The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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EM

 

 

The Reluctant Guest

Sequel to The Christmas Guest
Disclaimer:  These characters are not mine. I’m just borrowing them.

Two days after Christmas, Aunt Dora and Murdoch sat at the dining room table after breakfast nursing a  cup of coffee.

Dora set her cooling coffee on the table and said. “Murdoch, I was wondering.  How did you do it?”  At his look of confusion, she continued. “With Johnny?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Johnny is such a sweet, well behaved young man.  He’s so different than the angry young man you described in your letters several months ago.”

“He’s no longer that angry man...or maybe he never was.” Murdoch said taking a sip of coffee.

“But...how did you do it?”

“It took time...Johnny wanted to get away from his old life.  He’s working hard to change, to make a go at a new life here.”

“So what you’re saying is all it took was Johnny’s desire to change his life?”

“Well, there’s more to it than that.  Scott has been a big help.  They’ve become very close, and Scott has a good head on his shoulders.  Actually, they both do,  Johnny goes to Scott for advise, I know he does.” Murdoch finished quietly, eyes downcast. “Of course, the hard work here at the ranch has helped too.” He said with a half smile.

“How do you mean?”

“When Johnny first came here, he had a lot of bad habits.  Hanging out in saloons and cantinas until who knows when and sleeping until noon.  Getting into fights and taking risks that could have cost him his life.  The hardest part for both of us is he raised himself.  He was used to doing things his own way and he resisted taking orders from me.”  Murdoch shook his head in remembering those early days.

“What changed him?” Dora asked.

“He struggled with deadlines and being responsible to other people until he learned how to cope with it all.  He’s still learning.”  Murdoch said taking another sip of the cold coffee.  Grimacing in disgust he reached for the coffee pot and offered Dora another cup.  At the shake of her head, he poured himself a final cup.

Feeling like he hadn’t really answered Dora’s questions, especially in light of her concerns about Alan, he went on. “It’s hard to deal with grown young men.” He confessed.  “We were all used to doing things our own way.  I did find that keeping them working hard, kept them in line.  Johnny learned quickly if he disobeyed, he’d find himself building fence for weeks until I was satisfied he’d learned his lesson.”

“He didn’t resent that?”  Dora asked.

“Of course he did.  He’s too stubborn to give in though, so he just gritted his teeth and worked hard.  Too proud to complain.  I know now he was determined to show me he could take anything I dished out.”

“Stubborn and proud.  Now I wonder where he got that?” Dora said her eyes twinkling.

“I have no idea.” Murdoch said with a grin over his coffee cup.

Dora looked at Murdoch with so much hope that he felt he needed to give her some reassurance that Alan could straighten out his life.

“Aunt Dora, Alan will come around. I know he will.”

“How should I proceed?  I take it you don’t think I should set him up in another business?”

“I think he needs to earn the privilege.  He needs to achieve a feeling of accomplishment before he is just handed money for another business venture.  If he has earned the right to it, he’ll treasure it all the more.”

Murdoch and Dora kept their conversation going on how to deal with Alan for the better part of an hour and by the time they were done, they had a course of action plotted out.

 

*****

 

Alan wandered down to the living room and stood in front of the bookcase looking for a book to read.  His mouth was set in a frown as he realized he had either already read most of the good ones or the others were too dry to merit his interest.

Murdoch and Dora were watching him from the living room and Murdoch gave Dora a nod to indicate his support.

“Alan.  Please come over here. I have something to talk to you about.” Dora called.

Alan turned with some surprise as he had not noticed anyone sitting in the living room. “Yes Grandmother?”  he said as he sat down across from her in an arm chair.

“Alan, I have been talking to Murdoch about your future...”  She stopped at the sudden look of surprise and anger on Alan’s face.

“You have no right...”  He started angrily as he stood up.

“Alan sit down!” Dora said firmly.

Her grandson sank back to the chair.  He didn’t hear that tone often from his grandmother, but when she used her schoolmarm voice, he knew she was serious.

“Now, sit and listen.” She commanded.  “I am wit ends with you Alan.  I thought we could come out here and get you set up in  a venture, but now I see that unless you change your ways, it will be a failure too.”  She held a hand up at his protest.

“My boy, I only want what is best for you.  Please hear me out.”  She waited until Alan had settled back into the chair and had turned a petulant look to her.  ‘Sometimes he’s such a child.’ Dora thought before continuing with her plans.

“Alan,  I have talked to Murdoch about the problems you have had in the past...”

That did it, Alan jumped from the chair.  “What right did you have telling anyone...” He yelled.

Murdoch had enough of this boy’s rude behavior.  He stood up towering over the angry young man.  “You will sit down and be quiet.  Otherwise, you can take the next stage out of Morro Coyo and make your way on your own.”  He said firmly while pushing Alan back into the chair.  “Now what is it going to be?”

“I’ll listen.” Alan said reluctantly.

“Murdoch and I feel you should earn the right to start another business.  You need to learn the value of hard work and you will get it here, my boy.  You will hire on here at Murdoch’s ranch and learn the value of hard work.”

“I will not!  That’s preposterous.  I will not labor like a common field hand.  I have a trust fund, I can use it any way I want.”  He asserted.

“You can’t touch your trust fund until you’re thirty.  I control it until then.” Dora challenged.

Murdoch could see this argument quickly deteriorating.  ‘Is this how Scott feels?’ He wondered. Is this how he feels when he gets in the middle of an argument between Johnny and me?

Murdoch decided to intervene on behalf of his aunt. “Alan, you only have two choices.  You can either go along with this or leave. ..but if you leave, you do so with just the clothes on your back and whatever you brought in your bag.  No money...You’d be on your own.” He warned.  Murdoch secretly wondered if Alan striking out on his own might not be the best thing for all of them.  After all...He did it, Johnny did it, and they both survived.

Alan glowered at both Dora and Murdoch.  He sat for a moment with his arms folded across his chest.  “All right. I have no choice.  I guess, I will learn to be a cowboy.”  He finished ungraciously.

Murdoch sighed. He knew it was going to be a long month if Alan was going to resist Dora’s conditions in order to earn the right for a fresh start.

 

*****

 

“No!   He can’t stay longer!”  Johnny argued at hearing the bad news.

Scott agreed with his brother but he knew better than to argue with Murdoch. “Why is he wanting to stay?  I thought he couldn’t wait to get out of here.”  Scott reasoned.

“The details don’t matter.  What’s important is that he’s going to stay for awhile and help us out with the ranch.” Murdoch replied.

Johnny decided to try to reason with his father.  “But Murdoch, we don’t need anymore hands.  You said yourself we have too many for winter already.”

“That won’t be a problem Johnny.  I’ve been meaning to talk to you son...” He stopped, unsure exactly how to say the next part.  “Dora gave you those school books for Christmas...”  He couldn’t help but notice the wary look that flashed across Johnny’s face.  “While she’s here, she wants to help you with your schooling.  That’s her Christmas gift to you.”

Johnny’s mouth dropped open then his stubborn nature kicked in. “Nuh Uh. No way.  I ain’t no ten year old kid.” He said shaking his head.

Scott’s look of pure delight was not lost on Murdoch as Johnny continued to plead his case. “There’s too much work to do around here...” Johnny argued.

Scott flashed a devilish smile at Murdoch and slung his arm over Johnny’s shoulders.  “You just said we have too many hands for winter.  Besides...you’re never too old to learn.  Come on...It’ll be good for you.”

Murdoch smiled at Scott’s manipulation of his younger brother and cleared his throat.  “Alan can pick up the slack...and Scott...I want you to help him out.  Show him what needs to be done, and make sure he does it.”  Murdoch smiled to himself at Scott’s look of disbelief.

Johnny laughed and backhanded Scott in the stomach. “I think I got the better deal brother.”

Scott privately agreed,

 

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

 

Scott and Murdoch spent some time that afternoon going over the chores that would be assigned to Alan. Without violating Alan’s privacy, Murdoch had made it quite clear that working on the ranch would be viewed as a learning experience for him.

Scott couldn’t agree more as Alan had all the makings of a spoiled rich kid much like some Scott had known in Boston.  Scott privately thanked his Grandfather for making sure he lived up to his responsibilities as well as giving him enough leeway to learn from his mistakes.

Without his Grandfather giving him a firm foundation, Scott knew he could have turned out much like Alan.  In fact, he thought ruefully, he was on that slippery slope just before coming to Lancer.  His head told him he should settle down, get married, and get serious about working for Garrett Enterprises, but his heart just wasn’t there.  He had a gaping hole in his life and he tried to fill it with late nights and beautiful women.

It wasn’t until he came to Lancer that he found the part missing in his life.  Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa now filled that hole.  He loved his life on the ranch, but it was his family, these strangers who now meant more to him than he ever dreamed they could.

He hoped that Alan would find some of that contentment for himself, but first Scott had to bulldog some sense into his wayward cousin.

 

*****

 

Alan came hurrying out the front door wearing his new boots, hat in hand ready to start his first day as a cowboy.  He found Johnny leaning over the hitching rail stroking the nose of Scott’s horse.  Scott was busy checking his horses’ cinch.

“Where’s my horse, Scott?” Alan asked.

“We’re going to start you out in the barn.” Scott said warning Johnny with his eyes when he saw his brother’s smirk.

“What do you mean?” Alan asked oblivious to the interplay between the brothers.

Before Scott could reply Johnny said, “All new hands start in the barn. Cleanin’ stalls, cleanin’ tack, buckin’ hay. Whatever needs doin’.”

“But…Cousin Murdoch said I’m to be a cowboy.”  Alan explained sure there was a misunderstanding.

“No mistake.” Scott replied.  “There’s lots to do on a ranch this size, and as you don’t have any ranching experience, you start off on jobs which require little oversight.  I have to go into town to the bank.  While I’m gone, you will be cleaning the stalls.  When I get back we’ll ride out and check some streams.”

“That should be interesting.” Johnny mumbled under his breath.

“Johnny.  Don’t you have someplace to be?”  Scott asked sharply. “Like getting to school before the bell rings?

Johnny gave him one of his ‘Not funny brother.’ looks and headed back into the house.

Come on Alan.  I’ll show you what to do.  Scott said as he walked toward the barn.

 

****

 

Dora arranged the school supplies in the small well lit room off the living room. Dora had everything she needed for now.  Notebooks, pencils, and a globe.  She fingered the blue cover of the Webster’s Elementary Spelling book.  She planned to use it to help Johnny with the basics.

She looked up to see Johnny walk into the room with Murdoch following closely behind.  “Do you have everything you need?”  Murdoch asked.

Dora reached out and took hold of Johnny’s hand.  “We have all that we need.” She responded while gently pulling Johnny toward the desk.

Murdoch looked a bit unsure, as he knew that Johnny was not totally comfortable with this arrangement.

“We’ll be fine Murdoch.” Dora said as she ushered Murdoch to the door.

As the door closed behind him, Murdoch smiled at the thought that today was the first time he had taken either son to school.  He shook his head at the silly thought and headed out to the barn to check on Alan.

****

“Take a seat at the desk. Johnny.”

Johnny sat at the desk and looked at the notebooks and pencils.  He rubbed his sweaty palms on his pants and mentally shook himself at how ridiculous it was for him to be nervous.

“I thought we would spend some time getting to know one another better so I can evaluate your level of education.”  Dora sat down across from him and asked. “Tell me a little about your school experience. How many years did you attend? What was your highest grade?”

“Well...I didn’t go to school that much.  My mama taught me mostly...in Spanish.  I picked up some readin’ and writin’ in English here and there.”  He looked up to see Dora writing in a notebook.

She looked up when he stopped talking. “Go on.” She urged.

“I...well, me and my mama moved around a lot, but when I could, I’d go to school. I don’t really remember the grade, I was about 10 the last time I was in school.”   He looked at her to see how she was taking this.  He had seen pity on the faces of so many people and he was relieved to see concerned interest instead. “After my mother...well later, I spent about six months in an orphanage and I did lessons there.”

“In English or Spanish?”

“English.”

Dora wrote a few more sentences and stopped to watch Johnny fiddle with a pencil.

“Johnny, my goal is to help you improve your skills so you can enjoy reading.  Wouldn’t you like to be able to read any book in your father’s library, and be able to discuss it with your father and brother?”

“Yeah...Sometimes I feel left behind when the two of them get goin’ over some book or newspaper article.”

“Let’s get started then.   Please take a piece of paper and copy this phrase.”  She picked up the Webster’s Spelling book and read. “Examine the scriptures daily and carefully, and set an example of good works.”

She watched as Johnny copied the phrase and noted his neat penmanship with a measure of satisfaction.  He glanced up at her and she looked down at his paper.  “of good works.” She repeated as he quickly completed the phrase.

“Now, I would like you to take a few minutes and think about that phrase and then write two paragraphs about what it means to you.”

“Okay...” Johnny said as for a brief moment all coherent thought fled his brain.  He chided himself .  ‘I can do this.’ and he set himself to work.

 

*****

 

Murdoch entered the barn to find Alan working on the first stall. “How’s it going Alan?’

“Cousin Murdoch, I really don’t think this is what my Grandmother had in mind.”

“You can ask her yourself at lunch if you like, but you need to get a move on with these stalls.  It shouldn’t take you more than 15 minutes per stall.  I’ll expect you to be done by lunch time.”  Murdoch instructed.  He left Alan fuming and stabbing a pitchfork into the soiled bedding.  Murdoch had the beginnings of a smile on his face as he left the barn hearing the mumbling of a very dissatisfied cousin.

 

****

 

The family began assembling for lunch in the kitchen.  Murdoch, Alan and Dora were already seated and they could hear Johnny and Scott just outside the kitchen door teasing each other.

“I’ll tell ya Scott, ridin’ that chair is makin’ my butt more saddle sore than I’ve ever been before.”

“Oh you’ll get used to it brother.  A few more days of sitting will give you calluses in places you never wanted.”

Both boys could be heard laughing as Johnny responded. “Sometimes I feel like that chair is growing outta my behind.”

“You’ll just have to grin and bear it brother.”

The brothers entered as Murdoch returned to the kitchen holding a cushion. “Here Johnny. Maybe this will help.” He said holding it out to his chagrined son.

“Thanks Murdoch.” Johnny muttered.

Scott slapped his brother on the back and began chuckling as the others joined in.  Lunch was over quickly and Scott stood up and said. ‘Come on Alan. We’re going to ride out and check a couple of streams. I’ll show you how we have to keep them cleared so they don’t dam up on us.” He threw a quick glance at Johnny and added. “Since it’s Johnny’s job to keep them cleared, you can take it over.”

Johnny threw a grin at his brother and gave him a thumbs up sign.

“Johnny are you ready to get back to work?” Dora asked.

“Yes ma’am.” Johnny replied as he drained the last of his milk.  He started to leave the kitchen when Murdoch’s voice stopped him.

“Son, you forgot your cushion.”

If looks could kill, the cold glare Johnny shot at his father would have dropped him in his tracks.  He marched over to the chair and stalked back to the study room carrying his cushion under his arm.

 

*****

 

Johnny spent the afternoon working on adding strings of numbers and struggling with word problems.  Dora was getting a clear picture of the gaps in Johnny’s education and felt she could help this young man start on a path of life long learning.

At around two in the afternoon, she took the pencil out of his hand.  Johnny looked up in surprise.  She nodded toward the sunshine casting shadows in the room. “We’re done for the day Johnny.  You did very well. Why don’t you take your horse for a ride before supper?”

Johnny’s big smile was only matched by the sparkle in his eyes.  “Yes Ma’am!”  With a whoop he ran through the living room, grabbing his hat and jacket off the coat tree and left the house with a slam of the door.

Dora joined Murdoch in the living room a few minutes later and they shared a chuckle when they saw Johnny and his golden horse gallop by the window a few minutes later, as if  making their break for freedom.

Dora turned to Murdoch and said. “That boy is as smart as a whip, Murdoch.   I think his biggest problem is that he’s learned how to get by.  When he doesn’t know something he keeps quiet and observes until he picks enough up to bluff his way through.”

Murdoch looked at Dora with surprise.  “I think you may be right. I don’t know why I didn’t see that before.”

Dora continued. “I don’t want to bore him with dry statistics and dusty old tomes.  I want to give him a gift he can use now that will keep his interest.  Can you suggest any books that he might find interesting?”

Murdoch got up and walked over to the book shelves.  He looked long and lovingly at his books.  A collection of a lifetime. Well remembered friends.  He pulled one book out and flipped though a few pages and put it back. “I know Johnny prefers books with pictures.” He said quietly.  He pulled out another then another and brought them back to Dora and set them on the coffee table.  “These two will make a good start.” He said.

Dora picked up one of the books, “The Origin of Cattle Breeding.” She read.  Picking up the other book she said out loud. “Fire Arms through the Century.  These look like they will do well.” She said with a smile. “If we can study things that will help him in running the ranch, I think he will stay focused better and get more out of it.”

“How about if I give you some old cattle contracts?  I can go over some of the fine points with you and then perhaps you could use them as a teaching tool.”

“That’s a grand idea, Murdoch.  Are there any other areas you think he  needs help?”

“Banking.” Murdoch said firmly.  “He gets uncomfortable whenever I ask him to take care of any banking business for the ranch.”

“All right. I’ll add that to the curriculum.” She said blue eyes flashing.

 

****

 

Johnny allowed Barranca to gallop. His sprits surging with each powerful stride.  As they crested a hill, he slowed the gelding to a trot and wound down the hill on a cattle trail that cut back and forth until it reached the bottom.  He allowed Barranca to pick up a lope while following a narrow trail up a rise.  He stopped at the top and looked down at Scott and Alan struggling to clear a large oak limb from the stream.

Johnny watched as the two men worked.  Scott glanced up when a horses’ shadow blocked the sun as Barranca moved restlessly.  “Johnny, toss a rope down here.”

“I don’t know brother. I’m done  with my work for the day. I don’t want to mess up my school duds.” Johnny teased picking an imaginary piece of lint off his jacket.

“You better get that rope tossed down here little brother right quick or I’ll mess up those school duds for you.” Scott warned.

“Okay. Okay. Hold on.” Johnny said as he uncoiled his rope and tossed it deftly down to Scott.

Scott secured it to the limb. “Okay Johnny, start hauling it up...slowly.”

Johnny turned the Barranca and started the big horse dragging the snag out of the stream. next thing he heard was Scott’s shout. “Alan! Watch out! Let go! ...Johnny stop!  Johnny! I said stop!” Scott shouted.

 

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

 

“Johnny Stop!  I said stop!.” Scott shouted.

Johnny turned Barranca and trotted back to the edge of the embankment in time to see Alan sputtering dirty water out of his mouth and trying to gain  a foothold after being knocked over and drug through the water  by one of the branches of the limb.

Johnny broke out in laughter at the sight of  Alan trying to wipe the mud off his face with a muddy hand.  His laughter stopped abruptly when he was grabbed by a very angry and very wet Scott.  Before he could stop himself, Scott had pulled him off Barranca.  Johnny bit his lower lip to keep from laughing at the expression on his brother’s face as water was dripping down his face.

Scott gave him a little shove which caused Johnny to step back into Barranca.  “You did that on purpose!”

“It was an accident, Scott. Honest.”  Johnny took one look at the two men, and had to turn away to keep from laughing.  He fiddled with adjusting his cinch and could feel Scott staring at him.

In a low voice Scott said. “Stop means stop.  Not come back.  When you slacked off on the rope, the snag slid back down taking me with it.”

“Sorry Scott.”  Johnny said quickly hoping to diffuse his brother’s obvious anger.  He wondered what had happened to Scott’s sense of humor as to him, it was pretty funny.

