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

EM

 

 

The Gambler

Disclaimer:  I don’t own these characters, I’m just borrowing them.

 

Johnny swiped his forearm across his wet forehead.  Gratefully he stood and let the occasional breeze blow over his sweaty skin.  He’d abandoned his shirt two hours ago as it had become so wet with sweat it stuck to his body and made him even more uncomfortable if that was possible.

For a brief moment, he thought of the cool pond with its sparkling water only a mile away.  With a resigned shrug, he picked up his shovel and dug it deep into the ground, pushing on it with his boot to make every effort count.  Straining, he lifted the heavy clay out of the hole and plunged the shovel back in again. He felt the jar through his arms, elbows and shoulders as once again he hit rock.  Cursing under his breath, he tossed the shovel to the side and picked up the heavy crow bar and began breaking the rock to pieces small enough to be levered out.

He stopped once more, the cool water of the pond again tempting him.  He shook his head as if to convince himself of the folly of leaving another job undone.  It had only been two weeks ago, that he and his old friend Wes had left a fence undone to chase wild horses and that had been a complete disaster.  Even though he and his father had made an uneasy peace of sorts, their path had become littered with angry words and awkward silences.

Johnny walked over to the wagon, hauled out a fence post, and jammed it into the hole.  He seated it and then began hammering it into place.  He backfilled the hole and tamped it down tight until he was sure it would hold.  He looked back down the line of freshly planted posts.  He saw no sign of the fencing crew his brother was ramrodding.  They were behind him stringing the barbed wire fence so that another vast section of the Lancer Ranch could be grazed without worrying that the cattle would wander off.

Johnny picked up the shovel and crow bar and walked 10 feet before dropping his tools to start another hole.  ‘A hell of a thing for a man to do.’ Johnny thought to himself as he dug another hole.  ‘Still and all I’d rather be out here alone than working with that crew stringin’ that hot devil wire.

Johnny worked alone for two more hours, seeing no one until he heard the rattle of a wagon coming over the hill toward him.  He looked up and shielded his eyes from the sun and the now familiar shape of his father came into focus. ‘Checkin’ up on me.’ Johnny thought with a tight smile.  He noticed his father had a tendency to make these surprise inspections when ever he was off working alone. He always had a good excuse to be there, still it made Johnny aware that his father didn’t trust him to do the work he’d been assigned.

Murdoch pulled the team to a rocking halt near Johnny. “How’s it going Johnny?” The big man smiled.

“Hot and slow.” Johnny responded as he walked over to where his canteen was hanging from a tree branch.  He took a small sip followed by a long one and offered the canteen to his father.

Murdoch shook his head. “No thanks.”

Johnny shrugged and capped off the canteen and looked at his father waiting to find out the purpose of his visit.  The awkward silence widened the gap between father and son and Johnny finally asked, “Did ya want something?”

“No, actually I was in the area and I thought I’d see how the fence was coming.”

Johnny cocked his head at him and tried to hide his disbelief.  He shrugged once more and repeated, “Hot and slow.”  He turned and began digging another hole as his father sat and watched him for a moment.

“I’ll check on the rest of the crew then if you don’t need anything.” Getting no answer from his son, Murdoch started the team down the fence line in the direction of the approaching crew.

Johnny stopped working and stared at the stiff back of his father until he could no longer see him.  A swift anger coursed through him as he fought the emotion his father’s presence often brought upon him.  The hate of the first couple of days had given way to something Johnny couldn’t put his finger on.  At times he felt this almost uncontrollable desire to get his father’s attention, a word of praise, to talk and joke with him like Scott seemed to be able to do so easily.  Even Teresa was able to get his father’s attention when he himself couldn’t seem to get more than a frown of disapproval or occasionally a forced compliment.

Other times, he wanted nothing to do with the man and vice versa.  Lately things hadn’t been exactly good, but they were better.  After the incident with the wild horses and the Styker family, Murdoch had chased wild horses with him and they seemed to be on better footing.  Just lately he sensed his father wanted more from him, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.  He often corrected him and seemed to pick at him for little things that made him feel like a kid.

When the old man called him boy, Johnny practically had to bite his tongue to keep from answering back. Sometimes he let fly with his own brand of sass that left him wondering what got into him.  In his past life, if someone bothered him, he’d either walk away or fight him.  He sometimes felt like he was caught in a spider web.  The more he struggled to get free the more entangled he got.  Instead of silk holding him tight, it was his emotions as he grew fond of Scott and Teresa…even the old man was gaining a hold over him.

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

Murdoch felt his anger begin to subside as he urged the horses into a brisk trot away from the object of his ire.  That boy could test the patience of a saint. He thought to himself as he relaxed his shoulders and took a deep breath of the fresh air.

He had to admit he’d been relieved to see Johnny was where he was supposed to be and working hard.  He knew they were on tenuous footing and all he knew to get through the awkwardness was take it just a day at a time.

As the team approached the curve ahead, Murdoch eased back on the reins and slowed the horses to a more sedate pace.  Up ahead he could see the fencing crew working under the leadership of his oldest son, Scott.  He smiled at the sight of all they had completed, and looked forward to checking this task off on his list of improvements which would mean so much to the future of the ranch.

He brought the horses to a halt with a brisk “Whoa boys” and an accompanying pull on the lines.

Scott took of his hat and wiped the back of his arm across his sweaty brow. “Hello sir.” He greeted his father formally.

“It’s looking good Scott.  Johnny’s about a half mile ahead of you.  He should be able to get this pasture all fenced by the end of the week while we’re in San Francisco.”

Scott paused as he took a drink from his canteen and shook his head. “I don’t see why we all can’t go to the Cattlemen’s Association meeting.  Surely Cipriano is capable of overseeing this job.”

“Of course he is, but one of us needs to stay here and keep things running.” Murdoch reasoned convincingly.

Scott walked over to the buck board and removed his gloves.  He ran a hand through his sweat soaked hair and suggested, “How about I stay here and you and Johnny go, It would be a good experience for him.”

“Scott, Johnny can go some other time.  You need to meet our business associates, and well, I think you’d get more out of it than Johnny would.”

Scott frowned and countered, “Are you saying you aren’t ready for your friends to meet Johnny?”

“Of course not Scott!  This time, you’re going. Johnny can go some other time. Now I have work to do.” Murdoch brusquely ended the conversation and pointed at the men who were struggling to stretch the barbed wire. “So do you. See you tonight.” With that he chirped to the team and started the buckboard onto his next chore.

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

Scott watched his father until he couldn’t see him any more.  He was feeling frustrated at his father’s unyielding response.  He’d hoped he’d see the wisdom in including Johnny on this business trip. It would have been an ideal time for the three of them to get to know each other better and for Murdoch to prove to Johnny that he was indeed an equal partner in the ranch rather than just a strong back.

He went back to join the work crew as his mind mulled over the possibilities. As the afternoon sun began setting to the west, a plan had formed.  “Raul, make sure all the tools get in the wagon this time.  We don’t want to have to waste time in the morning looking for everything we need.”

“Si Senor.” The hand replied.

“Head back with the crew Cipriano.  I’m going to ride home with Johnny.” He told the graying Segundo.  “….and tell the men, thank you for the hard work today.”

Cipriano smiled, his straight white teeth flashing for a moment under his bushy mustache, “Si Senor, I will tell them.”

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

Scott rode in the direction he knew Johnny was working.  He worked out all the aspects of his plan and made sure he’d not forgotten any little details.  He had to make sure it was full proof if it was going to work, especially in the face of his father’s reluctance to spend time alone with his younger brother.

It took longer than he expected to catch up with Johnny as his half mile lead had lengthened to closer to a mile.  His brother had really been working hard today and he intended to make sure his father acknowledged it.

He finally saw Johnny up ahead and Scott smiled as he watched Johnny wrestle another post into the ground.  “Hey Johnny.” Scott called in greeting to get his brother’s attention.

Scott saw Johnny look up, as Scott’s horse violently shied sideways. Before Scott could regain his balance, the gelding spun. Scott felt himself falling to the ground but not before he felt his foot give a wrench as his boot hung up for a moment in the stirrup.

He had no time to breathe a sigh of relief when his boot came clear, as he was trying to take a deep breath because the wind had been knocked out of him by the hard fall on the rough ground.  He lay there for a moment feeling like time had slowed down, but it was really not long before he felt Johnny take hold of his arm and help him to a sitting position.

“You all right?” His brother questioned. “What spooked him?”

Scott finally forced some air into his lungs and gasped, “Rabbit.  Jumped…out.”

“Are you hurt anywhere?” Johnny inquired.

“I think I’m fine. Help me up.” Johnny reached down and offered Scott a steadying hand as he slowly regained his feet. When he stood upright a sharp pain shot through his ankle, and he quickly raised his foot off the ground and groaned. “My ankle.” He bent down trying to get a look at it.

Johnny put an arm around his shoulders and guided him to a fallen log. “Here, let me.”  He knelt in the grass and lifted his brother’s pant leg.   “Can’t see anything.  Does it feel broken?”

“I can’t tell, but if I don’t take the boot off, it’ll have to be cut off. I can feel it swelling.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.  If ya broke it, the boot will provide support till the Doc can look at it.  Hopefully it’s just sprained.  I’ll bring the buckboard over and I’ll have you home in no time.  If that horse of yours goes right home, Murdoch will probably come out looking for ya anyway.”

Scott didn’t feel much like objecting as Johnny insisted he lay in the back of the buckboard.  He had feebly tried to argue that he could sit up on the seat, but he had to admit it felt good to lay back and prop his leg up on Johnny’s saddle.

As his brother drove them home, Scott watched the scenery pass by and he tried to take his mind off the pain in his ankle by watching his brother’s horse playfully trot and occasionally buck as he trailed behind the buckboard.

He settled back and tried to relax as much as he could, content that his plan was working out, though he’d only admit to himself, it was a little more painful than he’d thought it would be.

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

Murdoch stood on the veranda with his hands on his hips as he waited for his sons to make their way into the yard.  He expected Johnny to drive the wagon to the barn, but was surprised when he pulled up in front of the house.

He watched as Scott lowered himself slowly out of the buckboard, and his concern grew as Johnny hustled around and he had to practically catch his brother in order to keep him from falling to the ground.

Murdoch stepped into the yard and asked, “What happened to you?”

Scott took a couple of painful steps forward and looked up at his father, “Had a little accident. It’s nothing really.”

“Nothing?” Murdoch questioned as he helped Johnny maneuver Scott through the French doors into the living room.

As they lowered Scott to the couch, Johnny added, “His horse spooked and he was dumped. Hurt his ankle.” By then Johnny was on his knees pushing Scott’s pant leg up to reveal Scott’s scuffed boot.

Scott hissed as Johnny moved his boot just a little. “Careful Johnny,” He warned.

“Sorry Scott. That boots gotta come off.” Johnny looked up at their father and explained, “We kept it on to support it in case it’s broken.”

Murdoch knelt looking at Scott’s leg where it had swollen.  “I sure hope it’s not broken, though even a sprained ankle can be pretty painful.” After assessing the situation, he looked up at where Scott seemed to be observing their actions with some reservations.

“Son, we’re going to have to cut that boot off you. Do you want a little fortification?” Murdoch nodded toward the sideboard holding a display of whisky and brandy.

Scott shook his head, “No sir.  Go ahead…just be careful.” Scott smiled slightly and closed his eyes as his father went to work.

Several excruciating minutes went by as Murdoch sawed away at the tough leather.  He winced each time he knew he caused Scott pain. Any movement of the boot seemed to send agony shafting up Scott’s leg and Murdoch’s big hands worked as gently as he could.

 

With a sigh of relief, the final tenuous strand of leather gave way, and Murdoch was able to twist the boot off Scott’s swollen ankle.  He sucked in a deep breath of air as he handed the lump of leather to Johnny.

“It’s so swollen I can’t tell if it’s broken.” Murdoch tried to feel for a break without causing Scott more pain.

“Son, I’m going to splint it just in case.  We’ll see how it is in the morning and if it’s not better, we’ll send for the doctor.”

Scott nodded and Murdoch noticed he had a fine sheen of sweat on his top lip and forehead and he looked a bit pale.  “You all right son?” Murdoch looked skeptical when Scott nodded. “Johnny, get your brother some water.”

Johnny left the room and was quickly back with a pitcher and a glass.  He handed a filled glass to his brother who carefully took a sip then a deeper swallow before handing it back.

“Thanks, I needed that.”  Scott said.

Murdoch stood up with a groan and stretched out his back. “Let’s get you up to bed and I’ll get your ankle splinted up for you.”

Before either Scott or Johnny could say another word, Murdoch picked Scott up and carried him upstairs to his room.

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

Scott lay in bed and watched as the setting sun cast shadows in his room.  The shadow of his unlit lamp was 3 feet high on the bedroom wall and it held Scott’s attention for quite a while.

He was comfortable if he didn’t attempt to move around.  His splinted, swollen ankle was propped up on two pillows provided by Johnny and for the most part, Scott was content.  His plan was working perfectly….well almost.  Getting laid up didn’t quite work out as planned.

He yawned, put his hands behind his head, and smiled slightly as he thought of the next stage of his plan. He pondered when it would be the best time to put it into operation.

He yawned again and figured tomorrow would be soon enough to figure it all out, and with that he drifted off to sleep for a much needed nap.

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

Johnny sat on the edge of Scott’s bed and watched as his brother ate his lunch. “Well, at least it ain’t broken.  Doc says a sprain will lay you up for a week or so though.”

“It won’t be that long.” Scott countered after taking another bite of his sandwich.  “I’ll be up and about before you know it.  Pedro is going to pick up some crutches at Doctor Jenkin’s office later today when he gets the supplies.”

“Crutches huh?  You ever use those things before?”

“As a matter of fact I have.” Scott said with such formality that Johnny tipped his head and focused all his attention on his brother.

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“You just have to know everything, don’t you brother?” Scott teased in a half mocking tone.

Johnny smiled and nodded, “Only way to learn somethin’ is by askin’.”

Scott sighed and wondered if telling Johnny was a good idea.  Shrugging away his reservations, he started. “When I was a boy, I fell and broke my leg.  It was just a fracture, but I had to use crutches for a few months to get around.  I got pretty good with them if I do say so myself.”  He didn’t have long to wait for the questions he knew would be coming.

“How old were you?”

“Twelve…and a half.” Scott said poker faced.

“How did you fall?”

“I lost my balance.”

Scott watched as Johnny frowned, obviously not happy with that response. Johnny held up a hand, “No. I mean why did you fall?”

“If that’s what you meant, why didn’t you say it?” Scott was enjoying being a bit contrary.

