The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Buckskin

 

 

The Sound of Thunder

Sixth in the Johnny and Holly series -which is best read in sequence.

Disclaimer: The boys unfortunately do not belong to me. I would have treated them better. However, the characters of Holly Vasquez and Chrissy Templar are mine. They were born in my head and are the loves of Johnny and Val.
Holly is not in this story but is referenced enough to make it a J/H story
Thanks to Cat and Sandy for the beta

The dining room at the Rocky Mountain Hotel was crowded as Murdoch Lancer sat at the table he had reserved for himself and his younger son, Johnny. And Johnny was unusually late. He’d gone to the livery to check on their horses. Murdoch and Johnny had been out all afternoon checking out cattle to buy at Chuck Kendall’s Circle K Ranch, just outside of the town of Grizzly Flats. The hopes of adding new breeding stock to the Lancer line was too good of a deal to pass on, so Murdoch and Johnny took the opportunity to see for themselves and also get a bit of one-on-one time.

Their relationship was beginning to form a more stable foundation and this time together would serve them both well. Murdoch had never ventured this far before on a cattle buying trip, and his hopes of getting the new stock shipped on the train sounded better and better all the time. It would be too risky for both man and beast to drive them across the treacherous mountain terrain, even if they had more men for the journey. The price to ship the stock would be well worth the cost rather than taking the chance of injury or loss.

Looking up from his coffee Murdoch caught sight of his son’s salmon colored shirt as Johnny found his way to their table. Pulling out his chair Johnny slid into his seat in a fluid motion, easy and agile, and began to peruse the menu casually.

“Ya order yet, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, his eyes quickly scanning the small list of meal options.

“No, I was waiting for you,” his father responded softly, not the terse reply Johnny was expecting.

He looked over the top of the bill of fare he held and into his father’s eyes and smiled. “Sorry 'm late. Had ta get Barranca moved somewhere else. There's a mare in season there, and he wouldn't settle down till I got ‘im outta that stall an’ away from her.”

Hmmm, Murdoch thought with a smile, much like his owner…

“What’d ya gonna have?” Johnny asked as he turned his attention back to the choices of beef, chicken, roast pork and venison. They all sounded good at the moment, and he felt like he could eat everything they had to offer.

Signaling the waitress, a tiny girl not more than sixteen with a sassy bounce to her walk and a pert, upturned nose, Murdoch placed his order of roast pork while Johnny ordered a venison steak. Then he flashed his infamous, dazzling Johnny Madrid Lancer smile and as she looked at this customer, she flushed a deep red. Filling Johnny’s coffee cup, she managed not to spill a drop. Then he thanked her before she left, and she came near to stumbling over a chair in a hasty retreat, making her way quickly to the safety of the kitchen to place their orders. Murdoch smothered a chuckle as it never ceased to humor him the way women seemed to swoon over his son. But he also knew that his son’s heart had already been claimed.

Shifting in his chair, Murdoch grimaced slightly, but enough for Johnny to catch the hitch in his breath and he looked with questioning eyes at Murdoch’s face, still tightly drawn.

“Ya alright, Murdoch?”

“Yes, just a little stiff. I’ll be fine.”

"Sounds familiar…" Johnny muttered under his breath.

“What was that, Johnny?” Murdoch asked with accusing wide eyes, not a glare but as if to say ‘look who's talking!'

Johnny smiled. “Nuthin’, Murdoch, nuthin’ at all. We should make pretty good time gettin' back ta the ranch without havin' ta worry ‘bout drivin' any cattle. Sure am glad Mr. Kendall offered ta put ‘em on the train for us. Hey, ya feel like takin' a day ta go huntin' b'fore we get home?" Then watching his father, he thought better of it. “Ah, maybe we better just head for Lancer an’ forget any huntin’.”

He looks disappointed, Murdoch thought as he saw Johnny’s face drop. Smiling, he hoped that he would feel better in the morning. It was amazing what a good night’s sleep could do.
“Let’s wait until morning before we make any more plans.”

The conversation over dinner was light and comfortable, both father and son grateful that the earlier differences between them had been ironed out and in their place was friendly companionship, not the conflict that left both men disheartened and miserable. Coming to terms with the other was a giant step forward and one for which both men had been eternally grateful.

Leaving the waitress a generous tip, the Lancer men sought out their beds. It had been a long, strenuous day and sleep was first and foremost on their minds. A bath, clean sheets, and a comfortable mattress with no lumps would serve them well.

“Ya gonna be alright, Murdoch? I got some a Jelly’s liniment in my saddle bags…” Johnny couldn’t finish without laughing. It was a joke around Lancer that if the medicinal concoctions made by their handyman, Jelly, did not kill you, then you had a chance of recovering.

“No, son, thanks, I’ll pass. See you in the morning, Johnny.”

“’Night, Murdoch,” Johnny flashed his father the brilliant smile that Murdoch cherished, the smile that had been stolen away when his son was two and not to be seen again until over twenty-three years later. Yes, he cherished that smile!

<><><><> 

Leaving Grizzly Flats behind, Murdoch and Johnny rode southwest, cutting across the mountains, taking more than a day off the estimated return trip. Murdoch’s back was much improved after a good night's rest, and Johnny had not brought up hunting again knowing the ‘old man' would rather go straight home. Somethin’ other ‘n beef would sure be a nice change, though. Maybe I can get Scott ta go after we get back ta Lancer. Johnny thought about different options as they rode.

It was a beautiful day for traveling, cool, bright, and not a cloud in the sky. The scent of pine heavy in the air had a soothing effect on both men. It was a connection to the earth, a feeling that only one who was in touch with the mountains could appreciate. It was comfort, though one did not have to be troubled to feel it.

Murdoch watched his son and wondered for the thousandth time how Johnny had survived the years after he'd been taken from home. The odds had been stacked against him from the very beginning, but there must be something to the adage what didn’t kill you made you stronger. And, again, Murdoch thought, what a lucky man he was to finally have his family. Both his sons were men to be proud of, and proud Murdoch Lancer was.

Johnny set a slower pace, allowing Murdoch a more comfortable ride without making it obvious. It was becoming a natural thing to watch out for his father. After the years alone, having no one else to consider, Johnny usually traveled at a much faster speed, even through the mountains, but now, he took more time knowing it was better for Murdoch, even if the ol' man would not admit the fact.

The sun was pleasingly warm this day as they crossed clearings before entering the shade of the trees and Johnny found the leisurely ride satisfying both in mind and body. The previous tensions between father and son were gone and in its place growing respect and love, and that added to the day being both gratifying and enjoyable.