Scott handed Johnny his rope and started with Alan toward the horses.  Scott stopped for a moment when he heard Johnny say, “Scott, don’t ya want me to help ya pull that snag out?” Johnny shrugged  and mounted Barranca when Scott didn’t respond, but his brother’s stiff posture was enough to warn him to keep quiet.

 

****

 

Johnny, Scott and Alan rode into the yard as the sun was setting.  Murdoch was waiting for them. “What happened to you two?”  He asked at the sight of the two disheveled men.

Scott dismounted and said. “Johnny.”  Scott handed the reins of the two horses to Johnny and steered Alan toward the house to get cleaned up.

“I said it was an accident.” Johnny defended to their departing backs.   His eyes flicked to his father and he added, “Honest.”   He turned and led the three horses to the barn.

Murdoch shook his head and turned back to the house as he idly wondered what could have happened, and not at all sure he wanted to know.

 

****

 

Several days went by fairly uneventfully. Alan was starting to get used to waking up at the crack of dawn and working hard until dark.  He was thankful that the days were short this time of the year as he wasn’t sure if he could have stood the longer days of summer.

Today, he and Scott were going to ride out and check on one of the herds.  He was looking forward to doing something besides grunt work for a change.

Johnny led the two saddled horses to the hitching post and tossed the reins over the rail.  He strolled over to Alan and smiled a taunting little smile as he walked by.  They had barely been on speaking terms since the incident at the stream and so far nothing had changed to improve their relationship.

Scott walked out of the house with Murdoch following on his heels. “Thanks for saddling them up Johnny.  Let’s get going Alan.  We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.” Scott said as he tightened his cinch and mounted.

Alan  adjusted his reins, and put his foot in the stirrup to mount. As he put weight in the stirrup, the saddle slipped and Alan landed on his behind looking up at the belly of his horse.

Murdoch’s quick thinking in taking hold of the horse’s bridle kept Alan from serious injury.  Scott dismounted at seeing Alan’s mishap and helped him get untangled from the saddle.

Alan got to his feet and before anyone could make a move, he lunged at Johnny and grabbed him by the shirt collar. “You did that on purpose!” He yelled in Johnny’s face.  Alan’s face was contorted with rage as he shook his cousin.

Johnny gave Alan a shove back and was getting ready to slug his cousin when Murdoch grabbed Johnny and pinned him against the wall.  “Settle down Johnny!” He commanded.

By then Scott had hold of Alan.  “He did that on purpose!  He tried to get me hurt!”

“Any fool knows to check your cinch before mounting.” Johnny spat.

Murdoch sighed. “Johnny, just go in the house.  Go on.” He said firmly. Johnny glared at Alan and returned to the house.

“Cousin Murdoch.  You have to deal with this.  Johnny tried to hurt me.  I demand to be released from our bargain.  I won’t stay here another day.”  Alan declared.

“Alan, settle down.  Johnny didn’t mean to hurt you.  You just didn’t know,  before you mount, you need to check your cinch.  Johnny didn’t know you wouldn’t check it.” Murdoch explained.

“Well, no one told me.” Alan said looking at Scott accusingly.

Scott blew out a breath of air. ‘God give me strength.’ He thought before gritting his teeth. “I’m sorry Alan. I should have realized you wouldn’t know to check the cinch.”

Alan took a couple of deep breaths. He brushed the dirt off his jacket. “Well, no harm done.  Next time, I’ll know to check it.  Sorry I got so upset Scott.”

“What about Johnny?” At Alan’s questioning look, Scott explained. “You should apologize to him also.”

Alan looked hard at Scott, then  dropped his eyes  and nodded. “I’ll talk to him before supper tonight.”

 

****

Johnny sat staring at the blank paper. ‘Why is this so hard?’ He asked himself for the tenth time.  His mind was a blank ever since Dora had given him the phrase she wanted him to write about using the spelling words he had been studying.

He had first written the words, like he did every day. Then he wrote their meaning next to them. He then used each one in a sentence.  When he was done, he looked at the paper. Normally he felt a sense of accomplishment when he completed this task, but today the words mocked him as he tried to find a way to put on paper his thoughts about the phrase.

He had started to write several times and each time he had crumbled the paper up in frustration.  He looked out the window and ran his hand over his face rubbing his eyes.  This morning had not gone well.  He didn’t mean for Alan’s saddle to slip.  He chastised himself for not remembering that Alan may not know that’s it’s customary to check one’s saddle before mounting. ‘I guess he knows now.’ Johnny thought ruefully.

Shaking his head at the memory of his obnoxious cousin hanging under the belly of his horse.  “I just hope Murdoch knows I didn’t do it on purpose.’ He knew it didn’t take much to set his father off and usually he was the cause. ‘He’s been on his best behavior since Aunt Dora arrived.’ Johnny mused.

Another thought came into his head.  He could picture it so clearly.  He would have liked to discuss it with Scott, maybe over a beer in Morro Coyo, like they used to...before the guest came.  Both of them had been so busy with their guests that they hadn’t been to Morro Coyo on a Saturday night for at least a month.  Maybe this Saturday night, he and Scott could get away and have some fun.  Kick the dust off. He’d ask him after supper when he could talk to him alone.

Johnny thought back to yesterday’s events.  Alan declared he was going to saddle his own horse.  While the man knew how to ride, he knew very little about taking care of horses. Scott told Johnny privately that it appeared Alan’s knowledge was limited to riding and driving.  It appeared, he’d never had the opportunity to care for a horse.  Scott had been teaching Alan how to groom his horse, clean the hooves and tack the  horse up.

Alan declared yesterday that he would do it himself.  Johnny stood back and watched as Alan chased the horse around the corral trying to corner it, causing a normally calm horse to turn into a flighty scared animal.

After about 15 minutes, Alan was showing signs of extreme frustration. He threw down the bridle and stalked out of the corral to the barn.  Johnny had no idea what he was planning to do, but decided he’d better intervene before Alan or the horse got hurt.  He quickly built a loop with his rope and effortlessly tossed it over the sweaty horse’s neck.

Johnny stopped to retrieve the bridle and walked to the wary horse. Crooning softly to the scared animal, he soothed the gelding so he would settle down. “Easy fella. You’re all right. Whoa now.”   He stoked the bay’s neck feeling the warmth of the damp skin.

Moving toward the horse’s head, he held the bridle in his right hand, and with his left cupping the bit, offered it to the horse.  The gelding obediently opened it’s mouth to accept the bit.    Johnny turned the horse and led it to where Alan was waiting with an unhappy scowl on his face.

Without a word Alan accepted the reins and led the horse from the corral dropping the reins to ground tie him.  He picked up the saddle blanket and laid it carefully on the horse’s back sliding it back a couple inches as Scott had shown him to smooth the hair and get any wrinkles out of the blanket.

He reached for the saddle and to Johnny’s amazement swung it with a flourish toward the waiting horse.  The animal must of seen that blur of leather out of the corner of his eyes and  jumped forward to avoid being hit by the flying saddle. Alan stared in amazement as the saddle dropped to the ground with a thud and his horse took off bucking around the yard.

Johnny bent over laughing, holding his stomach at the sight of Alan chasing after the frightened animal yelling stop.  He was waving his arms which only made the horse go faster.  Alan finally cornered the horse over by the side of the house.  The horse kept sidestepping away from him each time he reached for the dangling reins.

Alan finally made a grab at the reins only to snatch at air as the horse wheeled and ran through Teresa’s garden trampling the young winter vegetables. As the horse sprinted away, Johnny leaned back against the fence and watched in merriment until his father bellowed at him to catch that danged horse.

Even though he had to catch Alan’s horse, which abruptly stopped the fun, the sight of Alan running around after his horse would relive in Johnny’s mind for quite a while.

 

****

 

Johnny shook himself back to the present as Dora entered the study room. “How are you coming with that essay Johnny?”

“Not very well.” he confessed. “I’m having a hard time writing it the way I want to.”

“Write from your heart, Johnny.”

Johnny looked once more at the phrase he was supposed to write about. ‘To revere a father is to regard him with fear mingled with respect and affection.’  He stared at the paper and slowly lifted his head to meet Dora’s watchful eyes. “I’m not sure I can.” He whispered.

“Johnny,” She said gently. “I want you to try to write something.” She stopped, knowing she was pushing him hard. “Don’t write it for me, write it for yourself.  I don’t even need to see it if you want to keep it private.  I know if you do this, you will feel a great accomplishment.” With that she squeezed his arm and left the room.

‘Write it for myself’ he thought. He first had to think about it long and hard before he could write it.  He stood up and stretched.  His mind made up, he gathered up his supplies.  A couple of pencils and a notebook, and quietly made his way out the back door.

Johnny made it to the barn unnoticed and quickly saddled Barranca.  He tied his saddle bags to the back of his saddle and put the supplies in them along with a napkin full of oatmeal cookies he snitched from the kitchen when Maria had her back turned.

He lead Barranca out of the barn, mounted, and left the yard at a trot.

 

****

 

Murdoch watched his son leave the yard.  As Dora walked into the living room, he asked. “Is Johnny done for the day?”

“No, he’s working on a writing assignment.” Dora said surprised at the question.

Murdoch gestured toward the window. “No he’s not. He just rode out on his horse.”

Dora sighed. “I guess he decided he couldn’t do it.” She said sounding disappointed.

 

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

 

Johnny rode for about thirty minutes.  He brought Barranca to a halt in a grove of oak trees at the crest of a hill.  The sun was shining warmly and the young green grass still glistened with moisture.  Johnny patted Barranca.  “Good boy.  You wantta graze on this grass fella?” he asked as he quickly stripped off the saddle and turned Barranca loose fully confident that the gelding would remain in the area.

Johnny lugged the saddle and tossed it over a low hanging limb.  He untied the saddlebags and took his slicker off the back of the saddle.   He was glad he brought it along as he spread it on the damp ground.  He sat down and leaned against the trunk of the trees.  He moved his back until he was comfortable leaning against the warm bark.

He closed his eyes and let the sun bathe him; warming his body and his spirit.  He let his mind drift.  His writing assignment really threw him for a loop. ‘To revere a father is to regard him with fear mingled with respect and affection.’

He thought about that.  He  wasn’t sure if he revered his father, but he would admit that he feared him. Murdoch could sure make him feel like a gawky kid with just a raise of his eyebrows and a stern glare.  Over the months, Johnny realized he had come to respect his old man.  ‘Murdoch is a straight dealer that’s for sure.’ Johnny thought. While the two of them could still go at it pretty good, his father seemed to understand him and Johnny was starting to feel the stirrings of something.  Maybe it’s affection, but Johnny wanted it to be more.

His father had never said anything, but sometimes when he threw his arm over Johnny’s shoulders, or even scolded him for some lapse in manners, he felt a warm flush of affection for his old man.   ‘Old Man.’ Johnny thought with a little smile fluttering on his lips, he sure don’t like it when I call him that.

Johnny found himself picking up a pencil and drawing on a page of the notebook.  Horses and cows came to life.  Then a quick sketch of Alan chasing his horse brought a little smile to his lips.  Johnny turned the page and his pencil deftly shaded in the features of his father.  After he completed the slant of his hat and worked to get the wrinkles around his eyes just right, Johnny began to write.

 

****

Johnny looked around and realized he had been sitting there a couple of hours.  It was lunchtime and his stomach growled with hunger.  Remembering the cookies, he fished around in his saddlebags and pulled out the cloth wrapped cookies. He closed his eyes as he savored the crunchy sweetness of the oatmeal cookies.

Hunger taken care of for now, Johnny realized he was thirsty but had forgotten to bring a canteen.  He stood up and stretched his stiff muscles.  He looked around and located Barranca grazing a hundred yards away.  Johnny whistled and called.  “Come on Barranca.  Time to head home.”

The gelding lifted his head looking at Johnny with a question on his face that only Johnny could read.  He chuckled at his horse’s expression and called again. “Come on. It’s getting late.”

Barranca ambled over and head butted Johnny’s shoulder as he braced himself to keep from falling over.  Laughing with pleasure at his horse’s show of affection, Johnny quickly saddled the palomino and headed home.

 

****

Johnny came through the front door and hung his hat and gunbelt on the coat rack.  He walked into the living room and said. “Hi Murdoch” to his father working at his desk.

“Johnny. Have a seat.  I want to talk to you.”

‘A sitting down talk. I don’t like the sound of that.’ Johnny thought as he complied.

“Johnny, I understand you skipped out on Aunt Dora today.”

He met his father’s eyes briefly and ducked his head.  “I just needed some time alone to think.”

“And you couldn’t think in a quiet room right here in the house?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny had the distinct feeling that Murdoch was herding him into a box canyon and there was no way he was going to get out until Murdoch said his peace.  Giving in with a sigh,  “I know it was wrong. I’m sorry.” He tried.

“Johnny, Dora is spending her time to help you.  If you don’t want her help, just say so. There’s plenty of ranch work to do instead. I’m sure there are other ways she would enjoy spending her time here.”

Now Johnny felt just awful. He didn’t even consider her feelings when he left.  He could have left her a note, but he didn’t  even think of it.  “Look, I’ll talk to her okay? I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings.  I don’t wantta waste her time either.  I think I’m learnin’ a lot from her.”  Johnny fingered the notebook in his lap.

Murdoch looked across the room to see Dora standing in the doorway as if uncertain if she should enter.  Addressing his son once more, he said.  “Why don’t you ask her?” and he got up and left.

Dora walked slowly up to Johnny, staring at him intently.  Johnny couldn’t meet her blue/gray eyes for more than a second. “Ma’am, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings today when I left.  Lookin’ at it now, I shouldda told you I was goin’.”

“Johnny, anytime you want to stop the lessons, just say so.”

“I don’t want to stop,” Johnny said quickly.  “I didn’t know at first what to expect.  I never did nuthin’ like this before.  I mean, I thought I knew enough to get by…but I’m real glad I been studying with you.  I… think I’m learnin’ a lot.”

Dora’s smile spread across her face as she threaded her arm through Johnny’s.   “In that case, let’s get back to work.” She walked with him back to the study room.  Johnny sat at the desk and laid his notebook in front of him.

Dora turned back to him with the blue speller in her hands. “Why don’t I give you a different phrase to write about?”

Johnny ran his fingers along the spine of his notebook.  “I did my writing already.” He said quietly.

“Do you want to share it with me, or would you rather keep it to yourself?”

Johnny didn’t answer for so long, Dora thought he wasn’t going to.  He sat there looking indecisive biting his lip.  Finally, he pushed the notebook across the desk to her. “I did the best I could.” He said quietly.

She opened the notebook, flipping through the pages.  Her hand stilled at the drawings.  “These are nice sketches Johnny.”  Johnny gripped the arms of his chair to keep himself from snatching the notebook back from Dora.

She turned to the next page and quickly read through his essay without comment.  She closed the book and pushed it back over to him.  “Excellent work Johnny.” She praised.  “You did a good job here and you should be very proud of yourself.”  Dora went around the desk and gave Johnny a hug.

“Thank you.” He said as he felt his ears turning red.

Dora returned to her chair.  She gave him a mischievous look and said. “Do you want to continue to work today on the ins and outs of banking, or poetry?”

Johnny’s expression caused Dora to laugh.  “Neither.  I just don’t get poetry.  All that rhyming.”

“Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme Johnny.” She held a book out to him. “Read this sometime.  I think you’ll find it quite humorous. Poetry can be about anything.  Anything you find amusing, moving, spiritual…  There are so many styles that I’m sure you will find one you like if you keep looking.

 

****

Johnny read the poem and it did make him laugh.  “Maybe it won’t be so bad to read a little poetry…sure would surprise ol’ Scott.’

Johnny spent the rest of the afternoon, with help from Dora, figuring the costs of delivering 500 head of cattle.  How many days would it take? How many men?  What were the associated costs of the drive and what would the net profit be?   When he was done, Johnny looked at the net profit with a frown, and felt a real let down.

He had never broken down the costs of selling cattle before.  He’d always thought it a pretty good deal.  Sell 500 head for $8.00 a head.  $4,500 sounded a lot better than getting less than half after expenses.  He was going to have to talk to Murdoch and Scott about shaving off some expenses in the future he thought as he stared at the cold reality of the bottom line.

 

*****

The next morning the whole family arrived at the breakfast table within minutes of each other.  Murdoch was impatient to get started. They were moving the herd today and he hoped all would go well.  As the first light of a blustery morning began showing over the eastern hills, hands were saddling horses in anticipation of the busy day ahead.

Johnny came down the stairs two at a time and slid into his chair.  “Mornin’” He said cheerfully reaching for a warm biscuit.  He slathered butter and jam over it before stuffing half of it in his mouth.

Dora smiled at him indulgently. “Murdoch tells me that he and I will drive out at noon and bring lunch.  I’m really looking forward to seeing a real cattle drive.”

“We’re actually just moving the herd to better grazing.” Scott clarified.

“It’s hard work and can be dangerous especially if this wind keeps up.  The cattle can spook very easily.” Murdoch cautioned.

“You boys be very careful.” Dora added.

“Yes ma’am.” Johnny said grinning at Scott.  “We’ll do our best…now someone needs to tell the cows to cooperate.”

Murdoch smiled and nodded.  “They can be contrary.”   He agreed.

Johnny stood up. “Come on, let’s get goin’ if were goin’.”

Scott and Alan stood up and Alan leaned down to give Dora a peck on her cheek.  “I’ll see you later Grandmother.”

After the three young men left the house; Dora reached for a cup of coffee.   “It’s good to see the three of them getting along.”

Murdoch nodded as Johnny, Scott and Alan seemed more relaxed with each other last night as he remembered the two cousins playing a friendly game of checkers while Scott and Teresa played a fierce game of pickup sticks.

“Alan apologized to Johnny for getting angry with him yesterday.” Dora added.

“Johnny may be young and hot headed at times, but he doesn’t have it in him to be mean and he has a hard time holding a grudge if someone makes a sincere apology.” Murdoch added.

The clock in the living room struck six am and Murdoch pulled his pocket watch out of his pocket to compare the time.  I’ll meet you back here at 10:30 and we’ll get ready to head out.” He said absentmindedly.

“Before you leave Murdoch, can I talk to you for a few minutes?”  Dora asked.

“Sure, I have a few minutes.” Murdoch replied as he sat back down.

“I received a letter from the firm and they are prepared to offer Alan a position again on a trial basis.  I think it will be better for us to return to Baltimore and resume our lives.  I thought a new environment would be good for him, a fresh start, but I see now that he has to go back and face up to his responsibilities.”

Murdoch pursed his lips for a moment before responding.  “I understand.  When are you planning to leave?”

“I was thinking we would leave Monday if we can book passage. This time of year we may have delays getting home, so the sooner the better.”

“Have you told Alan yet?” he asked.

“No, I thought I’d discuss it with him this evening.”

“Sounds good, but we’ll miss you. “  He stood to leave and said. “I’ll see you later this morning.”

 

******

 

Murdoch and Dora made their way toward the south pasture with food for the whole crew.   Murdoch pulled the team to a halt and exclaimed. “Where are they?  They should have been here by now.”

He clucked to the team and headed them up a small hill. The horses leaned forward to pull their load to the top of the hill and gratefully stopped at Murdoch’s command.  “I wonder what’s holding them up?” Murdoch said as he watched the line of cattle moving slowing into the valley.

“Ah, Murdoch what a sight!”  Dora exclaimed at the beautiful picture in front of her.  Skilled cowboys were driving hundreds of cows and calves.  Black, red and white cows on the canvas of green grass. “It’s too bad Teresa couldn’t be here to see this, but I suppose she’ll enjoy her visit with her friend for a few days. There’s Scott and Alan!” She said as she pointed.