Johnny looked at his brother with growing frustration, “Just answer the question.”

“All right. I was climbing out my window and got part way down the trellis, and lost my grip.”

Johnny’s agile mind jumped to the obvious, “You were sneekin’ out?  Does Murdoch know about this?” He said as he began chuckling at the mental picture he had of his brother getting into trouble as a kid.

Scott began to say “No.” but was interrupted by the knock on the door and Murdoch entering.

“Did I hear my name?” Murdoch asked.

Scott had to hold back his own chuckle as he noticed Johnny’s intent study of the pattern on the comforter.

Scott jumped in, “I was just telling Johnny that I fractured my leg when I was a boy and that I am proficient in the use of crutches.  In fact, by the time we’re ready to leave for San Francisco, I should be well used to them again.”

“No Scott. I’m afraid you won’t be able to go with me this time.  You’ll be lucky if the swelling is down by the time I leave for San Francisco.”

Scott chewed his lip in thought for a moment before acknowledging the truth of his father’s statement.  Johnny was still looking at the pattern on the comforter but appeared to be listening to the discussion.

“I suppose I could take over the books while you’re gone and Teresa will be home tomorrow to make sure I don’t overdo.”

Murdoch smiled, “I’m sure you’ll be well supervised while I’m gone.”

“And Cipriano can keep me informed of what the men are working on and what needs to be done.”

“Cipriano could run this ranch with one hand tied behind his back.” Murdoch declared.

Scott had to fight the huge smile that wanted to break out all over his face as he stated, “Great!  Everything will run smoothly while you and Johnny are in San Francisco for the cattlemen’s meeting.”  Scott settled back into his pillows as he watched his plan unfold.

Johnny’s head shot up and he looked quickly to his brother and then his father and back to his brother.  He stood up quickly and paced away from the bed, “Ah no Scott.  I can’t go to San Francisco. With you laid up, there’s too much work to do.”

“Murdoch pointed out that Cipriano could handle it just fine.” Scott smiled innocently as he used Murdoch’s words to blow holes in Johnny’s argument.

“Actually Scott, perhaps Johnny’s right. I should probably go alone this time.”

“Nonsense!   This is the perfect opportunity for Johnny to see the business side of the cattle business.  You just said the other day, you wanted both of us to start learning more about ranching.”  Scott paused to let Murdoch’s words sink back in, “Besides, I’ll go the next time, Johnny can go this time.”

Scott had to bite the inside of his cheek at the matching glares he got from his brother and his father. He waited as the two of them wrapped their minds around this new plan and Scott wondered which one would speak first.

He was mildly surprised, when it was Johnny who nodded, and said, “Fine. San Francisco it is.”

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

Two days later Murdoch and Johnny sat in companionable silence as the train chugged its way west toward the San Francisco bay.  The closer they got to the city, the cooler the air turned as they neared the ocean.

Johnny had the window open and he was enjoying the cooler air as it pushed his hair in all directions followed occasionally by billowing smoke from the smoke stack ahead.

After a particularly noxious amount of smoke billowed in, Murdoch set his book in his lap and looked at the open window with annoyance. “Johnny, close the window some. Maybe that will help.”

Johnny reached over and struggled with the window before sliding it down with a snap.  He settled back and watched as his father found his place in his book.  ‘Books.’ Johnny thought with a slight scowl.  Scott and the old man sure have that in common.  Both of them could be counted to have their nose stuck in a book anytime they had a free moment.

Johnny couldn’t understand why they were so absorbed by the words on a page which were just that to him.  Words on a page.  Now a book with pictures.  That was more like it. He remembered coming across just such a book in his father’s large collection.  He enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the captions.  He could pretty much figure out what the larger words meant by the pictures.

The book had some sketches of San Francisco during the late 40’s and early 50’s of the gold rush.  One picture showed the bay full of ships of every kind and teaming with activity.  He wondered idly if San Francisco still resembled those pictures that had caught his imagination.

He glanced out the window and shifted in his seat to find a more comfortable position.  Sighing, he noticed Murdoch glance up at him with annoyance and Johnny once again looked out the window.

All week, he had gone from looking forward to the trip to San Francisco to dreading it.  This was the most time he’d spent with his father since he had come home, and he was just a bit uneasy at the prospect of trying to carry on a conversation with the old man. He smiled to himself, ‘I needn’t have worried, he hasn’t said more than two sentences to me in two hours.  If this keeps up, we shouldn’t have any problems at all.’

Just as that thought flit through his mind, he had another that made him uneasy. He’d hoped this would be a chance to get to know his father better.  Maybe have some fun in San Francisco, and even more importantly for Johnny, he was determined to make a good showing with Murdoch’s cattlemen friends.

He figured they’d heard the stories, so he was determined to make Murdoch proud. He’d even left his gun back at Lancer which took the most self control he’d ever used.  He felt naked riding to Cross Creek to catch the stage, but nothing happened, and he couldn’t help but notice the pleased glance Murdoch gave him when he saw Johnny dressed in a more conventional style and unarmed.

He figured he owed it to the old man to give it a try.  He wasn’t totally unarmed. He wasn’t a fool.  Johnny’s fingers casually patted the slight bulge of the concealed weapon and he wasn’t even aware he’d done it.

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

Murdoch’s attention was drawn away from his book once again as he noticed Johnny squirming on the seat.  Another three hours before they reached San Jose.  He hoped Johnny would settle down.

All week he’d wrestled with conflicting emotions which left him ashamed of himself.  He’d been genuinely dismayed at the idea of Johnny going with him.  He wasn’t sure he was ready to spend that much time alone with his son.  That thought was the one that dismayed him.  The truth of the matter was that the two of them usually ended up in an argument anytime they tried to move beyond the mundane.

Since the problem they’d had over the wild horses, they’d both tried to avoid any real conversation.  They stuck to ranch business and most of the conversations they’d had were moderated by the presence of Scott or Teresa.

His glance settled over Johnny who was still looking out the window, and he hoped they’d find some common ground on this trip.  He thought back to the pleasure he felt when he saw that Johnny had left his gun at home, and he was pleased by his effort to fit in.  He knew Johnny was trying his best to please him, and he was determined to make sure Johnny knew he appreciated it.

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

The shrill train whistle and the squealing of breaks caused Murdoch to wake with a start. He glanced at Johnny and saw that he too had nodded off.  “We’re here anyway.” He said with relief.

Johnny nodded and smoothed down his unruly dark hair, before setting his hat just so, on his head.  He leaned back and his restless fingers played with the hat strings as the train chugged its way into the station.

Murdoch stood on shaky legs as a final blast of smoke blew past their window.  He reached for his bag and started down the aisle with Johnny just behind him.

“We’re meeting Clem Carver for dinner at the Grand Hotel.” Murdoch remarked as he walked along the boardwalk.

Johnny caught up to Murdoch in time to ask, “I thought he lived around here. Why’s he stayin’ at a hotel?”

“His ranch is 15 miles south of here.  He wanted to catch the early train to San Francisco, so he came in today.”  Murdoch turned to Johnny with a smile, “You’ll like him Johnny.  Clem is one of my oldest friends.”

Murdoch pushed through the doors of the plush hotel and walked up to the desk to check them in.  “Reservation for Lancer.”

“Yes sir, Mister Lancer.  It’s nice to have you back with us.”  The little man behind the desk peered at Johnny over his wireless rim glasses, and then bent his head over the reservation book. “And this is?” he fished.

“This is my son, John.” Murdoch turned to see Johnny hunched over, leaning on the counter. He had his elbow on the counter and his chin in his hand. Murdoch couldn’t resist, “Stand up straight.” He whispered.

Johnny did as his father asked and didn’t miss the smirk on the hotel clerk’s face. He gave the little man a hard glare and just as quickly gave his father a boyish grin, before hefting his bag and following his father up the stairs.  He couldn’t help throwing the little man a smirk of his own over his shoulder which caused the clerk to shrink behind the desk.

**********

Johnny stood in front of the mirror and yanked at his string tie in frustration.  Scott had helped him the last time he was forced into wearing one. Try as he might, he couldn’t get the hang of getting it straight.

His sighed as he started tying it once again and turned to look over his shoulder as he heard a knock on the door followed by his father’s voice. “Johnny? Are you ready?”

“Almost.  Come on in.”  Johnny’s fingers went back to his tie.

Murdoch walked across the room to stand behind Johnny.  “Here. Turn around, let me help you.”

Johnny turned to face his father and flushed slightly. He felt like a child as his father deftly tied his tie and turned to hand him his dark grey coat.  “Here you go. Now you look like a successful rancher.”

Johnny grinned weakly at his father and followed him downstairs to the hotel dining room.

Johnny felt an unfamiliar flutter of nervousness as he followed his father down the staircase to the lobby.  He shook his head and scolded himself for being nervous. ‘It’s just dinner with one of Murdoch’s old friends. How hard can it be?”  He found himself holding back a smile at the idea that he, Johnny Madrid was scared of having supper with two old men. ‘Lancer.’ He reminded himself firmly.

He had no time to do more that a quick glance around at the walnut paneled walls of the dining room, before he heard his father’s name called.

“Murdoch! Over here.”

Johnny saw an older man standing and waving his arm vigorously in the air. Johnny had to hurry to keep up with Murdoch who put his long legs to work in his haste to greet his old friend.

“Clem!  It sure is good to see you!” Murdoch greeted as he shook the man’s hand.

Johnny found himself standing back with an amused smile as the two men greeted each other like long lost brothers.

Murdoch turned toward Johnny, “Clem, this is Johnny. You remember him; Maria’s boy.”

Clem approached Johnny with a smile and offered his hand. “Johnny!  It’s good to see you again.  Come on over here and sit down.” He gestured to the table laden with crystal and china.

“It’s nice to meet you, sir.” Johnny replied as he found his place at the table. Clem had a round face and a friendly smile, and Johnny felt instantly relaxed around the man.

The next few minutes were a flutter of activity while a waiter took their order and Johnny wondered when he had met Clem before.  He was pretty good with faces, but try as he might, he couldn’t remember ever meeting Clem before.

Johnny sat back and listened as the two men caught up with each other. They were soon bragging about how their ranches were growing and topping each other with one story after another.  When Murdoch related how Johnny and Scott had helped save Lancer from Pardee, Clem gave him an appraising look before nodding his approval.

“You and your brother did us all a favor Johnny. Pardee and his gang came through our area like the blight.  We weren’t strong enough to stand against them so my wife and I went to Denver for a few months.  We didn’t expect to have anything left when we came back, but thanks to you boys, we got our ranch back. So thank you.”

Johnny glanced at Murdoch who was beaming.  Johnny smiled a crooked smile and nodded, “Da nada.”

Clem took a large sip of his drink and went on, “You’re going to be meeting a lot of members of the cattlemen’s association who feel the way I do. There were quite a few of us in Pardee’s path.”

Murdoch must has sensed that Johnny was starting to feel uncomfortable with all the praise as by now Johnny was looking down at his plate. He was grateful when his father changed the subject.

“Clem, what do you think of our chances to lobby the railroad for some more spurs to make it convenient to ship our cattle?” Murdoch cut a piece of his steak and began eating while Clem answered.

“Well…Murdoch, money talks.  As long as the association stands together, we should be able to…well…persuade the railroad to see its good business.”

“Hey Murdoch, maybe you could send Scott to negotiate.  He’s so slick he could sell a dead horse to an Indian.” Johnny finished with a grin.  Johnny almost choked on the piece of bread he’d just stuffed in his mouth when he saw the glare he got from his father.

‘Should just keep my mouth shut.’ He thought.  He risked another glance at his father in time to see his mouth turn up.

“That might be a very good idea, Johnny. I think Scott could go toe to toe with Crocker and Huntington and besides…” He smiled at Johnny, “Then he wouldn’t be slickering us.”

Johnny laughed and raised his glass in a toast which his father returned and they enjoyed the shared memory of how Scott cornered the two of them for this trip.

Johnny found himself relaxing and enjoying the company of the older men.  As they finished their meal, Clem motioned for the bill.  Murdoch started to pull out his billfold when Clem’s hand on his arm stopped him. “No Murdoch this one’s on me.”

Murdoch smiled a little before nodding and added, “Fine Clem. Let’s go into the club and have a scotch.  Johnny?”

Johnny looked from one to the other and as he shook his head to decline, but he found himself saying, “Sure. I’ll join you.”

Clem threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulder and escorted him over to the double doors lined with leaded glass. Murdoch got there first and opened the door and gestured for the two of them to go ahead.  Johnny threw a quick questioning glance at his father as he went into the dark smoky room.

“Over here.”  Clem instructed as they found an empty table.

A waiter dressed in a dark suit came to take their drink order. “What will you gentlemen have?”

“My good man, please bring your finest scotch if you will.” Clem answered.

Johnny raised his eyebrows, and spoke up. “Do you have any tequila?”

Before the waiter could answer, Clem broke in, “Johnny my boy, tonight you’re going to experience whisky so smooth your Scottish ancestors will be green with envy.”

Murdoch chuckled, as Johnny looked from one to the other before smiling and saying, “This I gotta try.”

Both men chuckled and Murdoch shuffled the deck cards a few times. “Anyone for a friendly game?”

“Sure thing Murdoch.  I could use some spending money in San Francisco.” Johnny put in quickly as he tried to focus his eyes anywhere except the paintings on the wall. Failing miserably, he hoped the drinks would come soon.

Murdoch noticed that Johnny couldn’t take his eyes off them and chuckled. “They’re really quite a collection, aren’t they son?”

Johnny’s mouth turned up in a smile and he nodded in agreement.

Clem looked around and smiled, “This is the finest collection of nude beauties this side of Saint Louis.”

Murdoch dealt the cards as the waiter put down their drinks.  Clem lit a cigar and poked it in Johnny’s direction. “Johnny did your father tell you about the other time you attended a cattlemen’s association meeting?”

Johnny’s eyes darted from Clem to his father in confusion as he cocked his head. “No…no he didn’t.”

Murdoch chuckled as he looked at his hand. “I don’t think I ever told him about that.”

“You couldn’t have been more than a year old and we were just forming the association.  We were at Lancer drawing up the terms and Murdoch was showing you off.  If I recall, you were running more than walking.  Your poor mama was chasing after you and trying to keep all of us fed while we worked out the agreements.  And then…well I probably shouldn’t say.” Clem stopped and flicked the ash off his cigar into the ashtray.

Johnny leaned over, curious. “You shouldn’t say what?”

Clem looked at Murdoch who just shrugged his shoulders. “Well son, let’s just say you made a good showing at the first cattlemen’s association meeting.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well….you had been into everything all day and your mother had just finished giving you a bath when you got away from her and came streaking into the living room and demanded to be picked up.”  Both men started chuckling at the memory, as Johnny covered his eyes and shook his head.