Pulling up on the reins, Johnny halted Barranca, and he sat looking out over the panorama before him. The mountain greens and blues were covered in warm sunlight, the rays cast over the lower valleys and mist rose with gossamer softness flooding the crisp air. A waterfall, tall as either man had ever seen, cascaded down, plunging into a low valley and provided a contrast of colors and textures with its white foam appearance; a façade blanketing unchartered territory behind it. Murdoch drew his horse alongside, curious as to what had his son's attention.

“Something wrong, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, suddenly concerned, his eyes searching the mountains stretching before them.

“Nope, just lookin’. Mighty pretty country out here,” Johnny said, breathing deeply. The country he'd grown up in was so different than these mountains. As a boy, he'd lived among rock, sand and hot sun, here was… sweet, green Heaven. Murdoch agreed as he watched his younger son, amazed at the fact Johnny could find pleasure in the beauty of a place instead of trying to find something he could take from it especially considering the life he'd been forced to live before coming home to Lancer. But then, he had figured out that Johnny was not a greedy man. The more he got to know his boys the prouder he became.

They moved out after resting a bit and worked their way through the mountain pass. The day became a bit cooler the higher in elevation they rode, but they were prepared for the cold, and each slipped into a warmer coat. Stopping to eat and rest the horses in the early afternoon they noticed a sharp downward turn in the temperature. Hoping to escape bad weather during the night, they didn’t spend as much time as they would have liked resting, so, still making good time on the return trip, they kept going.

<><><><> 

It was getting colder by the minute, and dusk was settling. When the sun went down, whatever warmth was in the air completely vanished leaving them puffing out the frosty breath in the higher altitude. Johnny spied a sheltered site for a camp big enough for both them and the horses.

Soon they were sitting around a warm fire, out of the wind and reasonably protected should it start to rain, or more likely snow. Tomorrow they would descend out of the mountains, and the going would be easier, so this should be the worst of the weather. Johnny reached into his saddlebag and pulled out his traveling companion, his ever-present tequila that had kept him warm on more than one occasion. He opened the bottle and offered it to Murdoch.

Smiling, Murdoch shook his head. “No, son, but don’t let me stop you,” he responded.

“Oh, ya won’t stop me, I just thought I’d offer ya some, but,” reaching into the other side of his bag he retrieved another bottle, this one Scotch.

Murdoch’s eyes brightened at the sight. “Boy, now you’re talking!”

Johnny handed his father the bottle, smiling at the glow issued from Murdoch's eyes. For the next hour, they sat enjoying each other’s company and conversation. Johnny leaned back against his upturned saddle and looked up at the sky. The diamond stars danced and sparkled, always reminding him of Holly's eyes. They were exquisite! And exciting and he would have given a lot of money to have her with him on this cold night. Later, Madrid! Get some control here; the ol’ man is here with ya… Johnny smiled to himself and looked down at the bottle in his hands.

“Are you going to share with me, Johnny?” Murdoch asked, noticing the sweet grin on his son’s face.

Johnny looked up wide-eyed, a bit surprised and softly laughed. “Nope,” was all he said and hoped Murdoch wouldn’t press the issue.

Murdoch had a feeling the grin was a result of a certain beautiful, young woman as the cause for his son’s momentary sweet and private distraction.

He didn't entirely approve of the relationship Johnny had with Holly, as they weren't married nor would they ever be, both being extremely independent and self-sufficient but they had pledged themselves to each other; at least that was something.

Murdoch did drop the issue for which Johnny was thankful. He really wanted to avoid the subject of Holly with his father. It was one of the more intense issues that resulted in harsh words between the two of them.

They sat covered with their bedrolls and watched the sparks flitting upward into the cold, clear sky, each enjoying their drink of choice, each with his own private thoughts which were remarkably alike. They were both thinking about Holly, although in entirely different ways. Johnny was missing her beside him, and Murdoch was wondering where the relationship would go. It did trouble him.

“You know, we really should talk about it, Johnny,” Murdoch softly voiced his thoughts. Maybe they could get a few things settled, maybe not.

Johnny met the eyes across the fire. "What's ta talk ‘bout, Murdoch? I know where ya stand ‘bout her, ‘bout us, an' I ain't givin' her up. Not for you, not for Scott… not for Lancer. Haven't talked ‘bout her ta anyone, ‘cept Scott, haven't bragged or flaunted the relationship. I just leave town for a coupla days ta go see her an’ then I’m back, nice an’ quiet, what’d ya call it? Oh, yeah, discreet. An’ I gotta tell ya, Murdoch, as long as she’ll have me, this is the way it’s gonna be. What we have is really somethin’, I’ve never had anything like this an’,” Johnny uttered a soft laugh,” I ain’t lettin’ it go. She’s the best woman I ever met an’…. we just kinda fit tagether.”

Finally, they were discussing it, even after Johnny balked at the suggestion, but now talking without harsh words or accusations. Johnny, holding his temper and emotions while Murdoch corralled the piety, now feeling like a hypocrite. After all, he and Johnny’s mother were expecting him before they were married.

Suddenly, he felt very ashamed. His face fell, and he watched his hands, the hands that held this extraordinary young man when he was a baby and had offered comfort, caring, and support through sickness, teething, and fevers, had soothed scraped knees and dusted off his backside after a fall. Now, these hands were shaking and cold. Because he knew he could have, should have handled this situation differently. He looked up at his son through different eyes, a little clearer than they had been before.

“I’m sorry, Johnny,” he whispered, his voice cracking.

Johnny’s head snapped up to meet his father’s eyes that were filled with regret, and a wrinkle of questioning creased his forehead. “Sorry? What for?” The Ol’ Man’s tellin’ me he’s sorry? Maybe he’s had more ta drink than I thought! Johnny cracked a smile.

Murdoch's heart seemed to sing when his son's smile appeared; my son is so special!

“For not trying to understand, for being so worried about convention and what was ‘right’, the way it should be done… Johnny, I am sorry, with all my heart.” Again, looking down at his hands, as if they held the answer, strong and sure, just as they were when he held Johnny as a baby.

“’S’kay, Murdoch, just wanted ta let you know I got no intentions of changin' anything… At least we ain't yellin' at each other about it!" he said with a chuckle. Murdoch started to laugh, and it felt good!

The night passed with the two men discussing differences of opinions and options they had for issues on the ranch. All with no arguments. This was something new, something that pleased them both and they warmed to the debates and hashed over many things. Each of them wondering why it had taken so long to get to this point. Maybe we finally turned the corner Murdoch thought, thoroughly enjoying this time with his son. He and Scott had shared many conversations regarding the running of the ranch, but it had been unusual for him and Johnny to engage in much of any talk without ending up in a shouting match, until now. What had changed? Murdoch couldn’t put a finger on any one particular thing but was more than pleasantly surprised that whatever had happened, happened.

