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Ally

 

 

FOld Habits

Special thank you to Cadillac Red for her help in betaing. 

Mild warning:  Johnny is slightly younger than what I believe would be canon; and Murdoch takes a somewhat more parental turn. 

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

Scott sat back in his chair, letting the book he was reading settle on his lap, drowsy and comfortable in the warm room. His body was still adjusting to the rigors of ranch life, but he was pleased at how much progress he had made in a few short weeks. No longer did his muscles scream at him when he awoke in the morning, and it had been some time since he’d come close to falling asleep in his dinner plate.

He glanced over at his father, startled to see an expression he’d never before witnessed on the older man. A raw mixture of affection and yearning graced Murdoch’s craggy face. Scott followed his gaze and saw that it rested on his younger brother, stretched out in front of the fire. Murdoch’s usual expression when looking at Johnny was exasperation or annoyance—not this clear love Scott was witnessing. He felt almost embarrassed; as though he’d intruded on a private moment.

That moment was erased a moment later when Murdoch suddenly spoke sharply.

“Johnny, get yourself up to bed. You’re still recovering and you have no business falling asleep there on the floor.”

Even Scott winced at the commanding tone, knowing Johnny was unlikely to obey. His father and younger brother had done little but butt heads over everything, big and little, since their reunion.

“I just got comfortable. I’ll go up in a bit,” Johnny answered back carelessly; ignoring his father’s glower.

Scott could see that his little brother’s reply didn’t sit well with Murdoch, but to his relief, the older man made no further comment.

Johnny had recovered fairly quickly from the bullet wound he had received from Pardee’s gang, but a short time later a bad fall breaking a horse had bruised his ribs. That injury, coupled with a late season cold, left him congested, feverish, uncomfortable—and irritable. Dr. Jenkins had been summoned and the physician, concerned about possible pneumonia, had recommended bed rest and plenty of fluids; orders that Johnny ignored whenever possible. His refusal to follow even the most basic instructions without a fight had sorely tested the still tentative bonds of the newly formed family.

Scott decided to excuse himself to his room for the night, hoping that his father and brother could avoid an argument at least for the rest of the evening. He had already been forced into the undesirable position of peacekeeper far too many times; a role made even more frustrating because he suspected his father and brother’s constant bickering actually hid a fierce need for each other. He was in no mood to try and act as mediator once again.

The night passed peacefully enough, but the arguments started up again first thing the next morning, when Johnny came down stairs to the breakfast table dressed in his well-worn work clothes.

Murdoch scowled when he took in his son’s attire. “I believe you’re supposed to be resting today, Johnny. Dr. Jenkins was quite clear that you were not to return to work for at least the rest of the week.”

“Aww, Doc Jenkins is just fussin’. If it were up to him, I’d never get back to riding.”

“Riding? You know quite well that riding is completely out of the question!” Murdoch said severely; ready to launch into a stern lecture.

Instead, Johnny laughed. “Hell, I ain’t gonna’ try riding, old man. I’m just gonna check up on Barranca and the rest of the string; make sure the boys didn’t mess up any of the progress I made with them. A couple of them hands are too harsh on the bit, if you ask me.”

“I’d have to agree with you there. I’ve spoken to Cipriano about it and we’re planning on making some changes with the work crews,” Murdoch replied, pleased that he and Johnny at least agreed on something.

“I’ll take a look at the men while I’m out there and make some suggestions.”

“All right, John.” Relieved that Johnny was not intending to attempt to ride, Murdoch let himself relax before realizing that his younger son had neatly trapped him into agreeing that he could at least visit in the barn. Throwing up his hands in disgust, he busied himself at his desk, resolving to ask Scott to try and talk some sense into his younger brother.

His morning was interrupted when Theresa announced Dr. Jenkins. He greeted the physician warmly, settling down in front of the fire with him while Theresa fetched coffee.

“What brings you out this way, Sam?” Murdoch asked as he retrieved the tray from his ward and poured a cup.

“One of Frank Denbrow’s hands took a bad fall yesterday and I had some concern that there might be internal bleeding. Thought I’d ride out and check on him again today.”

“I hope there was some improvement over night.”