“Don’t tell me…” Johnny groaned.

“I’m afraid so son.”

“So all these ranchers remember that?”

“Not all of them….but most.”  Both men chuckled again at Johnny’s nonplussed expression at this very unwelcome piece of information.

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

The rest of the evening passed quickly and the men were just leaving the club to call it a night.  As Johnny passed out of the room, a dark haired man in the corner playing cards with two other men caught his eye. He found himself staring into a pair of light blue eyes.

He knew this man, but couldn’t place him. Something about him was familiar but nothing came to him.  Before he could figure it out he heard Murdoch’s voice.

“Coming Johnny?”

Johnny took one last look at the man who was now dealing the cards, before he turned to follow his father upstairs.

‘Who is he?’ He asked himself as he entered his room. A feeling of uncertainty settled over him as he got himself undressed and ready for bed. 

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

Johnny looked around the lavish room in awe.  Since their arrival in San Francisco that afternoon, he’d done nothing but gawk at everything he saw. The tall buildings towering over the cobble lined streets, and the bustle of activity everywhere he looked; unnerved him just a bit as he, Murdoch and Clem shared a coach ride from the train depot to the hotel.

He caught his father’s amused look when he stopped dead in the lobby downstairs staring at a monstrous crystal chandelier. He’s never seen anything as lavish as this hotel.  His boots sunk down into the carpeting and the doors had leaded glass etched in intricate designs.

The suite Murdoch had booked for them had a sitting room, two bedrooms and a water closet.  The bellboy had offered to unpack for them, but Murdoch had given him a tip and sent the man on his way.  ‘Murdoch sure don’t let all these fancy things bother him.’ Johnny mused as he turned to look out his bedroom window.

He admired the sunset as it set on the horizon, reflecting off the water. He heard a knock on the door and his name muffled by the heavy door.

“Come in.” He called.

He turned and saw Murdoch poke his head around the corner of the door. “Ready?”

Johnny smiled slightly, “Sure.”  He pulled his dark brown jacket off the back of a chair and put it on, smoothing down the sleeves.  He glanced in the full length mirror once as he followed his father into the sitting room frowning at his reflection.

His ordinary dark brown pants and matching jacket looked foreign and out of place on him.  He shrugged as he joined his father and thought, ‘Oh well, I’m here to fit in.’ He reached out to grab the beveled glass door knob and couldn’t help a smile as his beaded bracelet slid out from under his jacket sleeve. ‘Not so ordinary after all,’ he grinned and felt better.

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

Murdoch walked down the curving stair case into the bustling lobby searching for his friends from the association.  While the meetings didn’t officially start until tomorrow, he knew many of them would be here tonight.  He was anticipating a good meal, drinks, and a rousing hand or two of poker after dinner.

He hoped Johnny wouldn’t mind spending another evening or two with a bunch of old men. He promised himself that the day after tomorrow, he and Johnny would do San Francisco up right.  There was so much he wanted to show him. He suspected Johnny would have a better time if he’d come here with his brother, but for now he hoped his feisty son would be patient with his old man and opt for a tamer adventure in San Francisco.

“Over here son.” He directed Johnny toward the dining room.

“Murdoch!  Johnny!” Clem called across the elegant dining room.

Murdoch shook his head and motioned for Johnny to go ahead of him while he spoke a few words in the ear of a passing waiter.

Murdoch pulled out his chair and sat down, then he frowned at his old friend, “Clem. This isn’t a cattle auction. You don’t have to go around bellowing at me across the room.” Murdoch took a sip of his water and he noticed Johnny was trying hard not to laugh.

“Oh come on Murdoch.  The Cattlemen’s Association is in town.  We’ve got to let everyone know we’re here don’t we?”

That did it, Johnny burst out laughing and Murdoch joined in. “I guess you’ve got a point, Clem.”

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

As dinner was completed, the waiter brought Murdoch the check. Clem made a grab for it and Murdoch expertly held it out of his reach. “Oh no. This one’s mine.” He pulled out a few bills and handed them quickly to the waiter.

“Let’s go.  I think I hear Tim shuffling the cards from here.” Murdoch stood and started out of the crowded dining room followed closely by Clem and Johnny.

Murdoch turned back, “Coming, Johnny?”

Johnny looked at Murdoch and toward the front door of the hotel, “Actually Murdoch, I was thinking of taking a look around.”

Murdoch frowned slightly, “Johnny I was hoping you’d meet some more of the members tonight.”

Before he could go on, Clem broke in, “Let him go Murdoch.  He’ll meet all of them tomorrow and something tells me this young man could find a lot more excitement on his own than if he spent the evening with us.”

Murdoch nodded and smiled, “That’s what I’m afraid of. Exactly what kind of *excitement* did you have in mind?”

Johnny gave his father his best innocent smile, “Just takin’ a look around Murdoch. That’s all…honest.”

Murdoch smiled and shook his head at Johnny’s audacity, “All right, just don’t be too late and John….stay out of trouble.” He finished firmly.

Johnny smiled his most charming smile that lit up his eyes and nodded that left the two men smiling in his wake.

“He’ll be fine, Murdoch.  Come on, there’s Tim.” Clem pointed toward the card room.

Murdoch took on last look at Johnny’s departing back and followed his friend into the dark room.

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

Johnny walked around the fancy dressed people in the bustling lobby, his eyes firmly fixed on the front door.  He stepped around a couple of ladies who almost ran right into him, “Excuse me ma’am.”

As he reached the front door, he was surprised that as he reached for the handle a man in a dark suit, opened the door with a polite, “Allow me sir.”

“Gracias.” Johnny replied automatically and started through the door and ran smack into a man coming in from outside.

“Pardon me.” The man said.

“Sorry….” Johnny muttered as he looked into the pale blue eyes of the man he saw in San Jose.

The man gave him a hard look and said, “Do I know you?”

Johnny’s eyes took in every feature and shook his head as the memory eluded him once again. “You look familiar to me too. Just can’t place ya.” In spite of a growing concern, Johnny didn’t feel threatened by this man.  Whatever memory this man was bringing up, it wasn’t a bad one.

“Sirs.  You’re blocking the door. May I suggest taking this inside?” The doorman politely suggested.

Johnny shook his head, “No need. I was just heading out.”

“Perhaps you could join me later for a drink, and we can figure it out.”

Johnny looked the man over and started to refuse, but changed his mind. ‘Better to know what kind of trouble this might be.’ He thought.  “Sure.  I’ll see ya around.” He turned and left the hotel.

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

Johnny walked down the street not really seeing anything.  His mind was awash with trying to place the man.  ‘The Gambler’ is how he now thought of him.  He was sure he’d never had a problem with him.  ‘Maybe I worked for him once.’ Johnny shook his head at that thought.  He couldn’t believe he’d forget anyone he’d worked for.

Johnny’s thoughts were brought up short as he heard an angry voice yell at him. “Hey you! Watch where you’re going!”

Johnny jumped a bit as he realized he’d wandered into the street and had narrowly missed being knocked down by a wagon drawn by two heavy draft horses.  He felt himself flush with chagrin to think he’d been so lost in his thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed them.

He made his way across the street to a lush area full of trees and grass.  It looked like one of the pictures in that book on San Francisco Murdoch had.  He remembered it said there were places like this called parks.

He saw a nice large rock off to the side where he could watch the nightlife of the city pass by.  He made himself comfortable as he watched the city light up with the backdrop of the final rays of the sun  as it sank into the horizon.

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

Murdoch drank the last of his whisky and folded as Tim raised the bet once again.  “Sorry Tim, too rich for my blood.”

Tim laughed as he raked in the pot once again.  He’d been gloating about his current winning streak and the other men at the table looked on indulgently.  Tim had suffered a lot of business loses lately and the other men didn’t mind the fact he was revealing in winning the ten dollar pot.

“So Murdoch, how’s it feel to be a papa again?”

Murdoch looked up from where he was dealing the cards, at Clay Russell. “We’ll Clay, I’ve always been a father, but it’s good having them home. Real good.”

“I heard you brought one of your boy’s with you. So where is he?” Clay rubbed his mustache once before picking up his cards.”

“John’s taking a look around the city on his own tonight. You’ll meet him tomorrow.”

“I thought you were going to bring Scott?” The man persisted.

“I was, but he sprained his ankle a few days ago, so John came instead.”

“He’s a fine boy.” Clem put in.

Tim leaned back in his chair and took a puff of his cigar, “We’ll look forward to meeting him. Now are we going to play or sit around like little old ladies at a church social.”

The men laughed and Murdoch replied, “It’s your turn Tim. If you’d start paying attention to the game, maybe I could win some of my money back.”

Tim’s eyebrows raised in surprise, and he threw a coin into the middle of the table, as he glared at the cards inn his hand.

Murdoch laughed as he started dealing cards to those who needed them. He glanced across the room and froze. ‘No!’ His heart raced as he recognized the man in the corner.

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

Murdoch felt the cards in his hands start to bend as he grasped them harder and harder.  He pulled his eyes away from the man in the corner and had to tell himself to relax his grip on the cards.

“Murdoch?  Are you okay?” Clem asked in a worried voice.

Murdoch shook his head feeling dazed, “What?”

Clem placed his hand on Murdoch’s shoulder and looked at him closely.  “You’re white as a sheet. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Murdoch looked at Clem, his friend’s face seemed to waver in front of him and he shook his head once again.  He could see the concerned looks from the other men at the table, but their faces were a blur as he tried to force air back into his lungs.

Finally taking a deep breath, he managed to whisper, “I’m fine.” Scraping his chair back, he rose on shaky legs. “It’s been a long day. I’m going to call it a night.”

“Murdoch, we’re in the middle of a hand.” Tim complained.

Clem threw Tim a scowl, “It’s no problem. Go on Murdoch. Get some rest.”

*********

Murdoch walked out of the card room on still shaky legs.  His only thought was to find Johnny.  He had to find him, get him away, take him home, make sure he was safe.  Those thoughts kept pounding in his brain with each beat of his heart. He looked wildly around the still busy lobby and made his way to the front desk.

His sense of dread for his son made him grow angry at the sight of the empty desk, so he rang the bell several times to get the attention of the clerk.  The man hurried from the back room, smoothing down his hair, looking harassed, “Sir. May I help you?”

“My son. Have you seen my son?” Murdoch croaked out.

“What?” The man asked in confusion.

Murdoch lost his patience and reached across the desk to grab the man by the shirt front. He practically hauled the clerk over the top of the desk as he gave him a shake. “I don’t have time for this! Where’s my son!”

“I….I….don’t know!  I swear…..please!” The man squeaked as his face got redder.

Murdoch gave the man another shake and let him go.  “If you see him, tell him to go to our room and stay there.” Murdoch started to walk away, turning once again toward the desk and the visibly shaken man, he added, “And let me know.”

“Yes…..yes sir.”

Murdoch reached the stairs and took them two at a time hoping against all hope that Johnny had already returned and was safely ensconced in their room.  His mind was awhirl with his plans for their escape.  No trains were running this late, but maybe they could hire a buggy.  ‘Hell, I’ll buy the damn thing.’ He thought as he struggled to get the key in the door.

His heart sank as he strode across the empty room checking the bedrooms.  The heels of his boots clicked as he walked off the thick throw rug onto the polished oak floor then turned and paced once again across the room.

Murdoch wiped his hand over his face and he realized he was in a cold sweat.  Drawing a long breath and holding it for a moment, he fumbled for his handkerchief and wiped his face dry.

With a resigned sigh, he flopped down into the leather chair and tried to relax.  A part of him knew he was overreacting and as soon as Johnny came back, they would leave.  He knew he needed to apologize as well to the desk clerk for his uncalled for behavior.

*********

Johnny watched the city as it lit up for the night.  He marveled at how bright it became.  He watched the lamp lighter go from street light to street light, carefully adjusting the flame.  A group of four young men dressed stylishly in dark suits walked quickly down the sidewalk laughing and joking with each other, and Johnny wondered idly where they were going.

A breeze blew through the park and he shivered as he felt the cold air cut through the thin material of his suit coat.  He pulled it tighter around himself, unwilling to go in any sooner than he had to.  He was enjoying the solitude and reflecting on what an amazing trip this turned out to be.  He was actually enjoying the time he was spending with Murdoch even though he wasn’t feeling all that ready to resume his role as an honorary member of the Cattlemen’s Association.

His thoughts turned to The Gambler as an uneasy feeling returned.  His mind could almost grasp the memory, but as soon as it started to materialize it blew away like the fog that was starting to settle into the city.

Another gust of wind tugged at his dark hair and with a sigh he gave up his place on the rock in the little park.  He took a step and he had to smile as he realized how stiff he’d become from the inactivity.  He took a couple of wobbly steps before he stretched out his muscles and walked slowly back to the hotel.

Once again as he reached for the door, the doorman opened it with a courtly, “Allow me sir.”   Johnny nodded to the man and walked through the door toward the staircase.

“Mr. Lancer!”

Johnny turned as he heard his name called out across the lobby. He stood where he was, a bit braced as the desk clerk practically ran up to him.  “Mr. Lancer. Your father left word for you that he needs to see you right away.”

Johnny felt all his senses go on immediate alert.  “Where is he?” Johnny started to look past the man toward the card room where he had last seen his father.

“I believe he’s waiting for you upstairs, sir.” The man looked relieved he’d passed over the burden that had laid heavily on his shoulders since Murdoch had man-handled him.

“Thanks.” Johnny turned to head once again for the stairs.  He felt another quiver of uneasiness wash over him as he wondered why his father would summon him with such urgency.

His foot was on the first step, when he heard a soft voice speak behind him. “Boy, we need to talk.”

Johnny turned in surprise to see the man; the gambler, right behind him.  He raised an eyebrow at the familiarity and shook his head. “It’s gonna have to wait.”

“This can’t wait.  I heard that clerk call you Lancer.  Johnny Lancer?”

Johnny turned around and looked at the man once again. His eyes raked the man’s features and once again he felt a surge of recognition.  He shook his head, “I know you mister, but I can’t place you.”

“I’ve had the same feeling about you, but until now, I didn’t know for sure.  It’s a miracle I’ve found you boy.  A miracle.”  The man looked around and realized they were blocking the staircase. “Why don’t we go to the bar and talk?”

Johnny shook his head, “No. I can’t.  My father needs to see me.” He started once again up the stairs only to be stopped by a hand on his arm. He turned in surprise and shook the man’s hand off. “Let go” His voice was a low growl of warning.