Murdoch squinted as he recognized Scott and could make out Alan as he drew closer.  He watched Alan maneuver a cow back in line and said. “He’s getting the hang of it.  Another month and we could have made a cowboy out of him.”

Murdoch caught sight of Johnny on the other side of the herd, working as always by himself.  He loped after a small herd of cows that made a break for it.  From their vantage point they could see Barranca put on a burst of speed as he caught up with the lead cow and expertly turned her back to the herd.

Dora clapped her hands and cheered.  “Oh Murdoch! Did you see Johnny? That’s was wonderful!”

Murdoch looked down at his Aunt and nodded as he smiled.  “Yes, that boy was practically born on a horse.”

Dora took a deep breath of cold fresh air and let it out in a rush.  “You should be so proud of him Murdoch.  He has so much talent.  He’s really thrown himself into his schooling and I won’t be surprised if he continues on his own.”

“Thank you Aunt Dora for helping him, though I’ll be glad to get him back to work. “ He said sincerely.

“It was my pleasure Murdoch.  I almost got him writing poetry…but not quite.  He has a good understanding of cattle contracts now and he can tell a bank transfer from a bank statement.”

Murdoch smiled.  “Johnny writing poetry.  That’s something I’d like to see.”

******

 

Another hour saw the cattle settled down and spreading out to graze.  After lunch, they would be gathered again for the short push to their spring pasture.

Dora and Murdoch sat with Scott and Alan by the wagon.  Johnny was sitting on the end of the wagon swinging his legs as he listened to the conversation fluttering around him.  He was enjoying working again and was looking forward to getting back to work on a regular basis.   He looked over at Dora and felt a wave of affection for the older lady that he secretly thought of a grandmother, and knew he owed her a debt of gratitude for her gift to him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alan go over to where the horses were tied.  His attention was drawn back to Scott and Murdoch as he heard his brother break out in laughter at something Dora had said.  When he turned back, he saw Alan riding Barranca out into the field.

“Hey!” He shouted as he hopped off the wagon, and ran toward the horses.   “Barranca!”  He called without thinking and whistled.  “Barranca!”  He saw Barranca  stop and begin backing up.

Alan was struggling to control the horse as Barranca twisted to return to Johnny.   Scott ran to Johnny with Murdoch fast on his heels as they watched helplessly as Barranca began fishtailing and bucking.  Alan flopped back and forth for a couple of jumps before he fell to the ground under a hail of hooves.

Dora stood in stunned silence as she watched her grandson tumble to the ground and lay very still.  Scott, Johnny and Murdoch ran to where Alan was stretched out on the ground unmoving.  Several other hands hurried over at the commotion.  “Raul, ride into town for the doctor.”  Murdoch ordered.  “Scott bring up the wagon.

Scott ran over to the wagon and started the horses to where Alan was slowly coming around.  “Lay still Alan.” Murdoch said.  Johnny handed Dora a canteen and his neckerchief.  She smiled at him gratefully and began wiping the damp cloth over Alan’s face.

As Scott brought the wagon, Alan was sitting up clutching his arm.  Murdoch helped him to his feet as Johnny reached out to help.  Murdoch turned to Johnny and said shortly.  “You’ve helped enough for one day. Get the herd moved and I’ll talk to you this evening.”

Johnny took a step back at his father’s attack and then turned to Barranca.  Taking a deep breath, he mounted and headed back to the herd.

After Alan and Dora were settled in the back and Scott had the wagon heading for home.  “I think I’m all right.” Alan protested.  “I’m just a bit dizzy, and my arm hurts.”

“We’ll have the doctor check you over. I think it may be broken.” Murdoch said, privately fuming.

“Stupid thing I did getting on Johnny’s horse like that.”

Murdoch pressed his lips together in a frown at the anticipated conversation he intended to have with his youngest son when he returned home this afternoon.

 

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

Johnny sat on the stone bench as the sun faded and a chill began to set in.  He adjusted his jacket against the cold so it covered him more completely and listened to the muted voices coming from the living room.  Occasionally, he could hear the sounds of clinking glass as the table was being set for supper.

He knew his father wanted to talk to him and he found himself stalling to avoid returning to the house.  He felt a crush of regret about today. If he had just let Alan go.  He sighed and raked his fingers through his hair.  He’d called Barranca back without thought.  He knew what would happen, and he’d given no thought to Alan’s safety.

Once again, Johnny began examining his decision to stay at Lancer.  This was a ritual he found himself doing over and over in the months since he had come to the ranch to claim his place in the family.  He wasn’t used to being indecisive or introspective with his life. His choices had been severely limited to life and death decisions.  Would old habits never die, or was he destined to make the same mistakes over and over?  His actions today proved that he still reacted instinctually to protect what was his.  Now his actions had caused injury to a family member…an irritating family member…but still his flesh and blood.  Johnny was thinking so hard about the perplexities  of family, he didn’t hear the raised voices coming from inside the house.

 

*****

 

Scott was pacing slowly in front of the fireplace,  He had taken a long bath and spent that time collecting his thoughts so he would have a good argument prepared to convince Murdoch to take it easy on his brother.    He smoothed the front of his blue shirt and once again took a deep breath to calm himself as his father blew his argument apart.

“Scott, I agree that Alan is in the wrong here,  He had no right to mount that horse.  That’s not the point.  What Johnny did was deliberate.  He knew very well how that horse would react if he called him, and Alan would likely  fall off.”  He held his hand up at Scott’s obvious protest.  “This is what I have been battling with Johnny about ever since he came home.  He’s reckless not only with his life, but others as well.”

Scott had heard enough.  “That’s not true sir!” he said forcefully.  Johnny may be reckless but he’s mindful of other people.  He didn’t know Alan would get hurt.”

“Scott that’s just it. He didn’t think about the possibilities, just his own desires.  That’s part of the problem.  He’s going to change and he’s going to change now.  No son of mine is going to go around behaving that way to a guest of this house. Family or no.  I won’t have it.” Murdoch vowed and turned away signaling the end of the conversation.

Scott stared at his back in frustration.  He shook his head and walked out the French doors.  He took several cleansing breaths of cool air and waited while his heart beat returned to normal and his anger with his father’s attitude settled to a boil.

“Hey Scott.” Johnny’s soft voice broke through Scott’s black thoughts toward his father.

“Hi Johnny.” Scott said walking toward his brother. “Shove over.”

Johnny moved over and Scott sat on the cold bench next to him.  “Nice evening. Chilly though.”

“Yeah, I noticed that.” Johnny agreed. He took a deep breath and blew it back out.  “I heard the yellin’.  I guess I’m gonna get it from the old man.” He said as he laced his fingers together.

“He’s pretty mad.” Scott agreed.

Johnny scuffed the dirt with his boot and sighed. “I really messed this up.”

Scott frowned at this. “Come on Johnny.  Alan caused this whole mess.  I even told him yesterday that Barranca was too much horse for him.  Maybe that’s why he had to try him today. He felt challenged so it’s as much my fault as yours.”

Johnny looked at him raising an eyebrow. “That’s crazy Scott!  You didn’t do nuthin’ wrong.  I’m the one who shudda known better.”

“Look brother. Neither one of us wanted Alan to get hurt but he did and he knows he is responsible for it happening.”

“Then how come Murdoch doesn’t seem to know that?” Johnny asked.

“He does at some level.  I can’t explain why he’s so angry.   We went around and around and got nowhere.”

“So ya warmed him up for me.  Thanks a lot brother.” Johnny said with that cheeky grin that made Scott want to throttle him and hug him at the same time.

“Da nada as they say brother.” The light moment passed and Scott continued on a more serious note. “You need to just go in and talk to him.  Just hang on to your temper.  We both know he’s sore and he’s going to go off on you.  Just let him get it over with.” Scott advised.

“How mad is he?’ Johnny asked dreading the answer.

“Pretty mad.  Johnny...I don’t think he wants to hear an explaination...he just...”

“Wants to yell.” Johnny finished for him with a sardonic smile.

 

*****

 

Johnny opened the French doors and slipped in.  His father was pouring himself a whisky. “Murdoch? You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. Yes, Johnny I did. I’ve got a few things to say about today...but not right now.” He gestured with his glass.  “Supper is in just a minute. Get cleaned up.”

“Yes sir.” Johnny mumbled unable to meet his father’s eyes, dreading having to sit through supper knowing he still had a confrontation coming.

 

****

 

Johnny and Scott joined Murdoch and  Dora at the long dining table. Teresa wasn’t expected home until tomorrow after church and Alan was sleeping.

“The Doctor said it wasn’t a bad break and it should heal just fine.  There’s nothing else broken, but he has bruises in places he doesn’t want his grandmother to see.” Dora said with a grin and her eyes were sparkling with humor.  “He’ll have a lot to think about on our trip back east.”

“I’m glad he wasn’t hurt badly...and...I’m sorry for my part in all of this.” Johnny said.

Dora smiled. “Alan is very much responsible for his own injuries Johnny.  In fact, Alan asked if you would go up after supper. He wants to talk to you.”

Johnny’s eyes flicked to Murdoch who nodded slightly.  “Sure, I’d like that.”

Supper was finished in near silence after that.  Johnny found he had little appetite as his stomach flip flopped in nervous anticipation of his talk with Murdoch.  Scott tried to start a conversation a time or two,  and even though Dora tried to engage Johnny and Murdoch in conversation, their efforts were futile.

When Maria came to clear the supper dishes, Scott offered to help.  He picked up a large serving platter with the left over pork roast and carried it into the kitchen.

Dora cleared her throat. “Murdoch, may I speak to you a few minutes?” She looked at Johnny for a moment. “In private?”

Johnny slid his chair back. “I’ll go see if Alan’s awake.”

 

******

Johnny knocked softly on Alan’s door and opened it slowly.  At the sound, Alan turned his head toward the door and struggled to open his eyes.

“You awake?”

“Yes...Give me a minute.  That pain killer the doctor gave me really knocked me out.”

Johnny chuckled. “Ya, Doc Jenkins has a whole bag full of em. I don’t like any of em. Makes me thick headed.”

“That’s how I feel too.” Alan said as he ran his good hand over his face, coughing once.

Johnny stepped to the night stand.  “You want a drink?”  At Alan’s nod, he poured the glass half full and held it up to Alan’s mouth until he drank his fill.

“Thanks.  Have a seat Johnny. I’m glad you came.”

“Ah... Alan look...”

“Johnny, let me.  I don’t know why I did such a foolish thing today.  I was out of line and I’m sorry.  I never should have ridden Barranca without your permission.”

“It’s okay Alan. I’m..um...well..sorry you got hurt. I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“It’s not your fault Johnny. Accidents happen. Scott warned me that Barranca was a spirited horse.”

“That’s just the thing.  I well, I caused you to get hurt.” Johnny confessed.  “See, I trained Barranca to come when I called and that’s why he bucked you off.”

“I...see.” Alan said slowly. “I..er...didn’t know you could teach a horse to do that.” Unsure how to take this new information. Johnny was not at all how he imagined him. When he first found out about Murdoch’s youngest son,  he had been dismayed and disgusted that a gun for hire, a mercenary, was allowed to take the Lancer name.

When he first met Johnny, he had been prepared to dislike him on principal, but Johnny’s disarming youth and lack of sophistication led him to want to put him in his place for some reason.

While he and Scott had found common ground right away, Johnny held no interest for him...except for the horse.  He envied Johnny that horse and was driven beyond good sense to have him.  He knew full well when he mounted Barranca that he wasn’t going to keep him, but after watching Johnny’s masterful handling while working the cattle, the urge to try him got the better of him.

Now Johnny was telling him that he caused the horse to revolt and buck him off.  This was a lot of information in his somewhat still groggy state.

Johnny’s voice came back to him. “So, I hope you’ll accept my apology. I’m sorry you got hurt.”  Johnny held out his right hand and Alan blinked twice before holding his uninjured right hand out to shake Johnny’s hand.

“Johnny, I accept your apology. We really got off on the wrong foot.  My Grandmother and I are leaving to go back to Baltimore the day after tomorrow.  Maybe sometime you can come visit us there.”

Johnny hesitated. “Maybe. Thanks.  The Doc said you were okay to leave so soon?” doubt in his voice.

“Yes. He said it would be all right for me to travel as long as I take it easy.  I’ll have it checked by a doctor in Denver. I should be well on my way to recovery by the time I get home.”

“Well, take care of yourself.” Johnny said as he walked to the door. Nodding at Alan’s wave of the hand, he closed the door quietly behind him.

Johnny walked down the back stairs to the kitchen unsure if Dora and Murdoch were finished with their conversation.  He found Maria and Scott doing the dishes, so he picked up a dish cloth and began drying the dishes feeling better than he had for several hours.

 

*****

Murdoch waited for Johnny, wanting to get it over with.  If Johnny had been younger, he would have handled it the old fashioned way, with his belt and off to bed without supper. He remembered his own father had handled it that way on several occasions and Murdoch never forgot it...or forgave it.

Shaking himself away from thoughts of long ago,  he thought. ‘ It would been easier on both of us, but those chances were long gone.  Johnny had grown up without him. Lessons he should have learned were never taught.’

He thought about his conversation with Dora just minutes before. ‘Taste your  words.’ She advised.  Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself for the dressing down he felt he owed to his youngest son.  He was finding it hard to be a father after all these years, but some instinct told him he needed to provide boundaries and guidelines that seemed to be sorely missing from his son’s life.

Murdoch licked his dry lips feeling nervous about the conversation he would soon have with his son.  He resolved to stay calm, but make sure the boy knew he wouldn’t tolerate that behavior ever again.

Johnny had to learn, he just had to. The alternate was something Murdoch was unwilling to accept.  He looked up to see Johnny  walking into the room.

“Are you ready Murdoch?”  Johnny said looking uneasy.

“Johnny sit down.”  Murdoch said pointing to the couch.

“I think I’ll stand.”

“You’ll do as you’re told. Now sit.”  Murdoch insisted.

Johnny felt the defiance raising up, but then heard Scott’s words of advise floating in his mind, so he sat.  Johnny decided to try to defuse the situation by trying to apologize. “Look Murdoch, I’m sorry about what happened today. I even apologized to Alan and he told me he understands.  I didn’t mean for him to get hurt...” Johnny trailed off at seeing the closed off look on his father’s face as he stood towering over him with his arms crossed.

“Whether you did or did not mean to hurt Alan is beside the point here.  The point is you did it deliberately without any thought to the consequences.”  He made an angry gesture with his hand,  “Johnny, I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”  The disappointment in his voice well apparent.

Johnny looked down at his hands and felt a wave a of defeat cross over him.  ‘How many times does the old man have to feel that way before he kicks me out?’ he asked himself, but said nothing.  He sat there head bowed, waiting for whatever Murdoch had to say.  Usually, by now the old man was spittin’ fire, this calmness was unnerving.

Johnny looked up at Murdoch and said.  “What do you want me to say?”

Murdoch’s eyebrows raised at that.  He looked angry at that response. “What do I want you to say? Johnny, I want to be  reassured that you will never do that again.  Alan is a guest and a family member.  Do you know how hard it was for me to tell Aunt Dora that my own son deliberately caused her grandson’s injury?”  His voice now louder and the anger came through loud and clear.

Johnny hunched his shoulders and picked at a silver button on the side of his pants.  “I said I was sorry.  I won’t do it again.”

“Johnny if you were twelve years old and had pulled a mean trick like that, you’d be over my knee so fast you wouldn’t know what hit you...”

Johnny interrupted what ever his father was going to say next. “Well you didn’t raise me old man, and it that’s your answer for everything, then I’m thankful you didn’t!”

Before he could say another word, Murdoch grabbed him by the arm and pulled him up.  Johnny tried to twist out of his grip. Defiance and anger in every line of his body. “You’re not too old boy, so don’t push me.”

Johnny shoved at his father. He was beyond using good reason. “Go to hell!” he shouted.

Murdoch saw blind rage. Before he could think, he reacted and slapped Johnny across the face.  “No son of mine swears at me! Keep a civil tongue in your head.” he shouted.

Johnny stared up at him, one hand on his stinging cheek.  He blinked the tears away that had come to his eyes.  He’d never give this man the satisfaction of seeing them. He turned and started out of the room.

“Johnny come back here!  Right now!”

“No!”

“I’m not through with you.”

“Well I’m through with you old man.” Johnny muttered as he went out the French doors hearing them snap back with a satisfying bang.

 

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

 

Scott came back into the kitchen after emptying the slop bucket for Maria in time to hear the snap and bang of the French doors.  Fearing the worst, he cautiously made his way out into the living room to find Murdoch pouring himself a generous shot of whiskey.

“What happened?” Scott demanded.

Murdoch glanced up at him looking irritated.  “What do you think happened. It didn’t go well.”

Scott watched as Murdoch took his drink and walked slowly over to his desk and sat down.  Scott walked closer to Murdoch taking note of his father’s pale complexion and he began to grow concerned at his father’s clammy skin. When Murdoch raised his glass to take a drink,  Scott became alarmed when he saw his father’s  hand shake.

“Sir, are you all right?”

Murdoch put his glass down and refused to meet his son’s eyes.  “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine.  You look…” He tailed off as Murdoch slapped the desk.

“I’m fine!  Just drop it Scott.”

Scott chewed his lip for a moment.  “I take it, it didn’t go well.”

Murdoch glared at him.  “That would be an understatement.”

Scott felt his chest tighten. “Where is he?”

“Gone.  He left.” Murdoch pointed toward the still open French doors.

A cold breeze was blowing in through the doors, so Scott walked over to close them.  As he swung the door closed, he saw cracks in several panes from the force of his brother’s angry exit. With his back still to his father he asked.  “He left? Or he’s gone.”

Murdoch stood up to go refill his glass.  “I don’t know Scott.  He said he’s through with me.  You know him better than I do.  You tell me.”  Murdoch sounded more tired than Scott had ever heard him sound.

Growing alarmed. Scott demanded.  “Murdoch, what exactly happened?”

“I sometimes don’t know why I bother with that boy.  Talking to him is impossible. I really don’t understand him” He said shaking his head.

Scott looked at his father with exasperation.  Worry about his brother overshadowing his earlier concern about his father.  Murdoch’s color was less pale and he seemed to be all right.  Scott’s top priority now as to find Johnny.  “Sir, If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go look for him.”

Murdoch didn’t even look up or acknowledge his words so with a sinking heart Scott left to go look for his brother and try to repair whatever damage may have been done by the man that was supposed to be their father.

 

*****

Scott walked quickly across the yard to the barn.  Easing open the heavy door, he found the barn was dimly lit by the lantern inside the door.  He called softly “Johnny.” As he rose the flame, he looked around and felt a huge relief at seeing Barranca in his stall.  He walked over and patted the golden horse, wondering all the while where his brother was.  It was a good sign that Johnny hadn’t lit out after the argument…unless his brother was upstairs packing.

Taking a deep breath, he left the barn at a trot heading for the kitchen.  “Maria. If you see Johnny, tell him to wait here. I need to talk to him.” He said as he took the back stairs two at a time.  He was breathing a bit harder than normal when he reached Johnny’s bedroom door.  He knocked twice and opened the door to a dark empty room.  Lighting the lamp next to the bedside table, he looked around. “Where are you boy?”  He said under his breath.

Scott felt better when he found Johnny’s saddle bags laying in a corner of the room where his brother left them, and  that his clothes were still in the dresser.  He looked around the room once more to make sure he hadn’t missed any signs and resigned himself to search the house and grounds for his brother.