As Johnny relaxed in his bedroll, his brain was spinning with wonder. Musta been the bottle, Dios! Guess I’ll hafta start carryin’ a bottle ‘round for him all a the time! Thinking on the course of their conversation over their drinks, sitting around the fire, stunned Johnny to the core, there had been no arguing, no sharp, hurtful words. Damn, maybe ‘m getting’ the hang of this family thing better’n I thought… Or maybe he is… Then closing his eyes Johnny fell into restful, comforting sleep as the temperatures started to drop, and snow began to fall.

<><><><> 

Damn! He was cold! Fire’s out he thought, and as he opened his eyes, he realized why he was so cold. Mierda! It snowed, snowed enough to make traveling treacherous. Cold’s gonna be hard on Murdoch’s back Johnny thought as he threw the blanket from his body and struggled into cold boots. Stirring the embers into flames, he threw more wood on the fire and started a pot of coffee.

“Hey, Murdoch, rise an’ shine. We gotta get goin’ real soon. There’s snow on the ground, travelin’s gonna be harder taday…” Johnny gently touched Murdoch’s shoulder, not wanting to jar him too badly; after all, Murdoch did drink quite a bit of Scotch last night.

The old man’s eyes fluttered open and promptly slammed them shut against the bright firelight reflecting off the snow. A gloved hand snaked out from under the blanket and went directly to his forehead muttering what could only be a groan of extreme discomfort. He tried to sit up, having difficulty at first, but with a mighty heave wrestled himself to a sitting position. Not having much luck focusing his vision, he rubbed the heels of his hands against the aching orbs in an effort to reduce the pounding in his head.

Johnny, though a bit sympathetic, found this very amusing. Wish Scott was here ta see this!

“Ya alright, ol’ man?” Johnny asked, barely able to contain his laughter.

Murdoch glared up at him, hearing the humor in Johnny’s voice.

“Coffee,” was all Murdoch could grind out.

"Ain't ready yet, but when it is, you can have the first cup. Ya want somethin’ ta eat?”

 Knowing that the mere mention of food would be enough to make him run for the bushes, Johnny did laugh and received another glare, but this one was much worse. It bordered on bodily harm. Giving in with a minute bit of sympathy, Johnny eased up on the good-natured ribbing. Dragging his saddlebag close he dug around in one side, then the other, grabbing a tiny leather pouch and opened it. He sprinkled a small amount of ground leaves into the bottom of Murdoch’s cup then added the strong, hot coffee. Handing the cup to Murdoch, Johnny clinked his cup against his father’s and winked.

Salud,” he said as they sat in the quiet of the morning, Johnny thoroughly enjoying himself at his father’s expense, Murdoch, not so much.

<><><><> 

It was slow going, the horses slipped frequently, and the unsure footing made them skittish and apprehensive. The riders let their mounts pick their way, not encouraging any speed or forcing the animal to do something it didn’t want to do. The animals sensed things humans weren’t capable of, and Johnny had long ago learned the perils of asking his mount to do what it knew wasn’t going to work.

"Murdoch, lemme lead out from here," Johnny softly asked of his father, but Murdoch turned in his saddle to face his son with a twinkle in his eye.

“What’s the matter, Johnny? Don’t you think the ‘old man’ can find his way?” he chuckled.

“Ain’t you ‘m worried ‘bout. It's your horse; he's gettin’…” Johnny was cut off with words that came sharper than had been intended.

“He’s fine!” and Murdoch continued without stopping but would later regret the decision.

Johnny briefly closed his eyes, wanting to disagree with his father, was about to call out to stop Murdoch when the large horse suddenly froze, however, too late to back off the path he started. The snow gave away under dancing hooves, dumping Murdoch, spilling him from the saddle to tumble down the mountainside. His horse valiantly struggling to stay upright frantically backed into Barranca. Johnny watched helplessly as his father vanished from sight, his heart dropping into his boots.

“MURDOCH!” Johnny yelled in the frosty air, echoes bouncing off the mountains, one after another, only to pound back into Johnny’s brain like a hammer on an anvil, as if to repeatedly remind him of the trouble they now faced.

He saw nothing but snow. Mierda! Murdoch! Where are you? Wild thoughts tumbled in his mind as he dismounted his horse. Johnny grabbed his rope, tying off around the saddle horn and started lowering himself down to the spot where he'd last seen his father. Desperately, Johnny began to dig, soon becoming soaked in the snow. Wet and cold, a deadly combination, he knew, but he wouldn’t stop, he had to find Murdoch! Time stood still, minutes ticked by into what seemed like hours.

“Murdoch? Murdoch!” He called hoping his father would be able to hear and hopefully answer. Fuck! Where the hell is he? And then he touched something in the snow, an arm! Following it up to broad shoulders and uncovering a face, Johnny frantically dug snow away from the chilled body, finally freeing him and began the assessment that would tell Johnny if his father would, could come out of this alive.

“Murdoch! Hey, ol’ man! Ya open them eyes for me?” Johnny tried to coax as he patted Murdoch’s cheeks hoping the movement would provoke a response, any response. At the moment Johnny would settle for one of Murdoch’s rants, chewing him out for something, anything, just open your eyes, ol’ man!

And then there was a moan, soft at first, then a gasp and Murdoch’s eyes flew open as the pain raced through his body and down his legs. He flailed his arms as Johnny caught them to keep him still, not knowing where Murdoch was hurt, and trying to still the man before further injury was inflicted.

“Murdoch! Hey, quiet down, ol’ man, shhh, it’s gonna be alright.” Johnny spoke quietly, as much to convince himself as to soothe his father. “Tell me where you’re hurt an’ I’ll help, ‘k? Where ya hurt?” Johnny’s soft, velvet tones worked their way through Murdoch’s brain, gentling him just as it did any other panicked creature, soothing and settling.

Murdoch wanted to lose himself in those soft words and comforting voice. He closed his eyes and then opened them again to try and focus on his son leaning over him. Worried deep blue eyes searched his face as if willing strength into Murdoch's body.

"Back, can't move…" Murdoch whispered through a grimace and tightly closed eyes.

Johnny felt his heart skip a beat. His back… How’m I gonna get him outta here? Looking around Johnny found thick branches, laying two of them side by side, he judged them to be about the right length. Looking into his father’s eyes, he smiled the smile that brightened the old man's heart.

"Don't you be goin' nowhere, ‘k?" Johnny said as he tried to ease the pain and confusion on his father's face.

Murdoch almost laughed but nodded his head and Johnny scrambled up the snowy mountainside.

Dios, I hope this works… Johnny retrieved their two bedrolls and the coil of rope from Murdoch’s saddle and was back at his father’s side in less than five minutes, but in that time Murdoch had begun to shake with cold. Teeth chattered as Johnny furiously worked to build a travois and hoped to haul his father up the mountainside and back onto the trail. One bedroll was spread out, and he laid the two thick branches down the middle of the blanket wide enough apart for Murdoch's body, then the two ends were folded back onto the middle, Murdoch would lie on top and be wrapped with the second bedroll. Well, it sounds like it’ll work… Johnny thought.