“Johnny, please.  Come with me.  I believe your father wants to talk to you about me.  Don’t you want to know more before he does?”  The man’s voice was soft and Johnny’s curiosity was peaked.

“One drink and you better make it good.” Johnny said shortly and led the way to the bar.

*********

Quickly they were settled at a table in the corner of the dark room.  They each had a whisky in front of them.  The man drank his in two gulps and watched at Johnny took a tentative sip and waited.

“Get it said, mister.   You said you know me?  Who are you?”

The Gambler set his glass on the table and locked eyes with Johnny.  “My name is Madrid. Roberto Madrid.  I’m your Papa.  Don’t you remember?”

Johnny sat in shock looking at the man as his memory of this man returned.  He felt light headed and sick to his stomach all at the same time as realization crashed down on him.  He gripped his glass until his knuckles turned white and he tried to will the room to stop spinning around him.

He felt the man’s hand once again on his arm.  “Johnny it’s me.  Do you remember?”

Johnny nodded, but still couldn’t find his voice.

Roberto went on.  “You were only six years old when your mother left me.  I was devastated to lose my family.”

Johnny finally found his voice. “You stole me from my father!” Accusation ringing clearly in his voice.

“Son….”

“Don’t call me that! You don’t have the right to call me that!” Johnny’s voice grew louder.

Roberto held his hand up. “Alright then.” His voice was even, “Johnny. I loved you and your mother.  She was very unhappy with Murdoch and she was going to leave whether or not she left with me.  She was fed up and she’d made up her mind.  You were her baby. She was not going to leave without you, no matter what. It was her decision, but I was happy to have you both.  Do you not remember?”

At hearing this and realizing this man may have the answers he’d desperately sought and that his father was unwilling or unable to supply, Johnny nodded and relaxed a bit. He took a deep breath to calm himself, “I do remember now.  I….I remember you were good to us….to me.”

Johnny watched as the gambler smiled and once again, Johnny was hit with memories of this man.  A thought struck him and was out his mouth before he’d had time to think twice. “My mother used your name, so I used it too.” He waited to see if there was any recognition and when he saw none he added, “You ever hear of me?  Johnny Madrid?”

Roberto shook his head. “No….not that I recall.  I looked for you and your mother for a couple of years.  I had to move on.  I went back east for a few years, then I went back home to Spain.  I had some family business to take care of.  I just returned recently to California.”

Johnny nodded and a few pieces fell into place that made up the puzzle of his life.  His mother had rambled on about Spain and he’d always wondered how she knew so much, but he’d never asked.

Realizing how much time went by and the fact his father was waiting for him, he finished his drink and stood up. “Look.  I can’t talk to you anymore right now.  This is all such a…” He shook his head, as he was at a loss for words to describe the shock he felt at the sudden turn in his life.

Since returning to Lancer, he had a lot of mixed feelings toward his mother, but one feeling he’d been harboring was the pure anger he had at the man she’d left with. Now he was suddenly trying to reconcile his feelings with the reality that once again slapped him in the face.

“S….Johnny, I’ll be staying here all week.  Will you talk with me again?  If there’s anything you need to know, just ask.”

Johnny nodded and turned to leave as his father’s angry voice rang out across the room.

“Get away from my son!” Murdoch shouted.

Johnny looked up in surprise as he watched his father stride across the room.  He felt time shift as suddenly everything was in slow motion.

Roberto stepped in front of Johnny to face the angry man.  “Lancer.  Johnny and I were just talking. That’s all.”

Murdoch’s face was red and Johnny had never seen him so angry.  He was suddenly very afraid for his father and he stepped up to him, taking hold of his arm.  “Come on Murdoch, let’s go.”

“No!  This man stole my wife and son and he’s going to pay for it.  Once and for all he’s going to pay!”

Turning to the man once again, Murdoch spat, “I told you once that if I ever saw you again, I’d kill you. You’ve ruined enough of our life; you stay away from my son or I’ll make good on my promise.” He pulled a small derringer out and pointed it at the man.

“Murdoch, calm down.  It’s okay. We were just talking….”

“Get the hell out of my way boy.  I’ll deal with you later!”

Time speeded up for Johnny, with the sound of wind ringing in his ears, he stepped forward into Murdoch and tried to grab the gun.

The sound of a muffled gunshot stopped time as father and son slumped to the floor.

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

Johnny sank to the floor as his remaining senses registered that he’d been shot. His mind shrieked with blazing pain, and he knew it was bad. He couldn’t move, and he couldn’t cry out. His entire world was red and with his last thought he prayed for it to end.

Long moments went by and he was still. Off in the distance, he could hear people talking but he couldn’t make out the words. He tried to call to them, but they didn’t seem to be able to hear him.  He tried to raise his arm, but his body wouldn’t obey.

With a sigh of defeat he wasn’t sure if it was worth the effort and he began to drift toward….what?  He tried once again to focus his thoughts but another wave of pain filled him. A stray thought struck him. ‘Maybe I’m dead. Maybe they’re all wrong and the pain doesn’t stop, but goes on forever.’ That thought made him a bit sad as the pain faded to a more tolerable level. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as darkness settled around him.

**********

Murdoch sank to the floor with the dead weight of his son.  His mind was a blank as he automatically tried to stop the gush of blood that was spreading out around his fingers. He heard people screaming and milling around, even at this late hour.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into Clem’s drawn face. He barely noticed his disheveled appearance as Clem had obviously been getting ready for bed. “Murdoch, we’ve got to get Johnny to the hospital.  There’s a carriage waiting.” Clem said softly and slowly not at all sure Murdoch could understand.

Clem used all his strength to pull Murdoch away as the doorman took his place holding a folded cloth over the wound in Johnny’s chest. Two men bent down to pick Johnny up but were stopped by Murdoch’s hoarse voice.

“No….not him. Stay away from my son!” He pointed a shaky finger at Roberto.

Roberto nodded his head and set his mouth in a grim line, but stepped back to allow another man to take his place.

The men carefully picked Johnny up and walked in unison to the waiting carriage. The doorman stepped into the carriage along with Johnny; still keeping pressure on the wound. Murdoch stumbled into the carriage and stared helplessly at his pale son.  He counted the barely perceptible rise of Johnny’s chest and prayed for his son to live. He looked at Clem who just shook his head in regret over the events of the night.

*********

They reached the hospital fairly quickly, but to the three men, it seemed like hours.  Once they reached the hospital, they were all pushed aside and Johnny was rushed away from them by men in white coats.

Murdoch desperately wanted to go with him, but Clem reasoned with him, “Come on Murdoch.  We need to wait here.  We don’t want to get in the doctor’s way right now. They’re doing everything they can for him.  This is the finest hospital on the west coast.”

Murdoch nodded grimly and looked at his son’s blood drying on his hands.  He grimaced at the thought. ‘His son’s blood on his hands’ kept repeating over and over in his mind.

Finally, he sat on a bench in the waiting room and ran his hands though his hair and covered his face. “What have I done? What have I done.”

Clem watched helplessly as he witnessed something he never thought he’d see. He’d been Murdoch’s friend through the loss of his first wife and son; He’d seen him through Maria’s betrayal and the loss of Johnny, and recently the loss of Paul.  In all those times he’d never seen his friend like this. Those times, Murdoch had held it in. All the pain silently eating away at him. He let no one get close to him.  This time was different, this time Murdoch was experiencing the tragedy of this night and Clem was afraid it would destroy him.

***********

Hours went by and the light from the early morning sky was beginning to shine through the hospital windows.  No word for hours since a sober faced nurse had informed them that the doctors were going to operate.

Murdoch sat silently.  He hadn’t responded when Clem asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee. Clem had forced it into his hand and Murdoch drank it without noticing.

Murdoch was staring at a corner in the room. Focusing his eyes and refusing to look away was the only way he could cling to his sanity.  His worry and regret overwhelmed him and he was so lost in his own misery, he started when the doctor came into the waiting room.

“Gentlemen. I’m Doctor Phillips, the head surgeon.” The doctor waited until he was sure he had their attention before moving further into the room.

“How is my son?” Murdoch croaked as he struggled to his feet.

“We did as much as we could.  The bullet was thankfully a small caliber, but it hit the sternum and shattered into pieces. I removed as much bone and shrapnel as I could, but…”

Murdoch’s tortured eyes pinned the man, “But what?”

“There is still a piece I wasn’t able to reach.  I need to go deeper, but he’s not strong enough for that. It’s resting against the wall of his heart. He was starting to go into shock so I had to stop the operation.  I can’t go in again until he is stronger and more stable.”

“Can I see him?”

“He’s being cleaned up and of course he’ll sleep for several hours, but you can see him for a few minutes.”

Murdoch followed the doctor through the swinging doors to a smaller room.  He waited inside as the nurses and orderlies finished moving his son onto the bed.  As they stepped back he walked on wooden legs to Johnny’s side.

Murdoch’s heart did a double beat as he lifted up Johnny’s hand, stained with his own blood like his own and brought the fingers to his lips.  “I love you son.  I’m here Johnny.” He squeezed the fingers and noticed how pale Johnny was.  His chest was swathed in bandages and he was unnaturally still.

He turned questioning eyes toward the doctor as he noticed the leather straps pinning Johnny to the bed. A nurse was fastening a cuff around Johnny’s other arm and was moving around the bed making sure all the straps were secure.

“We need to keep him immobile to prevent that shard moving.  If it slips down in the chest cavity, I might not be able to get to it.”

“If you can’t get it out?”

“Your son will die.”

Murdoch turned back to Johnny and watched as the nurse fastened his remaining arm to the bed. “He’s going to be scared when he wakes up.  He won’t know what’s going on.”

“I’ll have a nurse with him at all times, sir. He won’t be alone.”

Murdoch pointed to the dark tube running from Johnny’s nose to the pillow behind him, “What’s that for?’

“We need to keep him hydrated and medicated.  It’s the easiest way under the circumstances.  I’ll leave it in until after the second surgery at least.” The doctor noticed the lines of worry on Murdoch’s face, “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.  Now you need to leave us to do our job here.”

Murdoch sighed with regret and had to fight back the tears that formed in his eyes.  At the doctor’s gentle prodding to leave, he bent down and kissed Johnny on the forehead. He brushed the dark hair out of his eyes and whispered, “I’ll be back soon son. I won’t leave you alone ever again.”

“Give him four hours Mr. Lancer. He won’t be awake before then.”

Murdoch nodded, “I’m going to go wire my other son and get cleaned up. Then I will be back.  I made a promise to my son that I intend to keep.”

**********

Murdoch walked out to the lobby to be met by a worried looking Clem.  “The doctor says he’ll be awake in a few hours.  I’m going to wire Scott and get changed, then I’ll come right back.”

Clem started to open his mouth, but before he could say anything, two uniformed man stepped up.

“Mr. Lancer?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Deputy Constable Dargan, this is Sergeant White, and you are under arrest for the attempted murder of your son.”

“What?  It was an accident!”

“Come along peacefully sir. You don’t want to make a scene.” The Sergeant suggested.

“No!  I’m not going anywhere!  I have to be here for my son when he wakes up!” Murdoch asserted.

Clem stepped in before things got out of hand. “Gentlemen, let me talk to my friend.”

He took Murdoch’s arm and whispered, “Come on Murdoch. They’re just doing their job. Go with them. I’ll find a lawyer and have you out of there in a couple of hours.  There were plenty of witnesses to testify that it was an accident.”

Murdoch looked over his shoulder toward Johnny’s room, “But I have to be here for Johnny.”

“Murdoch, be reasonable.  Don’t make this worse than it has to be.  I promise I’ll do my best to get you out right way.  I’ll wire Scott too.”

“First thing. Wire Scott. Then the lawyer.” Murdoch insisted.

“You can count on me Murdoch.”

Clem shook his head at the sight of Murdoch with slumped shoulders walking between the two officers out the door. He left soon after and headed to send a wire to Murdoch’s oldest son with the grim news.
****************

Doctor Phillips held his stethoscope against Johnny’s bandaged chest and listened in silence.  After a moment, he nodded and slipped the ear pieces around his neck.  He picked up a chart and made a few notations with a stubby pencil.
“How is he doctor?”

The gray haired man glanced at the young nurse and his mustache twitched as he considered his answer. “So far so good, Nurse Hansen.  His heart beat is strong and his pulse is steady.”
“When do you think he’ll come around?”

The doctor gently raised first one, then the other of Johnny’s eyelids.  “Soon, I think. Has his father returned yet?”

The brunet nurse shook her head, “I haven’t seen anyone.”

“I wonder what’s keeping him?  His father was adamant he wanted to be here.” The doctor shook his head once again, “Help me get this neck brace in place. I need to make sure he’s completely immobilized.”

The nurse went around to the other side of Johnny’s bed and helped the doctor slide a brace that resembled two small pillows into place. One pillow was placed on each side of his head and the doctor took a soft leather strap and began tightening it up over Johnny’s forehead.  “Hold that gauze in place.” He quietly instructed the nurse making sure the gauze was in place protecting Johnny’s skin from the leather.

The doctor checked Johnny over once more and instructed the nurse, “Keep him calm when he wakes up, and send someone to get me right away.  Give him another dose of morphine in thirty minutes.  I want to keep him pain free so he doesn’t struggle.”

“Yes doctor.” The nurse said as she took up a chair next to the bed to wait for her patient to wake up.

*********

Murdoch Lancer paced the confines of his cell. Five strides to the brick wall, turn, five strides back.  He grasped the bars in frustration and waited.  It had been over an hour since Clem had left with the attorney he’d hired.

Ira Hayes was supposed to be one of the best.  Murdoch hadn’t been all that impressed.  He’d been expecting someone…well someone of greater stature.  This man barely cast a shadow.  He was thin and couldn’t have been more than five foot, six.  His silver hair was offset by salt and pepper thick eyebrows that Murdoch found himself staring at instead of listening closely.

Clem had prodded him several times when Murdoch had lapsed into silence under the man’s stare. Murdoch had told the story over and over as Ira probed for every detail.  He didn’t understand why this was so important right now. All he wanted was to be released so he could get to the hospital to be there when Johnny woke up.

He reached for his watch and swallowed his irritation when he discovered it had been confiscated along with all his other belongings by the constable.  He glanced at the shadows and estimated that three hours had gone by.  He hoped Johnny would stay asleep until he was released.  He hated to think that his boy might wake up in a strange place without anyone there to assure him.  Johnny had been alone all his life. It was unfair that now that he had a family, he should ever have to be alone again.

Murdoch ran his hands through his hair and started pacing once more. He’d completed two more circuits, when his attention was drawn to the sound of the door being unlocked.