*****

Murdoch sat in the living room in the dark with just the fireplace providing a faint light from the dying embers.  He couldn’t stop thinking about the confrontation with his son tonight.  Over and over he replayed the images.  He saw himself grabbing Johnny by the arm and practically shaking him in his anger and then doing the unforgivable, slapping his son.  The sound of his palm on flesh still reverberated in his mind.

‘Go to Hell.’ That had shocked him.  His son’s anger and those words had pushed him beyond reason.  Johnny had hit his vulnerable spots and he’d responded in kind.  ‘The boy has such a short fuse and tonight mine wasn’t much longer.’ He thought with regret.

He knew a large fissure had opened up in the relationship with his son, but he didn’t have a clue how to repair it.  ‘Is Johnny really glad I didn’t raise him?  I wouldn’t blame him, after the way I treated him today.’

Murdoch took another sip of his whiskey and as he set the glass down, he noticed his hand shaking once again.  Growing alarmed, he reached over with his other hand and grasped his shaking hand to still the tremors.

Breathing deeply to slow his heartbeat, he slowly got control of his emotions, Slamming back the rest of his whiskey, he slowly walked upstairs to his bedroom.

******

Johnny headed straight to the barn after his violent confrontation with his father.  His heart was hammering in his chest and his breath was coming in short gasps.

He took his saddle from the saddle rack and snatched the blanket and bridle off the hooks and started over to Barranca.  The golden horse turned his head and his liquid eyes shone amber in the flickering light of the lantern.  The look that caught Johnny’s eye was of complete trust and he dropped his saddle in the straw.  Johnny found himself holding onto the strong neck of his compassionate friend with white knuckles.  He rested his forehead into Barranca’s creamy mane and waited for his white hot anger to pass.

With a shuddering breath, he stepped away and wiped his eyes, straightened his shoulders and said.  “Gracias compadre.  I won’t disturb your rest tonight.  Go back to sleep.”  He turned and picked his saddle and tack off the ground and returned it to the saddle stand.

With a final glance at his horse, he thought that maybe he had changed.  A few short months ago, he would have saddled his horse and  rode out to run away from his anger.

A stubborn coldness set over him.  He wasn’t going to run. ‘I’m not givin’ up what’s mine. Even if the old man wants me to leave, I’m not gonna.’ He vowed.   Unwilling to return to the house, he nevertheless wished he had his coat as the January air had a serious bite to it.

Johnny found himself sinking into further depression as his mind replayed the events of the evening. ‘How did everything get so out of control?’  Johnny mused that he had been reacting on instinct so long, he shuddered to think how close he had come to hitting his father. And to swear at him?  He closed his eyes in shame.

He thanked God, he hadn’t been wearing his gun, as he was sure he would have drawn on his father and that would have been the end.  Johnny leaned on the fence and watched the horses move nervously around the corral disturbed by his nocturnal presence.  Pushing away from the fence, he began walking back to the house kicking a rock in front of him.

Johnny wandered the chilly night in a daze.  He glanced at the house and noted the lights on in the downstairs portion of the house and dark in his father’s bedroom. He edged his way around the side until he was behind the house.  There were a couple of outbuildings used for storage and a lean to with firewood neatly stacked under shelter.

He stood under the shelter looking at the blackness and as he eyes adjusted, he realized he was staring at the skeleton of the majestic tree which had adorned the Lancer home just a few short weeks ago.  It’s once lofty branches now dry and brown.  It waited its fate of being denuded of its branches and then chopped up for firewood.

Johnny sat on a stump used to split wood and thought about the fate of the tree.  He kind of felt like that tree right now. All dried up and tossed out in the dark.  He searched for those warm feelings he felt for his father and couldn’t seem to find them tonight.  Where did those feelings from Christmas go?

With a sigh of regret Johnny stood, with a final farewell glance at the tree he noticed something caught in the branches.  Looking closer, he realized it was a forgotten ornament.  He reached out and grasped the lone wooden horse and held it tightly in his hand. He felt tears fill his eyes and he squeezed them tightly shut.

Suddenly angry at his lack of control, Johnny wiped his eyes and resolutely made his way back to the house.  He entered the kitchen stealthily and quietly made his way upstairs.  His plan was to rest his weary mind for just a few minutes, but before he could stop himself he fell asleep on his bed fully clothed.

 

******

Scott, growing tired of chasing his brother all around the yard checked the barn once more.  Seeing no sign of Johnny, he decided to check the house again before turning in.  He had hoped to find Johnny before he made any decisions.  His heart told him that his brother needed someone to talk to even if his stubborn little brother didn’t know that for himself.

Scott made a pass through the living room and then the kitchen before heading upstairs.  Feeling discouraged, he opened the door to Johnny’s room and with a wave of relief saw his brother asleep on the bed.  He stood in the doorway trying to decide whether he should wake him or leave him until morning.  Deciding that no good would come from waking him up, Scott quietly walked across the room and carefully removed Johnny’s boots.

Johnny rolled over and made a motion to grab at Scott’s arm.  “Easy brother.  Just go back to sleep.”  Johnny rolled back over as Scott settled the quilt over his brother’s shoulders and turned down the light.

 

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

 

Early Sunday morning, Johnny woke to find that someone had removed his boots and covered him up. ‘Scott’ he said to himself and a feeling of warmth and gratitude swept over him.

He got out of bed and looked out the window.  It was still very early with a slight lightening of the sky.  Johnny quickly washed and shaved being careful of the tender spot on his cheek.  The redness was mostly gone,  but there was a faint shadow of a bruise. ‘I’ve had worse,’ he thought as his fingers traced over the sore spot. ‘A lot worse,’ he admitted to himself.

He dressed quickly and left his room heading down the stairs to the kitchen.  Even though it was Sunday, Maria was up early preparing  to start breakfast.  “Buenos dias Maria.” Johnny greeted her as he entered the kitchen and gave her a quick peck on the cheek which earned him a big smile.

“Buenos dias, Juanito. Did your brother find you last night?”

“He found me.” Johnny said noncommittally.

Maria poured him some coffee and placed a plate with a couple of biscuits in front of him. Johnny flashed her a grin. “Gracias,” he said as he broke a biscuit apart and began buttering it.  She continued to prepare breakfast and Johnny enjoyed watching her in silence as he drank his coffee and satisfied his hunger.  He loved sitting in the kitchen and drinking in the sights and smells.  It bought back good memories of time he spent with his mother and he always came to the kitchen to feel close to her.

As he put the empty cup down, his attention became focused on the stairs. He recognized the footsteps coming down the stairs, and with no other thought, he was out of his chair and out the door he fled as Murdoch arrived in the kitchen.

“Good morning Maria.  Was that Johnny leaving?” He asked.

“Buenos dias Senor,  Si that was Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded and sat at the table as Maria gave him a cup of coffee and cleared away Johnny’s cup and plate.

 

*****

 

Johnny wandered over to the barn.  No one was up yet and he visited with Barranca for a few minutes.  He snuck him a handful of oats, and  Barranca hungrily devoured the treat as the other horses looked on with envy.  He gave Barranca a pat and said, “breakfast will be soon amigo,” and left before anyone  arrived for the day.

Johnny had no specific plan. He had solved nothing last night other than becoming so depressed that sleep seemed the only option. When he awoke, no earth shattering conclusions had come to him.

Johnny walked up to the French doors and looked through the cracked panes.  His hand was on the knob when he saw Alan walk through and settle on the couch.  He was not really  in the mood to talk to anyone right now.  He had been hoping to keep out of the way until Murdoch and Dora left for church.

Making a quick decision, he walked around the house to the back and let himself in using the rear entrance.  He walked past the wine cellar door and paused for a moment thinking of going in.  Remembering how cold it was down there, he moved on and took refuge in the study room.

 

*******

Scott woke early and forced himself out of bed.  His mind protested the early hour on a Sunday.  Adding insult to injury was the fact that he was going to have to jump into his role as negotiator before his first cup of coffee.

He was still tucking his shirt tails into his pants as he headed out the door on his way to Johnny’s room.  He stopped at the door with surprise to see the door slightly ajar.  With raised eyebrows, he nudged the door open with his fingertips.  ‘Now where did he go?’ he asked himself at the sight of the rumpled unmade bed.  Feeling frustrated, Scott headed down the  stairs to the living room.

“Good morning Scott.” Aunt Dora greeted him cheerfully from the chair in front of the fire.

“Good morning Aunt Dora.  Have you seen Johnny this morning?”

“No I haven’t.  Is there a problem?”

Scott instinctively started to say no out of habit of protecting Johnny and Murdoch’s privacy.  Not this time, he thought.  “Actually, yes.  There is a problem.  Johnny and Murdoch had an argument last night. It was bad enough so Murdoch looked pale. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Johnny yet so I don’t know how bad it is.  Murdoch wouldn’t talk to me about it, but that’s nothing unusual.” Scott’s frustration showed clearly in his voice and words.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” She asked looking concerned.

Again, Scott’s first instinct was to say No, but he had noticed that Dora made a large impact on his father, so maybe she could get through to him when no one else could.

Before Scott could respond, Dora said firmly.  “I’ll speak to my nephew today.  I’ll give him a few words for thought on the way to church.”

“Thank you.” Scott said as he squeezed Dora’s arm and gave her a peck on the cheek before heading out the door.  His step was a bit lighter now that  he had an ally in his fight to get his father and brother back together.  His next challenge was to find his brother and the hunt was on.

Scott’s steps took him again to the barn.  He let out a breath of relief and frustration at the same time.  Relief at seeing Barranca munching away on his breakfast, but no sign of Johnny.

“Ramon, have you seen my brother this morning?” Scott asked the hand cleaning stalls.

“No Senor.  I haven’t seen him this morning.”

“If you see him, please tell him I’m looking for him.”

“Si Senor.”

“Thank you Ramon.”

 

****

 

Scott walked back outside and made a quick search around the barn and out buildings.  Each hand he ran into heard the same question. The answer was always the same. “No Senor.”  No one had seen Johnny.

Scott gave up  and returned to the kitchen after giving Julio instructions to get the buggy ready for Murdoch and Dora to go to church.  They would be bringing Teresa home with them and Scott was looking forward to her calming presence in the household.  He knew he needed all the help he could get in the battle of holding this volatile family together.

Scott entered the kitchen to the wonderful smell of sizzling bacon and aromatic coffee.  Dora, Murdoch, and Alan were already seated. Good mornings were exchanged and he noticed Murdoch didn’t meet his eyes.

Scott sat and shook out his napkin and placed it across his lap.  “How’s your arm Alan?” He asked.

“Not too bad.  A bit sore, but overall, not too bad.  I’m actually a bit more sore...elsewhere.” Alan said with a small smile in his grandmother’s direction.

Scott chuckled, “I know the feeling.”  A sudden thought brought a frown to his lips. “Alan, are you going to church this morning?”

“No, I think I’ll stay here and start packing.  It’s going to take me a while getting the hang of folding clothes one handed.”

“I’ll help you if you want to wait until I return.” Dora offered.

“Thank you Grandmother. I can handle most of it myself.”

Dora smiled and said.  “Murdoch don’t you think we should be on our way?”

Murdoch looked up like he hadn’t heard all of her question as he had obviously not been paying attention to the conversation.  Scott had to suppress a smile at his father’s expression.  He had seen that same expression on his brother’s face the times he had been caught out lost in his thoughts.

Dora stood up and Murdoch followed her lead. “We’ll see you later this afternoon.” Murdoch said as he escorted Dora to the front hall to gather their coats.

Scott resumed eating breakfast feeling very bad that his father had not inquired about Johnny’s whereabouts.

*****

Murdoch steered the pair of horses along the road heading toward Green River.  When they reached the overlook, Murdoch stopped the horses to give them a breather after the long pull up the hill.  He looked down on his ranch as if searching for something.

Dora waited for a moment watching him take it all in.  He reminded her of a feudal lord taking in his holdings.  Murdoch picked up the reins and Dora said. “Wait a minute Murdoch. I’d like to talk to you.  We have a little time.”

She waited until he lowered the reins and bowed his head.  “I understand you and Johnny had quite a row last night.”

That got him looking at her she noted with satisfaction. “Aunt Dora, it’s between Johnny and me.  It’s none of your business.” With that he meant for the subject to be closed.

Dora smiled to herself.  Her students didn’t call her ‘bulldog’ for nothing and her nephew was soon going to get a taste of it for himself.  She pressed on undeterred.

“We’re family Murdoch. We are not moving from this spot until you tell me what happened.”

Murdoch pressed his lips together in obvious annoyance and for one brief moment Dora thought he would just disregard her words and drive on.  The defiance in his features left as quickly as they appeared,  his shoulders slumped a little, and Murdoch said in a monotone voice. “We both said things we shouldn’t have said.  Hurtful things.  I lost my temper and...I slapped him and he walked out...as always.”

Dora watched him for a moment noting the look of defeat on his features.  This was not the same man who had proudly displayed his accomplishments and lauded his son’s virtues on their first trip out to the ranch. Knowing that man was still there somewhere, she was determined to get to the bottom of this crisis.

“Tell me exactly what happened Murdoch.” She said in her best bulldog voice.

With a sigh Murdoch hung his head. ‘I...He...”

Dora rested her hand on his arms.  “It’s going to be all right. Just tell me.”  Dora could see her words were having an effect.

“I scolded him for his part in Alan getting hurt.  He got defensive, then defiant.”

“Why?” She asked simply.

Another big sigh from Murdoch. “I told him that if he’d been a child, I’d take him over my knee.”

Dora looked puzzled.  “That made him angry?”

“He blew up.  He told me he was glad I hadn’t raised him.” Murdoch muttered so softly that Dora barely heard him.

“What did you say?”

Louder now, Murdoch repeated. “He said he’s glad I didn’t raise him.”  Murdoch was glaring at Dora defiantly.

Dora felt her  breath taken away before she regained her composure.  She increased the pressure on Murdoch’s arm letting him know she understood his pain.  “Oh Murdoch, I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

She watched as Murdoch once again hung his head, the brim of his hat covering his eyes.  He shook his head. “He meant it.”

“So he got mad and walked out?”

Murdoch let out a big breath of air.  “No, there’s more, a lot more.  I grabbed him  and told him he’s not too old.”

“Noo old for what?” She asked.

“Not too old to go over my knee.” Murdoch said as his cheeks took on a flush of red.

“Oh my.” She said.

She didn’t need to prompt him further now.  Murdoch continued on his own. “He told me to go to hell and I lost my temper and slapped him.”

Dora drew in her breath.  This rift was much worse than she had imagined.  She couldn’t believe Johnny would be so disrespectful to his father and she couldn’t fathom the anger Murdoch must have felt to push him to slap his son.  Collecting herself, she asked. “What happened then?”

“He left.  He said he’s through with me.”

Dora’s maternal instincts were on high alert.  “Murdoch, look at me.  Johnny loves you and I know you love him.  We’ll find a way to fix this.”

“What if he leaves?”

“He won’t leave. Scott will make sure of that.” She said definitely.

She waited a moment and could hold it no longer. “What on earth possessed you to take such a strict stand with him Murdoch?”

Murdoch tilted his head and looked up at the sky for a moment and then turned his gaze to Dora.   “Everything I know about Johnny’s childhood comes second hand.  Rumors and Pinkerton reports.  Tall tales most of them.  He’s said very little and becomes closed mouthed at just the mention of his mother.  From what I’ve been able to gather, Johnny’s mother and stepfather weren’t the best influences for a boy to grow up with.  Once he was on his own, he was very young and his role models were sadly lacking.”

Murdoch paused and cleared his throat.  “ At first, he’d fight me at the drop of a hat.” Shaking his head he said. He’d argue and backtalk.  For the last several months, we were getting along pretty well.”  Murdoch paused, regret ringing in his ears. “I found myself enjoying being a father to him and Johnny seemed to respond to it.  If he was horsing around or backtalking, I could just give him a look or a few words and he’d behave.” He bowed his head once more.

“Murdoch, there’s more to being a parent than that.  Yes, providing guidance and discipline is important, but it’s also important to allow them to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Remember, this is exactly what we talked about with Alan.”

“I was trying to make him become more responsible.”

“Responsible?” Dora questioned. “Johnny is one of the most responsible young men that I have ever known.  Murdoch don’t mistake Johnny’s natural zest for life as being irresponsible.  He has apologized six ways to Sunday for Alan getting hurt. What more can he do?”

Murdoch thought for a moment and said quietly. “Nothing.”

Dora could see she needed to get through to her nephew.  “Murdoch, you made a mistake.  Johnny made a mistake.  You two are so much alike. I can see how you would rub each other the wrong way.  We will find a way to fix this,”

Murdoch gazed over his holdings and then looked at his aunt.  With a slap of the reins he said.  “I sure hope so.”

******

Scott was once again growing frustrated.  He had been over the house and yard with a fine tooth comb.  He wearily climbed the stairs once more to see if Johnny had returned to his bedroom.  Maria said she had seen him early this morning, but not since.

With little hope of finding his brother he entered the bedroom.  With a sigh, he walked over to the window in time to see Johnny and Barranca loping across the meadow and away from the ranch.

Scott slapped the window sill in anger, his hand ringing in pain, a curse escaped his lips.  He turned and ran down the hall intending to catch up with his little brother and give him a piece of his mind.

 

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

Johnny rode Barranca at a ground covering lope for about a half an hour, slowing only to navigate the steep trail.  He rode until he reached a large rock outcropping. It had several large jagged boulders jutting skyward.

The first time he had seen it, he found himself drawn to exploring the rocky landscape.  Tying Barranca to a nearby scrub bush, he went on foot and began climbing the hill to reach the top. 

He carefully levered himself to the top of a flat rock he thought of as a table.  It was solid and about 8 feet almost square and flat as if the wind has sheered off it’s top.   He like to come here and think. Since thinking was something he desperately needed to do, he figured this was the place to do it.

As he sat there, he felt his heart beat slow as his breathing became quiet. He closed his eyes and tried to erase the image of his father’s angry face.  Johnny had noticed that Murdoch had a little vein in his temple that stood out and jumped when he was angry.  It was sure jumpin’ last night.  Johnny took a deep breath and blew it out as he tried to figure out how he was going to go on with his father.

He never let anybody treat him like his father did. Nobody...at least not since...No, he told himself, don’t think about that.  That’s in the past. Over and done with. Can’t change it and I don’t want to bring it back.

Johnny once again began to feel despair pulling him down.  He felt a wave of disappointment that he may never be able to have a good relationship with his father.  Just when it seemed to be working out, they trampled all over each other.  Maybe Scott’s right, he mused. Maybe we’re too much alike.

He heard his name being called from below. “Johnny?”

Johnny straightened his legs and thought ironically. ‘Speak of the devil.’  As he stood  up, he saw his brother  looking around for him.  A mischievous part of him was tempted to stay quiet and see how long it would take Scott to notice him, but good sense told him to let Scott know where he was. “Up here, Scott.” he called.

Scott shielded his eyes against the sun and waved. “I’ll be right up,” he said as he dismounted and tied up his horse.

Johnny watched as Scott climbed the hill and he reached a hand down to help his brother up to the table top.

“Wow. This is some place.” Scott exclaimed while waiting for his breathing to return to normal.  Remembering why he was there, he asked. “Are you all right Johnny?  I mean I know you and Murdoch had an argument last night.”

Johnny bowed his head and asked. “Did he tell you that?”

“No, he didn’t tell me anything.  What happened?”

“Sit down Scott.” Johnny said as he sank back down onto the rock.

Scott sat down and said gently. “What happened brother?”

“Murdoch. Well, he was in one of those moods.  Nothin’ I said was gonna be good enough for him. Ya know.” Johnny looked up quickly until he saw his brother nod. “I tried to do what you said.  Just stay calm and let him get it out of his system, but he started in on how things woulda been if he’d raised me, and I said some things, and we both got mad.”

