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Cobalt Jan

 

 

FThe Gamble

Episode tag principally to Catch a Wild Horse, also The High Riders and Blood Rock

My attempt to answer the question, why did Murdoch spew so much vile hatred at Johnny in Catch A Wild Horse?

 

Part one:  WHN The High Riders

Just how was he supposed to feel?  Johnny wasn’t sure.  The one thing he was sure of was he couldn’t go back to that house, not right now, not today, and not tonight.

The four of them, Murdoch and Teresa in the buckboard, Scott and Johnny riding along behind, were headed home from the lawyer’s office.  The papers were signed and the ranch was carved up into three equal pieces, well maybe not quite equal, the old man was the only one calling the tune, as he put it.  But, it was all square and legal, he, Johnny Madrid Lancer, was one third owner of a hundred thousand acres, payment for a job done.         

Only thing was, this job was different. This time he was expected to stick around, become part of a family.  That had never been the case before.  No, all those other fine, upstanding, gentlemen were always more than anxious to see him on his way.  But with the old man making good on his promise he was expected to...  hell, he no idea what he was expected to do. 

Johnny stretched in his saddle.  Things just didn’t fit and the closer they got to the ranch the more uncomfortable he got.  Everything felt too small and too tight, like a new pair of boots. Shit, he had a new pair of boots once, bought legal, but they never did feel right.  Pinched in all the wrong places, rubbed his heel raw, never been one to have patience with those kind a things.  So how exactly was he expected break this in, just how was he to go from roamin’ free to livin’ in a cage?  No matter how pretty or how big, hundred thousand acre big, it still felt like a cage and it still pinched.

Sleepin’ in a proper bed every night, now ain’t that a kick in the pants.  But, then again, a bed just ain’t proper, unless there’s something soft and sweet smelling beside you, or beneath you, or...  well that sure ain’t gonna happen.  Not in that proper bed and not at Lancer.  There were rules against that sorta’ thing.

Eatin’ proper, every day, was another of them fancy rules. Dinner at sundown, don’t be late. Late?   What kinds of people use a clock to tell them when to eat?  Seems kinda strange.  You eat when you’re hungry or, if you’re long past hungry, you eat when you got food.  Guess eating by the clock’s what you called living normal. Well, Madrid, he ain’t never lived normal. 

Talkin’ proper, now that’s a tricky one.  Shit, he hated sitting around sipping from fancy cups, talking all sweet, no cussing, no belching, and no talk of whoring or drinking, least not with Teresa smiling at everyone and nodding her head.  What you could talk about was the fine weather or the delicious meal.  But the worst talking came when they wanted to know stuff.  Like where you went to school or what it was like where you grew up.  Scott was good at that kind a talking but Madrid, he don’t talk of those things, ain’t nobody’s business, besides no one wants to hear the real answers to those questions.

Doin’ proper work, now most times that wasn’t so bad, the work anyway.  But what crawled under his skin was the deadline.  Do this by ten then go over there and do that by three, it was enough to make him want to lie down under a big tree and do anything but what he’s supposed to be doing. A man could get used to eating and sleeping on a deadline. But work? Nope, that’s not ever gonna happen.  More than willing to work up a sweat, but there’s a limit and once that limit’s reached it’s time for a little fun. Besides, he never much cared for stayin in one place too long, tended to get into trouble that way.  And he found it was usually best to try and slip away from trouble, unless, of course, you planned to finish it. 

As bad some of those things are none of those proper things was the worst; nope the worst is the way everyone just looks at you, waiting.  Looks that told ya to say the right thing or stop sayin’ the wrong thing, looks that said eat the right way, or sit without putting your feet on the furniture, looks that meant sit down and still others that told ya stand up.  But there was always one look, when their eyes travelled to his hip, the one that said so much, the questions, the disappointment, and the fear. That’s the worst of it.  That’s what he hated the most.

****

Murdoch snapped the reins, moving the buckboard on a bit faster.  He was anxious to return home.  He had his family back.  What more could a man ask for?  He knew perfectly well this wouldn’t be easy, but it would be worth it.

The day’s greatest joy came when John said ‘Let it stand’.  Murdoch felt the smile start in his heart and journey to his lips, deeply touched by the gesture.  If only the transition would be that simple, but he knew, in that very same heart, it wouldn’t, it couldn’t.  He learned that, sitting by John’s bed, as he watched his son fight another battle, the battle against lead and all its inherent dangers. During those endless days, Murdoch was forced to realize just how entrenched Madrid was in his young son as brutal reminders emerged through fevered ramblings.   

More than once he were certain the battle would be his last and more than once Murdoch convinced himself that maybe it was for the better. At least his son had found his way home. 

Murdoch searched for any sign of that little boy he’d once loved. Instead he found a hard and dangerous man.  A man disinclined to accept the help offered and angered when he was unable to survive without it. Murdoch’s heart ached for the solitary stranger. 

Once John was able to move about, things went from bad to worse.  He’d pace the house setting everyone’s nerves on edge with his incessant tapping of fingers on anything within reach, tables, glassware, and if nothing else was available his thigh.  There was not an object in the entire hacienda he didn’t touch, move, poke or question.  But the most infuriating thing of all, he refused to remove that blasted gun. 

Today was the first day he’d been allowed out, but, even that brought on a tension of its own.   What Murdoch expected was for John to handle the buckboard, but that was not going to happen.  Grudgingly Murdoch relented, resulting from the fact, that as difficult as it was for him to admit, there was a small part of him that was afraid of his own son.  But, maybe claiming the Lancer name was a new beginning, a fresh start for all.  Maybe, this would be good.

Johnny rode up beside the buckboard.   “I’m taking off for a while.  Need some time.”