“Yes, indeed, I’m pleased to say that he’s much improved today. But I thought since I was out this way anyway I might as well take a look at Johnny. Is he up in his room?

Murdoch looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

“Uh, no, Sam, actually he’s out in the barn.”

The doctor gave Murdoch an incredulous look. “What? After I specifically told him and you he wasn’t to leave the hacienda for a few more days?” He threw up his hands in frustration.  “I don’t understand you. You ask for my expertise as a physician and then ignore the advice I give.”

“I tried to get him to listen, Sam, but he was determined.”

“I don’t care how determined he was, you should have laid down the law and told him in no uncertain terms that he was to stay in the house as I specified. Damn it, Murdoch, you’re his father.”

Murdoch shook his head. “That doesn’t hold much weight with Johnny, I’m afraid,” he said wryly. “I think you overestimate the level of my influence with him.”

“And I think you underestimate it!” the physician snapped back. “More than once while he was still bed-ridden, I used the threat of calling you into the room to get him to cooperate with me while I was examining him and it worked every time—not because he was afraid of you, but because he didn’t want to disappoint you.”

Murdoch stared back at the doctor; unconvinced.  “Sam, he’s a grown man. I can’t very well order him to do anything.”

“No Murdoch, I think you’re wrong. John Madrid is a grown man, circumstances made him grow up far too fast. Johnny Lancer is still a growing boy of barely nineteen, a boy who desperately needs a father’s influence—and love. I’m not saying you tell him bedtime stories and bounce him on your knee, but he’s still a young man, and he hasn’t had the benefit of a father’s love and concern—or guidance--  for a long time. I think it’s clear to all of us that he could use it.”

“It’s not that simple,” Murdoch muttered, turning to stare out of the large window.

“Maybe not, but I don’t think it’s as hard as you make it out to be, either. Just trust your instincts, Murdoch. You’re the father of two fine sons—it’s about time you started acting like it, instead of treating them like well-paid ranch hands!”

Sam Jenkins’ words echoed in Murdoch’s head the next day when the storms that had been threatening all week finally broke over the hacienda, sending torrents of rain over the whole ranch. With chores limited to those that could be completed inside and the usual daily barn chores, Murdoch once again had to battle with Johnny over what was acceptable for him to do. Johnny wanted nothing more than to be with Barranca in the barn, but the rain was coming so hard that even the brief walk over there would have him soaked to the skin.

Mindful of Sam’s comments, Murdoch held his ground, and declared that it was a good day to teach Johnny some of the basic bookkeeping required for running the ranch, much to the youngest Lancer’s disgust.  As soon as they heard that pronouncement, Theresa disappeared into the kitchen and Scott braved the weather to head to the barn, both anxious to be away from the fray.

Fortunately Johnny ceased his pouting after a short time; quickly, if unwillingly, being drawn into the complex figuring. Both heads remained bent over the books as the storm raged, only an occasional fierce gust capturing their attention. Murdoch was pleased that his younger son seemed to catch on very quickly to the work, and felt a father’s surge of pride in Johnny’s clearly sharp intelligence.

He was getting ready to suggest a break for coffee and a mid-morning snack when a steady dripping reached their ears. A brief search revealed a small puddle near the fire place, caused by a thin but steady trickle of water from the ceiling.

Murdoch scowled in annoyance. “With most of the men busy fighting the raiders the last few months, I’m afraid we had to let some of the general maintenance to the house fall by the wayside,” he explained to Johnny. “We’ll have to assign a crew to check all the roofs as soon as this weather breaks. In the meantime, I’d better get something to clean this up, or Theresa and Maria will be upset about their nice clean floors.”

Murdoch returned a few minutes later with a cloth mop, rags and a bucket to catch any continuing leaks. He wryly noted that there was no sign of his younger son. No doubt Johnny had used the distraction of the leak to escape the book work he’d been forced to do.

As Murdoch mopped up the water, he became aware of a sound; barely audible under the roar of the rain. With a start, he realized it was coming from the roof and an awful realization dawned.

Within moments he was through the glass doors and off the porch, desperately craning his neck for a view of the roof, nearly invisible in the driving rain. His worst fears were confirmed when he glimpsed his son, pressed against the rain-slicked roof tiles, being pummeled by the wind.

