After a moment, Jess could hear the sound of approaching footsteps; someone was coming toward the barn in a big hurry. He turned toward the door to the barn, waiting for the appearance of the unknown runner.
The falling twilight along with a mist of tears served to hinder Johnny’s vision and he ran almost blindly to where he’d seen his horse being led. Entering the barn, he was met by the questioning stare of the ranch hand now in the process of unsaddling his horse. Johnny pointed his gun in the older man’s direction, motioning to him to move away from the chestnut.
“Does your pa know you’re leaving?”
The calmly spoken question reinforced the image of the man he had just slain,
Madre Dios!!! Johnny swallowed hard and forced back the biting retort he had almost unleashed on the man before him. Conflicting emotions warred within him and he knew he had to get as far away as he could, as fast as he could. After all the years of imagining his father’s death at his hand, he had finally fulfilled the vow he had made over his mother’s grave. Yet somehow, he found no satisfaction in the deed, only, only what? Fear, disgust, shame? He had expected victory, triumph, not this overwhelming feeling of guilt. Damn, he’d killed his own father!
Johnny drew in a deep shaky breath, trying to quell the nausea threatening to choke him, unable to do anything but stare back. The older man took a step nearer, and Johnny registered the concern for him on yet another stranger’s face. He stared at the man before him; it was so odd but the instinct to force this new threat standing between him and the open road to back down, seemed to have abandoned him. In a single moment, a single breath, with a single shot, Johnny Madrid’s whole world seemed to have turned upside down. His sharply honed instincts seemed to have all but forsaken him. Desperately he leveled the Colt at the hand, appalled to see his own hand shaking.
“Get away from the horse. Now!” Johnny inhaled deeply, struggling to assume the façade of Madrid, the persona that had served him so well the years he had been on his own. He was stunned at how difficult it was to reach that side of his personality. Killing his father had destroyed his control as effectively as his bullet had ended Murdoch Lancer’s life. Why? What had changed? Johnny shook off the disturbing thoughts which threatened to overwhelm him, relieved that his hand was once more steady, the Colt aimed purposely at Jess White’s chest.
“Think about this son. Your family has spent so many years looking for you.”
“Shut up! Get back!” Johnny shouted, bitterly wiping away a stray tear, he couldn’t stand to hear any more lies; he couldn’t bear to hear someone else defend his father. Damn it! I called him father! the thought had registered in his mind and he had entertained it without hesitation. What the hell is wrong with me! again desperation took control, instincts all but gone; the only remaining thought was escape.
Jess White hesitated briefly, then took a few steps away from the chestnut gelding, deciding the boy was in no fit state to be reasoned with. One look at the young man’s face told Jess not to crowd him. Jess stepped away from the horse, making no move to interfere as Johnny checked the cinch and mounted. He spurred the gelding into a gallop, ducking his head as he rushed through the barn door. As soon as horse and rider cleared the barn, Jess raced towards the hacienda, believing the boss to be ignorant of his son’s flight.
Entering through the open door he was met by the sight of Scott Lancer, kneeling over his father’s prone form. A sudden realization that it had indeed been a shot he had heard washed over him in vivid clarity. No wonder the boy had been running, frantic.
“Did you see the boy?” Scott asked, his voice trembling with a mixture of horror and rage. Scott continued to press the blood soaked kerchief to his father’s head, trying to stem the crimson flow. With his other hand the oldest Lancer son gently stroked the fallen man’s cheek.
“Yeah, he’s headed towards the south mesa. Is the boss…?”
“No! No it’s just a graze but he’s out cold…damn him! Damn him to hell!”
Jess moved over, crouching down beside father and son, the truth of what had happened finally dawning on him. “You go after him; I’ll stay with your Pa.!
“If I go after him…I’ll…I’ll…” Scott shook his head, what was he saying, the boy hadn’t known what he was doing! Surely he hadn’t really intended… but still, he’d come so close to killing their father. Scott wasn’t sure he could trust himself around the boy just yet.
“You go get Dr. Jenkins. I’ll stay with my father. Hurry. We can track Johnny after we make sure Murdoch will be alright. Hurry!” Scott ordered.
“No!” A strong, calloused hand firmly grasped Scott’s wrist. “We have to find Johnny. We have to find him before we lose him forever.”
Racing into the wind, Johnny spurred his mount relentlessly on, the miles passing quickly beneath him. The terrain was unknown, visibility poor and Johnny could suddenly sense the unease of his four legged friend. As reason returned, he immediately regretted his treatment of the gelding. Pulling gently on the reins, he began to consciously slow their pace. As suddenly as their headlong flight had begun, it ended. Johnny’s heart lurched as he felt his horse stumble, both he and mount crashing to the ground. His last thought as he fell was one of regret as the impact sent Johnny bouncing then rolling with the momentum, his unconscious form finally coming to rest some distance from where his horse struggled to his feet.
Murdoch sipped on a glass of water, eyes shut against the light that seemed to aggravate his sickening headache still further. Even with his eyes closed Murdoch knew the room was spinning incessantly around him and he swayed from side to side. Immediately he felt the weight of his son beside him, his steadying arm folding around his shoulders.
“Pa? You need to lie down…please!” Scott pleaded.
The young man’s voice was laden with concern, and Murdoch could still hear a slight tremor, his elder son had been badly shaken by the events that had seen his younger boy run from them into the night. According to Jess the boy was running scared and Murdoch knew they had to get to Johnny fast. The last thing he wanted was to sit a horse, he wasn’t sure he even could right now but Johnny already had too much of a head start on them.
“Scott we have to go after your brother…”
“NO!” Scott raged, suddenly lurching to his feet then pacing angrily before his father. “Let him go! He nearly killed you for God’s sake. He’s too wild! Filled with too much hate, it’s too late pa…we found him too late!”
Scott’s voice trembled with rage and Murdoch could see the anger and fear in his son’s eyes.
“I know you don’t mean that son…” Murdoch said softly, “I know you don’t want to give up on him, we are all that boy’s got and he needs us, he needs us desperately, Scott…and you need him. We need each other, don’t we?”
Scott stared down at his father, suddenly terribly ashamed of his outburst. No of course he didn’t want to give up on Johnny, but he was haunted by the horrific image of his father lying as in death, and he was so damn angry at his brother. Angry at Johnny and so very scared for him at the same time. Their lost boy was out there somewhere, lost and alone yet again, running from a truth that they had forced upon him, a truth he wasn’t ready to accept, a truth he may never be able to accept.
Every part of him hurt but it was his head that hurt the most. Consciousness had slowly returned but Johnny would have preferred the oblivion to the pounding in his head. Still very groggy, Johnny wasn’t quite sure what had happened, his thoughts refusing to string together and make sense of the predicament he seemed to be in.
Slowly he moved all his limbs, relieved to find that no bones were broken, tentative fingers reached for the area he knew was responsible for the agony captive in his skull. The lump he found caused him to raise an eyebrow, no wonder his head ached so badly. The ground beneath him was cold, his whole body chilled by it’s enforced contact and he shivered violently. How long he had lain there he didn’t know, but it was obviously too long. It was so very dark, the inky blackness surrounding him. He couldn’t see his horse but he could sense he was very near; he called out to him softly and was met by a familiar and reassuring nickering.
Shakily Johnny clambered to his feet, every inch of him protesting with the effort involved. Once upright Johnny began to sway alarmingly and he had to fight off a bout of nausea that threatened to overpower him. Calling to his companion, he knew something was very wrong when the gelding failed to come at his bidding. Stumbling blindly in the horse’s direction he hoped with a sinking heart that the horse wasn’t badly hurt. Minutes later, after a blind examination, Johnny was relieved to find that although his horse was lame, the cause, a pulled tendon, would eventually heal. Cursing himself for his recklessness Johnny’s mind was suddenly filled by vivid images of what had caused his panic filled haste. Once again he battled with his emotions, only to lose the fight as his stomach rebelled and he retched helplessly for several long unpleasant moments.
Desperation was the only thing keeping Murdoch in his saddle; he’d been persuaded by an understandably anxious Scott to wait until first light before setting off after his younger son, his elder son’s argument being that they could easily miss Johnny or any trace of him in the darkness. The few hours of rest he’d had had not eased the crescendo of pain behind his eyeballs or the dizziness that frequently overwhelmed him. But still he pressed on, taking care to hide his agony from his eldest son. Time was of the essence now; he didn’t want to chance losing the tracks of the desperate young man they were so diligently pursuing. Murdoch was sure now that his youngest was heading south, back to the life of a gunfighter.
The south mesa lay ahead and Scott had earlier come across the tracks that confirmed the chestnut gelding had passed that way. The two Lancers had exchanged looks; the speed at which Johnny was traveling was inherently dangerous, faster than a stranger to the territory could safely pass through the terrain. Remembering the attention Johnny had given his mount on the trip home to Lancer, the two pursuers were noticeably alarmed at the reckless abandon the tracks testified to. The young rider was obviously not thinking clearly, he would have spared his mount otherwise.
They rode on scanning the horizon with an agonizing thirst to set eyes once more on the runaway. Murdoch found it almost impossible to concentrate on anything, but he had to think about what he would say to Johnny if he found him…IF! No, no ifs, of course they would find him. They had to! And when they did, Murdoch was prepared to do anything, say anything, to convince the young man that he loved him, needed him, wanted him. He had to make Johnny understand how incomplete his life had been without his youngest son. One way or another he and Scott had to find a way to break through the defences Johnny had developed as a result of years of being on his own. They had to make Johnny understand.
Johnny’s stomach growled fiercely, he’d been spoilt the last few days, food had been in ample supply and he’d begun to take his full belly as a given. He’d spied a rabbit earlier; he’d been poised, ready to fire the lethal shot only to heed the inner voice telling him that if there was someone on his tail. It would also serve to enlighten them to his whereabouts. For the time being at least, he’d have to make do with roots and the wild berries he hoped would materialize as he made his way through the dense woodland he’d decided would offer some protection.
After the chill of the night before, thankfully the day was beginning to warm up, and as he slowly and carefully led his horse over the uneven ground, he hoped his body would soon begin to generate a little bit more warmth itself. He was cold, hungry and damn if his head didn’t feel like it was about to explode. What he badly wanted to do right now was lie down, close his eyes and sleep. Maybe he would a little later on, right now his only option was to put more distance between him and Lancer.
Bird song filled the trees around him and for a brief moment he was able to forget what clouded his thoughts and his mood lightened a little, but not for long. There was no escaping the agony in his soul. He had crossed the line now and there was no turning back. In the years he’d wielded a gun, he had lived by a strict code of right and wrong, always striving to avoid initiating gunplay, believing the gun was his last resort. Yet here he was now on the run, a fugitive of the worst kind, one who had ended the life of his father.
There was so much anger churning inside, anger at Murdoch Lancer, anger at his mother. One of them had lied to him; he just wasn’t sure he knew who anymore. Before Lancer had entered his life, he had believed his mother’s version of events. The gringo had lied to her, used and abused her and when she’d told him she was having his child he’d reluctantly agreed to marry her, but he couldn’t live with the shame and had thrown them both out. Now Johnny found himself once more doubting her as his father’s words tortured his thoughts. “I loved your mother and I loved you…You can hate me all you want son, but I want you to know that I have never stopped loving you, will never stop loving you.”
Those words had been said with such conviction; the big man’s blue eyes had expressed something Johnny had chosen to ignore… sincerity and Johnny knew that it was now too damn late to acknowledge the other startling emotion he’d seen in his father’s eyes that very first day. The truth was suddenly too much to bear and Johnny wiped angrily at the tears that fell unbidden down his bruised cheeks.
What had he done? He had never killed anyone in cold blood, never even drawn his weapon against an unarmed man. He hadn’t meant to kill Murdoch Lancer; the old man had tried to take the gun off him and the next thing he knew his father was lying dead at his feet. Johnny swallowed hard, forcing down the bile, his stomach once again roiling.
Startled by the rush of wings overhead, Johnny was jolted back to the present. Something had spooked those birds and Johnny knew whoever it was they were not far behind him.
Scott studied the tracks with a mixture of relief and concern, rider and horse had taken a bad spill. Johnny was now walking, leading his injured horse, it hopefully meant he’d escaped any serious injury and mercifully it had slowed the boy down…but for how long? It was also apparent that the horse was not seriously injured; perhaps a day or two and the gelding would be ready once more to carry his rider. No longer able to ignore the sense of urgency the Lancers pressed on. Scott knew once Johnny reached Mexico he would disappear into the border towns and resume his old career. Finding him before he met a tragic end would be almost impossible. It was now or never, they had to overtake him.
“We’re getting closer.” Murdoch said, telling himself that Johnny would soon be found.
Scott nodded, he felt a little more hopeful now himself, but still he knew it wouldn’t be until they had the boy in their sights that they could actually breathe a little easier.
When his father had explained what had occurred the night before, Scott had felt a tremendous sense of relief. Relief? Yes, that was it, he hadn’t wanted to believe the boy, no, he had to stop referring to him that way! He had not wanted to believe the young man would actually attempt to kill their father. The Pinkerton’s report had described a violent life of gunfights but one fact had not evaded Scott’s notice, Johnny had never drawn his weapon but in self defense. Scott had been harboring a hope that Johnny would never harm Murdoch, and after talking to Murdoch last night, his hope has borne fruit. An accident, why had he instantly assumed the shooting had been premeditated?
“He must be hungry!” Murdoch quietly voiced a thought, remembering the veracious appetite Johnny had.
Scott was once again filled with the need to reassure his father “We’ll find him Pa!”
Murdoch nodded, he was confident that they would soon find Johnny, he just wasn’t sure he could persuade the boy to come home. Last night when he’d tried to stop Johnny leaving he’d used force; the boy had instantly drawn his gun. Murdoch had seen the fear in his son’s eyes but instead of reasoning and allaying the boy’s fears Murdoch had been determined to show some parental authority and tried foolishly to take the gun from the boy. In the ensuing struggle the gun had gone off.
The fact Johnny had been so scared of him troubled Murdoch deeply. Now Murdoch sadly realized that the boy had been expecting a beating, a beating from his own father! Just what had life taught him?
Now his son was running from his family, from what he perhaps perceived to be the cold blooded murder of his father, back to a life which would eventually end his own.
Stopping to rest his mount, Johnny felt a surge of unease; the woods behind him were now too quiet. Who would it be? Had his brother…brother! That word slipped too easy off his tongue, had Scott brought the law in, was there a posse about to descend upon him or would Scott be the one to hunt him down?
Johnny didn’t know that much about the tall blonde but he did know that he didn’t want to have to face him. Not that he was scared of the older man, he could grudgingly admit to liking him now. There was something about him that Johnny had felt drawn to. He still wasn’t sure what it was and now there was no likelihood of ever finding out. What Johnny did fear was the hate and anger that would be shining in those blue eyes now, eyes that had so recently looked at him with concern and…well he didn’t want to think about that any more.
He had had so many questions, questions that had begged for the asking. As they’d travelled to Lancer he had smothered his interest, but he’d really wanted to know more about the man who’d seemed to want him for a brother. A half smile sat fleetingly on Johnny’s face with his next thought They looked so different…nothing like brothers! Well they wouldn’t, Scott’s mother had obviously been white…Scott’s mother? Johnny didn’t even know her name or what had become of her…
She must be dead! Well that was something they had in common! They had two things in common or did have and Johnny knew he had yesterday destroyed that bond. Scott must hate him now; it was obvious how much he loved Murdoch Lancer, how close the two men had been. He could have been part of that if his mother hadn’t left, hadn’t lied and had loved him enough to at some time put him straight on some things.
Scott heard the movement ahead of them before he saw the chestnut gelding. The trees they had been riding through effectively hid their approach from the young man they were pursuing and he halted his horse. His father likewise reined in his mount and laid a hand on Scott’s arm.
“Up ahead.” Scott whispered. The young fugitive was crossing a small clearing, as they watched he came to a stop, head cocked as though listening, his horse standing at his left side, thus keeping his gun hand free and poised for action. The two men exchanged a knowing glance and quietly dismounted.
“I’ll try to get around him, you wait here.” Murdoch instructed. Scott nodded his understanding of his father’s plan and readied himself. He knew it was dangerous to approach the young gunman, knew Johnny’s instincts were honed to an exaggerated level and he would likely react violently if startled. He only hoped Johnny would not fire without first identifying the man who had come up behind him.
Believing Murdoch had had time by now to circle around his youngest son; Scott drew in a deep breath, steadied himself and stepped into the clearing. Faster than he thought possible, Johnny twirled around, drawing his gun in one fluid motion and levelling it at Scott’s chest.
“No Johnny wait!” Scott yelled.
Johnny barely had time to register the identity of the man who had called out to him before his finger instinctively pulled the trigger. In a split second time stood still as he recognized his brother. His heart jumped into his throat as realization struck him that he was about to kill another member of his family. A shudder coursed through his body, enough to throw his aim slightly off as Scott dove headlong into the grass. The bullet screamed into the earth where Scott had been standing, mere inches from his booted foot. Almost simultaneously his senses registered yet another man approaching from his right.
Murdoch!! It couldn’t be, he was dead! How could he be here when he had seen him fall, blood spewing from a wound he himself had inflicted! Overwhelmed by the ghostly apparition and the realization that he had almost shot his brother, Johnny’s hand seemed to go numb, shock making his whole body heavy, leaden. He was barely aware of the gun falling ever so slowly from his grasp and coming to rest with a resounding thud at his feet.
“Johnny, son!” The apparition spoke; Johnny’s senses were suddenly overloaded as the shock set in. Dazed Johnny felt the world tilt, the numbness in his hand washing over his whole being, the roaring in his ears deafening as blackness crept upon him. Strong hands grasped his shoulders and lowered him gently into the soft cushion of the grass. From a great distance, he heard voices but could not make out any words. Oddly enough he felt no fear now, only warmth and a sense of security as he surrendered to the bliss the darkness offered.
Something cool and gentle as a whisper touched his brow. “Mama.” He breathed. “Sh, rest now.” A familiar voice, a man’s voice, and something sweet and cool slipped between his lips. Forcing his heavy eyelids open, Johnny let the soothing liquid trickle down the back of his throat; he stared up at his father, mesmerized by the ugly wound fiercely evident on the older man’s forehead.
Slowly Johnny met his father’s intense gaze, desperate to find what had been shining there for him before.
“I thought you were…sorry I…I didn’t mean to…!” Johnny’s voice faltered, barely more than a whisper, a plea for understanding unmistakable in the timbre of his voice.
“I know John and you have nothing to be sorry for son. Nothing! Do you understand?” Murdoch wrapped one hand around his son’s while the other softly caressed his ashen cheek.
Johnny nodded, closing his eyes as peace washed over him and darkness once more descended…
“Is he alright? What happened? Scott’s voice registered in Johnny’s ear though he sounded a hundred miles away. Am I dreaming?
Another voice a little closer answered, “Get the extra blanket off my saddle son, I think he’s in shock. He will be all right. We just need to keep him warm and quiet for a while. I guess seeing me was too much for him. Damn, he really did believe he’d killed me.” Worry laced with something else ran rampant through his father’s voice.
Scott moved towards the horses on legs still shaky from the most recent near brush with tragedy. His mind raced with the events of the past few days. When they had set off from Lancer to meet the Pinkerton agent and bring the youngest Lancer home Scott had been filled with such hope and excitement. Their dreams were finally coming true; he knew the family both he and his father so desperately wanted was going to be a reality. Instead since they had met Johnny things had transpired that made him doubt they could ever work it out. The young man had not been what they had expected and yet beneath the deadly exterior Scott sensed the heart of the boy they had lost so long ago. Instinctively Scott knew his brother was still in there somewhere but how to reach him?? Johnny was such an enigma, both young and old, wise and innocent, needy yet fiercely independent. How did they begin to reconcile the two halves of Johnny Madrid? How did they touch his true essence and make him want to be a part of a loving, trusting family? Scott determined here and now he would find a way.
Running the short distance back; Scott dropped to his knees, carefully arranging the blanket over his brother. Warmth spread through him as he watched his father gently finger the dark bangs away from the shuttered eyes, a distant memory of a sleeping toddler tugged at his heart strings and he swallowed the lump forming in his throat. “Should I get Sam?”
“No, I don’t think there’s any need, we’ll rest up here today, head home tomorrow and have Sam check him over then if it seems necessary.”
“He can take a look at you at the same time!” Scott added pointedly. Murdoch had refused to let Jess ride over for the doctor the night before and he was still annoyed at his father’s pigheadedness.
Murdoch shrank under his elder son’s determined stare stating softly “I’m alright”
“Are You?” Scott wasn’t so sure; he knew the older man was doing his best to hide his discomfort from him.
Gazing down at his younger son Murdoch smiled “I am now, now that I’ve got my boy back.”
Johnny had clung desperately to his tenuous hold on consciousness, fighting his way back from the edge of the dark abyss each time it was about to claim him. He so needed to sleep but their voices, their words held him captive. With his father’s last statement he finally felt able to let go and he allowed himself to drift into oblivion.
The Lancer patriarch’s experienced eye searched the clearing for a suitable place to make camp. Ten minutes later a fire had been lit, and as Scott busied himself with the essentials, Murdoch lifted his younger son into his arms, carrying him the short distance to where Scott had prepared the bed roll. The unexpected explosion of joy at holding his son in his arms threatened to overwhelm Murdoch and he tightened his hold, blinking away tears.
Long moments passed as he savoured the contact; finally he forced himself to gently lower the sleeping form onto the ground, knowing he would probably never be allowed that closeness again.
As before on another night long ago or so it seemed, when hope had reigned, Scott tended to the horses while Murdoch prepared a simple meal. Scott took extra care with the chestnut gelding gently prodding the injured leg, nodding in satisfaction at his findings. Johnny’s mount would be ready to travel tomorrow for the slight burden that was his brother. Scott drew his breath in sharply as his already wearied senses registered yet another familiar sound, Murdoch was humming. Scott couldn’t remember the last time he had heard his father hum. That part of the Lancer patriarch had been quenched years before when Maria had run off taking the two year old toddler with her. Scott’s heart warmed as he recognised the tune Murdoch had always sung when he was rocking Johnny to sleep.
Later after a quiet and surprisingly peaceful meal, the two Lancers sat in companionable silence enjoying the warmth of the fire that burned before them and in their hearts. Hope had once again reared its head and flooded their being. A gentle murmur drew their attention to where the object of their long quest lay sleeping. Johnny sighed deeply and roused from his shock induced slumber. For a brief moment both Lancers held their breath as Johnny’s eyes fluttered open. Gingerly he sat up, measuring the response of muscles that had hours before failed him. He tentatively met the gazes of the two men intently watching him, the corners of his mouth turning up in the slightest of grins. “Have you any more of that coffee?”
Murdoch filled a cup with the hot brew and handed it to his son, still waiting for any sign of the hateful young man he had met only days before.
“Thank you.” Johnny took the cup, suddenly finding a great need to study its contents.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged a glance of surprise.
So far so good Murdoch thought, unsure of how to proceed with the conversation he wanted to have with Johnny, but that could wait a little perhaps. Loading a plate with a good helping of the fare he’d prepared he offered the plate to his younger son. “Here, I’m sure you can find a place for this.”
Blue eyes slowly met his and Murdoch tensed at the uncertainty shining there, he realised for the first time just how vulnerable his son was.
“Yeah, thanks.” As Johnny ate in silence, the two elder Lancers discussed an up coming cattle drive. He listened as they chatted, knowing their conversation was an attempt to draw the attention away from him. He was grateful to them for that, and that they hadn’t pushed him into talking just yet, his earlier show of bravado seemed now to have abandoned him. It didn’t seem real, none of it, he was having trouble getting his head around the fact his father was alive; he’d been so sure, so certain that the old man was dead.
Then there was the fact that they weren’t angry with him, not even Scott, the one time he’d chanced a glance in his brother’s direction he was sure he’d seen only warmth in his brother’s eyes. He didn’t understand them, how could they forget what had happened so easily? Johnny knew he couldn’t, wouldn’t ever be able to forget how, even though accidentally, he had almost taken his father’s life. Laying down his empty plate, his brother’s soft voice floated in his direction.