“Now, John, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.  What you need is to come home, rest. It’s your first day out.  Don’t push.”

“That wasn’t a question.  Don’t need your permission, Old Man.  I’m takin’ off for a while.”  He turned his palomino towards the south and kneed him into a gallop.

Murdoch reined the horses to a stop, unsure of what just happened.  Teresa looked at him, her eyes full of questions.  All he could do was shake his head.

Scott quickly moved into the position vacated by the palomino.  “What was that all about? “Where’s he going?”  

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m going after him.”

“I’d like that, Scott, thank you.”  Murdoch’s eyes followed Johnny as he raced toward a stand of trees.  “Remember, Maria is preparing a celebration dinner tonight.” His words rang in his ears, not feeling very much like celebrating at the moment.

“Wouldn’t miss it, Sir.”  Scot grinned. “We’ll be home,” Scott said then turned away to follow his brother.

*****

He pulled up when he spotted Johnny just beyond the trees, waiting. 

Johnny pushed his hat back allowing it to dangle from its stampede strings and squinted. “Go back, Brother.  Not looking for company.”

“But…”

“I said, go back.”  He returned his hat to his head and pressed it firmly in place.  “Had enough of you people, for a spell.   No offense, but this just ain’t the way I live.”

Scott’s horse pranced about, clearly anxious to continue at the faster pace.  “What about Murdoch and Teresa?”   You’re expected for dinner, big celebration you know.  You own one third of a ranch.”

“Ya, I know, Scott.”  Johnny dropped his head then looked up smiling. “It’ll take some getting’ used to.  Can’t think straight right now, feel all boxed in what with all the fussin’ over me, need some time is all.  I’ll be back.”

“For dinner?  Can I tell him you’ll be back for dinner?”

“Ain’t making no promises, Boston.  Nope, never make promises.

****

Champagne was opened, dinner eaten, dishes cleared but the celebratory air was nowhere to be seen and neither was Johnny.  Murdoch climbed the stairs early not sure what to make of this son of his.  Johnny was well aware of the significance of this night, how important it was to the family, and his no show was a hurtful slap in the face of each and every member of the family. 

****

A few days later Murdoch sat with his desk chair turned toward the window, lost in thought. He watched as his son rode in.   At first sight Murdoch allowed relief to unclench his belly.  By the time he’d strode across the large room and flung open the door anger had replaced relief.  He looked dirty and exhausted, but, for the most part, unharmed.  Murdoch grabbed him by the arms, squeezing with his large hands.  “Where the devil have you been?”

“Devil’s got nothing to do with it.”  Johnny’s voice was calm and steely. “Just needed some time’s all.  Case you need an education, I’m pretty much of a one man deal, don’t make a secret of it and don’t plan on changing it for you or anybody.”

“You look like hell.”  He felt his anger fade, replaced by a father’s concern.  He released his grip.

Arms free, Johnny stepped deeper into the room, his back to Murdoch.  He dipped his head removing his hat then, with a sigh looked through the large window behind the desk. “Ya, well, thanks,” he clipped.  “It comes with the lunch.”

“I thought when you agreed to the Lancer name you agreed to be a part of this family.  Was I wrong?”

Johnny walked to the desk.  He tossed his hat so it landed dead center and placed his hands on the polished wood.  He followed the grain with his fingers at first then, as if bearing the weight of all the world, he leaned heavily on the desk.  His head dropped. “You don’t get it.  You don’t get how hard this is for me.”

“No, Johnny I don’t.  I get the impression you hate this, hate me.  Is that it?  Do you hate me that much?”

Pushing off from the desk Johnny stood, picked up a paperweight and spun on his heels. “Don’t hate you any more than I hate anyone else.  Don’t trust ya any more either.”  He tossed the carved stone from hand to hand, but looked into Murdoch’s eyes. “We share blood and up till a few weeks ago that alone could have got you dead. But, look, you’re still breathing.”  A thin smile slipped across his face and then was gone. “I call that progress and if you don’t, then we’ll be buttin’ heads for a long time, Old Man.”  He set the paperweight down, picked up his hat and walked out the French doors.

 

 

Part Two: WHN Blood Rock

Murdoch sat in his chair, staring into the spent ashes of the morning’s fire, a forgotten glass of scotch dangled from his fingers.  Scott left this afternoon to bring Ben to the Taft’s and Johnny?  Well, Johnny rode off a short time later.  All seemed fine when he gave a boost to Ben, dropping him onto the horse behind Scott.  A broad smile hid what churned beneath.  Johnny was good at that, hiding behind a smile, something he no doubt learned a long time ago.  But when he asked about the pocket knife the smile faded, especially at the mention of the cost paid for that little token. 

“Murdoch?”  Teresa spoke as she eased into the arm chair across from him.  She placed a sewing basket at her feet and spread a few work shirts across her lap.

“Yes.”  He replied.

“I was wondering - have you talked to Johnny since the funeral?” 

Coming to life, Murdoch moved, splashing his hand with the forgotten scotch.  “Johnny?  Talk?  No.”   He shook his head.  With a push he rose from his chair and set the glass on the mantle.  “Things have been a little busy, what with Ben and all.” Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket he wiped his hand before returning to his chair. 

“What about on your trip home yesterday?”  She plucked a spool of thread from the basket and held it against the tan shirt, satisfied, she pulled off a length.  “Not then either?”

Unsettled by this line of questioning Murdoch leaned forward.  “No, he kept his distance, trailed behind.  Why?  Is there something I need to know?”

“Yes, well, it was the night you and Scott left to get Ben.”  She searched the shirt for the rip and began to stitch.  “He stayed in that night, we played checkers.” 