“John!!” Murdoch shouted, terrified. “Come down here this instant!”

Johnny could barely hear Murdoch’s words over the roar of the storm, but there was no mistaking the tone. Realizing that climbing up on the roof was probably not the smartest action he had ever undertaken, he eased himself over to the side of the porch, intending to slip down on of the columns. Even over the rain, he heard his father’s sharp gasp as his body suddenly slid sideways on the wet tile, but he managed to hang on and maneuver his way down, landing with a wince on the ground.

His father was upon him instantly.

Ignoring the fact that they were now both dripping wet, Murdoch wrapped his huge arms around him, hugging him tightly and breathing near-silent words of thanks into his sodden hair. Johnny tensed at first, but then felt himself melting into his father’s hug, relishing the rare physical contact even if his ribs protested a bit.

His enjoyment turned to shock when Murdoch just as suddenly thrust him away, still holding his shoulders tightly.

“What were you thinking, boy?” his father demanded, shaking him. “You could have slipped off that roof and broken your neck. And you’ve not even fully recovered from your illness!”

Johnny had no time to reply as his father jerked him around abruptly and landed a stinging swat to his wet backside, followed immediately by several more.

Murdoch then pulled him into another breath-stealing hug. “I just got you back!” he said roughly into his ear. “I won’t lose you again!”

With that, he turned Johnny again to resume his assault on his rear end. “John Luis Lancer, don’t you ever, ever, ever do something like that again!” Murdoch berated, punctuating each word of his tirade with another smack. He stopped and shook Johnny again. “Now you march yourself right up to your room and get out of those wet things and into bed. I’ll be up shortly and you’d better have minded me, or I just might be talking with my belt! ”

Johnny was too stunned to even reply. Through all of his tumultuous life, he had never backed down in fear of any man or beast, but he found that dealing with an enraged Murdoch was a new experience all together. Wet, chilled, his rear end stinging and his mind churning, he turned and fled as he’d been ordered.

Once Johnny was out of sight, Murdoch slumped against the pillar, unable to calm his wildly beating heart after the emotions of the last few minutes. He was still there a few moments later when Scott came dashing through the now rapidly diminishing downpour.

Scott shook the water from his blond hair and then got a good look at Murdoch’s stricken expression. He stepped quickly over to his father.

“Murdoch, what is it? Is it Johnny? Did something happen?”

“Oh, Scott…”

Real fear flared now and he grabbed the larger man’s shoulders. “Murdoch, tell me. Is Johnny all right?”

Murdoch finally looked up at his older son. “He’s fine, Scott, but I’ve done something terrible and I’m afraid your brother will never forgive me.”

Scott relaxed only fractionally. Although from Murdoch’s words it appeared that Johnny was apparently uninjured, it was also obvious that whatever had transpired between his father and little brother had been a good deal worse than one of their usual battles.

“Tell me what happened,” Scott urged. “You were just working on the books!”

Murdoch took a deep breath, clearly gathering his thoughts. Scott waited with ill-disguised impatience, anxious to know what could have possibly happened in such a short time to be troubling Murdoch so badly.

“Yes, we were and after his initial irritation, Johnny seemed to be fairly content. But then we heard dripping and realized the roof near the fireplace had developed a leak from all the rain. I left to get a bucket and some rags. I was gone for several minutes and when I returned I didn’t see Johnny. Then I heard noises coming from the roof. I hurried outside and realized that Johnny had climbed to the roof, I suppose in an attempt to try and fix it.”

“The roof? In this storm? What was he thinking?” Scott interrupted, shocked at his brother’s overwhelming recklessness. “What happened? Did he fall? Is he all right?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I told you, he’s fine, but when I caught him up on the roof, I panicked. He’s just gotten over being so ill and the roof was so slippery…”

“What happened?” Scott demanded again, unwilling to wait any longer. “If Johnny wasn’t injured, why are you so upset?”

Murdoch turned his face toward Scott, desperation plain in his watery eyes. “I gave him a spanking. Heaven help me, but I couldn’t stop myself. I saw him up there, and it was just as though he was a toddler again, climbing the corral fence. When he got down, I was so relieved and so angry all at once that I hugged him and then… I spanked him.”