“Do you want some more Johnny?”
“No, I…I’m gonna go check on my horse.”
The two men watched as Johnny stood on shaky legs, and then made his way over to the object of his concern. Scott made to stand, immediately finding his father’s hand on his arm.
“Scott! He may need some time.”
“It’s alright pa, I know what I’m doing.” Scott smiled reassuringly back at the worry honed face.
After a short thoughtful pause Murdoch nodded, of course Scott knew what he was doing, so far he’d been the only one able to handle the boy with any real success. Watching as his older son strolled purposefully towards his youngest he sipped on his coffee pondering over the words needed to get Johnny home.
“He should be up to carrying you tomorrow.” Scott ran his hand over the geldings back, watching as his brother examined the horse’s injured leg.
“You an expert on horses?”
Scott wasn’t sure by his brother’s tone if the question was simply that or a snide comment; he decided going with the latter was not the direction to take.
“I know enough, how about you?”
“As much as you do” Johnny answered, meeting his brother’s gaze, surprised to see a grin plastered across the blonde’s face, a grin he just couldn’t help answering with one of his own.
“So you agree he’ll carry you home?” Scott watched the grin fade and the dark head as it bowed, hiding the emotions showing there.
After a long silence Scott quietly ventured “You are coming home aren’t you Johnny?”
The dark head remained bowed and Scott had to strain to hear his brother’s softly spoken reply “I don’t know Scott.”
Scott! it had been thirteen years since his brother had called him by name. It was immeasurably good to hear it once more and for a brief moment Scott failed to acknowledge his brother’s answer.
“I’m willing to convince you!” Scott finally replied hoping to inject some humour into his voice to hide his concern.
Looking up into Scott’s eyes, a weak smile flitted across the younger man’s face, “Round two?”
“Round three, four and five if need be!” Scott said seriously “What ever it takes brother.”
Glancing quickly over at his father Johnny added quietly “Despite me almost killing your old man?”
“OUR old man.” Scott corrected gently. “I know what happened Johnny, and yes I was angry at first but then…well I was scared…”
“Scared?” Johnny studied his brother’s face; he couldn’t believe Scott was scared of anything.
“Yes, scared we’d lost you for good this time, I was scared for you, scared for pa…I don’t think he would get over losing you again.” Scott glanced over his shoulder back toward his father who sat hunched over the fire, deep in thought. “Let him talk to you, listen to what he has to say, to his side of things, he deserves that chance at least. Please Johnny, give him that chance.”
Johnny stared into the blue eyes of his brother; the earnest plea had weakened his will still further. He turned his gaze to the only man who could answer the questions that had plagued him all his life. Inhaling deeply he strode over to his father.
“You got something to say Old Man?”
Momentarily thrown by Johnny’s directness Murdoch could do nothing but meet his son’s challenging glare. Finally he told himself that now was not the time to let his resolve falter and he cleared his throat.
“Sit down Johnny.” Rebellion flared instantly in his younger son’s eyes and Murdoch quickly added a softly spoken “Please son.”
As Johnny relented, sitting down at what he obviously judged to be a comfortable distance from his father, Murdoch found himself fighting to maintain his composure; he had never felt so nervous in his entire life before. The palms of his hands bore testimony to the depth of his anxiety and he rubbed their moisture away on the legs of his pants.
All the words of explanation, the planned bargaining and the inevitable pleading that he had intended to use, now seemed so very inadequate and weightless against thirteen years of lies. A wave of panic began to rise in his chest as he once more acknowledged that this was his one and only chance to reach the son he loved so very much but who he had now at that very moment accepted, was perhaps too wild to tame and who he might, heartbreaking as it was, have to let go.
How could he destroy the boy’s faith in his mother? Because that was what it all boiled down to in the end. To have any chance of getting his son home, let alone gain his love and respect, he had to be prepared to turn his mother into a lying cheating bitch. He wasn’t sure he could hurt his son in that way, no matter the prize he would be forsaking.
Slowly he met his older son’s eyes; trust and confidence were shining there. Scott truly believed his father could win Johnny around; Murdoch had never let his elder son down before…suddenly it dawned on him, he had never let Johnny down either, not in a way that could be truly deemed his fault, but if he didn’t fight for him now then that was exactly what he would be doing…letting him down. He couldn’t let Johnny return to the life he had been leading. Johnny needed and deserved a home and a family to love and care for him. He needed his brother and he needed a father whether he realized it or not. Johnny not only had to know the truth, he had to be made to believe it.
Scott stepped quickly over to sit beside his father, Murdoch knew it was a show of unity for Johnny’s benefit and his confidence grew a little.
Murdoch let his eyes finally settle on his younger son, the coldness had thankfully evaporated from the vivid blue eyes, instead they stared back with suspicion. Deliberately keeping his voice low and even Murdoch began to do battle for what could ultimately be his son’s soul.
“I wish I knew what words would keep you here, what words I need to say to make you want to stay, but I don’t, not without hurting you Johnny and that’s the last thing I want to do. All I know is the truth as I see it, how you were taken from me…”
“You threw us out!”
A storm raged across Johnny’s face, acceptance and denial now fought for supremacy in the young man’s mind and Murdoch recognized that fact as a glimmer of hope. Johnny had doubts about his mother’s story. It was a chink in the boy’s armour, and he had no qualms about exploiting that.
“No I didn’t.” Murdoch maintained eye contact, knowing Johnny would see the truth in his eyes, and just as he had expected Johnny looked away. “Your mother left me for another man and she took you with her. Why would I lie about that Johnny?”
“Why would she?” Johnny spat back.
“Because she was the guilty party. Your mother betrayed me; I don’t suppose she knew how to explain that to you.” Murdoch stated firmly.
Johnny jumped to his feet stepping to stand in front of his father “She had her reasons, you hit her! You used to beat me!” Desperation and loyalty to his mother struggled in Johnny’s heart, their tentative hold on him losing ground with each passing moment. Emotions that had reigned for so long raged at the uncertainty which now fought for dominance. Deep within Johnny heard the voice of reason telling him Murdoch and Scott Lancer had no ulterior motive, no reason to lie. They were who they were and he could see nothing in their eyes but truth.
“No!” Murdoch exclaimed in disgust, rising to his feet he gripped his son’s shoulders gently “I never hit her or you; I swear to God I never hurt either of you John.”
Johnny pulled away from his father’s touch and demanded of his brother “He ever use his fists on you?” Yet Johnny knew somehow what Scott’s answer would be.
“No Johnny never.”
“Son I swear…”
Son the old man sure bandied that word about! It slipped real easy off his tongue when it came to Scott and seemingly just as easy when it came to him. His resolve faltering Johnny gave voice to yet another of the questions which had plagued him all these years. “You don’t doubt I’m your son?”
Murdoch couldn’t fail to notice the challenging tone in his son’s voice and could only imagine why the boy had voiced that question.
“No of course not. Not for one minute I…”
“She said you did, that you denied I was yours!” Johnny studied his father’s face unsure of what it was he wanted to see there.
“That’s not true John…”
“You’re saying she lied about that too!”
Hesitating Murdoch weighed his answer carefully “I’m saying I loved her and the child she was carrying…I never denied you were mine, never.”
“You’re a liar old man!” Johnny ground out.
“No. No I’m not.” Murdoch battled with his temper, knowing he had to remain calm; it was imperative to keep control of the situation. “If I had denied Maria was carrying my child then why did I marry her? I didn’t have to, it couldn’t be proved; I could have simply walked away from you both.”
“You had to! You had to do the right thing…”
“Why? Because I’m a man of honor? That doesn’t sound like the bastard she told you about!”
“You regretted marrying her, she…me, I shamed you!” Johnny’s voice trembled with the emotions raging inside.
“If that was the case I would never have looked for you, I would not…we would not have spent the last thirteen years searching for you, praying for your return. If that was truly the case would we be here now John?”
Looking down at his feet Johnny shrugged. He didn’t know what to believe any more; he didn’t want to believe his mother had lied to him, but she’d lied to him before, so many times. Each time he’d finally seen the lie for what it was he’d been hurt but nothing could compare to the hurt he was feeling now. Murdoch had answered each challenge, each question, his answers hanging in the air between them with more truth than any answer Johnny’s mother had ever given him. A memory of his mother flashed through Johnny’s mind, a memory of his mother vaguely responding to another plea for answers. She had not been able to look him in the eye; she had looked away, her answers to his queries sounding practiced, stiff.
Murdoch took a tentative step towards his younger son and Johnny immediately stepped back. “I want you to come home Johnny. You belong at Lancer, you were born there, you spent the first two years of your life there. You have a father and brother there who love and…”
“I ain’t the little boy you remember old man, I ain’t the kid you lost, you don’t know anything about me, what I am, what I’ve done…”
“I know you’re MY son and that’s all I need to know!”
Scott listened intently, his eyes never wavering from his brother. Their father was slowly knocking down Johnny’s walls of doubt and his defences seemed to be crumbling along side them. The boy was now flailing helplessly in the cold hard truth and he felt powerless to help him. The confident, cocky young man had gone; in his place stood a scared, confused boy who didn’t know which way was up any more. What Johnny needed right now was his father, but Scott knew Johnny was not ready to let Murdoch assume that role yet or was he?
“It won’t work; I can’t be what you want me to be…” Johnny’s voice trailed off and he hung his head to hide the tears of frustration that insisted on forming and slipping down his cheeks.
Chancing the sting of rejection yet again Murdoch took a step nearer to his son, placing his hands on the slender shoulders he squeezed gently trying to reassure the boy before him.
“I don’t want you to be anything you’re not; I promise I won’t ask you to be. All I do ask is for the chance to prove to you that coming home is the right thing to do. It’s not just an offer of a roof over your head and three square meals a day. I’m promising you a future, and a future is something you won’t have if you walk away from us now John. It’s nothing that isn’t yours already. Lancer is your birthright; it’s something you should have been part of these last thirteen years.”
Murdoch felt a tremor run through his son and he knew his words were having the desired impact; maybe it was time to broach a few less savoury facts. He believed the boy needed to see him in as honest a light as possible.
“It’s no easy option, ranching is a hard way of life, long hours of backbreaking toil and you’d be expected to pull your weight…” Murdoch hesitated knowing his next statement might anger his younger son “I’d also expect you live by my rules…”
Two blue eyes stared defiantly up at Murdoch and he told himself the matter had to be faced head on now if they were ever have any kind of relationship…
“For this to work there has to be an understanding between us. I won’t tolerate your insults or insolence any longer. Whether you like it or not I’m your father and I’d like you to treat me with a little more respect than you have so far…” Murdoch saw the anger flash in his son’s eyes then the boy violently wrenched himself away from his grasp.
“You expecting me to bow and scrape to you old man?
“No.” Murdoch stated calmly “I’m simply asking you to keep a civil tongue in your head…”
“And if I don’t?” Johnny’s voice rang with challenge.
“Then rest assured you’ll be spending a lot of time in your room!”
Murdoch’s answer surprised Johnny; not so much by what had been said but the determined tone his father had used. Johnny didn’t doubt the big man meant what he said and he had to fight an inexplicable urge to grin. Time in his room sounded a whole lot better than the thrashings his step father had handed out for sassing him. His father’s eyes remained fixed on his and Johnny had to look away, all the fight having suddenly drained from him.
Murdoch took the bowed head as submission and pondered on how easy that particular battle had been, he felt certain it wasn’t over and if Johnny did, God willing, return home with them then this particular battle could easily become ongoing…like so many other’s no doubt. Well that was something he would deal with willingly given the chance. There was so much more he should say, but he didn’t want to overwhelm the already overwrought boy, he already had too much weighing on his mind. Now all he could do was pray he’d said enough to convince Johnny that Lancer was worth a second chance.
“I can’t force you to come home. I can only tell you how much we both want you there; the decision has to be yours.”
The remaining daylight hours had passed in a strained atmosphere. Johnny sat apart from his family, speaking only when spoken to, his replies clipped and his blue eyes decidedly chilly. Murdoch felt sure his son was distancing himself still further from them; it seemed that despite his best efforts he was about to let both his sons down.
Huddled beneath his blanket Johnny feigned sleep. He knew his father and brother had been equally as restive but for some reason, stubbornness maybe or perhaps pride, he didn’t want them to know just how much soul searching he’d done or the extent of the bitter reasoning that had raged ruthlessly inside his now aching head.
Even as the new day crept over the horizon Johnny was still contemplating his decision. Truth be told he was scared, he knew what he wanted and he wanted it desperately but…and it was the ‘but’ that troubled him…he wasn’t sure it would work. No matter how much they all seemed to want it to, and if things didn’t work out and he rode away from Lancer, he knew he wouldn’t be the only one hurt. Maybe it would be better not to even try and save them all further heartache. Johnny listened intently to the hushed conversation of his father and brother as they went about the morning chores, their now familiar voices somehow soothing his troubled soul. The rich aroma of coffee permeated his senses and he grudgingly stirred. Slowly he made his way over to sit beside the fire his brother had coaxed back to life. A cup of the strong black brew was placed in his hands and as he met his father’s questioning eyes he wondered how the old man would react to the decision he had only seconds ago made.
Johnny was uncomfortably aware of the expectant look each man now brought to bear upon him, hanging onto each carefully spoken word he might utter. He knew it was within his ability to make or break the dreams they had been determinedly clinging to. While part of him wanted to crush their dream and destroy their hope as his had been so long ago, another part of him was surprisingly elated at the prospect of finally having a home and family. As the war within Johnny’s emotions continued to rage, he drew one deep breath and gave his father and brother what he knew they had longed for.
“I’ll go back with you but…” Johnny began, stopping as pure elation lit up his father and brother’s faces. He watched as their joy manifested into two delighted smiles. The two men glanced quickly at each other acknowledging the other man’s euphoria before turning their attention back to him. A strange sense of peace flooded Johnny’s soul for the second time since the near fatal tragedy of the day before. The feeling was at once terrifying and comforting. Unaccustomed to the sensation of losing control, Johnny fought for the composure that had served him for so long.
“But what son?” Murdoch asked gently, trying desperately to contain his relief and utter glee.
Always before Johnny had met each challenge with a stony resolve, intimidating many opponents with an icy glare and deadly calm words. Uncomfortable with their open display of emotions Johnny hesitated, he wasn’t sure how his next statement would be received.
“John?” Murdoch encouraged, his smile fading as the troubled expression on his younger son’s face finally registered.
“I want your word that if things don’t work out you won’t try to stop me leaving.”
The old, unforgettable agony seared across Murdoch’s heart and he stared off into the distance carefully considering his reply. Finally he met his son’s gaze “Alright, but I want your word that if things don’t work out and you feel you have to leave then you come to me, you tell me first. I don’t want to wake up one morning and find you gone.”
Johnny nodded, stunned by the pain on the older man’s face, and surprised to find himself hoping he would never be the cause of such pain again.
Satisfied his horse was ready to bear his weight Johnny threw himself up into his saddle. His stomach churned and he chided himself for letting his nerves get the better of him. The prospect of sharing his life with these two strangers was suddenly overpowering, daunting and he had the greatest urge to knee his horse into a gallop, disappear over the rise and forget all about them. But forgetting them was something he knew he could never do; not now, not now he was beginning to see them through different eyes.
Acknowledging his father with the barest of nods, Johnny listened almost guiltily as his brother replied with a respectful “Yes sir.”
The last man Johnny had called sir had mercilessly beat the word out of him, beat him until he was barely conscious and his stubbornness all but drained from him. A week later his mother lay dead, beaten to death by the same man. A gun had saved Johnny from the same fate, but that gun had then set him on the path his father now seemed so desperate to steer him away from.
Setting his face like flint, Johnny turned his mount and followed his father toward Lancer, knowing his life was turning as surely as did his horse. How could he reconcile Johnny Madrid with Johnny Lancer? Could two different persons share one soul? Johnny knew the battle may have been decided but the war still remained. He knew how determined the Lancers were to make this new family work, he also knew how hard it would be for Madrid to allow himself to be laid to rest. Part of him would always be Madrid, this was a truth. But could he learn to live as a Lancer? The questions overwhelmed him and Johnny focused on the ground between his horse’s ears. He needed time to think. He had so many more questions, so many more issues yet to deal with. How could he live at Lancer? Still the peace deep within persisted and Johnny decided to give it his best shot. He had never run from a fight and he wouldn’t start now. With that thought firmly established, he allowed himself to revisit the hopes and dreams for a future that would allow him to grow old, a future that before he met the Lancers had been impossible in his profession.
The trek home passed quickly, the two older men chatting easily, pointing out the landmarks and areas of importance to the ranch. Their attempts to draw Johnny into the conversation proved fairly successful. He was consciously making an effort, not that it was that difficult, he was genuinely interested in the land that surrounded him. Wary of sounding foolish or ignorant he kept his comments and questions to a minimum but it didn’t take an experienced eye to recognise that beneath the hills that rolled endlessly, the dense areas of vegetation and lush green pasture, there lay the richest of life giving soil. Murdoch Lancer had laid the foundations of his empire wisely and from what Johnny had seen so far he had reaped ample reward.
Upon reaching the vantage point he had so very recently glowered down from with such obvious disdain, he brought his gelding to a halt to stand along side his now stationary father and brother. Shifting a little uneasily as he remembered his actions from that earlier day he sat silently, blue eyes unhurriedly drinking in the breath taking scene that once more lay before him. A smile tugged at his lips and it failed to go unnoticed by the other men
Seeing the spark of interest alight in his younger son’s eyes, Murdoch felt his heart swell. At long last the day was here. The day when he could bring his sons home together and share the magnificent view. It was this view, this spot that had enticed him long ago. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had stood here, drinking in the vast expanse before him with all its promise and hope. He shook himself from his reverie and once more studied his sons. HIS sons, both of them! Here, home at last. But could he keep them together? Murdoch refused to give in to the last niggling fear which tickled the back of his mind. He would make it work, he silently vowed for the hundredth time this day. He would!
“This is your birthright Johnny. A third of all this is yours. You and Scott will one day become joint partners but for now I call the tune.”
“So you keep telling me old man! Does that mean we get no say in how you run the place?” Johnny’s eyes flashed angrily at the older man but he instantly regretted his outburst. He’d not made it through the door yet and he could already be seen as disrespecting his father, the old man certainly had the uncanny knack of igniting his volatile temper.
Murdoch Lancer’s eyes shone with irritation and Johnny knew the expression on his brother’s face, not that he dared look, would mirror the aggravation on his father’s. Johnny couldn’t avoid Scott’s displeasure for long though as he found it was his brother who replied to his question.
“We always talk things through first but pa has the final say, you’ll get your chance to voice your opinion, you’ll certainly be given chance to have your say Johnny.” Scott stated, pleased he’d succeeded in keeping his annoyance from ringing out in his voice. He was doing his best to accommodate Johnny’s feelings, especially towards their father, the boy…young man rather, couldn’t be expected to relinquish thirteen years of hate overnight. There were bound to be further confrontations, he knew that and Murdoch knew that but it was incredibly hard to not react at such times. Johnny looked away from his gaze and Scott knew his brother was reproaching himself, but there would be no apology and the only thing to do now was forget about it.
“Let’s get on home; I swear I can smell beef stew!” Murdoch broke the uneasy silence, reining his horse into a canter, smiling at the reassuring sound of two sets of horse’s hooves thundering behind him.
The ranch buzzed with activity and as he drew nearer Johnny noted he was under the intense scrutiny of the numerous ranch hands that milled around going about their chores. Reaching the corral, the hand that’d tried to persuade him to stay that fateful night stepped forward; offering a cheerful greeting as he once again took the reins from them. Johnny surrendered his reins to the man, at once glad to meet him under more pleasant terms and ashamed of the manner in which he had left two nights ago.
“How’s things Jess?” Murdoch enquired.
“Fine boss, just fine.”
Johnny sensed the older man’s eyes upon him and slowly met his gaze, relieved to find a genuine smile waiting for him. There was no condemnation in the appraising look the hand sent him. Johnny instinctively knew this was a man he could learn to like and respect.
“Jess. Johnny’s horse needs a little extra attention.” Scott said pointing to the gelding’s injured leg. “He took a bad fall.”
“Right I’ll see he gets it!” Jess said, winking at Johnny when he offered a heartfelt “Thank you.”
Murdoch led the way in through the great oak door once more, and again Johnny hesitated, memories of his father falling from a head wound he had inflicted threatening to overwhelm his fragile grasp on control. Steeling himself, Johnny turned this time to his brother who smiled reassuringly at him before gesturing for Johnny to go first. Inhaling deeply Johnny forced his feet to carry him into the great room.
A women’s voice soared in excitement and Spanish filled the air, Johnny was taken aback by the sight of the small Mexican woman fervently scolding his father for worrying her so. Johnny held his breath when the dark eyes settled on him. He expected to see anger there but instead he saw only tears and he stared down at the floor. In seconds he found himself swept into the woman’s warm embrace, words of welcome and endearment gushed softly from her lips before she pulled away and scurried towards the kitchen.
“I’d best go make sure she’s alright.” Scott grinned, disappearing into the kitchen.
Seeing the questions in his son’s eyes Murdoch smiled “Maria, our housekeeper and friend, she helped bring you into the world.”
Johnny could only nod his understanding, overwhelmed by the show of affection. It was so damn hard to accept that all this could be genuine. How could these people NOT hate him? After all he had done in his life, had done so recently? How could they still look at him with love and joy? Johnny felt he was teetering on the edge of a great abyss. On one side lay agony and torment, wondering if each gunfight would be his last until inevitably it was. On this side lay a future full of love, warmth and family. Again despair filled his heart. He just didn’t know if he could make the necessary changes to be the son and brother he knew he had to be. And what about his past? It was as inevitable as the certain death of a gunfighter that his past would come calling. Could he bear to let the Lancers see him that way? It was a subject he knew he would have to broach with these two men if he was going to be part of the family.
“How about I show you up to your room?” Murdoch suggested, knowing his son needed some time alone with his thoughts and emotions.
“Yeah.” Johnny agreed readily, his eyes settling briefly on his father’s hips, devoid now of his gun belt. Warily meeting the older man knowing stare he waited for the expected demand to be made.
“For now, until you feel comfortable without it, you can continue to wear your gun, but I say again John, you don’t need it here, not in our home.” With that Murdoch turned on his heels leading a stunned but relieved Johnny up to his room.
“That there is my room” Murdoch gestured across the hallway “Scott is next to you and this…” Murdoch threw open a door “is your room.”
Murdoch led the way inside; Johnny followed, his eyes darting enthusiastically around the spacious room. Again he found himself drawn to an object that was now set proudly upon the nightstand that stood beside the bed. He looked at his father desperately trying to hold his emotions in check; the older man laid a comforting hand on his shoulder before walking over to retrieve the object and then offer it to his son. ”I thought you might like this, here, it’s yours.”
Taking the picture of his mother into his hands Johnny nodded, words refusing to come. As the older man left the room, closing the door behind him Johnny stumbled toward the bed. Tears blinded him and he angrily wiped them away, his knees buckled beneath him and he sank heavily on to the mattress. The radiant face of his mother swam into focus and his hands clenched the frame that adorned it, knuckles white with the ferocity of his grip.
An eddy of emotions raged within, anger and disbelief spinning precariously out of control. Johnny’s agony finally reached a tumultuous peek and the hurt imploded and bitterness burst forth forcing him to his feet, violently hurling the picture against the door as he venomously spewed out a question that would forever remain unanswered “Why? Why mama? Why did you lie to me?”