“Seeing her cheeks color, Murdoch sighed, his eyes narrowed, ready for the worst. “What did he do?  I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone with him.” 

“Murdoch!”  She dropped the mending into her lap and glared.   “He was a perfect gentleman!” 

Teresa scrunched her face in disapproval.  “As I was saying, it was nice, he was… he was, different.  We talked and laughed.”  A smile erased the frown on her face, but it quickly returned.  “At least it was nice until I mentioned Ben.  And in the snap of a finger Johnny got quiet.  He left the room, stepping out onto the veranda.”  

Picking the shirt up from her lap Teresa returned to her mending.   “I wasn’t sure what to do so I waited.   I waited for a while.  When he didn’t return, I followed.  It was dark and it took a minute for my eyes to adjust but I saw him, crouched down, his back pressed against the wall.  He was resting his head on his knees.”  She bit the tail of thread and appraised her work.  “I called his name.  When he lifted his head, I’m not sure, in the moonlight it was hard to tell, but… he may have been crying.”

“Crying?”  Murdoch shook his head, “I don’t think so, Honey.  If I know anything about my son it is that he does not cry.”

“I said, may have been.”  She continued. “I sat in the chair beside him, not saying a word.  After a long time he spoke, hushed, almost a whisper.”   Teresa’s eyes glistened, tears collecting on her lashes.  “He said that he never went to her funeral, didn’t even know if she had one.   When I asked who, he put his head back down and said - Mama.” 

The tears that rested on her lashes flowed freely now, moistening her cheek.  “But that wasn’t the worst, Murdoch.  The worst was when he said he how old he was.  Did you know?  Did you know that he was only ten?“

With a heavy sigh Murdoch fell back into his chair.  He closed his eyes trying to imagine a ten year old boy, his ten year old boy, alone.

“Ten.  Just like Ben,” she said.

“No, Teresa, I didn’t.  There is so little I know, so very, very little.”

“Don’t you think you should try?”  Her eyes were red now and she wiped her face with the back of her hand.

“I have tried, Teresa,” Murdoch said, as he crossed the short distance between them and handed her his handkerchief.   “It just comes out sounding wrong. Angry.  I don’t mean to but… he doesn’t make it easy.”  Murdoch dropped his hand onto Teresa’s back and glanced at the clock.   “It’s late, you should be in bed.  I’ll wait up for Scott.”

****

As soon as Scott arrived home, Murdoch turned in for the night, but as he lay in bed sleep was elusive.  He twisted and turned until his back ached.  Admitting defeat, he rose, wrapped a quilt around himself, and nestled into the large armchair by the window.  The sliver of a moon cast little light, leaving the ranch dark and uninspiring.  

His conversation with Teresa had left him feeling trampled.   How could he possibly hope to get his son back when he’d been lost for so many years?  All those years alone can harden any man, he, of all people, should know.  But, a boy?  Was he too far gone?    No.  To admit that would mean he’d lost hope, and he wasn’t about to allow that to happen, not again.  

It’s just that things weren’t going anywhere close to how he’d hoped.  In the three months since they signed the contract, there were weeks where Johnny would settle into a routine, but as soon as things started to feel comfortable, he’d get restless and take off.  It would usually only be for a night or two, and more often than not he’d join the crew during the day.  But come night, he’d vanish.  Last time, he was gone longer, nearly a week.  When he came back, he had Wes in tow. 

In some ways Wes helped, but in others he made things worse.   Having a friend around gave Johnny one more reason to cut off from the family.  Trips to town became a nightly occurrence, some nights they wouldn’t come home till morning.  Murdoch was finding it difficult to explain to Teresa why Johnny would ride in for breakfast, though she probably knew full well.   In defense of Wes, he did put an end to the roaming, until tonight.  Tonight Johnny was alone.

Murdoch shifted in his chair, trying to find that one comfortable spot, the one where he could usually fall asleep, but there would be no sleep tonight.  With a creak his door opened.  In the darkness he could make out Scott’s tall frame as he looked to the bed.

“I’m over here.”  Murdoch kept his voice low so as not to startle his son. 

“Figured you wouldn’t be sleeping.  Johnny’s out?”  Scott asked as he sat on the edge of Murdoch’s bed.

Lowering his head, Murdoch steepled his fingers, then sighed. “Yes, he left shortly after you did.  Alone.”

“So, that means…  He hasn’t done that since Wes joined us.  What do you think did it this time?  He seemed fine when I left, though he looked like he hadn’t slept.” 

“I think this thing with Ben has him upset.  Seems he’s been talking to Teresa and well, the funeral brought up some bad memories.”

Murdoch looked toward his son but could only make out the movement of his silhouette.  Right now he wasn’t moving. Only his voice found its way through the darkness.  “And you, Murdoch?  What bad memories had you so deep in thought when we made our way back here yesterday?”

“It may surprise you, but, I was thinking of Morgan Price.  Seems kind of odd, now, but, I felt I owed the man.”

The bed creaked before Scott spoke, the only indication the words unsettled him slightly.  “What could you possibly owe a man like Price?”

“If it weren’t for him Johnny may still be lost to me, to us.  For years I was convinced Johnny was dead.  There was no trail, no indication either he or his mother were alive.   In fact, I’d completely given up hope, in my mind Johnny was long dead and buried.” 

“That must have been difficult, but I guess eventually you’d have no choice.  You’d have to move on eventually, I suppose.”

“Morgan Price gave me back that hope.  He came to Lancer a few years ago in an attempt to see his own son.  When I caught him he told me a story of a man, a boy actually.  Said a couple of his men met up with him on a trail near Nogales.  Just a kid, with a lot of hate for a man named Lancer.  Said this kid rode with them a spell, this Mexican with blue eyes.” 