Scott felt his body sag in disbelief and for a moment, he fought an overwhelming urge to laugh. Murdoch’s explanation was so hard to believe and yet so perfectly understandable. More than once, he had felt exactly the same frustration about his stubborn little brother’s carelessness. Only Murdoch’s troubled face kept his laughter in check.

“How did he react?” Scott asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. Knowing Johnny’s temper, he could be halfway to Mexico by now. Only the realization that there was no way Johnny would leave without his beloved Barranca, whom Scott knew was still safely in the barn, kept him from worrying overly much.

“I didn’t give him a chance to. I just sent him to his room to get changed and get into bed—and,” Murdoch’s head dropped in shame “... I threatened to give him a tanning if he didn’t obey me.”

Scott shook his head, stunned at Murdoch’s story.

“Murdoch, you have to talk to him. Make him understand….”

“Understand what?” his father interrupted with feeling. “That his father—the one he hasn’t seen in almost twenty years—resorts to physical violence when he’s angry?”

Scott paced for a moment, unsure how to reply and then he spoke, choosing his words carefully.

“I know you’re upset, but is that what it was—violence?” Scott asked. “Or was it just the reaction of a loving father to his youngest child being in mortal danger? I’m not going to excuse what you did—you’ll have to work that out with Johnny. But I do understand it. I’ve never been a parent, but I have had people I care about in danger and it’s a horrible, helpless feeling. I can’t imagine how much worse it would be if I knew they placed themselves in that situation.”

Scott could see his father was mulling over what he said. “Look, why don’t you let me go up and try and talk to Johnny first? Maybe I can get him cooled off a little bit, and then you can try to make amends.”

Murdoch hesitated and then nodded; knowing if anyone could speak reasonably to Johnny it would be Scott. At least it would buy him some time to decide exactly what he was going to say when he faced his son next.

Scott took a deep breath as he climbed the stairs, preparing himself for what he might find. He figured it would be about even odds that his little brother would be packing his meager possessions—or cleaning his gun, and quite possibly, both.

He knocked quickly and entered; surprised to find his brother was doing neither of those things. Instead, he was staring out his bedroom window, watching the now-retreating storm. He was bare-chested, with a towel draped around his shoulders to catch the dampness from his still wet head. He turned as Scott entered.

“Johnny? You okay?” Scott asked tentatively.

“Hey, Scott. Guess the old man told you, huh?” he asked sourly. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just glad it was you and not Murdoch bustin’ in here. Don’t think I want to make him mad again anytime soon.”

Taking a chance on Johnny’s mood, Scott took a seat on the bed. “Want to tell me about it? I’ve already gotten Murdoch’s side.”

Johnny snorted. “There’s nothing to tell. I tried to do something useful and got the seat of my pants warmed. Imagine, big, bad, Johnny Madrid, getting’ his britches dusted like a ten year old.”

Sensing annoyance but no real anger in Johnny’s tone, Scott felt brave enough to press a little.

“Well, you did test the old man pretty good. What were you thinking, climbing up on the roof like that?” he asked, unable to keep the disapproval out of his voice.

Johnny scowled at Scott’s scolding tone. “Not you, too, huh, Scott? I already caught hell about it from Murdoch…boy, did I catch it,” he said, rubbing his backside ruefully.

Scott couldn’t hide his surprise at Johnny’s calm tone. He would have thought his little brother would have been spitting angry, at the very least.

Johnny noticed his bemused expression. “Guess you expected me to be ready to tear out of here, didn’t you, big brother?”

“Well, frankly, yes, I did.”

Johnny was silent for a while, but then he finally spoke, staring out the window once more.

“When I first got up here, I was gonna’ grab my things and high tail it outta here. Pa or not, I wasn’t gonna let anyone treat Johnny Madrid like that. I got beat on a good bit when I was growin’ up by men who would use their fists or their belts, even on a little kid. Even had a couple of ‘step-fathers’”, he snorted, using the term with obvious derision, “who thought it was their God-given right to knock me around or give me a whippin’ for any old reason. And lots of time, no reason at all.