Johnny’s breathing came fast and ragged, sweat dripped down his brow into his eyes, eyes which searched the shadows until he could discern the image he had feared most of his life. The mountain of a man loomed over his mother as she retreated before him, her hands raised in a futile attempt to ward off the blows. He was beating her again, her cries barely audible now as she fell back before the vicious onslaught. The horrific scene now played out before him in exaggerated brilliance, each moment agonizingly slow. Her head jerked backward in a macabre angle as the giant’s fist caught her under the jaw. She began to fall in slow motion, her eyes blank and staring as she succumbed to the inky blackness which would claim her for the last time. The boy’s eyes grew wider still as his mother’s murderer turned his attention in Johnny’s direction. Johnny’s heart pounded in terror, as his hand groped around him for a weapon, any weapon, and finally made contact with the cold metal of the colt. As the man neared him the boy raised the weapon and sighted down the barrel, the huge gun blocking even the man’s leering face. His shoulder throbbed from the recoil as the man’s face disappeared. Johnny threw down the offending object, sobs tearing from his throat as he ran blindly from the hovel they had called home…
Johnny awoke with a start, barely suppressing a sob. Looking wildly about him, he struggled to calm his breathing, slow his heart rate, as recognition slowly returned. He was safe, at Lancer, in his room. It had been a dream, a nightmare but in some ways still so real. He hadn’t relived his mother’s death in weeks. Gulping in another deep breath he slowly laid back down, concentrating on the richly timbered ceiling above his head. Seemingly of its own accord, his hand reached under his pillow and was comforted when it met his steadfast friend. With the gun safely tucked under his head, Johnny rolled over and gave into the tears he had denied since he had left his last known home.
The light rap on the bedroom door went unanswered, undeterred Scott opened it and stepped inside. Glass splintered beneath his feet and he glanced quickly down at the picture’s shattered remains.
Scott’s troubled gaze wandered to the bed and the sleeping form that lay upon it. The boy looked for the entire world like he’d been crying into his pillow, his arms wrapped around its bulk, his face buried in it softness as if he’d tried to stifle any sounds of his distress. The truth of the moment weighed heavily on Scott’s own emotions and he silently cursed the woman who had caused his brother…all of them so much pain.
Stooping to pick the photograph up, he carefully picked off the slivers of glass before setting it down on the oak dresser that stood beside the door. As his thoughts turned to leaving and allowing his emotionally exhausted brother to sleep on, Johnny stirred, blue eyes blinking open and instantly finding his brother.
“Hi” Scott said softly, watching the lax expression of slumber turn quickly to the guarded features he’d grown so accustomed to. “Are you alright?”
Something vague and vulnerable flitted momentarily across Johnny’s countenance as he rolled over and sat up.
“Yeah.” Johnny replied, stretching leisurely before lowering his still booted feet to the floor and then wearily standing up, for some reason he felt so very tired.
Blue eyes roamed around the strange surroundings, he hadn’t really taken anything in earlier, once he’d seen the picture he’d… the picture! Johnny’s eyes flew instantly to the floor as a vivid image of his earlier action flooded his mind. The debris was a stinging reminder of his anger and pain, and now in the presence of his brother humiliating proof of his loss of control, and, above all else, the obvious cause of tonight’s nightmare and his brother’s concern.
“The old man’s gonna be mad!” Johnny said quietly, forcing his eyes to meet those of his brother.
Scott was surprised by the observation or rather the question masquerading as an observation. The boy was watching him with guarded expectancy, his comment barely concealing fear and something else. Scott instinctively knew his younger brother had not rested well. Shadows under his eyes testified to troubled sleep, now his concern over the broken glass made him appear so very young and vulnerable. Was Johnny beginning to consider his father’s feelings or was it just understandable wariness of his father’s reaction? The latter Scott decided, wishing his brother could see Murdoch Lancer for the loving father he was, and wanted to be, to his younger son.
“He’ll understand.” Scott answered confidently only too well he thought, remembering a distant time when his father had hurled the same picture against a wall, late one night when he thought his elder son was safely tucked up in bed and the fate of his youngest son unknown.
Scott’s attempt to mollify his troubled mind did grant a measure of peace but it didn’t touch on Johnny’s deepening sense of regret, his anger at his mother having ebbed into insignificance as it had done so many times before. Why was it he could forgive her anything but he couldn’t let go of the anger he felt towards his father? He knew he had to, Murdoch Lancer was not the man he’d believed him to be, he wasn’t the brutal, heartless monster his mother had painted, yet she’d shared her bed with a man who fitted that description perfectly?
Scott’s voice broke his reverie.
“Supper?” Scott repeated “Maria’s been cooking up a storm in your honor! You hungry?” A grin crept across the taller man’s face.
“Yeah.” Johnny grinned back, when was he ever not!
Scott led the way downstairs and these particular stairs “the back stairs” according to Scott led them down to the kitchen. Johnny would have to remember that, but if the tantalizing aromas that now teased his senses were anything to go by he wouldn’t be forgetting anytime soon. The appeal of three square meals a day made the prospect of staying at Lancer infinitely more attractive. Johnny grinned in spite of himself. Damn he muttered under his breath, I can’t afford to think this way it’s too soon; there are still too many issues between us. SHE is still between us. As they neared the bottom of the staircase, Johnny had regained his composure and was once more in control, the relaxed Madrid façade firmly in place.
Johnny followed his brother into what seemed now to be the hub of the house, the tall imposing figure of his father hovered beside the tiny housekeeper who stirred the contents of a huge pot simmering atop the stove. Johnny had just enough time to cast an inquisitive eye around the vast array of pots, pans and jars before finding himself in another rib crushing hug from Maria. This time he managed a shy smile and a few words of thanks as he tried weakly and unsuccessfully to extricate himself from her loving embrace.
Scott smiled almost sadly, he’d been relieved and pleased to find Johnny so tolerant of Maria’s demonstrative show of affection and it grieved him to know that Johnny remembered nothing of the love that had once surrounded him here at Lancer. In time, Scott hoped, he’d accept their love again.
Supper wasn’t proving to be the ordeal Johnny had expected it to be. The meal itself had to be the best he’d ever sat down to, not that he’d ever eaten at a table as laden or as fine as the one before him now. Johnny’s concern was about sharing the time with the two men who were still barely more than strangers. He just didn’t know what to say to them, and he felt unable to just be himself, the past, and in particular the most recent events, stood between them like some invisible wall and he wondered if it would ever get any easier.
The two older men seemed to be steering the conversation to safe topics, no doubt as wary as he was about saying the wrong thing. The last ten minutes had been spent filling him in on Paul and Teresa O’Brien, their Segundo and his young daughter. They were due back from a trip east and it was obvious to Johnny that they had been sorely missed, although the thought of a silly, giggling little girl held no appeal for him. He listened intently as the train of thought moved to the horse breeding program Scott and Paul were spearheading, and he tried to remember things he knew would be of importance but his interest peeked when Scott informed him they had a spirited palomino waiting to be broken.
Neither man failed to notice the flame of interest burning bright in the blue eyes, and Murdoch leapt at the opportunity presented to them.
“Yes, he’s a fine specimen, wild though, perhaps a little too wild but if someone had the mind to gentle him I know he’d prove worthy of the time and patience needed.
“I…” Johnny began, stopping abruptly and lowering his gaze as his enthusiasm was instantly quashed by self doubt. He sensed both sets of eyes upon him and felt compelled to continue, “I’d like to see him.”
“First thing in the morning.” Scott beamed; certain they had now found something that would prove instrumental in their quest to reach his brother.
Laying his napkin down, Murdoch leaned back in his chair, sipping on his coffee and surreptitiously studying his younger son. The boy seemed content enough, content as he could be in the circumstances and a sigh of relief escaped Murdoch’s lips, their first family meal at Lancer had gone quite well. There had been no cross words or raised voices and Johnny had even appeared to relax a little, a faint smile gracing his face on several occasions.
It wasn’t going to be easy but perhaps gentling…gentling yes, that word was as appropriate for Johnny as it was for the palomino, perhaps gentling his wild and troubled son wouldn’t be as hard a task as he expected it to be. The first step, he told himself, would be getting Johnny to accept them, accept he had nothing to fear from them. If he could gain his son’s trust then things would surely go from strength to strength and one day Johnny would accept and want his family as much as they wanted him. He’d used the words time and patience when he’d referred to the palomino, Murdoch knew he needed those exact same commodities when it came to Johnny.
The Lancer patriarch knew the next few weeks would be particularly difficult as they all settled into some sort of routine. He had a list as long as his arm on what work he needed to do, but he’d have to delegate the brunt of that to Jess, Cipriano and Paul when he returned. Murdoch didn’t want to smother Johnny but he wanted and needed to spend as much time with his younger son as was possible. There was so much he wanted to know, so many questions he wanted to ask. The Pinkerton report had provided valuable insight but not nearly enough. Johnny would probably never volunteer the information he wanted freely, but maybe he would one day feel secure enough to open up with the help of some gentle probing.
Maria’s death troubled Murdoch deeply; he just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that his son, at just thirteen years of age, had witnessed her brutal murder. That horrific event had been the catalyst in his young life, no wonder those blue eyes were so haunted. Murdoch knew he could never erase the trauma of that day or the nightmare existence Johnny had survived each day since, but perhaps he could in time help him lay his past to rest.
The very same blue eyes met his, and, as if embarrassed by the older man’s scrutiny, they quickly looked down and away. Murdoch wished desperately to know what went on behind those blue eyes. He knew Johnny could vent his spleen in anger, but that was as far as expressing his emotions went. The boy was holding too much inside.
Johnny found himself dreading the end of the meal, the distraction of dinner had been most welcome. He knew the two older Lancers would want to talk, work out the details of their living arrangements, and perhaps begin to question him about his past. He was not prepared to answer their inquiries just yet. The past was too painful. Too vivid yet for Johnny to vocalize. It was with a sense of foreboding that Johnny rose and followed his father and brother into the great room. With barely a moment to softly offer thanks for the superb meal, Johnny found himself once again in the room where he had almost killed his father. It seemed to him that the very walls were whispering to him, voicing condemnation and judgement. Johnny chided himself for the foolish notion and took a deep cleansing breath. He watched intently as Murdoch proceeded to the liquor cabinet and poured two snifters of brandy.
“I’ll have tequila.” He was taken aback by the disapproval which flashed across the faces of the two elder Lancers. It had never occurred to him that they would question his right to drink.
“Tequila!” Murdoch repeated struggling to contain his disbelief.
“Yeah, that’s what I said Old Man! “ Anger swelled within his chest and he felt the overwhelming influence of Madrid rear its head.
Scott held his breath. Of all the things he’d expected Johnny and his father to knock heads over; alcohol had not been one of them.
“John…” Murdoch began, he strongly disapproved of a fifteen year old boy drinking and he wasn’t sure if he could or should back down on the issue.
“I have been drinking since I was ten. You ain’t gonna try to tell me I’m too young!” The challenge hung in the air between them. Johnny could see in his father’s expression the battle he knew was raging. He was stunned to then see surrender and resignation cross the big man’s countenance as he reached in the cabinet again and retrieved a new bottle of the golden liquid.
“Special occasions only!” Murdoch said firmly leaving no doubt in either son’s mind that that was his final word on the subject, and then with a heavy sigh he filled a third glass. Handing it to his youngest son, Murdoch raised his glass in the air.
“To new beginnings,” he toasted.
Johnny eyed his father and brother as they sipped on their brandy. His first impulse had been to down his tequila in one gulp but he found himself merely following suit and sipping the pale liquid. He was aware of the furtive glances his new family sent his way when they felt they were unobserved. Seemingly at ease and unconcerned Johnny wandered around the great room, a storm brewing beneath his calm exterior. With a morbid fascination, his eyes strayed to the place where his father had lain only days before, now wiped clean of any evidence of the near death wrought at his hand. The voices continued to scream in a whisper at him, condemning and judgemental. An involuntary shudder coursed through his frame as he deliberately turned away.
“Are you cold?” This softly spoken and directed at him, concern etched on Murdoch’s face. Johnny stopped in front of the bookshelves which lined one wall of the great room, his expression unreadable.
“No, I am fine. You read all those books?” Johnny deflected the question with one of his own, now again in control of himself and his emotions, the Madrid persona firmly in place.
“Most of them at least once, some more than that. You are welcome to read them any time you choose to.” Murdoch carefully watched his younger son’s face for any indication that his word had touched a raw nerve.
“Yeah well, I’ll remember that.” The mask held.
Scott had watched the wanderings of Johnny as he circled the room, and the interaction between him and his father with interest. They had assumed Johnny couldn’t read and had been attempting to broach the subject of school. But Scott couldn’t fathom the expressionless face of his brother. It still chilled him to watch as Johnny retreated behind a mask devoid of emotion. He felt unnerved by the transformation, and found himself wondering what Johnny Madrid’s opponents felt when they faced him. But this boy was his brother, how could he be so deadly??? Instinctively Scott realized he never wanted to know. With deliberate intent Scott jerked his thoughts back to the conversation at hand.
“So, Johnny, did you have much schooling?” Scott was pleased that the hesitation he felt at posing that question was not reflected in his voice. Studiously he watched Johnny’s face for a crack in the façade.
“I had some; I can read and do sums. Why?” Johnny parried. Except for a strange flicker in the blue eyes the mask remained impenetrable.
Damn, he’s good! Scott realized it would take more, much more to break through the years of experience which had so keenly honed Johnny’s ability to remain unaffected.
“Just thought perhaps you might want to talk about going to school. There is a fine one just started in Green River and I hear the school marm is a real looker.” This was spoken casually.
“Thanks but no thanks. I have learned all I need to know.” Johnny’s expression conveyed the conviction with which it was spoken. Apparently it was going to be much harder than they had thought Scott surmised, deciding the best thing to do was to let the subject rest for the time being. Glancing sideways at his father he hoped the older man felt the same but his father’s determined expression told him otherwise.
Murdoch had been disappointed but not surprised by his younger son’s response, still he wasn’t going to let the matter of schooling drop so easily. He came from a place and time where schooling was a hard fought for right. Education was responsible for liberating the masses and the lack of one was not going to diminish Johnny’s chances of a better life.
“Schooling is something I won’t compromise on John…” Murdoch began determinedly.
“I told you Old Man I ain’t interested…” Johnny snarled, anger dancing in his blue eyes.
“And I’m telling you that education is important and you WILL respect my wishes on this.” Murdoch declared, his gaze fixed on his younger son.
Johnny glared up at his father’s resolute expression and bit back on his angry retort; he glanced briefly at his brother before turning away from them both and storming towards the kitchen, slamming his glass down on the table as he went.
“John!” Murdoch’s voice boomed around the great room, his demand unheeded he strode back to the liquor cabinet and replenished his glass. Gulping down the contents he eyed his elder son and muttered in his annoyance. “Go on. Say it!”
The corner of Scott’s lips twitched as he battled with the urge to grin. His father had long since grown accustomed to him adding his opinion whether it was wanted or not.
“I shouldn’t have pushed him?” Murdoch looked expectantly at his first born, just like Catherine; their son had been born wise to the world and its ways.
“You were right to make your position clear; you backed down on the gun, you compromised on the tequila but he needs to know you won’t do either on some issues and on those issues he has to accept your word is law.”
Murdoch guffawed and ran a weary hand through his greying hair “He has no respect for me or my word Scott.”
“I don’t believe that’s true any longer sir, that’s why he left the room just now. He’s starting to see you differently.”
“So he no longer sees me as the wife beating bastard he’s hated all his life!” Murdoch spat bitterly.
“No I don’t believe he does. He’s beginning to see a man who genuinely cares about him. A man who’s trying to be the father he needs despite the fact he’s fighting him all the way.”
Murdoch sighed in resignation “And he is going to fight me all the way, isn’t he!”
“He’s stubborn alright, but I know someone who’ll give him a good run for his money!” Scott grinned, his grin widening into a smile when his father’s tension visibly eased a little and he grinned back.
Johnny had paced his room, his thoughts warring endlessly, slowly his anger had abated and he’d sat down on his bed to put those thoughts in order. He’d actually spent very little time in school, his dark skin and blue eyes attracting taunts and instigating the inevitable fist fights he’d seemed forever the centre of. He’d not been wanted there either.
His mama had been responsible for teaching him what he did know and that had been enough to scrape by, but he was no fool and he knew there was so much out there he didn’t know. But just how important was his lack of schooling? Both his father and brother seemed keen on the matter, too keen in his father’s case! No way was he gonna be forced to sit in some stuffy little room with a bunch of kids! He wasn’t going to be treated like a kid no way, no how. Now how to make that clear to the Old Man?
Easing himself back onto the pillows, Johnny stretched his arms up over his head before lowering them to cradle his head in his entwined hands.Indiscernible voices floated up from down stairs and he wondered what they were saying about him now, realising again with some regret that he’d given them plenty of scope for discussion. The voices fell silent and immediately Johnny was aware of a presence on the stairs, he listened intently as the footsteps grew nearer. Part of him wanted them to pass his door but the part that regretted his earlier angry outburst hoped they were making their way to his door, he just wasn’t sure why.
As the soft tread disappeared into the adjacent room he closed his eyes, hoping sleep would soon claim him but the sound of a heavier tread approaching forced his eyes open and he started at the firm knock on the door.
The door swung open and his father stepped into the room. Johnny pulled himself up into a sitting position; drawing his knees up to his chest he wrapped his arms around them decidedly uncomfortable in the older man’s presence.
Unsure of what to say to make the peace Murdoch uttered the first thing that came into his head “You’ll find some nightshirts in this drawer here…” He gestured to the oak dresser, the remains of his wife’s photograph briefly claiming his attention before his gaze once more settled on his son. “Is there anything you need Johnny?”
Johnny shook his head, a softly spoken “No” added as an afterthought.
“I’ll say goodnight then.” Murdoch hesitated as if wanting to say more then edged backwards through the door reaching out to take the photograph from the dresser “And I’ll see to it that this is reframed.”
Johnny nodded, unable to acknowledge his father verbally or meet the older man’s eyes. As the door closed he slipped back down the bed, his mind struggling to make some resemblance of sense of the myriad of feelings he had for this stranger, his father.
Heavy, rich curtains billowed in the gentle breeze while the moon extended ghostly fingers through the partially open window, probing the darkness of his room. The night was cool after the heat of the day, the bed soft and inviting, but Johnny tossed and turned; sleep evading his attempt to capture it. Sighing he turned onto his back, peering intently into the shadows flickering with the movement of the fabric. Johnny listened intently to the night sounds, an owl hooted, cattle lowed, somewhere a horse whinnied, its mournful sounds floating away on the night breeze. The call of the unseen horse brought back the earlier conversation over dinner when his father had piqued his interest by describing the palomino. Suddenly the overwhelming urge to see the golden horse was more than Johnny could resist.
Stealthily Johnny rose, he fumbled with the clothes he had only an hour before abandoned at the foot of his bed, dressed and crept down the back stairs. The massive home was still and quiet except for the gentle snoring from his father’s room and the ticking of a clock somewhere in the heart of the house. Carrying his boots in his left hand and gun belt in his right, Johnny tiptoed to the front door. For all its bulk, the huge door was perfectly balanced and hung, and effortlessly slid open. Johnny slipped outside and as easily pulled the door closed behind him. He paused to put on his boots and rig, and get his bearings, then headed towards the corral where he had just seen a flash of gold.
As he reached the corral and climbed to the top rail, the stallion raised his head and peered intently at the boy, returning his stare. Johnny’s appraising eye studied the animal with approval. The stallion’s coat glowed golden in the moonlight, in sharp contrast to the silver of the long, thick tail and full mane. The stallion moved, long limbed and graceful, he was big, bigger than most of the horses Johnny had seen, with a long back and a small wedge shaped head. His ears were pricked forward until they came almost to an angle at the tips; his neck set high accentuating the long, arched neck. He had long legs and well muscled withers, chest and shoulders which promised strength and speed. Johnny’s heart pounded wildly in his chest, he had never seen such a magnificent steed. He could almost imagine the power between his knees as he rode the animal.
Whispering softly Johnny eased himself down from the corral rails and into the enclosure. Blue eyes met and held liquid brown eyes. A moment passed between man and beast, a moment in which the two knew theirs would be a partnership. Trust and respect would have to be earned.
“He’s a beauty, isn’t he?” The spell was broken. Shaking his head the heavy forelock falling over his eyes, the stallion turned and moved to the far side of the enclosure.
“Yeah, he is that.” Johnny whispered, eyes never leaving the golden horse.
“Has anyone ridden him yet?” Johnny was startled by the fierce possessiveness which invaded his being.
“No. A couple of hands have tried but they say he can’t be broken.”
“You don’t break a horse like this. You come to an understanding.”
“An understanding?” Scott asked curiously “How do you do that?” It seemed a strange concept but he intuitively knew Johnny was going to succeed where the others had failed.
“Yeah, you don’t break him; his spirit makes him what he is. You just agree with him. He has a choice, he can choose you or not.” Johnny shrugged and turned back to face his brother. He knew how odd his words had sounded, but he also knew how very true it would be if he were to claim the stallion. A look had been exchanged, challenges issued and he knew the stallion had accepted him just as Johnny knew this horse would be his.
Scott observed the younger man; head cocked to the side and wondered for a moment if Johnny had been talking about the horse or himself. The words applied equally to the youth before him and he felt the tickling of a strategy beginning to form. They would have to reach an agreement with the wild young man, choose him and hope he would respond in kind. It was as if the relationship between Murdoch, himself and Johnny would be a parallel to the relationship between the stallion and the boy. Scott felt more optimistic now than he had since they had first met Johnny Madrid Lancer.
“You think you can sleep now? We can have another look at the horse in the morning?”
Johnny merely nodded and turned to follow Scott into the house.
Daybreak found all three Lancers awake and wondering what the new day would bring. All viewed their first full day together at Lancer with eagerness and a little trepidation.
Murdoch had, surprisingly, slept soundly. He awoke with a start, startled by that fact. It unnerved him to think he could have slept so soundly while his younger son left the ranch and yet he knew the boy would keep his word. No matter what else the Pinkerton report had revealed it had assured him that his son was a man of his word. Johnny would not disappear into the night. Murdoch knew his son was still in his room, amazingly he could sense the young man’s presence. Still he rose quickly, he wanted to be the first one to greet his son, he wanted to welcome him by the light of a new day. It was a fresh start, for him, for his sons, for their future and Murdoch found himself grinning optimistically at the thought.
Recalling the events of the previous night, Murdoch was struck again by the insight of his first born son. Scott Lancer possessed a wisdom beyond his years and a grin plastered Murdoch’s face as he imagined his younger son’s reaction to the proposition they stood poised to present him. Murdoch quickly shaved, humming all the while, the same grin still evident on his face. As he wiped the last of the shaving cream from his face, he realized that he had not hummed in many years. He briefly wondered if anyone had heard the tune, but what did it matter. His grin exploded into a full fledged smile as he studied his reflection in the mirror. Murdoch turned from the dresser and quickly stepped into the hall.
Scott had been unable to sleep, his mind wrestling with his inability to conquer the idea which seemed to be just beyond his reach. He knew there was something to be learned from Johnny’s interaction with the stallion last night, yet the answer eluded him, hovering on the edge of his vision, always there like a shadow. Something in Johnny’s words had struck a chord within his very soul, in harmony with the conversation he had engaged in the night before. His suggestion to his father had been met with acceptance, not the cynicism he had expected. He had been pleasantly surprised, and pleased, when Murdoch had agreed to discuss the matter more thoroughly with Johnny.
The hope of the night before continued to swell within the blond Lancer’s heart and he vowed to carefully observe Johnny and the stallion, he knew the answer was there. He just had to capture it. Johnny’s declaration that you didn’t break the animal’s spirit seemed to hold the key to reclaiming his brother and understanding the puzzle. He determined he would do just that. He would not lose his brother and his father would not lose his son, not again, not now, not ever.
Satisfied that he was on the right track, Scott leapt out of bed. With all haste he dressed and made his bed, a habit as much a part of him as his fastidious attention to all his belongings. With a last quick glance around the room, satisfied that all was in order, he purposely strode out the door, closing it behind him, ready to face their first day as a family.
Johnny lay eyes open, sleep having evaded him for a good part of the night, his mind refusing to abandon its quest to make sense of the new world he found himself in. This world seemed to be inhabited by people who cared about him and that concept was hard to understand and accept, he wasn’t sure he belonged in their world, once perhaps, but maybe he’d forfeited his right to be part of it now.