“’K, ol’ man, don’t want ya ta move, at all. Ya let me do the work.” He stopped talking and met Murdoch’s eyes, wanting to know if Murdoch understood, making sure Murdoch understood. The man nodded his head yes. "This is gonna hurt an' I'm sorry ‘bout it but I gotta getcha onta this blanket," Johnny said, and as gently as he could, then he started to move his father, desperately ignoring the groans of pain coming from the older man.

Sweat began to run into Johnny’s eyes as he labored to move Murdoch. How could that be, they were freezing out here? But he shoved the thought away from his mind. Slowly but steadily, Murdoch was moved from the snow that had, until recently, entombed him. Johnny took off his coat after getting Murdoch settled on the travois and spread it over his father.

Murdoch started to object, and slightly raised his body as a white-hot bolt of pain shot through him.

“Hey, Murdoch, settle down an’,” and stopping his efforts, Johnny smiled then continued “an’ shut up. I’m callin’ the tune taday…” Still smiling at the not so amused look in his father’s eyes, Johnny then spread the remaining bedroll over Murdoch’s prone body. He wrapped the rope around Murdoch and the travois several times, catching it under the short stubs where smaller branches had broken off, and provided a hook that prevented the rope from slipping off while he dragged Murdoch up the steep slope. Johnny secured the contraption together; they were now ready to move.

Bending low to his father Johnny watched the pain flooding the older man’s features. "Ready, Murdoch? Gonna haul ya up now," Johnny said, gently touching Murdoch's face.

Closing his eyes, Murdoch nodded. Taking the long ends of the rope, Johnny went up the slope and secured them to the saddle horn on Murdoch's horse and slowly eased the horse forward, pulling his father as gently as possible up the mountain. It progressed more smoothly than Johnny had hoped, and as the travois cleared the top and was maneuvered back onto the trail, Johnny stopped the horse and securely tied him off.

Then, he ran back to Murdoch. “Ya alright, Murdoch?” watching as his father’s eyes fluttered open.

“’M fine,” echoing Johnny’s infamous words.

Johnny grinned. “’K, ol’ man, let’s get ya home!” and gathering Toby’s reins, Johnny gracefully vaulted onto Barranca’s back and started down the mountain, shivering with the cold that had already pierced through his thin jacket, chilling him to the bone.

<><><><> 

Progress was slow… and cold, but Johnny kept going knowing that was the only way he would get Murdoch down out of these mountains. He kept looking back, trying to catch a glimpse of Murdoch's face for signs of any more discomfort, more than what the man was already in. He watched the eyes that were screwed tightly shut and the thinly drawn line that was his mouth desperately squelching any cry when he was jarred by the travois connecting with a rock under the snow.

Stopping only to rest the horses and try to get Murdoch to drink some water, Johnny was becoming increasingly fatigued. His fingers were numb as were his feet and unless they found shelter, he knew neither of them would make it back to Lancer alive. The cold was biting bone-deep, the thin jacket not offering any protection from the icy mountain air and Johnny knew they would be making an early camp for the night. He was gravely aware of their critical situation. His mind was becoming foggy as the cold sapped strength and sent shivers crawling down his spine.

Unable to stop the tremors he tried to concentrate on finding shelter, only to have his mind drift dangerously. Shaking his head violently to clear the haze, he watched for a suitable place to stop, out of the wind and protected from the weather. All he could think about was how good his bed at home would feel, soft, warm, and inviting. O.K., Johnny Boy, enough with the torture… he thought. No more thoughts of sleep, they were pushed to the back of his brain as he tried to focus on finding shelter. The mountain terrain was brutal, not cutting them any slack as if to laugh at them, saying You will not get out alive! And all Johnny could reply was a flippant Fuck you! We'll see…

<><><><> 

He almost missed it. He pulled up on Barranca’s reins and peered through the trees and rocks. Dios! ‘bout time! An opening in the boulders, nearly hidden from sight but there it was! He stepped out of the saddle and stumbled to the mouth of the cave. He checked for other occupants, and glancing around he found the cave to be an acceptable place to spend the night. Johnny returned to Murdoch’s side, checked the man’s breathing and led Toby as close as he could to the cave. Untying the ropes that secured the travois, Johnny dragged Murdoch and stumbled into the shelter.

He wasted no time in returning outside to collect wood for a fire, soaking himself, again, in the process. This ain’t good he thought as tremors rippled through his body. He felt as if he was encased in ice. He tried to quicken the pace, dig faster under the snow looking for branches or anything that would light and produce heat.

After digging for what seemed an hour a small pile formed and picking it up as best he could, Johnny staggered to the cave, stopping at the entrance to let his eyes get accustomed to the dark interior. Picking out the best spot for the fire Johnny quickly had a blaze going, carefully adding more wood until the flames started to radiate heat. Dragging Murdoch as close as he dared he, again, checked the haggard looking man. There had been no change.

Venturing out again, Johnny tended to the horses, and in their attempt to uncover grass to eat, they had also exposed wood, larger branches that would burn longer. The snow this high up was light and dry so the wood could burn and generate heat instead of sizzle and smoke. Johnny stood by the fire, arms hugging his torso in the stance he used when protecting himself, and stared into the flames. His body was soaking up as much heat as it could. Would he ever feel warm again? He thought, at the moment, no, he wouldn’t.

The groan brought him out of his reverie. Murdoch was waking up, and Johnny was instantly at his side.

“Hey, ol’ man, ya gonna sleep all day?” Johnny quipped, watching as the man’s eyes tried to open and focus.

“W-where are we, Johnny?” Murdoch stammered, clamping his jaws together in an attempt to still a groan of pain. He looked around him with great apprehension.

"Found a cave, had ta get outta the cold for a while. We'll stay here tonight; got ‘nough firewood ta keep warm an' we'll see how ya are tomorrow. How're ya feelin', Murdoch?" Johnny questioned, trying to assess his father.

Murdoch’s foggy mind picked up on most of what Johnny had said. “Back hurts but I think I’ll be alright. Can’t move, though,” Murdoch said as he struggled a bit.

“Hold still for a minute, Murdoch. I got ya tied so ya wouldn’t fall outta this thing an’ I’d hafta stop an’ pick ya up again.” Johnny smiled and untied the rope to let Murdoch move.

He was stiff and sore and hurt like hell, but he also knew it could have been a whole lot worse. His son had seen to his safety; he was going to be fine, after a while… He looked at his son, his young, rowdy, wayward, precious son and smiled.

“Thank you, son,” Murdoch mumbled.

Johnny’s surprised eyes snapped in his father’s direction, the flames sparkling in the deep blue irises. “For what?”