Murdoch’s eyes strained in the darkness, wishing he could see Scott’s face.  “Price knew the Lancer history and he figured it might be Johnny, if not, I imagine, he figured it would at least buy my silence.  It did.  I allowed him to see his boy, with the agreement Ben wouldn’t know who he was, and then I made sure he got away.   What I would have given for the same privilege.  A son for a son.” 

For many minutes silence filled the darkness between the two men.  “Watching as Price was gunned down hit hard.  I wondered if he had family, besides his son.  If they even cared?  If they’d ever know? “   His voice cracked.  “I felt as though I was seeing Johnny’s life play out before me.”  He paused drawing a fractured breath.  “And I didn’t like the ending.”

The springs on the bed groaned as the shadow stood.  “Doesn’t he understand what this does to us?  Teresa cries, I get irritable and you, you don’t sleep.”

“I’m not sure he does understand, Scott.  He’s been on his own so very long I’m not sure he’ll ever understand.  But I understand something, Scott.  I understand that Johnny has to make up his mind, who he is and where he belongs.  This cannot continue.”

****

Murdoch sat before the fire, alone.  The past month, since the funeral, had been a disaster.  But the last six days were the worst, and tonight… tonight took the prize. 

It was Teresa’s birthday, her first since Paul’s death.  It needed to be special, a birthday to remember, filled with love and family.  Murdoch ordered a new bonnet for his ward, not really sure what was the proper gift for a young woman. He had little experience in this area, but, it had a bit more detail than her previous one and he felt it a practical gift. 

It was Scott who was more familiar with the tastes of a young lady.  He had the perfect gift.  As she opened his carefully wrapped package, tears welled in her eyes.  Lifting the delicate hair combs from the box, she looked so grown up.  Tiny pearls decorated the scrollwork at the top of each carved comb and Teresa rushed to the mirror, slipping them into her thick hair.  Spinning on her toes, her face brightened with a smile and she rushed to Scott, planting a quick kiss on his cheek.  “They’re beautiful.  Where ever did you find them?”

“There was a particular shop in Boston I used to frequent and I wrote them.  I’m pleased you like them.  Happy birthday, Teresa.”  Scott hugged the young woman then with his hands on her shoulders he stepped back, keeping her at arm’s length he admired her new gift and her bright smile.  But, while the smile lingered on her lips it was no longer reflected in her eyes.  “What’s wrong?  Don’t you like your gifts?”

“Oh, I love them but the one gift, the gift I wished for with all my heart isn’t here.  Why isn’t he here?  Why doesn’t he come home?”  Tears cascaded down her cheeks and her valiant effort to keep that smile collapsed as she fell into Scott’s arms, sobbing.

The memory of those tears filled Murdoch with sorrow, once again.  Rising, he crossed the room and refilled his glass. It didn’t matter what bottle he grabbed, he just needed a drink.  His heart breaking for Teresa.

Of course there were no words for her, not then and not now.  No words to mend her heart.  Johnny was fully aware of the birthday plans, they’d been the topic of secreted conversations for weeks, but here it was well past midnight, the day gone, and no Johnny. 

Of course Murdoch hadn’t expected him, not after their last discussion six days ago. 

Johnny was supposed to have checked the bridge over at Clark’s Ravine, then return with a report of its condition.  A simple request.  The bridge’s condition would determine which way to send the herd.  When he didn’t return Murdoch assumed it was fine and figured Johnny was just being his cavalier self and continued on to parts unknown.  Murdoch sent two hundred head of cattle and six vaqueros over that bridge.  The only good to come out of the mess was no men were injured, but the bridge gave out sending twelve of the heard crashing down the fifteen feet onto the rocks below.  Those not killed outright by the fall needed to be shot.

Johnny returned to Lancer the next day, fully aware of the costly outcome of his decisions.  “What were you thinking Johnny?  Or were you thinking at all?”

“Ya, I was thinkin’, Old  Man.  Were you?”  His voice was hard but never out of control.  “I’d almost missed it but one of the support beams was cracked.  Not bad, but I knew with too much weight the bridge would let go.  So I went straight to town but they were waiting on their delivery from the mill.  It made no sense coming back here so I hung around.  Only thing is the delivery didn’t arrive till this morning.  Never figured you’d send out the herd without an all clear.  Thought you had more sense than that.”  

“You had a job to do with very clear instructions.   You were told to come back with a report.  You didn’t. You didn’t do what you were told and that is not acceptable. When are you going to learn you’re not a lone-wolf any more, Johnny? Every decision you make has far reaching consequences.  There are more people to consider than just you.  Can you do that? Can you follow the rules?  Do what you’re told?”

“Damn it, I’m trying. I just thought…”

“Seems to me you need to try harder, John!  If you can’t then maybe we need to realize this isn’t for you.  I was a fool to think I could change the likes of you into a rancher, a damn fool!”  The crack of silence that followed those words was deafening.  But there they were, out there, hanging in the air.  Murdoch instantly wished he could reach out and grab them, make them disappear.  But that was not possible.

Johnny said nothing, at least not in words but the look in his eyes said so much.  He spun on his heels and stormed out the door.  That was six days ago, not a word, not a sign.  Just wishes, on Teresa’s part, that for her birthday she’d get the best gift of all.  Well, she cried herself to sleep.  Murdoch had gotten his wish - a birthday to remember – unfortunately it was nothing like he had planned.

The sound of a horse brought Murdoch from his dark thoughts. He looked at the grandfather clock.  It was 3:00 AM.    He was long past hoping, but stepped out onto the veranda and saw Johnny lead Barranca into the barn.  Murdoch decided to join him.