The distinctive chimes of the grandfather clock resonated dolefully through the household and he counted off the hours. As the last chime faded the hacienda seemed to answer a summons to rise, the occupants stirring one by one to life.
A warm smile appeared instantly on the young man’s face as his nose informed him that Maria was already preparing breakfast. Maria He’d been astounded by the welcome she’d bestowed upon him, wrapping him in her arms, hugging him so very tightly and sharing with him in tearful whispers her joy at his return.
His mama had been the only other person to hold him like that. He’d been overwhelmed at first and had tried to escape from the warmth that had oozed from her very soul, but those gentle and loving arms had had no intention of letting go and he’d almost willingly succumbed to their demands. It was obvious she had loved and cared for him once and he wished with all his heart he could remember her and the way it had been before his mother had taken him from his home…
The thought stunned Johnny, for the first time ever he’d actually seen that fateful day as his mother’s doing and not Murdoch Lancer’s. It was a bitter truth and one for some reason he still felt the need to fight. He’d believed the lie for so long but if he was honest he’d never really wanted too, he’d hoped for the longest time that it had been some terrible misunderstanding and that his father wanted and loved him like other father’s wanted and loved their sons. Why should it be different for him? But for thirteen years it had been different and he’d hated Murdoch Lancer for that.
There had been men in his life, many in fact, but they’d not wanted to become a father to him, they’d wanted his mother but not her baggage. Not one of those men had shown him anything more than disdain, mostly they had ignored him but there had been several who had taken their anger out on him and he’d believed his father to be of the same vane.
The terrible truth was there had been no misunderstanding, only a deliberate and callous act. The consequences of which he, his father and brother had endured these last long years. But the most painful truth was that his father had wanted him; at least he said he did?
Johnny scolded himself at his eagerness to still doubt them and told himself that he had to start believing what they had said so passionately. He had to believe that he was wanted here or this offer of a new life wouldn’t stand a chance. But it was so hard to understand how his father could mean what he said especially after his behaviour to date. Johnny was far from proud of his actions. He just couldn’t understand how easy it seemed for his father and brother to forget those actions when he himself found it so hard to forgive them for things they were not even guilty of.
It didn’t make sense, nothing made sense anymore and it was at times like this he yearned for the uncomplicated life he’d had before Murdoch and Scott Lancer had entered his life. His father, his brother, they were strangers to him, yet there were times when he believed he felt something for them, and those feelings confused him. He wasn’t sure what he should feel and even if he should allow those feelings to take hold. Damn he just didn’t know what was going on in his head anymore.
The gentle rap on his door came as a welcome diversion and he called out softly “Come in”.
“Good morning John!” Murdoch stepped around the door, his eyes immediately finding his son.
“Mornin” Johnny replied quietly, rolling onto his side and easing himself up onto one elbow. John he liked the way his father called him that, no one else had before, not that he could remember anyway. The older man’s gaze remained fixed on him and Johnny felt the familiar unease overpower him.
“You thinking about getting up?” Murdoch’s eyes sparked merrily and he hoped Johnny would see his attempt at teasing for what it was. Sensing the boy’s discomfort he deflated a little telling himself it was going to take awhile before the boy could relax in his company.
“Yeah.” Johnny forced out. It seemed he could spit sass at the man easy enough but when it came to just talking his tongue refused to cooperate.
“Good!” A heap of crumpled clothes caught Murdoch’s attention and stepping over them he walked across to the closet, throwing open the door he gestured at its contents. “I asked Maria to sort you out some old clothes of Scott’s; they should tide you over until we can get to town and get you some of your own.”
Johnny peered at the array of shirts and pants; he’d never owned more than one set at a time before and he was reminded that the one’s he presently possessed had been provided by Murdoch Lancer. It made him feel indebted to the older man, yet this was his father who was providing him with these things and wasn’t that what fathers were supposed to do?
“Johnny!” His father’s voice stirred him from his thoughts.
“Yeah?” He looked blankly at his father wishing he’d been paying better attention to his words.
“See you down stairs shortly then?”
“Yeah.” Johnny replied realising it must look as if he was being deliberately unresponsive. He watched his father leave the room, flopping onto his back he cursed himself. The old man was trying; surely he could meet him half way! He was beginning to understand the fundamental differences between the men he was exposed to growing up and this man, his father. Still the abuse he had suffered at the hands of those men had made him feel so very uneasy in his company.
Before Johnny had chance to acknowledge the next knock on his door, it opened and his brother strolled into the room.
“Sleep well?” Scott grinned down at his brother, not at all surprised to find him still nestled between the sheets.
“I always sleep well.” Johnny replied avoiding his brother’s eyes.
“Yes well if you want to EAT well I suggest you get a move on, Maria will have cleared the table before you sit down to it!” Scott’s eyes twinkled in amusement at the expression on his brother’s face.
“Just try to keep up!” Johnny retorted, the beginning of a smile curling the corners of Johnny lips.
As the door closed behind his brother Johnny threw back the covers and leapt enthusiastically from his bed. Quickly choosing a shirt and a pair of pants he laid them on his bed telling himself he’d have to make more of an effort where his father was concerned! Just how hard could it be?
Johnny stepped to the washbasin on his dresser prepared to perform his morning ritual. As he combed his heavy black hair his gaze found the place where his mother’s photograph had stood. Regret washed over him and he bowed his head in shame. How was he going to reconcile the warring factions within his heart? How could he overcome the memories and lifetime of hate? He had to find a way to put the past where it belonged, in the past. Years ago he had learned that one did not often get a second chance but here it was his for the taking. He would be a fool to turn his back on the Lancers and all they stood for. Lancer, that was a name a man could be proud of and suddenly he felt the hate melt away under the influence of another strange but earnest desire to be worthy of the name. Murdoch Lancer was going to be proud to call him son. He would, Johnny vowed.
The aroma of bacon, hot biscuits and coffee assailed Johnny’s senses as he stepped into the hall. His stomach answered the call with a tremendous growling Johnny was sure the whole household would hear. Grinning from ear to ear and feeling quite sure he must look like a fool Johnny bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen. Murdoch and Scott were already seated, Maria serving them with heaping mounds of mouth watering delicacies. It seemed funny somehow that what was normal fare to some could be a delicacy to him but it was. Scott met Johnny’s gaze and grinned back at him.
“Hungry? Come on, join us.” His invitation was heartfelt and warm.
“I am always hungry. What is it they say about the way to a man’s heart?” Johnny was aware of an intense stare levelled in his direction and turned his head, his eyes meeting his fathers.
“John, that is more words than you have spoken in two days.” Johnny searched and found the twinkle in the eyes, the humour in the voice. Warmth flooded his being for the second time in so many minutes.
“Yes sir, it is.” Johnny murmured almost shyly.
Murdoch struggled but managed to keep his shock hidden at the polite manner in which his youngest addressed him. “Well, have a seat, dig in.” He invited noting with another wave of surprise that his son was sitting down to the table minus his gun; Murdoch wasn’t sure how to acknowledge the gesture and decided it was probably best to just say nothing.
Mealtime passed all too quickly, the atmosphere relaxed and at ease. It wasn’t going to be as difficult as he had thought, Johnny mused.
Murdoch laid his fork aside and accepted another cup of coffee from Maria and as she left the room he turned his attention to the two young men before him. He took a long gulp from his cup, steadied his nerves and plunged ahead.
“John, Scott and I had a discussion last night which I believe may interest you.” Johnny tensed, the mask sliding unbidden across his countenance.
“What about?” This spoken softly and calmly, his tension well hidden beneath the veneer that was Madrid.
“We have come to a decision you may be more comfortable with. I understand your hesitation about attending school…”
Johnny rose abruptly, his chair falling over behind him.
“I ain’t going to school.” The challenge hung between them.
At the reappearance of Madrid Scott felt his calm resolve crumbling, believing the situation was about to disintegrate.
“Sit down Johnny!” Murdoch pinned his son with a determined stare.
“You say jump and I say how high right? No! It don’t work that way Old Man, I don’t take orders, not from you, not from no one.” Johnny ground out icily.
Murdoch fought against his brewing anger stunned at how easily he had offended his son “I’m not ordering you to do anything, I’m simply asking you to …”
“Yeah sure! You just said you’d made a decision! Did I get a say in that decision? Did you ask my opinion? No! You just expect me to obey you…”
“That’s not true, now please John, sit down!” Murdoch’s voice rose as his patience began to finally fray.
Scott was aware, as was Murdoch, of the presence of Johnny’s alter ego. Madrid was alive and well and living in their kitchen. His appearance, as unwelcome as it was inevitable. It was becoming more and more apparent to the two elder Lancers that it was Madrid who had the upper hand. Each was becoming increasingly aware of his dominance, as well as the situations which triggered his rise to the surface. Johnny retreated behind the facade with no apparent hesitation, the fingers of his right hand drumming a steady cadence along his thigh as if in tune to some unheard tom tom. The barely controlled energy emanating from Johnny once again led Scott‘s mind down the path he had tested before. He could almost imagine the horror men must have felt when facing Madrid, searching his eyes for a sign of the lightning quick draw that would surely come. It was unnerving at best and downright terrifying.
Scott’s mind desperately sought a resolution to the rapidly escalating turn of events,
The briefest of tremors crossed the normally frozen countenance that was Johnny Madrid Lancer, so brief in fact that Scott was afraid he had imagined it.
“Johnny! We aren’t trying to force you into anything! Just give us a minute to explain.” Scott reasoned and an awkward silence filled the room until with a skilful flick of his foot Johnny righted his chair and reluctantly retook his place at the table.
Murdoch met the cold stare with determination “Lancer is our home but it’s also a working ranch, our bread and butter and you need to be able to deal with the business side of things. Scott and I have always shared those responsibilities; we do the bookkeeping, see to any legal matters that arise and you as a partner in Lancer will be expected to do those things too. Do you think you could?”
A partner in Lancer Johnny hadn’t looked at it that way before, and he knew he didn’t have the educational skills to undertake what was apparently expected of him, not that he was sure what it would involve exactly. “No.” he answered honestly, all the time knowing he was walking into some kind of trap.
“No, but you could if you got caught up with your schooling?”
“Yeah…but I told ya I ain’t going!” Johnny snapped back.
“You don’t have to. What if you were to be taught here at Lancer?”
“Here?” Johnny had to admit that that idea didn’t seem so bad but still he wasn’t ready to admit defeat. “How?”
Murdoch glanced at Scott who nodded and leaned forward in his chair bracing himself for his brother’s reaction “Me! I could tutor you?”
Johnny’s face broke into an involuntary grin “You?” He found the idea of his brother in the role of teacher amusing but also for some strange reason deeply reassuring.
Scott sighed inwardly and grinned back at the young man, at least his suggestion hadn’t been seen as an insult “I’m willing if you are Johnny, but it will cost you.”
Searching his brother’s face, Johnny wondered what he could possibly want from him in return.
“The palomino!” Scott answered the unspoken question.
“The palomino?” Johnny repeated, confused by his brother’s words.
“We’ve got someone interested in him but until he’s broken…”
“You’re asking me to break him?” Johnny snapped incredulously.
“Can you?” Scott asked softly.
“Yeah.” Johnny shot back, of course he could but as for breaking him in for another man! He had to remind himself the stallion wasn’t his and bitterly he acknowledged that he wasn’t prepared to ask his father or brother for anything as valuable as the horse. Yet the moment he had laid eyes on the majestic animal, his head had swam with visions of riding the golden stallion across fields, the wind whistling in his ears, pure power beneath him. With a jerk, Johnny realised Scott was still talking to him.
“Anyway, we thought perhaps you could break the stallion, get him ready to ride and in the afternoons you and I could work on your lessons. You might be more comfortable with me here at Lancer than you would with the kids in town. It’s a shame though; you will miss the school marm. Like I said she’s a real looker.” With this, Scott grinned at his younger brother. He had watched Johnny’s reaction at the suggestion he break the stallion and was relieved to see the mask that was Madrid disappear from the young man’s face. His younger brother looked his age at this moment as he struggled with the proposition.
“John?” Murdoch queried. He had watched the exchange, seen Johnny waver between indignation at the suggestion he needed schooling, awe at the suggestion Scott serve as his tutor and finally disbelief that he break the stallion for another man. Yes, Scott was right. They would learn a lot about the young man by his interaction with the horse. Murdoch smiled at the thought and immediately wiped the revealing expression off his face.
“Sir?” Johnny raised his head slowly, confusion clearly evident.
“So, what do you think?” We can have a look at the palomino after we finish our coffee and this afternoon you and Scott could start with your lessons. John?”
“Sure, sure, that is fine. Thanks.” Johnny agreed quietly, immediately regretting his words. Just what exactly was he thanking them for? Endless hours pouring over words and figures? The chance to show his ignorance? Or the palomino who’s trust he’d win but never possess?
The three Lancers made their way to the corral, the morning sun climbing patiently above them in a cloudless blue sky. Murdoch stopped several times to introduce his younger son to the numerous ranch hands who crossed their path. Johnny greeted each man with a confident smile, hiding his unease and impatience, his eagerness to reach the palomino hard to suppress. Finally the object of Johnny’s preoccupation was in sight and Murdoch found his own interest peaking.
The stallion eyed them through the heavy forelock, his right front hoof pawing the ground. As if unimpressed by the three men staring at him over the top rail of the corral fence, he shook his head, and moved away. He stood motionless at the back of the corral, tail lazily twitching from side to side, eyes focused on the horizon.
Johnny jumped lightly to the ground and moved toward the center of the corral, eyes fixed on the golden giant of a horse. With soft whispers, he stood and waited. Suddenly the stallion twirled, charged straight at the young man and reared, front hooves pawing the air as if in fury.
“Johnny!” Murdoch and Scott cried in unison, but the youngest Lancer paid them no attention. As they watched, holding their breath, they were stunned to see the stallion come back to earth, mere inches from the young man before him. He shook his head as if in bewilderment and pricked his ears, listening intently to words which the elder Lancers could neither clearly hear nor understand.
Johnny’s eyes met those of the animal, whose hot breath he could feel on his face and slowly raised his left hand. The stallion stood still as a statue as if mesmerized as Johnny laid his hand lightly on its muzzle. For a few moments no one moved, no one spoke, it was as if the world had ceased turning. Scott felt his heart would burst and knew his father was feeling the same way. At long last Johnny dropped his hand as the stallion moved away, the spell broken.
“I have never seen anything like that. How did you know he wasn’t going to run you down?” Scott breathed, struggling to keep his voice soft and steady.
Johnny turned toward his brother surprised to see a number of hands were also leaning on the corral rails watching the display that had occurred before them. Several of the men shook their heads as if Scott had voiced a question each had been asking.
“He wasn’t trying to run me down. It was a challenge. If you want to master an animal you have to have trust, an agreement. He was asking if I trust him.”
Murdoch and Scott exchanged confused glances, turning to watch as Johnny walked past them to the house. Removing his hat Murdoch wiped the sweat from his brow; the boy had just taken another ten years off his life but at the same time opened his eyes to a whole new facet to the youngest Lancer, one he vowed to encourage.
The rest of the morning had been spent bringing Johnny up to date with the various ranch enterprises; he seemed to absorb all the information but Murdoch wondered just how much of the young man’s interest was genuine and not solely put on for his benefit, whatever he was gratified by Johnny’s efforts. Lunch had proved a rather quiet interlude, Johnny seemed subdued and both Scott and Murdoch were certain they knew why. Still both were determined to carry out their plan and that was to continue as soon as Maria had the table cleared.
The dreaded hour came all too soon and Johnny stared wide eyed at the selection of books piled high on the table, his gaze lingering out of disbelief rather than of interest. He plopped down into the nearest chair, heart thumping in anticipation of the trial ahead.
Scott watched the slender shoulders sag with some unseen burden, and from his vantage point silently observed his brother as the boy’s attention wandered to the window and the lure of the world outside. Maybe he could approach this a different way, a way Johnny would be more likely to respond to.
Striding purposefully towards the door Scott walked past Johnny meeting the expectant look with a smile “Come on brother, schools out!”
Johnny gaped after the blonde who’d exited the room with alarming alacrity. Had he given up on his reluctant pupil already?
“Johnny!” Scott’s voice drifted back through the open door jolting Johnny to his feet, he quickened his pace as he trailed behind his brother who was now already half way to the barn.
“Scott?” Johnny found the older man saddling his horse.
The command irritated Johnny no end and if he hadn’t been so relieved at leaving the book learning behind he’d have told his brother exactly where to go.
The silence emanating from the great room troubled Murdoch, he wasn’t sure if it was a good or a bad sign. Having kept his distance for the last hour he’d finally given in to his burning curiosity and ventured in from the kitchen, there he’d been half heartedly catching up on some paper work. Maria had plied him with coffee and a huge slab of his favourite spice cake, her warm chatter the only thing he’d been able to concentrate on. When the room had eventually fallen silent, Maria having taken her leave to pick the herbs required for the evening meal; the Lancer patriarch had immediately succumbed to his inquisitiveness.
The reason for the silence had soon become disturbingly apparent and Murdoch wondered if he’d failed to hear some heated exchange between the two young men. Glancing quickly around the empty room a frown furrowed his brow as his eyes settled on the seemingly unopened books.
Just what were those boys thinking?
“Good afternoon Murdoch!”
The cheery greeting roused Murdoch from his thoughts and he smiled warmly at his old friend, hand extended in readiness to grasp the one offered. “Sam! Good to see you.”
The tall, greying Dr Jenkins’ eyes flashed in delight. Lancer’s recent good news was strikingly obvious on the taller man’s expressive face. The perpetual sadness in the blue eyes had now been replaced by triumph. “Well!” Sam demanded wanting to hear the news straight from the horse’s mouth.
“Johnny’s home Sam! I’ve found my boy!”
It was impossible to miss the intense joy pulsing from each word Murdoch had spoken, the emotion one the doctor was happy to share. He’d known Murdoch Lancer since before Johnny was born, and they had formed a deep and lasting friendship over the ensuing years. Through the last thirteen years Sam had witnessed the elder Lancer’s deepest episodes of despair. He’d watched helplessly as Murdoch aged before his time, worry and grief eating away at the heart of a good and loving man, a man who had done nothing to earn such heartache.
“I’m so very pleased to hear that Murdoch.” Sam beamed, his words falling far short of the true depth of his feelings. Johnny was after all his Godson and he’d held on dearly to the bonds that responsibility had presented him. But still at the forefront of his mind were the rumours circulating Green River, rumours he realized as he noted the graze on the other man’s forehead, had to have some basis in truth.
“How are things?” Sam watched the smile fade and blue eyes flicker with doubt.
“I don’t know! I honestly don’t know.” Murdoch admitted with a sudden urge to broach his concerns, deflating before his friend’s empathic eyes. “I’d like to believe I can hold him here, I’d like to believe he’ll stay but…” Murdoch broke off unsure of how to tell the doctor what he still found so hard to accept.
“But what?” Sam pushed.
Striding to his desk, Murdoch pulled open a drawer and removed the Pinkerton file that told of the horrors his son had endured. Holding the file up in the air his voice soared in anger “This! Every damn fact or suspicion in this! I can’t change any of THIS! I can never make it up to him!” Slapping the file violently down onto the desk he gazed intently at his friend “I failed him.”
“Is that what he believes?”
”He doesn’t know what to believe, all he knows for sure is that I wasn’t there, not when he needed me!” Murdoch sank heavily into his chair running a trembling hand through his hair.
“He still needs you Murdoch! That’s why he’s here.” Sam reasoned determinedly.
Murdoch stared appreciatively at the doctor. Sam was right of course. Johnny did need him! Hopefully that need would keep Johnny at Lancer long enough for it to turn into something else.
“Sam, there’s something you should know about Johnny!” Murdoch knew there would never be a good time to tell the doctor in what guise Johnny had survived the years alone, but the man had the right to know. “He’s been going by another name! Madrid.”
“Madrid?” Sam shook his head puzzled, he’d heard that name somewhere before but couldn’t quite remember where.
“John Lancer, my Johnny was Johnny Madrid…”
“I still am Johnny Madrid Old Man!” The soft voice startled both men and they turned around to meet the icy glare.
“Johnny!” Sam broke the stony silence stepping toward the door where Johnny stood, flanked by his brother.
Johnny gestured angrily at his father “I ain’t about ready to give up my name for yours.”
“You’ve got your father’s temper!” Sam declared, his eyes twinkling merrily as he offered his hand to the irate young man.
The unexpected and intriguing remark extinguished Johnny’s ire and suddenly he felt very foolish. Hadn’t he just hours before deemed the Lancer named something he could be proud of? Damn if the old man couldn’t rile him just as soon as look at him.
The stranger gripped Johnny’s hand firmly, a heartfelt and genuine gesture but it was his softly spoken words that somehow filtered through Johnny’s defences “Welcome home Johnny!”
“Sam Jenkins! Doctor Samuel Jenkins and your Godfather Johnny!” The older man’s smile broadened still further, his grip tightening on Johnny’s hand whilst he threw his other arm around the slender shoulders steering the youngest Lancer to the middle of the room.
Johnny allowed himself to be led without protest, trying to digest the latest piece of information. The doctor was yet another face from his past that he had no memory of. He glanced tentatively at his father relieved to find the older man’s face void of any anger despite more of his sass. If his father had a temper he hadn’t witnessed it yet and if it was anything like his he didn’t want to!
“John, Sam’s one of my oldest and closest friends.” Murdoch explained.
Nodding his understanding Johnny looked up at the older man “Pleased to meet you sir.”
“Well, it’s not the first time you know!” Sam chuckled “The first time I set my eyes on you, you were just a few hours old, you couldn’t wait for me to get here you see, in a real hurry to be born! Anyway when I did arrive, I found you asleep in your very proud father’s arms! Scott sat huddled beside the two of you and he told me in no uncertain terms that your name was John but that he was going to call his little brother Johnny.”
The three older men all smiled at the memory but for Johnny it proved too much.
“Excuse me” Head bowed Johnny pulled away from the doctor and made for the stairs painfully aware of the three sets of troubled eyes that watched his departure.
“I’m sorry I…” Sam mentally kicked himself. How could he have been so thoughtless?
“No Sam!” Murdoch interrupted “That’s how it is; he reacts to anything and everything we say!”
“That’s to be expected Murdoch.” The doctor said sadly, he’d been so pleased to set eyes on the boy he hadn’t stopped to consider his feelings. “It must be difficult for him and for you?” The grey eyes stared at the taller man enquiringly.
“It’s like walking on eggshells.” Murdoch admitted, letting out an involuntary sigh.
“Go check on him!” Sam encouraged softly
“No Murdoch! That boy’s hurting, he needs YOU.” came the firm demand.
Knowing better than to argue and more importantly that Sam was right Murdoch strode after his younger son.
Once Murdoch was out of earshot Sam turned to Scott “Just how bad is it?”
“Not as bad as it was!” Scott answered honestly. Sinking down wearily onto the couch he began to fill the doctor in on what had transpired so far.
Johnny angrily paced the floor of his room hoping his aggressive tread would somehow relieve the pressure he could feel building. The emotions weren’t anything he was unfamiliar with, yet it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the lid on the pot. As each day went by, each moment shared with the Lancers, his awareness of all he had been denied was more and more acute. He found it excruciating to see all he had missed out on when his mother had robbed him of his childhood home and family.
Abruptly Johnny paused his maniacal pacing, the thought almost buckling his knees. He swayed dizzily, blindly reached out a hand, searching for something to cling to. His hand met and grasped the dresser, his mind and emotions racing as the impact of the last thought fully took hold. Was he really beginning to lay the blame for all he had endured, all he had suffered on his mother? When had his emotions, his thoughts, made the treacherous transition? It was treacherous; he had betrayed her memory, sided with the enemy. NO, Murdoch Lancer was not the enemy. The man had come for him, welcomed him, accepted him.
Johnny felt the world slipping away, he held onto the dresser with a desperation as yet unknown, and suddenly there were arms. Strong, firm arms which grasped him by the shoulders, steadied him, comforted him. Johnny turned toward the source of the strength which now sustained him, burying his face in the broad chest. Unbidden the tears came, great sobs which shook his entire frame. Murdoch held his son, motionless, waiting for the storm to pass. At long last the boy in his arms grew quiet, sobs ceasing, his breathing steadier. With the passing of the storm, the moment passed as well.