He rushed to the front of the cell and grasped the bars as he watched Clem and Ira walk in. Relief washed over him as Clem gave him a slight smile.

Ira quickly took charge of the conversation, “Murdoch, I’ve talked to the prosecuting attorney and he won’t drop the charges.”

Murdoch’s face fell and he gripped the bars until his knuckles turned white.

The attorney went on, “But I did get him to agree to bail with conditions.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows raised, “What conditions?”

“You can’t leave San Francisco, you may not have access to a firearm, and you will not be allowed near the victim without court ordered supervision.”

“Court ordered supervision? What exactly does that mean?” Murdoch felt outraged at the suggestion he may do further harm to his own son.

“You can’t visit Johnny unless I accompany you or one of the deputies is present.”
“This is outrageous!  You can’t honestly believe I’d hurt Johnny?”

“Murdoch, I know you wouldn’t hurt the boy, but the court is required to protect the victim in this case.  It will only be until we can either get the charges dropped or we go to court.”

“When will I go before the judge?” Murdoch asked.

“You’ll be arraigned tomorrow at 1 pm. You’ll be before Judge Tolliver. I believe you know him?”

“Yes, I’ve known Judge Tolliver for years.”

“Good, that will make it much easier.  While you arrange bail, I’m going to go to the hotel and get statements from any of the witnesses and character statements from the Cattlemen.”

“I’ll be in touch as soon as I have anything else. Let me know when you need me to accompany you to the hospital.  For now, I’ve arranged for a deputy to go with you today as soon as you’re released.”

Murdoch nodded; grateful in spite of the circumstances. “Thank you Ira. I’ll be in touch. I plan to spend as much time as I can at the hospital with my son.”

Murdoch turned to Clem as Ira left the room. “Well?” he questioned bracing himself.

“The bail is set at $5000.00, Murdoch. I took the liberty of stopping by Wells and Fargo.  They told me they’d lend you the money, but you need to sign these papers.” Clem handed the papers to Murdoch along with a pencil.

Murdoch took the sheets of paper and sat on the bunk.  The cell was dark, so he had to hold the papers at an angle in order to read all the print.  His face was red by the time he finished. “They want me to put up the ranch for collateral.” He ground out between clenched teeth.

“It’s only for a little while Murdoch. You’ll pay them back with interest when this is all sorted out.  They won’t get the ranch….that is unless you jump bail.”

Murdoch glared at his friend before he realized Clem was trying to make a joke to cut the tension. He made an effort to smile and with a flourish signed the agreements.  He got up and thrust the papers back at Clem.  “Hurry, please.  Johnny will be waking up at anytime.”

Clem started for the door.  “I’ll be back as soon as I can, don’t worry.”

Murdoch watched until Clem disappeared before starting his endless pacing once again. Five strides to the wall, turn, five strides back.

********

Scott was reclining on the couch with a blanket covering his lap.  His foot was propped up on a pillow and he was reading a book, lost in the authors travels in India.

A solid knock on the front door roused him from another world, but before he could respond, Teresa called, “Don’t get up. I’ll get it.”

Teresa opened the heavy door to Red Jones, the swamper/message delivery man from Green River.  He took his hat off at the sudden appearance of Teresa, “Miss Teresa. I have a telegram for Scott. It’s marked urgent.”

Scott flung the blanket off his lap and swung his legs to the floor.  He was fumbling around to get his crutches when Teresa rushed over and commanded. “Stay right there Scott Lancer.”  She thrust the telegram in his face.  “Hurry, read it.”

Red stood just inside the door fingering his hat as he waited for instructions. Neither Scott or Teresa remembered he was there in their concern over what news the telegram wrought.

Scott tore open the envelope and with shaky fingers and a feeling of dread unfolded the thin paper.  He was afraid it was news of his grandfather whom he worried about as he had written his health was not the best these days.

When he read the brief message, he felt a slight relief it wasn’t his grandfather, but his heart did a double beat when he read, ‘Johnny.’  He looked at Teresa. “It’s from a friend of Murdoch’s….” he stopped when he saw the terror in Teresa’s eyes. “No, Murdoch’s okay. It’s Johnny, he’s been hurt.  He’s at Saint Francis Hospital.  It doesn’t say anything else though.” Scott turned the page over, even though he knew that’s all it said.

Scott saw Red over his shoulder. “Thanks Red.  Will you send a telegram back to my father letting him know I’m on my way?”  He fished out a dollar and tossed it to the waiting man.

“Yes sir Scott.  Thanks. Ah…I sure hope Johnny’s gonna be okay.”

“So do we Red. So do we.” Scott replied.

Red left the house and the front door closed with a bang.  Teresa looked at Scott with tears in her eyes. “What could have happened, Scott?”

“I don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Scott said as he got the crutches under him and stood up.

“I’m going with you.” Teresa declared, her chin jutting out and her eyes challenging Scott to deny her.

Scott turned and looked at the young girl he now thought of as a sister and gently told her, “No Teresa.  You need to stay here.  I promise to send word as soon as I get there.  I won’t leave you in the dark.  I just have to concentrate on Johnny and frankly having you along will slow me down.”

Teresa’s hands went to her hips, and Scott was sure he was going to be getting a piece of her mind. “Please Teresa, don’t make this harder.  I have to get to Johnny and if I have to also make sure you’re being escorted like a proper young lady should, it will slow me down. I’m sorry honey. I hope you’ll understand?”

Teresa melted under his logic. “All right Scott. Just take care of yourself, though I don’t know how you’ll manage on crutches.”

“My ankle feels a lot better.  If you’ll bring me one of Murdoch’s canes I think I can manage just as well with that.”

Teresa shook her head in resignation, but did as she was asked and produced a dark maple cane.  Scott hefted it and carefully tried putting weight on his injured foot. A dull pain throbbed through his leg but it was manageable as he took a few steps trying out the cane.

“I’ll go upstairs and pack for you.  And don’t look at me like that Scott Lancer.  Don’t forget who helps wash your clothes, and folds them, and puts them away.  I can certainly pack them into a valise.” With a smile she turned and left the room leaving Scott to deal with his embarrassment.

Scott hobbled over to the ranch safe and carefully bent over to work the combination. He pulled out the cash box and helped himself to almost all the cash, leaving just a little for expenses.  He walked over to the blue chair and sat down gratefully while he waited for Teresa to return. It was going to be a long trip and the not knowing was eating at his insides.  He closed his eyes and prayed for his brother to be all right.

********

Nurse Hansen sat near the bed and read her book. At times her eyes drifted to the motionless young man.  He looked to be about her age, but he could be younger. At least in sleep he looked younger, but he seemed to be close to her 20 years.

She felt herself to be attracted to this silent dark haired man, even though she’d never even spoken to him.  She had always been serious as she worked her way through nursing school and now that she had this position at San Francisco’s finest hospital, she was determined that her career would not be waylaid by a handsome stranger.

Her father was a doctor, and her grandfather was a doctor and someday she knew she’d be a doctor. It just took a lot of convincing and a lot of money for her to gain entrance into a male dominated medical school. She was determined, and she planned to show Doctor Phillips what she was made of so he would recommend her the next time the college board met.

Her eyes were once again drawn to her patient and she thought she could detect a change. She placed her book on the side table and stood to look at him more closely.  His features seemed more mobile even though he had not moved.  She waited as she sensed he was coming around.  In a soft voice she assured him, “It’s all right.  You’re safe. It’s alright to open your eyes.”

She was rewarded by a slight movement of one eye lid, then she saw through half closed lids the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. “Come on, you can do it.” She encouraged him. She gently held his wrist and took his pulse.

His eyes opened wider and as she stared into the depths of his dark blue eyes, she saw confusion and fear.  “It’s alright.” She assured him, “You’re at Saint Francis Hospital in San Francisco.  Don’t try to move.  It’s very important you stay still.  I’ll be right back. I’m going to get the doctor.” Her patient’s eyes drifted closed and she was out the door to summon Doctor Phillips.

*******

Johnny opened his eyes once again to nothing but a stark white ceiling. He tried to turn his head and found he couldn’t.  He tried to move his right arm and it was held in place. Sweat popped out on his forehead as cold fear gripped him. He flexed the muscles in his chest and told his body to flee, but nothing happened except more fear.

‘What’s happening?’ He asked himself as his breathing doubled. He felt his heart beating like it was trying to jump from his chest.  ‘Think.’ He commanded himself as he tried to assess his situation.  He felt no pain which was odd, but other than the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to move, he didn’t hurt.

He tried to make sense of it all, when his memory returned in a flash, ‘Murdoch? Where’s Murdoch?’  He remembered that Murdoch has shot him, but after that he couldn’t remember anything.  He knew his father would be here with him if he could, unless…Johnny closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think it but it was there anyway.  Murdoch had been angry with him for talking to Roberto.  He said he’d deal with him later. He still couldn’t believe his father wasn’t there. “Murdoch?” he called out in a weak voice barely above a whisper.  No answer. Just silence. Johnny closed his eyes as a feeling of sheer helplessness washed over him.

*******

What could have been minutes or hours later, Johnny felt a hand on his cheek. He opened his eyes and stared into the gray eyes of an older man in a white coat.

“I’m Doctor Phillips, Johnny. I’m taking care of you.”

“Murdoch?” Johnny asked.

The doctor shook his head, “I don’t know where he is son.  I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”

Johnny tried to struggle against the tight leather straps, but the doctor admonished him. “You need to stay perfectly still.  The bullet glanced off your sternum and split apart inside.  I removed all that I could but you still have a piece of shrapnel resting against your heart wall.  It’s very important that you do not move. Do you understand.”

Johnny’s eyes blinked once and he whispered, “Si.”

“As soon as you are stronger, I’ll take you back in and remove it.  You should be just fine.” The doctor assured him.

Johnny’s eyes traveled to the offending tube in his nose and he coughed. He closed his eyes as a burning sensation scorched the back of his throat.

“I’m sorry about the nasal tube Johnny.  It’s necessary though. We can give you medication and keep you hydrated through it. I promise, I’ll take it out as soon as it’s no longer necessary.”

Johnny felt the pain ease a bit as he stopped trying to swallow.  For some reason he trusted this man, and with a couple of deep breaths, he tried to calm his nerves and relax into the bed. He closed his eyes and heard the doctor say he would check on him soon, but sleep was the best medicine he could prescribe.

That’s the last sound Johnny heard before he felt a hand on his forehead, smoothing back his wild hair that had covered one eye.  A soft tenor voice told him, “You’re going to be fine son.  Just rest.  Mi hijo, te amo.”

***********

Johnny started and tried to sit up. When he couldn’t do more than flinch he began struggling in earnest. Sweat popped out on his forehead and the soft voice became more urgent.

“Hold still hijo.  You are safe, my son.  Shush….just relax….” The voice became soothing again as Johnny gave up his struggle and relaxed once again.

Johnny opened his eyes and saw the man he’d called papa so many years ago. Unwanted tears filled his eyes and he fought down fury that he couldn’t do much more than blink them away.

Roberto looked down on him with kindness which made Johnny feel that much more uncertain. ‘Where is Murdoch?’ he thought wildly. He strained to see what little of the room that he could only to see Roberto’s face smiling down at him.

Roberto wiped at his brow with a cool damp cloth. “Gracias.” Johnny ground out. Roberto poured him a glass of water and helped him drink it carefully in small sips to get past the tube in his throat.

“More?”

“No.  What are you doing here? Where’s Murdoch?”

Roberto pulled a chair next to the bed and sat down. He leaned over so Johnny could see him without straining.  “I’m sure your father will be here soon.  Do you feel up to talking?”

“About what?” Johnny’s voice though quiet, was strained.

“What do you remember about me Johnny?”

Johnny closed his eyes and thought.  His mind was still in a fog but he’d dreamed about a dapple gray pony and a white sand beach. Something he hadn’t thought about in a long time.

“There was a gray pony with a light mane.”

“Yes!  Yes, you called her Bonita.” Roberto smiled. “What else?”

Johnny closed his eyes and thought as pieces of memories sorted themselves out until he could clearly see the scene in front of him. He opened his eyes in surprise. “You used to carry me on your shoulders and pretend to drop me, and my mama would scold you for scaring her.”

Roberto chuckled as he too remembered those times, “Si your mama had a tongue on her.” He laughed and was rewarded with a half smile from Johnny.

“Johnny, you have to believe me. I took you and your mother with me because I loved you both and I knew your mother was going to leave whether I took her or not.  I thought we would be happy and we were, but she left me just like she left your father.”

“She left me too.” Johnny said so quietly Roberto wasn’t sure he heard correctly.

“Como?” He asked.

Johnny looked at him intently and said slowly, “She…left…me….too.”

Roberto’s face showed his distress. “I had no idea.  She loved you so. You were her world.  I can’t believe she’d do that.  How old were you?”

“Twelve, I guess.  She told me I was old enough to make my own way and she was gone.”

“Did you ever see her again?”

Johnny’s eyes were downcast even though he couldn’t move his head.  He was silent for a couple of minutes before he raised his eyes to meet Roberto’s.  “Yes, I’d see her around, here and there. Last time I saw her she was on the arm of a rich man. A rich man’s whore, I guess is better than she could expect with me.” Johnny’s words were laced with anger and hurt.

Roberto reached over and squeezed Johnny’s arm. “I’m sorry Johnny. She could have been so much more. I guess I never understood her.” His voice was full of regret.

“Maybe none of us understood her. She left Murdoch, you, me….” Johnny trailed off.

Before Roberto could respond, Doctor Phillips entered the room.  “Good to see that you’re awake. Let me check you over.”  The Doctor raised an eyebrow at the unfamiliar visitor.

“I was just leaving.  If Johnny needs anything, anything at all, get in touch with me at the Ambassador Hotel. Ask for Roberto Madrid.”

“Of course Mister Madrid.”

Roberto left the room as Johnny tried to compose himself after hearing his old name attached to another man. He tried to push the memories of his mother back below the surface, and was only marginally successful.

After much poking and prodding, Johnny was ready to scream when the doctor finally finished his examination.  He stuffed his stethoscope in the pocket of his coat and carefully polished his glasses before placing them back on his nose.  “Well young man, you are doing much better today. Your heart rate is steady, your lungs are clear and with another days rest, we should be ready to remove that piece of lead and get you on the road to recovery.”

“That’s good news!” Murdoch said as he pushed through the door with a smile of relief on his face.

Johnny tried to turn his head toward his father’s voice but could do nothing more than move his eyes.  Murdoch hovered into his line of sight and Johnny felt relief as he looked into his father’s intent blue eyes and saw the familiar worry lines on his face.