“But this didn’t feel like that. When Murdoch got me down off that roof, I could tell he wasn’t just mad; he was plum scared to death. It reminded me of something I hadn’t thought of in years.”

Johnny paused, obviously lost in thought. Scott stayed quiet, not wanting to discourage his brother from sharing part of his usually guarded past. When Johnny spoke again, it was clear his mind was seeing something from years before.

“When I was just a little kid, I don’t know; seven or eight maybe, me and some of my friends were out playing. There had been a real big storm the night before and the river near the village was really running high and wild. None of us were ‘sposed to go near it, but of course it was awful temptin’. We were just fooling around, but then a couple of the boys got to roughhousin’ and Miguel fell in. The water was so rough, he started goin’ under. We didn’t know what to do, so we started yellin’ and hollerin’. Well, next thing we knew, Miguel’s papa comes out of nowhere and hauls him outta the water with one hand. Never seen anything like it.

He nearly hugged the stuffin’ out of Miguel; cryin’ and kissin’ on him. But then he set him down and started waling on his behind like there was no tomorrow, hollering and cryin’ all the while. ‘Course, all the commotion attracted all the other mamas and papas and pretty soon, all of the kids who’d been playing out there were feeling the rough end of their ma and pa’s anger on their backsides. All but me….  Mama never even came out to see what the ruckus was about.”

Johnny’s voice got softer as he finished his story. “When I went back to our shack, she hadn’t even noticed that I’d been gone. Guess it’s kinda’ silly, but I almost wished she had gotten mad, even taken a switch to me. At least I’d’ve known that she cared more about me than about where her next bottle was coming from. Pretty dumb of me, huh?”

Scott felt his heart clench at Johnny’s wistful voice; seeing the little boy his brother had been and wishing he had known him then. “No, little brother, it doesn’t sound dumb to me at all. My grandfather wasn’t the most affectionate of gentlemen, but I always knew that he loved me, partly because he was always so strict with me.”

Johnny nodded, glad his brother had understood. “When Murdoch got a hold of me after I climbed down, it was just like Miguel and the river. He was huggin’ me so tight I could hardly breathe, and kinda praying under his breath. ‘Course, then he started whomping on me just like Miguel’s papa, too. That’s one thing I can add to what we know about our father—he’s got one hard hand!” Johnny finished, and Scott was pleased to hear the humor in his voice.

“Guess you’d better not rile him again, huh, little brother?” Scott teased, relieved that for once, his powers of persuasion didn’t seem to be needed. Johnny seemed to have already worked things out for himself and had made his peace with Murdoch’s actions.

Johnny’s eyes went wide. “You don’t suppose he’d do it again, do you?”

“I didn’t plan to do it this time,” a voice stated from the doorway. Both boys jumped, surprised to see Murdoch standing at the door to Johnny’s room.

“Scott, would you excuse your brother and me for a few minutes?” Murdoch said somberly, speaking to his older son, but gazing at his youngest. “I’d like to talk to Johnny, if that’s all right.”

Scott flashed an uncertain look at Johnny, but his little brother just shrugged. With a pat to his bare shoulder, Scott left the room, sincerely hoping that both brother and father would survive the imminent discussion.

Murdoch came into the room, noticing Johnny’s stiff body language and wary expression as he leaned against the windowsill and feeling regret that he was the cause.

“Johnny, will you come sit down?” he asked, indicating the chair nearby.

“I think I’d rather stand if it’s all the same to you,” Johnny said with a cocked eyebrow, and Murdoch winced, realizing he had left himself vulnerable to that jibe. “And I ain’t sure I want to get too close, anyways. You said you’d tan me if I wasn’t tucked up into bed when you came up. Ain’t looking to get my tail whupped… again.”

Murdoch detected a hint of teasing in his words, and felt his heart unclench a small amount.

“Don’t worry, son, I have no intention of taking my belt to you,” Murdoch assured him; embarrassed by his threat. “But I would feel better if you would at least get into bed. You’re still in those damp trousers and I don’t want you to take a chill—Sam would have both our heads.”