Embarrassed by his display, Johnny broke the embrace and moved away, his back turned to his father. The ebony head remained bowed as he regained his composure. A moment passed, then another and still the only sound in the room was the breathing of its only two occupants. Another moment and Johnny turned to face his father, eyes now dry, his expression unfathomable.
“She lied to us both, didn’t she?” His eyes sought out the eyes of his father and held, waiting expectantly.
“Yes son, she did. We have both been deceived. But we have our whole future ahead of us. Let’s make this work son.” Murdoch implored, hope shining in his eyes.
“There’s still so much about me you may not be ready to face. Day by day, ok?” Johnny stepped around his father and left the room, leaving in his stead a shocked and disappointed Murdoch Lancer. Damn, I was so close. I almost had him The Lancer patriarch shook off the feeling of foreboding which had engulfed him and followed his son downstairs, Johnny heading out the back door, Murdoch back to the great room.
“It makes me nervous when it’s that quiet in the room where my father and Johnny are.” Scott teased but the humor did not reach his eyes.
“Don’t be so gloomy, Scott. You never know, maybe they are calmly talking.”
“Or killing each other, maybe one of them is already dead.” This time the smile was genuine, infectious, and Doctor Sam Jenkins laughed in spite of the chill which chased down his spine.
Footsteps in the doorway alerted the two men to the approach of one of the subjects of their conversation. As one they rose to face the door, expectation and hope mirrored in their gazes. Murdoch stepped alone into the room, his face a study of defeat. He’d been overwhelmed by the boy’s breakdown, relieved that Johnny had finally felt able to turn to him but at the same time disturbed by how quickly and coldly he’d regained control. The small crack had been instantly repaired and Murdoch wondered if the defensive wall wasn’t the harder now to penetrate?
“He’s alright.” Murdoch said simply, not prepared to go into any details, it had been a private moment and one he had to respect.
Sam recognized the signs of dejection and as with Johnny threw his arm around his old friend “He’s still very much a boy Murdoch despite the man he’s had to become! You’re going to have to learn to separate the two, respect the man and guide the boy, ride the storms and thank God for the episodes of calm. Let him fight you, let him push you and when you do react let it be for the right reasons. He has to see you and accept you as his father before he can love you as one! “
Sam’s buggy pulled away, the doctor’s hand raised in farewell. Murdoch watched him until he became just a blur on the horizon, his old friend’s words spun around in his mind. Just how did he separate the man from the boy? When he looked at Johnny he saw what he wanted to see, a fifteen year old boy. He didn’t want to acknowledge the man who’d kept his son alive and it left a very bitter taste in his mouth accepting just how much he was indebted to Johnny Madrid.
The urge to check on his son was strong and he headed for the corral but the boy wasn’t to be found with the palomino which surprised Murdoch a little. Calling over to one of the ranch hands he immediately tensed at his reply, Johnny had been seen practicing his draw around the back of the hacienda. The information was something Murdoch found decidedly unpalatable. Some inner voice told him to return to the house, to ignore what was obviously important to Johnny but the Colt was something he now found himself detesting.
Watching from a discreet distance Murdoch struggled with his emotions and when he believed he had them in check he walked towards his son. In awe, Murdoch had to admit to himself that he had never witnessed such lethal speed.
“You got something to say Old Man?” Johnny acknowledged his father’s presence without looking at him.
Murdoch stared at his son’s back, his hackles rising instantly, the boy’s tone lighting what was already a very short fuse. “John I’d rather you didn’t do that.”
“I ain’t doing any harm.” Johnny snapped back as he continued to hone his skill.
The truth in the statement managed to rattle Murdoch further and he strode angrily to stand before his son demanding loudly “Put the gun away.”
Johnny glared back at the stormy face “I ain’t finished yet!” The older man’s eyes flashed angrily and Johnny hesitated briefly before adding with a sneer “Just what is your problem?”
Murdoch inhaled deeply, drawing himself up to his full height as his hands settled on his hips.
“I don’t like your attitude young man!” Murdoch ground out taking a step closer to his son.
“I don’t much care for yours!” Johnny retorted, eyes locked on his father’s as he angrily re-holstered his gun.
“Don’t answer me back!” Murdoch growled furiously. Was the boy deliberately trying to bait him?
“So you can say what you want to me but I ain’t allowed to say what I think? When I do I’m answering you back?” Johnny asked derisively, serving to infuriate his father still further.
“That’s not true! Of course you can voice your opinions but you do it in a civil manner. I won’t put up with your rudeness John!”
“But this ain’t about what I say is it? It’s about the gun?”
Scott could hear the raised voices clear across the paddock. He broke into a run, wanting to reach the quarrelling twosome before the heated words spiralled out of control. Murdoch’s posture was a clear indicator of the situation, the man, like the volcanoes Scott had read about and found so interesting, was ready to erupt and as he got closer the rage in Johnny’s stance mirrored his father’s exactly.
“The gun is one thing you’re never gonna accept! Well that gun is me…”
“NO! That gun is Johnny Madrid, it’s not John Lancer! You don’t need Madrid anymore!”
“I am Madrid, always have been, always will be. I may be a Lancer some day but that don’t mean Madrid is gonna disappear Old Man!” Johnny’s anger had built to fever pitch; he knew he was losing control. Desperately he summoned Madrid knowing the gunfighters cold, deadly calm was the only thing that could prevent another disaster.
“NO. You are NOT Madrid, not any more!” Murdoch’s breath was coming fast and ragged now “Don’t you ever say that again!” He demanded.
Johnny’s shaking ceased as suddenly as it had begun, a nonchalant relaxed stance evident, yet it was his son’s countenance which shocked the Lancer patriarch. Murdoch met the gaze of his youngest son. With a start Murdoch realised that the dramatic change coming over the young man before him had heralded the end of many an ambitious wannabe gun hawk. The fire in the blue eyes evaporated, replaced by ice the like of which Murdoch had never seen. The electricity which pulsed around the young man seemed alive, vibrant, terrifying. Even more frightening was the soft voice which seemed to chill the very air between the two men.
“I am Madrid, and the gunfighters who are coming will be looking for me, not Johnny Lancer. I am the only chance I have of surviving when the time comes. If you think it won’t come, you are sadly, no deadly mistaken. I am gonna keep my edge and if you know what’s good for you, you won’t interfere. You got THAT Old Man.”
For the first time in a long time speech would not come to Murdoch Lancer, wordlessly he watched as the lethal gunfighter that was his son turned and walked away.
Scott drew level with his father just as the older man’s temper finally exploded. Powerless he watched as the bigger man strode after his younger son, grabbing the boy by the arm to violently swing him around to face him once more. “How dare you! How dare you threaten me?” The huge hands gripped the slim shoulders, their grip tightening painfully “What do you intend doing? Shoot me down?” Murdoch bellowed.
Momentarily looking at his brother Johnny’s gaze returned to the irate man before him “Is that what you think of me?” He replied his voice barely more than a whisper, the last trace of Madrid now gone, the boy standing in his place.
“I don’t know what to think of you!” Murdoch retorted, eyes blazing down into the blue eyes that stared back full of hurt.
The dark head bowed, it hadn’t taken long for the Old Man to turn on him, and to see him like everyone else did. He struggled against the vice like grip wanting to get away from his own and his father’s disappointment but the grip tightened and Johnny had to fight down the panic.
“Bastard!” He blasted the older man as his emotions finally overpowered him. Suddenly his father released his hold, his hand now raised, seemingly poised in midair, ready to strike him. Johnny flinched “Go on!” He dared his father, his voice betraying his emotions “You’ve been wanting too long enough!”
“Get to your room!” The irate voice bellowed, echoing through the still air.
As the words resounded through his skull Johnny realized that the raised hand was not about to make contact with his face but rather it was pointing in the direction of the hacienda. He cringed as he realized he’d not only assumed the very worst of his father but that he’d also openly taunted him with the fact. It had done nothing for the older man’s temper, his face turning an even deeper shade of red, the veins in his neck standing out with the effort to contain his rage.
Johnny hesitated but as soon as the ear splitting “NOW” left his father’s lips he turned on his heels and quickly made for the hacienda.
Murdoch watched his younger son until he disappeared in through the kitchen door, only then did he turn to his elder son who stared at him with disbelief written all over his face.
“Did you hear what Sam said earlier?” Scott barked, shaking his head in exasperation he walked swiftly after his brother.
The painful truth began to sink in, not only had he heard Sam’s wise words; he’d had every intention of following up on them but at the first opportunity he’d done the complete opposite. As self disappointment put out the remaining flames of fury Murdoch stepped determinedly towards the house silently cursing his temper, his stupidity and his complete lack of understanding where his younger son was concerned.
Taking the stairs two at a time Johnny finally made it to the sanctuary of his room; he slammed the door behind him, leaning against it for support he closed his eyes and concentrated on getting his ragged breathing under control. How had it all got so ugly? Why had he been so, so…ruthless? The answer came all too quickly. Because he had had to be! The Old Man and Scott for that matter didn’t have a clue about the life a gunfighter led, how could they? More importantly they had no perception of the danger his presence put them in.
Perhaps he could have explained it better, been less confrontational, chosen his words more carefully but his father’s words had been like a red rag to a bull. He hadn’t really intended to threaten his father; but somehow he’d forgotten where he was and just who he was talking to…but then again he had turned on the older man so readily! Regretfully Johnny had to acknowledge that he still harbored a great deal of anger toward his father and that he’d taken full advantage of the situation to hit back and hurt the older man. His father’s reaction had in turn hurt him and now he wanted desperately to believe that his father had only reacted out of anger and hurt too. Hopefully Murdoch Lancer would think it all over when he’d calmed down some because there would be no future for any of them at Lancer if they didn’t face the stark facts.
A long sigh escaped from Johnny’s lips as he remembered there was also the small matter of the insult! He hadn’t been prepared for the backlash to his own misguided aggression and he’d lashed out with his tongue. The old man had been fit to be tied and Johnny wouldn’t have blamed him if he had laid into him! He’d had a hell of a lot worse for a lot less in his time; still he knew he’d have been very disappointed in his father, a man he was beginning to see with respect.
The door slammed downstairs twice in quick succession and then one seemingly irate tread approached his room. Johnny moved away from his door and seconds later it burst open, his father’s imposing figure stepping into the room. Taking a nervous step backwards Johnny swallowed hard. He wasn’t sure what the older man was doing there now, he’d expected there to be a cooling off period. His first instincts told him this wasn’t going to be pleasant, but his father’s eyes were troubled not vengeful and he relaxed a little, unconsciously, giving his father the right signals, both then speaking in quiet unison. “I’m sorry!”
A stunned Johnny gazed intently at his father, he hadn’t expected an apology! He wasn’t sure he deserved one.
“No son…” His father’s long arm swept around his shoulders “I’m at fault here and we both know it. I do understand what you were trying to tell me but…it’s so damn hard. I want you to feel safe here, to have the life of a normal fifteen year old. I hate seeing you practicing your fast draw like some hardened gun hawk.”
“I am a hardened gun hawk.” Johnny admitted so softly Murdoch wasn’t sure he had actually said anything.
Johnny pushed back from his father’s embrace, took a deep breath and plunged ahead.
“It’s not that I enjoy my trade, and yes it was a trade, one I was proud of, but I have to stay sharp. Don’t you understand! I can’t just lay my gun down. Others will come, to test Madrid, take his reputation and if I lose my edge I could lose my life. Or worse yet someone around me could get hurt.” Johnny pleaded; soulful eyes stared intently at his father begging for understanding.
“I don’t know, John, seems like you could just walk away. You don’t have to agree to a gun fight.”
“Murdoch, when they call me out, I won’t have a choice. It’s kill or be killed!” The words hung heavy in the air, more deadly by their very simplicity. Murdoch felt a chill run down his spine, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Involuntarily he shuddered, a movement which was not missed by his son.
“Me too.” Johnny acknowledged the feelings of his sire. “I am scared every time I face someone but I don’t have a choice. If I can avoid conflict I do, it’s just not always up to me.”
The simple fact stated like an everyday occurrence made Murdoch Lancer take a step backward and stare deeply into the eyes of the man child before him, searching for an answer to the riddle that was his son. Perhaps their earlier heated exchange had opened his eyes a little but only to a world his son didn’t belong to, should never have been part of but because of his parent’s mistakes would always be a trespasser in. Well at least now Johnny wouldn’t be alone, that thought offered only the smallest measure of comfort.
“Alright!” Murdoch stated simply, leaving Johnny wondering what he’d meant exactly. Had his father accepted the facts or simply agreed to disagree? Whatever, he didn’t want to push it further, not now anyway, things were strained enough and he had the feeling his father had something else to discuss. The older man stared at him intently before hesitantly moving ahead.
“I think we both said things we didn’t mean and that we both regret. I know I did.” Murdoch said meaningfully.
“Yeah!” Johnny replied quietly, unable to maintain eye contact with his father any longer he dropped his gaze to the floor.
Two blue eyes slowly met his father’s “Yeah”
“I won’t be spoken to like that!”
“You’ll stay in your room until dinner time. Is that understood?”
Johnny stared rebelliously at his father having to bite back on his reply.
“Is that understood?” Murdoch repeated, his demanding tone unwavering.
“Yes sir.” Came the reluctant and resentful reply.
Murdoch’s expression softened as he realized the conscious effort his son was making “Good!”
As his father left the room Johnny flopped down onto his bed. He didn’t like being told what to do, that really stuck in his craw but he had to admire the man for sticking to his word. Dinner was, Johnny estimated, only a few hours off and he would doze those hours away quite happily!
Once in the great room Murdoch headed for the liquor cabinet, helping himself to an extra large measure of amber liquid. He could feel his older son’s eyes on his back and slowly turned to meet them.
“How did it go?” Scott sat at the table, the books intended for Johnny’s schooling now strewn out before him.
“I hope I managed to repair some of the damage done.” Murdoch walked over to join his son, easing himself down into a chair.
“I’m sure you did and Johnny wants this as much as we do sir!”
Murdoch nodded “I know and he really is trying. I need to try harder but…”
“Madrid! I don’t know how to deal with Madrid!” Murdoch stared intently at Scott hoping his son had the answer to his question.
“I am not sure we have to deal with Madrid.” Scott cautiously suggested. “I mean, that side of Johnny’s personality seems to appear when he feels threatened or when he’s standing up for himself.” Scott paused, his mind racing furiously, searching for any titbit of truth which could help his father.
“It’s like with the stallion. We have to learn to trust his instincts; he seems wise beyond his years and understands the way of things in that world. What do we know?” Scott met his father’s gaze, now narrowed as he contemplated the idea posed by his son.
“Perhaps you have something there. We should take it day by day, watch for Madrid’s appearance, and try to pinpoint exactly what triggers it.” Murdoch pensively rubbed his chin, stared into space, his mind miles away, in Mexico, with Johnny Madrid, gunfighter.
The late afternoon sun drifted through the open curtains, gently caressing his face, warm and tender. Slowly blue eyes opened, wooed out of their slumber by Mother Nature’s loving touch. Johnny knew by the position of the shadows in his room and the hollow feeling in his stomach that it was almost dinner time. He rubbed the lingering sleep from his eyes, yawning broadly. He didn’t even remember falling asleep; his last waking thought had been of his father, their argument and subsequent conversation. As a warm glow spread throughout his being, Johnny realized his father cared and surprisingly, he cared about the old man too. It seemed as if the last of his mother’s ghosts were dying a slow but sure death. It was only a matter of time before he would be able to completely lay them to rest as he had his mother a few years ago.
The house was quiet and still, but for the clatter of pots and pans somewhere in the heart of the house, accompanied by a woman’s voice as she hummed a familiar Spanish hymn. Light footsteps approached his room; a brief pause preceded a soft knock on the door.
Scott’s blonde head appeared around the partially open door.
“You ready for dinner? Maria’s putting it on the table now. I think she has even prepared some Mexican dishes for you.” Scott stepped into the room, a smile slowly spreading across his face.
“You have never been sent to your room before, have you?” Mischief danced in his blue eyes.
“Last man who tried is six feet under.” Johnny’s face was void of expression, voice soft and deadly.
Scott felt as if frozen in place, his heartbeat thundering in his ears. Involuntarily he swallowed. “I guess he shouldn’t have done that.”
From out of nowhere, a pillow hit Scott on the head, glanced off, then landed with a soft thud on the floor at his feet. Raw laughter filled the room. Johnny rolled on the bed, shaking uncontrollably as his brother stared in disbelief.
“Got ya, it was a joke. You should have seen your face; you looked like you could have eaten your hat.” Johnny managed to choke out between sobs of mirth.
“Of all the rotten, low……!” As words failed him, Scott launched himself onto the bed. Moments later, breathless, two young men flopped down side by side.
“I used to dream of wrestling with my brother when I was a child. I thought it would be the most fun thing brothers could do.” Scott whispered.
“Well, was it?”
“Yes, yes, it was. Oh and next time I won’t go so easy on you.”
“Right brother. Next time I won’t be as easy on you!” this as Johnny bounded off the bed, the smile still in his eyes. “Hey, didn’t you say dinner was ready? I am starved.” Johnny tossed over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
“You are always hungry.” Scott countered as he followed his younger brother out of the room and down the stairs.
Murdoch heard his son’s minutes before he saw them. They were coming rapidly down the stairs. He grinned to himself as he thought about his youngest son’s appetite. The young man certainly could put away food; he seemed to have a bottomless pit.
The two younger Lancers’s entered the dining room, took their places at the table and turned their attention to the meal Maria had lovingly prepared. Studying his sons Murdoch knew something had changed between them. It was obvious Scott was falling naturally into the role of big brother and now it seemed Johnny was falling under his spell. It instilled Murdoch with confidence, Scott would become the linchpin, he would hold this fledgling family together until the time it could stand on its own. Shaking off thoughts of the unknown difficulties ahead, the Lancer patriarch reached into his pocket and pulled out a telegram, holding it up, catching his elder son’s attention immediately.
“It came when you were up stairs. Paul and Teresa will be on the afternoon stage tomorrow.” Murdoch held his younger son’s gaze “How does a trip to town sound son?”
Johnny wasn’t sure how he felt about it but he forced a convincing smile “Sounds good.” He continued on with his meal, the thought of two more strangers entering his life proving a little daunting especially as one was a girl!
Johnny awoke with the dawning of the day, filled with a sense of anticipation and dread. The prospect of going to town and purchasing clothes more in keeping with his sense of style made his pulse race. It had been years since he had been able to buy anything new, and only once as a child of 8. His mother had become involved with a well to do salesman from Kansas who had bribed them with a shopping spree in one of the finest haberdasheries in Mexico. While he made no secret of the fact that he felt Johnny’s presence was a serious handicap in his pursuit of Maria, he had been wise enough to recognize the way to Maria’s heart was through her son, so to speak. Johnny could still remember the smells in the store, fine cigars, fresh linen, lavender toilet water, the peppermint candy.
While the shopping was definitely an exciting prospect, the thought of meeting the O’Brien’s was not. Johnny had never had contact with a lady, the women he had known frequented the saloons and brothels, most being more than happy to teach the young gunfighter all he wanted to learn about love. Yet Johnny knew that lust with a price tag, in cheap hotels or the back room of the saloon, was not love at all. He had seen real ladies on the arms of gentlemen and knew they were a completely different kind of woman. How does a man behave around a lady? He purposed to observe Scott, follow his lead, he was sure his brother would know precisely how to respond to Miss Teresa O’Brien. With that firmly settled Johnny sprang out of bed, quickly dressing and hurried downstairs to tend to his most basic need, a meal.
The inviting aroma of freshly cooked bacon, and hot coffee wafted through the great house, tickling the noses of its occupants, summoning them to the table. The members of the household were hard pressed to ignore the invitation, their stomachs responding to the call even as their minds begged for more sleep. Hunger won out in the end, one by one door opened and the Lancers answered the summons. Johnny was the first one downstairs; he was warmly greeted by Maria. As he returned the older woman’s embrace with enthusiasm, her giggles of delight brought a smile to his face. Today he felt more a part of the family, today something seemed different and as he took his seat at the table he realized what it was that had changed, today he was filled with the belief that he could become a Lancer.
Johnny leaned against the corral fence, his gaze fixed intently on the golden stallion. Breakfast had passed quickly; he had excused himself as the family moved in different directions to finish up various chores before the trip to town. Johnny had taken advantage of the increased activity on the ranch to slip away unnoticed. Now he stood observing the horse before him, his mind once again racing across the countryside astride the powerful animal, wind whistling in his ears. Quietly, cautiously, Johnny slipped between the rails of the fence, entering the corral. While he did not fear the animal, he had a healthy respect for him; he had seen what an enraged horse could do to a man. The stallion turned his head sharply, bright eyes carefully following the movements of the human which dared enter his domain. He shook his head, heavy mane slapping against his well muscled neck. With a sudden snort, he pawed the ground, his tail twitching, agitation clearly evident in the powerful body.
Johnny paused in his approach, whispering softly, his gaze never leaving the golden giant before him. Slowly he raised his left hand, palm downward, fingers pointing in the horse’s direction. The stallion again shook his head, wonder replacing his former anger at the intruder. Tentatively he took a step in Johnny’s direction, a momentary pause and then another. The youngest Lancer waited patiently, his soft whispers never ceasing, moments passed and still the stallion came on. At long last, the stallion stopped, a mere foot from the man before him. Johnny made no move, his hand remained extended, still and non threatening. The stallion sniffed the hand, blew softly but did not retreat. Johnny tenderly touched the velvety muzzle, caressed first the stallion’s head then his neck.
More confident with each passing minute, Johnny stroked the golden neck, then his withers, finally moving his hands across the broad back. The stallion stood still under his touch, though Johnny felt the tremors coursing through the hard body. As he moved back to the stallion’s head, “Barranca. I would call you Barranca.” he breathed.
“You sure have a way with that horse. You still think you can ride him? Break him?”
“Yeah, Scott, I know I can.” Without turning, eyes never leaving the stallion, Johnny answered his brother’s query.
“Murdoch sent me to get you. I knew I would find you here. We are ready to go to town.”
“I’m coming.” Johnny allowed his gaze to take in the horse once more, then reluctantly dropped his hand. As if sensing the moment had passed, Barranca snorted and moved away.
The town of Morro Coyo loomed bright in the distance, the morning sun glaring off the white stone walls. The last couple of miles had passed in an easy silence; the two younger Lancers’s riding side by side, their father seated in the family buggy a little way ahead, Paul’s black mount tethered to the back.
Their pace steady Johnny had time to drink in the beauty of the area, and as his eyes wandered over the scenery his thoughts lingered on his family. A small smile settled on his lips as he realized he no longer felt so awkward in their company, since that first night both his father and brother had bent over backwards to put him at ease, drawing him into their conversations, pushing and prodding him gently out of his shell. He wasn’t shy exactly, perhaps a little reserved and the thought of two more people invading his life was a little disconcerting. Tonight there would be two new faces at the dinner table, two more sets of eyes studying and assessing him, two strangers eager to know all there was to know about him!
Paul sounded like a good man, he certainly had the respect of both Murdoch and Scott and they were obviously close friends. According to Murdoch Paul had known him as a child and had helped search for him over the years, that fact, as it had with the doctor, left him feeling decidedly uncomfortable! What would Paul O’Brien make of him now? What would Murdoch Lancer’s circle of friends and acquaintances make of his prodigal son?
The only one he felt at ease with really was Maria. Johnny didn’t doubt Maria’s affection but then Maria was Mexican, he felt an affinity with her that suddenly seemed starkly lacking in his relationship with his father and brother. He was different, hadn’t that been instilled in him over the years. Bigotry had scarred him in many ways; still he knew that not all people felt that way; he wasn’t a dirty half breed in his father or brother’s eyes! But that’s what he was too many. He didn’t want to be a cause of shame to his father but being a half breed or a gun hawk wasn’t something the old man could brag about and put the two facts together and all it added up to was a big fat nothing. Perhaps he’d been too confident this morning, giving in to his wants and dreams, letting go of reality and closing his eyes to the ugly truths that surrounded him.