“I’ll let you two visit awhile. One of the nurses will be in with some broth soon.  I’ll check on you this evening, but I expect you to sleep as much as you can today.”

Murdoch sat in the chair so recently vacated by Roberto and brushed Johnny’s hair out of his eyes.  He leaned over so Johnny could see him. “I’m so sorry son.  I never meant to hurt you.”

“It’s okay, Murdoch. It was an accident.  I’m…..” Johnny closed his eyes as he sought the words he needed to get out. “I shouldn’t of been talking to him. I’d seen him and he looked familiar, but it wasn’t until that night that I remembered.”

“Son it was me.  I took one look at Roberto and I lost control.  In a split second there I would have killed him if I could have.  For what he did to you and your mother and …..to me.  What he cost us.”

“Murdoch, she would have left anyway. Whether it was with Roberto or not, she would have left.” Johnny said gently.

“Maybe not….”

“She’s the leaving kind, Murdoch. She’s restless and wild.  She’s never happy with what she has. She would have left even though you were good to her, and Roberto was good to her. It didn’t matter…..she left.” Johnny’s eyes began to drift shut as Murdoch sat and absorbed his son’s wise words; he bowed his head and mourned his lost life.

***********

Scott got off the train slowly in San Francisco.  He felt very stiff and sore and was glad to finally get to his destination.  He’d been traveling non stop since he left home for the last 8 hours and his ankle throbbed with each beat of his heart.  He traveled light as he was having trouble maneuvering with his bum ankle.  Grasping the cane in one hand and a small valise in another, he hailed a hansom cab.  “Saint Francis hospital please.” He told the driver.

He leaned his throbbing head back on the seat and tried to relax as the cab clattered across the cobble stone streets. The whole coach creaked as the horses strained to pull the cab up the long hill to the hospital.  With relief, he climbed out of the coach and paid the driver, while he took the measure of the brick and glass three story hospital.

With a deep breath, he climbed the stairs and walked through the double doors to the first person who looked like they worked there.  “Miss?  How may I find the room of one of your patients?”

The young nurse smiled, and pointed down the hall. “Take the second door on the right.  The admissions office will help you.”

Scott found the admissions office and waited while an older woman finished filling out a form before raising her dark brown eyes to meet his. Her gray hair was in a tight bun, but some strands had escaped while she was working on her paperwork. “May I help you sir?’

Scott cleared his throat, “Yes.  I’m looking for my brother, Johnny Lancer?  He was admitted here yesterday.”

The clerk looked through her book and tapped an entry with one finger. “Yes.  John Lancer. Room 209.  Go up the stairs and turn left. Visiting hours will be over in an hour I’m afraid.”

Scott thanked her and was on his way before she finished her last sentence. He struggled up the flight of stairs and stopped to catch his breath on the landing.  Sitting around on the couch at Lancer this past week had really slowed him down, he thought as he continued in his search for his brother.

‘209!  There it is!’ Scott thought with relief as he made his way the last few yards and pushed opened Johnny’s door.  He stopped a few feet from the bed in total shock at seeing the pale face of his brother tied down with straps like an animal to the bed.

He rushed the last few feet to his brother. “Johnny!” He whispered urgently.

Johnny opened his eyes and blinked as Scott’s blurred image took shape in front of him.  “Scott.” He breathed in relief.

Scott reached over and began unfastening the buckles on the straps holding Johnny’s head still.  Thought fled him as his instincts told him to take care of his brother.

An angry voice intruded on his effort, “What do you think you’re doing?”

His hand was grasped and he was pulled away by Doctor Phillips. “Who are you anyway?”

“I’m Scott Lancer. Johnny’s brother.”

“I’m Doctor Phillips, your brother’s doctor and you must not interfere with his treatment.”

Scott took two deep breaths, and tried to go back to Johnny, but the doctor held him firm. “Listen to me son, your brother needs to stay absolutely still. He has part of a bullet lodged next to his heart. Those straps are necessary to preserve his life. I plan to operate tomorrow if he keeps improving as he has.”

Scott bowed his head as the doctors words hit home. “What happened?”

Johnny’s voice caught his attention, “Scott?”

This time, Scott broke free of the doctor and bent over his brother. “I’m right here Johnny.”

“Scott, it was an accident. He didn’t mean it.”

“Who didn’t mean what?” Scott asked in bewilderment. “Who did this Johnny? Who shot you?”

Scott watched in growing concern as Johnny closed his eyes. “Who Johnny!” Scott demanded quietly, but firmly.

“Murdoch….but….” Before Johnny could say anything more, Scott swore under his breath.

“I’m going to have a talk with our father.  I’ll be back soon, brother.”

Johnny was left in silence as his brother’s boots clicked in angry stride from the room.

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

Scott hobbled down the hallway feeling a twinge of guilt at leaving his brother mixed with anger toward their father. His thoughts were swirling with unanswered questions. ‘What could have happened?’ He shook his head as his sore ankle screamed for relief as he worked his way down the stairs.

He started out the door, but a familiar angry voice stopped him. “I don’t care if you have other duties to attend to.  I need to stay with my son and you will stay with me until my attorney gets here!”

“Sir…” The deputy tried once again to reason with the irate father.

Scott rounded the corner, “Murdoch!”

“Scott, thank God. Your brother….”

Scott stopped in front of his father and waited expectantly. When no explanation was immediately forthcoming, he exploded, “What on earth happened?  How could you have shot Johnny? I want answers now and you better make it good.”

Murdoch ran a hand over his face and sat down. He looked at the deputy and gave him a nod.  He waited until the man left and looked at Scott’s puzzled expression. “It was an accident. I…ah…” He wiped his hand across his face and through his hair as he shook his head. Sighing he added, “I’m not even sure where to start.”

Scott crossed his arms, hanging the cane over his forearm. “How about at the beginning, sir?”

Murdoch wasn’t meeting his eyes. His attention was focused on the pattern of the waiting room floor. “Things were going pretty well. We’d just finished dinner, when I saw him.”

“Whom? Who did you see?” Scott prodded.

“Him. The Gambler.”

“The Gambler?” Scott hesitated before continuing, “You mean the one who…”

Murdoch raised his eyes to meet Scott’s. “Yes.  The man who stole Maria and kidnapped Johnny.  When I saw him, all I could think about was finding Johnny and getting him home.”

Scott found himself struggling to understand this shocking news. “Did you talk to him?”

Murdoch shook his head, “No….but I came downstairs looking for Johnny and I saw him talking to my son!” His voice was strained and the anger was clearly just below the surface.

“Then what?” Scott urged.

Murdoch shook his head, “I’m not really sure. I yelled at him to get away from my son.  I don’t even remember taking the gun out, but I did.” Murdoch was talking quickly, his breaths getting shorter and more shallow as he relieved the horror of that night.

Scott sat next to his father and squeezed his arm, growing concerned by his father’s suddenly pale complexion. “Take it easy sir,” Scott took a couple of deep breaths in time with Murdoch and added, “Then what happened?”

“Johnny….Johnny tried to stop me. I tried to move him aside and….and….the gun went off.” Murdoch stared off, his face a mask of horror as he relieved the sight of his son slumping to the floor.  “He collapsed….oh God Scott; He lost so much blood. Now he’s up there strapped to the bed….alone….with a piece of my bullet resting against his heart.”

Scott sat in silence and watched his father’s bowed head unsure what to say. He wanted to be angry at Murdoch but the whole thing was just too tragic and his concern for Johnny was more important at the moment.

Finding his voice, “The doctor says he’s doing well. He thinks he’ll be able to remove the shrapnel tomorrow.” Scott stood, “Let’s go up and see him.”

Murdoch shook his head, “I can’t son. There’s something more you need to know.  I’ve been charged with the attempted murder of your brother.” He said it baldly and waited for Scott’s reaction.

Scott sank back down on the bench. “I don’t understand sir. It was an accident.” His voice faltered at the end.

“I know that, but the prosecuting attorney filed charges. I’m out on bail, but one condition is I can’t see your brother without either an officer of the court or my attorney present.  Ira should be here soon. He was interviewing witnesses and getting their statements. My arraignment is tomorrow at 1 pm. Ira is hoping to get the charges dropped.”

“I should hope so.” Scott couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. His normally strong stubborn father, looked beaten, disheveled, he needed a shave, and his shoulders were slumped in defeat. He wasn’t the same man who left Lancer just a short week ago. His worry for Johnny warred with his worry for his father, but his concern was most with his brother.

“Sir. I need to go back to Johnny.  When your attorney gets here, I want to have a word with him.”

Murdoch nodded, “I’ll be up as soon as he gets here….and son, thank you for listening.”

Scott smiled slightly before squaring his shoulders and heading back upstairs to see his brother.

*******

An hour had gone by with no sign of Murdoch or his attorney.  Scott sat next to his brother’s bed and waited as Johnny slept fitfully.  He stared in morbid fascination at the black tube that lay across his brother’s pale cheek.  He knew all of these straps and the tube were vital for Johnny’s survival, but he had to fight a feeling of wanting to free his brother and hold him tightly to comfort them both as their problems swirled around them.

Scott’s eyes drifted closed as the sound of Johnny’s rhythmic breathing lulled him to sleep. His mind finally giving in to the demands of his tired body.

How long he was asleep, Scott couldn’t say, but his eyes snapped open at the sound of the door opening.  He turned to see a young, pretty nurse come in carrying a tray to his brother’s bedside.

“I’m sorry to awaken you, but it’s time for his medication. Has he been awake at all?” Nurse Hanson asked as she arranged the medication on the tray and began taking Johnny’s pulse.

“No, not ….” Scott looked around in confusion, and then quickly pulled out his pocket watch and checked the time.  “Not for almost two hours.” He said with a frown.

The nurse felt Johnny’s forehead and smiled at Scott, “Don’t worry, it’s good he’s resting.  He’s rebuilding his strength. I checked on him an hour ago and he’s doing well.”

Scott smoothed down his hair, “I didn’t hear you come in.”

The nurse smiled at him fully, “You were sound asleep too.  I didn’t want to wake either of you.” She skillfully injected fluids into the nasal tube.

“What is that?”

“Pain medication, water with salt in it to keep him hydrated, and a mixture of herbs that fight infection and fever.”

“Like corn flower?”  Scott asked.

“Yes, that’s one of the ingredients.”

Just as she finished, Johnny stirred. Scott stood quickly, one hand grasping Johnny’s fingers squeezing, while he leaned over his brother and encouraged him to wake up.

“Hey there Johnny. I thought you were going to sleep the whole day through.  That’s it, open your eyes brother.”

Johnny blinked a couple of times before he managed to keep his eyes open. Once he saw who was looking down on him, he managed a small smile. “Hey.” He whispered.

“Thirsty?” Scott asked as he poured a glass of water.

“Yeah.”

Scott held the glass and Johnny took several sips. As he was just slightly elevated and couldn’t move his head, water dribbled down his chin and Nurse Hanson expertly wiped the excess off Johnny’s chest with a cloth.

“If you can stay awake for a few minutes, I’ll bring you some broth. Would you like to feed it to him?” She asked Scott.

“Sure, thank you Nurse….?”

“Hanson.  Annabelle Hanson.”

“Miss Hanson, I’m Johnny’s brother, Scott Lancer. Thank you for taking care of him….” Scott stopped suddenly as he was at a sudden loss for words. “He…we…he means a lot to me.”

*********

Johnny listened to his brother stumble over the words as he talked to the pretty nurse and he bit his tongue to keep from snapping out a smart remark. Leave it to his big brother to charm the ladies while he’s stuck in bed.  While his brother finished with the nurse, he surveyed his predicament. He was surprised at the lack of pain he felt and assumed it had to be from the medication.  He’d tried to get the doctor to cut back on it but the man had been adamant that Johnny was going to get every last drop he prescribed.

While the leather straps kept him firmly in place, he found he could move slightly and he concentrated on wiggling his toes and flexing his muscles as he tested his bonds to see exactly how much freedom he could achieve.  He felt like one of those butterflies stuck with a pin to a board he’d seen on display at the county fair.  It was a display collected by the local school children, and while the array of butterflies had been interesting, he’d found himself feeling slightly uneasy at the sight.

Shrugging off that thought, the nagging uneasiness returned but this time it had a name. Murdoch.  “Scott, where’s….um where’s Murdoch?” Johnny closed his eyes unsure he was ready for the answer.

Scott was standing over him in an instant and Johnny opened his eyes to see his brother look uncertain. Fear gripped Johnny and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer. ‘Was his father so angry with him he’d leave him here?’ Johnny asked himself. He swallowed and waited for Scott’s answer.

Scott looked away and said simply, “He’ll be along soon. Don’t worry.”

Johnny wanted to trust Scott but he could tell there was something he wasn’t saying. This man who he’d come to know as his brother was a straight shooter, so his sudden evasiveness had Johnny on alert.  Before he could gather his thoughts enough to voice his doubts, Scott asked him a question that threw him for a minute.

“Tell me about this man. The one who took you and your mother.”

Johnny licked his lips and asked, “What do you want to know?”

“Everything. Tell me what you remember.”

Johnny was silent for a moment while he gathered his thoughts.  It was hard to talk about; but he felt a sudden urge to tell Scott.  His brother had helped him through some hard times and Johnny found himself drawn to Scott’s logical matter of fact manner.

“Can I have some more water?” He asked stalling.

After he had taken a few more messy sips of water and Scott had mopped up the excess, he gathered his thoughts and started. “I saw a man who looked familiar in San Jose. Couldn’t place him.” He stopped and Scott offered more water, but Johnny shook his head.

“Here in San Francis….” He coughed and gave in, taking another sip of water when Scott offered it.  “Saw him again. He said he knew me. Then I remembered.” Johnny found he couldn’t look Scott in the eye suddenly and focused his eyes on a corner of the ceiling.

“I um…He was the only father I ever knew.” He felt Scott squeeze his arm.  Johnny’s eyes sought Scott’s once more.  “I was about 6 when we left and I remember askin’ my mama where Papa was.  I guess she kind of got tired of my whinin’ and told me he wasn’t my Pa.  That’s the first time she told me my real Pa didn’t want me.” Johnny would have shaken his head if he could, instead his deep blue eyes full of unshed tears drew strength from the steady eyes of his brother.

He felt his brother squeeze his arm in support. “I’m sorry Johnny. That must have been hard.”

Johnny swallowed hard, “Yeah….it was.  All my memories of Roberto are good.  He was a good father to me Scott.  Maybe he did wrong by takin’ me from Murdoch, but he was good to me.”

“What happened when Murdoch saw the two of you together?”