*****

“What made you decide to come back?”  Murdoch spoke from the doorway as Johnny lit the lantern.

“Don’t know.  Guess I thought I’d be expected.”  He shook out the match.

“This has to be it Johnny, the line has to be drawn.  You realize that don’t you?”

“Ya, suppose so.”  Johnny looked briefly at the muslin pouch in his hand, tied with a satin ribbon.   He sighed and stuffed it back in his saddle bag then unbuckled the girth.

Murdoch stepped closer.  “Why Johnny?  Can you at least tell me why?”

“Why, what?”  He pulled the saddle from Barranca’s back and draped it over the stall.  Leaning on it he looked at his father.  “Why do I keep messin’ up?  Why is it so damn hard to feel at home here?  Why is it damn near impossible to change?  I don’t know Murdoch, why don’t you tell me.  You seem to have all the answers.”

Murdoch moved closer.  “Johnny… I don’t have any answers, only more questions.  How much patience can I have?  How many more times can I watch Teresa’s heart break and your brother, Johnny, he hates this as much as I do. What do I tell them?  How do I make this stop?”

“Ya can’t, Old Man, it’s just the way I am.  Been on my own too long.”  He dropped his head, then pulled a hoof pick from a nearby bucket.  “If I let my guard down I may as well be standing before you and everyone else naked.” He slowly lifted his eyes. “That’s how it feels. But, I try.  I do.”

“Johnny, every time you go, I live through losing you all over again.  And each time I close my eyes I see Price lying dead in the street and when I turn him over it’s you.  Every night you’re gone you die in my dreams, but I wake not knowing.  You’ve got one more chance Johnny, one more.  Make it work, toe the line, be a part of this family or…”

“Or what, Old Man?  You’ll only have one son?”

Murdoch said nothing more.  He turned and left the barn.

 

The Gamble:  Part Three     Catch a Wild Horse

Murdoch pulled up the wagon.   He could see Johnny and Wes up ahead, working on the fence.

 It had been days since their discussion in the barn and Murdoch felt it had worked, they were making progress. Johnny was putting in a full day’s work and arriving at supper right on time.  It also appeared as if he and Scott were beginning to find some common ground.   Hope warmed him, his son had come around and he was pleased by the effort. He smiled, then, kissed the horses forward.

“Looks good!” He said as he looked down the line trying to quell the sound of pride in his voice.  He jumped from the wagon. 

“Thank you,” Johnny replied as he continued to work, pulling the wire around the post. 

Murdoch’s eyes traveled to Wes, seated on the wagon, feet dangling.  The man was lazy and left him with an uneasy feeling. He wished Johnny had chosen a different hand to pair up with today.  “Come on now, take a breather,” Murdoch urged.  Repositioning his hat, he looked from one end of the line to the other.

Johnny dropped the hammer into a bucket and kicked the wire out of the way. Pointing towards the wagon he stepped forward.   “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have some water.”

“Sure, help yourself,” Murdoch said as he walked past his son toward the fence.  He leaned on the post, inspecting the fence’s angle.

Pulling one glove from his hand Johnny grabbed the canteen then climbed into the wagon.  Sitting, he bent deep, head between his knees and stretched.

Murdoch watched, still leaning on the fence post. “Sore, huh?”

A soft chuckle slipped through Johnny’s lips. “Oh, boy, I ain’t worked so hard in my life.”

“Well, it shows it.”  Once more, Murdoch looked from one end of the fence line to the other. “You’ll have this gully all fenced in by noon.”

Johnny drank thirstily and poured some of the  water over his face. “Ahhh,” he groaned then rubbed the water from his eyes, breathing heavily. “Well, I thought I’d push hard, you know, and try and get a couple hours off before town tonight.”

“Ah, Johnny.” He walked closer to the wagon, he knew what he was about to say would be a disappointment.

“Yeah.”

“A couple problems have, have come up. I’m sorry.”  Murdoch leaned on the wagon.

“Like what?”  Johnny asked, wiping more water from his face.

“Well, at two o’clock this afternoon you have to help your brother with the surveying.  That report has to go in by next week.”

Johnny dropped his head then rubbed at his eyes with a gloved hand.

“Then tonight we’ve got bookkeeping to do.”

Swallowing hard, Johnny asked, “Two o’clock, huh?” He put his glove back on.

“Yeah.”

 "And just how am I supposed to know when it's two o'clock?" He asked, jumping from the wagon.

The two men stood toe to toe for a moment.  Murdoch fished into his pocket and pulled out his watch. “Here.” He opened it.  “It’s old,” he said, then snapped it closed. “But it’s still a good timepiece.”  He passed it to his son. “Keep it.”

Johnny held it for a moment, bringing it closer to his face.   The look on Johnny’s face kicked at that feeling of hope and Murdoch longed to say something to his son. “I ah…”

Johnny lowered the watch and the moment was gone.  “What?” he snapped with one of those ice cold looks that sucked the hope right out of Murdoch’s heart.

“Nothing. You just… be back at the ranch at two o’clock.  Scott’ll be waiting for you.”  He couldn’t get in the wagon fast enough, snapped the reins and urged the horses on.  He felt a fool. 

Several hours later Murdoch was proven the fool when he looked at the clock.  Three o’clock.  Both he and Scott were in the great room, waiting.   A hand knocked then rushed through the door with a report. Fifty head of cattle, caught in the south gully, where Johnny had been working.  Scott tried to defend him.  “We don’t know what happened out there.”

Murdoch knew, full well what happened, Johnny was being Johnny again and it had worn thin. “Scott, maybe you better start the surveying by yourself.”  He couldn’t hide the disappointment in his voice.

“Right.” Scott agreed.  He grabbed his hat, gloves and left.   