“Johnny!” Scott called his brother’s name for the second time leaning over to playfully slap his brother out of his reverie.
The sad distant look in Johnny’s eyes didn’t escape his notice but Scott was at a loss as to how to tackle his brother’s sudden turn in mood; instead he ploughed on with the question he’d been intending to ask. “How long have you had the chestnut?”
“Two years.” Johnny responded meeting the curious eyes. “I stole him!” The words escaped his mouth before he could stop them, his confession shocking himself but not, it seemed, his brother.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures!” Scott replied calmly, trying to hide his utter surprise at his brother’s open admission,
“Yeah!” He had been desperate; he’d needed the gelding a damn sight more than the owner had that night as he’d run from the scene of his first kill. Scott was looking at him as if expecting further explanation of his actions but he wasn’t ready to share that night with him yet, he probably never would be.
Scott watched his brother turn away, knowing the conversation was over as quickly as it had begun, but there had been something in Johnny’s eyes, something that troubled him deeply. He’d have to bring the subject up again but not now, now they were riding into town and Mr Baldomero’s store was just up ahead.
“Welcome, welcome!” The store keeper’s hands encircled Johnny’s, pumping it up and down with unbridled excitement, bombarding his ears with a constant barrage of words that expressed the sincerest of heartfelt greetings.
Murdoch smiled as a bewildered Johnny responded politely, the color rising in the boy’s cheeks at the unexpected warmth bestowed on him. Finally Murdoch decided he’d better rescue his younger son from the zealous clamor. Stepping to stand beside the two men he commanded Raul Baldomero’s attention by asking him if he had anything in Johnny’s size. Immediately the storekeeper snapped back into his role of provider, taking a step back to cast an expert eye over the young man before him.
“Si Senor.” Beckoning the three Lancers’ to follow; Mr Baldomero hurried to the back of the store.
Johnny studied the selection of garments the storekeeper had patiently laid out on the counter for him to inspect, his blue eyes soon straying and finally settling on one back corner of the store.
”Not to your taste Senor Johnny?”
Before Johnny could reply Raul Baldomero had turned around in search of what ever had caught the young Lancer’s eye. “Perhaps you would like a closer look?”
Murdoch and Scott exchanged a bemused glance as Johnny was shown several embroidered and patterned shirts, along with several pairs of studded pants. The younger man having made his choice turned to his father seemingly for his agreement. Taken aback by his son’s flamboyant taste Murdoch needed a dig in the ribs from his elder son before nodding his consent, it seemed his younger son had inherited his mother’s taste for bright eye catching apparel.
“He’ll be needing some work things Raul, boots, a winter coat oh and something for Church!”
“I won’t need anything for Church!” Johnny stated icily, so coldly in fact Murdoch decided to ignore the remark and tackle the matter later in private.
Twenty minutes later Johnny found himself laden with parcels, all neatly wrapped in brown paper and secured with string, the contents all belonging to him and all paid for by his father. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, a little resentful, guilty, indebted but mostly grateful.
“Thank you!” The words slipped uncomfortably off his tongue but he had meant them and he hoped his father understood that. A gentle slap on his back told him he had.
Taking his timepiece out of his jacket pocket, Murdoch motioned to the door, thanking the storekeeper as he herded his sons out onto the street; there was just enough time for lunch before the stage arrived.
Lunch proved to be a pleasant affair, the dining room in the hotel was warm and friendly, unlike the atmosphere of the saloons Johnny was accustomed to eating in. As was his habit, he had stepped in the dining room door, slid to the right, back to the wall and took a cursory glance around. The occupants of the eatery consisted of a couple with a young child and an elderly gentlemen. Satisfied with his examination Johnny relaxed and followed his family to a table in a cozy corner.
With dismay Scott observed his brother’s cautious entrance into the dining room. What kind of life made a man, a mere boy at that, so suspicious, as if he expected a bullet to come from every nook and cranny? The more time Scott spent with Johnny, the more the presence of Madrid troubled him, though in all fairness he realized Madrid was owed a debt of gratitude. Without Madrid’s well honed instincts, his brother could have been a name on a headstone long ago. They might never have found him alive, albeit in a jail cell. Scott made another mental note to have that talk with Johnny.
Johnny ate his meal with the same enthusiasm as he always did. An outsider would never have known from a casual look that the young man was painfully aware of his surroundings, senses on full alert, every nerve tingling in anticipation. Johnny appeared calm, collected, bored even, his demeanour deceptive and misleading. He ate with studied concentration, or so it seemed. Yet Scott was becoming more and more attuned to the many facets of his sibling’s personality. He had not seen anything to rile the boy yet he could not deny that beneath his brother’s calm exterior, a storm of activity was raging.
“Did you get enough to eat, boys?” Murdoch questioned.
“Yes, sir could not eat another bite. It was delicious.” this from Scott as he wiped his mouth with a linen napkin.
“Yeah, I mean, yes, sir. Thanks.” Johnny followed the example of his brother and wiped his mouth, fighting the urge to use his shirt sleeve. Linen napkins indeed!
Outside, the raucous yells of a teamster, the thundering of hoof beats announced the approach of the 3:o’clock stage. With a grin, Murdoch checked his pocket watch, sighed and rose from his chair.
“Well, stage is right on time, 3:20. Let’s go meet Paul and Teresa.”
Johnny lagged behind his father and brother, the fast approaching meeting leaving him feeling nervous and out of place. A stout grey haired middle aged gentleman was first to alight from the stage, he turned, hand outstretched to assist a young lady down from the coach. Johnny’s eyes widened appreciatively, a grin spreading across his face when her pale cheeks flushed with color under his scrutiny. The grin faded when Johnny realized the vision of loveliness wasn’t the young lady he was waiting to meet. He sighed as he watched the couple make their way into the hotel, eyes slowly turning to the tall, dark haired man his father was now talking to.
“Paul! Good to see you! How was the trip?”
”Good! Good. How’s things here?” The two men shook hands, talking over each other in their haste to greet one another.
“Teresa! You’ve grown!” Scott hugged a petite form, the giggling figure suddenly claiming all Johnny’s attention despite his name being exchanged several times excitedly by his father and Paul. His father’s arm settled around his shoulders guiding him forward to stand directly in front of the older man.
“Johnny, I would like you to meet my foreman and very good friend, Paul O’Brien and his daughter, Teresa.”
A kid! She’s just a kid! Oh this is just great! Somehow, Johnny thought, life had just become even more complicated! He looked away from the huge inquisitive brown eyes up into the beaming face of Paul O’Brien.
“Sir.” Johnny found his outstretched hand ignored as he was pulled into a fierce hug, the intensity of the embrace driving the air from his lungs.
“Johnny! Thank the good Lord!” Released from the embrace Johnny now found himself held firmly by the shoulders whilst Paul stood looking him up and down with obvious joy “He’s the image of his mother Murdo!”
“Yes he is!” Murdoch replied quietly, knowing only too well that every time he looked at his younger son he saw the woman he’d loved so very much once.
Johnny squirmed, all attention seemed centered on him, it didn’t help when the set of brown eyes flashed happily in greeting “Hello Johnny!”
“Teresa!” He responded quietly, stunned when the brunette stepped forward to plant a kiss on his cheek, he felt the color rush to his face and glared back at the girl, the menacing look serving only to bring a mischievous smile to her lips.
The exchange didn’t go unnoticed by Scott who instantly diverted everyone’s attention by reaching for the O’Brien’s luggage and instructing his brother to help him load them into the waiting buggy.
Spurs jangled rhythmically as the tall, lean frame made his way to the bar. “Whisky”
The barkeep hurried to fill a glass, something in the stranger’s demeanor telling him not to keep this particular patron waiting.
“Anything else senor?” Diego asked setting the glass and the bottle before the stranger, nervously meeting the icy stare.
“I’m looking for someone, heard he was in these parts! Goes by the name of Madrid!”
The trip home proved uneventful much to Johnny’s relief. He rode alongside his brother in silence, his mind racing, emotions in turmoil. As soon as he felt he was making progress in his relationships with his father and brother fate, it would seem, conspired once more against him. Johnny felt he had always lived his life at the mercy of fate, she was a demanding mistress to be sure, but he had more than paid his dues, had his share of trials and tests. Why couldn’t just one thing go right in his young, harried life? Enough Madrid, that’s enough. Since when do you entertain such self pity? Johnny chided himself for his lack of vision. Perhaps, the O’Brien’s would be a source of inspiration, not a hindrance. Perhaps they could show him a way to peace with Murdoch; it was obvious they were as dear to the old man as family.
“Johnny, Johnny, are you ignoring me? I am talking to you Johnny” The shrill voice of Teresa broke through his brooding meditation and jerked him painfully back to the present. Her voice did grate on his nerves; he didn’t relish the idea of spending a lot of time with the child. Yes, that’s exactly what she was, a child! He had seen the way younger siblings could irritate their older brothers and sisters, he had even seen one such sibling come within an inch of death when he had pushed his brother too far.
“What Teresa? What did you say?” He replied in a monotone voice. It was with an effort that Johnny maintained his grip on his temper; he wasn’t about to baby sit the girl that was for sure.
Scott recognized the tone; it generally preceded an appearance by Madrid. He wondered what it was about Teresa’s presence that was causing Johnny’s mood. It was obvious, at least to him, that Teresa was an irritant. Why she would be was another mystery. He’d known Teresa all her life and loved her dearly; she was sweet natured, deeply caring and openly affectionate as she’d demonstrated to Johnny earlier! Perhaps Miss O’Brien was a little strong willed but that wasn’t such a bad thing in his opinion. Teresa was also wise beyond her years, he knew she would have no problem accepting Johnny into her life and it troubled him a little to see his brother apparently having trouble getting along with someone he himself regarded as a sister. It certainly was a puzzle and Scott tugged his hat lower on his head, intently observing his brother, seeking a clue, any clue.
“I asked you if you would take me riding. Uncle Murdoch said you were great with horses.” Teresa’s enthusiasm was undeniable, her excitement contagious to all but Johnny. She pinned Johnny with an adoring stare, he felt much like a bug would feel when trapped in a glass jar.
With a barely concealed chuckle at his brother’s discomfort, Scott choked back his laughter. This was going to be interesting, very interesting indeed and Scott found himself looking forward to his brother’s torture; he was certain Johnny would find it torturous alright.
Johnny shrugged his shoulders, settled deeper in his saddle. “I don’t know Teresa, We’ll see.”
Teresa’s objection was cut short by a loud guffaw from Murdoch as he heartily enjoyed some private joke with Paul. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief and quietly thanked fate for the unexpected reprieve.
The white arches that overlooked the entrance to the Hacienda stood tall and proud, glowing in the afternoon sun, welcoming and regal. The small party passed underneath and proceeded to the side entrance of the great home. Out of nowhere Jesse appeared, offering assistance with the buggy and team. He shook hands with Paul and greeted Teresa and the Lancers. Again Johnny was aware of the sense of camaraderie between the O’Brien’s and the Lancers, again a pang tore through his heart. Even though Johnny knew he belonged at Lancer, wanted to believe it, he had no history with the family, no shared memories, no private jokes or stories. The old familiar feelings of loneliness assailed Johnny once more; the urge to run overwhelmed him.
“Come inside Paul. We have time to wash up and have a drink before supper. I am quite sure Maria is preparing quite a feast for your homecoming.” Slaps on the back were exchanged, then arms around each other’s shoulders the pair entered the home.
Murdoch paused in the doorway, peered over his shoulder. “You coming in boys?”
“You too Teresa. You need to clean up and say hi to Maria.” Paul motioned to the girl to follow.
“Aw Pa, do I have to? I want to help Johnny with the horses. Please!” Teresa looked at Johnny, begging for help but Johnny was more than relieved when her father insisted she do his bidding. With a stomp of her small foot she followed the two men inside, pausing only long enough to shoot a withering glare at Johnny, her feelings of betrayal obvious.
“That went well, wouldn’t you say? You sure made an impression on Teresa. I think she likes you.” Scott’s laughter was met by stony silence. Fixing Scott with a glare of his own, Johnny Madrid turned and headed for the barn, leaving in his wake a decidedly unsettled Scott Lancer.
Johnny led the chestnut into his stall, stripped off the saddle and bridle and began the task of seeing to the gelding’s needs. “Yeah, that’s a good boy.” He whispered, “You like that, don’t ya.” The gelding whinnied softly, pushing his head against Johnny’s chest, then turned his attention to the fresh hay before him, and thoroughly enjoying the feel of the brush as his owner stroked his back.
“You ok, Johnny? Something on your mind?” Jesse found himself looking once more down the barrel of Johnny’s gun, the first time it had happened suddenly replaying vividly through his mind. “Easy, son. I didn’t mean to startle you. Put it away, ok?” Jesse held his breath, waiting as recognition flashed through the boy’s eyes. As Johnny slowly re-holstered the weapon, Jesse released the pent up air with a snort.
“Remind me never to sneak up on you again. I mean, hot damn, I didn’t even see you pull the thing. It was not there and then it was. You are the suddenness thing I ever did see” As if aware it sounded like ranting Jesse closed his mouth. All during his tirade, Johnny had not made a sound or a move; he eyed the hand before him, his expression hard and cold.
“Don’t make a habit of that. I could have shot you.”
“I know, son. Won’t happen again.” Johnny’s demeanour softened noticeably, the previous intensity all but disappearing. He bent to pick up the brush from where it had fallen when he had exchanged it for his gun.
“You ok tonight, Johnny? I mean you seem tenser than you have in days.”
“Yeah, I just, well, it’s just, you know, Teresa. I think she likes me.”
Jesse snorted and grinned. “What’s wrong with that? You are quite a kid. Uh, man. “Jesse hastily corrected, his grin spreading. Johnny couldn’t help grin back. Something about this man made him feel safe, like he could talk about anything without judgement.
“I think I am going to check on the stallion before dinner.” Almost without thought Johnny asked, “Want to come?”
“A gunfighter!” Paul’s shock reverberated around the room. The need for some steadying influence was quickly met by downing a glass of Murdoch’s best malt. The empty glass was quickly replenished as he tried to make sense of his old friend’s piece of news. He’d known Murdo was guarding something where his younger son was concerned, but still he couldn’t believe the enormity of the revelation. As Teresa had left the room Murdoch had hurriedly and quietly filled him in on the circumstances surrounding the boy. Murdoch’s pain and anger had burned bright in the emotion filled eyes and Paul knew he’d been longing to confide in someone other than Scott. As wise and mature as the elder Lancer son was, he couldn’t offer the unbiased ear, shoulder or opinion Murdoch needed where the boy was concerned. As he gathered in his thoughts and collected himself he knew he was the one person who could and would fit that bill.
In a parent’s eyes Johnny was still barely more than a child and it grieved him deeply to hear the tale Murdoch told about the boy’s last thirteen years. An excellent judge of character Paul, after the initial shock, realized he had no qualms about Madrid, seeing the persona as something that had kept the boy alive until providence had brought him home. He didn’t fear Johnny Madrid but he did have grave concerns about his friend’s view of Madrid. Madrid wasn’t going to simply disappear and that foretold of great difficulties ahead for this family. Paul would do the utmost to steady the boat that would undoubtedly sail through some very stormy seas. It was going to be no easy fight but it was one he knew none of them had any intentions of losing. The past had to be aired and faced, but it was Johnny’s future that mattered now and he swore a silent oath to do everything in his power to help ease the boy back into the life that was rightly his and support his father and brother through the battles that would rage. As he offered heartfelt words of support to the taller man he then raised his glass to emphasis his commitment “To Johnny!”
But before Murdoch could make the toast a rap on the door heralded the presence of an excited ranch hand.
“Mr Lancer! You not gonna want to miss this!”
Johnny could have sworn the stallion had known he was coming. He stood at the corral fence, head over the top rail, intently eyeing the direction from which Johnny would approach. As the young man drew near, the stallion reared, pawing the air in frustration. Coming back down to earth, the golden giant shook his head, with a stomp of his hoof he backed away from the fence, turning his back on the two men.
Johnny slipped between the rails, eyes firmly fixed on the horse. Everything faded away; there was no sound, no corral, no one around, just Johnny and his horse. He forgot all else save himself and Barranca, unknowingly he had named the stallion and in spite of the fact Murdoch had said he was to be sold Johnny had begun to think of Barranca as his own. Somehow he would be, Johnny silently vowed. But for now, he pushed all thoughts out of his mind. What he was about to do would require all his attention, all his energy. For the first time Johnny walked toward the stallion, hands at his sides. As he drew near, he moved to the left side of the animal which now stood trembling, ears flicking back and forth in an effort to catch his words.
As was his custom, Johnny had started a sing song of soft whispers and gestures, his hands reached out and touched the flanks of the stallion. He stroked the golden body and moved slowly toward the stallion’s head. When his hands made contact with the soft velvety muzzle, he gently blew into Barranca’s nostrils. Barranca snorted but did not turn away; instead he pushed his muzzle harder into the young man’s hand. Johnny moved his hands upward along the side of the stallion’s head, firmly held the horse’s cheeks between both hands and stared deep into the liquid brown eyes. The stallion held his gaze, understanding passing between them. Unlike their previous encounters Johnny did not release the stallion; he willed the palomino to submit to his authority, and instead he lowered his hands, and turned his back. Slowly, deliberately Johnny walked away from the horse, ears straining to hear the motion, if any, behind him. Tentatively Barranca took a step, then another, and yet another till he was following the gunfighter around the corral, his breath hot on the back of Johnny’s neck.
As he watched the interaction between Johnny and the palomino Jesse could only stare in awe, he had heard of horse whisperers, knew their reputation but had never seen one actually gentle a wild horse. He knew what he was witnessing was something few men would live to see. In a few short sessions with the stallion; Johnny had seemingly gentled the palomino with no effort. But there remained one test, Jesse felt his heart pounding with sheer anticipation, Johnny had yet to mount the golden giant. So far it was a task in which no man had been able to succeed. The foreman was aware that Scott, Murdoch and the O’Brien’s had joined him at the corral, a number of the other men following close on their heels, all sensing something special was going to happen. With a nod of acknowledgement, he greeted them without looking at them, his attention fixed on the two occupants in the corral.
“What’s he gonna do?” Teresa asked, oblivious to the tension in the air. Paul quickly shushed her, his look insisting on her silence. Teresa shrugged off the unspoken reprimand but did his bidding, her attention drawn once more to Johnny Madrid Lancer and the palomino.
Johnny nodded at Jesse, the movement barely perceptible. At the prearranged signal Jesse carefully entered the corral, a bridle and saddle held between nervous hands. He gingerly placed the objects Johnny had requested on the ground in the center of the corral and returned to his position outside with the other spectators.
Johnny continued his slow walk around the corral, each circle bringing him closer to the tack Jesse had provided. He waited patiently for the palomino to discover the foreign objects and stepped aside, the saddle and bridle now between him and the horse. Barranca stared calmly at the strange objects, lowered his head, sniffing at each. With amazing deliberation, Johnny picked up the bridle and approached the stallion. Again he stroked the stallion’s soft muzzle, his whispers never ceasing.
The crowd around the corral tensed, all eyes wide in amazement as Johnny bridled, then saddled the golden stallion. It was as if the horse was entranced by the youngest Lancer, he stood docile, accepting Johnny’s handling and the strange tack. Johnny stepped to the left side of Barranca, cautiously placed his foot in the stirrup, then mounted. He settled deep in the saddle and waited. Barranca turned his head, looking at the human who now sat where no man had ever successfully stayed.
Johnny’s pulse raced, he had never sat astride as magnificent an animal. His attention was caught by the feel of hard muscles gathering between his knees. Like a spring that has been wound too tight, the giant golden stallion exploded.
Johnny felt as if he had been caught in the eruption of a volcano, his world tilted and spun as the stallion dropped his head and threw his all into the effort of ridding himself of the boy now tenaciously holding on for all he was worth. Johnny sat still, his concentration fierce and determined. He had known all along the stallion was more powerful than any horse he had broken in his short life, but the ferocity of the palomino was even more than he had expected. The battle was being fought with everything the two combatants possessed, skill, strength, sheer determination and will, each unwilling to concede defeat. No mercy was asked of the other and none was given. Johnny did not feel the blood trickle from his nose to his lip, he had long since lost the ability to think, he was only aware of the straining animal beneath him, and the consequences should the stallion succeed in unseating him,
The small crowd pressed against the rails watching the spectacle playing out in the center of the corral had seen the stallion gather himself, they had known what was coming, yet they could not contain the shouts which welled up and burst forth. The struggle in the corral was one each knew he would never forget, the determination of the mighty stallion and the quiet yet equally determined boy seemingly glued to his back. None that had ever mounted the palomino had been able to remain on as long. They had all ended up flat on their backs in the first couple of seconds, yet the boy had become a part of the thrashing stallion. It was as if the two had melded into one being, and each somehow knew that the outcome was inevitable.
Murdoch watched in silence, pride swelled his heart to the point where he felt it would burst. Any doubts he had felt about the stallion and his youngest son disappeared as he watched the battle before him. Johnny had never made demands on the golden horse, he had asked and the stallion had cooperated, if not submitted. Murdoch knew that like the stallion, Johnny could not be broken, would not be broken, yet he was sure he could ask anything of the young man. Scott had been right, he could learn a lot about his boy by observing the interaction of Johnny with the stallion, and he had learned a lot. Murdoch felt a strange sense of optimism for the first time in days; he would be able to make things work with his son. Scott was right, they would be a family. Suddenly Murdoch joined the screaming crowd as the fight in the center of the corral came to an unexpected end.
Johnny felt the tension leave the animal between his legs, the will to fight dissipating, and as suddenly as it had begun the war was over. The stallion came to an abrupt halt, flanks heaving; head held high, he turned his head, eyes meeting the eyes of the young man who still sat astride him. Johnny imagined the stallion nodded, the agreement sealed. With a gentle squeeze of his legs, Johnny asked the stallion to walk, he knew he could ask anything, demand nothing.
The animal was as intelligent as he was beautiful, in seconds Johnny asked that he stop, turn, back up, the stallion responded. Johnny brought the stallion to a stop in the center of the corral, gingerly dismounted. His legs felt like rubber, blood ran from his nose and his stomach lurched rebelliously. Yet he remained at the stallion’s side, his hand reached under the heavy mane and rubbed gently. Barranca stood, expectant, at ease, and without hesitation accepted the comfort of the young man he had chosen. Johnny slowly removed the saddle and bridle, and took a step away from the stallion; they had chosen each other, the agreement now a matter of fact. The palomino lowered his head, pushed against Johnny’s chest; there they remained, till their breathing gradually slowed. Finally the youngest Lancer raised his hand, waved Barranca off, the stallion walked to the far end of the corral.
On legs that felt like lead weights, Johnny walked stiffly to the corral fence, climbed through the rails.
“Johnny that was incredible!” Scott embraced his younger brother, aware that Johnny did not resist, instead seemed to accept the hug. “I have never seen anything like it.”
“Thanks, Scott.” Johnny whispered softly. He turned to find Murdoch at his side, “I am so proud of you son.” Murdoch’s eyes glistened, he held out his arms and throwing caution to the wind pulled his younger son into an embrace too. He’d half expected to be pushed away and Johnny had tensed briefly but as that moment passed Murdoch realized his son, although uncomfortable with the physical contact, didn’t reject it, they were certainly making progress.
“Well done John.” Murdoch enthused warmly before reluctantly releasing his hold on his son. The blood spattered shirt caught his eye and he gently gripped the boy’s chin, guiding it upwards to study the bloody nose.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah!” Johnny lied, his father’s words, the embrace and open concern all proving just a little too much, he was suddenly swamped by emotions with no means of escape.