“Ol’ Murdoch, boy he was mad. He shouted across the room for him to leave me alone. It scared me. I thought….well I thought he might do somethin’ he’d regret, so I stepped in front of him.  For a minute there, it was like gettin’ in front of a stampede.  Stupid thing for me to do. Didn’t realize he had a gun…” Johnny’s voice drifted off as his eyes closed.

He heard Scott’s voice telling him to rest. His eyes snapped open, “Don’t go?”

“Don’t worry brother. I’m not going anywhere.  You rest and I’ll wake you when your supper comes.”

Johnny smiled slightly as he relaxed for the first time in what seemed like forever. His brother would keep watch and he could rest.

***********

Scott tried to relax as he watched his brother rest.  He realized with a start that he was clenching his fist and with a conscious effort relaxed his hand.  He closed his eyes for a moment, but his eyes snapped open at the sound of the door opening.

He turned his head and felt relief to see his father step through the door with a man in a neat dark suit.  Scott assumed this man was Murdoch’s attorney and carefully stood up getting his cane firmly under him.

“Scott, how is he?” Murdoch asked as he hurried to Johnny’s side.

“Considering the circumstances, he’s doing alright. He just drifted off.” Scott turned to the attorney as it appeared Murdoch had completely forgotten the man. He extended his hand. “I’m Scott Lancer.”

“Ira Hayes.” The middle aged man replied, his lips upturning under his salt and pepper mustache.

Murdoch looked back at them, “Sorry. Scott this is my Attorney.  He’s been getting statements from witnesses at the hotel.  He thinks he can get the charges dropped tomorrow.”

“That’s good news sir.”

“I need to get Johnny’s statement as well.”

“Do you think that’s wise sir?” Scott asked growing concerned.  “I mean, I think we need to check with his doctor before we tell him about your legal problems.  He may want to wait until after the surgery.”

“Scott’s right Ira. I don’t want Johnny worrying about anything other than getting well.”

“What if….well just in case….” Ira couldn’t bring himself to state the obvious.

“We’ll do whatever the doctor suggests.” Murdoch raised his voice, “And that’s final.”

They all turned back to the bed when Johnny asked, “What’s final?”

Murdoch leaned over and smiled at his bedridden son, “Son, you’re awake.  How are your feeling?”

Johnny was silent for a moment before answering, “Okay, I guess.” He said slowly.  I am kinda hungry through.”

“The nurse said she would be bringing you some broth soon.” Scott put in hovering into Johnny’s limited vision.

Johnny grimaced, and his father and brother chuckled. “What were you talking about earlier? Somethin’ about a statement?”

“Don’t worry about that right now, son.”

“Murdoch. Tell me? What’s goin’ on?”

Scott and Murdoch locked eyes and Scott shrugged at his father’s questioning look.

“Please tell me.”

Murdoch sighed and grasped Johnny’s hand, “All right son. I’ve been charged with attempted murder.”

“What? Of who? You mean me?” Johnny asked growing more agitated.

Murdoch squeezed Johnny’s hand, “Calm down son. I have a good lawyer and he’s pretty sure the charges will be dropped. Don’t worry about anything.”

“But it was an accident! You didn’t mean to shoot me.”

“Murdoch, if I may?” Ira stepped forward.

Murdoch nodded, “Son, this is my lawyer, Ira Hayes. If you feel up to it, he wants to find out what happened in your own words.”

Johnny’s blue eyes bored into Murdoch’s and he blinked once before answering, “I want to have my say.”

Ira moved to the other side of Johnny’s bed and leaned over so Johnny could see him. “John, I’m Ira Hayes.  I won’t take much time. I know you need to rest.”

“Get my father out of this.  It wasn’t his fault.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“I was, um talkin’ to this man. Turns out he was the one my mama ran away with and we lived with him till I was about six.” Johnny coughed and Murdoch helped him take a sip of water.

“More?” Murdoch offered.

“No, thanks.” Johnny smiled slightly at his father. He eyes turned back to Ira. “Murdoch came in and saw me talkin’ to him and came chargin’ across the room.  He looked like he was gonna slug Roberto so I stepped between them, and the gun with off.  It wasn’t his fault.”

Johnny’s locked eyes with Ira. “He got my hide away gun and he couldn’t have known it had a hair trigger. I worked the action on that little gun myself and it went off. He couldn’t have known how little trigger pressure it’d take to go off.” Johnny closed his eyes for a moment then said, “You’ve got to get him off.” He finished weakly and closed his eyes.

“Thank you Johnny. I think we have a good chance. Don’t you worry about it any more. You just get well.”

Nurse Hanson came through the door with a tray. “Oh you have visitors.” She placed the tray on the table. Turning to Scott, “Would you like to feed him or would you like me too?”

“I’ll do it, thank you. Hungry brother?”

Johnny opened his eyes, “Broth.” He frowned again. Murdoch and Scott chuckled.

Ira motioned with his head toward the door, “Murdoch, I want to get my notes ready for tomorrow. I don’t usually stretch the law, but in this case, I’m going to make an exception.  I’m going to hire your son Scott as my assistant. That way you can stay with Johnny as long as Scott is with you.”

“Is that legal?” Murdoch asked feeling both hope and surprise.

“I’m an officer of the court and I’m appointing Scott, so of course it’s legal.  Just be at my office tomorrow by noon. When is Johnny’s surgery?”

“I don’t know exactly. I hope it’s in the morning, but I’ll talk to the doctor this evening.”

The lawyer smiled at his client, “Try to get some rest. With Johnny’s statement, and that of the witnesses, I’m pretty sure Judge Tolliver will drop the charges.”

“What about Roberto Madrid?”

“I talked with him and he was surprisingly cooperative.  He seemed actually remorseful over the whole thing and offered to testify on your behalf.”

Murdoch looked skeptical and surprised, “Really? I wouldn’t think he’d lift a finger to help me.”

“Well, he said he would help if he could and he seemed sincere.  I don’t plan on calling him unless it goes to trial though as he did say, he thought if Johnny hadn’t stepped in, he may be the one laying in that hospital bed.”

Murdoch opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and shook his head. He blew a breath of air from his mouth, “He’s right. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d have gotten my hands on him.”

“The important thing is you didn’t and you had no intention of killing him, just protecting your son.” Ira said firmly.

“That’s right. I just wanted to get Johnny away from that man.”

“All right Murdoch, visit with your boy and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Ira.” Murdoch grasped the man’s hand feeling better than he had in hours.

 **********

Nurse Hanson returned a short while later with Doctor Phillips right behind her. “Gentlemen, Nurse Hanson tells me my patient is doing much better now his family is by his side.”

Murdoch smiled down at his sleepy son and shared a look at his older son.  “We’re all doing better now that we’re together.”

Scott and Murdoch stood back and looked on anxiously as the doctor checked Johnny over. He straightened up and nodded to the nurse who began administering the medication; carefully infusing it into the nasal tube.

While she did that he spoke which helped keep Johnny’s thoughts off what the nurse was doing. “You’re doing well Johnny. Tomorrow morning I’ll take you back into surgery and get that piece of metal out of you, sew you up and you’ll soon be as good as new.” The doctor added, “Well at least good as new with some good nursing and lots of rest.”

Johnny groaned, “Is that the best you can do Doc?” he glanced at the pretty nurse and managed a sleepy smile, “The nursing is just fine, but bein’ tied down….” Johnny left the rest unsaid.

“Once that shrapnel is out, you won’t have to be restrained.  I do need you to stay in bed until you heal a bit though.”

“Okay Doc, whatever you say.” Johnny closed his eyes.

Seeing Johnny drift away, Scott and Murdoch moved closer. Scott leaned over. “Goodnight brother. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“G’night bruver.” He slurred.

Murdoch ran his hand through Johnny’s hair and murmured. “Get some rest son. I’ll see you in the morning before you go in.”

Johnny smiled slightly, “Nite, pa.”

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

The next day……

 

Murdoch and Scott hastily dressed and headed out to the hospital, not even stopping for a cup of coffee. Johnny’s surgery was scheduled for nine this morning and they wanted to see him before he was taken in.

Scott felt his stomach churn at the idea his brother was going under the knife once again and he closed his eyes for a quick prayer as the carriage rocked and swayed on its way to the hospital.

Murdoch had been quiet for the whole ride, staring at the window. Scott wondered just where his thoughts were as not only was his son’s surgery today; his own arraignment was this afternoon.

While Scott had been impressed by Ira Hayes, he was under no illusions about today’s proceedings.  His father’s spotless reputation, and the eye witness accounts as well as Johnny’s statement should hold some sway.  Several of the cattlemen had provided references of Murdoch’s good standing in the community and Clem, one of Murdoch’s oldest friends was prepared to testify as a character witness.  He just hoped it would be enough.  ‘It had to be enough.’ Scott was surprised at his anger over the situation.

‘If only.’  How many times in his life had he started a thought with *if only*? Too many times, he decided.  They all had their share of these moments and just when it seemed they were coming together as a family, something snatched it farther from their reach.

‘Not this time!’ Scott vowed silently. He’d waited his whole life to have a family, and he didn’t intend to wait on the sidelines any longer now that he’d had a taste of it.

***********

Murdoch and Scott met Nurse Hanson as she was just leaving Johnny’s room.  “Doctor Phillips is in with him right now. Preparing him for surgery.  If you would wait just a few minutes out here, you can go in and see him.”

“Thank you, Nurse.” Murdoch said almost woodenly.

Scott looked at him with concern and for just a moment he saw that same expression that his brother used at times to shield his emotions from the prying eyes of outsiders.  Scott sighed and wondered to himself when he would no longer be an outsider to his father and brother.  These two were more alike than they knew.

The two men waited impatiently until the door opened once again and two orderlies followed by Doctor Phillips left the room.

“Oh good, you’re just in time. We’re going to take him down to the operating theater in just a few minutes, but you can go in and speak to him.”

“Thank you Doctor.” Scott replied as he pushed open the door and entered his brother’s room.

Murdoch put a hand out to stop the doctor.  “How long do you expect the surgery to take?”

The doctor put his stethoscope in the pocket of his coat, “It’s hard to say.  Three hours more or less.  Then maybe an hour, hour and a half until he’s returned to his room. Plan on seeing him around 1:00 this afternoon.”

Murdoch frowned, “As you know, I’ll be in court at that time, but as soon as I’m done I’ll be back here. My older son, Scott will be staying here though.”

“No need for him to stay. We’ll send someone if we need you.”

“He’ll be here for his brother.” Murdoch said forcefully and pushed his way past the doctor into Johnny’s semi darkened room.

With three long strides he was at Johnny’s bedside and looking into the groggy eyes of his son. “All set son?”

Johnny smiled slightly, “Ain’t got no choice, do I?”

Murdoch smiled affectionately and squeezed his son’s hand.  “Scott will be right here with you and I’ll see you shortly after you wake up.”

“Okay.  I um…I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for giving me a choice.”

“No son, it is I who ought to say thanks. Thank you for coming home….” Murdoch felt his throat constrict. It was past time to say what was in his heart. “It’s not easy for a man like me to say this….” He stopped and swallowed, the blurted it out. “I love you son. I love both of you.” His eyes locking Scott’s until he nodded in acknowledgement.

The two orderlies returned, one on each end of the bed, “It’s time.”.

Murdoch and Scott walked along next to Johnny’s gurney as he was wheeled from the room.

“Sirs; Here is the waiting room. You’ll have to stay here.”

Murdoch bent over Johnny, “We have to stay here son. We’ll see you soon.”

Johnny’s eyes opened fighting the drugs he’d been given, “Te amo.” He whispered as he was wheeled from the room.

*********

Murdoch checked his pocket watch for the fiftieth time as he paced the small waiting room.  Scott had given up trying to relax him as he himself felt tightly wound-up as well.

“Why can’t they tell us something. Anything!” Murdoch spat in frustration.

“They said it would be at least three hours Murdoch.  I guess we have to assume, no news is good news.”

“I have to leave now to get to Ira’s office by 12:30.”

“That’s not leaving much time to prepare.” Scott speculated.

“He wanted me there at noon, but I was just hoping to get some news on how Johnny is doing before I leave.” He started to pace once more, when a nurse came through the double doors down the hall.

Scott was afraid for a moment that Murdoch was going to knock her over in his haste to question her and he hurried after him to hear, “Everything is going as expected, but it will be at least another hour before the doctor is done.  He is planning to strengthen the cracked rib and sternum with a new procedure before he closes. He said to tell you all is well.”

“Did he remove the bullet yet?” Scott asked anxiously.

“Yes, just now.”

“I’ll be waiting right here. Please bring me any news you can.” Scott asked feeling a measure of relief.

“Certainly Sir.  I’ll pass on anything the Doctor tells me.”

After the nurse left, Scott and Murdoch looked at each other for a moment and Murdoch ran one big hand through his hair.  “I guess I better go. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Scott had never seen his father look so worried and tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry sir, Johnny is in the best of hands.”

Murdoch grasped Scott gently by the shoulders, “Thank you son. Thank you for being here for both of us.  Send someone to the court house if I’m needed.”

Scott nodded, “Good luck Sir,” and with that his father left the hospital and he returned to the waiting room to wait alone.

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

Murdoch had butterflies in his stomach as he listened with half an ear to the mumbo jumbo between Judge Tolliver, Ira and the prosecuting attorney.  Ira had met the day before with the prosecuting attorney and presented the statements from the witnesses and from Johnny.  He’d hoped to get him to drop the charges before today’s arraignment but the prosecuting attorney was young and thought he could make a name for himself by dragging the Lancer name through the mud.

Murdoch’s attention was once again drawn to the sound of raised voices and Clem reached over and squeezed his shoulder in support.  He was one of the few people to give testimony and it had been glowing as he described the upstanding man Murdoch was and the growing relationship he’d witnessed between Murdoch and his son.

The courtroom became quiet as Judge Tolliver banged his gavel three times in impatience. “I’ve heard enough.” His black robes shaking as he motioned for the lawyers to return to their respective seats.

“I’ve reviewed the evidence and listened to the wrangling going on here. I’ve had enough.  It’s plain to me this was a serious error in judgment on Murdoch Lancer’s part, but it’s also clear he had no intention of shooting his son, John Lancer.  He had no idea the derringer had a hair trigger, and while he may have had intentions of using it against Senior Madrid, there is no evidence as such.”

He glared at the young prosecuting attorney, “If you ever bring a case before me again on such flimsy evidence, I’ll toss you from my courtroom.” He waited while the young attorney wilted in his chair.

The judge looked around the room and caught Roberto’s eye at the back on the side of the prosecutor, “Senor, you are very lucky. You’re lucky Murdoch’s son stopped him from doing something you’d both regret and you’re lucky that the statutes of limitations has run out or I would have you detained for the kidnapping of a child, one John Lancer. I’d throw the book at you if it were in my power and I’d sentence you to the 20 years  you sentenced Murdoch Lancer.”