“What kind of things?”

Johnny reached down and picked up several small pebbles and began rolling  them around in his hand.  Finally, Johnny  raised his head and met Scott’s eyes.  “I told him I was glad he didn’t raise me.”

Scott tried to take a deep breath and ended up smothering a gasp. “Johnny! I know that’s not true.  How many times have we speculated on what it would have been like if we could have grown up together here at Lancer?  You even told me you wished Murdoch had raised you.”

Johnny just shook his head.  “I know, I know.  Now Murdoch thinks...I don’t know what he thinks.”

Changing tactics, Scott asked. “What did Murdoch say?”

“He was angry.” Johnny blew out his breath and continued to juggle the pebbles. “At the time, I meant what I said.”

“And now?”  Scott asked gently.

“I...I still wished he’d raised me.” Johnny said quietly.

“Tell him that.”

“I can’t Scott.”

“Why not?”

“He’ll never forgive me.”

“What are you talking about Johnny?”

“I told him to go to hell Scott.  I told my old man to go to hell. Can you understand Scott?  What kind of person does that?”  Johnny’s frustration was going. “How can he ever forgive me Scott?”

Johnny raised his head and looked at his brother full on for the first time and Scott froze at seeing the bruise on his brother’s cheek. Scott gently touched the bruise with a finger and asked. “Did Murdoch do that?”  Johnny pushed Scott’s hand away and dropped his head. “Johnny, answer me.” Scott said firmly. “Did Murdoch hit you?”

Johnny nodded once and Scott sat back as anger at his father showed clearly on his face. His voice strained, he asked.  “Why did he hit you?”

“I told him to go to hell.” Johnny answered quietly.  After a moment Johnny shrugged. “I almost hit him back...but...I didn’t.”

Johnny waited for Scott to say something. He usually had some sage advise for dealing with their father, but this time it was long in coming. Johnny smiled ironically,  “well big brother, What do I do now? Can’t sit out here on this rock forever.”

Scott shook his head. “What do you want Johnny? What’s going to make this right for you?”

“I want it to be like it was.  I don’t want to lose my father, but I can’t go through that again.  I don’t let anyone treat me like that Scott. Nobody.” he said firmly.

“You’re going to have to talk to him Johnny.  Talk to him and find a way to make him understand.”

“I know, and if he doesn’t or won’t understand, I can’t stay here. I’d have to leave.”

“Johnny, there’s got to be another way.  Dora’s trying to talk some sense into him as well. All I know is I can’t lose you brother. I...I love you.” Scott said quietly, his voice choking on the emotion.

Johnny’s eyes bore into his and Scott heard the words he was hoping to hear. “Love you too brother.”

 

*****

Murdoch was in deep thought as he drove the buggy back to the ranch.  He was roused only when Teresa asked him a direct question and poked his arm to get his attention.  She had been chattering about her recent visit with friend.  “Murdoch?  Do you think that would be all right?”

“I’m sorry darling, I didn’t hear you.”

“The Johnson’s are going to Sacramento next month and they’ve asked me to go with them.” She said with excitement sparkling in her eyes.

“I’m sure that will be fine darling.” Murdoch answered her absentmindedly as she gave him a flash of a smile.

Murdoch turned his attention back to driving the buggy, once again tuning out Dora and Teresa’s conversation.  His thoughts immediately returned to those foremost on his mind.  ‘Johnny.’  Dora’s words had revolved in his mind all through the church service.  If anyone asked him, he wouldn’t have any idea what Reverend Brown’s sermon was about.

He had to use all of his self control to keep from whipping the horses into a gallop so he could get home faster. After what seemed like hours to the anxious man they finally descended the steep hill to the valley which housed his treasure.  He never failed to be in awe when he saw the sprawling ranch ahead of him.  A testament to his lifelong devotion and hard work

He stopped  the buggy at the front of the house,  and helped Dora to the ground followed by Teresa.  Teresa smiled her brilliant smile and said, “Oh it’s so good to be home!  I know it’s only been a few days, but I never realize how much I miss it until I return.”

“I know exactly what you mean, Teresa.”  Murdoch agreed and they both turned at the sound of horses to see Johnny and Scott riding under the arch.

 

*****

“There’s Scott and Johnny!”  she said walking out into the yard. Murdoch nodded and picked up her valise and walked into the house.

Scott and Johnny saw Teresa and as one, they galloped to greet the girl.  Johnny was the first off his horse and Teresa gave him a big hug.  “Did ya miss us?”  He said swinging her around.

“Not in the least.” She teased as she gave a hug to Scott. “In fact, Murdoch’s going to let me go with the Johnson’s to Sacramento next month. I can hardly wait.”

“Whoa.  Now hold on there Teresa.  You just got home.”  Johnny said.

“That’s right Teresa.  It’s your turn to watch over Johnny.  I’ve been doing it for the past week.” Scott said in a very dry tone.

Teresa giggled as Johnny raised an eyebrow at his brother. “Hey! That’s not fair.  She’s just been home a few minutes and you’re already ganging up on me?”

Scott backhanded Johnny in the stomach. “That’s the way it is little brother.  Live with it. Come on Teresa.  Let’s see if  Maria needs any help with supper.”  As the girl turned to go around into the kitchen, Scott gave Johnny a brotherly shove.  “Go on Johnny.  You can do this.”

Johnny took a couple of steps toward the French doors and looked back at the retreating form of his brother.  Squaring his shoulders, he stepped to the doors, swung them open and stepped inside.

 

*******

Johnny felt his heart thumping almost painfully inside his chest as he looked at his father for the first time since their argument. ‘Breathe Madrid,’ he told himself.

“Drink?”  Murdoch said lifting the decanter of whisky.

“Thanks.”  Johnny said softly trying to read Murdoch’s mood.  As usual, he was having a hard time penetrating the defenses his father seemed to use as a barrier between them. Johnny accepted the glass and took a gulp of the fiery liquid and turned away as it burned down his throat.  He started to take another sip and thought better of it, as he had a nearly empty stomach, and needed all his wits about him for this conversation.

“I...Well things got a bit out of hand yesterday...” Johnny started.

“A lot of that was my fault.” Murdoch conceded.

“I said some things I shouldn’t of. Things, well...I didn’t mean.” Johnny responded.

“I was wrong to hit you.” Murdoch stated simply.  “It won’t happen again.”

The two men stood at opposite sides of the room, neither one willing to say more until the other did. Afraid of being hurt any further by the other.  The silence built and they both remained uncomfortable until Murdoch broke the silence.

He cleared his throat.  “I noticed there’s some debris building up in Sorrento creek. Someone better go out there tomorrow and get it cleared.”

“I’ll take Pedro with me and we’ll get it taken care of first thing tomorrow. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go get cleaned up.”  Johnny responded formally.

 

*******

 

Murdoch nodded as Teresa and Dora began setting the table for Sunday supper and Johnny left the room.  He finished his whisky in a final swallow and walked back to the bar and refilled his glass.  He was strangely bereaved at the conversation he’d had with Johnny.

Dora, approached Murdoch.  “So how did it go?” She asked.

“We both apologized.” he said simply.

“That’s it? Did you come to an understanding?”

“Yes, we did.” He said simply and turned away.

******

Sunday supper found the table full.  Alan joined them and Teresa kept them all entertained with the local gossip she had picked up from their neighbors.

Scott kept glancing at Johnny and Murdoch.  He knew they had talked and there had been no shouting, but their overly polite behavior toward each other was beginning to alarm him.  After supper he intended to pigeon hole his brother and find out what happened.

His thoughts returned to the present when he realized that Dora was proposing a toast.  He caught the tale end of it as everyone raised their glass. “To family.” She ended.

“To family.” Scott found himself repeating.

“Dora, I think I can speak for all of us, we’ve enjoyed having you both visit.”  Murdoch  said.

“Murdoch, I’m so glad we came.  Now you will have to come visit us.” She looked at Johnny.  “Johnny, I hope you keep up on your reading.  You have  made great strides.”

Johnny blushed a bit.  “Thank you, Aunt Dora, I intend to.”

The meal completed. Murdoch excused himself on the pretext he had some paperwork to go over for a meeting he had in town tomorrow after Dora and Alan’s stage left.

Dora and Alan soon excused themselves as well to go upstairs and start packing and rest up for their big trip tomorrow.

Once the guests left, Scott, Teresa and Johnny sat at the table in companionable silence.  Johnny fidgeted with a salt shaker until Teresa broke  the silence.  “Will someone tell me what’s going on?”

“What do you mean Teresa?”  Scott asked.

Teresa looked from Scott to Johnny who had his head bowed.  A flash of intuition came to her.  “You and Murdoch had another fight didn’t you? What was it about this time?’

Johnny scraped his chair back and stood up.  “It’s over Teresa.  We took care of it.”  With that, he walked out of the room.

Teresa turned a worried look to Scott.  “Is that true?  Is everything all right?”

Scott sighed.  “I don’t know Teresa.  I sure hope so...but I don’t know.”

 

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

Johnny escaped early to bed.  He had a feeling his brother wanted to talk to him about the conversation he’d had with Murdoch, but he really didn’t feel like getting into it.  He had caught Scott looking at him several times during the evening. Speculating, that’s what he was doing.  He could see Scott speculating about the agreement he and Murdoch had come to earlier that afternoon.  He was grateful when Murdoch asked Scott to look over some contracts while Johnny escaped to his bedroom.

Johnny sighed, some agreement, he thought with dismay.  More like a cessation of hostilities.  Johnny smiled to himself.  Scott would be proud of him for using that word in a sentence.  He remembered a bit sadly that they never finished that book that Scott had been reading to him before Christmas.  I guess I could find it sometime and finish it myself, he thought.

Johnny slowly undressed, draping his white shirt over the chair, turning back to unbuckle his belt, he began to unbutton his dark pants.  Sliding them off, he tossed them over his shirt. Yanking off his socks, they ended up kicked across the room, and that brought a little smile of satisfaction to his lips.

He sank into the soft mattress with a sigh and reached over to lower the flame on his lamp when his eyes were drawn to his notebook.  He picked it up and began turning the pages.  His eyes took in the exercises he had painstakingly etched out on the pages.  A small smile came to his lips while reading Dora’s comments of encouragement.

He turned the page and his hand froze over the drawings, as he stared at the roughly sketched image of his father. He closed his eyes for a moment, as he remembered the look of hurt in Murdoch’s eyes after their argument yesterday.  He was strangely comforted by their talk this afternoon. At least it didn’t turn into a battle, and maybe they would be able to find their way back to each other. He sure hoped so.

Johnny turned the page  and began reading his essay.  After a few minutes, he turned to a fresh page and picked up a pencil.  He swiped his arm across his eyes and began to write.

 

********

 

Breakfast was early the next morning as Dora and Alan had an early stage to catch.  Maria and Teresa wanted to send them off with a huge breakfast that would keep them well satisfied for much of the day, so the long dining table was filled with platters of steaming steak,  bacon,  pancakes, fried potatoes and eggs.

Scott surveyed the feast as he picked up his cup of coffee. He raised the cup in Teresa’s direction in a silent toast and said. “Teresa, you’ve outdone yourself here today.”  At the young girl’s brilliant smile he continued in a teasing vein, “It’s it good thing you don’t feed us this way every morning or Johnny and I would have to ride draft horses and probably take a two hour nap every day.”

Amid the chuckles, Johnny’s quiet voice added. “It’s not a nap brother, it’s a siesta.”

“Oh sorry, I forgot.”

Murdoch fixed his son’s with a look, “I better not hear that the two of you are partaking of either when you’re supposed to be working.” He warned, but the twitch of his mouth gave him away as he tried to hold back a smile.

Johnny and Scott’s look of innocence and Scott’s sincere assurance that they would never do such a thing brought outright laughter from everyone at the table.

Dora wiped her eyes on her napkin. “I’m going to miss all of you so much, but especially this.  You two boys have made this a memorable visit and I for one am honored to have you both as members of the Lancer family.”

Johnny just ducked his head and concentrated on stabbing a piece of potato with his fork while Scott, the self appointed spokesperson for the morning, thanked her and said how much they’d enjoyed meeting them.

Murdoch took a final sip of his coffee and said. “We better get going, that stage is unpredictable in the best of times.”

At that everyone pushed they way from the table.  Scott and Johnny began loading Dora and Alan’s bags in the buggy as Teresa hugged Dora goodbye. Scott turned to Alan and shook his hand, “Take care of yourself Alan and good luck in your new position.”

“Thank you Scott.  I’m looking forward to returning to work.  I…well…I have a new perspective on things.”

Alan turned to Johnny, “Johnny, I know we already talked about this, but I want to apologize again for taking your horse.  It was wrong of me and this whole experience has given me no choice but to think about who I am and what I’ve become.  When I first came here, I didn’t think there was much I could learn, but you helped me figure out who I really am.  At least I’m starting to think about it instead of just running rough shod through my life.  I figure, this broken arm is what it took to teach me to start using my hard head, overall it was a fairly inexpensive lesson.”  He reached out to offer Johnny his hand and after just the slightest of hesitation, Johnny firmly grasped Alan’s in a handshake.

“Have a good trip Alan and take care of that arm”

Alan climbed into the backseat of the buggy behind Murdoch who was starting to look a bit impatient to get going.  He watched as Dora took hold of Johnny’s hands.

“I’m going to miss you Johnny. You’ve been one of my best students.”  She smiled as Johnny blushed and bowed his head for a moment.

“Thanks…uh…I mean…I learned a lot too.”

Dora leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek and hugged him. As she took a step back she saw he was offering her a folded piece of paper.  “What’s this?”

“Just something I wrote for you.  Read it later.” 

She took the offered paper and placed it in her handbag.  Clearing her throat, she said, “Now don’t forget, you write me back.” She looked at the assembled Lancer family and added, “All of you.”

Johnny helped her up into the buggy next to Murdoch, as they all said last minute goodbyes to each other.  Murdoch turned to Johnny to give him his instructions for the day only to see his departing back walking toward the barn.  Sighing in frustration he turned to Scott and said.  “Tell your brother to check on those cows while he’s out at Sorrento creek and take a look at the fence in the far corner where we have a lot of trouble with it.”

Scott nodded and Murdoch started the buggy.  With a final wave at the departing guests, Scott headed to the barn to see if he could catch Johnny before he left for the day.

 

*****

 

Murdoch got Dora and Alan to the stage depot in plenty of time. Murdoch sat with Dora on the bench inside the stage office while Alan amused himself by walking up the boardwalk looking into the meager store windows.

“Murdoch, I want to thank you for the lovely visit.” Dora said.

“It was our pleasure.  I know the boys enjoyed getting to know you and I especially enjoyed having you here.”

“I also want to thank you for the help with Alan.  I’m hopeful he’ll make something of himself when we return.  He’s stands to inherit a goodly sum of money and I just pray he’ll use it wisely when that time comes.”

“In spite of everything he has a good head on his shoulders.” Murdoch replied.

“I’m just sorry he caused trouble between you and Johnny.”

Murdoch didn’t want to discuss his son any further with her, but knew she wouldn’t drop it until he responded. “We talked yesterday. We’ll work through this.” His words sounding more confident then he felt inside.

“Johnny is an amazing young man.  You should be very proud of him Murdoch. He…” She stopped, uneasy at the idea of violating Johnny’s trust in her.  “He loves and respects you Murdoch.” She said finally.

Murdoch frowned in disbelief. “You’ll have to excuse me if I find that hard to believe.  He puts up with me more like it. Did you see him today?  He totally ignored me at breakfast and walked away before I could  say something to him.  Short of calling after him and dragging him back, what was I supposed to do?” Exasperation rang strongly in his voice.

“Oh Murdoch, that’s easy. Go after him, tell him you love him, that you need him and want him.”

Murdoch snorted. “That is not easy, not with Johnny.” In his heart he felt like a fraud as he knew that he’d never been honest with Scott about his feelings even though he and Scott had a good relationship. Pushing that thought aside, he said. “The boy doesn’t even want to be in the same room with me, much less talk to me.”

Dora watched the conflict pass on her nephew’s face.  She laid a gloved hand on his arm and squeezed. “I know how Johnny feels Murdoch.  You’re his father and he wants you in his life.  You’re already in his heart, now you have to find a way to make the first move to show him he’s in your heart.”  She gave his arm another squeeze of support before opening her handbag and bringing out the piece of paper Johnny gave her.

Murdoch watched curiously as Dora unfolded the paper. As she read, a smile spread across her face and wordlessly she handed it to Murdoch.  He began reading Johnny’s words, easily able to make out his neat flowing cursive.

Dear Aunt Dora,

When you first suggested I study with you, I was sure I wouldn’t find I liked it.  But I was wrong.  You taht me a lot, and I know I still have a lot to learn.  I’m gonna keep reading them books you suggested, and I’ll try to write you letters like you showed me.

I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is Thank you.  I wrote you this poem. I hope it’s okay. You said poetry could be about anything and doesn’t even have to ryhm.  I did my best though and hope you like it.

Your Nephew,

Johnny Lancer

“A good One”*

There’s nuthin’ like a good one between yer knees

Light to the rein and willin’ to please

Together as one the day will be done

On a good one I’ll find my way home 

 

The world looks better from up on a throne

Strapped to the topside of muscle and bone

Below me, a friend, who I can depend

On a good one I’ll find my way home   

Where luck is fickle and the days are long

Danger is quick and the cattle are strong

Married in movement, purpose and song

On a good one I’ll find my way home   

When at last the angels call my name

And the trail is ended on this earthly plane

Just carry me away on a big honest bay

On a good one I’ll find my way home  

Murdoch tried to swallow as he finished Johnny’s heartfelt poem and found he had a lump he just couldn’t get past.  He cleared his throat and held the paper back to Dora.

“No Murdoch, you keep it. And tell him that I said his poem was very okay. It was excellent in fact.”

“Maybe he would appreciate it more if it came from you.” Suddenly uneasy with imparting Dora’s words to his son which would mean he’d have to tell Johnny he’d read it too. He knew Johnny well enough to know he wasn’t welcome to intruding on his correspondence with Dora.

“I’ll write him a letter, but you should tell him that I shared it with you.  He would have asked me not to read it until I was on the stage if he didn’t want you to read it.”

Before Murdoch could reply, the sound of galloping hooves drew their attention as the stage careened to a halt in front of the depot. He stood, as did Dora.  “I am going to miss you.  Have a safe journey and wire me along the way so I know you are well.”

Dora smiled at Murdoch’s concern and said, “Yes dear, I remember. I’ll wire when we arrive in Denver. Don’t worry about us.  You just take care of yourselves and that fine family of yours.”

Murdoch gave her a hug and murmured. “I’ll miss you.” He felt a flush of embarrassment coming on, so to save himself, he picked up the bags and escorted Dora out the door to board the stage.  He handed the bags up to the driver and made sure they were properly secured.

Dora reached out for him and he bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Have a safe trip.”  He helped her into the coach and turned to Alan.  He shook Alan’s hand. “Take care of yourself son, and let us know how you get along.”

“Thank you for all your help Murdoch, and your hospitality.”

“Anytime Alan.” Murdoch replied as Alan climbed into the stage.  Murdoch slammed the door closed and he raised his hand as the driver started to horses off down the street at a good clip.

Murdoch watched the stage until he could no longer see it. Suddenly anxious to return to the ranch, he hurried across the street to the bank to conduct his business.  Feeling the paper rustle in his pocket, he had a sudden desire to go home to his sons.