“Let’s get you cleaned up!” Murdoch motioned to the hacienda before throwing one long arm around his son’s shoulders and guiding him through the gathered crowd. Johnny managed to smile at the seemingly endless words of praise that assailed his ears but he didn’t like the attention and was relieved to reach the house where his father ushered him up to his room
As Murdoch gently wiped the blood away from his son’s face, Johnny worked up the courage to ask him about Barranca.
“You got a buyer huh?”
Murdoch pondered his reply “Well, we have someone who wants him.”
“He ain’t ready for some stranger to ride.” Johnny protested.
“No but you can work with him until he is?”
“Yeah sure.” Johnny snapped, he was angry but not with his father. He was almost certain that if he asked the older man he would give him the palomino, but a small measure of doubt held him back and he cursed his lack of faith.
“Well?” Scott asked as Murdoch entered the great room alone.
“He’s fine, a little annoyed at me for selling the palomino but he’ll get over that!” Murdoch chuckled.
Scott grinned “I’m sure he will!”
“That boy has quite a gift Murdo, he needs encouraging in that direction.”
Murdoch turned to face his friend “Yes and that’s where you come in Paul. I want something that will hold his interest, something he can feel a part of, want to be part of. You and Scott deal with the horse side of things. Would you be willing to take him under your wing?”
“After what I’ve seen today I’m more than willing but you’re forgetting something here Murdo!”
“Johnny has to want to be part of it. Have you asked him?”
“No. No I haven’t but I will. If I’ve learned anything about that boy it’s that he doesn’t like being told what to do!”
“He sounds like someone else I know!” Paul laughed
For the third morning on the trot Johnny found he had an unwanted audience. As he put Barranca through his paces he felt the brown eyes following him once more around the corral. He’d done nothing to encourage the girl; in fact he’d been as offhand as was possible without being outright rude! Teresa just didn’t seem to understand that he didn’t want her following him about, hell, why would she want to anyway? Females they were a mystery to him!
The now jean clad Teresa stood looking through the rails, eyes locked on him. At least he supposed they were on him, the object of their interest could very well be the palomino he was riding! Glancing quickly in the girl’s direction he realized his first assumption was the right one as Teresa flashed him a big smile.
Johnny ignored the quiet voice pretending he hadn’t heard it, and out of the corner of his eye noted the approach of Teresa’s father, his father and brother. They were checking up on him again, seeing how well the stallion was progressing, the buyer must be getting impatient.
I would be too Johnny thought.
The three men stood engrossed in conversation, every now and again one would look in Johnny’s direction. They seemed pleased with what they saw and Johnny had to admit to liking the fact he’d done something they seemed to respect him for,
“Johnny! Come here son will you. There’s something we want to discuss with you.”
Johnny jumped down off Barranca, patting the palomino’s neck before strolling casually over to rails, climbing through them to join the three men.
Johnny waited, wondering just what it was that was so important.
“John, you know Paul and Scott are building up a horse breeding program don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Johnny responded, his attention momentarily distracted by Teresa who was now running around the corral to join them.
“Well it’s still in its infancy; they need the entire backup they can get. How do you feel about helping them?”
The idea immediately appealed to Johnny, although he wasn’t quite sure what would be expected of him. All eyes were now centred on him, all eyes that were except for Teresa’s. Something about her posture troubled Johnny; she looked scared, her eyes locked on something he couldn’t see. The silence was suddenly deafening and all three men turned to see what Johnny was looking at so intently. Eyes widened in horror at the snake that stood between them and a terrified twelve year old girl. All three men filled with the terrible sense of hopelessness as the snake slithered even closer to Teresa.
Teresa had frozen in her tracks and stood motionless, fear rooting her small feet where she had stopped. As one the men standing outside the corral, drew a collective sharp breath. They knew to get to the young girl they would have to cross the path where the snake now lay coiled. The snake was now issuing its warning, head up, tongue darting in and out. Any movement would most certainly cause the snake to strike.
“Teresa, don’t move!” Paul commanded, “Be absolutely still.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Scott saw Johnny take a step away from the small group, fingers on his right hand flexing. He appeared relaxed, even bored but it was his eyes that caught Scott’s attention. They had grown cold, the chill in Johnny Madrid’s face enough to send icy fingers up and down Scott’s back. Scott took little comfort in knowing he had been right about what triggered the appearance of Madrid.
Scott’s fixed stare drew the looks of Murdoch and Paul. They followed his eyes to where Madrid was standing. With a speed they did not know any man could possess, Madrid sprang into action. Suddenly the odd looking colt was in Johnny’s hand, he levelled the weapon and fired, the report deafening, smoke from the weapon curling around his fingers. As suddenly as he had drawn and fired, Johnny stood straight and re-holstered his gun. He took a deep breath, noticed the stares of the men watching him.
As if entranced Murdoch, Scott and Paul looked at the snake, its head had been cleanly shot off. With a squeal of relief and gratitude Teresa ran toward the group of men. Paul O’Brien opened his arms to receive the girl but she ran past him, threw herself in the arms of an obviously stunned Johnny.
“You saved me, Johnny. You did, you saved me!” Johnny looked askance at the men around him, his arms loosely wrapped around the young girl, who now stood trembling, sobs wracking her small frame as shock set in.
From a distance Scott called out, “That was some mighty fancy shooting, brother. I saw you draw and fire but if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I never would have believed it.”
“It was nothing,” Johnny whispered softly. “He bowed his head, a tinge of pink coloring his cheeks. Gently he removed the girl’s arms from around his waist, handed her to her father. “It’s ok now, Teresa.” he soothed as her father folded her into his arms.
Boyd Clements was good at playing the waiting game, and that’s what his sojourn to Morro Coyo had become, a waiting game. Having gleaned the information he wanted, he’d settled into the background biding his time knowing for certain that the time would come soon enough.
Rumours had brought him to the quiet town and with a bit of persuading he’d loosened a few reluctant tongues, those same tongues now tied under threat of death. He didn’t want anyone warning Madrid of his presence, he wanted that pleasure all for himself.
The Lancer’s were due back in town tomorrow, and he would be ready. Finding out that Johnny Madrid was just fifteen had surprised him a little, he’d known he was young but the kid was barely out of diapers! Still he had a reputation that befitted a man and Boyd wanted to be the one to take it from him.
A smile slipped across his pock marked face but it never reached the emotionless brown eyes. Laying his cards down on the table he thanked Lady Luck; that was his third winning hand in a row. He was a good poker player, one of the best but there was something else he was even more skilled at. Killing and he was on a roll there too, five men in the last couple of months. He’d make sure Madrid followed them all to hell.
“Do you have any idea who the buyer is?” Johnny waited for Jess to reply but the ranch hand seemed to be in no hurry to answer his question, and when he did it was in a manner that could only be described as an indecipherable mumble. Johnny took it as a no. Funny! Johnny thought. No one seemed to know. He sighed and traipsed miserably over to the barn, not even the thought of missing an afternoon of arithmetic could rid him of the sadness that enveloped him whenever he thought about losing the palomino.
Unbidden his thoughts returned to the night before. Dinner had been a lively affair. Murdoch, Paul and Scott had alternately congratulated him for a ‘mighty fine piece of shooting’ and teased him for his embarrassment over Teresa’s doting. Her adoration for Johnny had blown up into nothing less than hero worship. In her eyes Johnny could do no wrong. Johnny squirmed uncomfortably under the adoring eyes of the girl and the cheerful scrutiny of the men seated around him. He had waited with less than his usual patience for the chance to gracefully flee the gathering at the dinner table. Fate had once more granted him her favor when Murdoch had casually mentioned to Paul that the palomino’s new owner would be claiming the stallion in the next couple of days.
“He’s not ready yet. He’s still too wild to be handled!” Johnny had exploded and stalked out of the dining room, his angry footsteps clearly heard as he returned to his room.
Johnny’s brooding was interrupted by the sound of Scott’s voice.
“You ready Johnny?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be!” Johnny snapped back at his brother, throwing himself up onto the chestnut gelding.
The two elder Lancers watched the young man ride off. He was obviously in no mood for company.
“Just a few more days!” Murdoch smiled weakly. He knew what was eating at his younger son and it was proving very difficult to keep up a charade they’d hoped would enable them to spring a surprise on Johnny.
“A long few days.” Scott replied ruefully.
From where he was standing in the heat of the noon day sun, the saloon looked mighty inviting and Johnny wrestled with the idea of paying the place a visit, though he knew a glass or two of what lured him would only serve to anger his father. Maybe he could slip out one night. One night soon. That Johnny boy is one of your better ideas.
“John. Is there anything you want?” Murdoch asked as he loaded some supplies into the back of the wagon.
“A drink! But I don’t suppose you’ll let me have one!” Johnny spat.
Murdoch had to fight off a grin. “How about a sarsaparilla? Here.” Murdoch reached deep into his jacket pocket and handed his younger son a fifty cent piece. “Go get yourself one. We’ll meet you back here in ten minutes or so.”
Johnny watched his father and brother cross the street and disappear into a doorway up the street. He tossed the coin into the air. Heads tequila. Tails sarsaparilla. Johnny’s eyes widened in expectation then narrowed in disappointment, his spirits sinking further still. Sarsaparilla it is then. The youngest Lancer stomped back into the general store unaware he was being watched by two sets of eyes.
Clements had patiently waited for the Lancers to split up. He watched the two older Lancers enter the office of James Mitchell, Attorney at Law. He was not concerned about the two older men but he didn’t want anyone interfering with his plans. He was pushing away from the post he was leaning on, when he noticed another man heading toward the general store. Clements’ practiced eye recognized William Dancer.
The young man was a gun hawk, a pretty good one at that. He had spent his time establishing quite a reputation along the border in the wake of Johnny Madrid’s departure. It was not surprising that Dancer had pursued Madrid here to Morro Coyo. Clements nodded knowingly, any good gunman would go for the man at the top, that man was Madrid. Only a fool would allow himself to measure Madrid by his years. Johnny Madrid was a mere boy by some people’s definition but many men had been felled by his lightening reflexes for making the mistake of underestimating his talent. The boy handled a gun better than any man west of the Mississippi.
Makes perfect sense for Dancer to come here after that reputation. Hell, I have done the same thing. Clements grinned and resumed his vigil at the post. He had a ring side seat for the coming show and was determined to make careful notes. It would serve to give him the advantage when his opportunity presented itself. He knew his chance would come, and soon.
Clements had no doubt that Madrid would prevail. Dancer was good but he was emotional. In this business there was no room for emotions. A gunfighter had to have nerves of steel, and remain calm even in the midst of chaos. While Madrid was a mere youngster, he was the best; his cool demeanor was as legendary as his prowess with the colt. Yes sir, this was gonna be good.
Johnny returned to the wagon. The sarsaparilla had not quenched his thirst and had only served to further frustrate him. He wanted a drink, a proper drink; he just wasn’t sure why he wanted it. Was it to rile his father? Johnny felt sure the answer to that was yes. So was he beginning to resent the rigid boundaries he’d been set? Was it the constant pressure he felt trying to live up to the Lancer name? Or was it simply that the Old Man was giving away something he wanted for himself, something he felt he’d earned and something he believed his father should want to give to him? Truth be told he was simply disappointed in the older man and he was angry at himself for feeling that way. Lost in thought it took a second or two to register the shadow that suddenly settled across him.
While Johnny did not recognize the voice, he did recognize the challenge it carried. He took a cleansing breath, summoned his alter ego, then turned to face his opponent.
James Mitchell was a plump, balding man in his late 50s. He had assisted Murdoch Lancer in his quest to locate his missing son and he had been the family’s attorney since before Scott was born. Scott knew his father and James Mitchell had been friends for years. Mitchell had even been Murdoch’s best man at his wedding to Scott’s mother.
The documents the Lancers had just signed had been prepared long ago and stored in Mitchell’s safe for just such a day as this. James Mitchell had whole heartedly supported their efforts to locate Johnny and had joined them in praying for Johnny’s speedy home coming. Now at long last Murdoch and Scott knew their plans would finally become a reality. Today the necessary transaction had been handled smoothly and quickly. The three men exchanged satisfied, joyful smiles. Nothing could mar their happiness today, or so they thought.
From outside the office came the sounds of running feet, a crowd gathering, followed by silence that was deafening and ominous. With a grimace Murdoch led the way to the door of the law office, his thoughts immediately on his youngest son. “Johnny!” he groaned.
On the sidewalk outside Mitchell’s office, the two Lancers pushed their way through the milling crowd, then froze, eyes riveted to the scene being played out up the street. Murdoch’s heart leapt into his throat, a sickening ache spread through his chest and for the longest time he couldn’t breathe as fear tightened its grip around his entire being. He heard his elder son whisper his younger son’s name, the horror present in Scott’s voice deepening his own sense of dread.
Across the street the two gunfighters now faced each other, the fair haired man’s hand hovered inches from his gun whilst Johnny’s remained tucked inside his pocket.
Neither of the two older Lancers wanted to believe their eyes. Before them stood the boy they had only just recently found, the son and brother they’d battled to reclaim as their own. The boy and he was a boy in their eyes, minds and hearts, stood facing a man, a man whose intentions were clear. The stranger wanted to take Johnny’s life, his reputation and unknowingly steal from Murdoch and Scott something so very precious. The Lancers stood together side by side, drawing from each other the strength needed to stand their ground, not daring to move, to breathe, to utter the barest of pleas, terrified that the slightest distraction would end their boy’s life. Yet it wasn’t a boy that faced the stranger, Murdoch could see that clearly now. A poised, confident air surrounded his younger son, and it was the stranger who seemed nervous, unsure and decidedly twitchy.
“I don’t know, John, seems like you could just walk away. You don’t have to agree to a gun fight.”
Murdoch’s words resounded unbidden in Johnny’s mind, filtering through the mechanisms designed to block reason and doubt. The man himself stood just yards away and Johnny realized he didn’t want his father or brother to see Madrid in action.
Could it really be that simple? Was his father right? Could he just walk away? He didn’t know the answer to that question, not anymore, not for sure but he did know he didn’t want to disappoint his family. He didn’t want to hurt them and God knows he didn’t want to lose them. He felt their eyes on his back, knew they were silently pleading. Despite every one of his nerve endings raging at him that it was wrong, a terrible mistake, he decided it was something he had to do.
“I’m not part of the game anymore.” Johnny drawled softly.
“Ya are longs that rig is strapped round your belly.” Dancer taunted, seeking a crack in Madrid’s facade. He had heard of the iciness of Johnny Madrid and had thought the reputation to be just that. But facing the gunfighter and seeing for himself how cool Madrid really was, put him on edge. It was impossible to know what Madrid was thinking or feeling. Now that the crown he had sought for so long loomed just a few feet away, Dancer suddenly found he had no interest in attaining it. He realized just how much pursuing Johnny Madrid was going to cost him. While Madrid stood at once cool and detached, the aura of electricity which pulsed around him was enough to send icy fingers running up and down Dancer’s spine. William Dancer shivered uncontrollably, an action Madrid did not miss.
“I got no quarrel with you mister” Johnny turned towards the wagon.
William Dancer knew he had been dismissed. The snot nosed kid obviously didn’t think he was a worthy opponent and was turning his back. Rage surged through Dancer, all reason abandoned him as the more powerful emotion took control.
“How dare you turn your back? You can just go to hell!” he screamed, his hand clawing frantically for his gun.
Johnny heard the scream of his wannabe assassin, the sound of a Colt being drawn. He knew he had made a mistake, one that would cost him dearly. Johnny’s Colt appeared in his hand as if by magic, he turned, levelling the weapon and pulled the trigger. As the bullet left his own weapon, he felt a mighty fist strike his shoulder, the blow lifting him and throwing him backward. As darkness claimed him he heard the report of another gun firing, its shot blending with that of still another.
“Take a little more, come on son!” Murdoch encouraged, pressing the glass to his younger son’s lips.
Johnny drank obediently, his mouth so very dry. The glass empty he closed his eyes; the effects of the laudanum that had earlier been trickled down his throat lingering and overpowering him still. He’d protested, telling them he didn’t need the foul tasting stuff but the doctor had insisted, saying the bullet was in deep and he had no intentions of probing for that bullet until his patient was safely asleep. His father and brother had been adamant he obey the doctor. In pain and out numbered Johnny had finally submitted to their gentle bullying. He’d then drifted in and out of sleep, been made to drink a little water every time he opened his eyes. He’d been fussed over, worried over, the attention overwhelming and stifling at times yet not one of them had mentioned the shooting in town. They were hiding their disappointment in him well; Johnny felt certain Murdoch Lancer was biding his time, waiting for him to recover a little before he told him what he really thought about it all.
A hand clasped his, squeezing gently, reassuringly and he forced his eyes open meeting his father’s.
“Go on back to sleep John!”
“You should go to bed too.” Johnny knew the hour was late, guessed it to be sometime in the early hours. He knew his father hadn’t left his side since he’d been shot and even in the half light cast by the lamp set on the nightstand Johnny could see that the older man looked pale and tired. He needed to rest. “I don’t need a baby sitter!”
Murdoch smiled at him seemingly amused by his comment, his grip tightened on his hand and Johnny knew his father wasn’t going anywhere. When he opened his eyes again it was morning and his father was still sitting in the chair beside him.
“How do you feel?” Murdoch reached over, fingering the unruly bangs away from Johnny’s eyes, his hand resting briefly on his son’s forehead as he checked for any sign of fever.
“Fine.” He didn’t feel too bad in fact, that was until he decided to pull himself up into a sitting position. A blaze of red hot agony seared through his shoulder, groaning he closed his eyes, falling helplessly back against the pillows. The world spun alarmingly around him and he fought to hold onto consciousness, past experience telling Johnny it was blood loss that left him feeling so very weak.
Murdoch jumped quickly to his feet moving to sit beside Johnny on the bed, anxiously checking the bandages for any evidence of fresh bleeding “Take it slowly son; I don’t want you pulling those stitches out!”
Satisfied with the wound Murdoch studied his son’s pallid face. There would never be a good or a right time to discuss what had taken place in Morro Coyo but the Lancer patriarch knew the sooner he talked about it with Johnny the better. As the colour returned to his son’s cheeks and the blue eyes opened Murdoch decided there was no time like the present and he ploughed straight in.
“What happened, son?”
Unprepared for the question, Johnny immediately went on the defensive “You were there. You know what happened!” Johnny snapped back, holding the older man’s gaze with angry determination.
“You refused to draw, didn’t you? Because of what I said.” Murdoch coaxed, gently reaching for his son’s hand; he wrapped both his hands around the smaller one.
Johnny stared down at their entwined hands, unsure of what to say, scared of what his father would say in return.
Murdoch sighed. He already knew the truth, knew he alone was responsible for the decision his son had made, a decision that had almost cost him his life.
“I was wrong son and I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I shouldn’t have turned my back.” Johnny whispered, dark head bowed under the pressure of his father’s pleading stare. “I knew what Dancer was capable of.”
“You knew him?” Stunned, Murdoch pulled back as if he had been struck.
“I knew of him.” Johnny added quietly.
“You knew what you were facing and yet you wouldn’t draw?” Murdoch’s face mirrored the shock and horror which laced his words. “Why?”
“I wanted you to be proud of me. I wanted you to know I would leave that life behind me for good. I just, I…” Johnny’s words trailed off, he raised his head and faced his father’s incredulous gaze. In his eyes Murdoch saw the years of anguish, loneliness, despair which had marked the life of the boy lying in the bed.
“God, John, I AM proud of you. So very proud.” Murdoch could say no more. He wrapped his arms around the slim shoulders and hugged his boy tightly. Johnny never felt the pain in his shoulder, he was aware only of the love of his father and he nestled deeper into the broad chest. Johnny Madrid Lancer had finally found the place of peace he had been searching for his entire life.
The morning passed quickly, the hours frequented by a steady stream of visitors including Dr Sam Jenkins. “The wound looks nice and healthy, and as long as you do as you are told young man I can’t see any problems ahead!”
“Yes sir!” Johnny grinned sheepishly, knowing the words were intended as an order rather than simply advice.
There had been no time to talk again with his father or brother, never being left alone with either man for very long. Cipriano, Paul and Teresa had taken turns sitting with him, Teresa plying him with candy and sharing amusing tales of his brother. Johnny decided the girl wasn’t really that bad. Jess had called in, reassuring Johnny about the palomino, but his visit had been cut short by the concerned housekeeper, bound and determined as she was to get some nourishment into the youngest Lancer.
Maria had stood matronly over him, making sure he emptied the bowl of beef broth she’d made, sitting with him until he’d lost the battle with exhaustion and drifted into a healing sleep.
It was late afternoon when he awoke again, the sunlight spilling through the window falling across the figure of his father, once more seated beside him.
“Good because Scott and I have something we’d like to discuss with you.”
“Murdoch?” Johnny’s soft voice arrested Murdoch in his move toward the door, and brought him around to face his son. “Murdoch? Before I passed out I heard two other shots besides mine. What happened? Who was it?”
Murdoch sighed, ran his fingers through his hair. “You hit Dancer with your shot, probably the one that killed him. But Scott and I couldn’t stand by and watch him kill you so we fired too.”
“You killed a man for me?” Johnny seemed dazed, relief and gratitude were quickly replaced by another expression, one Murdoch couldn’t quite fathom. “You do care? I mean really, don’t you?”
“We love you, Johnny.” Scott answered Johnny’s question as he entered the room, appearing as if by some unknown prearranged signal. “Boy, you sure are hard headed. How many times do we have to tell you that we care? What’s it going to take? Another wrestling match perhaps?” Scott’s eyes twinkled in sharp contrast to the hard tone in his voice.
“A palomino might do it, wouldn’t you say, Scott?” this from Murdoch as he gave his oldest son a conspiratorial wink.
“I don’t know, sir. I don’t think Johnny would be interested in the stallion. I mean, Barranca is just a horse.”
“Just a horse!” Johnny realized his jaw was gaping open and shut his mouth with a snap. He blinked and swallowed hard as the full impact of his father’s and brother’s words hit him. “But you’ve got a buyer for him…haven’t you?”
“No! That was just a ploy to keep it a surprise for tomorrow. We didn’t realize how hard it would be though, not telling you!” Scott grinned
“Tomorrow?” Why tomorrow? Johnny grew more and more puzzled.
“Your birthday son!” Murdoch said softly.
“Birthday!” Johnny was stunned; his last few birthdays had passed without acknowledgement, the day being of no importance to anyone since his mama had died.
“Did you forget John?”
“Yeah, guess I did.” Johnny lowered his gaze as he battled with his feelings.
Murdoch and Scott exchanged a knowing look, this birthday would be celebrated, they would make it a day Johnny would never forget.
“Sixteen! A milestone of sorts!” Murdoch enthused; it was certainly a day he would forever thank God for granting them. “We wanted to make it special, give you something special. Barranca is yours son, our gift to you.”
The blue eyes slowly met his father’s, then his brother’s “Thank you” didn’t seem adequate but it was all he could manage to say before the tears threatened and he had to look away.
“No John. Thank you!” Murdoch sat down beside his younger son, his hand gently guiding Johnny’s face upwards, forcing his son to look at him, to see the emotions that gripped him too. “Thank you for coming home with us, for giving us a chance, for forgiving me and wanting to be my son and Scott’s brother, for wanting to be a part of Lancer.” He turned to his elder son relieving him of some documents.
“You’re not old enough to sign this yet but when you are, your signature right there” Murdoch pointed alongside where his and Scott’s names had been signed just the day before “will make you a legal partner in Lancer, we promise to honor your rights until that day.”
Johnny studied the document, the legal language was lost on him but the significance was not. There in black and white was proof of everything they’d ever said to him, everything they’d promised him, a family, a home and a future. He’d learned not to trust and he hadn’t trusted them, not at first, but they’d worked hard to win his trust. Now Johnny realized they had succeeded. He didn’t need a document to make him a part of Lancer; their love was all he needed.
“Thanks. I don’t know what to say.” Johnny seemed unsure of himself, a marked contrast to the boy they had found in the jail cell. Johnny sighed, settled deeper into the pillows and studied his family. A mischievous gleam sparked in the deep, blue eyes.
“Uh, Scott, did I hear you right? Did you say Barranca was just a horse?” The challenge in Johnny’s voice was unmistakable.