"For putting up with an old man," was all Murdoch said. Then he saw Johnny shivering with cold. "Johnny, take your coat, I'm fine here by the fire. And I have my coat and both bedrolls. I can see you're freezing…" Murdoch's demeanor brooked no arguing, but that did not stop Johnny from trying.

“’M fi…." was all the further he got.

“JOHN! Take your coat… Now.” Then, more gently Murdoch said, “Think about it, son, you freeze, we both freeze. Neither of us gets out of here alive.”

 Johnny knew he lost the battle. He shrugged out of his wet, bolero jacket, reached under the blankets covering Murdoch’s body and pulled out his heavy coat. Quickly shoving his arms into the sleeves, he closed his eyes for a moment, enough to confirm to Murdoch that he had been too cold. Oh, that boy is stubborn, just like his mother was… Murdoch thought with a slight smile.

“Ya gonna share?” Johnny grinned and asked the same question his father asked of him the night before.

Murdoch’s eyes twinkled, and he answered, “Nope…” repeating the words Johnny had spoken.

Johnny chuckled as he began to heat food over the fire. Looking at Murdoch, he had to ask.

“Think ya can eat somethin’?”

Murdoch laughed at his son’s question. “Yes, just keep that bottle in your saddle bag tonight!”

“Might help with the pain in your back,” Johnny countered with a smile.

“So will the laudanum in my pack… If I need it.” He watched Johnny as his son prepared their meal. Fluent motion, no wasted energy, he was a man comfortable in his skin, knowing what he wanted and how to get it. And very headstrong. Murdoch had absolutely no doubt that Johnny would get them out of the mountains and home in one piece.

Johnny poured the coffee and Murdoch noticed the shivering in Johnny's body had stopped. He did not regret making his son take back his coat, and he sighed in relief, relaxing in the blankets. He closed his eyes only to have Johnny shake him gently, helping incline him a bit to take the hot brew.

“Oh, that’s good! Thank you, Johnny!” Murdoch breathed into his cup and took another sip letting the hot drink run slowly down his throat and into his belly.

“Welcome, the food’ll be ready soon. Somethin’ warm’ll make ya feel better. Only be a few more minutes.” Johnny got two plates out of the supply bag and finished heating the food.

"Got any feelin' back in your legs, Murdoch?" Johnny asked hoping for some good news. He could use it, and he knew his old man could, too.

“They’re not as numb as they were before, I think I just twisted my back in the fall, think I'll be fine in a couple of days. Probably pinched a nerve. Tomorrow morning will tell me a lot.”

Johnny felt better hearing that. “Well, you just take it easy tanight and if we hafta stay here for a day or two, we will. No sense takin’ any chances makin’ it worse.” Johnny sat beside his father helping him drink the coffee.

"Johnny, if you bring my saddle in, I could probably sit up on my own, you don't have to help me," Murdoch said, feeling too dependent on his son.

“I need ta get the horses inside here. More’n enough room an’ the heat from their bodies’ll help get it warmer in here. This cave is just ‘bout the right size for all four of us. I'll be right back, don't go nowhere!" and with a smirk, Johnny helped Murdoch to lie down, then went outside. Coming back a minute later Johnny led the horses into the small cavern, stripped them of the gear and tied them off on the far side.

It was amazing how much heat two horses could provide in a small space. Out of the weather, Johnny was more than satisfied they would be comfortable in their shelter. He brought Murdoch’s saddle up behind him and tipped it upright, then he scooted it close as he lifted the patriarch a bit and Murdoch reclined leisurely, contented and finding that, even with an injured back, he was enjoying this time with Johnny. The pain was subsiding, and he was sure that he would be fine given enough time.

<><><><> 

They finished their meal of beans and sandwiches they purchased before leaving Grizzly Flats; the weather was cold enough so the food didn’t spoil, and would last another day, two if they rationed.

Sitting back against his own saddle, Johnny took out his bottle of tequila, uncorked it and took a healthy swallow. Eyeing his father with a smile, he asked: “Wanna join me?”

Murdoch paled visibly, the memory of the morning all too clear as his belly rolled and rumbled, threatening to explode. "Thanks, Johnny, but I'll pass," Murdoch replied as Johnny chuckled.

They were quiet for a while, each in his thoughts, when Murdoch glanced over at his son and saw emotions flickering over the handsome face, and, not able to decipher them, he asked.

"What are you thinking, Johnny?"

The statement caught him off guard a bit, and he looked up through his thick, long lashes at his father. The thick, long lashes that were so much like his mother’s, Murdoch thought.

“Can I ask you somethin’, Murdoch?” The words came softly, as if in hesitation.

“Yes, of course, Johnny. You can ask me anything…” Murdoch said as he met Johnny with a direct and honest gaze.

“Did you love my mother?”

The question held no ill intent; however, there was a twinge of pain in Murdoch's eyes, and again he met Johnny's without any hesitation.
“Yes, I did. Your mother captured my heart in no time, and I was head over heels, madly in love with
her. She had a way of making me feel alive again after… Catherine and losing Scott. I was… lonely and she helped me forget. And in the beginning, I think she was happy, too. We were ecstatic to find she was pregnant with you and decided to make it legal. And I was never happier." The whole time Murdoch talked he stared into the fire; he was taken back in time.

Johnny could read his eyes, and he was telling the truth. And Johnny had come to realize that his father would not lie, if Murdoch said it, it was honest and true.

“Tell me about her, if ya don’t wanna talk ‘bout it, I… understand." Johnny's interest in his mother pleased Murdoch, and he started to tell Johnny things that he hadn't thought about in years, things that had been locked away in his mind for a very, very long time.

"She used to make me breakfast in bed on Sunday mornings if we didn't go to church. She burned the bacon, and the eggs were cooked dry every time, but she kept at it!" Murdoch began to smile as he talked, warming to the good memories of home and love and family.

"As she started to grow with the pregnancy, of course, she lost the grace that she once had, and she would cry thinking I wouldn't love her anymore the larger she grew. Being of small stature, she was showing very quickly, and soon it seemed as if it was defying any possible reality, she was huge! And she waddled, couldn’t walk normal trying to keep balanced. She made many of your baby clothes. I would come home at night, and she would be sitting beside the fire sewing something for you.

“But you were born, early, I might add. Impatient then just as you are now, and we were thrilled, we had a beautiful baby boy that looked just like his beautiful mother.”

Johnny remembered his mother dancing in the cantinas when he was young. She was indeed beautiful and lithe and agile. Her figure had returned after Johnny's birth, and when she left Lancer and began dancing in the cantinas many of her male friends sought her company. Many fights occurred over her. Johnny could remember her ‘friends' coming over to the shacks they called home, but had no use for a blue-eyed mestizo brat to be hanging around…

Then Johnny realized that the things Murdoch was telling him were important, more important than the way he, himself, remembered his mother. So, Johnny blocked out those later memories and focused on what Murdoch was saying.