Johnny had to admit that the damp fabric was beginning to chafe unpleasantly, so with a shrug and a slightly distrustful look he approached the bed, taking the nightshirt Murdoch had retrieved from his drawer and dropping it over his head. He then divested himself of his wet things, but he was in no hurry to climb into bed, knowing that once in it, Murdoch might insist he stay there for at least the remainder of the day. Instead, with a resigned sigh, he perched on the edge of the mattress, trying to settle lightly in deference to his still sore rear end.

Murdoch pulled the chair a little closer and sat down, realizing he still had no idea how he could explain his actions to Johnny. To his surprise, his son spoke first.

“Guess I should say I’m sorry for going out on that roof, old man. I was just tryin’ to be helpful,” Johnny said, with a trace of defensiveness. 

Murdoch frowned and shook his head. “Scaring ten years I can ill afford to lose off my life was not helpful, young man,” he said sternly, but continued in a more conciliatory tone. “However, even though I was upset, I had no right to treat you like a child. Old habits die hard, I guess.”

Johnny looked pensive for a moment. “Guess you never got much chance to play papa back when I was a kid.”

His father bit back a wistful smile, since compared to his own long years, Johnny was still practically a ‘kid’.

“Well, even as a toddler, you got into a fair amount of trouble. In fact, I can remember an instance or two where you scared me almost as much as you did today. And I’m afraid I reacted in almost exactly the same way, much to your mother’s annoyance.”

“Mama didn’t think you should whup me?” Johnny, asked, surprised at this bit of information.

“I’d hardly call the smack or two you received on a well-diapered bottom being ‘whupped’. But she could never stand to see you disciplined.”

Johnny snorted. “She sure got over that in a hurry,” he muttered to himself, lending credence to Murdoch’s suspicions that Johnny had faced a fair amount of abuse when he was with Maria. It only added to his feelings of guilt about his earlier actions.

Johnny read the look easily. “Murdoch, I ain’t saying I exactly enjoyed what you did today, but it weren’t nothing like when I was growin’ up,” he quickly reassured him.

“Should that make me feel better or worse?” Murdoch asked sadly.

“At least I knew you had a good reason for doing it. And even if I never saw that vein in your forehead bulge like it did today, I weren’t never afraid of you. Not really. That wasn’t always true when I was a kid.”

“Oh, Johnny, I hate that I wasn’t able to be there for you all those years.”

“Look, I survived, all right? That’s all that matters anymore.”

His father nodded, realizing the bittersweet truth in those words. “In any case, I came up here to apologize and to make sure you’re all right.”

“I’m fine. ‘Least I will be when I finally stop being treated like an invalid.”

“No one is treating you like an invalid,” Murdoch denied. “We’re just trying to make sure you’re completely better before you go throwing yourself into the middle of things again. At least give Doc Jenkins a fighting chance for the next time he has to patch you up.”

Johnny looked indignant. “What makes you so sure there’s going to be a next time? Maybe I learned my lesson and I’m going to take it nice and slow from now on.”

At that, Murdoch threw back his head and laughed out loud. “Somehow, Johnny, I just can’t see that happening. Now, will you at least lie down for a while and get some rest? It would do my heart good not to have to worry about what you’re getting into for at least the next few hours.”

“If I do, will you promise not to tell Doc Jenkins what I got up to today?’ Johnny asked, gazing hopefully at his father.

Murdoch tapped his chin, pretending to think it over. “If you stay in bed for the afternoon—without argument—I don’t think Sam needs to know. I’ll have Maria bring you up a supper tray later. Of course, I’m sure she’ll have a few things to say to you.”

Johnny grumbled but complied, knowing that he was no doubt in for a good scolding from their housekeeper, but still preferring that to a tongue lashing from the doctor. He moved gingerly until he was under the covers, unable to hide his pleasure when he felt Murdoch’s large hand stroke his hair affectionately.

“Sorry again for scaring you today, Murdoch,” he said seriously.

“And I’m sorry for reacting the way I did.”

“I’ll try to be more careful and not do anything like that again,” Johnny promised.

“I appreciate that, son. Now get some rest.”

Johnny sank gratefully into the soft bedding as Murdoch quietly left the room. He was just drifting off into sleep when a thought suddenly occurred to him.

Although they had both apologized about what had transpired earlier, only he had promised never to do it again!

 

THE END
July 2008

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