Judge Tolliver looked once more around the room to see if there were any dissenters. Satisfied he’d gotten his point across to one and all, he banged his gavel, “Case dismissed. Murdoch, you’re free to go.”

Murdoch jumped up and thanked the judge while he shook Ira’s hand and found Clem pounding him on the back.

“I’ll see you both later.  Dinner’s on me to thank you. For now I have to get to the hospital. Johnny should be coming around about now.”

Before he could take a step, Scott came bursting through the doors of the courtroom and practically ran to Murdoch.  Murdoch caught him as he thought Scott would fall.

Scott was winded and couldn’t catch his breath enough to talk, “Johnny…..Murdoch…” He gasped.

“What is it?  What happened?” Murdoch asked as dread flooded through his veins like ice water.

Scott continued to gasp for breath, “Come quick. Doctor…needs you.  Just go!”

“Clem.” Murdoch said handing Scott to his trusted friend.

“Go ahead Murdoch.  We’ll be right along.”

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

Murdoch rushed up the steps to the hospital and without breaking stride thundered down the hall to the operating room doors.  He was just getting ready to break the doors down when a nurse in a blood stained smock came out.

“Mister Lancer?”

“Yes, yes, I’m Johnny’s father.  Is he?” Murdoch couldn’t finish the thought.

Just then Doctor Phillips came through the door looking exhausted. Murdoch had to swallow to keep his non existent lunch from coming up at the sight of his son’s blood all over the man’s hands, coat and even his forehead.

“There’s been a complication, but he’s still with us.  He began bleeding and we couldn’t get it to stop.  We were finally able to get it under control, but he needs blood. It’s a new procedure and risky but I’m afraid it’s his only chance.”

“Take mine.” Murdoch insisted.

“Where’s his brother?” the doctor asked looking around.

“He’s on his way, why?”

“A sibling is usually the best match.  I did notice they don’t look alike….” The doctor’s words tapered off.

“They’re half brothers. I’m their father; different mothers.”

“I see. Then in that case, as I suspected, you’re the best choice.  It’s a fairly simple procedure on your end.  We take blood from you and give it to your son. You will feel a bit weak for an hour afterwards, but it goes away fairly quickly.”

Scott walked up and overheard the doctor’s explanation, “And the danger to Johnny?”

“If his blood does not match his father’s; he will die.” The doctor said bluntly.

“Why wouldn’t it match mine?” Murdoch demanded growing impatient.

“He could have his mother’s blood type or a mixture of both. Depending on his blood type, this procedure could kill him.”

“What are the alternatives?” Scott asked clearly unhappy with the choice.

“Very few, I’m afraid.  Your brother lost too much blood and without this transfusion, he has very little chance of surviving.”

“Let’s do it.” Murdoch said without waiting to hear more and walked with the doctor into the operating area.

*********

Scott sat in the waiting room with his head in his hands as he waited for news about his brother. ‘How much longer can it be?’ he asked himself.

Clem had gone for coffee and even though Scott had turned down his offer, he had the feeling the rancher would bring it back and insist he drink it.

The door opened and a man dressed in a Spanish style suit with short jacket and matching trousers, walked quietly into the waiting room. Scott glanced at him and smoothed down his hair before turning to him.

“What are you doing here?  You’re not needed or wanted.”

“I understand how you feel, Senor Lancer. I tried to stay away but I needed to come.”

“For you or for Johnny?”

The older man thought for a moment, “I suppose it is selfish, but I need to know he will be all right.  Tell me something.” He waited until he had Scott’s full attention. “How long has Johnny been living with his father?”

Scott hesitated trying to decide if Roberto would use the information in some way and not seeing any harm, answered, “Not long. We’ve both been home about 4 months.”

Roberto unsuccessfully hid his shock and dismay, “Madre de dios! I had hoped she would come to her senses and send him home.” The man sank into one of the chairs.

Scott watched the man as he bowed his head in an uncanny resemblance to Johnny and in spite of himself, he remembered his brother’s words, ‘He was good to me. I thought he was my pa until my ma told me he wasn’t.’

Before either man could say anything else, Clem appeared with two steaming cups of coffee followed by a nurse leading a groggy Murdoch into the waiting room. She handed Scott a glass of lemonade. “Make sure he drinks this. It will help him recover faster.”

She turned to leave but Scott stopped her, “How’s my brother doing?”

“He’s holding his own. Your father’s blood was a match and now were just getting him finished up. He should be back in his room within the hour.”

“Thank you nurse.” Scott said gratefully as he offered the glass to Murdoch; Roberto forgotten for now.

***********

Murdoch began feeling more like himself as he sat up straighter. He was grateful for Scott’s support.  Clem’s too throughout this ordeal.  He looked at Scott’s worried eyes. “He’s going to be all right son, I know it.”

“I guess he has to be with a double dose of stubborn Lancer blood in him now.” Scott responded feeling hopeful for the first time in hours.

He froze at the look on Murdoch’s face as he saw his father looking across the room with hatred on his face. A voice he couldn’t identify but he was sure had come from his father, barked, “Get out.” The low grunt almost sounded like one word.

Roberto stood and moved closer to Murdoch, “Murdoch hear me out and then I will leave.” There was a cold silence as the two adversaries locked eyes.

Murdoch finally gave in and nodded slightly, “Say your peace and get out.  I don’t want you anywhere near Johnny.”

Murdoch watched as the man who stole his wife and son seemed to deflate in front of him. He’d built the man up so much in his eyes. His wounded pride never allowing him to see Roberto for who he really was, a man just like himself.  He waited, unsure if he really wanted to hear, but this man just may have the answers that plagued his sleepless nights all these years.

“When I met you over that card game in Sacramento, I let you believe we met by chance. But I joined that game in order to meet you.  I’d known her before you see.”

No one needed to ask who ‘her’ was and they all waited for him to continue.

“In my culture, it is not uncommon to have arranged marriages.  My father had arranged with her father for me to marry Maria.”

Murdoch’s face froze at the knowledge. “But she was only a child.”

Roberto shook his head sadly, “Si, she was only a child. She was willful and wild and I loved those qualities about her.  She wasn’t ready for marriage and I told her father I would wait, but he was impatient and he pressured her, so she ran.  Her father tried to find her and I tried to find her.  I knew she loved me, but she was just 16 anos and not yet ready for marriage.”

“I told her father to give her time, but by the time he found her, she’d found you; she was married and soon to be a mother.  I wished her well and went on with my life.”

They all waited for the man to gather his thoughts. His soft spoken words lulled them and Scott was once again reminded of Johnny. “About two years later, I received a letter.  It was from her.  She was desperately unhappy and planned to leave her husband and return to Mexico.  She pleaded with me for help…..I could not deny her.” His words so quiet they all leaned in.

“I came. I’m not proud of it, but she sounded so desperate, I felt I had no choice.”

“You could have minded your own business.” Murdoch growled.

Roberto looked at Murdoch with complete understanding, “No Senor.  Maria was my business.” Before Murdoch could think of a reply, Roberto went on, “She was desperately unhappy. She felt alone and afraid and I believed her when she said she was going to leave with or without my help. After I met you over that poker game, I tried to talk her out of it; give the marriage another chance. She was adamant.”

“What did I do? What made her leave?” Murdoch asked anguish in his voice.

“Nothing.  I know that now.  It is just her way. You wanted another child, and you pressured her so she ran.”

“Just like when she ran from a marriage to you.” Scott pointed out.

“Si, just the same.”

“If she didn’t want another child, why take Johnny? That’s what I don’t understand.” Murdoch asked the question again that had been torturing him.

“She loved him. He was her baby and she loved him. Perhaps she thought she could do right for him and give him a good life, but that was not to be.  We were happy for a few years after that. Life was good, but in the back of my mind I knew you were out there grieving for your child.  She was adamant whenever I tried to reason with her. As much as I would have missed Johnny, I knew it was a father’s right to see his son grow up.”

“You had no right to take him.” Murdoch ground out, clenching his fists.

“Si, you are right. I had no right.   When Johnny turned six, Maria suffered a miscarriage.  I told her I could not go on like this. I wanted to marry her. Have children with her; start my own familia.  She was adamant. She would not file for divorce. She would not risk losing Johnny.  It took about six months, but I finally got her to agree.  I was heading north with the divorce papers when I received word, she was gone. She left me.” Roberto bowed his head in sorrow.

“I pressured her into the divorce and marriage to me and she ran.  I tried to find them, but it was like she disappeared off the face of the earth.  Over the years I kept in touch with her parents and they never heard from her. When they died, all hope died and until I saw Johnny in that hotel lobby, I had not seen either of them in all that time.”

Scott had heard enough, “What exactly do you want from Johnny?”

“Nothing.”

“Oh come now. You wouldn’t have gone to all this bother to tell this story if you didn’t want anything.”

Roberto stood and looked at Scott with indulgence, “Take good care of your brother. Murdoch, I can not change the past, and the words, I’m sorry, are hollow even to my own ears.  You have nothing to fear from me.  I am going home to Mexico tomorrow and I give you my word, I will never again see Johnny.”

Murdoch and Roberto stared at each other for a moment and Murdoch saw his old adversary’s words were true.  Roberto nodded and left the room.

“Do you believe him?” Scott asked.

“I believe him.” Murdoch said slowly.

A few minutes went by in silence before the sound of a gurney pushing through the doors caught their attention.  Murdoch pushed himself awkwardly to his feet, and swayed a moment before Scott grabbed his arm and helped him down the hall to Johnny’s room.

They waited anxiously while the attendants transferred Johnny to his bed and then waited some more while the doctor carefully checked his patient.

Doctor Phillips straightened up and smiled, “Gentlemen, he’s doing well.  He should be coming around anytime.  Nurse Hanson will wait with you until he wakes up and she’ll come get me.”

“Thank you doctor.” The words didn’t come anywhere near to the gratitude they conveyed, but Murdoch meant it and so much more.

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

Five Weeks Later

 

Johnny sat with his back against the rough stucco and watched Barranca grazing in the pasture.  The wind blew his unruly hair and he relished the fresh air as it cooled his skin. The leather seat groaned as he shifted his weight and he continued the intricate task of braiding the rawhide strings into what would become a reata.

As he leaned forward, his chest gave a token protest at the change of position and he stopped to rub his sternum, fingering the raised scar under his thin shirt.  He couldn’t believe it was taking him this long to get back on his feet, but he still had trouble even staying awake through the day.  Doc Jenkins still insisted he take an afternoon nap.

Part of him wanted to rebel, but the stronger part, the part touched by his family kept a rein on his recklessness.  The haunted look on his father and brother’s faces kept coming back to him during his struggle to recover.

Johnny’s attention was drawn once again to Barranca as he took off at a gallop across the pasture trumpeting a greeting to his stable mates as they trotted under the arch.  He watched as his father and brother drew nearer and he smiled as they in turn assessed him.

‘Checkin’ on me.’ Johnny thought.  In the not too long ago, he would have been irritated by their concern, now it sustained him.  The feeling of family was strong now and he was determined to hold on to it with all his stubborn Lancer pride.  That thought brought a smile as he remembered Scott’s comment about him having a double dose of Lancer stubbornness.  ‘At least they can’t blame me for it anymore.’ He reasoned.

Scott and Murdoch tied their mounts to the hitch rail and walked over to where Johnny sat.  Scott took off his hat and wiped the inside of the brow band with his handkerchief. “Comfortable brother?”

Johnny glanced up from his braiding and reached over to the glass of cool lemonade Teresa had just brought him and took a long drink. “Yep, brother.  That’s mighty good lemonade. Too bad you ain’t got any.”

Scott swatted him with his hat, and Johnny ducked and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Brat.” Scott snorted. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.  I figure by the time you’re back on your feet, it’ll be branding time. What do you think sir?”

Murdoch had been standing back watching his sons' antics with affection, he ran his finger down the side of his nose while trying to contain a smile, “Yes…” he said slowly. “That sounds about right.  We’ll get the branding out of the way, then its haying season, then we’ll…..”

“All right, all right!  Enough with you two.  You’re makin’ me tired just talkin’ about all that work.  Sam said not to tire me out, remember?”

“Now you do what Sam says. I see how it works, you only follow the orders you like.” Scott teased and sat next to his brother.

Murdoch pulled a leather covered chair so he was seated in front of Johnny. “Son, when I picked up the mail, this came for you.” He held out a thick envelope.

Johnny looked from one to the other and couldn’t miss the concern on their faces. He stretched his hand out and took it saying, “I wonder who’d write me?” He rarely got mail addressed to him and getting some now made him nervous.

“Open it and see.” Scott urged.

Johnny carefully tore open the envelope and pulled out a sheaf of papers.  He read through the first page and his heart plummeted to his stomach.  He tried to take a deep breath of air but for some reason he couldn’t get anything in.

“Johnny, what is it? Are you all right?” Murdoch leaned forward with concern.

Johnny’s blue eyes said it all. Sadness and wonder at the same time.  “He’s dead. Roberto died in a stage accident.” He handed the letter to his father. “It’s from his lawyer.”

Murdoch quickly scanned the page, he turned it over, but the back side was blank. “He included you in his will.” Murdoch said slowly.

Scott reached over and gently took the rest of the pages from Johnny’s limp fingers.  He carefully read each page and handed them one by one to Murdoch as he finished.

Murdoch read the pages and looked at Johnny. His head was bowed and his face expressionless. “Son, he left you the foundation of his horse breeding stock. It looks like a mixture of Andalusian and Arabian bloodstock.  He also is passing on some breeding bulls whose bloodlines go back to Spain that he acquired from your grandparents.”

“It says here the stock is being paraded up and should be here by the end of the month.” Scott added.

“Son, are you all right? Do you need some time alone?” Murdoch offered gently.

Johnny looked first at his brother then his father and once again felt that strong bond of family.  He blinked the tears that were threatening away at the gift from the man he had once thought as his papa.  Roberto may have played that role in his early life, but this strong good man in front of him was his true father.  He shook his head, “No, don’t go….I…um.” He faltered.

“Johnny, Roberto loved you, and I’ve come to know that and am grateful he took good care of you.  I take a measure of comfort from that, son.  It’s alright to feel sad, Johnny. Just know your brother and I, are here for you too.”

Johnny blinked to keep his emotions under control. “This means a lot to me too.  I’m not just talkin’ about horses and cattle, but….” Johnny looked around at the vista that was Lancer before turning back to his family, “This is where I belong. I’m finally home.”

 

~end~
November 2004

Want to comment? Email EM