“She was a good mother to you. You were a handful, and you had her running from the time you were up in the morning until you were tucked in at night, too exhausted to move!" Murdoch was laughing at the sweet memories of the chubby little toddler running naked through the hacienda trying to escape the dreaded bath. Maria, Murdoch, and housekeeper Maria chased for a good ten minutes before cornering him and wrestling him down. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way! Murdoch thought.

"Then suddenly she began to change, she seemed distant and withdrawn…" Murdoch's face turned sad.

Johnny felt a deep sense of loss for him.
“Look, Murdoch, ya don’t need ta say anymore. I really wanted ta find out ‘bout the early years. If she was happy at first. The later ones, I know all too well, believe me…” Johnny said with a sigh.

Yes, son, I bet you saw more than any boy should have seen… ever. Murdoch turned a sad eye on his son and, once again, thanked God that this young man that had been through incredibly difficult times had turned out to be the exceptional man he was.

They were silent for a while, then Murdoch spoke. “Tell me about Holly,” he asked quietly.

Johnny’s belly flipped over but knew that just maybe, since he and Murdoch were talking, actually talking without harsh words and disagreements; maybe this was a good thing...? So, Johnny drew in a deep breath and looked his father straight in the eyes and started to talk.

“She’s better than any other woman I know, Murdoch. She’s got a good heart an’ soul, people like her when they meet her an’… she's been good for me. I only hope that I'm good enough for her because she deserves it. She's been through more than any one person should have to go through, she grew up alone and made it on her own, and she's got more grit than any three men I know.

"She saved me from makin’ what woulda been the worst mistake of my life an’ that ain’t anything that I take lightly. She’s patched me up I don’t know how many times and a coupla a those times was pretty bad so I know she saved my life.” Johnny stopped the narrative and became almost sullen before he spoke again, this time softer, his voice a combination of velvet and silk, so smooth it was a healing balm to Murdoch's ears, but the emotion was tangible and directly from his younger son’s heart.

“What we have is the most precious and sacred thing I will ever get in this world an’ I ain’t ‘bout ta give that up. The day that Holly says she don’t want me is the day I’ll let her go.”

“You know that you just described yourself, don’t you?” Murdoch said with a smile.
“Everything that you just said about her could be said about you, everything.”
Johnny smiled a bit, relieved that this time, the conversation seemed to be on level ground.

“Do you love her, Johnny?” Murdoch asked in a whispered voice.

“More than I can say, Murdoch,” and turning to face his father he added very softly, “She’s my life an' if she weren't here any more I wouldn’t wanna be either."

Murdoch still couldn't grasp the fact they had no intentions of marriage, but he decided not to say any more about it. They were discreet in their trysts, and Murdoch knew that was all the concession he would get.

"I know this bothers you, Murdoch, an' ‘m sorry this hurts you like it does, but I won’t change what we have. The two things in this world that mean the most, are the most important ta me are my family,” and Johnny smiled, the joy from that smile reaching his eyes, “an’ Holly. The separations from her are… difficult but the reunions are sweet, more’n sweet, they’re Heaven.” And the hitch in Johnny’s whispering voice spoke volumes, and Murdoch read every single word in those volumes and knew Johnny had just revealed the truth in his heart.

Murdoch also knew that the trips into town to visit The Angels Nest had been eliminated, indicating Johnny’s faithfulness to Holly and in an afterthought knew that there had to be many cold dips in the lake for his younger son. He laughed out loud at that.

Johnny looked at his father in surprise. “What?” he asked, with a slightly worried grin tugging the corners of his mouth.

Murdoch closed his eyes and sighed as he relaxed against the saddle. “Nothing, Johnny, nothing.” Thinking about the man that was his son, Murdoch couldn’t help but wonder where Johnny had gotten this quality of loyalty, this devotion. It certainly had not come from his mother, and he wasn't around Murdoch that long for Murdoch to have that kind of influence. So, that only left one possible conclusion. It was just the man that Johnny
was, his moral code. Murdoch's smile deepened. Johnny Madrid Lancer, my son, is indeed a fine young man. And more of the reservations he had about his son and the woman he so desperately loved fell away.

Johnny watched his father, noting the smile on the older man’s face, deciding that just maybe things would work out. He left the comfort of his saddle and retrieved the two saddle blankets and returned to his father’s side. He spread the blankets over Murdoch, trying to keep in as much heat as possible. He felt lighter, less worried about the situation than he had in a long time. He now had an insight about the woman his mother had been before she changed and it warmed Johnny to think she had once been loving and happy with her family.

He wondered what it would have been like had his mother stayed at Lancer and raised him there under Murdoch’s care. But under those circumstances, more than likely, he would not have met Holly. Lose one, win one.

Even though he was chilled to the bone, sleep came easy this night. The peace he had made with Murdoch was a reassurance, a lifeline that he'd latched onto and would not relinquish, ever.

<><><><> 

Johnny sat drinking the coffee that bubbled in the battered pot next to the fire. Murdoch still slept, and Johnny thought to give the man a few more hours rest before they started the arduous journey over the mountains. The snow had not been expected this early in the season, but up here, nothing should be counted out. Expect the unexpected and be ready for it.

Murdoch seemed to be resting comfortably enough, he had even been able to move his legs in his sleep, and Johnny was grateful for that. His father would be alright. Now, if he could keep Murdoch from any more reckless actions... rushing ahead of Johnny yesterday had caused the fall down the mountainside and almost cost Murdoch his life. An' they call me careless! He thought with a smile. In all honesty, Johnny was glad his father still had a spark of fortitude, the strong-mindedness of one willing to take the chance, no, Murdoch was not ready for the rocking chair on the porch yet, and Johnny was glad. There were still too many things that they needed to do and do together, the three of them, to think of him confined to the porch.

Johnny thought over the conversation of the night before. He was glad he asked about his mother. He heard another side, a different facet of the young woman he knew, the drinker and the woman who sought out other men to bring home and get money whatever way she could. He knew she loved him, but now he knew more about the person she had been, knew that there had been more to the story. His mother had apparently been mentally ill and she’d made bad choices that led not only to her demise but the dire circumstances that Johnny had endured growing up. Was there somehow a silver lining to all of this? Had it not been for those dire circumstances, Johnny would not be the person he was now…

His head started to ache with everything he’d learned. He'd come to realize all the what ifs and maybes. This had been how Madrid was born. Madrid, the persona that had gotten Johnny through those long, lonely and impossible years when he’d had no one.