“Yes, I did. So? It shouldn’t matter though since he was being sold, right?”
“Yeah, I thought that’s what you were going to do. I break him and train him and you sell him! You didn’t think it would bother me, did you?”
“Aw come on, Johnny. Who did you think the stallion belonged to?” Johnny felt no pain as he threw the pillow at his brother’s head. No pain at all, just a warm feeling spreading through his body that he had never felt before.
Downstairs in the great room, Paul O’Brien looked up from the paperwork he had been concentrating on. Faintly he could hear the sound of three voices laughing, a sound he knew the great house had been missing for a long time. He breathed a contented sigh of relief; all was right with the world, finally.
Johnny flexed his fingers, rubbed his thigh and studied the bottles placed on the rail fifty feet away. With no outward sign of what was to come, he sprang into action, drawing the weapon. Six shots rolled into one, six bottles fell. It had been three weeks since the shooting, and the wound had healed quickly. Johnny had spent his time since he had been allowed out of bed by Dr. Jenkins practicing his draw, fine tuning his skill. He felt satisfied and knew he was now faster and more accurate than ever. He was ready for anything he might have to face, but he dreaded it. He had seen Murdoch and Scott watching him with a mixture of admiration and worry. But since the episode in town, no one had said anything to him. He knew they would trust his judgement.
Johnny had practiced hard as much to hone his skill as to avoid the ache whenever he looked at Barranca. He had spent hours with the great stallion, training him, currying him until his coat had glowed bright as the sun. But Murdoch had refused to allow him to even mount the stallion, saying his shoulder needed more time to heal before he would be ready to attempt to control the raw power that was Barranca. The stallion looked even bigger and more daunting than ever, yet the understanding between Johnny and horse was slowly growing with each passing day. Barranca looked forward to their time together as much as Johnny did. Maybe tomorrow.Johnny sighed, looked longingly at the golden giant in the corral and reloaded his gun.
Scott blew on his coffee, then took a tentative sip of the hot liquid. He stared out the picture window across the vast expanse of Lancer now gleaming under the late afternoon sun. Life on the ranch was settling into a comfortable routine, the family was finally together and making tremendous strides in getting to know and trust each other. Yet Scott was aware of an undercurrent, an unknown tension which marred Johnny’s countenance when he thought no one was watching him. Something was bothering the boy, and that bothered Scott.
The sound of gunshots broke the serene atmosphere; Johnny was practicing again. An involuntary shiver chased up and down Scott’s spine. Since the shooting Johnny had been more and more focused on his daily routine, practicing for hours at a time. It was as if Johnny was preparing for… for what? They had come so far, made such progress yet there were things Johnny still wouldn’t share with either Murdoch or himself. Scott wished Johnny would confide in him. The fair haired Lancer couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding which had settled heavily on his shoulders.
“John will you slow down!” Murdoch scolded his younger son. The boy was throwing his breakfast down his throat like there was no tomorrow. The older man’s eyes widened then narrowed in dismay as Johnny attempted to reply with a mouthful of eggs. Murdoch held up his hand “John!”
Looking suitably chastised Johnny swallowed then wiped his mouth. “Sorry!” he jumped to his feet, making for the door only to be stopped in his tracks by another very impatient rendition of his name “John!” Turning quickly he began to squirm a little when he found himself under the scrutiny of his exasperated father, an amused Scott and Paul and an infuriatingly giggling Teresa.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” Murdoch demanded.
“Barranca needs some exercise!” Johnny replied softly, edging backwards to the door.
“What about your chores?” Murdoch asked, knowing full well that chores were the last thing in his son’s mind.
“I was going to do them first.” Johnny replied coloring slightly. He’d never been very good at lying.
“See that you do young man!”
Johnny sighed holding his father’s intense gaze “Yes sir.”
As Johnny disappeared out the door Murdoch stood quickly, calling out “Be careful son!” straining to hear his son’s reply of “Yeah.”
“You worry too much Murdo! That boy is more at home on that horse than he is sitting there feeding his face!” Paul gestured toward the empty chair, smiling up at his old friend.
The Lancer patriarch resumed his seat, sipping on his coffee before making his point clear. “Sam only gave him the go ahead to ride two days ago! He’s on that horse every spare minute of the day! Grooming him until all hours of the night!” Murdoch snorted as his next thought hit him. “He’d sleep in the barn if I let him!”
He caught his elder son’s amused gaze. “If he’s late again for his lessons Scott, I want to know!”
“Yes sir.” Scott knew the chances were his brother would be, but hopefully not two hours late like he had been the day before! Johnny lost all sense of time when he was sat upon the stallions back. He’d disappeared for hours the previous day. Murdoch had been worried sick when he hadn’t returned by lunch time. It wasn’t like the boy to miss a meal. When he had finally ridden in, their father had been waiting for him, had gone on to loudly chew him out, telling him he would make up for the lost hours of schooling at the weekend. No doubt the threat of extending those hours would slip Johnny’s mind once the wind was rushing past his ears.
Clements sat with his back to the wall, sullenly nursing his beer. He had been staring unseeingly into the depths of the liquid for over an hour, the beer growing warm and stale from the grip of his hands on the glass. Seemingly unaware of his surroundings Clements brooded, his thoughts dark and ominous. The few customers in the cantina made every effort to avoid looking in his direction. Normally a patient man, Clements had grown tired of waiting for his quarry to make an appearance. It had been over a month and Madrid had yet to show his face in town.
In the time since he had witnessed Madrid take Dancer’s bullet, he had waited, confident and focused. He had been surprised when the Lancers had come to Madrid’s aid but it had not deterred Clements from his goal. He was as determined to face the legendary gun hawk as ever. Clements was, however, growing tired of Moro Coyo. A gun fighter could not afford to experience too much down time. It made one stale and tired. A gunfighter was only as good, and as well
paid, as his reputation, and Clements knew he was wasting away in this miserable little town. If Madrid wouldn’t come to him, he would go to Madrid.
A sneer crossed Clements face as he recalled overhearing talk in town of an upcoming cattle drive. Apparently, it was an annual event and Lancer and some of the neighboring ranches were hiring additional drovers for the drive. Clements had no intention of working for the Lancers, at least not in driving the dumb beasts but hiring on at Lancer would put him in close contact with his prey. His decision made, Clements threw a coin on the table, and headed for the stable.
The wind whipped through Johnny’s hair, blowing his hat off his head, only the thick black cord holding it around his neck. The strength and speed of the golden stallion was incredible, his long strides covering the distance faster than Johnny had dared imagine. Barranca enjoyed running as much as his rider and with head up, nostrils distended, snorted his pleasure at the new found freedom to run in the wild open range. Joy swelled in Johnny’s heart; he had never felt such breath taking power.
Reluctantly Johnny gathered in the reins asking, not demanding, the stallion’s cooperation. Barranca shook his head in disapproval but his strides gradually slowed none the less. Johnny found himself at the top of a knoll, the vast expanse of Lancer spreading out before him. Was it only three months since he had first topped this rise with Murdoch and Scott Lancer, his father announcing proudly that this was home, the most beautiful place in the world wide world. So much had happened; so much progress had been made. Johnny finally felt like he was a part of something, like he had a future other than the early grave of a gunfighter. Yet he knew it wouldn’t be easy. The worst was yet to come. He knew Madrid couldn’t just disappear as his family expected. Sooner or later his presence at Lancer would be known. Dancer had found him and so would others. It was only a matter of time. With a heavy sigh, Johnny reluctantly turned Barranca toward home.
“Yeah, I herded beef down Texas way. Been riding herd on cows for years. I am new in these parts and heard Lancer had put out the call for help. Thought I would try my hand.” with a big grin, Clements delivered his well practiced speech and waited.
“Ok, the bunkhouse is over there. Go pick out a bunk. Dinner is served promptly at 6, don’t be late. We leave in one week. Look up Mr. O’Brien or Cipriano. They can help you get settled.” With a sigh, Scott watched as Clements turned his gelding and headed for the barn. The sense of foreboding once again weighed heavy on his shoulders.
A movement in the distance caught Scott’s eye “About time too!” Scott spoke his thoughts aloud. As the boy and horse drew closer his annoyance melted away, the grin on his brother’s face dispersing the resentment formed by the last wasted hour.
“Hey Scott!” Johnny called, jumping lithely off Barranca’s back.
“You are late!” Scott scolded.
“I am?” Johnny genuinely hadn’t realised the time. The smile disappeared off his face. “Guess I’m in for it now?”
“I’d say YOU were in for a Saturday morning filled with the joys of arithmetic!”
Johnny sighed, deflating before his brother’s eyes “Where is he?” he sure wasn’t looking forward to another lecture from his father about punctuality, and was hoping to avoid him for now at least.
“Who?” Scott asked innocently, knowing his father was waiting in the great room to lambaste his younger son.
“Pa.” Pa! the word had rolled so easily off his tongue but on leaving his lips it had taken Johnny completely by surprise. He looked at his brother searching the taller man’s face for some reaction. It wasn’t long in forthcoming, his brother’s face lit up “Pa is inside, working on the ledger.”
Johnny whirled around; trying to hide his unease, he wasn’t sure he should or could call the Old Man Pa. Not to his face anyways. “Tell him I’ll be in as soon as I’ve seen to Barranca.”
Scott watched the youngest Lancer lead his palomino towards the barn. A smile crept across his face, Things were working out …slowly but surely
Halfway to the barn the sound of galloping hooves had drawn Clements up short. He turned, his eyes lighting up with a wicked gleam when the rider came into view. Madrid! pure evil showed in the smile which flitted across his face. His opportunity to finally rid himself of this particular thorn in his side was now a mere fifty yards away. Licking his lips in anticipation, Clements loosened his colt and turned to face Johnny. He dropped his reins, ground tying the gelding and watched as Madrid drew near.
Johnny led Barranca toward the barn, his eyes traveling over every inch of the stallion, noting the grace and ease with which Barranca moved. The stallion pranced at the end of the reins, looking longingly at the trough. “Ok, fella, ok.” Johnny laughed, “But only a little. You have to cool down first.” He led the stallion to the trough and stood stroking his neck as Barranca lowered his muzzle into the cool liquid.
“He’s a magnificent animal. How much do you want for him?” The words were spoken with a politeness which did not fully camouflage the challenge that flowed through them. The voice was somehow familiar.
Immediately on the alert, Johnny reached into the dark place in his mind, summoned Madrid and turned to face his opponent.
“It is you. I thought you wouldn’t be far behind when I met Dancer.”
Scott halted, his hand on the knob of the hacienda’s front door when he heard Johnny speaking. The air was still and calm and Johnny’s voice drifted clearly toward him on the afternoon breeze. Though the voice seemed calm and friendly, Scott had learned well to pay attention to the undercurrents in the tone. He knew it was not Johnny Lancer speaking but Johnny Madrid. As if in slow motion, Scott yanked the door open. “Pa, Paul, you better get out here.”
Murdoch looked at Paul with alarm; something in Scott’s tone had alerted him. The two older men exchanged hasty glances and as one headed for the front door. Murdoch found his oldest son riveted in place, eyes firmly fixed on the youngest Lancer.
“Scott what’s happening?”
Without taking his eyes off his brother, Scott raised his hand and pointed toward the man he had just hired, a man named Clements.
“I have been waiting a long time for this Madrid. Make your move.” Clements’s hand hovered above his gun, the sneer marring his features making his face a mask of pure evil.
Teresa had waited as patiently as she could. She had heard Johnny ride off on Barranca and knew it would be hours yet before he could give her the riding lesson she so craved. Misty, her sorrel pony, had been given to her a year before Johnny came home. She rode him around the yard as often as she could, but her father had forbid her to ride beyond the majestic white arches. That is, until Johnny had come home. She looked forward to riding with Johnny. From the moment she had met him she had known he would never let any mishap come to her while she rode. Paul O’Brien had even consented to slightly longer rides each time she went with Johnny, the episode with the snake boosting Paul’s confidence in Johnny’s ability to look out for his daughter.
Anxiously she paced her room, nerves tingling with anticipation. At long last she heard the sound of approaching hoof beats. With a shriek of joy she headed down the stairs at a run toward the front door. It was only when she saw the stranger sitting his mount, conferring with Scott as he stood in the doorway that she knew Johnny was not yet home. Her smile disappeared. Shoulders slumped; she turned dejectedly away from the front door.
Teresa turned back toward the great room where her father and Murdoch were hard at work on the ranch books, their heads close together as they scrutinized the numbers. Neither man acknowledged her presence. With a heavy sigh Teresa plopped down on the couch. Moments later her ears picked up the sound of another rider approaching. As quickly as disappointment overtook her, it was chased away. She jumped nimbly to her feet and was headed toward the front door once more when Scott interrupted her forward motion.
“Pa, Paul, you better get out here.” Teresa was effectively halted by a firm hand on her shoulder.
“You wait here. I mean it.” her father ordered. Her heart beat rapidly at the sound of fear in her father’s voice. She couldn’t remember ever hearing fear in Paul O’Brien’s voice before. Terrified, Teresa covered her face and sobbed.
Murdoch stared into his empty glass, heart heavy and mind in turmoil. The old grandfather clock chimed, welcoming in the new day and he sighed heavily, a deep, mournful sound that only served to darken the atmosphere in the great room still further.
Paul poured another hefty measure of whisky into his glass. Murdoch nodded his appreciation. He knew he’d probably drank too much tonight but sadly he still needed to down a few more if he had any hope of numbing the gnawing agony that gripped him.
Slowly the Lancer patriarch lifted his eyes, seeking out his elder son and another wave of anguish swept over him. The young man stood motionless, staring out through the window into the black emptiness of night. The Lancer patriarch knew exactly where Scott’s thoughts were and his heart ached to find the words his son needed to hear.
I don’t know what to say to you son! I don’t know how to put this right.
He closed his eyes; images of his younger son filling his senses, the angry, hate filled eyes he’d first turned on him in the jail, the desperate need he’d seen in their vivid blue depths, the pain and the grief that languished there. The images haunted him, would always haunt him, as would the suspicion and the fear that had been so deeply rooted in a boy who was, and had every right to be, so very mistrusting of the very man responsible for his birth.
Slowly things had changed; each day that passed Johnny had allowed them a little closer until finally Murdoch had believed the bond between them was too strong to break. How wrong he had been!
He’d failed his son yet again and his self loathing weighed heavy upon him like some invisible burden. The years ahead stretched endlessly before him forever void of the presence of his dearly loved younger son. He wasn’t sure he could bare his loss again, the loss insurmountable this time.
The afternoon’s tragic events once more played out in horrific clarity in his mind. There was to be no escape from the events that had robbed him of his boy…
“Johnny! What’s going on?” Murdoch had demanded, but he was stayed from approaching his son, and the stranger, by Paul’s hand on his arm.
“Stay out of it, old man!” Johnny hissed just loud enough for his voice to carry across the yard. At the ominous words the three men froze, recognizing the voice of Johnny Madrid. “I won’t make the same mistake twice, you hear me?” Johnny spoke to his father but his eyes never left the man before him.
“Now that is a smart decision, Madrid. You can face me or I can start dropping your daddy’s employees or maybe even that dandy brother of yours.” Clements sneered.
Madrid took in the men, hands he had come to know and care for, who now stood watching, their duties forgotten. His family was out of the line of fire, at least for now, but Johnny quickly calculated the chance of Clements hitting one of them. Satisfied with the odds, and knowing he would never again turn his back on an opponent, Johnny resigned himself to the task at hand.
“Leave them out of this. I ain’t going anywhere. You, however, have a one way ticket to hell.” Madrid’s voice was soft, deadly, chilling the air, the heat of the day retreating before it. All who stood within range of Madrid’s voice became aware of an aura of pure energy. The electricity emanating from the boy was a live and tangible thing; it pulsed in ripples from the center of the boy’s being, spreading outward, and encompassing everything around him.
“Well, I ain’t the one who is gonna die today, BOY!” Clements couldn’t be sure whether his words had any effect on Madrid. For the briefest of moments he wondered if he had underestimated his target but arrogance won over caution. “You have a date with the devil. I’m going to help you meet your destiny.”
“I prefer to keep my destiny in my own hands.” came the icy reply.
Murdoch pondered on just how prophetic his son’s words were to become. He opened his eyes as once more the solitary gunshot echoed through his mind. It had all been over in the blink of an eye, the bullet not only taking a life but destroying the new life they as a newly united family had fought so hard to build. It didn’t have to be that way! They could have worked things out; God knows he’d wanted to!
Clements gun hadn’t even cleared its holster when Johnny’s bullet had ripped into his chest. Death had been instant, a precision kill. It was simply kill or be killed.
Johnny had turned towards them then, but only briefly. As the troubled eyes looked away Murdoch knew something had changed. Scott had run to his brother, wrapping a supportive arm around the slender shoulders, steering him away from the lifeless body on the ground. Murdoch had been unable to move, horror rooting him firmly to the spot. As the forlorn figure of his younger son grew closer he’d forced his trembling legs forward.
Suddenly the dark head had snapped up “I can’t do this Old Man!” With that Johnny had wrenched himself free of his brother’s grip, throwing himself up onto Barranca and racing away. Scott had called after his brother, his voice laced with panic
“He’ll be back.” Murdoch had managed to force out. He’d had no doubts about that but there had been something in his son’s eyes that told him it wouldn’t be to stay.
Several long, agonizing hours had passed. The sheriff had been sent for; he’d been happy with the witness accounts of the shooting but wanted to return to speak to Johnny later that day, wanting to tie up every loose end.
Awed into silence at the lightning fast speed of Johnny Madrid, the hands had continued on with their work. Life went on as usual at Lancer except in the hacienda itself. There the atmosphere was unbearably tense as the family waited anxiously for Johnny to return. Maria had shepherded a still weeping Teresa up to her room, sitting with the distraught girl, the wisdom honed by a long and difficult life helping her make some resemblance of sense out of the senseless.
Murdoch was growing steadily more concerned with each passing minute. Johnny had been gone for nearly three hours and the waiting was killing him. He needed to see his son; he needed to talk to him, to quell his fears. The pounding of hooves brought Murdoch instantly to his feet and hastily to the door, quickly followed by Scott. They watched with unspeakable relief as Johnny walked slowly toward them, but the fact he’d tethered Barranca to the hitching rail served only to rekindle their fears. As the two men waited with baited breath Paul O’Brien slipped unseen out of the room leaving the three Lancers alone.
“Johnny, thank God!” Murdoch pulled his younger son into his arms and felt the boy tense. He held him briefly before relaxing his embrace, and as he did so Johnny pulled away, striding past his brother into the great room.
The two men followed, eyes locked on the dark haired youth.
“John please, talk to us son.” Murdoch begged. He couldn’t bare it any longer.
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to say!” Johnny said softly, eyes firmly fixed on his father.
“No! So let’s talk about it.” Murdoch’s eyes pleaded with his son.
“Nothing you can say will change my mind! I…I can’t stay here. Today made that all too plain. You see that don’t you?” Now it was Johnny’s turn to beg.
“No! No, we don’t. We know how you must be feeling Johnny but…” Scott’s voice broke with emotion; he wasn’t prepared to lose his brother again.
“No you don’t! You can’t possibly know how I feel. I tried. I tried so damn hard. I wanted this to work. I wanted to be part of this. I wanted you!” Johnny wiped angrily at a tear that slipped down his cheek as he paced before the two men he’d grown to love. “But the price is just too high and I’m not prepared to stay around knowing one day someone will end up paying it. One of you!” Johnny gestured at his father and brother “Or Teresa or Paul, Maria or one of the hands! No! I can’t do it!”
“John, listen to me son please!” Murdoch implored his son in desperation. There had to be something he could say to get through to his son.
Johnny ignored his father, desperate to make his family understand his decision to leave “I thought I was prepared for this. I knew it would happen sooner or later. I told you, I tried to warn you!”
“Yes you did, and we appreciate just how difficult it is Johnny but we can get past this. We as a family can work this out.” Scott took a step nearer his brother but the boy stepped back, shaking his head vehemently “What for? To go through it all over again and then again?”
“It might never happen again!” Murdoch’s voice soared as he felt his son slipping away from him.
“Two men! Two in the last month have come gunning for me. I can guarantee you there will be more and just like the one today they’ll come knocking on YOUR door Old Man. What if Scott got in their way or the girl? No Murdoch, I have to leave, it’s the only thing I can do.” Johnny made for the stairs and the few things he wanted to take with him; there was no point in dragging it out any longer. He felt his father’s huge hand on his arm, the grip tightening, swinging him around to face him.
“No! You’re not leaving!” Murdoch’s voice echoed around the room, his hands tightening painfully on his son’s arms. He had to fight the urge to shake some sense into the boy.
“You gave me your word Old Man remember! You promised me you wouldn’t try to stop me leaving if things didn’t work out! You promised me! Please!” Johnny begged emotions raging inside as he struggled to break free of his father’s vice like grip.
“But things have worked out! You’re happy here, I know you are. You said yourself that you want all this.” Murdoch’s voice trembled as he clung desperately to his son.
“Not anymore Old Man. Not anymore!” Blue eyes glared icily up at his father, the sudden chilly remoteness stunning the older man into releasing his son.
Johnny turned and ran up to his room leaving a room filled with heartache behind. As he entered his bedroom he let the mask slip and gave in to his grief, tears slipping down both cheeks. He allowed himself a couple of minutes to release some pain then wiped away all traces of his anguish telling himself he had to go now before he…they, changed his mind. He rummaged through the dresser drawers, retrieving a penknife Paul had given him for his birthday, the book Scott had bought him about horses; he opened it and read the inscription, snapping it shut as tears once more threatened.
The picture on the dresser caught his eye but this time he forced himself to ignore the smiling face. How he hated her for doing this to them. He wanted to hurl it against the wall again but his father had only just had it reframed, the old man might want it but he sure didn’t. Stashing his keepsakes into his saddle bags Johnny took one last long look around what had been his room Not anymore Johnny boy…you’re moving on
Taking the stairs two at a time Johnny forced his feet to carry him into the great room. His father and brother stood together and for a brief second he hesitated, their pained expressions tearing at his resolve.
“Can I keep Barranca? I know I came with the chestnut and he’s been a good horse but…” Johnny’s voice trailed off. He had no right asking them for anything.
“He’s yours son. He always will be…just like Lancer will always be your home and we will always be your family…”
“Yeah, thanks!” Johnny cut across his father; unable to bear the pain in his voice.
“Keep in touch Johnny, a letter from time to time so we know…” Scott began but was unable to finish his sentence, he stepped forward pulling his brother into a fierce embrace. “Johnny please, think about this.” Scott added softly, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I have Scott.” Johnny pulled away. He had to get out of there quick. They were beating down his will, he couldn’t take much more.
“Son if you ever feel… if you ever want to come back…”
Johnny nodded his understanding, stepping into his father’s open arms. The silent tears began to fall then just as he felt his heart break. He felt safe wrapped in the cocoon of his father’s embrace but as long as he remained here his family would never know that security. The thought of one of them being hurt because of him overpowered all his wants and needs. As he pulled away his father’s arms tightened around him. He knew he was hurting them now but better that than allow a stranger’s bullet to take their life.
“Son please, I’m begging you, please stay.”
Johnny wrenched himself away storming towards the door, their urgent footsteps close behind. Trembling fingers struggled to secure his saddle bags, tears blurred his vision and he blinked them away. Once in the saddle he took a moment to compose himself before turning to look at them one last time. No words would come, the grief in their eyes compounding his own. It took all his willpower to turn away, and once he had he couldn’t look back. He kneed Barranca into gallop but not even the thundering of hooves could drown out his father’s anguished plea “Johnny please stay!”
They’d stood there, father and son, long after their boy had disappeared into the horizon, a forlorn hope uniting them in their vigil. Hours later in the confines of the great room the vigil had continued but hope had slowly waned.
Finally Murdoch set down his glass and rising stiffly from the armchair he walked over to the window to stand beside his elder son. “He’s not coming back Scott!”
After a long pause Scott finally whispered “I know!”
Lacy & Seren 2005
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