Murdoch fumed, angry with himself for believing anything could change and angry with Johnny for once again neglecting his responsibilities. Up until now Murdoch had struggled to control his temper, his words may have been harsh, but, he had yet to raise his voice.   Figuring rage would do nothing to temper his wild son, but he could feel it building now and he had no desire to suppress the ever growing fury.

The sound of horses alerted him. He walked out the door just as Johnny and Wes rode in leading a black stallion with stringers to follow.

Johnny approached him, smiling, and to be truthful, Murdoch didn’t hear a lot of what he said.  He crossed his arms and asked the burning question. “What about the fence?”

The smile remained on his son’s face adding to the older man’s fury.  He pulled out the watch and spoke but Murdoch still heard nothing but his own angry thoughts. It really didn’t matter what Johnny had to say, the job wasn’t done and there was no acceptable excuse.  “That’s not good enough, Johnny.  You had a job of work to do here and you didn’t do it.”

The words and their fire stripped the smile from his son’s face.    Murdoch watched indifferently as Johnny dropped his head, looking visibly upset.   “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

Murdoch’s temper erupted.  Words passed between them, angry words.  Johnny slinked into the house.

Teresa attempted to defend Johnny, say he didn’t know what time it was.  Murdoch scoffed it off, Johnny was well aware of the time.  Just then two men road in.  Sam Stryker introduced himself then asked for what was his – the horses.  Johnny claimed them as his.  Murdoch really didn’t care.  “Take them,” he said.  Then, after Johnny’s protest he relented.  “Leave the stallion.”

What happened next, boiled down to one singular event, an event, unexpected in its impact and its repercussions.  The speed with which Johnny pulled his gun left a lump in Murdoch’s throat.  Clarity slammed into him, bringing the past months’ events into a new perspective.  He shook his head, wishing to release this new found fear, but its grip remained steadfast.   The action of walking to the injured boy was dreamlike.  He stood there, motionless, unable to utter a word.  His nightmare flashed before his eyes and for a moment his heart saw Johnny.  For the briefest of seconds this quieted Murdoch’s racing heart then he was finally able to move.  He took a few hesitant steps and watched as this father went to his son and helped him to his horse.   They rode off.

Mouth set firm, Murdoch glared at his son, his son the gunfighter.   It wasn’t like he’d never seen a man gunned down before; there’d been plenty of death on this very spot, just a few months ago.  But this was different, it hit with the fury of a bullet.  The man before him didn’t have to think about what needed to be done, this went beyond that, deeper than conscious thought.  This was instinctual, from the gut.   And that sent a shiver up Murdoch’s spine.  Had he been fighting the wrong battle?  Was this even a battle he could win?  He swallowed hard.  All this time, he thought it was simply a matter of defiance against obedience.  But this was bigger.  Murdoch truly had been the fool.  

****

Johnny sat on the table by the couch in the great room.  His arms crossed defensively, his head downcast.

Anger simmered in Murdoch as he paced the room.   He walked to the fireplace, leaned on the mantle and studied his son’s hunched back then moved around the couch and stood before him, waiting.  Not sure what he was waiting for, an explanation? But for what?  Johnny did what needed to be done, of that there was no question.  

Catching his father’s eye, Johnny looked up. "What do you keep looking at me for?"  Looking down again, he added, “You saw what happened. He drew on me. What'd you expect me to do?" Murdoch turned his back. "What's the matter isn't that good enough?"

Slowly, Murdoch turned around.  "Scott's still waiting for you to help him with that surveying job. Maybe you better go join him." He turned away again, having trouble looking at his son, his son the gunfighter.  But why?  He knew what he was, that didn’t seem to matter when he invited him here, when he needed him.  Both eyes were wide open then, so why did this suddenly bother him now?  It made no sense.

"I asked you a question."

Continuing to walk away, Murdoch stepped to the French doors and peered through the glass, the image of his son’s prowess still fresh in his mind.   But, was it that or was it something else he saw in that flash of movement?

"If it's about that fence I told you I'd finish it tomorrow morning didn't I?" Johnny paused, "Look, there's only a small section left. If it makes you happy I'll go finish it right now."

"Now is too late.”  He turned abruptly to face his son. “About 50 head of cattle strayed through that...that little hole in that section you didn't finish. What's left of them is now at the bottom of the south gully. That's what your time off cost."  It was so much easier to make this about the fence, the slacking off.  After all, that had been the battle all along.  The struggle between an errant son and a father desperate for the upper hand that was it, wasn’t it?

Johnny tensed "How was I to know that was gonna happen?"

Murdoch spoke matter-of-factly.   "Maybe you never will know. Maybe it takes twenty years of just living with this kind of land. Maybe it's not for you Johnny." 

Visibly upset, Johnny stood. "Look all right, I...I'm sorry about the cattle you lost!"

"We lost....Johnny." Unflinchingly Murdoch approached his son.  "Not you. We! And all the responsibilities that go with it."

Desperation creased Johnny’s face "I'd do fine. I'd just do fine if you wouldn't push so hard." 

For that instant Murdoch felt that same surge of hope he’d felt at the fence, something was different in this plea.  Something he’d rarely seen since his son returned. "I wish I had a chance to break you in easily but I don't. You've got to make up your mind who you are and where you belong and if it's not going to be here I want to know it now." Murdoch’s words were steadfast. 

The door opened and Wes entered, interrupting them. "Johnny! Just stopped by to say goodbye."

Johnny walked toward the door. "You leavin’ for town, huh?"

"Nope. Quit. I figure two months is long enough to be locked up anywhere. I'm just gonna go out and catch hold of something’ and go where ever it takes me. You know what I mean, Johnny? Just kinda go out and ride free."