A smile turned up the corners of his handsome mouth as he thought of his mother, Maria, knowing that she had done the best that she could, despite the bad choices. He remembered the times that she'd held him and tried to comfort him. She would sing, and he remembered her sweet, soothing voice as he fell asleep in her arms and suddenly he could smell the scent that was hers alone, a soft, clean, rose-like scent that made him sit up with a start and look around the cave. Dios! My imagination's runnin' away with me… He relaxed back onto the saddle, knowing that any ghosts around were the friendly kind.

Murdoch woke a few hours later, and after helping with his personal needs, Johnny settled him back onto his blankets. Taking into account Murdoch's condition, Johnny decided to put off trying to get underway again. The cave would be home for another night. He didn't want to push the fact that Murdoch was feeling better only to have him re-injure himself and maybe next time the healing wouldn't be as easy. No, best to take it slow, no matter how much Murdoch objected.

And object he did. Folding arms over his chest, he glared at Johnny only to get a smirk in reply.

"Ya ain't goin' anywhere taday, ol' man, so ya can just forget ‘bout it. Just relax an' don't be so impatient…" Johnny could barely keep from outright laughing at the look on Murdoch's face.

“Remind you of anyone, John?”

"I take it you're insinuatin' that's a quality I inherited from you?" The smile was threatening to explode into an all-out grin. "Come on, Murdoch, just take it easy. Look, I got some cards. How ‘bout a few hands of poker? It'll help ta pass the time. What'd ya say?" Johnny's deep blue eyes melted their way into Murdoch's heart, and he smiled a little.

“Well, I guess one more night won’t matter,” Murdock said, giving into the warmth that the smile of his son generated.

Johnny dealt the cards.

<><><><> 

Three hours later and twenty-four pebbles poorer, Murdoch stretched out on the blankets and closed his eyes. In all honesty, he was glad for the rest. His back, while not good by any means, was loosening, the muscles declaring that after sufficient repose they would be working correctly and ready for the trip home, but only after more rest. Johnny watched his father drift into sleep, grateful for this time together, this long overdue time for understanding, reflection and maybe even a little forgiveness.

He knew things now that he didn’t before and became more aware of his father’s struggle and strife through the ordeals. Johnny truly had not known the whole story, but thinking back, now, he could see that his mother had not been well. Certainly not well enough to have been responsible for caring for a small boy, much less herself.

And then Johnny thought of his father. What had Murdoch endured? First, the loss of Catherine and then Scott; Scott had been literally stolen away. Murdoch's rights as a father had been refused and threatened with financial ruin should he pursue the issue to regain custody of the boy. To have found love a second time and, again, have it ripped from his grasp, taking with it the two-year-old baby boy that had become the very center of his world. Not many other men would have survived, but Murdoch did, not only survived but prospered. And it had cost him dearly.

Johnny remembered the day both he and Scott came to Lancer after the Pinkertons had located them with the message that their father wanted to see them. For one hour of their time, he would pay each of them one thousand dollars. Arriving at Lancer, they found their father cold, hard, and impossible. What a difference these last few years had made, for all of them.

<><><><> 

Murdoch watched as Johnny prepared for a venture outside. “You be careful out there, Johnny.” Murdoch knew he did not have to say the words, but they made him feel better after voicing them.

Johnny looked up and smiled. "I plan to." And with a grin and a quick wink he was out of the cave and into the bright sunlight. Pulling his hat low over his eyes and tying his bandana high up on his face helped to shield from the brightness. With his rifle over his shoulder, he began to hunt.

Murdoch hunkered down into the blankets and waited. As he lay quietly, he thought about Johnny and could only wonder about his years growing up. He wondered if he dare ask him about it. Maybe he would try… Johnny talked openly about Holly and asked about his mother; perhaps he would talk about life as Madrid? This was, indeed, covering a lot of new and unchartered territory between the two men. In the not so distant past, there would have been sharp words and arguments, but now, the air was definitely clearing.

A sharp rifle report echoed off the mountains, reverberating, again and again, to finally fade altogether. About a half hour later, another shot rang out, and Murdoch sat in tense, anxious anticipation and waited.

A short time later Johnny stumbled into the cave and stamped off the snow that packed onto his leather calzoneras and clung to his boots. With the rifle slung over his shoulder, he carried with him two fat, gutted and skinned rabbits. Setting the Winchester by his saddle Johnny spitted the rabbits and set them to slowly cook over the flames as he added a bit more wood. He had even managed to find some hickory branches that would burn hot and add a bit of flavoring to their dinner.

Murdoch had to admit he was hungry and he watched as the meat dripped fat into the fire. The sizzle it produced helped to steer thoughts in the direction of a tasty meal, and it made his mouth water.

Johnny slipped off his boots and wet socks and set them near the heat to dry out; he found a dry pair of socks in his saddlebags, pulled them on and yanked his bedroll over his dry, socked feet. Huffing out a deep breath he looked over at Murdoch and graced his father with one of his dazzling smiles.

Murdoch couldn’t help but grin in return. It seemed as if he were watching Johnny, again, as a toddler and everything the boy did made him proud. The sound of Johnny's voice broke into his precious and personal thoughts. He looked up, and Johnny was grinning at him.

“Didn’t know I was so entertainin’,” Johnny quipped with a sparkle in those deep blue eyes.

“Oh, I was just remembering you as a toddler, everything you did made us proud!”

”Everything, huh? Seems ta me ya were just tellin’ me last night what a terror I was…” Johnny said with a laugh.

Murdoch sighed. “No, Johnny, not a terror, maybe a trial, though!” Both men chuckled.

Johnny leaned forward to check the rabbit and satisfied at the progress, leaned back on his saddle. ”Be ready in a little while. How’re ya feelin’, Murdoch?” Johnny asked, watching his father’s eyes and hoped to hear something positive.

Murdoch paused before answering. “I’ll be fine, Johnny. I have to say it was a good idea to spend another day here without getting back on the trail. I can tell that today did me a lot of good.” Murdoch hesitated then continued. “But I have to say that this whole trip did me…. us a lot of good.”

Johnny smiled as he pulled on his boots then checked the rabbits and put them on plates. He crossed around to Murdoch and handed one to his father with a cup of hot coffee. Taking his own and leaning back against his saddle, they began to eat.

As Johnny ate, he realized what it meant to him to have Murdoch talk about his mother last night, and suddenly his throat seemed to close, the lump almost cutting off the air supply. After a few minutes of getting it under control, Johnny looked at Murdoch. “Thanks for tellin’ me ‘bout my mother. I know it couldn’ta been easy ta talk ‘bout.” He looked down at his plate, unable to say anymore.

Murdoch could see Johnny’s difficulty. “Son, anything you want to know, please ask, and if I can, I will tell you."

“Thanks, Murdoch…” was all Johnny could manage.

Murdoch cleared his throat and with that Johnny looked up. “There is something I would like to ask you, that is if you don’t mind me asking…”

Uh oh… Johnny thought. What’s comin’ now? “’K, answer it if I can…”

“Would you tell me about Madrid, Johnny?” Murdoch asked softly.