 

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

*A Good One was written by Wylie Gustafson and used without his permission.  Wylie’s heartfelt cowboy poetry and amazing western music is a tribute to the cowboys of the old west.  If you are interested in learning more about Wylie, go to his website: Wylie & The Wild West

 

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

It was later in the afternoon when Scott finally caught up with Johnny.  They had both been busy with their chores all day and Scott finally found time to break away leaving the fence crew in the capable hands of Walt.  Johnny had already ridden out when he got to the barn this morning so he hadn’t been able to give Johnny the instructions from Murdoch.

Much to his amusement, he found his brother doing exactly as Murdoch had ordered all by himself.  A wry smile came to his lips as he was once again reminded how much his stubborn father and equally stubborn brother thought alike.  Not that he would make the mistake again of telling them that.  No, only a complete fool would go through that again, he thought with a shake of his head.  He directed his chestnut gelding down the narrow cow trail to meet his brother in the pasture below where he had halted Barranca and was obviously waiting for Scott to join him.

“Hey, brother, what’s up?   Checkin’ up on me?”  Johnny asked with a grin.

“As a matter of fact, I am.  It’s your first day back after your vacation and I didn’t want you to overdo it.”  Scott teased.

Rising to the challenge, “I can out ride and out rope you any day big brother.”

“All right, I just thought maybe if you were too tired, we could stop for a while…but since you’re all fired eager to get back to work, go on over to help Walt and the boys string that fence by the new windmill.”

“Fencing huh?”  Johnny put his hands to his back and stretched.  “Maybe I am a might tuckered out, now that you mention it.”

Scott smiled. “I thought you might be…now that I mention it.  Everything looks alright here,” he nodded toward the fat cattle grazing on the lush grass, “Why don’t we ride over to check on the cows in Spring Valley on our way home.  Some of them should be getting ready to calve soon.”

“Good idea.  Murdoch said he wanted to keep a close eye on those first calf heifers.”  At his father’s name rolling off his lips, he suddenly looked pensive. “Let’s go.” He said as he urged Barranca into a ground covering lope.

Scott quickly followed him intending to push for some answers before the day was done.  His brother was not going to like it much but something had changed and Scott was determined to get to the bottom of it.

 

******

Murdoch urged the team to a brisk trot eager to return home.  While he enjoyed the visit with his Aunt, he had to admit he was looking forward to things returning to normal again.  He hoped he could talk to Johnny this afternoon before any more time passed and they became more strained with each other if that was possible.

He thought about the note Johnny wrote to Dora along with the fine poem he had skillfully crafted and he felt pride in his son.  Not just for the clever and heartfelt poem but for his thoughtfulness in thanking Dora for the gift she had given him.  ‘Not a lot of young men Johnny’s age would write a letter to thank someone for their kindness.’ He mused, followed by a big sigh. ‘Johnny is such a puzzle’ He thought for the hundredth time.  Full of mischief one minute and temper the next. He thought fondly of the young child Johnny had been and realized he hadn’t changed all that much.  Even from a young age he had a mind of his own and once set on a course he was determined to follow it through.

Murdoch well remembered shaking his finger at a young Johnny scolding him for some mischief he’d gotten into and Johnny scolded him back shaking his finger right back at him.  He could picture in his mind his little black curly haired boy with intense blue eyes holding up his finger and saying, “No, Papa.  Bad.”  He looked so adorable; Murdoch had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling at his son’s mannerisms.  He pondered the thought that when Johnny was so young he’d thought his back talk was cute, now that Johnny was an adult, it just made him angry.  He had to admit that his son had backtalk down to a fine art and Murdoch’s conditioned response was anger.  He could easily see how Johnny got men so riled up with his glib tongue and challenging manner that they would draw on him.  At that thought a chill followed by a shudder went though him and he mentally shook himself from those disturbing images.

Rousing himself from those dark thoughts, he realized with a start he was almost home. The Lancer arch was just a hundred yards further and he did not remember descending into the valley as the thought of his son had enveloped him in thinking about the past.  Smiling ruefully to himself, he shook the reins and encouraged the team to pick it up as he completed the last quarter mile of his trip.

As Murdoch reined the team to a halt, Frank called to him. “Mr. Lancer?” relief evident in his voice.  “We’ve got a problem over here in the barn.”

“What is it Frank?”  His weariness showing in his voice.

“Your horse got cast in his stall and we can’t get him up.”

Murdoch climbed stiffly out of the wagon and said.  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Murdoch entered the barn and saw the enormity of the problem right away.  His horse had laid down too close to the slatted walls of his stall and kicked two legs through the slats in trying to push off the walls to get up.

He walked into the stall and crouched down to pet the lathered neck of his favorite mount and spoke softly to assure the frightened animal.  He noted the horse’s labored breathing and heaving sides.  “How long has he been down?”

“We’re not sure.  I heard some banging in here and ran in to find him struggling, but he was already trapped.  It’s been about half an hour since then” Frank said looking at the other two hands who nodded their agreement.

Murdoch surveyed the scene for a moment and made a decision, “Julio, go get a saw and two ropes.  Pablo, let’s try to get a halter on his head.”

Relief at the boss having an idea of how to extricate his horse gave the men hope that they could save the animal and they hurried to do as they were asked.  “Frank, after we get a halter on him, I want you to kneel on his neck from behind him to keep him from struggling.  We’ll saw away at these boards to free him.  Be ready for him to struggle at any minute.”

Once everyone was in place, Murdoch slowly and carefully sawed through the boards that were trapping one front leg and one hind leg.  He could see that while there were no cuts from the boards, his horse has rubbed the skin raw in his struggles.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Murdoch pushed the legs back into the stall and Frank reached over and folded them up.  They were all relieved when the gelding remained calm and didn’t put up a fight.

“Now we have to get him up without him pushing a leg back though the wall.  Since he’s pretty well exhausted, let’s try attaching ropes to his front and back legs and roll him over.’

“Maybe we should just try to pull him away from the wall first, Sir.”  Frank suggested.

“With a smaller horse, we could probably do that, but with this fella, he’s way too heavy.”  Murdoch said giving his horse a reassuring pat on the neck.  “I’m hoping when he feels himself rolling, he’ll give us a little help and go right over.”

Murdoch took hold of the rope attached to a hind leg, Frank had the rope on the front leg, Pablo, being the smallest of the men, had the halter rope, and Julio had the tail.  “On three, we pull.” Murdoch instructed.  “When he comes over, be ready to get out of his way and Pablo, don’t let go of that lead rope.” He warned.

“One, two three.” Murdoch counted and the four men threw their combined strength into the effort to rescue the gelding.  At the same time the horse grunted and kicked with all four legs as he found himself on his back, and with a mighty effort rolled over as the men moved to safety.

The gelding heaved himself to his feet and stood there swaying while he regained his balance.  Murdoch walked around his exhausted horse checking for further injury and asked Frank to rub him down and treat his injuries.  “He’ll be lame for at least a week, maybe more.  Give him a warm bran mash also and go light on the hay tonight.  I don’t want him to colic.  Come get me if goes down again.  Oh and move him to another stall until this one is repaired.”  Murdoch said as he turned to head to the house all thoughts of riding out to find Johnny forgotten for now.

 

******

 

Johnny and Scott rode side by side at a walk back toward the house.  The horses seemed to sense the relaxed mood between the brothers and were content to walk with reins loose swinging gently side to side.  Barranca, not one to allow a good opportunity to go by would occasionally snatch at some particularly tempting grass and chew it around his bit enjoying the sweet juices.  Scott chuckled as he watched Barranca spit out a wad of chewed up grass. As he watched Barranca snatch some more grass he said, “You’re letting him get into bad habits, Johnny.”

Johnny smiled slightly at this and gave Barranca a pat on his neck. “Don’t matter to me none if he takes a snack or two as long as he’s payin’ attention when I need him to.”

Scott smiled while thinking horse and rider were much alike. He reached out a hand and touched Johnny’s arm.  “Hold up a minute, Johnny.”

Johnny halted Barranca and gave Scott a questioning look.  “What’s up, Scott?”

Scott took the opportunity to dismount and made a motion for Johnny to do the same.  Once Johnny was standing next to him, Scott turned and led his horse a few yards off the trail and turned back to see Johnny slowly following.  Scott suddenly felt a bit nervous at bringing up the subject, but he quickly shook it off and said, “I know this may not be any of my business, but what went on between you and Murdoch yesterday?”

Johnny toed the ground and fingered the reins in his hands before answering.  “You’re right; it’s none of your business.”  At seeing a flash of hurt cross Scott’s face, he relented. “Ya gotta know everything, dontcha brother?”

It was Scott’s turn to toe the ground, but when he answered his eyes were direct and determined. “I couldn’t help but notice the tension between the two of you, and frankly Johnny when the two of you are at odds; it affects the rest of us.”

“Don’t mean to be the cause of that Scott.”   Johnny said quietly.

“I know.  So what happened?”

Johnny licked his lips and began.  “I told him I didn’t mean to say what I did and he told me he shouldn’t have hit me and it wouldn’t happen again.”  He said simply.

“That’s it?  That’s all you said? What about the other stuff? What about how angry you were with him for treating you that way?  Come on Johnny, you didn’t get anything resolved did you?”  Scott questioned.

“I guess not Scott.  I…I just don’t think it’s gonna work any other way.  I get too angry with him if he tries to be my father and he gets too angry with me if I try to be his son. Maybe this is the only way for us.”

“So you’re just going to live in the same house as… strangers?  Business partners?  No Johnny!  That won’t work.” Scott said adamantly.

Johnny sighed and shook his head.  “I don’t know Scott. I don’t know what else to do. I’m a disappointment to him.  I try not to be; I just am.  I think it’s too late to change that.  Anytime we get into anything else we end up arguing with each other.”  He sounded hopeless.

Scott blew a big breath of air through his lips and removed his hat.  Running his hand through his blonde hair, he shook his head at the enormity of the problem.  Setting his hat squarely on his head, he turned and walked back to his horse, “Come on, let’s go home.  I’ll think of something.”

“Good. Cause I’m all out of ideas.”

 

******

Scott and Johnny rode into the yard about an hour later as the sun was beginning to set for the night. Leading their horses into the barn, they stopped short at seeing Murdoch’s horse in a different stall.

“I wonder what happened.” Johnny said just before Scott said the same thing.

They looked over the stall wall to see bandages on a front and rear leg.  “It looks like he got into something.”

“Look over here.”  Johnny’s voice caused him to turn and look where he was pointing toward the destroyed stall wall.

“It looks like he kicked through the wall.”  Scott observed thinking that was not at all like Murdoch’s placid mount.  More like something Barranca would do. Scott mused.

Johnny was bent over looking closely at the wood boards. “Naw, these been sawed.  He musta been caught.”  Straightening up Johnny led Barranca to his stall and began unsaddling him.

Scott turned and began taking care of his own mount.  Worry about Murdoch’s horse taking a back seat to his concern how to help Johnny and Murdoch get their relationship back on track.

The sound of the barn door opening caught both brothers’ attention and in the fading light saw their father fill the doorway.  “Good, you’re both back.”

“We just got back a little while ago.  What happened to your horse?” Scott asked.

Murdoch walked in and leaned over the stall wall peering at his horse’s legs. “He got cast.  We had to cut him out.  I just wanted to check on him before supper.  He’s going to be lame for a while, I sure hope he recovers.”

Johnny’s soft voice broke in, “Mind if I look at him?”

“Sure Johnny go ahead.” Murdoch replied as he watched his youngest son run his hands over the gelding’s hindquarters as he carefully lifted the bandaged hind leg.  Johnny’s nimble fingers felt his way down the swollen leg and checked to make sure the bandage wasn’t too tight.

Straightening up, he looked at Murdoch and asked. “What did you put on him?”

“They used that salve, we use for saddle sores.”

Johnny nodded.  “Tomorrow when they take the bandages off they should take him over to the pond.  The walk will do him good to get the swelling down and then have him stand in the water for about half an hour will really help.” With a final pat he left the gelding’s stall.

“Good idea. Thank you son.”  Murdoch said.

Johnny froze for a moment before walking out of the barn leaving Murdoch and Scott staring at his retreating back.

“Sir, You’re going to have to find a way to fix this.”  Scott blurted.

“Scott, I don’t think he wants to.”

“You’re wrong Murdoch.  Johnny wants to straighten things out with you but he doesn’t know how to talk to you without getting into an argument.  He really wants to work this out, Murdoch.  He just doesn’t know how.”

Murdoch sighed. “He’s got to stay in the same room for one thing.  He can’t keep getting up and walking out.”

“Murdoch, Johnny loves you.  He needs to know you love him back.”

“That’s what Dora said.” Murdoch stated quietly.  “I’ve always had a hard time saying the words Scott.  You’re mother…”  He stopped for a moment and cleared his throat.  “Your mother used to tease me about it.  She said I tried everything to keep from saying it but with her, after a while I found I could do it.  I…I just guess I need practice.  Scott, you know how I feel about you and your brother, don’t you?”

“Sometimes you have to just say the words Murdoch.”  Scott advised.

Murdoch looked at his wise beyond his year’s oldest son and saw honesty and love shining through Catherine’s eyes.  It wasn’t just the color that reminded him of Catherine, as Scott’s eyes were almost the same shade of blue as his, but the way they sparkled and the shape were all Catherine.

Murdoch reached over and draped an arm across Scott’s shoulders and said with affection.  “I love you Scott.  I love you and your brother and I thank God every day that you’re both home.”

Scott smiled and felt his heart warm. “I love you too Murdoch and there’s no other place in the world I’d rather be.  Now you need to tell Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded and the two of them walked into the house.  As they walked through the door Teresa called. “Dinner’s ready.  Come and sit down.”

Johnny was already seated so they pulled up their chairs to join him as Maria and Teresa served the roast and vegetables.

“Smells good T’resa” Johnny said as he picked up a fork to reach across the table to spear a piece of meat.

Teresa slapped his hand away.  “That’s not polite Johnny.  Wait until it’s passed to you.”

“I been workin’ hard today Teresa.  I’m starved.” He complained.

“You’re not going to whither away by waiting a minute.”  She teased and passed him a plate of vegetables.  As he started to pass them to Scott without taking any, she gave him a look that he knew meant trouble so he took a spoonful and passed the bowl to Scott while scowling at Teresa’s undisguised look of triumph.

From that point on, supper went with out a hitch.  Each of them telling about their day.  Murdoch reported that Dora and Alan left right on time and his meeting at the bank went fine.  They spent a few minutes talking about their plans for the next day.

As Maria began clearing away the table, Scott stood up and announced he was going to make it an early night with the book his grandfather had sent him.

Johnny stood up as well, having no intention of speeding the evening with his father. “I’ll…turn in early too.  Have a busy day tomorrow.”  He turned to hurry after his brother when Murdoch’s voice caught him.

“Johnny, could you wait a minute?  I’d like to speak to you for a minute.”

Johnny turned and looked pensive before walking into the living room.  He shook his head at his father’s offer of a drink.  “What did you want?”  He said bluntly.

Murdoch took a sip of whisky and waved at the couch. “Sit down with me.”

Johnny sat and waited for Murdoch to say his peace.  Clearing his throat, he started.  “Son, I wanted to talk to you.  We got way off track and I was hoping we could find our way back to each other.”  Murdoch waited for Johnny to say something but his son’s dark head remained bowed. Pushing down his irritation, he tried again.  “I know I hurt you Johnny, well…we hurt each other, but I don’t want to lose you Johnny.  I want you to be part of this family, be my son again.  I love you son.”  Murdoch stopped and held his breath.

Johnny looked up at Murdoch’s words, surprise clearly in his face.  “Thank you…I’m gonna turn in.” Johnny said as he fled the room to Murdoch’s stunned silence.

 

******

Murdoch spent a restless night.  He tossed and turned, disturbed by Johnny’s lack of reaction.  He hoped to catch his son in the morning and try again, but he must have dozed off toward morning and woke with a start to a rooster crowing.

Feeling old and stiff, he dressed and shaved.  Shuffling down the stairs to the kitchen, he was relieved to find Scott still at the table nursing a cup of coffee.  “Good morning Scott. Have you seen your brother?”

“No, but Maria said he was up and out early this morning.”  Scott poured his father a cup of coffee and looked at him critically.  He could see his father looked tired.  “What happened last night?  You did talk to him, didn’t you?”

Murdoch took a sip of coffee.  “I tried, Scott, I tried.  I told him I loved him.”

“What did he say?”

“He said Thank you and went to bed.”

“Thank you?  He thanked you?”

“That’s what I said Scott.  I’ve lost him.”

“No Murdoch, I’ll talk to him.”  Scott got up feeling like this rift in his father and brother’s relationship was never going to mend. “I’ll meet up with him later today and see what I can find out.”

“Thank you son. I appreciate your help.”  Murdoch replied as Scott left the kitchen.

 

******

Murdoch tried working at his desk for several hours that morning.  His mind kept drifting back to his conversation to Johnny.  What could he say to get through to the boy?  He asked himself for the tenth time this morning.  He watched idly as Maria dusted around the room.  She began dusting the end table and moved a notebook from place to place as she dusted around and under it.

Murdoch remembered seeing the notebook there for a day or so but hadn’t really paid any attention to it.  He picked up his coffee cup and walked over to the serving set and poured himself a fresh cup of coffee. He held the cup of coffee and stared down at the notebook.

Murdoch sat down on the couch and carefully set the cup on the coffee table. Reaching over to the notebook, he placed it on his lap and opened it to the first page.  He quickly realized this was Johnny’s notebook he had used when he was studying with Aunt Dora.  He closed the book and started to return it to it’s place on the end table.  His hand hovered over the book and brought it back to his lap.  He opened it and scanned Johnny’s neat handwriting.  He could see that his son worked hard at his lessons and he felt pride in his efforts.

Murdoch turned the pages and looked with amusement at the drawings of Alan falling off Barranca.  He drew in his breath at the next page when he was confronted with a sketch of himself.  He had to admit, that Johnny had caught his likeness well, but he was saddened that his son saw him as such a stern man.  When had he turned into his father? He asked himself.

Murdoch turned the next page and froze.  He began reading and his sight blurred as the words struck him to his core.  Johnny loves me, he thought with wonder.

Over and over he read; *My father and me sometimes don’t see eye to eye, but I know he cares for me.  There was a time in my life when I hated him with all my heart but the minute I met him, I felt like I had been mule kicked.  I tried to hate him and make him pay but I couldn’t.  I wanted him to be my Pa, and I wanted to be his son.  I tried to tell myself it was too late, but there’s nothin’ I want more than to know he loves me cause I love him.  I haven’t been able to tell him that yet.  I’m scared.  I know that don’t go with Johnny Madrid.  Madrid ain’t scared of nobody, but …his Pa.*

He loves me. Murdoch repeated to himself.  There was more to Johnny’s essay but he had read the important part and he intended to find Johnny and be the Pa he wants and deserves.

 

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

 

Murdoch went to the barn as soon as he finished his breakfast and asked Julio to saddle his bay gelding for him.  He wanted to get an early start as he was driven to find Johnny to get things settled between them.  This time he wasn’t going to let his son brush him off.  He was determined to do what ever it takes to get through to the boy. Man, he corrected himself.  Johnny had been riding a mans trail for a long time now, and Murdoch regretfully needed to stop thinking of him as a boy.  He shook himself back to the present when he realized that Julio had asked him a question and was waiting for an answer.

“I’m sorry; I didn’t hear what you said.”

“Senior, what should I do to care for the sorrel?”  Julio said pointing to Murdoch’s injured horse.

Murdoch entered the stall and checked the bandages and noted the excessive swelling.  “Walk him slowly down to the pond and take off the bandages. Then stand him in the pond for about 30 minutes. Make sure his legs are good and dry before rebandaging them.  Let’s see how he responds and maybe tomorrow we’ll have him stand in the pond twice.”