Murdoch kept his back to his son, listening.   Wishing they’d had more time, wishing the other night in the barn had never happened.  Wishing he hadn’t made the same demand just a few moments ago….

"Wes, you do me a favor? Get my gear together and wait up for me outside?"

This was it.  He was leaving, using his last chance.  Murdoch’s heart froze.  When he said those words he’d hoped he’d never need them.  They were so easy to say, but, Murdoch Lancer was a man of his word. He always did what he said.  Always.

"I'm goin’ with you."  Johnny drawled.

"You bet!" Wes said.  Murdoch heard the door close as he left.

Hesitating, Johnny turned to his father, his voice soft, "Well, I guess you heard."

With the slightest turn of his head, Murdoch stepped forward, toward his desk.  "You'll need some money."  Why did this need to be the last chance?  Why?  But he’d said it, not once but twice.  To change his mind now… no, - Last chance - if nothing else Murdoch Lancer was a man of his word.

 Johnny returned to the table and picked up his hat, fingering the rim, "Only what you figure I got comin’."

Picking up the ledger, Murdoch marked its pages. "Haven't drawn anything in two weeks. I make that to be twelve dollars." He dropped the book to his desk "You better sign it. Receipt of wages."

Johnny crossed the room as Murdoch pulled the money from his pocket.  He signed and Murdoch threw the money on the table.  “Count it.”  The hardness in his own voice surprised him. 

One by one, Johnny picked up the bills.  Briefly their eyes met, but Murdoch was unable to hold their gaze out of fear that he’d weaken.  Johnny had made his choice and he and walked out the door.  The music bouncing off his spurs belied the bleakness of the moment.

With the click of the door Murdoch felt his heart shatter. “Johnny.”

Stripped of all his strength, Murdoch leaned heavily on his desk, his head hung low. “Murdoch?”  Teresa spoke as she entered from the kitchen.   The sound of her voice caused him to straighten.  “What just happened?”

He looked at his ward absorbing the innocent look of ignorance.  “Johnny’s leaving.  For good this time,” he barked.  Then his voice softened.  “Better hurry if you want to say good bye.”   He turned away quickly, not wanting to see the damage caused by his words.

****

The remainder of the day passed excruciatingly slowly.  Murdoch spent it deep in thought.  Scott approached him after dinner, expecting him to go after Johnny.  What was the point?  He’d made his decision.  The words Murdoch spoke sounded so much like his own father.  ‘The matter is closed.  It’s not open for further discussion.’  And it wasn’t just those words, but ones used with Johnny, ultimatums, dictums.   The very same words.  Why had he used them?  As a boy he hated them, vowed to never speak them to his own children.  But here he was, sounding more and more like his own father every day.  The father he was glad to leave behind in Scotland.

Another sleepless night.   The afternoon had been troubling, for all the obvious reasons, but there was something else.  Why did the speed of his son’s gun suddenly send a chill up his spine?   Was he that shallow?  That hypocritical?  The thought was unsettling. 

His mind drifted to Teresa and the Johnny she described, playing checkers and laughing.  Unguarded, he shared a few painful moments.  This certainly was not the same man who fired that shot today.  And then there were the few glimpses of a face not hardened by life and all its misfortunes but softer, more innocent.  Finally, he recalled their talk in the barn.   ‘If I let my guard down’… that’s what he said… his guard.  Murdoch suddenly realized what he’d been doing wrong, why he hadn’t been able to get through to his son.  And with the realization came the prayer, for another chance.

****

Murdoch watched Scott as he stared into the fire.  He could only imagine what was running through his mind.  The day was over, Scott’s arm was in a sling, the Strykers were gone and Johnny was upstairs in his room, at least for now.  "If you're hurting, Scott, maybe you should go to bed."

Shaking his head, Scott stared at him, with a look that clearly sought answers. "Teresa said you tried to get Johnny to leave this afternoon that you practically pushed him out the door. Why?"

"Why do you think, Scott?" Murdoch frowned. "I wanted to get him away from here. Away from the Strykers."

Scott's expression grew hard and unyielding. "That doesn't wash, Murdoch. You knew they were hidden out there, waiting for him.  But you tried to send him out with no warning at all. What in the name of God were you thinking? Were you trying to get him killed?"

Murdoch felt the blood drain from his face.  “I need a drink.  You?” 

“No, what I need is an answer,” Scott replied with a distinct edge to his voice.

Murdoch filled a glass, drank it quickly then poured another before standing in front of the fire.  He propped one arm on the mantle the other held the glass which was pressed to his lips.  His gaze, lost somewhere between his son and the glass.  “Are you sure, Scott?  You may not like it.”

“I don’t like it already.  What have you got to lose?” 

He sipped his drink, eyes still focused on the unseen.  “I’m not sure you’ll understand my line of reasoning, maybe if you had lived through those years…” Several large gulps emptied his glass.  Murdoch walked across the room to refill it, but instead, grabbed another glass and carried both the glasses and bottle back with him.  He sat in his chair by the fire and thought for a moment before speaking. “I won’t spend endless nights not knowing.  Not ever again, Scott.   Do you have any idea what it’s like?  Not knowing?”

“No, Sir.  I’m not sure I do.”

“Yesterday, for the first, time I saw what your brother was capable of.  Hell, he didn’t even think about it, drawing his gun it’s as automatic as drawing a breath.  I knew at that moment he had to make a choice.  There could be no middle ground, for if there was, there would always be something to run to.”

Pouring the amber liquid into the glasses, Murdoch offered one to Scott. “Sure?”

With a groan Scott pressed forward accepting the offer.