Johnny dropped his chin onto his chest and closed his eyes. Then his head came up and met his father’s gaze. "Ya, sure ya wanna know, Murdoch? There's a lot ya ain't gonna be too proud of, or even wanna hear ‘bout…"

Murdoch thought again but knew in his heart this would be the only way to completely understand what had happened, the truth of what happened. The Pinkerton reports, Murdoch suspected, held many discrepancies and probably many false details. “Yes, Johnny, I do.”

Hoping that Murdoch would have said, no, drop it, Johnny took a deep breath and started to talk. “Madrid didn’t happen right away. After Mama died, I drifted around, worked for pennies, sometimes didn't even get paid for work I did. I lied, I stole just ta eat. After ‘bout a year, I found a gun, practiced with it every day. If I got paid for doin' work I spent half the money on bullets an' after a while, I got pretty good with that gun.

"Then one day I wandered inta this town, I’ll never forget it. Was broke, hungry an’ gettin’ real tired a walkin’ everywhere. I saw this horse tied in fronta the saloon.” Johnny’s eyes were looking far away, back to that dusty, dirty border town and what lay ahead of him. “It belonged ta the man that killed Mama. So I went inta the saloon, and when he saw me he just laughed, but he didn't laugh for long. He saw the gun I was wearin', and he drew on me, thinkin' that it would be an easy kill… But he was wrong. As he was layin' on the floor, he looked up at me an' called me a blue-eyed bastard before he died."

Murdoch's heart constricted, and he wanted to grieve for his beautiful blue-eyed boy.

“He had some money on ‘im, and I paid ta have ‘im buried an' took what was left, includin' his horse. I heard the name Madrid from somethin’ Mama said ‘bout Spain an’ thought it sounded right, had the right feel ‘bout it, so, that’s when Madrid was ‘born’.

"After that things started ta come my way, different jobs, mostly range wars. That’s where me an’ Val met for the first time. Didn’t like each other very much at first,” Johnny laughed a bit. “But got thrown tagether on a job an' things kinda fell inta place an' been friends ever since. For a while, I took whatever job came my way as long as I was on the right side, but I'm gonna be honest with ya, Murdoch, there were a coupla times I ain't too proud of what I did. Most of it was legal, maybe not too bright at times, but I got the job done an’ started ta make some decent money. Started ta get paid for pushin’ people around and makin’ ‘em see that there was another side ta what they were doin’.

“But I never shot at a man that wasn’t shootin’ at me first. I never murdered anyone, beat the hell outta some but they lived… The only gunfights I started were the ones that needed ta be finished. Had some gun hawks call out friends for a fight an’ they had others waitin’ in alleys ta finish ‘em off, so I took care a those. Heard enough?” Johnny raised his eyes to his father’s face and waited.

“How did you come to be in front of the firing squad, Johnny?” The question had burned a hole in Murdoch's heart ever since he had learned that's where the Pink found his son before his returning to Lancer.

Johnny chuckled a bit, closing his eyes. “That was the same ol’ story. The Rurales were takin’ everything the peasants had, including the men an’ young boys ta make ‘em fight. An’ some of us tried ta stop it. The crooked Mexican government was keepin’ the people poor, they had nothin’, so some of us tried ta change that an’… well, we got caught.

“The Rurales didn't take too kindly ta us troublemakers messin' up their plans, so a firin' squad was how they handled everything. They were hopin’ ta make examples outta us but… I got lucky," Johnny sat quietly as if collecting his thoughts. He'd decided to not tell Murdoch about living with the Apache Indians, which still was too hard to talk about. He wasn't ready to say anything about that tumultuous time, and in reality, he'd rather just forget.

He'd been vague about specific details of Madrid. Murdoch had read the Pinkerton's report, and even though Johnny knew there were not only inconsistencies, there were many discrepancies and downright untruths in the accounts, some things he decided were best forgotten.

Johnny had stopped talking and sat wondering if Murdoch would somehow change his opinion of him. He chanced a quick look at his father, and Johnny was shocked to see tears welling in Murdoch's eyes. Not knowing what to say, Johnny just sat there, not trusting himself to find the right words. He knew that he had been a disappointment to his father and there was nothing that would fix that now…

"Johnny… I don't know what to say. I can't…" Murdoch was floundering with his own thoughts… and regrets.

Johnny sighed before carefully choosing his words. Not looking into his father's eyes, those gray-blue eyes that seemed to pierce into his heart, Johnny attempted to ease the obvious volatility in Murdoch's impressions of him. "I… ‘m sorry, Murdoch, I know that ain't exactly somethin' ta be proud of, but I can't change any of it now," Johnny stated, suddenly finding his hands very interesting, knowing he'd disappointed his father.

“Stop right there, young man!” Murdoch’s voice rose like thunder in the cave, jarring Johnny to the core. Mierda! He’s really pissed ‘bout it now…! Johnny, never having been one to back down from a fight or one to make excuses for what he’d done, raised his eyes to meet those of his father’s, a glare in them that wasn’t present before, challenging and cold. Well, so much for talkin' things out…

“I don’t ever want to hear those words from you again!” Murdoch's voice, again, echoing, thundering off the walls almost hurting Johnny’s ears. The horses began to stomp around, nervous with the loud voice. He winced slightly, but the next words spoken by Murdoch, much more softly, came as a surprise when they finally registered in Johnny’s brain.

“Johnny, please come over here, son.”

Johnny stooped apprehensively at his father's side, and Murdoch continued. "What happened was not much fault of yours. What you did, the things you had to do were to survive, you took what you had and made your way, relying on only yourself, your wit, brains and… guts. You survived, and you became strong and more than that, you are a son I am proud to claim.”

Shock flooded through his brain, his heart, and veins. His belly flipped, and he swore he was getting dizzy. Did I hear the ol’ man right? The voice had been, indeed, like thunder, how could he not hear right? Maybe the sound of this thunder was what he had been waiting for all his young life, he thought, but he could not find any words, and his voice failed him.

“Johnny… Look at me, son.” Johnny turned to his father and Murdoch reached out to touch Johnny’s shoulder, a physical contact holding them together. “Every word I said, I meant. The life you’ve led was not the life I would have chosen for you, believe me, but, I sincerely believe that it made you the man you are today. I don’t think that if I had raised you myself that I could have done a better job. The years we lost together, all three of us can never be reclaimed, but the sons I have are more than what I could ever have hoped for. I want you to know that, believe that. Whatever Madrid did in the past is the past, but he is part of you, and that means part of me."

Sometimes that ol’ thunder ain’t bad after all… And at that moment Johnny thought that it had all been worth it. Yup, thunder… that thunder sounded mighty good…

 

 

 

~end~

Want to comment? Email Buckskin