“Si Senior.”  Julio said as he handed Murdoch the reins of his bay.

“Gracias Julio.”  Murdoch said as he led the horse out into the yard and mounted.

 

*******

Johnny rode out and spent some time working with the fencing crew as they needed to get that job done as soon as possible.  The grass in one of the northern pastures was getting too thin and they were going to have to move the herd soon.

As they finished stretching the last of the wire, Scott rode up and called Johnny over. “Looks like you’re about done here brother.  I’m going to send the crew over to the east corner, unless you need them somewhere else.  There’s a bit of damage over there and we don’t need to be chasing cattle all winter in that brush.”

“Sounds good Scott.  I’m gonna ride over toward the hills on the south side.  I saw some cat prints and I sure don’t want a cat around when we move those cows.”

“Good idea Johnny but be careful.”  Scott warned.

Johnny flashed a cheeky grin at his brother, “I’m always careful brother.” He said as he swung up on Barranca. “See ya.”

Scott smiled and shook his head as he watched his brash brother lope away. “Just mind it little brother.” He muttered under his breath.

*******

 

Johnny wound his way slowly up into the foothills.  He dismounted and carefully checked the ground as he saw sign of mountain lion tracks.  His scanned the area as he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, but seeing nothing out of place, he patted Barranca and said, “There’s two of em somewhere around here.  They’re covering a lot of area and they’re huntin’.  We gotta be careful Barranca or we might be their next meal, so you keep an eye out.” Before mounting, he pulled out his rifle and with a final look around, mounted his horse.  Clicking to the palomino, he continued his search for the predators.

Knowing that cats liked to stalk their pray from above, Johnny’s senses were on high alert as he rode through a heavily treed area.  He scanned the leafy branches making sure he did not see a tawny hide before proceeding through the thicket.  Once through the area, he could see the familiar rock outcroppings a short distance ahead.

Patting, Barranca’s neck, he said, “How bout if we set a little trap and see what happens?  Shoulda brought a yearling steer with me. Coulda staked it out to draw them out.”  Johnny rode closer and closer to the large rock outcropping unaware there were two sets of amber eyes’ watching the pair’s every move.

******

Murdoch rode out to talk to Johnny, but his first challenge was to find him.  He had spent a couple of hours catching up to Scott only to find that Johnny had ridden off by himself in search of a mountain lion that he thought was a danger to the cattle.  While, he appreciated his son’s diligence, he knew it meant more time in the saddle for him.

Before heading toward the foothills, he asked Scott to bring the crew over to the south side to mend another section of fence before they headed back to the ranch.  Murdoch pondered the changes he had witnessed at the ranch. Years ago, fences weren’t all that necessary.  The cattle roamed over the vast grasslands and foothills and often mixed with other herds at will.  With the influx of miners in the late 40’s and early 50’s, cattle rustling began to pick up.  By the time most of the mines had played out, the miners that stayed turned to their former professions and small settlements and farms began springing up in the unsettled land.  Now fences were necessary to keep the cattle in and unwanted elements out.  His men spent a good deal of their time, mending and building fences and Murdoch for one, missed the day when he could ride from one end of his vast property to the other without having to open a gate.  Rousing his thoughts to the present, he asked his bay to pick up a lope as he headed into the foothills looking for Johnny.

Murdoch halted his gelding near a stand of bushy live oak trees and noted with satisfaction that he was on the right trail as he could see signs that a horse had passed through a short time earlier.  He clicked to his mount and moved into the grove of trees on his hunt to find Johnny.

 

*******

 

Johnny tied Barranca to a small cedar tree.  If worse came to worse, Barranca could pull free and get away, if his plan went awry. He patted his horse once more, before removing his canteen and with rifle in one hand, he began climbing the hill above him.

 

Johnny felt his breath coming in short gasps as he reached the bottom of the final climb.  He wiped his arm across his sweaty brow and turned for a moment to check on Barranca while he caught his breath.  Barranca was relaxed and cropping the grass he could reach from where he was tethered.

Johnny turned and continued his climb.  His legs were starting to feel the strain as he scrambled up to the top of the table top rock outcropping. Once in place he carefully surveyed the terrain both above and below him.  Satisfied that all was well, he moved across the flat rock so that he was able to see Barranca and the surrounding area.  He reminded himself to keep an eye on his back as well as what was happening below.  ‘I’d feel real silly if I got killed by a cat from behind, while I’m watchin’ Barranca.’

Johnny sat still for an hour and decided he needed to get up and stretch his legs as he was finding it harder to stay alert and he could easily drift off to sleep.  He had to fight off fatigue from the last few days of stress and thinking about his father was the last thing he wanted to do today.  He stretched his back and paced a couple of times around the eight foot square rock.  As he was beginning to start a third circuit, he froze, all attention on Barranca.

He watched Barranca, still as a statue, with ears pricked in the direction they had come up the hill.  Johnny could see the muscles clearly defined in Barranca’s shoulders and hindquarters as the horse stood at alert.  Barranca danced sideways nervously and began pawing with impatience. Johnny sent a mental thought to his horse. ‘Easy boy, I see ya.  Just wait a minute.’

Johnny brought his rifle up to his shoulder and began aiming in the direction that Barranca was looking.  He could hear the sound of a couple of rocks rolling off the trail and he tensed as Barranca nickered toward the sound. No cat would make Barranca react like that and Johnny recognized that a rider was coming.  Easing his finger off the trigger, he nevertheless kept the rifle aimed toward the sound of the approaching horse.

As the bay horse came into view, Johnny let out a breath of air and lowered his rifle as he recognized Murdoch making his way toward Barranca. ‘I wonder what he’s doin’ out this way?’ Johnny asked himself.

Murdoch halted his horse next to Barranca, and looked around for sign of his son. “Johnny.” He called.

Johnny just shook his head at the lost opportunity to get those cats before they started making a meal from their stock.  “Up here.” He called.

Murdoch saw him standing up on the flat rock and waved. “I’ll be right up.”

Johnny watched Murdoch scramble up the hillside and start to climb up the outcropping.  “I can come down if you want.” Johnny offered.

Taking a handhold and levering himself up, Murdoch grunted. “I can do it.”

Murdoch swung himself up to the top of the outcropping and grasped Johnny’s offered hand to steady himself as his shaky legs struggled to support him from the effort of climbing up the rock outcropping.

Johnny took a step back as he watched Murdoch bend over, his hands resting on his hips as he struggled to catch his breath.  In a minute, Murdoch stood up straight. He took a deep breath of the cool air and looked around at the vista.  “I love this view.”  He noticed the surprised look on Johnny’s face.  “I’ve been here several times.” He said by way of explanation.

“I like to come here to think, sometimes.”  Johnny said in response.

“Your mother loved to come up here.  We came here a couple of times…for picnics.”

Johnny smiled to himself at Murdoch’s words unsaid. “Picnics huh?” He allowed a small smile to cross his lips.

Murdoch sank to a sitting position, his long legs stretched out in front of him. “Sit with me a while Johnny.” He requested gently.

Johnny sat down gracefully and pulled his legs under him.  He looked at his father with curiosity and waited.  Inside he felt a flutter of turmoil building up, but he pushed it away as something told him his father’s presence was of monumental importance.

 

“Oh Johnny, how did things get so complicated?”  Murdoch sighed and continued, “Son, we need to talk.” Raising a hand, “Not talk like we have in the past, really…talk.”

Murdoch seemed to require no answer so Johnny just nodded and waited. “Since you’ve come home, I haven’t done right by you son, and all I can do is tell you I’m sorry and I’m going to make it up to you.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and I realize I treat you differently than Scott and that’s not fair. I can’t explain why in a way that makes sense, but you deserve an explanation, so please bear with me.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation.” Johnny started.

“Yes I do, but more importantly son, you deserve one.”

“Okay, I’ll listen to what you have to say.” Johnny conceded curious now by Murdoch’s unusual manner.  He was almost acting like…like how he behaved when he was talking to Teresa.  While he loved Teresa dearly, he always felt a wave of sadness when he saw how paternally Murdoch treated her.  Johnny found himself responding to Murdoch’s tone rather than the words as his father had not really said anything to mend the fences that had become their lives.

“I loved you so much when you were a baby.”  Johnny watched while Murdoch’s lips formed an affectionate smile as he remembered the past. “You were a happy baby and when you started walking, I think you went right to running.  Your mother and I had a hard time keeping up with you.  I tried to be with you as much as I could and I vowed to protect you and keep you safe.  You, your mother, the ranch, were my life.  The only thing missing was Scott and I was confident that I could bring Scott home.”  Murdoch stopped and took a deep breath and swiped a hand over his eyes.

Johnny realized his father had tears in his eyes and he felt unprepared to handle his father’s unexpected emotion from his reminisces.  For himself, he felt detached from the events his father was describing, but he could hear the truth and honesty in his father’s words, and it made him feel strangely calm and secure.  There was a feeling of comfort in knowing that he had roots here at Lancer, and maybe he could allow himself to believe that his father returned his love.

Johnny roused himself out of these thoughts as he focused on Murdoch’s words.  “I…ah…don’t remember living here.”

“You were too young.  These are my memories, not yours.”  Murdoch replied.

“Thanks for tellin’ me.”  Johnny gave the beads on his wrist another couple of turns and then he began to stand up but Murdoch’s sudden hand on his arm stopped him.

“Stay awhile, son.  We’re not done talking.”

Johnny sank back down and waited.  He made a quick decision and hoped he wasn’t making a fool mistake by opening up a little to his father.  Taking a deep breath, he decided to go for it.   “When I was a kid, I wondered about you.”  Johnny smiled a sad smile, “I pestered my mama…about what you were like.”

It was Murdoch’s turn to feel uncomfortable, “I guess that’s when she told you I didn’t want you.” He said quietly.

“No.  That was later.  I was pretty young, maybe six. Well…we had just moved to a new town and some of the kids were teasin’ me for bein’ a gringo and I didn’t understand.”  Johnny stopped and looked carefully at his father to see sadness and understanding in his father’s expression.  “Anyway, I ran home and asked my mama what a gringo was.  She was upset to hear I was being teased, but she explained that my real father was a gringo.  She told me no es importante mi hijo” Johnny paused in memory of the love he felt when he thought of his mother.  “I asked her about you then.”

Murdoch had been holding his breath and let it out in a sigh and asked. “What did she tell you?”

“She told me you were tall, and when you laughed the glass on the windows shook…when you yelled too.”  Johnny waited a moment and saw his father was handling this well and added. “She was right too.”

Murdoch chuckled, a grumble rolling deep in his chest and ended up with a smile on his face at Johnny’s description.  “I guess you would both know.”  There was a moment of silence between them but before it became awkward, Murdoch spoke again.  “Son, Your mother and I never meant for your life to turn out as hard as it did.  I don’t know why we couldn’t get along, but you’ve got to believe me when I tell you I always wanted you. Then and now.”

Johnny smiled shyly and nodded, before looking down and once again he twisted the beads on his wrist. Murdoch waited as he had come to know that this was a sign that Johnny was working on saying something important to him.  Finally Johnny looked up and said, “Why do ya think we fight so much?  I mean, it shouldn’t be this hard should it?”

Murdoch shook his head and with a thin smile on his lips responded ruefully, “Scott says it’s because you and I are too much alike.  We bump heads and are both too stubborn to back off.  I’m starting to think he’s right.”

“We both want our own way huh?”

“I’m afraid so son.  I’ve been giving orders here for a long time, and I have to admit when you question them or don’t do as I say, I sometimes get so angry I could spit nails.”

At that, Johnny flashed his father a grin.  “Nails huh?  More like fire I’d say.”  Johnny looked down for a moment again the continued, “I been doin’ what I want for a long time Murdoch.  Once…well once mama was gone and I started makin’ a name for myself with my gun, if I didn’t like someone I’d walk away or fight em.”

“Johnny, I understand that.  I realize coming here is a big change for you in almost every way.  You’re so independent, sometimes it worries me. Can you be happy here with taking orders from me, that’s what it comes down to as far as the ranch goes. I can’t change that.  Only one man gives the orders around here.” He said firmly.

Murdoch held his breath and waited.  Johnny finally spoke, “I can handle takin’ orders from you Murdoch, but sometimes I can’t handle the way ya give em.  With Scott, you tell him what to do but you talk to him about why, with me sometimes you just say do it, and it riles me.”

Murdoch, with sudden clarity knew Johnny was right. “I know I do.” He said quietly. “Your brother and I seem to speak the same language, or maybe he’s just able to understand mine, and puts up with me better than you do.”  Murdoch was relieved to see a faint smile from Johnny, feeling more sure of himself, he continued. “You see, after Catherine died, a part of me died too.  I didn’t mean for it to happen, it just did.  When I met your mother, I thought I was the luckiest man alive; she made me feel alive again.  When you were born, I suddenly felt I could conquer anything… even Harlan.”

Murdoch was surprised when Johnny said, “Do you know why she left?”

It took Murdoch a moment to collect his thoughts and then answered as truthfully as he could, “I’m not sure…I mean we’d been fighting a lot. Your mother wanted to get away from the ranch.  Back then, it wasn’t like it is now.  The house and outbuildings were there of course, but some of the house was being rebuilt and the only other women on the ranch were Paul’s new wife and Maria.”  Murdoch stopped unsure how much to tell Johnny. Before he could decide, Johnny spoke up.

“I know she left with another man.” He said gently.

"How did you know that?” Murdoch practically gasped.

“Teresa told me.”  Johnny stated calmly.

Murdoch closed his eyes, “I’m sorry you had to find out about that.”

“Why, if it’s the truth?”

“No son should know things like that about his mother.”

 

********

 

Now it was Johnny’s turn to smile, he chuckled a little at the absurd notion that his father somehow thought Johnny didn’t know about his mother’s tastes in men.  Rather than stating the obvious, he gently said, “It explains how she left but not why. I guess we’ll never know.  It’s startin’ to get late, we should be getting’ back dontcha  think?  Sun’ll be starting down in about an hour. Oh, and old man, I love you too.” He looked at Murdoch with the first real affection he felt in a long time.

“I love you too son and I plan to stop yelling at you.  That’s a promise.” Murdoch was rewarded with one of Johnny’s grins that were normally only reserved for Scott and sometimes Teresa. “Don’t want ya to strain nothing…I’d kinda miss it if you didn’t yell once in a while, it kinda lets me know you care.’

“You’ve got a deal Johnny, and son I’d miss your back talk if it suddenly went away too.” He said as he returned Johnny’s grin.

 

******

 

Johnny stood up and reached down to offer Murdoch a hand up. He turned suddenly as he heard the horses pawing and shying nervously.  He caught sight of the tawny cat as it made a rush at the horses.  Before Murdoch could stand up straight, Johnny drew his gun and shot the cat.

Murdoch watched as the cat crumbled 20 yards from the frightened horses, he turned to Johnny and said, “Great shooting s…”

Before he could finish his sentence Johnny went down under the weight of the female mountain lion, her raking claws sending sheets of white agony through his body as he struggled to push her away.

In horror, Murdoch launched himself onto the cat, his fingers furiously clawing at her coat to pull her off his son.  He lost his footing and became embroiled in the snarling, clawing cat, as the three of them fought a savage battle for survival.

Murdoch’s last memory was a muffled shot as the three of them fell over the side of the rock outcropping to the rock littered floor below.

 

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

 

Scott and his crew had just finished repairing the fence in the south pasture.  He was making sure that all of the tools were stored in the wagon while Frank hitched up the team.

From where Frank was fastening the buckles on the harness, he looked up to see a running horse in the distance.  “Hey Scott, isn’t that Johnny’s horse?”  He said as he pointed.

Scott looked up to see that it was indeed Johnny’s horse and he felt his heart drop to his stomach.  Before he could react, Miguel spurred his horse into a gallop to intersect the wildly galloping palomino.  Scott ran for his horse, thankful he had already tightened the cinch, quickly mounted, and was soon on his way to help catch Barranca.  He dreaded what may have happened to Johnny to separate him from his horse.

Barranca was still flying and Miguel soon saw that even at it’s best, his horse was not going to get there in time to catch the golden horse.  With his horse straining, Miguel began to build a loop.  Barranca never slowed down as his path crossed ahead of Miguel by 50 yards.  ‘Not close enough’ Miguel thought as he urged his horse to greater effort to close the gap.  His horse’s instincts kicked in and he flew after Barranca managing to get within roping distance.  Throwing his rope, Miguel watched in satisfaction as the loop neatly settled around Barranca’s neck.  Now for the tricky part, Miguel thought quickly.  For the experienced vaquero though, he knew he needed to slow Barranca down without pulling him off his feet.  Keeping his own horse at speed, Miguel skillfully began applying pressure on the rope, and Barranca began slowing and soon halted as Miguel rode up.

Barranca stood winded with sweat rolling off his neck and shoulders and from under his saddle, lather was streaming off his sides.  Scott and the rest of the crew pulled up shortly after.  “Johnny’s afoot.”  Frank said.

Scott examined Barranca quickly and stopped short when he saw the small branch of cedar still attached to one of the reins.  He untied the branch and held it up.  “He broke away.” He said more to himself then anyone else. While his worry about his brother culminated in a gut twisting wrench, his military training kicked in.  “Miguel, you take Barranca back to the ranch slowly.   Let Teresa know Johnny may be hurt.  Johnny was heading for the foothills and I think I may know where he went.  Frank you bring the buckboard, just in case.  The rest of you come with me.”

 

******

 

Murdoch woke slowly feeling disoriented and very uncomfortable. As his senses returned he realized his upper body was laying on a fairly soft, but lumpy object and his legs were pressed against something hard. ‘Rocks?’ His confused mind asked.  ‘Why would I have rocks in my bed.’  Rousing himself further he realized with a start that he was laying on an unmoving mountain lion.  He pushed himself up further as his memory returned and he realized Johnny was at the bottom of the pile.

Fighting a wave of dizziness, he pulled back the cat and with his strength not anywhere normal, rolled the cat off Johnny’s still body.  “Oh Johnny” Murdoch groaned.  Johnny lay still and pale, his body covered in blood from his shoulders down.  Murdoch quickly stripped off his corduroy coat and wadded it up as he instinctively tried to stop the flow of blood.  Realizing he wasn’t thinking clearly, he opened the buttons on Johnny’s shirt and gasped at the long jagged cuts freely bleeding with each beat of his son’s heart.  Not sure what other damage he was dealing with, he half sat Johnny up, grateful he was unconscious and unaware of the pain from his injuries.

Murdoch pushed Johnny’s shirt off his shoulders and was relieved to see his back was uninjured.  He rolled Johnny toward himself and stopped short at the angry cuts on the back of his left arm and shoulder.  Shaking his head, he felt a measure of relief that the cat didn’t bite him.  Tearing Johnny’s shirt into strips, he bound the shoulder wounds as tightly as he could and then laid his still son back down on the ground.  ‘Now to stop these others.’ He told himself.  He took his jacket and once again applied pressure to stem the flow of the blood.

Murdoch lost track of time as he watched his son’s blood soak the cloth of his jacket.  He was aware of the sun moving toward the western sky.  He knew he needed to get help, and get it soon.  He glanced over at his horse and wondered if he had the strength to get Johnny up on the horse and ride home.  He struggled to his feet as a wave of dizziness dropped him to his knees.  The pain in his head returned and he felt a clammy sweat break out on his body.  With an effort he drew his gun from his holster and with shaking hand, fired three shots into the air.  His last coherent thought was he hoped Scott or one of the hands would hear and come find them.