His eyes raised, Murdoch tried to gauge his son’s expression.  “You’ve got to believe me.  What I did did not come lightly.   In fact, I hope it is the most difficult thing I ever have to do.”  He drank thirstily, starting to feel the effects of the whiskey.  “It’s like I told you last night, if what he’s running to is so important than let it happen, let it happen now.”   He paused for a moment.  When he spoke again his voice was low.  “Or for that matter, let it happen here, before my eyes.” 

Murdoch leaned back deeply into his chair with a grunt.  “For years I didn’t know where he was, if he was dead or alive.”   He paused, allowing those words to take hold, find root. “That is an unbearable feeling, a feeling I can’t live through again.  But, what would make it even worse would be watching both you and Teresa experience that pain for the first time.”

Again he paused.  “You need to know, I did not enter into this without reservations, the opportunity was an answer to a prayer and I was not about to squander it.  In fact, it was the biggest gamble I have ever made in my life.”

“Murdoch, what are you saying?  Were you trying to get him killed?”

“Killed?  No, Scott, not killed.  But I knew full well it was a possible outcome.  I needed to know, to be absolutely certain that this was where he wanted to be and there was only one way.  If he stayed after my words, my hateful words, then I’d know this is where he belonged but, if he walked out that door…”  There was a hoarseness to his voice, he tried unsuccessfully to clear it away.  “If he walked out that door… at least I could take comfort in the knowing – not much, I know, but...”   

Scott drank his whiskey in one large swallow.  “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand your logic, Murdoch, but at least, for the time being your gamble paid off.    I suppose that will depend on what Johnny thinks of your tactics.  When do you plan on letting him know?”

“He just did,” Johnny said from the shadows.

Murdoch set his glass on the floor and stood.  Trying to gauge the expression on his son’s face, but it was impossible.  His face remained cloaked.  His voice gave nothing away.  “Johnny?”  The name cracked as it floated passed Murdoch’s lips.  Fear gripped at his heart.  He couldn’t lose now.  Not now.  “You been there long, Son?”

“Long enough.” the voice was flat, emotionless.

Scott started to rise.

“Stay where you are, Scott.” 

“Are you sure Johnny, this sounds like a private conversation.”

“I’m sure.  We both might as well hear what Murdoch has to say.”  He took a few steps forward but still hid his face was still lost to the play of light.

Murdoch swallowed hard.  “It’s just like I said Johnny, you had to decide.  There was no secret there, we’d discussed it before. “

“That may be true, Old Man, but I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“To be honest, I had no choice.  I discovered something yesterday. Saw something in you that scared me.”

Johnny sighed.  His shoulders slumped.  “You knew what I was.  You had no problem with my gun when I came here.”  His voice betrayed him with a slight falter. 

Murdoch gained strength from the betrayal.   “That’s what I told myself.  I couldn’t understand it either, at first.  But then I realized… it’s got nothing to do with your gun.  It’s Madrid, the man, I couldn’t accept."

“Well, that’s worse then, isn’t it, Old Man.  Considering that’s who I am.”  He took one more step forward, revealing all but his eyes.

“No, Johnny.  Let me finish. ” Murdoch raised his hands in conciliation.  “I simply didn’t understand him. The Madrid in you wanted me to hate you. It’s so much easier to walk away from hate, but I can’t hate you, Johnny.  None of us can.”  He cast a quick glance at Scott then dropped his hands by his sides.  He searched for the right words.  The words that would make his son understand.

“I’d been trying to appeal to the wrong part of you and I couldn’t see it.  It was Teresa, she helped me see.  She told me of a different person, a person that kept her company when we went after Ben.  Do you remember, Johnny?”

“Ya, of course I remember.”  His voice lightened with the memory.

“I’d been wrong, because that was the part of you I was trying to reach, that part, the part long buried and hidden away.   And how did I do it?  By being the only father I knew how to be, the same father that drove me half way around the world.   But as hard as my words were, they did nothing against my true foe.  It was John Madrid I needed to reach, the hardened, angry young man.’’ he drew a labored breath, the urgency in his voice faded.  “The man who protected my son.” 

 Murdoch took a tentative step forward.  Johnny stepped back.  “You came back today.  And that was good.  But I needed to know which part of you was the strongest, which part was in control.  To do that Madrid had to see the hate he’d worked so hard to get, the hate he expected.  That would make it easier to walk away.  And if he left… if you left…”  He squeezed his eyes closed, picturing the possible outcome. “Well, if you left, I would have been too late.  I’d have already lost you.”  Murdoch shook his head.  “This was not a struggle between father and son, but between a father and his son’s guard.  You said it yourself in the barn.  You couldn’t let your guard down - without it you were exposed, naked.”

Johnny’s head dipped and he moved into the shifting glow of the fire.   Murdoch stepped closer, reached out a hand but pulled it back.  “He’s not an easy man to be.  Is he Johnny?”

Running both hands through his hair, Johnny looked up. 

“I want my son.  All of him.  I can handle the hard part but only if I get to see what’s hidden beneath.  Can you let your guard down, Johnny?”

Murdoch held his breath.  Not sure if he made himself understood. 

There was a long silence.  Johnny’s arms were wrapped protectively around his chest, his eyes lost on the flames.  Murdoch waited.  The fire crackled.  The clock ticked off the seconds.  Finally Johnny spoke, words muted, almost drowned out by the sounds of the silence.  “Ya, Murdoch.  I think I can.”

Murdoch released his breath and felt his knees soften.  He reached for his son and held his shoulders tight then pulled him in for a hug.  He felt his son’s exhale and the tension in his back relax. 

Johnny pulled back and smiled.  Not a full-fledged smile but enough for Murdoch to see the boy he’d lost all those years ago.  The boy he had finally welcomed home.

 

~end~

 

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