 

******

 

The three men were galloping their horses toward the foothills when they heard the three shots fired.  Scott pulled his horse to a halt and held up his hand.  “Hear that?  That must be Johnny signaling for help.”  Making a quick decision, Scott ordered, “Pedro, ride for Green River and find Doctor Jenkins and have him meet us at the house.  Tell him I’ll buy him a steak dinner if it’s a false alarm.”  ‘Hell… I’ll buy him one anyway.’ Scott thought.  He watched in satisfaction as Pedro wheeled his horse and sent him at a gallop to find the doctor.

“Let’s go!”  Scott said as he urged his gelding back into a racing gallop with the two remaining men scurrying to catch up.  Scott stationed one of the men at the bottom of the hill leading to the rock outcroppings Johnny favored. “Stay here and wait for Frank while he catches up with the wagon.”

“Si senior.”  The hired man replied.

Scott led the way up the hill and they were forced to go slow as they navigated the  narrow switchbacks.  “Johnny!”  He called surprised at the sound of stress in his voice even to his own ears.  The tension in his body rose a notch at the silence as he trotted his horse through the oak thicket.

“Look Mr. Lancer. There’s a horse tied up there.”  The remaining hand pointed out.

“I see him Dan.” Scott said drawing his gun.  “Let’s take it slow, just in case.”

Murdoch’s gelding began whinnying in greeting to the two other horses and Scott recognized the bay his father often rode.  “It’s Murdoch’s horse.”  He said, as his eyes fell on the lifeless body of the cougar.

Dismounting, the men took note of the bullet between the eyes of the cat and Scott knew that was Johnny’s work.  He ran forward.  “This way Dan.  There’s a trail over here.”

With an effort the two men ran and scrambled up the hillside. With lungs and legs burning from the effort, they came upon the grizzly scene.  Dan almost bumped into Scott as he halted suddenly.  Catching his balance, he hurried over to the still forms of his father and brother.  They were both blood soaked and Scott couldn’t tell which one or both had been injured.

“We need to get them down the hill.  Dan, I’ll stay here with them, you head on down and get Frank and Jose.  We’re going to have to carry them down.”

“Will do Mr. Lancer.”  And the hand scrambled back down the hill on his mission.

Scott carefully looked his father over noting the pale complexion and shallow breathing.  He noticed the bruising in his temple and felt a lump forming just at the hairline.  Satisfied that for now he was stable, he turned his attention to Johnny.  He pulled back the corduroy coat, once tan, now dark red and heavy with blood.  Scott felt his stomach flutter at the sight that greeted him.  The long jagged wounds were oozing blood, and were gaping open.  He knew Doc Jenkins was going to have his hands full sewing up his brother.  He just hoped he would get him home before it was too late.  Shaking himself out of his despair, he began tearing the rest of Johnny’s shirt into bandages and began the arduous task of binding his brother’s wounds.

******

 

The sun was just going down as the three men arrived in the clearing just below the towering rock outcroppings.  Scott noted in relief that they had brought a canteen with them.   He made a quick decision not to try to rouse Johnny or Murdoch until they had them down the hill.  They were much better off unconscious while being carried to the wagon.  Scott directed the two largest men to take hold of Murdoch.  One lifted his shoulders while the other walked forward holding his legs, one on each side of his hips.  Scott watched while the two men carried his father down the trail.

“Alright Dan, let’s get going with Johnny.”  Scott said as he lifted Johnny’s shoulders while Dan picked up his legs.  Struggling down the hill with their burden was taking all the strength the men had, and it was with a sign of relief that they reached the wagon.

Frank had already unloaded the supplies and made room for the injured men.   “Dan, you and Jose go back and get the horses.  I’ll drive the wagon, Scott you ride in the back and see what you can do for them.”

Scott nodded and was grateful to have someone else take over the burden of making decisions while he cared for his family.  He accepted from Frank a small tin box of medical supplies  that were kept in the wagon.  It was rudimentary, but he looked inside to see if he could find something more he could use to help Johnny or Murdoch.  Scott braced himself as the wagon lurched forward with it’s precious cargo heading back to Lancer.

 

******

 

Doctor Jenkins waited impatiently at the Lancer ranch.  Teresa had given him a cup of coffee and went off the get bandages ready and water boiling.  They both hoped it was a false alarm, but Sam knew by the length of time it was taking Scott to bring Johnny back that his services would be needed.  It was the not knowing that was hard.

As darkness set in, he heard horses being ridden up.  One hand came into the living room.  “Doc, Johnny’s hurt bad.  A mountain lion got him. Scott’s bringin’ him in the wagon.  Should be along anytime.”  He stopped when he realized that Teresa had heard him and was standing by the dining table with one hand over her mouth. Dan took off his hat, “Sorry ma’am.”

“How bad is he?”  She gasped.

“He’s pretty torn up, but he’s alive.”

“Where’s Murdoch?” Sam asked before Teresa could voice her next fear.

“He’s in the wagon.  I’m not sure what happened, but he was knocked out.”

Just then their attention was taken by the sound of a wagon being driven to the front of  the house. Teresa and Sam rushed out to see Scott hoping out of the back of the wagon.  Like Dan, Scott’s shirt was covered in blood.  “They’re both unconscious, they have been since we found them.”

The doctor took over.  “Get them upstairs.  Teresa, stay with Murdoch while I take care of Johnny.”  The doctor put a restraining hand on Scott’s arm as the men carried Murdoch and Johnny upstairs.  “Scott go into the kitchen and ask Maria to come upstairs and help me.  Then bring the boiling water up.  I’m going to need a lot to clean those wounds.”

Scott left without a word and the doctor grabbed his black bag and took the stairs two at a time. Checking briefly to make sure Murdoch was being settled into his bed, he took a deep breath and entered Johnny’s room.  Directing the two hands to leave, Sam carefully stripped Johnny of his remaining clothes and pulled the covers up to his hips.  He then carefully removed the makeshift bandages from Johnny’s chest.

He glanced up as Maria and Scott entered the room.  “Set the water over there and wait downstairs.”  Sam ordered.

“I want to stay here with my brother.” Scott insisted.

“You can’t stay while I work Scott.  Go check on your father and make sure Teresa doesn’t need anything.  I’ll be a little while taking care of these wounds.”

“He’s going to be all right, isn’t he Doc?” Scott asked in a small voice.

“I’ll know more when I’m done Scott.  Johnny’s strong and he’s made it this far, that’s a good sign.”

Scott nodded and left the doctor to take care of his brother.  He entered Murdoch’s room and was surprised at how pale he was. Teresa was applying cold compresses to his temple and talking to him softly.

Scott sat down on the other side and took one of Murdoch’s large calloused hands in his own and squeezed it to let his father know he was there.  He noticed Murdoch’s eyes move under the lids. “Murdoch?”  Scott said quietly.  As he watched his father’s eyes open slowly, he said again, “Murdoch.”

With a raspy voice Murdoch asked. “What happened?’

“I was hoping you could tell us.”

Murdoch thought for a minute then  as his memory returned he panicked. “Johnny!”

“Johnny’s in his room Murdoch.  Sam’s taking care of him.”  Teresa reassured him.

Murdoch sank back into his pillows as his head pounded once more. “He alive?”

“Yes he’s alive.” Scott said with reassurance he didn’t feel but it seemed to satisfy his father.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second then opened them and fixed them on Scott.  “He’s hurt.  The cat jumped him and we both fell off the outcropping.”

Fearing something like that had happened, Scott nodded and squeezed Murdoch’s hand.  Murdoch again closed his eyes and Scott said, “Rest now.  Doc Jenkins will be in to see you as soon as he’s done with Johnny.”

Murdoch kept his eyes closed and muttered. “I’m not important, just take care of your brother.” Exhaustion and pain pulled him into a deep sleep once again.

 

******

 

Scott poured himself another brandy and flinched as the grandfather clock struck eight.  ‘When is he going to get done?’ Scott asked himself  for the tenth time.  He was ready to climb the stairs to check on his sleeping father once again when he heard footsteps on the stairs.  Tensing involuntarily, he was relieved to see Sam make his way slowly into the room.

Scott handed the glass of brandy to the doctor and bid him to sit down.  Sam took the glass and gratefully sank down onto the couch.  “How are they?” Scott asked.

Sam let out a big sigh after taking a sip of the brandy.  “I think Johnny will recover.  I cleaned and stitched the wounds.  I’m afraid there will be infection.  It’s impossible to avoid it with those kinds of wounds.  We just have to watch him carefully and deal with it as it happens.”

Nodding and knowing they still had a tough road ahead, Scott asked. “And my father?”

Doc Jenkin’s weathered face looked worried. “He has a mild concussion, but he should recover in a few days.”  Sam was silent for a moment before he asked. “How long has he been having problems with his heart Scott?”

Scott felt he had been hit in the gut. “Heart problems?”

“Yes, shortness of breath, pale complexion, sweating, and clammy skin?”

“I…well I saw him look like that the other day after he’d had an argument with Johnny.  I didn’t realize…” Scott let the words trail off as he was hit with the knowledge that he knew something had been wrong with his father but he was too angry and upset over the fight Johnny had had with Murdoch to investigate it. “Is there anything you can do for him?”

“I’m going to start him on a course of digitalis.  He may have to be on it a short while or perhaps the rest of his life.  It’s been shown to be very effective in cases like these.  Right now, we need to get him through the next 24 hours. He needs to stay in bed and rest.”

Scott drank the rest of the brandy.  “Doctor, I’m going up to check on Murdoch and then I’ll sit with  Johnny.  You can use the spare guest room downstairs if you’d care to spend the night and I believe Carmalita has been keeping supper warm, if you’re hungry.”

“Thank you Scott.  I can take care of myself, you go on and check on your family.”

 

******

 

It was touch and go for the next three days as Johnny fought off fever from the infected wounds.  Johnny slowly checked out his body and groaned in pain as he tried to find a more comfortable position.  He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Easy Johnny, stay still” His brother’s gentle voice came from far away. He felt a glass held to his lips and he swallowed a couple of sips of water gratefully.  Allowing his exhaustion to pull him under, he slept once again.

Johnny woke up and noticed by the shadows on the wall that it must be late afternoon.  He turned his head and he was rewarded by Teresa’s tired smile.  A weak voice he barely recognized as his own croaked, “Hey.”

Hey there yourself.  I’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”

He watched her fill a glass with water and hold it to his lips.  He reached an unsteady hand up to hold the glass and with Teresa’s help managed to take a small sip, then a couple of big ones.  Pushing the glass back into her hand, he said. “Thanks.”

Teresa gave him another smile. “You’re doing really well Johnny. You just need to stay in bed and let us take care of you.  You rest and I’ll bring you some broth.”

Johnny smiled and closed his eyes and then they snapped open in alarm. “Murdoch?”

Teresa turned back to see the agitation and fear in Johnny’s face and she quickly sought to reassure him.  “He’s fine Johnny.  He had a mild concussion from the fall, but he’s recovering.  In fact he’s been asking for you and complaining about being kept in bed.”

Johnny nodded and smiled a tired smile and closed his eyes.

 

*******

Johnny woke once again and felt less sluggish as he worked to open his sticky eyes.  He could barely remember waking to have his needs taken care of.  Water or broth offered each time before he drifted back to sleep.  He looked over to his window and saw Scott looking out the window.

Johnny cleared his throat and that drew Scott’s attention.  “Well brother it’s about time you woke up.” Scott smiled as he filled a mug with broth from the covered pot.

“Help me sit up, will you?”

“Hold on a minute Johnny.” Scott said as he pulled a couple more pillows out of the trunk at the foot of the bed.  Scott helped Johnny lean forward and he arranged the pillows behind him and helped him settle into a sitting position.  “How’s that?”

“Good, thanks.” Johnny said taking the offered mug of broth.  Frowning at the broth, he asked, “What are the chances of getting me some real food to eat?”

“I’ll see what I can do brother.  Will you be alright alone for a bit?”

“Sure Scott.  I’ll be fine.”  Johnny watched Scott start for the door and remembered. “Murdoch?”

Scott stopped and turned around. “He’s doing well, he’s been asking for you.  I’ll let him know you’re awake.”  Scott had no intention of sharing his concerns over Murdoch’s health with his brother right now, there will be time later when Johnny was better.

 

********

Johnny was leaning back into the pillows enjoying being propped up.  He opened his eyes when he heard his door opening and was surprised to see Murdoch easing his way through.  Johnny looked at his father’s pale face critically and noted he was dressed in robe and slippers.  “Are you supposed to be out of bed?”

Murdoch raised an eyebrow as he sat in the chair next to Johnny’s bed.  “I’ve been in bed too long already.  How are you feeling son?  The truth.”

The words, “I’m fine” caught on Johnny’s lips and he changed it to, “hurts a little, but I’m better.”

Murdoch smiled, “you really had me scared there a little young man.”

Johnny’s smile matched his father’s, “scared myself a little too.”

Both looked up as Scott entered the room carrying a tray.  He scowled at Murdoch, “I should have known I’d find you in here.  What part of stay in bed don’t you understand?”

Johnny caught Murdoch’s eye and they both broke out in laughter at the expression on Scott’s face.

Scott set the tray on Johnny’s bedside table, threw up his hands and said, “You two are two of a kind!  You can’t stay out of trouble either of you.  I’m putting you in charge of each other, I give up.”  He quickly left the room to the wonderful sound of laughter between his hardheaded father and brother.

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

 

Scott shifted in his seat and tried to get more comfortable as the stage bumped and rattled it’s way toward Morro Coyo. In frustration, he shifted again and accidentally kicked Johnny in the shin.

“Ow!  Hey brother, watch what your doin’”

“Sorry Johnny.”  Scott said quietly hoping they didn’t wake Murdoch.

Johnny gave him a small smile and nodded toward their dozing father and said, “He’s beat, ain’t he?”

“Yes, he’s been through quite a lot in the last couple of weeks.”

“Think we’ll be able to get him to take it easy Scott?”

“He’ll have to. You heard Doctor Jamison, if he doesn’t slow down, he’ll have a full fledged heart attack.  Even the medication may not be enough to prevent it.” Scott elaborated in a whisper.

Johnny rolled his eyes and Scott agreed with his brother that it was not going to be easy convincing their stubborn father to turn over some of the responsibilities for running the ranch to his sons.  It was not going to be easy at all and Scott foresaw a rocky road ahead as they adjusted to the restrictions on their father.

The two brothers were silent for a few minutes as the stage rolled on.  Scott looked out the window as the scenery started to look more familiar the closer they got to their destination.  His attention was drawn back inside the stage when Johnny spoke. “Maybe we need to find him a woman?”

“I’m not asleep anymore and that is not something I would appreciate you doing on my behalf John.”  Murdoch said sternly.

Scott chuckled at his brother’s audacity and at the look on Johnny’s face as he was pinned with one of Murdoch’s most potent parental glares.

In a small voice, Johnny said, “Do ya some good.  Wouldn’t be no trouble for Scott and me to ask around for you.”

“No thank you.” Murdoch said firmly and crossed his arms over his chest effectively closing the subject.

The look on his father and brother’s faces caused Scott to break out in a chuckle and he felt relief once again at witnessing the obvious ease between them.

 

********

 

Johnny drove the rented buggy along the road leading to the estancia.  The trip home from Morro Coyo was taking much longer than it should have because Murdoch kept telling him to stop so he could look over some aspect of the ranch.  Murdoch sat next to him impatiently scanning the country side and Johnny knew it was just a matter of time before Murdoch called another halt.

No sooner did he think that when he heard Murdoch command, “Stop here a minute Johnny, I need to check on this fence.”

Johnny reluctantly did as he was instructed and brought the horses to a jerky stop.  As Murdoch hopped out of the buggy, Johnny threw a glance at his brother. “What are you grinning about?  At this rate, we’ll never make it home.”

“It’s good to see him taking an interest again, Johnny. I’m not sure which is worse, Murdoch depressed and grumpy over his health or him bossy and happy.”

“Neither is all that good from where I sit, brother.  When he’s grumpy, ya gotta watch it or he’ll take your head off.  When he’s bein’ bossy, he just works ya to death.”

Scott chuckled and said, “We’ll at least he’ll be all right if he just takes it a bit easier”

“Yeah and remembers to take his medicine.  I think we should give that job to Teresa.  She can nag him without getting him too mad. We just have to survive the next two weeks until she gets back from Sacramento.”  Johnny replied.

Scott nodded and said, “He didn’t look too happy when the doctor told him he needed to limit his drinking and cut down on his work load.”

Johnny smiled remembering that moment in the doctor’s office in San Francisco when the doctor had given Murdoch the news.  For the most part it was good news.  He hadn’t actually had a heart attack, but he was showing signs of having symptoms that could lead to heart problems.  “Murdoch sure scowled when Doc Jamison told him that.  Now the hard part is getting the old man to take orders from the doctor.  For one thing, Scott, I ain’t planin’ on giving Murdoch any orders.”

“We’re in this together, little brother.  You’ll just have to brush up on your bedside manner.  Don’t worry, the way he’s been falling all over himself to make you happy, you’ll have him eating out of your hand in no time.”

They watched their father walking a bit farther down the fence line before he finally turned back and started working his way back to the buggy.  They both were eager to get home as they had spent over two weeks in San Francisco while Murdoch was checked out by first one doctor then another.

There was one anxious moment when they were talking about needing to send Murdoch back east for more tests, but the heart specialist felt that it was not necessary.  He prescribed a reduction in Murdoch’s stress and workload.  Scott and Johnny knew that convincing their stubborn father to give up some of the responsibilities running the ranch was going to be their greatest challenge, and neither was looking forward to trying to wrestle control away from their father.

*******

The next couple of days found Johnny and Scott working hard to catch up with everything that needed to be attended to in their absence.  Murdoch seemed to be determined that they get a weeks worth of work done in three days, so they were both beat when they got home each evening.

Johnny found himself dragging across the yard as the darkness settled on the ranch.  He was cold and wet as it had drizzled all day long and his oilskin slicker had given up keeping him dry hours ago.  All he could think about now was changing into dry clothes, having a warm supper and going to bed.

Johnny walked around through the kitchen and inhaled the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread.  He smiled at Maria as his stomach grumbled. “Supper smells wonderful Maria.  What are we having tonight?”

“Chicken and dumplings, Juanito.  It’s such a cold day; I thought that would be good.  It sticks to your ribs.”  She said as she caught him snitching a piece of bread and she gave him a little swat on the behind. “Go get dressed out of those wet clothes before you catch a chill.”

Johnny chucked and headed for the stairs before she could reach him again, “Si mamacita, I love your chicken and dumplin’s.”

Johnny took the stairs two at a time and his spirits lifted as they often did when he spent time with Maria in the kitchen.  She was such a wonderful person and she cared so much about him and his family.  When he and Scott came home, she started to mother them from the first day, and she never stopped.  Johnny knew he could always count on her to save him a cookie, or some special treat and he appreciated her generosity greatly.

******

Johnny sat on his bed, now dressed in dry clothes and once again felt his exhaustion settle over him. ‘Never shoulda sat down.’ He told himself.  All he really wanted to do was lay back and wrap himself in the soft warm blankets, but his stomach was grumbling again and he pushed himself to his feet.

As he got to the door of his room, something made him look back and he was once again reminded how lucky he was to have been given this chance at a new life.  He appreciated the little things; he knew the rest of his family took for granted.  Good food, a room of his own, a soft bed, warm blankets and real sheets on his bed were a luxury he could never count on before.  Even dry clothes at the end of a long wet day, was something he didn’t take for granted.

Add to that an over protective brother, a sweet bossy sister, and a hardheaded, stubborn, loving father, and life was good for Johnny Lancer.

 

~end~
2004

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